History of Palestine, Part III : Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe)

The previous posts in the series Geopolitics in Focus : History of Palestine talked about the origins of the Palestinian people and the Jewish people, and their connection to the land in Palestine. Explained what is the Zionist movement, and what were its goals. And explained how the Zionist movement received international endorsement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.

This post will demonstrate how Palestinian leaders are mostly to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for the catastrophe of the Palestinian people.

British Mandate in Palestine

By the end of 1918 the Ottoman Empire was defeated and partitioned by the victorious sides of WWI. In April 1920, the San Remo Conference convened. In this conference the post-WWI Allied Supreme Council put into effect the promises made by the British government to the Sharif of Mecca and to the Zionist movement. For this purpose the Council determined to allocate mandates of administration for the former Ottoman-ruled lands of the Middle East.

In regard to Palestine, the San Remo Resolution of April 25, 1920 stated: “…The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 8, 1917 [Balfour Declaration], by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

In other words, the British Mandate in Palestine was specifically set up – and later authorized by the League of Nations – to establish in Palestine a national homeland for the Jewish people, while making sure that the Arab population was not being harmed.

Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) – A Self Fulfilling Prophecy

In the 1920s, Arab leaders, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini – who later became the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the political and religious leader of Arabs in Palestine – started to incite Arab violence against Jews. Rumors begun to spread that Jews were stealing and dispossessing Arabs of lands in Palestine, and that Jews are trying to take over and subjugate the Arabs. These rumors had no basis in reality whatsoever – as was later proven by various fact-finding commissions.

In the Jaffa riots of 1921, Arab men bearing knives, swords, clubs, and pistols broke into Jewish homes and murdered their inhabitants. They attacked Jewish pedestrians and destroyed Jewish homes and stores. While the British authorities were supposed to maintain the peace, they were slow to act. The riots resulted in the deaths of 47 Jews.

While the British authorities recognized that Arabs were the perpetrators of violence, their inquiry commission into the cause of the riots concluded that the Arabs were afraid of being displaced by Jewish immigrants. The British authorities – in direct violation of their Mandate (helping to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine) – decided to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchase.

Feeling that the British were unwilling to defend them from continuous Arab violence, Jews decided to set up their own self-defense militia – the Haganah (“defense”).

In the 1920s the Jewish and Arab economies in Palestine were largely integrated, and many Arabs were employed in Jewish businesses. As Arab-Jewish hostility grew, Jews became more self-reliant and self-sufficient and preferred to employ Jews over Arabs. However, increased Jewish self-reliance led Arabs to suspect that rumors of Jews trying to subjugate and dispossess Arabs are true. This led to more Arab violence, which, in turn, led to more Jewish self-reliance. As Arab violence continued, the Jewish and Arab communities continued to move apart. By the mid 1930s Jewish economy and political institutions were almost entirely separate from the Arab ones, while the Haganah substantially grew in force.

At the same time, continual Arab violence forced the Jewish community and Zionist leaders to reconsider the viability of establishing one nation-state in Palestine. Restrictions on Jewish immigration meant that it would be difficult to achieve a Jewish majority – in 1936 Jews made up about a third of the population in Palestine. This led Zionist leaders to consider the idea of partitioning Palestine between Jews and Arabs.

In April 1936 violence erupted once again in Palestine. The Arab High Command (AHC) – which represented Arab interests in Palestine until 1948, and was led by the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini – began a protest by calling for a general strike of Arab workers and a boycott of Jewish products. The protest quickly escalated into terrorist attacks on the Jews and the British.

Peel Commission Report

In 1937 the British mediated an end to the revolt with the AHC, and a Royal Commission on Palestine (known as the Peel Commission) was dispatched. The Commission was charged with determining the cause of the riots, and judging the merit of grievances on both sides.

According to the Peel Commission report, Arab allegations regarding Jews dispossessing Arabs of their lands were unfounded: “Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased [by Jews]…There was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.” In addition, the claims that Jewish immigration and land purchases hurt Palestinians economically was also dismissed by the report. The report stated that Jewish settlement in Palestine contributed to “higher wages, an improved standard of living and ample employment opportunities” for Arabs, and that land shortage was “due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.”

The report recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with a retained British Mandate over the area around Jerusalem. Zionist leaders accepted the partition in principle, yet, Arab leaders rejected any kind of partition. The Palestinian Revolt broke out again in the fall of 1937 with a greater intensity. The British put down the revolt using harsh measures, shutting down the AHC and deporting many Arab leaders. By the time the revolt was concluded in September 1939, more than 5,000 Arabs, over 300 Jews, and 262 Britons had been killed and at least 15,000 Arabs were wounded. During the uprising, British authorities attempted to confiscate all weapons from the Arab population. This, and the destruction of the main Arab political leadership in the revolt, greatly hindered their military efforts in the 1948 Palestine war.

In the 1939 White Paper Britain decided to change its position from the Peel Commission report and sought to limit Jewish immigration from Europe. This was seen by Zionists as a betrayal of the terms of the mandate, especially in light of the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe. In response, Zionists organized a program of illegal immigration into Palestine, and Lehi, a small group of extreme Zionists, staged armed attacks on British authorities in Palestine.

UN Partition Plan

In 1947 Britain announced its desire to terminate the Palestine Mandate and place the Question of Palestine before the United Nations. The UN created UNSCOP (the UN Special Committee on Palestine), which conducted hearings and made a general survey of the situation in Palestine, and issued its report in August 1947. The report recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem to be placed under international administration.

The land allocated to the Arab state (about 43% of Mandatory Palestine) consisted of all of the highlands, except for Jerusalem, in addition to one third of the coastline. The highlands contain the major aquifers of Palestine, which supplied water to the coastal cities of central Palestine, including Tel Aviv. The Jewish state was to receive 56% of Mandatory Palestine, a slightly larger area to accommodate the increasing numbers of Jews who would immigrate there. The state included three fertile lowland plains — the Sharon on the coast, the Jezreel Valley and the upper Jordan Valley. Over 75% of Jewish state’s territory, however, consisted of desert land. The desert was not suitable for agriculture, nor for urban development at that time.

On 29 November, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, in favour of the Partition Plan. The division was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal.

While Zionist leaders accepted the UN plan, Arab leaders rejected it. The UN vote brought about massive Jewish celebrations throughout Palestine. Soon after, violence broke out throughout Palestine and became more and more prevalent until it escalated into a civil war.

Palestine War

Much of the fighting in the first months of the war took place in and on the edges of the main towns, and in all the mixed zones where both Arab and Jewish communities lived. Most of the attacks were initiated by Arabs. The attacks included Arab snipers firing at Jewish houses, pedestrians, and traffic, as well as planting bombs and mines along urban and rural paths and roads. Increasingly violent attacks, reprisals and counter-reprisals followed each other, and isolated shootings evolved into all-out battles.

Between December 1947 and March 1948, about 2,000 people were killed and 4,000 injured. From January 1948 onwards, operations became increasingly militarized, with the intervention of Arab Liberation Army regiments inside Palestine.

But while the Jewish population had received strict orders requiring them to hold their ground everywhere at all costs, the Arab population was in a state of panic and disorder. From December 1947 to March 1948, around 100,000 Arabs – mostly from the urban upper and middle classes in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, and Jewish-dominated areas – fled abroad or to other Arab towns.

In April the Haganah started to implement a plan – named Plan Dalet – in preparation for the announced intervention of Arab states in the war. At this stage the Haganah started the transformation from an underground organization into a regular army, and passed from the defensive to the offensive. The aims of Plan Dalet were to “ensure full control over the territory assigned to the Jews by the partition resolution, thus placing the Haganah in the best possible strategic position to face an Arab invasion.” The main objectives of the plan were: gaining control of the areas of the planned Jewish state, as well as areas of Jewish settlements outside its borders. The control would be attained by fortifying strongholds in the surrounding areas and roads, conquering Arab villages which are close to Jewish settlements and occupying British bases and police stations (from which the British were withdrawing).

Section 3 of Plan Dalet included the following paragraphs:

“Mounting operations against enemy population centers located inside or near our defensive system in order to prevent them from being used as bases by an active armed force. These operations can be divided into the following categories:
Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.
Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.
The villages which are emptied in the manner described above must be included in the fixed defensive system and must be fortified as necessary.

In the absence of resistance, garrison troops will enter the village and take up positions in it or in locations which enable complete tactical control. The officer in command of the unit will confiscate all weapons, wireless devices, and motor vehicles in the village. In addition, he will detain all politically suspect individuals. After consultation with the political authorities, bodies will be appointed consisting of people from the village to administer the internal affairs of the village. In every region, a person will be appointed to be responsible for arranging the political and administrative affairs of all villages and population centers which are occupied within that region.”

Plan Dalet’s execution lasted about eight weeks. In these weeks the Jewish position changed dramatically. About 100 Arab villages were conquered and emptied of their inhabitants. At the same time almost all Jewish settlements – with the notable exception of Jerusalem – enjoyed territorial continuity. The Jewish counter-attacks and offensives precipitated a mass departure of 250,000-300,000 Arabs.

Arab Invasion

On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine came to an end, and Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the state of Israel. Hours later the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, backed by Saudi Arabian and Yemenite contingents, invaded Palestine. Azzam Pasha, the Arab League Secretary, declared: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.” In response, the Israeli army launched a series of offensives into areas allocated to the proposed Arab state.

While the stated aim of the war for Arab states was to “restore order in Palestine and establish a single democratic state,” in reality, each Arab army tried to conquer territory in Palestine for itself. This was evident for two reasons. First, the Arab armies did not coordinate their attacks. Instead, each focused on its own military conquest. Second, after the war Egypt and Jordan – who captured Gaza and the West Bank in the war – did not try to establish Palestinian rule in these territories. Instead, they maintained their military rule over these territories, until these territories were captured by Israel in the Six-Day War (1967).

During the 1948 war, between 650,000 and 730,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled or fled from the area that became Israel, and became refugees. On the other hand, around 10,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Palestine. In 1949, Israel signed separate armistices with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. By the end of the war territory under Israeli control encompassed approximately three-quarters of Mandate Palestine.

From 1948 to 1970 between 750,000 and 1,000,000 Jews were expelled or fled from Arab countries. Today, fewer than 7,000 Jews remain in Arab countries. It is estimated that Jewish-owned real-estate left behind or confiscated in Arab countries covers a total of about 100,000 square kilometers (more than four times the size of the state of Israel). Additional 200,000 Jews from non-Arab Muslim countries left their homes due to increasing insecurity and growing hostility since 1948. Today over 60% of Israeli Jews are either refugees or the descendants of refugees from Arab countries.

This post demonstrated how false rumors spread by Arab leaders became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and resulted in a great disaster for the Palestinian people. This also lay the foundation to the Arab-Israeli conflict we know today.

The next post will discuss the major historic developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948 until today.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

History of Palestine

Posted in Arab-Israeli Conflict, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Okay, this is what I find to be absurd about the creation of the state of Israel. The Europeans were largely anti-Semites, and made life a living hell for the Jews in Europe… And that is the main reason the Jews wanted to escape and create their own sovereign country (Zionist movement as you explained it).

    So, the British help the Zionists in their plans because they feel bad about their own anti-Semitism; So they promise them some land that does not belong to them. How much sense does that make?!

    What would you think if the Arabs felt bad about their own anti-Semitism and decided to give the Jews the state of California as a token of regret, and established a state of Israel in that land. How much sense does that make?!

    Of course, I oppose anti-Semitism and I am not trying to justify the anti-Semitic sentiments. But it just does not make sense historically… I find it hypocritical of Europe to condemn the Arab anti-Semitism, while the reason for the creation of Israel is their own anti-Semitism.

    • The British promoted Zionist aspirations in Palestine (which was under Ottoman rule at the time) because they wanted Jewish support against Germany during WWI. Britain also wanted Arab and Kurd support against the Ottomans and therefore promoted their aspirations in the Middle East as well. Britain was fighting Germany and the Ottoman Empire during WWI, I don’t see why it’s absurd to promote national independence for Jews in the area where they had a deep historic connection.

      What is absurd though is that the establishment of a Jewish homeland is still somehow a matter of controversy – almost a 100 years after the fact! Why, on the other hand, is it not controversial that Turkey and Iraq were created around the same time while completely ignoring the aspirations of the Kurdish people for national independence in that region? The Kurds are the largest national group in the world whose homeland is still under occupation.

  2. I honestly don’t know much about Kurdish, so I can’t respond in that respect.

    I agree with you that it does not make sense that the conflict lasted for a 100 years. But I guess the issue will remain controversial for as long as people are fighting over it. I don’t see the issue being resolved when blood is being spilled continuously (for right or for wrong). But as I explained earlier, the historical connection argument just doesn’t make sense to me. [And I also regard the history lesson in this post not very important, by the same standard. We should focus on the current situation rather than who came here first.]

    But the issue that I am concerned about is that it is illegitimate to gain someone’s favor by promising them what you don’t own. I can’t for example tell you, do favor X for me, and I will give you the neighbor’s car. It’s not my car, so making a promise of giving a car that is not mine is just absurd…

    In everyday law, if I sell you something I don’t own, I would be jailed for fraud. But the item that I sold to you would still remain the legitimate property of it’s rightful owner, not you. This is how the law would handle such issues at the level of private individuals.

    Now, I understand how conflict can arise in the example of promising you the neighbor’s car, because you feel entitled to have car you were promised to get; and the neighbor would feel infuriated that his car was confiscated. But in this scenario, who would you say should be held most accountable?! It is me for making a promise I am not authorized to make.

    It seems to me that the role of Britain is highly marginalized, when (in my view) Britain should be the entity most scrutinized in this conflict.

    As I mentioned before, I support the view that the land is for the people who live in it, and currently both Jews and Arabs are living in Israel/Palestine so there should be one government for all the people. But the political sphere is not close to the individualist vision, and the logic of politics is highly collectivist. But for as long as this is the case, it seems to me the common law that applies to individuals in the case of fraud should apply to the political deals.

    • …But the issue that I am concerned about is that it is illegitimate to gain someone’s favor by promising them what you don’t own.

      Ideally, no. But what exactly does this mean in the context of WWI? Britain did not own any of the territories under Ottoman rule. Some real estate was certainly individually owned throughout the Middle East, some was communal owned and most was Ottoman state property. So was it illegitimate for Britain to promise any ethnic group (with national aspirations in the region) independence in Ottoman territories? Even to Arabs and Kurds (which Britain certainly has done)? Keep in mind that there is no clear method to transfer (Ottoman) state property to any ethnic group or individual – except maybe through an open market, but in that case you cannot really blame Zionists, because they were legally acquiring lands in Palestine all the time up to the 1948 war.

      I certainly believe that Britain and France are the parties most responsible for not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for most of the troubles throughout the Middle East since WWI. Including the antagonism of the Arab-Muslim population throughout the Middle East and its turn away from liberal democracy and toward fascism and Political Islam since the 1920s. The Middle East could have been a much more democratic, peaceful and prosperous region if not for the failed French and British policies (I discussed these issues in this post)

  3. As far as my understanding of recent history goes, the difference between the promise that Britain made to the Arabs, and the one made to the Jews, is that Britain promised the Arabs independence from the Ottoman rule (occupation). Correct me if I am mistaken.

    “but in that case you cannot really blame Zionists, because they were legally acquiring lands in Palestine all the time up to the 1948 war.” – Excuse my ignorance, but who where they purchasing the land from?! Are you saying that they were purchasing land from farmers and land owners in the same manner any private individual would purchase land from another?!

    In that case, it seems more logical that the Arabs would simply just stop selling the land. There wouldn’t need to be any war if this was the case. I know I might be thinking naively, but I find it hard to see how it would not occur to the natives of Palestine to simply stop selling land, if this was the whole of the story. I think there must have been more to the story than that.

    • The British didn’t just promise Arabs independence. They promised to grant Hussein bin Ali – the Sharif of Mecca, who they chose to be at the head of the new Arab State – Ottoman territories from Egypt to Persia (with the exception of “imperial possessions and interests in Kuwait, Aden, and the Syrian coast”).

      “Excuse my ignorance, but who where they purchasing the land from?!”

      Zionists were purchasing land from Palestinian absentee landlords, and state lands that were mostly swamps and sand dunes from the British mandate. Not only were they purchasing land openly, they paid a much higher premium for this land then its market value.

      “In that case, it seems more logical that the Arabs would simply just stop selling the land. There wouldn’t need to be any war if this was the case.”

      But that is precisely the problem, that often conflicts are entirely irrational. Often they are based on false rumors, on blind hate, fear, and mistrust. Arabs who owned land were selling it willingly to Jews, this includes many prominent members of Palestinian society, like the mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem and Jaffa. But at the same time, Palestinian leaders were spreading false rumors about the Jews trying to dispossess Arabs of their lands in the 1920s, which led to massacres of Jews by Arabs, and created a vicious cycle of violence that eventually led to the 1948 war.

      In the 1920s Palestinian leaders were falsely claiming that Jews were forcing thousands of Arab peasants off of lands that Jews purchased from absentee landlords, as a result the Arab population feared a Jewish takeover. The British fact finding Peel Commission of 1937 founded that less than a thousand peasants were indeed dispossessed of their lands (I think the number was around 800), and most of these were compensated by the authorities. But that did not help solve the problem, and Palestinians only become more militant against the Jews.

      Did you know that even today there are laws in Jordan and in the Palestinian territories which state that the “crime” of selling land to Israelis carries the death penalty?!

      • No, I didn’t know that such a law existed, but I am not surprised.

        I agree that any person has the right to defend his life, and his property if it was acquired fair-and-square through legitimate market transactions.

        So, are you saying that until 1948 every piece of land that the Jews lived on was legitimately owned private property bought from a Palestinian?!

        • “So, are you saying that until 1948 every piece of land that the Jews lived on was legitimately owned private property bought from a Palestinian?!”

          Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. They were either buying land (as individuals, or through the Jewish National Fund – a fund Zionists Jews contributed to to purchase land in Palestine) in an open market from private Arab land owners or state owned land (mostly swamps, sand dunes, and other uncultivatable land which they then turned into cultivatable land). What’s more, they often paid a premium on that land which far surpassed its market value, and, as the Peel Commission Report of 1937 testifies, there were even several cases where Jews legitimately bought property from Arabs but could not act on the acquisition because of an angry Arab mob.

          So this is precisely why I find it absurd that the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, almost 100 years ago, is still somehow a matter of controversy.

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