Israel and Palestine



Zionism

Zionism, the national movement for a Jewish homeland that resulted in the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, has been controversial since its beginnings in the late 19th century.

Learning Objectives

Explain the arguments for and against Zionism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After thousands of years of the Jewish diaspora, with Jews living as minorities in countries across the globe, a movement called Zionism, with the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland and sovereign state, emerged in the late 19th century.
  • The political movement was formally established by the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl in 1897 following the publication of his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State).
  • The movement was energized by rising anti-semitism in Europe and anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia and aimed at encouraging Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine.
  • The movement was eventually successful in establishing Israel on May 14, 1948, as the homeland for the Jewish people.
  • Advocates of Zionism view it as a national liberation movement for the repatriation to their ancestral homeland of a persecuted people residing as minorities in a variety of nations.
  • Critics of Zionism view it as a colonialist, racist, and exceptionalist ideology that led advocates to violence during Mandatory Palestine, followed by the exodus of Palestinians and the subsequent denial of their human rights.

Key Terms

  • pogrom: A violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The term originally entered the English language to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire.
  • Ashkenazi Jews: A Jewish diaspora population who coalesced as a distinct community in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium. The traditional diaspora language is Yiddish.
  • Theodor Herzl: An Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer. He was one of the fathers of modern political Zionism. He formed the World Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish migration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state (Israel).

Zionism: A Jewish Homeland

Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people that supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Palestine, Canaan, or the Holy Land).

After almost two millennia of the Jewish diaspora residing in various countries without a national state, the Zionist movement was founded in the late 19th century by secular Jews, largely as a response by Ashkenazi Jews to rising antisemitism in Europe, exemplified by the Dreyfus affair in France and the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire. The political movement was formally established by the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl in 1897 following the publication of his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). At that time, the movement sought to encourage Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine.

Herzl considered antisemitism an eternal feature of all societies in which Jews lived as minorities, and that only a separation could allow Jews to escape eternal persecution. “Let them give us sovereignty over a piece of the Earth’s surface, just sufficient for the needs of our people, then we will do the rest!” he proclaimed.

Herzl proposed two possible destinations to colonize, Argentina and Palestine. He preferred Argentina for its vast and sparsely populated territory and temperate climate, but conceded that Palestine would have greater attraction because of the historic ties of Jews with that area. He also accepted to evaluate Joseph Chamberlain’s proposal for possible Jewish settlement in Great Britain’s East African colonies.

A photo of the profile of Theodore Herzl.

Theodore Herzl: Theodor Herzl is considered the founder of the Zionist movement. In his 1896 book Der Judenstaat, he envisioned the founding of a future independent Jewish state during the 20th century.

Although initially one of several Jewish political movements offering alternative responses to assimilation and antisemitism, Zionism expanded rapidly. In its early stages, supporters considered setting up a Jewish state in the historic territory of Palestine. After World War II and the destruction of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe where these alternative movements were rooted, Zionism became the dominant view about a Jewish national state.

Creating an alliance with Great Britain and securing support for Jewish emigration to Palestine, Zionists also recruited European Jews to immigrate there, especially those who lived in areas of the Russian Empire where anti-semitism was prevalent. The alliance with Britain was strained as the latter realized the implications of the Jewish movement for Arabs in Palestine, but the Zionists persisted. The movement was eventually successful in establishing Israel on May 14, 1948, as the homeland for the Jewish people. The proportion of the world’s Jews living in Israel has steadily grown since the movement emerged.

Until 1948, the primary goals of Zionism were the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, in-gathering of the exiles, and liberation of Jews from the antisemitic discrimination and persecution they experienced during their diaspora. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionism continues primarily to advocate on behalf of Israel and to address threats to its continued existence and security.

Major aspects of the Zionist idea are represented in the Israeli Declaration of Independence:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses.

Advocates of Zionism view it as a national liberation movement for the repatriation of a persecuted people residing as minorities in a variety of nations to their ancestral homeland. Critics of Zionism view it as a colonialist, racist, and exceptionalist ideology that led advocates to violence during Mandatory Palestine, followed by the exodus of Palestinians and the subsequent denial of their human rights.

Opposition and Controversy

Zionism has been characterized as colonialism and criticized for promoting unfair confiscation of land, expelling and causing violence towards the Palestinians. Others view Zionism not as colonialist movement, but as a national movement that is contending with that of Palestine. David Hoffman rejected the claim that Zionism is a “settler-colonial undertaking” and instead characterized Zionism as a national program of affirmative action, adding that there is unbroken Jewish presence in Israel back to antiquity.

The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, stated that “There will be no discrimination among citizens of the Jewish state on the basis of race, religion, sex, or class.” However, critics of Zionism consider it a racist movement. According to historian Avi Shlaim, throughout its history up to present day, Zionism “is replete with manifestations of deep hostility and contempt towards the indigenous population.” Some criticisms of Zionism claim that Judaism’s notion of the “chosen people” is the source of racism in Zionism.

In December 1973, the UN passed a series of resolutions condemning South Africa and included a reference to an “unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, Apartheid and Zionism.” At the time there was little cooperation between Israel and South Africa, although the two countries would develop a close relationship during the 1970s. Parallels have also been drawn between aspects of South Africa’s apartheid regime and certain Israeli policies toward the Palestinians that are seen as manifestations of racism in Zionist thinking.

Some critics of anti-Zionism have argued that opposition to Zionism can be hard to distinguish from antisemitism, and that criticism of Israel may be used as an excuse to express viewpoints that might otherwise be considered antisemitic.

On the other hand, anti-Zionist writers such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Marder, and Tariq Ali have argued that the characterization of anti-Zionism as antisemitic is inaccurate, that it sometimes obscures legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and actions, and that it is sometimes used as a political ploy in order to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

Some antisemites have alleged that Zionism was or is part of a Jewish plot to take control of the world. One particular version of these allegations, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” achieved global notability. The protocols are fictional minutes of an imaginary meeting by Jewish leaders of this plot. Analysis and proof of their fraudulent origin goes as far back as 1921. A 1920 German version was extensively used as propaganda by the Nazis and remains widely distributed in the Arab world. The protocols are cited in the 1988 Hamas charter.

The Partitioning of Palestine

The UN Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal by the United Nations that recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish States. It was rejected by the Palestinians, leading to a civil war and the end of the British Mandate.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the partitioning of Palestine

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1923, the land of Palestine, previously under the control of the Ottoman Empire, was made a British Mandate by the League of Nations.
  • During WWI, the British made conflicting promises to the Arab and Jewish populations of Palestine.
  • In 1937, following a six-month-long Arab General Strike, the British established the Peel Commission, which concluded that the Mandate was not working and proposed a partition of Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab States. The proposal was rejected by the Palestinians.
  • At the beginning of WWII, in 1939, the British put a limit on the immigration of Jews into Palestine.
  • After World War II, in August 1945 President Truman asked for the admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine, but the British maintained limits on Jewish immigration, which led to a new inquiry into partitioning Palestine.
  • By 1947, the British announced their desire to terminate the Palestine Mandate and placed the Question of Palestine before the United Nations, which developed a non-binding recommendation for independent Arab and Jewish states.
  • The proposal was rejected by the Palestinians and civil war broke out.

Key Terms

  • Arab League: A regional organization of Arab countries in and around North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Arabia. It was formed in Cairo on March 22, 1945 with six members: Kingdom of Egypt, Kingdom of Iraq, Transjordan (renamed Jordan in 1949), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
  • Jihad: An Islamic term referring to the religious duty of Muslims to maintain and spread the religion.
  • United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine: A 1947 proposal by the United Nations that recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate.
  • Peel Commission: A British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel, appointed in 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest in Mandatory Palestine. It was administered by Britain following the six-month-long Arab general strike in Mandatory Palestine.

Background and Early Proposals for Partition

The British administration was formalized by the League of Nations under the Palestine Mandate in 1923 as part of the Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The Mandate reaffirmed the 1917 British commitment to the Balfour Declaration for the establishment in Palestine of a “National Home” for the Jewish people, with the prerogative to carry it out. A British census of 1918 estimated 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews.

In 1937, following a six-month Arab General Strike and armed insurrection that aimed to pursue national independence and secure the country from foreign control, the British established the Peel Commission. The Jewish population had been attacked during the Arab revolt, leading to the idea that the two populations could not be reconciled. The Commission concluded that the Mandate had become unworkable, and recommended Partition into an Arab state linked to Transjordan, a small Jewish state, and a mandatory zone.

To address problems arising from the presence of national minorities in each area, the Commission suggested a land and population transfer involving the transfer of some 225,000 Arabs living in the envisaged Jewish state and 1,250 Jews living in a future Arab state, a measure deemed compulsory “in the last resort.” The Palestinian Arab leadership rejected partition as unacceptable, given the inequality in the proposed population exchange and the transfer of one-third of Palestine, including most of its best agricultural land, to recent immigrants. The Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, persuaded the Zionist Congress to lend provisional approval to the Peel recommendations as a basis for further negotiations. In a letter to his son in October 1937, Ben-Gurion explained that partition would be a first step to “possession of the land as a whole.”

The British Woodhead Commission was set up to examine the practicality of partition. The Peel plan was rejected and two possible alternatives were considered. In 1938 the British government issued a policy statement declaring that “the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.” Representatives of Arabs and Jews were invited to London for the St. James Conference, which proved unsuccessful.

MacDonald White Paper of May 1939 declared that it was “not part of [the British government’s] policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State,” and sought to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricted Arab land sales to Jews. However, the League of Nations commission held that the White Paper was in conflict with the terms of the Mandate as put forth in the past. The outbreak of the Second World War suspended any further deliberations. The Jewish Agency hoped to persuade the British to restore Jewish immigration rights and cooperated with the British in the war against Fascism. Aliyah Bet was organized to spirit Jews out of Nazi-controlled Europe despite British prohibitions. The White Paper also led to the formation of Lehi, a small Jewish organization that opposed the British.

After World War II, in August 1945 President Truman asked for the admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine, but the British maintained limits on Jewish immigration in line with the 1939 White Paper. The Jewish community rejected the restriction on immigration and organized an armed resistance. These actions and United States pressure to end the anti-immigration policy led to the establishment of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. In April 1946, the Committee reached a unanimous decision for the immediate admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine, a repeal of the White Paper restrictions of land sale to Jews, that the country be neither Arab nor Jewish, and the extension of U.N. Trusteeship. U.S. endorsed the Commission findings concerning Jewish immigration and land purchase restrictions, while the U.K. conditioned its implementation on U.S. assistance in case of another Arab revolt. In effect, the British continued to carry out White Paper policy. The recommendations triggered violent demonstrations in the Arab states and calls for a Jihad and an annihilation of all European Jews in Palestine.

United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine

By 1947, the British announced their desire to terminate the Palestine Mandate and placed the Question of Palestine before the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations. The UN created UNSCOP (the UN Special Committee on Palestine) on May 15, 1947, with representatives from 11 countries. UNSCOP conducted hearings and surveyed the situation in Palestine, then issued a report on August 31 recommending the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem placed under international administration.

On November 29, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, to adopt a resolution recommending the adoption and implementation of the Plan of Partition. The division was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal. The partition plan required that the proposed states grant full civil rights to all people within their borders regardless of race, religion, or gender. Both the United States and Soviet Union supported the resolution. The five members of the Arab League, who were voting members at the time, voted against the Plan.

The Jewish Agency, the Jewish state-in-formation, accepted the plan, and nearly all Jews in Palestine rejoiced at the news.

The partition plan was rejected out of hand by Palestinian Arab leadership and by most of the Arab population. Meeting in Cairo on November and December 1947, the Arab League adopted a series of resolutions endorsing a military solution to the conflict.

Britain announced that it would accept the partition plan, but refused to enforce it, arguing it was not accepted by the Arabs. Britain also refused to share the administration of Palestine with the UN Palestine Commission during the transitional period. In September 1947, the British government announced that the Mandate for Palestine would end at midnight on May 14, 1948.

Some Jewish organizations also opposed the proposal. Irgun leader Menachem Begin announced, “The partition of the Homeland is illegal. It will never be recognized. The signature by institutions and individuals of the partition agreement is invalid. It will not bind the Jewish people. Jerusalem was and will forever be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever.” These views were publicly rejected by the majority of the nascent Jewish state.

Immediately after adoption of the Resolution by the General Assembly, a civil war broke out and the UN plan was not implemented.

The proposed plan divided Palestine into three parts: an Arab State, a Jewish State and the City of Jerusalem, linked by extraterritorial crossroads. The proposed Arab State would include the central and part of western Galilee, with the town of Acre, the hill country of Samaria and Judea, an enclave at Jaffa, and the southern coast stretching from north of Isdud (now Ashdod) and encompassing what is now the Gaza Strip, with a section of desert along the Egyptian border. The proposed Jewish State would include the fertile Eastern Galilee, the Coastal Plain, stretching from Haifa to Rehovot and most of the Negev desert, including the southern outpost of Umm Rashrash (now Eilat). The Jerusalem Corpus Separatum included Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.

United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine 1947: A map of the UN plan for partitioning Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish States and a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem.

The Jewish State

The “Jewish state” is a political term used to describe the nation state of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, but the religious versus secular usage of the term and its possible exclusionary implications have been debated since the founding of Israel in 1948.

Learning Objectives

Define and describe “the Jewish State”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Since the late 19th century with the rise of Zionism, there were waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, but during WWII and the Holocaust, the urgency of Jewish migration out of Europe heightened in conflict with the limits placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939.
  • After World War II, Britain found itself in intense conflict with the Jewish community over immigration, as well as continued conflict with the Arab community.
  • On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine, which was rejected by the Palestinians and resulted the outbreak of civil war.
  • On May 14, 1948, the day before the expiration of the British Mandate, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
  • The following day, the armies of four Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq—entered what had been British Mandatory Palestine, launching the 1948 Arab–Israeli War which continued for one year until a cease-fire.
  • The term “Jewish state” has been in common usage in the media since the establishment of Israel, and the term was used interchangeably with Israel.

Key Terms

  • Nuremberg Laws: Antisemitic laws in Nazi Germany introduced on September 15, 1935, by the Reichstag at a special meeting convened at the annual Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party (NSDAP). The two laws were the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans and the employment of German females under 45 in Jewish households, and the Reich Citizenship Law, which declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens. The remainder were classed as state subjects, without citizenship rights.
  • Eretz-Israel: The traditional Jewish name for an area of indefinite geographical extension in the Southern Levant. Related biblical, religious, and historical English terms include the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, and Palestine.
  • David Ben-Gurion: The primary founder of the State of Israel and the first Prime Minister of Israel. On May 14, 1948, he formally proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel and was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which he helped write. He led Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and united the various Jewish militias into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Subsequently, he became known as “Israel’s founding father.”

The Founding of Israel

In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany, and in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws made German Jews (and later Austrian and Czech Jews) stateless refugees. Similar rules were applied by the many Nazi allies in Europe. The subsequent growth in Jewish migration and the impact of Nazi propaganda aimed at the Arab world led to the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Britain established the Peel Commission to investigate the situation. The commission did not consider the situation of Jews in Europe, but called for a two-state solution and compulsory transfer of populations. Britain rejected this solution and instead implemented the White Paper of 1939. This planned to end Jewish immigration by 1944 and allow no more than 75,000 additional Jewish migrants. This was disastrous to European Jews, who were already gravely discriminated against and in need of refuge. The British maintained this policy until the end of the Mandate.

During World War II, as the horrors of the Holocaust became known, the Zionist leadership formulated the One Million Plan, a reduction from Ben-Gurion’s previous target of two million immigrants. Following the end of the war, a massive wave of stateless Jews, mainly Holocaust survivors, began migrating to Palestine in small boats in defiance of British rules. The Holocaust united much of the rest of world Jewish community behind the Zionist project. The British either imprisoned these Jews in Cyprus or sent them to the British-controlled Allied Occupation Zones in Germany. The British, having faced the 1936–1939 Arab revolt against mass Jewish immigration into Palestine, were now facing opposition by Zionist groups in Palestine for subsequent restrictions.

After World War II, Britain found itself in intense conflict with the Jewish community over Jewish immigration limits, as well as continued conflict with the Arab community over limit levels. The Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization, prepared an armed struggle against British rule.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine. This specified borders for new Arab and Jewish states and an area of Jerusalem to be administered by the UN under an international regime. The end of the British Mandate for Palestine was set for midnight on May 14, 1948, but the Palestinians rejected the plan.

On December 1, 1947, the Arab Higher Committee proclaimed a three-day strike, and Arab gangs began attacking Jewish targets. The Jews were initially on the defensive as civil war broke out, but in early April 1948 moved onto the offensive. The Arab Palestinian economy collapsed and 250,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled.

On May 14, 1948, the day before the expiration of the British Mandate, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The only reference in the text of the Declaration to the borders of the new state is the use of the term Eretz-Israel (“Land of Israel”).

David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948. He stands at a conference table, surrounded by people. Above him hangs a picture of Theodor Herzl.

Declaration of the State of Israel: David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.

The following day, the armies of four Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq—entered what had been British Mandatory Palestine, launching the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Contingents from Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Sudan also joined the war. The purpose of the invasion was to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state at inception, and some Arab leaders talked about driving the Jews into the sea. According to Benny Morris, Jews felt that the invading Arab armies aimed to slaughter the Jews. The Arab League stated that the invasion was to restore law and order and prevent further bloodshed.

After a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders, known as the Green Line, were established. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations estimated that more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by or fled from advancing Israeli forces during the conflict—what would become known in Arabic as the Nakba (“catastrophe”).

The Jewish State

The “Jewish state” is a political term used to describe the nation state of Israel. The state of Israel defined itself in its declaration of independence as a “Jewish state,” a term that appeared in the United Nations partition decision of 1947. The term has been in common usage in the media since the establishment of Israel and is used interchangeably with Israel.

Since its establishment, Israel has passed many laws which reflect on the Jewish identity and values of the majority (about 75% in 2016) of its citizens. However, the secular versus religious debate in Israel in particular has focused debate on the Jewish nature of the state. Another aspect of the debate is the status of minorities in Israel, most notably the Israeli Arab population.

There has been ongoing debate in Israel about whether the state should recognize more Jewish culture, encourage Judaism in schools, and enshrine certain laws of Kashrut and Shabbat observance. This debate reflects a historical divide within Zionism and among the Jewish citizens of Israel, which has large secular and traditional/Orthodox minorities as well as a majority that lies somewhere in between.

Secular Zionism, the historically dominant stream, is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a people with a right to self-determination, and to have a state where they would be unafraid of antisemitic attacks and live in peace.

The notion that Israel should be constituted in the name of and maintain a special relationship with a particular group of people, the Jewish people, has drawn much controversy vis-à-vis minority groups living in Israel – the large number of Muslim and Christian Palestinians residing in Israel and, to the extent that those territories are claimed to be governed as part of Israel and not as areas under military occupation, in the West Bank and Gaza. For example, the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah, refers to Jews by name as well as alluding to the concept of Zionism, and contains no mention of Palestinian Arab culture. This anthem therefore excludes non-Jews from its narrative of national identity. Similar criticism has been made of the Israeli flag which resembles the Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) and features a Star of David, universally acknowledged as a symbol of Judaism. Critics of Israel as a Jewish state, particularly a nation state, have suggested that it should adopt more inclusive and neutral symbolism.

Palestinian Refugees

During the 1948 Palestine War, around 85% (720,000 people) of the Palestinian Arab population of what became Israel were expelled from their homes, fleeing to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Learning Objectives

Trace the Palestinian refugee populations in places such as Jordan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Palestine War of 1948, the first phase of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, 85% of the Palestinian Arab population fled from their homes in what became known as the Palestinian Exodus of 1948.
  • There is heated debate among historians and politicians as to the causes of the Exodus, and the status of this debate has bearing on the claim of Palestinians to their land.
  • The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing, while others dispute this charge.
  • Displaced Palestinian Arabs, known as Palestinian refugees, were settled in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Arab world, with most fleeing to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
  • Most Arab nations denied citizenship to the Palestinian refugees, except in Jordan, where most have citizenship or the equivalent rights of citizens.
  • In a 2007 study, Amnesty International denounced the “appalling social and economic condition” of Palestinians in Lebanon.

Key Terms

  • Palestinian Exodus of 1948: Also known as the Nakba, this event occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Palestine war.
  • West Bank: A landlocked territory near the Mediterranean coast of Western Asia, forming the bulk of the Palestinian territories. It shares a border with Jordan across the Jordan River.
  • Gaza Strip: A small, self-governing Palestinian territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Egypt on the southwest for 6.8 miles and Israel on the east and north along a 32-mile border. Together with the West Bank, it comprises the territories claimed by the Palestinians as the State of Palestine.
  • refugee: A displaced person who has been forced to cross national boundaries and cannot return home safely because of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Palestinian Exodus of 1948

During the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 Arab–Israeli War that followed, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs (85% of the population) fled or were expelled from their homes, out of approximately 1.2 million Arabs living in former British Mandate of Palestine. This event was known as the Nakba (Arabic for “disaster” or “catastrophe”).

This number did not include displaced Palestinians inside Israeli-held territory. More than 400 Arab villages and about ten Jewish villages and neighborhoods were depopulated during the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of during 1948. According to estimates based on earlier census, the total Muslim population in Palestine was 1,143,336 in 1947. After the war, around 156,000 Arabs remained in Israel and became Israeli citizens.

The causes of the exodus are a subject of fundamental disagreement between historians. Factors involved include Jewish military advances, destruction of Arab villages, psychological warfare, and fears of another massacre by Zionist militias after the Deir Yassin massacre, which caused many to leave out of panic; direct expulsion orders by Israeli authorities; the voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes; collapse in Palestinian leadership and Arab evacuation orders; and an unwillingness to live under Jewish control.

In the years after, a series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented Arabs from returning to their homes or claiming their property. Most remained refugees, as do their descendants. The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing, while others dispute this charge.

The Palestinian refugee problem and debate about the Palestinian right of return are also major issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians and their supporters have staged annual demonstrations and commemorations on May 15 of each year, which is known to them as “Nakba Day.” The popularity and number of participants in these annual Nakba demonstrations has varied over time.

Palestine refugees making their way from Galilee in October–November 1948

Palestinian Exodus: Palestine refugees making their way from their former homes in Galilee, October–November 1948

Life After the Exodus

Displaced Palestinian Arabs, known as Palestinian refugees, were settled in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Arab world. Most fled to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The United Nations established UNRWA as a relief and human development agency tasked with providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. Arab nations refused to absorb Palestinian refugees, instead keeping them in refugee camps while insisting that they be allowed to return.

Refugee status was also passed to their descendants, who were also largely denied citizenship in Arab states except in Jordan. The Arab League instructed its members to deny Palestinians citizenship “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right of return to their homeland.” More than 1.4 million Palestinians still live in 58 recognized refugee camps, while more than 5 million Palestinians live outside Israel and the Palestinian territories.

More than 2 million registered Palestine refugees live in Jordan. Most Palestine refugees in Jordan, but not all, have full citizenship. The percentage of Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps to those who settled outside the camps is the lowest of all UNRWA fields of operations. Palestine refugees are allowed access to public services and health care, as a result, refugee camps are becoming more like poor city suburbs than refugee camps. Most Palestine refugees moved out of the camps to other parts of the country. Following the capture of the West Bank by Israel in 1967, Jordan revoked the citizenship of thousands of Palestinians to thwart any attempt to permanently resettle from the West Bank to Jordan. West Bank Palestinians with family in Jordan or Jordanian citizenship were issued yellow cards guaranteeing them all the rights of Jordanian citizenship if requested.

100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon because of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and were not allowed to return. As of January 2015, there are 452,669 registered refugees in Lebanon.

In a 2007 study, Amnesty International denounced the “appalling social and economic condition” of Palestinians in Lebanon. Until 2005, Palestinians were forbidden to work in over 70 jobs because they do not have Lebanese citizenship, but this was later reduced to around 20 as of 2007 after liberalization laws. In 2010, Palestinians were granted the same rights to work as other foreigners in the country.

Lebanon gave citizenship to about 50,000 Christian Palestinian refugees during the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-1990s, about 60,000 Shiite Muslim refugees were granted citizenship. This caused protest from Maronite authorities, leading to citizenship being given to all Christian refugees who were not already citizens.

The Six-Day War

The Six-Day War, which had its origins in the ongoing tense relations between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations, was a decisive victory for Israel, tripling its territory from before the war.

Learning Objectives

Describe the events of the Six-Day War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Relations between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations had never fully normalized following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, fought immediately after the Israel declared itself an independent nation-state.
  • Issues such as the Palestinian refugee crisis and the Suez Crisis of 1956 created an antagonistic stance toward Israel throughout the Arab world, and by June 1967, tensions were at their height.
  • In reaction to the mobilization of Egyptian forces along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula, Israel launched a series of preemptive airstrikes against Egyptian airfields, which destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian air force.
  • Egypt, pretending they won the initial battles, convinced Jordan and then Syria to enter the war, which also resulted in Israeli victories.
  • At the end of the war, six days later, Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
  • Israeli morale and international prestige was greatly increased by the outcome of the war, but their over-confidence may have contributed to future military losses against Egypt in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Key Terms

  • 1948 Arab–Israeli War: A war between the State of Israel and a military coalition of Arab states, forming the second stage of the 1948 Palestine war. The ongoing civil war between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine transformed into an interstate conflict between Israel and the Arab states following the Israeli Declaration of Independence the previous day. A combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, together with expeditionary forces from Iraq, entered Palestine.
  • Yom Kippur War: A war fought by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel from October 6 to 25, 1973. The fighting mostly took place in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, territories that had been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted also to reopen the Suez Canal. Neither specifically planned to destroy Israel, although the Israeli leaders could not be sure of that.

The Six-Day War, also known as the June War, 1967 Arab–Israeli War, or Third Arab–Israeli War, was fought between June 5 and 10, 1967, by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt (known at the time as the United Arab Republic), Jordan, and Syria.

Relations between Israel and its neighbors had never fully normalized following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In the period leading up to June 1967, tensions became dangerously heightened. In reaction to the mobilization of Egyptian forces along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula, Israel launched a series of preemptive airstrikes against Egyptian airfields. The Egyptians were caught by surprise, and nearly the entire Egyptian air force was destroyed with few Israeli losses, giving the Israelis air superiority. Simultaneously, the Israelis launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, which again caught the Egyptians by surprise. After some initial resistance, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the evacuation of the Sinai. Israeli forces rushed westward in pursuit of the Egyptians, inflicted heavy losses, and conquered the Sinai.

Nasser induced Syria and Jordan to begin attacks on Israel by using the initially confused situation to claim that Egypt defeated the Israeli air strike. Israeli counterattacks resulted in the seizure of East Jerusalem and the West Bank from the Jordanians, while Israel’s retaliation against Syria resulted in its occupation of the Golan Heights.

On June 11, a ceasefire was signed. Arab casualties were far heavier than those of Israel: fewer than a thousand Israelis were killed compared to over 20,000 from the Arab forces. Israel’s military success was attributed to the element of surprise, an innovative and well-executed battle plan, and the poor quality and leadership of the Arab forces. As a result of the war, Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israeli morale and international prestige were greatly increased by the outcome of the war, and the area under Israeli control tripled. However, the speed and ease of Israel’s victory would lead to a dangerous overconfidence within the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), contributing to initial Arab successes in the subsequent 1973 Yom Kippur War. The displacement of civilian populations resulting from the war would have long-term consequences, as 300,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank and about 100,000 Syrians left the Golan to become refugees. Across the Arab world, Jewish minority communities were expelled, with refugees going to Israel or Europe.

Map of Israel and the land seized during the Six-Day War, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

Results of the Six-Day War: Territory held by Israel before and after the Six Day War. Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Origins of the Conflict

The origins of the Six-Day War include both longstanding and immediate issues. At this time, the earlier foundation of Israel, the resulting Palestinian refugee issue, and Israel’s participation in the invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956 were significant grievances for the Arab world. Arab nationalists, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, continued to be hostile to Israel’s existence and made grave threats against its Jewish population. By the mid-1960s, relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors had deteriorated to the extent that a number of border clashes had taken place.

In April 1967, Syria shot at an Israeli tractor plowing in the demilitarized zone, which escalated to a prewar aerial clash. In May 1967, following misinformation about Israeli intentions provided by the Soviet Union, Egypt expelled UN peacekeepers who had been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez conflict, and announced a blockade of Israel’s access to the Red Sea (international waters) via the Straits of Tiran, which Israel considered an act of war. Tension escalated, with both sides’ armies mobilizing. Less than a month later, Israel launched a surprise strike which began the Six-Day War.

Aftermath

The political importance of the 1967 War was immense; Israel demonstrated that it was able and willing to initiate strategic strikes that could change the regional balance. Egypt and Syria learned tactical lessons and would launch an attack in 1973 in an attempt to reclaim their lost territory.

Following the war, Israel experienced a wave of national euphoria, and the press praised the military’s performance for weeks afterward. New “victory coins” were minted to celebrate. In addition, the world’s interest in Israel grew, and the country’s economy, which had been in crisis before the war, flourished due to an influx of tourists and donations, as well as the extraction of oil from the Sinai’s wells.

In the Arab nations, populations of minority Jews faced persecution and expulsion following the Israeli victory. According to historian and ambassador Michael B. Oren:

Mobs attacked Jewish neighborhoods in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco, burning synagogues and assaulting residents. A pogrom in Tripoli, Libya, left 18 Jews dead and 25 injured; the survivors were herded into detention centers. Of Egypt’s 4,000 Jews, 800 were arrested, including the chief rabbis of both Cairo and Alexandria, and their property sequestered by the government. The ancient communities of Damascus and Baghdad were placed under house arrest, their leaders imprisoned and fined. A total of 7,000 Jews were expelled, many with merely a satchel.

Following the war, Israel made an offer for peace that included the return of most of the recently captured territories. According to Chaim Herzog:

On June 19, 1967, the National Unity Government [of Israel] voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements. The Golans would have to be demilitarized and special arrangement would be negotiated for the Straits of Tiran. The government also resolved to open negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan regarding the Eastern border.

In September, the Khartoum Arab Summit resolved that there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.” However, as Avraham Sela notes, the Khartoum conference effectively marked a shift in the perception of the conflict by the Arab states away from one centered on the question of Israel’s legitimacy to one focusing on territories and boundaries.