Wednesday, July 24, 2024

What is the Origin of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict by Elaine Hagopian

Frequently Asked Questions

Fact sheet # 1


Elaine C. Hagopian, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College, Boston

Why did European Jews want to establish a Jewish State in Palestine?

Witness to the sustained expression of Christian anti-semitism in nineteenth century Europe, main founder and theoretician of the Zionist movement, Dr. Theodor Herzl became convinced that the only solution for the Jewish people was to found a Jewish state in Palestine. The objectives of the Zionist movement were spelled out at the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in 1897. The main problem faced was how to establish a “legal” claim to statehood in Palestine, whose indigenous Palestinian Arab population (Muslim and Christian) was 92% of the population. Indigenous Jews and other groups constituted the remaining 8%. Obviously, this implied demographic transformation to make Palestine exclusively Jewish. After the Basle Congress, the Zionist movement approached the German Government, the Sultan of the dying Ottoman Empire (Middle East and Balkans), and the British. Ultimately, the British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour issued the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people....” Finding themselves in the midst of World War One, the British found Jews to be useful allies, and hence embraced their cause. With the death of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Britain was confirmed as the League of Nations Mandatory Power in Palestine. Ordinarily, a mandate meant that the Mandatory Administration would prepare the area for independence. In Palestine, the British Government made conflicting agreements with the Zionist movement (Balfour Declaration, 1917), and the Arab Nationalist movement (Hussein/McMahon letters, 1915). The Zionists aimed to establish a Jewish state in Palestine; and the Arab Nationalists expected Palestine to be a Palestinian Arab nation among the other Arab nations.

What happened in Palestine after World War I?

During the interwar period, the British Mandatory power allowed, and helped facilitate, the immigration of Jews into Palestine. The Zionist leaders in Palestine organized a set of Jewish institutions and paramilitary organizations in preparation for Jewish statehood there. They encouraged Jews to patronize only Jewish establishments, not Palestinian Arab ones. Even up to 1947, Jewish land ownership in Palestine was less than 7%, i.e., approximately 5.5% of direct ownership, and an additional 1.5% leased from the British Mandatory Administration. The indigenous Palestinians understood that the Zionists were intent on establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Having just emerged out of the Ottoman Empire, and faced immediately with British control and a Zionist movement in their midst, the Palestinians rebelled and went on strike in 1936. Growing unrest between the Zionists and the Palestinians, complicated by the conflicting British agreement obligations to both, resulted in the 1936 British Peel Commission to investigate the situation and to make recommendations. The Commission concluded in July 1937 that a Palestinian Arab/Zionist entente in Palestine to reconcile the contrary British obligations was impossible, and it suggested partition. Chief Zionist leader, Ben Gurion, seized on the partition notion, as a first step in the conquest of the whole of Palestine. The Palestinians Arabs rejected the idea and renewed their rebellion, which lasted until 1939. Immediately after the Peel Commission report, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah (one of the Zionist paramilitary organizations) to prepare a plan for the military take-over of the country in anticipation of the eventual British withdrawal. In the 1940s, both the Haganah and other paramilitary organizations (Irgun, and Stern Gang) began attacks on the British forces in Palestine. The goal was to remove the British from the area so as to pursue military action against the Palestinians to encourage their fleeing from Palestine. The Zionists acquired advanced arms from European sources. They pursued their goals of taking over Palestine systematically.

The November 29, 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) partitioning of Palestine: why did the Zionists accept, and why did the Palestinian/Arabs reject it?

Although Ben Gurion went through a stage in 1942 of stating the Zionist goal as one of converting all of Palestine into a Jewish Commonwealth (the stated position of Irgun leader, Menachim Begin), he reverted in 1946 to his tactical position of 1937, i.e., creating a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine as stage one, with full conquest to come after establishing a state foundation in Palestine. The British Authorities turned over the issue of Palestine in 1947 to the recently formed United Nations. By September 26, 1947, Britain announced its intention to abandon the Palestine Mandate and did so eight months later. After much political maneuvering, the United Nations General Assembly passed the partition plan, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 (II). It was immediately accepted by the Zionists. The Palestinian and other Arabs challenged the United Nations’ legal competence to partition Palestine. Moreover, they argued that Palestine was to be included in the Arab territories that had been promised independence through agreement with Britain in 1915 (see above) in exchange for Arab support in confronting the allied Ottomans and Germans during World War I in the Arab region. The Arabs were overridden, and the partition plan passed.

What were the terms of the partition plan?

The partition plan was totally lopsided in favor of the then Jewish minority in Palestine. Jews were allotted 55% of Palestine, although they owned less than 7% of the land and were still only one third of the population in 1947. This was the reality even after the influx of Holocaust survivors, many of who were not given the option of resettling elsewhere due to Zionist pressure. Increasing the Jewish population in Palestine was crucial to transforming Palestine into a Jewish state. The Palestinians were allotted 45% of Palestine, although they owned the bulk of the land and constituted two-thirds of the population. The proposed Jewish state would have had a population of 499,000 Jews, and 438,000 Palestinians. Jaffa, an Arab city of 71,000 Palestinians, located immediately south of Tel Aviv, was to be included in the Palestinian state, although it was totally surrounded by what was to be the Jewish state. Jaffa would most likely have been absorbed by the Jewish state because of its location and economic value as an industrial and port city. In which case, the Palestinian population would have immediately outnumbered the Jewish population in the proposed Jewish state. In a democratic society, which the Zionists claimed their state, Israel would be, it could not then be a Jewish state. The Zionists had long strategized on how to effect the “transfer” of the Arab population out of Palestine in order to have Jewish dominance there. Immediately after the November 29, 1947 partition resolution, the Zionists began to move their forces into the designated Jewish state areas and beyond. Even before the May 15, 1948 Zionist Declaration of Jewish statehood, and before the 1948 war, Zionist forces had managed to cleanse 200,000 Palestinians from the areas they controlled militarily. The 1948 war itself between the military forces of the declared state of Israel and the Palestinian and other Arabs saw an additional 550,000 Palestinians dispersed and dispossessed. These 750,000 Palestinians became the diaspora Refugees, now numbering approximately five million.

Moreover, the partition plan additionally gave to the Jewish state the best lands, i.e., the fertile coastal plans, and their interior plains. It was from these areas that Palestinians had produced their major export crops, and main income. Forty percent of Palestinian industry and the main sources of Palestine’s electrical supply fell within the envisaged Jewish State. On the other hand, Palestinians were allocated the least productive land for a population of 818,000 Palestinians and 10,000 Jews. The Palestinians felt their country was being appropriated without their consent.

Finally, Jerusalem was designated as a corpus separatum to be administered by the United Nations, i.e., an international city. Before and during the 1948 war, Israel moved into West Jerusalem, expelled Palestinian residents and appropriated their land and some 10,000 homes with furnishings and artwork.

What happened to Palestine as a result of the 1948 war, the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe)?

The terms of the partition plan were never implemented. The British ended their withering Mandate over Palestine on May 15, 1948. The Zionist movement declared statehood on that same date, rooting their declaration only in that part of UGA 181(11) that called for a Jewish state. Full-fledged war broke out between the declared state of Israel and Arab states. But fighting between Palestinians and Zionists had begun earlier upon the passing of the partition plan. Contrary to popular belief, the Israeli forces outnumbered and outgunned the Arab forces. By the time the 1949 armistice was signed, Israel possessed 78% of Palestine instead of 55%. It had cleansed that 78% of Palestine of 83% of the original Palestinian population. The 150,000 Palestinians who managed to remain in what became Israel were placed under Israeli Military Administration until 1966. They hold Israeli citizenship, but are treated as third class citizens. A large number of them have had their property confiscated by the Israeli Government. These latter are referred to as internal refugees. There are also some forty unrecognized Arab villages in Israel presently, which means they receive no municipal allocations. The Palestinian citizens number one million strong today, i.e., 20% of the Israeli population.

Israel required Jewish population, which was not coming in sufficient numbers from Europe and North America. It encouraged Jews from Arab countries to come to Israel, and in fact used scare tactics in Iraq to facilitate Jewish migration to Israel. Egyptian President, Gamal Abdul Nasser began a campaign against foreign nationals (British, French, & Jewish) after the combined Israeli, British and French attack on Egypt (the Suez War, 1956), which came on the heels of the 1954 Israeli espionage and sabotage in Egypt using Egyptian Jews (the Lavon affair). This led to the departure of many Jews from Egypt, although some 20,000 had left for Israel in 1948. The Jews from the Arab world are not treated equally with the European Jews in Israel, but they are Jews, and they do receive better treatment from the Israeli government than do the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 194 (III) calling for the right of return of Palestinians refugees expelled by Israel before and during the 1948 war. The United Nations has passed several resolutions calling upon Israel to cease and desist from transforming West Jerusalem. Israel was admitted to the United Nations on the promise that it would implement the right of return and Jerusalem resolutions. Israel not only refused to comply with these resolutions, but subsequently declared Jerusalem (West Jerusalem) it’s capital.

The remaining 22% of Palestine, territories which were known in 1948 as Gaza and Eastern Palestine, including the unconquered part of Jerusalem, and today known as Gaza, the West Bank [of the Jordan River], and East Jerusalem came under Egypt and Jordan. Egypt took over Gaza administratively. Jordan took over what remained of Jerusalem and Eastern Palestine. Jordan eventually annexed them. Many Palestinians viewed the Jordanian annexation as occupation. The United Nations also admonished Jordan for transforming Jerusalem (East Jerusalem). The UN and the international community continued to recognize all of Jerusalem as defined by UNGA 181 (II), i.e., as an international corpus separatum. The majority of expelled Palestinians became refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, and in the remnants of Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank.

When did Israel conquer and occupy Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

Israel conquered and occupied the remaining 22% of Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai in the June 1967 war. It was the next stage of Israeli expansion anticipated by Ben Gurion when he accepted the notion of partition in 1937, and accepted the partition resolution, UNGA 181 (II) of November 29, 1947. The November 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Israel did not. It annexed East Jerusalem and incorporated it into West Jerusalem as the “eternal” capital of Israel. It encouraged Jewish colonization of the conquered territories, leading to 400,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN resolutions, and various other internationally recognized humanitarian laws. Israel was establishing facts on the ground to secure control over all of Palestine, as well as the coveted Golan Heights. In fact, the Zionists included the Golan Heights on their 1919 projected map of the area that they felt should constitute a proposed Jewish state. The map was presented to the post- World War I Versailles (France) Peace Conference. Some 17,000 settlers presently live on the Syrian Golan Heights. The Sinai was returned to Egypt under special security arrangements and in return for a peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Jordan relinquished any claims to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1988, leaving the Palestine Liberation Organization responsible for them as Palestinian territory. In 1991, encouraged by the United States, the Madrid/Oslo “peace” process was initiated. It was based on acceptance by both parties of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (see above) To date, the “process” has failed, and has led to greater bloodshed in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. The failure is due to the fact that Israel refuses to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories.


Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (ed), The Transformation of Palestine. Northwestern University Press, Evanston,

Illinois, 1971.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, Pluto Press,

London, 1992.

Allan C. Brownfeld, “The Jews of Morocco and the Zionist Philosophy of Nationality,” The Arab World,

September-October, 1970, pp. 17-23.

Erskine B. Childers, “Palestine: The Broken Triangle,” in J.H. Thompson & R.D. Reischauer,

Modernization of the Arab World, D. Van Nostrand Company, Princeton, N.J., 1966.

Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso Press, London, 1955.

Naeim Giladi, “The Jews of Iraq,” The Link, Americans for M.E. Understanding, N.Y., April-May, 1998.

Fred Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, N.Y., 1968.

Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948, Institute of Palestine Studies, Washington, D.C., 1992.

Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland, Quartet Books, London, 1987,

Ilan Pappe, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, I.B. Tauris, London, 1994.

Nadim N. Rouhana, Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997.

Special Correspondent, “How the Iraqi Jews came to Israel,” Middle East International, January, 1973, pp. 18-20.

Marion Woolfson, “Pawns in the Zionist Game,” Middle East International, November 1975, pp.25-26.