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Gaza: How We Got Here ... The Struggle for Palestine (1947-1973)

This is the second part in a three part series.  Click here for Part 1.

I  Introduction

The British Foreign Secretary told Parliament on February 18, 1947 that "there is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated between the parties." Further, he said, according to the League of Nations mandate, the legal basis for Britain's rule over Palestine, Britain did not have the authority to partition the country as everyone thought would be necessary.  Thus, the British government had decided to turn the problem over to the United Nations.  The Foreign Secretary did not mention, but it was obviously a significant factor, that Britain could no longer afford to keep nearly 100,000 troops employed in an increasingly vain effort to keep the peace in what was in comparison to India a relatively unimportant area.

In response to Britain's  request, the UN Secretary General on April 2, asked that the General Assembly (UNGA) take up the question of what should be done about Palestine.  Five of the member states thought they already knew what to do: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia,  proposed "The termination of the Mandate over Palestine and the declaration of its independence."  Their motion was rejected by the UNGA which instead, voted to establish a "Special Committee for Palestine" (UNSCOP)  to recommend a different solution.   It should have been sobering to the members of this, the last in the long line of inquiries, to hear the British delegate say,

We have tried for years to solve the problem of Palestine.  Having failed so far, we now bring it to the United Nations, in the hope that it can succeed were we have not.  If the United Nations can find a just solution which will be accepted by both parties, [we would] welcome such a solution [but ] we should not have the sole responsibility for enforcing a solution which is not accepted by both parties and which we cannot reconcile with our conscience.

UNSCOP was to be composed of a diverse group, representatives of Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.  As diverse as the committee was, its members shared one characteristic:  none of them knew anything about Palestine.  And they could not expect that they would get a "balanced" view since the representative of one party, the Palestinians, decided to abstain from collaboration with UNSCOP.  In default of the Palestinian voice, the general ignorance of the members of the Committee and sporadic demonstrations in Palestine against its inquiry,  the Jewish Agency dominated the proceedings. 

Despite these problems, UNSCOP set out, or at least signed,  a generally fair and informative appreciation of "the Elements of the Conflict" in its Report to The General Assembly.  In summary, it portrayed two populations, one European, technologically advanced, united and determined, numbering about 600,000, and the other, numbering 1,200,000, Asian, divided both religiously and geographically into about 1,200 autarkic, self-governing communities and "native quarters" of the few cities, suffering from all of the inherited problems of colonialism, living in one small (26,000 square kilometer/10,000 square mile) area of which "about half ...is uninhabitable desert" with seasonal and limited rainfall and access to ground water only from fragile and (what ultimately have proven to be) endangered aquifers.  Palestine was almost totally without minerals other than the potassium and sodium salts of the Dead Sea.   

The delegates must have thought there was little to divide.

UNSCOP accepted as given, probably on legal advice, that it should work within the intent and functioning of  the League of Nations mandate.  In retrospect curiously, UNSCOP did not apparently consider the utility of negotiating with and between the Palestinians and the Zionists.  Nor, as in various contemporary and subsequent instances of decolonization did it regard the majority community as the presumed legal heir to the colonial government.  Only the Arab states thought of turning the "case" over to the International Court.

Viewing the mandate document as tantamount to a constitution for Palestine, UNSCOP emphasized that the Mandatory Power (Britain) had been obliged to "secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home," to "facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions" and to "encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish Agency...close settlement by Jews on the land..." while it "speaks in general terms only of safeguarding or not prejudicing the 'civil and religious rights' and the 'rights and position' of the Arab community in Palestine."            

In attempting to balance these unequal obligations, the Committee observed, the "Mandatory Power has attempted, within the limits of its interpretation of the 'dual obligation' of the mandate, to provide some satisfaction of Arab political desires," but such moves "were generally rejected by the Palestinians and vigorously opposed by the Zionists."

UNSCOP was told that the Zionists demanded the right of "return" for European Jews in numbers defined only by the "economic absorptive capacity of the state." The Zionist representatives declared, however, that "The immigrant Jews [would] displace no Arabs, but rather [would] develop areas which otherwise would remain undeveloped."   In an earlier communication (March 19, 1899) to an official of the Ottoman Empire, Theodore Herzl had written that the Zionist movement was "completely peaceful and very content if they are left in peace.  Therefore, there is absolutely nothing to fear from their immigration...Your Excellency sees another difficulty, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine.  But who would think of sending them away?   It is their well-being, their individual wealth which we will increase by bringing in our own."[1]

The basis of the Zionist claim to Palestine was, as from the beginning of the movement in Theodore Herzl's words,  "Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home."

In a separate opinion, the Representative of India held that the Jewish contention that they were the "original" natives was both historically questionable and,  if held to be the basis of a legal claim,  would be a recipe for chaos since virtually all modern states would be open to similar claims based on ancient history.   As he wrote,

To found their claim on their dispersion from Palestine after a period of approximately 2,000 years, whatever religious sentiment may be attached by them to the land occupied by their Prophets, appears to me to be as groundless as anything can be.  A multitude of nations conquered various countries at various times and were eventually defeated and turned out of them.  Can their connexion, however long, with the land which they had once conquered provide them with any basis after the lapse of even one century?  If this were so, Moslems might claim Spain, which they governed for a much longer period than the Jews had governed part of Palestine...[moreover] this claim  cannot be made by those who were subsequently converted to Judaism.  Khazars of Eastern Europe, Turco-Finn by race, were converted to Judaism as a nation about 690 A.D.  Can their descendants possibly claim any rights simply because the ancestors of their co-religionists had once settled in Palestine.

There is no indication that UNSCOP as a whole reacted to the Indian delegate's demarche.  But it was, in part, foreshadowed by the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee which "postulate[d]  the 'natural' right of the Arab majority to remain in undisputed possession of the country, since they are and have been for many centuries in possession..." 

The Arab Higher Committee also made two further arguments:  first, that "the term 'Arab' is to be interpreted as connoting not only the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, but also the indigenous population which intermarried with the invaders and acquired their speech, customs and modes of thought in becoming permanently Arabized."  It is the descendants of this mixed group, they said, who the current Palestinian "natives."  And, second, they claimed "acquired" rights, which derived from the various British promises during and immediately after the First World War. 

Thus, the Palestinians "have persistently adhered to the position that the Mandate for Palestine, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration, is illegal."

UNSCOP found the Arab claims weak.  It held that the Palestinian claim to "natural" rights is flawed by the fact that "they have not been in possession of it [Palestine] as a sovereign nation...[and] Palestinian nationalism, as distinct from Arab nationalism, is itself a relatively new phenomenon."   Moreover, Great Britain "has consistently denied that Palestine was among the territories to which independence was pledged."  Finally, the Committee noted that the 1936 Royal Commission had pointed out that "there was a time when Arab statesmen were willing to consider giving Palestine to the Jews, provided that the rest of Arab Asia was free.  That condition was not fulfilled then, but it is on the eve of fulfilment [sic][2] now."

UNSCOP admitted that "the Jews would displace Arabs from the land if restrictions were not imposed..." [And found that since this] would seem inevitable...continued development of the Jewish National Home...envisages the possibility of a violent struggle with the Arabs."   It concluded by quoting Lord Balfour saying that "The general lines of [the Balfour Declaration] policy stand and must stand."  

So, UNSCOP recommended that following the British withdrawal, there should be a short interval during which time Palestine and the incipient Jewish state would be held under some sort of trusteeship while  Palestine would be prepared to  be partitioned into two states that would continue to  be unified economically.   

Meanwhile, the living circumstances of 250,000 or so displaced European Jews would be alleviated.  The Committee ducked the question of whether or not that meant that the Displaced Persons would be allowed to enter Palestine.  Finally, it noted that violence, carried out until recently "almost exclusively" by "underground Jewish organizations" would "render increasingly difficult the execution of the solution to be agreed upon by the United Nations."  But it offered no means to lessen the violence or to avoid the likelihood of war.

After reviewing the reports,  listening to emotional appeals by various delegates,  individuals and groups and following orders transmitted by their home governments, the delegates to the UN General Assembly voted (Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947, 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions,  despite strong opposition by Arab member states, to recommend partition of Palestine..  The key feature was that it awarded the incipient Jewish state, whose citizens-to-be owned or controlled less than 6% of the land, 55% of the Mandate.

II  What Was Happening on The Ground in Palestine

The General Assembly had issued its verdict but it left open the question of how to actually carry out the resolution when no UN-controlled military or police forces were available.  Britain's "84,000 troops were leaving.  And they had proved insufficient to maintain law and order, in the face of a campaign of terrorism waged by highly organised Jewish forces equipped with all the weapons of the modern infantryman."  To appreciate the full meaning of the UN General Assembly decision,  I consider it in the context of in four interacting categories:

First, the British military force began to disengage not only overall but selectively from cities, towns and camps.  As it did, it opened areas that became essentially free fire zones.  The British commander reasonably took the position that his priority was to keep his soldiers out of harm's way.  They should be evacuated as quickly and as safely as possible.  What happened after they had left, or even what happened during  the process of their leaving, was not their responsibility.   Thus, as they vacated their former positions, one at a time, they necessarily if inadvertently favored one side or the other.   Where they could, they tried to protect the residents; thus, for example in the city of Tiberias,  they evacuated the nearly half of the residents who were Palestinians.   Thus, they acted to protect the Palestinians but effectively turned the city over to the Jews.  Overall, their actions necessarily favored the Zionists. 

Second, the Arab states loudly proclaimed the responsibility to protect the Palestinians.  However,  until after the legal end to the Palestine mandate,  they could not intervene.  Doing so would have constituted an act of war against Britain, and the British would not allow them to move.   So in the months between the beginning of the British withdrawal and May 15, they were effectively immobilized. 

Legality was not the only reason.  There were two other reasons for their inactivity: 

The first reason for their inactivity was that they were weak.  Egypt and Iraq were effectively under British military occupation since their abortive revolts against the British (Iraq in 1941 and Egypt in 1942), and their armed forces were kept small, disorganized and ill-equipped.  Corruption sapped their logistics while purges of officers suspected of political ambition or nationalist ardor weakened their command structures.  When the Iraqi army was sent to Palestine, many of its soldiers were not adequately armed,  and some were without uniforms or even suitable footwear.  The Egyptian army was the butt of British jokes -- it was said to be the largest army in the world, judged by the girth of the officers.  They were scorned as inferior colonials.  The Army had only cast-off British equipment. Morale was naturally low. The only reasonably effective Arab military force was the Jordanian Legion which had been designed to patrol the desert and to provide income for bedouin tribesmen who were its recruits.  It was composed of only four battalions and one (as yet untrained) artillery unit.  It had no transport and little ammunition.  Moreover, it was not a "national" force:  it was under the command of British officers.

None of the Arab governments was an effective leader in its own country.  King Farouk was generally despised by educated Egyptians;  the mass of Egyptians lived on the edge of starvation, Egypt was already a "country of crowds"  -- with roughly 1,000 people on each square kilometer of inhabitable land -- disease was common and life expectancy was short. Like the Egyptians, the Iraqis had troubles of their own. And they thought their governments were a big part of their troubles.  The King of Iraq was a little boy who was under the control of a much hated regent who was regarded as a puppet of the British.   Only Trans-Jordan's Amir Abdullah seemed popular among his mainly bedouin subjects.

The second inhibition was that the leaders of the Arab states were divided by personal ambitions.  Each  pursued his own goals.  King Farouk's Egypt wanted to take over at least Gaza to anchor the Sinai Peninsula while Abdullah had secretly worked with the Zionists for years to get their support for his incorporation of "Arab Palestine."  Neither he nor Farouk were interested in the Palestinians.  Farouk confiscated military equipment destined for Abdullah.  Each ruler espoused a different Palestinian faction.  In short,  jealousies, ambitions and personal quarrels were of much more importance to them than their declared protection of  the Palestinians.  Thus, the Arab states had no unified strategy and did not seek, even separately, to work with such forces as the Palestinians mustered.

Realizing their incapacity, the Arab states got the Arab League to offer on March 21, two months before the Mandate was due to lapse, a compromise peace.  They offered to take in the thousands Jewish "illegals," whom the British were holding on Cyprus, as citizens of their countries and urged that,  rather than being divided as the UN had voted, the whole Mandate area be put once again under a trusteeship.[3] 

Third, the Palestinian cause attracted volunteer fighters -- a category of combatants we see in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq -- who began to infiltrate the Mandate before the British left.    Some of them were displaced Palestinians who had been in exile since they had fought against the British in the 1936-1938 "revolt."  Most were from other Arab countries.  They are believed to have numbered about a thousand by the end of 1947 and rose to perhaps 3,000 in the next year.

How effective these volunteers were is in doubt.  Some carried out terrorist acts, particularly against Zionist targets in the area the UN had designated as the Arab Palestinian state, but the record shows that while they were brave, they were not decisive.  In the village structure of Palestine, they were alien.    In some villages which still sought to remain neutral, they were unwelcome.

Overall, the Palestinians had little military capacity.  The intelligence agents of the Jewish Agency had been monitoring the Palestinians for years and reported in detail on their arms, organizations and sources of supply:  they reported that the Palestinians had no arms production capability except in primitive bombs,  few and mostly antiquarian rifles, usually with only 20-50 bullets a gun,  practically no heavier weapons, no mortars, no machineguns, no artillery, no armored vehicles and no aircraft  -- their only potential source of supply, Britain, embargoed arms sales to them.  Perhaps even more important, they had no cadres of trained troops, no staff, no planning and no command and control organization.  Perhaps most important, they had no intelligence sources in the Jewish community, Their only significant military leader was killed on April 8. Villages operated independently and so, as the Israeli military intelligence reports confirm, "Villages in 1948 often fought -- and fell-- alone, the Haganah was able to pick them off one at a time in many districts.  In many areas there was not even defensive co-operation between neighbouring villages, since relations between them, as often as not, were clouded by clan and family feuds..."

In short, the Palestinians had no significant military capacity.  They were a typical colonial society. Already before May 1948, they had suffered at least 5,000 casualties.   While the Israelis talked of the threat of an Arab-inflicted holocaust, "They were fully aware that the Arab war rhetoric was in no way matched by any serious preparation on the ground."

Fourth, in every category, the Zionists had overwhelming superiority.  Since much of the information in this section was sternly denied for years I have checked what I have collected against the two major and more recent Israeli accounts, both of which were derived from Israeli military and political archives.[4]

From Ottoman times, the Jewish community, the Yishuv, had thought of itself as a proto-government and from the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate "all institutions were built with an eye to conversions into institutions of state."  The British government dealt with and recognized the "Jewish Agency" as a de facto government which is how the  Yishuv regarded it.  Thus, it was able to make decisions that would be carried out.  It had departments headed by ministers under a leader, David Ben-Gurion, who was virtually a head of state.  The Yishuv was literate, highly motivated, relatively wealthy and able also to draw upon European and American financial, political and personnel support.  In short, it was a modern Western society and one with a multi-state capability.

The Yishuv had long had an agreed strategy:  from the late Nineteenth century, the Zionist leaders worked toward making Palestine into a Judenstaat.  While in public, they disguised their long-term objective, using the subterfuge homeland (heimstรคtte), among themselves their aim  was never in doubt.  There was never, in private communications, serious consideration of either a bi-national state in which Arabs  would also live or a smaller state in a partitioned Palestine.   At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Zionists claimed the southern part of what became Lebanon and most of the agricultural area of what became Trans-Jordan[5] as well as the major sources of water for the Mandate area.


The basic element of  Zionist strategy was spelled out by the Zionist leader, David Ben-Gurion  just after the publication of the Royal Commission Report in 1937 when he wrote privately to his son,  "We must expel [the Palestinian] Arabs and take their places...and if we have to use force -- not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places -- then we have force at  our disposal."

The force at the disposal of the Yushiv began to be established in 1920 when the collectives (Hebrew: kibbutzim ) set up semi-formal and part-time security guards units (Hebrew: HaShomer). In 1936, in response to the Arab nationalist revolt, the British enrolled some 5,000 Jews into  what  became the paramilitary wing of the Jewish community.  This evolved into  the Haganah that would evolve into the Israel Defense Force.   Under a British military expert,  the soldiers were trained in guerrilla and counterinsurgency warfare.  In what may have been the first punitive mission against a Palestinian village -- a kind of tactic the British had long used in India  and along the Northwest Frontier to suppress nationalist revolts -- a joint British-Haganah expedition in June 1938 attacked a Palestinian village on the Lebanese border. 

During the early part of the Second World War, when a German break-through appeared likely,  the British enrolled, trained and equipped Jewish military formations and incorporated individual Jews into its Middle East intelligence organization.  By about 1942, some 15,000 men were serving in the British army in some capacity.  In addition, fearing what might happen if the British were unable to hold off Erwin Romel's Deutsches Afrikakorps, the Jewish Agency in 1941 formed a "special forces" corps or shock troops known as Palmach(Hebrew: p'lugot mahatz).

But the Jewish leadership never forgot that its long-term enemy was Britain.  Ben-Gurion and others soft-pedaled the long term and emphasized self-restraint (Hebrew: havlagah).  This policy  provoked a revolt within the Haganah by a group that came to be known as the Irgun Zva'i Leumi.  The Irgun was inspired by Ben-Gurion's rival, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who set out what was then the extreme right wing of the Zionist movement (and later became today's Likud Party) .   It favored an all-out war on both the Palestinians and the British.  (The Irgun in turn would be split when Abraham Stern led about 200 of its members to form an even more radical and violent group called the Lohamei Herut Yisraeli or "Stern Gang.")  These radical, terrorist groups, although differing somewhat in their philosophy, remained under the control of the Haganah High Command.  While the Zionists publicly denied it, the British published (Cmd. 6873) intercepted Jewish Agency telegrams proving that it was using Irgun and the Stern Gang to carry out actions it wished to disavow.  As one telegram put it

We have come to a working arrangement with the dissident organisations, according to which we shall assign certain tasks to them under our command.  They will act only according to our plan.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the growing power of the Yishuv was in the field of intelligence.  Already in 1933, a rudimentary organization had been created.  A professor at the Hebrew University proposed that the Jewish National Fund make an inventory of Palestinian villages.   His idea called for a dynamic, constantly up-dated, "map" of Palestinian society.  It was a mammoth task.  As Jews from Iraq and other Arabic-speaking countries began to arrive, they were often assigned to this organization; then in 1944 a training school was established at Shefeya to train Hebrew-speaking operatives in Arabic and Palestinian culture and who were sent into every Palestinian village to identify potential enemies, map entry routes, inventory weapons, etc.  In short, the agents  produced an "appreciation" comparable to the CIA's National Intelligence Studies but were much more detailed.   They shaped the 1946-1949 campaign and determined the outcome.

The Jewish Agency and overseas Zionist organizations also recruited European and American volunteers.  These men and women  were much more numerous than the Arab volunteers.  More important, they included highly trained people, some of  whom had flown for the RAF or the USAF,  commanded ships of war in the Royal Navy or the US Navy or worked in high technology intelligence (such as code breaking and wireless interception).

By May 1948, the Haganah numbered 35,700 standing troops of whom 2,200 were the Special Forces of Palmach.  That is, as Benny Morris pointed out, the Yishuv army  numbered some 5,500 more soldiers than the combined strength of the regular Arab armies and paramilitary Palestinian forces.  In addition, Haganah  could