The Road to 1948, and the Roots of a Perpetual Conflict
‘The British mandate completely thwarted the possibility of a common notion of citizenship.’— Salim Tamari, sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank
The Road to 1948
How the decisions that led to the founding of Israel left the region in a state of eternal conflict.
One year matters more than any other for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1948, Jews realized their wildly improbable dream of a state, and Palestinians experienced the mass flight and expulsion called the Nakba, or catastrophe. The events are burned into the collective memories of these two peoples — often in diametrically opposed ways — and continue to shape their trajectories.
If 1948 was the beginning of an era, it was also the end of one — the period following World War I, when the West carved up the Middle East and a series of decisions planted the seeds of conflict. To understand the continuing clashes, we went back to explore the twists and turns that led to 1948. This path could begin at any number of moments; we chose as the starting point 1920, when the British mandate for Palestinewas established.
Over the following decades, two nationalisms, Palestinian and Jewish, took root on the same land and began to compete in a way that has ever since proved irreconcilable. The Arab population wanted what every native majority wants — self-determination. Jews who immigrated in growing numbers wanted what persecuted minorities almost never attain — a haven, in their ancient homeland,1 from the hatred and danger they faced around the world.
In the time of the British mandate, Jews and Palestinians, and Western and Arab powers, made fundamental choices that set the groundwork for the suffering and irresolution of today. Along the way, there were many opportunities for events to play out differently. We asked a panel of historians — three Palestinians, two Israelis and a Canadian American — to talk about the decisive moments leading up to the founding of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians and whether a different outcome could have been possible.
The conversation among the panelists, which took place by video conference on Jan. 3, has been edited and condensed for clarity, with some material reordered or added from follow-up interviews.
Part I: What Was the British Mandate?
For centuries, Palestine was an Ottoman province with no clear boundaries.2 Muslims were the majority, living alongside small Christian and Jewish communities. The Jews were almost entirely Sephardic and native to the region, with few nationalist aspirations.
The relationships among Muslims, Christians and Jews began to shift in the beginning of the 20th century as a group of young socialist revolutionaries — including founders of the future state of Israel, like David Ben-Gurion — immigrated in waves from Russia and Eastern Europe. Fleeing ghettos, impoverishment and the violence of pogroms, they believed that the only answer to the global affliction of antisemitism was Zionism3
The mandate for Palestine, written in 1920, stood out for its international commitment to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
It’s the mandate that creates the political entity called Palestine. Before that, it was a geographic term. And the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism was over the question of what would be the nature of this entity — an Arab state, a Jewish state, a binational state or partition?
In 1920, we speak about Jews and Arabs. It’s only in 1948 that the Arabs become Palestinians and the Jews become Israelis.
And of course, all of this falls short of actually giving the Palestinians national and territorial rights.
Part II: Revolt
Jewish families fleeing the Old City during the 1929 unrest.
Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
In 1929, Palestinians rebelled. Violence first broke out over control of the holy sites in Jerusalem and spread to cities including Hebron and Safed, where Arabs massacred Jews. As Palestinian uprisings continued for a decade, the main sources of tension became the mandate policies that allowed for increasing Jewish immigration and land purchases. The mounting frustration among Palestinian farmers and laborers pressured elite nationalist leaders to finally challenge British rule directly.
Amid the violence, Sephardic Jews, who had often been critical of Zionism for dividing Jews from Arabs, moved toward the Zionists, drawn by the need for self-defense against Arabs who had begun attacking them. As the Nazis took power, meanwhile, rising antisemitism in Europe spurred the mass flight of Jews and the Zionist call to gather them in Palestine. As Jewish immigration rose, so did Palestinian opposition to it.
But there were also rumors that Jews were attempting to buy up the Temple Mount and would even destroy it. This notion that al-Aqsa is in danger — a slogan we still hear — goes back to this time. For years, stories circulated about pictures of the Dome of the Rock with a menorah or a Star of David above it. Muslims thought this meant that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount. It’s true that there were attempts by Jews to purchase land in the Western Wall compound, though not to acquire the Temple Mount. The whole thing failed. But the point is the combination of religious and nationalist sentiments. One cannot separate the two.
The Zionists also had a principle of hiring Hebrew labor, at the exclusion of Arab labor. The idea that Jews would work the land was central to a new Jewish identity different from the intellectual or businessman of the diaspora. The Zionists also didn’t want to be the colonial masters of the Palestinians by employing them. In order to “not exploit the Arabs,” they expelled them from the land, and that of course led to immediate clashes with the farmers.
Often, we think about the history of the mandate through points of violence. It’s also important to remember that there were peaceful periods in between those moments when people shopped together, sat in cafes, lived alongside each other.
The Zionists split over the proposal. Some said that a small state in part of Palestine would be constantly beleaguered and at war. More pragmatic Zionists accepted partition in principle but rejected the Peel Commission’s proposed boundaries because they made the Jewish state so small.
Palestinians rejected partition out of hand as a theft of Palestinian land and demanded that Palestine as a whole become an Arab state.
Following the revolt, the Jews who were native to the Middle East went through a major shift, too. Some of the younger generation, for example, raised in the shadow of violence, now tried to position themselves as loyal to the Zionist movement and were recruited to do intelligence work for the Jewish paramilitary forces. They start using their common cultural identity and their language skills in Arabic for purposes of security.
This process continued into the 1940s during the Second World War. The British, who have a long history of getting colonials to do their fighting for them, were quite happy to accept Jews into the ranks of the British Armed Forces. There were a fair number of Palestinians who joined as well — between 9,000 and 12,000 Palestinians fought for the Allied forces in World War II. The number of Jews from Palestine was about 30,000. Many Jews became lower-level officers during World War II, and they brought their new military expertise to the 1948 war.
Part III: The Path to Partition
A British soldier guarding Palestinian prisoners in Jerusalem in the late 1930s.
Fox Photos/Getty Images
During the first couple of years of the war, the Jews of Palestine were absolutely terrified as the German forces marched across North Africa. We can’t understand the period of the Holocaust in Europe without also understanding the Jews’ sense of imminent destruction in Palestine. David Ben-Gurion, the chief Zionist leader in Palestine, said, “We shall fight in the war against Hitler as if there were no white paper,but we shall fight the white paper as if there were no war.”
In May 1942, Zionists held an emergency meeting in New York City at the Biltmore Hotel. A few months later, the scale of the Nazi genocide became clear. The reaction was public mourning and despair.
There were still hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Europe who needed a home. But the focus also grew to include the persecution of Jews in Middle Eastern countries. There were about a million of them, and their situation was also precarious. In other words, the Zionists retooled.
Part IV: The U.N. Plan
Jewish refugees in Haifa awaiting deportation to Cyprus by British authorities in 1947.
Hans Pinn/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In February 1947, the government announced that it wanted to end the mandate, submitting what it called “the problem of Palestine” to the United Nations, established two years earlier as the successor to the League of Nations. The U.N. set up the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), asking it to recommend a solution. The future of the land and its peoples — at this point, about 600,000 Jews and 1.2 million Palestinians — was back in international hands.
Yet the world sees this as an acceptable equation. Orientalism and colonial ideology were very much at the heart of thinking that while we Europeans and the U.S. were part of this massive human tragedy, we are going to fix it at the expense of someone else. And the someone else is not important because they’re Arabs, they’re Palestinians and thus constructed as backward, as not important, as people who do not have rights, as people whose catastrophe subsequently becomes insignificant.
It is important to highlight that this narrative is structured precisely by the rejection of Palestinian humanity that continues to be a part of the discourse in some circles today.
The United Nations partition plan, 1947.
A small minority of Jews who left the displaced-persons camps for Israel tried very hard to get to the U.S. But the dominant sentiment of the refugees was in favor of the creation of a Jewish state. One did not have to be ideologically Zionist to feel this way. As one friend of mine who lost her parents in the Holocaust told me, after the war many Jewish survivors simply wanted to live with other Jews.
UNSCOP considered it to be the least bad option. They did the best they could under terrible circumstances.
Part V: The Legacy of 1948
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (foreground, second from left) seeing off the last British troops in July 1948.
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared itself a state. The next day, the British began leaving, and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked the new state, later joined by Jordan. The internal battle between Israelis and Palestinians became a regional war. Israel fought for its survival, and the Arab countries said they were fighting to liberate Palestine. But they did not effectively deliver on their promises of military and economic support to the Palestinians.
But in fact, nobody fought well in 1948. The Arab states, for the most part, could not field effective armies. Jordan had a good army, but that was about it. The Zionist forces were not well armed. They were not that well trained.
Early in the war, the Palestinians actually had the upper hand. In the winter of 1948, they controlled the roads and rural areas. All the more so when the Arab-state armies invaded in May. The first month of fighting was very difficult for Israel, and it wasn’t clear they were going to survive.
The rest of the war was very much in Israel’s hands. But there’s a difference between understanding how Israel was able to win the war and arguing that that victory was inevitable. It wasn’t.
But when war broke out in 1948, he saw his chance to occupy Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank so he could extend his emirate in the desert into a real kingdom.
The Egyptians were determined to deny that. At some point, an Egyptian military column moves north from Egypt through the Gaza Strip to 30 kilometers south of Tel Aviv in Ashdod. In military terms, they should have proceeded toward Tel Aviv. Instead, they take a right and go in the direction of Jerusalem, because they are worried that Abdullah, their rival in Arab politics, could take over. When you analyze the reasons for the Israeli success and the Palestinian Arab failure in the war, inter-Arab politics played a major role.
In other words, war, flights and expulsions transformed the demographics of Israel. What were the arguments about a Palestinian right to return after the war?
There’s a similar dynamic now in the war in Gaza, on both sides. Israel depends on the United States, and Hamas is funded by Qatar and Iran. To the extent that we can imagine roads not taken or roads to take in the future, we have to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much more globally and less regionally.
Nadim Bawalsa is a historian of modern Palestine and the author of the 2022 book “Transnational Palestine: Migration and the Right of Return Before 1948.” He is the associate editor for The Journal of Palestine Studies.
Leena Dallasheh is a historian of Palestine and Israel who has held academic positions at Columbia University, New York University and Rice University. She is working on a book about the city of Nazareth in the 1940s and 1950s.
Abigail Jacobson is a historian in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her latest book, written with Moshe Naor, is “Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine.”
Derek Penslar is a professor of Jewish history and the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His latest book is “Zionism: An Emotional State.”
Itamar Rabinovich is a history professor and emeritus president at Tel Aviv University. His books include “The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations.” He was the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1993 to 1996.
Salim Tamari is a sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank and a research associate at the Institute for Palestine Studies. His latest book is “The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine.”
Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, moderated the discussion.
Top image: In the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence as a Jewish state, Arab forces attacked the Old City of Jerusalem on June 15, 1948. Photograph by John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
ANNOTATION PHOTOGRAPHS: Herzl: Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images; Faisal Al-Hashemi: James Russell & Sons/Bain Collection/Library of Congress; al-Husseini: Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress; Jabotinsky: National Photo Collection of Israel/GPO; Ben-Gurion: Abraham Pisarek/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images; Weizmann: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images; Hitler and al-Husseini: Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images;al-Khalidi: Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress; Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs."