Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 4. 1947 – 1948. Al-Nakba: Partition of Palestine and Creation of Israel

July 22, 2020

[Featured image: Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty Images]

Theodore Herzl

In the late 1800’s, Theodore Herzl and other Jewish leaders in Europe began pushing for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then under Ottoman control.

After World War I, Palestine was governed under Sykes-Picot by the British, and there was growing Zionist pressure to carry out the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 letter from Lord Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in London, in which Balfour promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, . . . [provided] that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” 

But when all was said and done, only the first part of Balfour’s letter came to pass, the creation of Israel as a Jewish state; the civil and religious rights of the long-established Arab and Christian Palestinian communities were trampled in the dust. 

In 1858, Ottoman law required for the first time the registration of land ownership under the names of individuals, contrary to the existing communal system in Palestine, creating the opportunity for a relatively small number of law-savvy families to register large tracts of land cultivated by fellahin, peasant farmers.

Between 1890 and World War 1, immigration primarily from Russia and Eastern Europe doubled the number of Jews in Palestine from 43,000 to 94,000, compared to 70,000 Christians and 525,000 Muslims, and the Jewish National Fund began buying land from the absentee owners and demanding that Turkish authorities evict the local farmers.

As Herzl himself put it, “We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.”

Needless to say, no matter how ‘gently’ they were evicted, the fellahin did not take kindly to being forced off the land they had farmed for generations, and so they feared and opposed the push for a Jewish state in Palestine. This was about dispossession of their land, not anti-Semitism.

Palestinian Christian Wedding Bethlehem – 1940

Until then, there had been almost no conflict between Palestinians and the old local Jewish community, the Yishuv, and Jews fleeing pogroms in Spain and elsewhere in Christian Europe had settled peacefully throughout the predominately Moslem Middle East, including Palestine, for 500 years.

After World War 1, Great Britain, administrator of the Palestine Mandate established by the League of Nations in 1920, eliminated immigration restrictions, and the Jewish population in Palestine soared from 175,000 in 1931 to 630,00 in 1947, compared to 143,000 Christians and 1,181,000 Muslims, according to Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola. 

After Harry Truman succeeded FDR as President in April 1945, he was soon lobbied by the leaders of the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), a coalition of Jewish groups in the U.S., to support their plan to make all of Palestine a new Jewish state.

Truman didn’t believe that Jews were the chosen people – he wrote in his diary, “I never thought God picked favorites” – and told AZEC that he opposed the establishment of any religious state, that the “government of Palestine should be a government of all the people of Palestine regardless of race or creed.”

He favored a trusteeship under British administration of a federated Palestine with autonomous Jewish and Arab regions, what became known as the “Morrison-Grady Plan.” But AZEC mounted a furious campaign against it, and Truman’s political advisers fretted that it could cost Democats the “Jewish vote” and congressional seats in the 1946 mid-terms. Truman backed down, and put Palestine on his back burner.

Harry Truman, Israeli President David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Ambassador to U.S. Abba Eban [Fritz Cohen / GPO]

But by August 1946, it was the Zionist lobby pushing partition of Palestine, but this time without a trusteeship. Turman was beyond frustrated. He said of the Zionists, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, how could anyone expect me to have any luck?’

Secretary of State George C. Marshall, his predecessor Dean Acheson, future Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other Middle East and Soviet specialists all strongly opposed partition, because, they advised Truman, it would inflame the Arab world and push it into the arms of the Soviet Union, which is exactly what happened, most notably in Egypt and Syria.

But in the end, Truman went along, pointing to a four-inch stack of telegrams, he said, “I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands [of Jewish voters. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” This would become a recurring theme in U.S. politics. 

Note: Because any narrative of the ‘Israel’s 1948 War of Independence’ often provokes visceral responses, including charges of anti-Semitism, we rely here solely on the scholarship and conclusions of Israeli and other Jewish historians.

On November 29, the U.N. adopted its own partition plan, and on May 14, 1948, as the last British troops left Palestine, Israel declared itself a state, but with one big problem. Too many Palestinians, including a majority of residents in the largest cities, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and Tiberius, inside of what was, literally overnight, now Israel.

The Israeli leadership knew that if Palestinians were able to exercise fundamental human and political rights, i.e., self-determination and majority rule, Israel as a Jewish state would never get off the ground.

“David Ben Gurion [first Prime Minister of Israel] wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish state, and said so to his aides and military officers in meetings in August, September and October [1948]. But he always refrained from issuing clear or written expulsion orders; he preferred that his generals ‘understand’ what he wanted done. He wished to avoid going down in history as the ‘great expeller’ and did not want the Israeli government to be implicated in a morally questionable policy. . . .” Benny Morris, Israeli historian, Ben Gurion University, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. In short, a wink and a nod.

Irgun training near Tel Aviv – 1948 [AP / Jim Pringle]

The pro-Israel party line has always been that massive Arab armies from Egypt, Syria and Jordan immediately attacked Israel to “drive all the Jews into the sea,” and that it survived only because of heroic resistance against all odds. In fact, Israeli forces were much better equipped, organized and prepared for war, and went on the offensive even before partition.

“During May [1948] ideas about how to . . . give permanence to the Palestinian exile began to crystallize, and destruction of villages was immediately perceived as a primary means of achieving this aim. . . . [Even earlier], on 10 April, units took Abu Shusha . . . the village was destroyed that night . . . Khulna was leveled by Jewish bulldozers on 20 April . . . Al Mansi and An Naghnaghiya . . . were also leveled. . . . By mid-1949, a majority of [the 350 depopulated Arab villages] were either completely or partly in ruins and uninhabitable.”  Benny Morris, Israeli historian, Ben Gurion University, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.

[Giles Caron]

But not just bulldozers. There was terror too. Deir Yassin the most infamous. “For the entire day of April 9, 1948, Irgun and LEHI soldiers carried out the slaughter in a cold and premeditated fashion. . . . The attackers lined men, women and children up against the walls and shot them. . . . The ruthlessness of the attack on Deir Yassin shocked Jewish and world opinion alike, drove fear and panic into the Arab population, and led to the flight of unarmed civilians from their homes all over the country.” Simha Flapan, Israeli historian and politician, in The Birth of Israel (1987).

“Uri Milstein, the eminent Israeli military historian of the 1948 war, goes a step further, maintaining that ‘every skirmish ended in a massacre of Arabs.’ “ Norman Finkelstein, Jewish-American political science professor, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995).

[Reuters / Hulton / Getty Images]

“Israeli propaganda has largely relinquished the claim that the Palestinian exodus of 1948 was ‘self-inspired.’ Most Israeli leaders now concede that the Arab population fled as a result of Israeli military action, whether directly, as in the case of Lydda and Ramleh, two Palestinian villages outside of the territory designated by the U.N. for a Jewish state, or indirectly due to the panic in Arab population centers after the Deir Yassin massacre and other similar actions.” Peretz Kidron, Israeli historian and translator, quoted in Blaming the Victims, Said and Hutchins (1988).

[Reuters / Hulton / Getty Images]

In just one year, Israel emptied 350 Palestinian villages and 750,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled, depending on one’s narrative, to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Gaza Strip.

The descendants of many of the 750,000 refugees still have and cherish the keys to their family homes destroyed or now occupied by Israeli families. The expulsion of Palestinians from their homes into refugee camps in 1947 – 1949, and a series of Israeli laws preventing them from ever returning, is known throughout the Arab world as Al-Nakba, “the Catastrophe.” 

[Getty Images]

However, there are still 2.1 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and 1.7 million more in Israel proper, not including the 1.3 million shoehorned into Gaza. 

From time to time Israel has given lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza side by side with Israel, but its diplomatic pronouncements are belied by the relentless construction of Jewish-only settlements and the appropriation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, and this process has accelerated in the last 20 years.

And in case anyone was ever naive enough to believe otherwise, Benjamin Netanyahu has said more than once that on his watch he would never permit the establishment of a Palestinian state. In the words of Netanyahu’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, “This land is ours. All of it is ours.” Peace negotiations anyone? 

Mahatma Gandhi eloquently summed it up: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French. . . . What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. . . . If they [the Jews] must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. . . . As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them. I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regard as an unacceptable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.” Mahatma Gandhi in 1938, quoted in “A Land of Two Peoples,” Martin Buber (1983).


Coda to the Partition of Palestine

One difficulty with these posts is that it is impossible to cover the waterfront in one fell swoop. Other points, and certainly nuances, some that will play out in future posts, are missed. So let me add a few thoughts to what some might view as my harsh assessment of Israel during the partition of Palestine and since. 

To be clear, I support the right of Israel to exist and to exist where it is. Both the Holocaust and the historical Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria prior to the diaspora gives Jews righteous claims to live there, and to create a state in which Jews can be safe and never again be at anyone’s mercy.

However, if there is to be peace in Palestine, it must begin, step one, with an acknowledgment by Israel of how it came into being, that Israel displaced, drove out, the Palestinians who had lived there for generations. Between 711,000 and 750,000 Palestinians, out of a pre-partition population of 1.2 million, lost their homes and thousands died in the process. 

For Israel to acknowledge that it took Palestinian lands and engaged in wholesale ethnic cleansing – there are no other words for it – is as much of a prerequisite to peace as Israel’s insistence that Palestinians acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, as the Palestinian Authority and the PLO before it have in fact already done. Just as Germans have acknowledged what they did to the Jews, and Americans have conceded, haltingly and in bits and pieces to be sure, the crimes committed against Native Americans and against Black Americans during slavery and since, Israel must acknowledge what it did to the Palestinians. 

And then there is the matter of, in Tzipi Hotovely’s words, “all of it.” Whatever the justifications for Israel’s actions in 1948, the prevailing sentiment in the current Israeli government and among its U.S. supporters that Israel is entitled to all of what was pre-partition Palestine is profoundly immoral and in the end unsustainable. If Israel succeeds in squeezing the Palestinians into smaller and smaller “Bantustans,” it will endure only as an apartheid state and a pariah in the world community, indeed, it is already well down that road. 


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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