WWI Through Israeli Independence:
As World War I unfolded, both Arabs and Jews would play a role in the eventual overthrow of Turkish rule in region. At the war’s outset, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and the Axis powers, and the Turkish military governor ordered the deportation of foreign nationals, a large number of whom were Russian Jews. Yet some remained and provided information to the British as part of underground efforts against the Turks. Meanwhile, Arabs, led by the British archeologist and scholar T.E. Lawrence, with crucial backing of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, revolted against the Ottomans. The British made three ambiguous and contradictory promises to Arab, Jewish, and Western partners that left doubt regarding ultimate fate of the region, and Palestine in particular.
In 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, on behalf of the British Government, promised to Sherif Husayn independent Arab control of most of the area. But this Husayn-McMahon Correspondence left the fate of Palestine unclear. One year later, secret negotiations between Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France divided the Ottoman territories among the two European powers. Their agreement specified partially British and partially international control of Palestine, and gave modern-day Syria to the French — both promises that arguably conflicted with the previous years’ correspondence. In 1917, the “Balfour Declaration” — a letter from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a powerful British Zionist — announced Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, adding to the claims and obligations that Britain had engendered.
In 1918, at the close of the war, Britain assumed control and called the area Palestine, as the Romans once did. Two years later, British authority was codified by League of Nations mandate over the areas that include present-day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan, as well as neighboring lands.
Under this mandate, the British oversaw nearly three decades of rising tensions among Arabs and Jews. Zionist immigration, competing ethno-nationalist visions for the region, and the legacy of British promises would prove an increasingly volatile mix. The immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing increasing persecution in Eastern Europe led to rioting and violence involving Arabs, Jews, and British authorities. The British issued periodic statements that attempted to resolve contradictory past promises, placate the Arabs, and maintain Britain’s commitment to a Jewish homeland while controlling immigration. Still, in the 1930s, militant groups and angry populations rioted, fought, and conducted terror campaigns against one another and against the British. British authorities, initially caught unprepared, later responded with repressive measures.
The violence abated with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, as Arabs and Jews from British Palestine joined the Allied forces, and British authorities freed underground Jewish leaders. But growing knowledge of the Holocaust — the Nazi genocide of roughly six million Jews — added still more urgency to the Jewish cause for a national homeland. In 1942, leading Zionists met in New York to formulate plans for a Jewish state. And by 1944, Jewish guerilla groups had broken their truce with British authorities and resumed bombings and other terror attacks, culminating in the assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne, British Secretary of State in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the ethno-nationalist plans of Arabs were developing apace. In 1944-45 seven Arab states and one Palestinian representative agreed to the Alexandria Protocol and formed the Arab League, forming a unified opposition both to further development of a Jewish homeland in British Palestine and to intervention of foreign powers in the area.
Rapid change and open warfare followed World War II. The United States put increasing pressure on the British to allow Jewish refugees into Palestine, but the British refused, acceding to Arab demands. Soon after, in 1947, Britain passed the Mandate over Palestine to the United Nations, which proposed a partition plan allocating roughly 44 percent of the area for an Arab state and 56 percent for a Jewish state, with Jerusalem under international administration. The U.N. General Assembly accepted the plan, as did the Jews. But the Arabs did not, and the plan was never implemented. Tensions over the potential for a Jewish state ran at their highest, and in late 1947, irregular Palestinian fighting units and underground Jewish groups carried out increasingly direct, militaristic attacks, including a Palestinian siege of Jerusalem.
The conflict came to a head when, in May of 1948, a Jewish state of Israel was declared, Britain withdrew its forces, and Arab armies from five neighboring countries invaded. The 1948 War (known to Israelis as the War of Independence) proceeded haltingly until Israelis, aided by clandestine arms shipments, repelled the Arab forces and broke the blockade of Jerusalem. The fighting created a wave of Palestinian refugees, numbering between 500,000 and 800,000, and came to be known as al-Nakba (”the Catastrophe”) to Palestinians.
At then end of this short but decisive war, the 1949 Armistice established Israel’s boundary well beyond that outlined by the U.N. partition plan, encompassing roughly 75 percent of formerly British Palestine. The West Bank would be controlled by Jordan, the Gaza Strip by Egypt, and the city of Jerusalem was divided between the western Israeli portion and the eastern Arab section. Israel’s national boundary came to be known as the “Green Line.” No permanent peace treaty was signed by the Arab nations, which refused to recognize Israel’s existence.
Top photo: Kluger Zoltan, Israeli Government Press Office
Bottom photo: UN/DPI