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Background to the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1917-67

In World War I, Britain and its allies defeated the Ottoman Empire. Thereafter they gave the Arabs almost all of the vast territories liberated so they could set up their own states.

There was an initial, interim period with mandates set up so that the new states could be nurtured to independence by Britain or France. This is the story of the creation of the states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Two other states achieved independence without mandates: Arabia and Egypt.

Of these vast liberated territories, Britain’s plan was to reserve one to two percent to create a region where Jews could grow into a majority and set up their own state. (Of course, Britain did not give land to the Jews. We still had to buy it from willing Arab landowners. But at least we were finally being given the potential for a state.)

There were no “Palestinian” people. The Arabs in the area of Palestine viewed themselves as living in southern Syria. The Jews were about one sixth of the population. Palestine was undeveloped and underpopulated and there were millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who had no future and needed a place to live. Britain expected that the Arabs would not object to this “small notch” being given to the Jews to create a majority, given that the Arabs were being given tremendous amounts of territory where they would be the majority.

The Balfour Declaration (BD) was issued in 1917 and declared that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object…”

The BD was issued on the eve of Britain’s invasion of Palestine. “Palestine” was not defined. It was hard enough for Chaim Weizmann to get Britain to issue the declaration. There was no reason to create a further issue about how large the area would be. President Wilson was consulted before the BD was issued and he approved it as well.

After the war, Britain had to be specific. There was a large area that Britain had loosely been calling “Palestine” (what is today Israel and much of Jordan) over which Britain had control. This area covered Western Palestine (up to the Jordan River) and Eastern Palestine, perhaps all the way to the new state of Iraq. Britain could have applied the BD to much of this area. In fact, we have documentation that in 1919 Britain was seriously considering the area for the Jewish State to run to the Jordan River plus a large area on the east side of the Jordan River, about one-third of today’s Jordan.

But in 1921, in response to Arab pressure, Colonial Secretary Churchill decided that the BD would not apply east of the Jordan River. Eastern Palestine was set aside to create the Arab State of “Transjordan.” Churchill was given reason to believe that the Arab world would make no claim to Western Palestine once the Arab state of Transjordan was set up in Eastern Palestine. Moreover, there was an understanding that Transjordan could serve as a state where Arabs who left Western Palestine for any reason could live.

In July 1922, the text of the BD was incorporated into Britain’s legal obligation to the League of Nations, along with additional language: “recognition has …been given to the historical connexion of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” This was all confirmed by the unanimous vote of The Council of the League (representing 52 nations) and by the US as well.

But around this same time in 1922 (in response to Arab pressure) Churchill reinterpreted Britain’s obligation under the BD, stating that its purpose had never been to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Rather, the goal had been merely to create a national home for the Jewish people within Palestine, a center that world Jewry could take pride in. Britain also began to severely limit Jewish immigration.

In his memoirs, Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister at the time of the BD, strongly disagreed. He wrote: “If the Jews had…responded to the opportunity afforded them and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish commonwealth. The notion that Jewish immigration would have to be artificially restricted in order that the Jews should be a permanent minority never entered the head of anyone engaged in framing the policy.”

—— 1947: This was the year of the UN Partition Plan (which was really a “second” partition, after the initial decision in 1921 that the BD would not apply east of the Jordan River). This plan proposed that the Jewish state would receive 55% of the area west of the Jordan River. (Most of this was land that the Jews had already purchased and settled, plus the deserted Negev. The Negev was state land and had not been owned by individual Arabs.) The balance was for a new Arab state. Ben-Gurion and his advisors accepted this plan. But the surrounding Arab states and the Arabs within Palestine rejected the plan. They all gambled that they could militarily extinguish the Jewish state in its infancy and murder most of its Jews.

1949: At the end of the war forced upon it, the Jewish state ended up with 78% of the territory west of the Jordan River. This war did not end with borders, but with “armistice lines,” the lines where the armies happened to be when the fighting ended. Israel offered to accept these lines as “borders,” but the Arab states refused. They took the gamble that the future would be better for them.

No Arab State was set up in that remaining 22%. Transjordan annexed it, and changed its name to “Jordan.” (This annexation was only recognized by Britain and Pakistan.)

1964: Founding of the PLO, which opposed the existence of Israel in any size.

1967: This was a defensive war forced upon Israel. Israel was slowly encircled by forces from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Algeria. After six days of fighting in June, Israel liberated the Old City of Jerusalem (which had been lost in the 1947-49 war) and liberated the entire area west of the Jordan River. It also ended up with the Golan Heights, the Sinai, and the Gaza Strip. Until 1967, the Gaza Strip was in Egyptian hands and they kept it separate, refusing to let its people (who were mostly refugees from 1947-49) into Egypt.

The initial pre-war threat to Israel had been by Egypt, including their closing the Straits of Tiran to Israel’s shipping (an act of war under international law), massive concentration of Egyptian forces in the Sinai, and ordering the removal of the UN peacekeeping troops. (Very surprisingly, the UN complied!) Israel had sent a message of peace to Jordan asking them to stay out of this war. But King Hussein made the wrong decision and joined in, and ended up losing the Old City and the West Bank.

A major factor in Israel’s quick victory was a surprise attack on the Egyptian air force, destroying most of it while the force was still on the ground.

A few weeks after the war, Israel sent a message that it would be willing to return the Golan Heights and the Sinai in exchange for peace. As to the “West Bank,” this could be negotiated with Jordan. (It bears reiterating that all Jewish settlement on the West Bank up to the Jordan River was within the area designated in 1922 for the Jewish national home. The partition plan changed this but the Arabs rejected it.)

At the Khartoum conference in Sept. 1967, the Arab states issued their response to Israel’s offer: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiation.

In Nov. 1967, UN Resolution 242 was adopted. It provided that an eventual peace agreement would be based on “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The resolution was ambiguous as to what territories Israel would have to relinquish. It purposely did not require withdrawal from “all” territories.

A notable omission in 242 was any reference to “Palestinians.” The Arabs who fled Israel in 1947-49 and 1967 were (correctly) not viewed as a separate people deserving their own new state, given that Jordan had already been created and its population was mostly Palestinian Arabs. The resolution stated only that there was an objective of “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” (That last statement also alluded to the 850,000 Jews displaced from Arab lands.)

Today, there are about 2 million Palestinian Arabs within Israel. They are citizens with full rights. Israel’s total population is about 10 million (73% Jews.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

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