Prelude to Statehood

Israel Table of Contents

The British position in Palestine at the end of World War II was becoming increasingly untenable. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors temporarily housed in displaced persons camps in Europe were clamoring to be settled in Palestine. The fate of these refugees aroused international public opinion against British policy. Moreover, the administration of President Harry S Truman, feeling morally bound to help the Jewish refugees and exhorted by a large and vocal Jewish community, pressured Britain to change its course in Palestine. Postwar Britain depended on American economic aid to reconstruct its war-torn economy. Furthermore, Britain's staying power in its old colonial holdings was waning; in 1947 British rule in India came to an end and Britain informed Washington that London could no longer carry the military burden of strengthening Greece and Turkey against communist encroachment.

In May 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry unanimously declared its opposition to the White Paper of 1939 and proposed, among other recommendations, that the immigration to Palestine of 100,000 European Jews be authorized at once. The British Mandate Authority rejected the proposal, stating that such immigration was impossible while armed organizations in Palestine-- both Arab and Jewish--were fighting the authority and disrupting public order.

Despite American, Jewish, and international pressure and the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the new Labour Party government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee and his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, continued to enforce the policy articulated in the White Paper. British adamancy on immigration radicalized the Yishuv. Under Ben-Gurion's direction, the Jewish Agency decided in October 1945 to unite with Jewish dissident groups in a combined rebellion against the British administration in Palestine. The combined Jewish resistance movement organized illegal immigration and kidnapping of British officials in Palestine and sabotaged the British infrastructure in Palestine. In response Bevin ordered a crackdown on the Haganah and arrested many of its leaders. While the British concentrated their efforts on the Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi carried out terrorist attacks against British forces, the most spectacular of which was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946. The latter event led Ben-Gurion to sever his relationship with the Irgun and Lehi.

By 1947 Palestine was a major trouble spot in the British Empire, requiring some 100,000 troops and a huge maintenance budget. On February 18, 1947, Bevin informed the House of Commons of the government's decision to present the Palestine problem to the United Nations (UN). On May 15, 1947, a special session of the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), consisting of eleven members. The UNSCOP reported on August 31 that a majority of its members supported a geographically complex system of partition into separate Arab and Jewish states, a special international status for Jerusalem, and an economic union linking the three members. Backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, the plan was adopted after two months of intense deliberations as the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29, 1947. Although considering the plan defective in terms of their expectations from the League of Nations Mandate twenty-five years earlier, the Zionist General Council stated willingness in principle to accept partition. The League of Arab States (Arab League) Council, meeting in December 1947, said it would take whatever measures were required to prevent implementation of the resolution.

Despite the passage of the UN partition plan, the situation in Palestine in early 1948 did not look auspicious for the Yishuv. When the AHC rejected the plan immediately after its passage and called for a general strike, violence between Arabs and Jews mounted. Many Jewish centers, including Jerusalem, were besieged by the Arabs. In January 1948, President Truman, warned by the United States Department of State that a Jewish state was not viable, reversed himself on the issue of Palestine, agreeing to postpone partition and to transfer the Mandate to a trusteeship council. Moreover, the British forces in Palestine sided with the Arabs and attempted to thwart the Yishuv's attempts to arm itself.

In mid-March the Yishuv's military prospects changed dramatically after receiving the first clandestine shipment of heavy arms from Czechoslovakia. The Haganah went on the offensive and, in a series of operations carried out from early April until mid-May, successfully consolidated and created communications links with those Jewish settlements designated by the UN to become the Jewish state. In the meantime, Weizmann convinced Truman to reverse himself and pledge his support for the proposed Jewish state. In April 1948, the Palestinian Arab community panicked after Begin's Irgun killed 250 Arab civilians at the village of Dayr Yasin near Jerusalem. The news of Dayr Yasin precipitated a flight of the Arab population from areas with large Jewish populations.

On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion and his associates proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. On the following day Britain relinquished the Mandate at 6:00 P.M. and the United States announced de facto recognition of Israel. Soviet recognition was accorded on May 18; by April 1949, fifty-three nations, including Britain, had extended recognition. In May 1949, the UN General Assembly, on recommendation of the Security Council, admitted Israel to the UN.

Meanwhile, Arab military forces began their invasion of Israel on May 15. Initially these forces consisted of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 Egyptians, 2,000 to 4,000 Iraqis, 4,000 to 5,000 Transjordanians, 3,000 to 4,000 Syrians, 1,000 to 2,000 Lebanese, and smaller numbers of Saudi Arabian and Yemeni troops, about 25,000 in all. Israeli forces composed of the Haganah, such irregular units as the Irgun and the Stern Gang, and women's auxiliaries numbered 35,000 or more. By October 14, Arab forces deployed in the war zones had increased to about 55,000, including not more than 5,000 irregulars of Hajj Amin al Husayni's Palestine Liberation Force. The Israeli military forces had increased to approximately 100,000. Except for the British-trained Arab Legion of Transjordan, Arab units were largely ill-trained and inexperienced. Israeli forces, usually operating with interior lines of communication, included an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 European World War II veterans.

By January 1949, Jewish forces held the area that was to define Israel's territory until June 1967, an area that was significantly larger than the area designated by the UN partition plan. The part of Palestine remaining in Arab hands was limited to that held by the Arab Legion of Transjordan and the Gaza area held by Egypt at the cessation of hostilities. The area held by the Arab Legion was subsequently annexed by Jordan and is commonly referred to as the West Bank. Jerusalem was divided. The Old City, the Western Wall and the site of Solomon's Temple, upon which stands the Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock, remained in Jordanian hands; the New City lay on the Israeli side of the line. Although the West Bank remained under Jordanian suzerainty until 1967, only two countries--Britain and Pakistan--granted de jure recognition of the annexation.

Early in the conflict, on May 29, 1948, the UN Security Council established the Truce Commission headed by a UN mediator, Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated in Jerusalem on September 17, 1948. He was succeeded by Ralph Bunche, an American, as acting mediator. The commission, which later evolved into the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization-Palestine (UNSTOP), attempted to devise new settlement plans and arranged the truces of June 11-July 8 and July 19-October 14, 1948. Armistice talks were initiated with Egypt in January 1949, and an armistice agreement was concluded with Egypt on February 24, with Lebanon on March 23, with Transjordan on April 3, and with Syria on July 20. Iraq did not enter into an armistice agreement but withdrew its forces after turning over its positions to Transjordanian units.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress