Why Israel’s war of independence was a catastrophe for the Palestinians

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most problematic conflicts in the world, not because it was one of the deadliest, but because it is one of the longest-running conflicts and the most intractable. Despite many diplomatic efforts that have lasted for decades, it remains unresolved, feeding violence and hate on both sides.

This conflict has also a unique specificity in the world: on every May 14, the Israelis celebrate the independence of the state of Israel, and a day later, only a few tens of kilometers away, their Palestinian neighbors commemorate a day of sadness, marked as the „catastrophe” – Nakba.

In my essay I will try to explain why Jews and Palestinians could not find a secure way to live together, which were the most critical failed events of the great powers to solve the „Palestine problem” during the interwar period and how the Jews managed to declare the independence of the state of Israel.

As Israeli novelist Amos Oz once put it, „The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy; it is a clash between right and right. And therefore it’s not black and white. Sometimes, recently it is indeed a clash between wrong and wrong[1]”.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no clear beginning. Jews and Arabs had been peacefully coexisting for centuries in the Ottoman Empire. The conflict slowly developed over time and the tensions gradually escalated at the end of the nineteenth century.

The evolution of Zionism

For a start, it is absolutely necessary an explanation of what the Zionist movement means in order to understand the history of the establishment of the state of Israel. The word “Zion” is a placename in the Hebrew Bible and it refers to one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem. Sometimes it applied to Jerusalem itself. The Zionist movement encompasses a large of different beliefs, from the spiritual ones to the nationalist secular ones.

Religious Jews believe that the land of Israel was given to the Jews by God, that their right to it is inalienable, and that their return to it was promised by God in biblical prophecies. [2]

During the history, a number of Jewish writers supported the religious dream of redemption which claims the Jewish nation must engage in the creation of a homeland in anticipation of the advent of the Messiah.

One of them was Yehuda hai Alkalai, born in 1778 in Sarajevo[3], to Rabbi Sholomo Alkalai, the spiritual leader of the local Jewish community. After a Jewish child fell the victim of a barbaric murder, Alkalai became convinced that the Jewish people could be secure only in their own land.

Another early pioneer of religious Zionism was Zwi Hirsch Kalischer, the rabbi of Toun in the province of Posen, in Poland whose dream was a redemption happening in small steps, by awakening support from philanthropics and gaining „the consent ot other nations to the gathering of the Jewish people into the Holy Land”. [4]

Secular zionism has been preoccupied with the problem of anti-Semitism rather than spiritual values. Born from the relentless oppression and persecution to which the Jews of Eastern Europe were subjected, it was triggered by the 1881– 1884 pogroms in Russia.

More than any other figure, this political movement was identified with Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1860.

In 1894, as a correspondent in Paris, he was struck by the anti-Semitism that the Dreyfus affair brought to light, posing questions about the assimilation of the Jews. In his 1896 book entitled The Jewish State, he developed his conception of Zionism, proposing the creation of a state that would allow Jews to live with dignity and in security. He was the main ograniser of Zionist congresses which gathered Jewish people from many European countries in which they discussed the posibility of creating their own state and the strategy of purchasing land in Palestine. The project launched by Herzl was supported by Russian Jews who had been victims of pogroms, but met resistance from German and French Jews, who were better integrated into their countries. [5]

A crucial moment in his life is related  to his diplomatic meeting with the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinopole during which Herzl persuaded him to „restore” a part of Palestine to the Jews.

On 17 June 1901, the Sultan announced him of his intention of extending special protection to the Jews, who he envisaged settling in Turkish territory, in exchange of creating a fund that would be used to pay off the Turkish debt. A Jewish National Fund was established to finance Jewish emigration to Palestine. On 3 July 1904, Theodor Herzl died in Austria, and David Wolffson succeeded him at the head of the organization. From throughout the Europe thousands of supporters came to his funeral.

In a chronologic perspective, the first waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine took place in 1492, during the Inquisition, following persecution suffered by the Jews in Spain and Portugal.

New waves of Jewish immigration took place between 1882 and 1890, 1904 and 1915, as well as between 1919 and 1923 from Central Europe. [6]

The triumph of Nazism in Germany gave rise to a new mass migration of people, who rather sought to escape genocide more than to engage in the renewal of the Land of Zion.  

The quasi-biblical term given to Jews from diaspora who immigrate to Palestine was aliya. The First Aliya ( 1882- 1903) came mostly from Eastern Europe and included a small contigent from Yemen ; in that period 35,000 Jews arrived, though over half left. The Second Aliya, from 1904 to 1914, came primarily from Moscow; 40,000 arrived and approximately half left. The Third Aliya, from 1919 to 1923, came mostly from Eastern Europe; approximately 40,000 came and few left. The Fourth Aliya, from 1924 to 1929, was primarily from Poland; approximately 82,000 came and 23,000 left. The Fifth Aliya, from 1929 to 1939, came primarily from Germany and Eastern Europe; nearly 250,000 came and approximately 20,000 left. During the years 1944–1948, illegal immigration (aliya bet) was the major method of immigration because the British set a quota of 18,000 per year. Some 100,000 aliya bet reached Palestine during 1945–1948, and few left. [7]

 The origins of modern Palestine

In the nineteenth century, Palestine, as part of Greater Syria, was under the Ottoman Caliphate for some four hundred years. The geopolitical interests were complicated within this area – Britain and France had been colonial rivals for years. Middle East became vital for Britain in order to secure the routes to its colonies in India.

Before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Palestine did not constitute a distinct territorial or administrative entity possessing clearly defined boundaries. The first modern border in the region was the British demarcation of a line running from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. The northern border of the Mandate area resulted from negotiations with the French. The eastern line was established by the British administration along the Jordan River and the Arava Valley, following the division of Palestine and the creation of the new state of Transjordan in 1921.[8]

After the collapse of Ottoman Empire, most of the states and nationalities of the Middle East emerged during the first half of the twentieth century as a consequence to British and French colonialism. „The same was for the Palestinians, although their nationalism arose in response to the emergence of other local Arab nationalisms as well as in resistance to Zionism and British colonialism”, argued professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israeli Studies, Dov Waxman [9], who also added the idea that arab nationalism preceded Palestinian nationalism. At the time, the Muslims and Christians in the territories of Mandatory Palestine overwhelmingly identified as Arabs, not as an ethno-national Palestinian community.

A first distinctly Palestinian identity appeared in the name of the Filastin newspaper (Palestine), established in Jaffa in 1911. The first Palestinian-Arab Congress took place in Jerusalem in 1919 and the participants sought the incorporation of Palestine into an independent Syrian state. A little later, during the interwar years under British rule, the Palestinian nationalists demanded a separate Palestinian state.

„The total population of the Palestine area was estimated in 1914 at 689.281 and in 1922 at 752.048. By 1922, the date of the first British Census, the total population of Palestine was about three quarters of a million (including Nomads); of these, Jews numbered some 83,790, or 12%. They were mostly members of old religious communities, some of them long settled in Jerusalem and other historic towns, handfuls of nineteenth century colonists, and some thousands of immigrants recently arrived in the country”, specifies an old articol, The Arabs of the Palestine, reprinted from the British Survey, No. 14, May, 1950.

The first waves of Jews immigrants did not automatically generate violent clashes between them and the Arab natives. Since 1882 until 1909,  thirteen Jews were killed by Arabs, but only two of them for apparently „national” reasons.[10].

Futhermore, the increase of Jewish immigrants also led to an economic growth especially within the main cities of the region.

The new Jewish community systematically began to buy land from the inhabitans in order to fulfill their dream – Land of Israel. As a reaction of this process, the Palestinian tensions against Jews had gradually increased, but the historians didn’t find evidence for violent clashes in this period.

The role of Britain in the beginning of the conflict

Britain, as a colonialist power, which ruled over Palestine roughly thirty years ( from 1917 to 1948), played a crucial role for shaping the relations between the Jews and the Arabs.

 There are many historians who argued that Britain endorsed and legitimatized Zionism and also encouraged the development of a Jewish „national home” in Palestine.

The most important British paper which contributed to the incipient conflict was a public letter signed by the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour to a proeminent British Jew, Lionel Walter Rotchschild, which stated the British authorities supported a Jewish „national home” in Palestine. This letter became notorious as The Balfour Declaration and it was signed in November 1917. The Arabs regarded the act as a sign of betrayal of  initial British promise to support an Arab state and they angrily opposed this act.

One of the consequences  was Britain’s failure to create public institutions in which both parts could democratically participate. The Arabs rejected any initiatives in this regard.

„The British presided over a period in which Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine became increasingly antagonistic and violent, eventually culminating in all-out civil war. As the governing power in Palestine, Britain not only failed to prevent a violent conflict between Jews and Arabs, it actually exacerbated it”, argued Dov Waxman, in his book above- mentioned. In fact, both sides of the conflict accused Britain of having favoured the other side.

In the 1920s and 1930s, sporadic protests and violence took place, culminating in an Arab General Strike in 1936 and a mass uprising that pasted from 1936 and 1939 against British rule and the Zionist settlement, which became known as the „Great Revolt”. In general the British responded to Palestinian demonstrations with an iron fist. During a one-day strike in 1933, for instance, British troops opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians in Jaffa, killing twenty-seven.

One of the violent riots that has not been healed to date is the Hebron massacre on 24 August 1929. Incited to violence by rumors that Jews were planning to seize control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Arabs killed 67 Jews while over 400 were saved by local Arab families, protecting them from the blood-thirsty mobs. [11]

Defining the Arab revolts

The Great Revolt was ignited by Shaykh ’Izz Al-Qassam, a radical Islamic preacher of Syrian origin. Qassam, who for several years had been secretly organizing cells of fighters in Haifa and in the surrounding villages, attempted to launch an armed rebellion in November 1935, only to be discovered by British forces and killed, along with three of his men. Qassam’s martyrdom intensified the prevailing atmosphere of crisis. [12] A few months later, on April 13 1935, Arab rebels murdered two Jews. This incident ushered in a series of reprisals and conterreprisals and the state of emergency was finally declared by the British government. Qassam’s name and the memory of the revolt live on today especially in the form of the Al-Qassam Brigades (the name of the armed forces of the terrorist organisation Hamas) and the Qassam rockets, which meant weapons manufactured by Hamas in garages and backroom laboratories. [13]

As Palestine became increasingly ungovernable in reaction to the Arab rebellion, in 1937 Britain proposed a division of the country ( a partition) into an Arab state and a much smaller Jewish state, with some areas of strategic interest remaining under British control. The Zionist ledearship approved the proposal, even though they opposed the Jewish state’s proposed boundaries, but the Arab leadership rejected it.

Two years later, scared of the Palestinian riots, British political establishment changed their approach and issued an official policy document named The White Paper. Within this document, Britain proposed a single Arab majority state, after a ten year transactional period.

Is also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for five years and ruled that further immigration would then be determined by the Arab majority. Jews were restricted from buying Arab land in all but 5% of the Mandate. [14] The decision was very controversial in the context of  the rise of Nazism in Europe.

It was the turn of the Zionists of feeling betrayed by the British. As a sign of revenge,  the Zionist militias in Palestine launched a revolt against British rule. From November 1945 and July 1946, approximately twenty British personnel were killed and more than hundred wounded. [15]

Also, a militant right-wing Zionist underground organization (Irgun) carried out on Juy 22, 1946, a terrorist attack at the King David Hotel in Jesuralem, the place of the British administrative headquarters for Palestine. The attack was commanded by Menahem Begin,  the most influential leader in Israel from the mid-1940s. During that Jewish insurgency, 91 people of various nationalities were killed, and 46 were injure. [16]

The first attempt of the United Nations tos ove the „Palestine problem”

The violence against the British officials carried out by the Zionist groups led to Britain’s decision in 1947 to turn the „Palestine problem” over to the newly formed United Nations ( UN), which was the successor of the League of Nations.

In a broader context, after the end of World War II, most of Palestine’s neighbors had managed to gain their independence. Egypt gained a formal independence from Britain in 1922, Syria became a fully independent state in 1946, Lebanon in 1943, Transjordan was proclaimed a kingdom in 1946 and  Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state in 1932. All these countries formed the Arab League, along with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, to strenghen their relations and coordonate their policies. The only area left without a state solution was Palestine.

The United Nations inherited the Palestinian problem in 1947 and it formed a Special Committee on Palestine ( UNSCOP) for finding a solution.

On 29 November 1947 the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with international status for Jerusalem. The resolution was backed by both USA and URSS- the world’s great powers in the early days of the Cold War. [17]

It was opposed by the Palestinians and by the Arab states. „The proposed Jewish state was to consist of 53 per cent of the century, including the largely unpopulated Negrev desert. Its population comprise some 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs – a very substantial minority. Jews, at that point, owned just 7 per cent of Palestine’s private land. The Arab state was to have 44 per cent of the land and a minority of 10,000 Jews. (..) The mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, declared the UN vote null and void”, explained Ian Black, in his book entitled „Enemies and Neighbours. Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017”.

Only hours after the United Nations voted to split Palestine, a Jewish bus was ambushed by armed Arabs killing five passengers. This incident marked the beginning of the Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian Nabka ( catastrophe).

Why Israel’s war of independence meant a catastrophe for the Palestinians

The 1948 Arab-Israeli war was actually two consecutive wars that went on from 1947 to 1949. The first one was a civil war between November 1947 and May 1948, mostly involving guerilla warfare between irregular Palestinian-Arab forces and Zionist military force ( made up of the Haganah and the more radical Irgun and Lehi militias, considered illegal by the British). And the second one was an interstate war between Israel and Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq).

During the civil war, in April of 1948, Hagana launched a military strategy, known as Plan Dalet in order to transfer Palestinians from their towns. There is a lot of debate about the intention of Plan Dalet, with historians on one side arguing that it was only defensive, while other pro-Palestinian historians argue that the explusion plan was an integral part of a planned strategy.

 On 9 April Jewish forces killed 254 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin. . Within a month Palestinians were expelled from Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes the directives of Plan Dalet: “The plan was executed because the soldiers in the battlefield were oriented by a general attitude from above and motivated by remarks made by the Yishuv’s leaders on the need to ‘clean’ the country. These remarks were translated into acts of depopulation by enthusiastic commanders on the ground who knew that their actions would be justified in retrospect by the political leadership.” [18]

After this intervention, The forces of Haganas, Palmac and Irgun intended to conquer mixed zones and the Palestinian Arab society was shaken.  The British withdrew from Palestine in early May 1948, Israel declared its establishment, and all of this determined  the leaders of the neighbouring Arab states to intervene for supporting Palestinian resistance.

But their action was not a succesful one. Their preparation was not finalized, and they could not assemble sufficient forces to turn the tide of the war. The lack of coordination of the Arab state on the battlefields, the fratricidal struggles between them to promote their hidden agenda were the main causes for losing the war.

Despite the threat of Arab attack, on 14 May 1948 in Tel Aviv, the Jewish leader Ben-Gurion signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The powerful document opened by describing the Land of Israel as the birthplace of the Jewish people, and looked back to the Jewish past.

„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 the Book. 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”. [19]

On the opposite side, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs, perhaps 700,000 to 800,000 individuals, had either fled or been expelled. Neither they nor their descendants have been allowed by Israel to return.

„Towns and villages were renamed or bulldozed. Property was expropriated en masse through various legal mechanisms. And, most importantly, whether Palestinians fled or were expelled, virtually none were allowed to return. Most Palestinians who left their homes in 1947 and 1948 believed they would one day come back when the fighting stopped, no matter what the outcome. This was a complete delusion. They were gone, and the new Israeli state regarded their absence as the godsend that allowed a Jewish-majority country to suddenly emerge”, explained Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C., in The Atlantic magazine. [20] The Palestinians were practically dispossesed of their home and their hopes for national self-determination and statehood had been crushed. This, in brief, is the Palestinian nakba.

What was a great victory for Israel was a desperate tragedy for Palestinians.


[1] “Everybody comes from somewhere” An Interview with Writer Amos Oz, The Believer Magazine, October 20th, 2016

2 Dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Librairie Artheme Fayard and Claude Faure, Macmillan Reference USA; 1st edition ( 2004), pag 583

3  The Palestine-Israeli Conflict”, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami, Oneworld Book, 2001, pag. 1.

4 Ibid, pag. 3.

5 Dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Librairie Artheme Fayard and Claude Faure, Macmillan Reference USA ( 2004), page 166.

6 Dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Librairie Artheme Fayard and Claude Faure, Macmillan Reference USA; 1st edition (December 20, 2004).

7 Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/ edited by Cheryl A. Rubenberg, published in the United States of America in 2010 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

8 Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/ edited by Cheryl A. Rubenberg, published in the United States of America in 2010 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., pag 203  

9 Ibid, pag. 13.

10 Enemies and Neighbours. Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, Ian Black, Pengouin Book, 2017, pag. 34.

11. „This week in History: The 1929 Hebron Massacre”, The Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2011.

12 Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/ edited by Cheryl A. Rubenberg, published in the United States of America in 2010 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

13 Idem, pag. 83

14 Wikipedia, White Paper of 1939.

15 Dov Waxman, pag 53.

16 Wikipedia, King David Hotel bombing

17 Enemies and Neighbours. Arabs and Jews in Palestine  and Israel, 1917-2017, Ian Black, Penguin Books, 2018.

18 Encyclopedia, pag. 303.

19 Proclamation of Independence, https://www.knesset.gov.il/docs/eng/megilat_eng.htm

20. A ‘Catastrophe ‘ that Defines Palestinian Identity, The Atlantic, May 14, 2018.


  1. Dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Librairie Artheme Fayard and Claude Faure, Macmillan Reference USA; 1st edition (December 20, 2004).
  2. „The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. What Everyone Needs to Know”, Dov Waxman, Oxford University Press, 2019, page 35.
  3. „The Palestine-Israeli Conflict”, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami, Oneworld Book, 2001, pag. 1.
  4. „Enemies and Neighbours. Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017”, Ian Black, Pengiun Book, 2018.
  5. Everybody comes from somewhere” An Interview with Writer Amos Oz, The Believer Magazine, October 20th, 2016
  6. 6. A ‘Catastrophe ‘ that Defines Palestinian Identity, The Atlantic, May 14, 2018.

7. „Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”/ edited by Cheryl A. Rubenberg, published in the United States of America in 2010 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

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