5.16 Palestine and Israel

Postwar Conflict

Religious (and ethnic) divides within former colonies were not unique to India. Many countries that sought independence were products of imperialism in the first place – the “national” borders of states like Iraq, Ghana, and Rwanda had been arbitrarily created by the imperial powers decades earlier with complete disregard for the religious and ethnic differences of the people who lived within the borders. In the Iraqi example, both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christian Arabs (the Assyrians, many of whom claim a direct line of descent from ancient Assyria), different Arab ethnicities, and Kurds all lived side-by-side. That diversity did not guarantee violent conflict, of course, but when circumstances arose that inspired conflict, violence could, and often did, result.

The current ongoing crisis of Israel – Palestine is both a result of arbitrary borders drawn up by former imperial powers as well as a unique case of a nationalist movement achieving its goals for an ethnic-religious homeland. The British had held the “mandate” (political governorship) of the territory of Palestine before WWII, having seized it after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of European Jews had been immigrating to Palestine since around the turn of the century, fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and hoping to create a Jewish state as part of the Zionist movement founded during the Dreyfus Affair in France.

During World War I, the British had both promised to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine while also assuring various Arab leaders that Britain would aid them in creating independent states in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s expected demise. Even the official British declaration that offered support for a Jewish homeland – the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – specifically included language that promised the Arabs of Palestine (both Muslim and Christian) support in ensuring their own “civil and religious rights.” In other words, the dominant European power in the area at the time, and the one that was to directly rule it from 1920 – 1947, tried to appease both sides with sometimes vague assurances.

“Two Opposing Plans.” The Conflict. 1998. Films on Demand. 4:11.

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After World War I, however, the British established control over a large swath of territory that included the future state of Israel, frustrating Arab hopes for their own independence. Between 1918 and 1939, the Jewish population of Palestine went from roughly 60,000 to 650,000 as Jews attracted to Zionism moved to the area. The entire period was replete with riots and growing hostility between the Arab and Jewish populations, with the British trying (and generally failing) to keep the peace. After World War II, the British proved unable and unwilling to try to manage the volatile region, turning the territory over to the newly-created United Nations in April of 1947. The UN’s plan to divide the territory into two states – one for Arabs and one for Jews – was rejected by all of the countries in the region, and Israel’s creation as a formal state in May of 1948 saw nine months of war between the Jews of the newly-created state of Israel and a coalition of the surrounding Arab states: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with small numbers of volunteers from other Arab countries. Israel consistently fielded larger, better-trained and better-equipped armies in the ensuing war, as the Arab states were in their infancy as well, and Jewish settlers in Palestine had spent years organizing their own militias. When the dust settled, there were nearly a million Palestinian refugees and a state that promised to be the center of conflict in the region for decades to come.

Since the creation of Israel, there have been three more full-scale regional wars: the 1956 Suez War (noted before in the discussion of Egypt), which had no lasting consequences besides adding fuel to future conflicts, the Six-Day War of 1967, that resulted in great territorial gains for Israel, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that undid some of those gains. In addition to the actual wars, there have been ongoing explosions of violence between Palestinians and Israelis that continue to the present.



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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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