Israel-Palestine Conflict before partition

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For more information, see: Israel-Palestine Conflict.

The conflict's origins trace back to the late 19th century. In response to the ongoing anti-Semitism in Europe, Jews such as Theodor Herzl began to advocate the return of Jews to their ancient homeland of Israel, known to its Arab inhabitants and most of the world as Palestine. This idea soon became known as Zionism, which soon gained a following among some Jews, and in 1897 the first Zionist conference was held in Basel, Switzerland. Often fleeing pogroms and inspired by Zionist ideas, several tens of thousands of Jews had immigrated to Palestine by the start of World War I. The Palestinian Jewish population, which stood at roughly 24,000 in 1880, swelled to approximately 90,000 in 1914. Already in 1891, some Arab notables sent a petition to Constantinople demanding an end to Jewish immigration and land purchase.[1]

Division of Palestine proposed by UNSCOP )

At the end of War War I, the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had been in control of Palestine, and indeed much of the Middle East, was dissolved. Palestine became a mandated territory of the United Kingdom. During World War I, British Foreign Minster Arthur Balfour had issued the Balfour Declaration, a statement that the UK supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as long as the civil rights of the Arab population were preserved.

British rule begins

Following its handover to the British, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased greatly. Between 1915 and 1931, British Palestine received almost as many Jewish immigrants as it had in the entire time before World War I. This alarmed the Arabs, and tensions between the two communities increased, leading to rioting on several occasions in the 1920's and 1930's. A major Arab riot lasting from August 23-26, 1929 claimed the lives of 133 Jews, and caused the abandonment of a number Jewish new communities and, most notably, the "old established" community of Hebron.[2] While "there was little retaliation by Jews[3], a Jewish counter-attack claimed the lives of six Arabs; British police killed 116 Arabs while trying to reimpose order.[4] Again in 1936, Palestinian Arabs, demanding an end to all Jewish immigration, rioted, launching attacks on Jewish towns and farms, and clashing with British police.[5] At this time, British officials looking for a solution to the problem began to propose the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab components. Since Jews and Arabs were both scattered throughout the country, and since both would want control of the holy city of Jerusalem, just how to divided the area up proved an almost unsolvable problem. The British also implemented measures restricting further Jewish immigration to Palestine, in hopes of comforting Arab fears of a demographic takeover and reducing tensions.

The Holocaust

As the Nazis came to power in 1933 and began persecuting Jews, immigration to Palestine became an ever more attractive option. The implications for Palestine were profound. Jews attempting to flee Nazi brutality saw Palestine as a potential refuge, and in the period leading up to the war, immigration to Palestine had increased dramatically. After the war, most of Europe's surviving Jews had lost their homes and livelihoods, and needed a new place to rebuild their lives. The Holocaust had also had a profound psychological effect on the Jews-many, rightly or wrongly, believed that their non-Jewish neighbors had been complicit in their persecution, or at least allowed it to happen. They began to feel that they would never be truly safe an any country were they were a minority-which, at the time, was everywhere in the world. Many began to see Zionism as the solution, and what was once a minority opinion among Jews quickly became mainstream. The number of Jews wishing to go to Palestine exploded.

Civil war

Tensions, meanwhile, between Arabs and Jews in Palestine had likewise gone through the roof. The British had completely closed Palestine to Jewish immigration in the years leading up to World War II-a move designed to placate the Arabs, who feared being made a minority in their own country, but which infuriated the Jews. Jewish terrorist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang were formed to throw off British rule and establish a Jewish state by force. They attacked the British as well as the Arab population, who they saw as enemies conspiring against the Jewish people. In 1946, Irgun bombed the southern wing of the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, which the British had established as their headquarters. Ninety-one people were killed.

The situation in Palestine was rapidly escalating into a civil war, with Jews attacking Arabs, Arabs increasingly retaliating, and the British coming under fire from both. Feeling unable to do any more to solve the problem, and wanting to wash its hands of the whole situation, the British asked the newly created United Nations to come up with a solution.

Preparation for partition

The UN created the United Nations Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP), to study the problem and officially recommend a solution. In 1947, UNSCOP, returning to the earlier British proposals of partition, recommended that Palestine be divided into two non-contigious areas-a Jewish state with a slight Jewish majority and an Arab state with a large Arab majority. Jerusalem and the area surrounding it were to be administered by the United Nations. The Jews accepted the plan, but the Arabs vehemently rejected it, claiming that giving half of Palestine to a minority of its population-many of whom, moreover, had only recently arrived from foreign countries-was unfair, especially since many Arabs would wind up living in the Jewish state. Nevertheless, the plan was supported by practically all western countries, who ensured its passage by the United Nations General Assembly. The passing of its Resolution 181 (which was not legally binding, and indeed was phrased only as a recommendation) on November 29, 1947 immediately prompted Arab attacks on Jewish population centers and traffic, thus signalling the start of the civil war in Palestine. While there were counter-attacks by the mainstream and splinter Jewish militias, the community generally engaged only in defensive operations through March of 1948, when, with the war going poorly, there was a shift to offensive operations.


  1. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pg. 3
  2. A Survey of Palestine, Vol. I: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, pg. 24
  3. A Survey of Palestine, Vol. I: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, pg. 24
  4. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pg. 13
  5. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pgs. 18-21