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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 3: Partition, War and Independence

audio icon Listen to Part 3 of Mike Shuster's series.

more Read a transcript of Part 3 of Mike Shuster's series.

more See a map of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947.

Map of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947
Map of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947.
Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert; Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002; ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback), 0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online

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David Ben-Gurion reads declaration of the state of Israel
David Ben-Gurion reads the declaration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. He is seen standing under a portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who had called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine a half-century earlier.
Photo courtesy MultiEducator-The Multimedia History Company


Closeup of document in which U.S. President Harry Truman recognizes the new state of Israel, May 14, 1948
Closeup of document in which U.S. President Harry Truman recognizes the new state of Israel, May 14, 1948.
Photo: Truman Library

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Oct. 2, 2002 -- Once it was clear that Germany had lost World War II, the Zionists in Palestine turned on the British. Underground Jewish groups began to attack the British army -- and the Palestinians. The violence escalated, and by 1946, Great Britain decided to turn the whole issue of what would happen to Palestine over to the newly established United Nations.

The U.N. proposed partitioning Palestine into two states -- one Jewish, one Arab -- and the General Assembly voted in favor of that solution in November 1947. NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Mike Shuster reports on those developments in the third segment of Morning Edition's seven-part series on the history of the Middle East conflict.

U.S. President Harry Truman endorsed the U.N. partition plan for political reasons, but also because of the terrible toll of the Holocaust, according to William Quandt, author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

"We did understand there was a tremendous human need after World War II for some kind of a political solution for the survivors of the Holocaust, who could not rebuild their lives in Germany and who were in need of some sort of restitution," Quandt says.

The Arab majority in Palestine rejected the U.N. proposal. "The Jews were being offered 55 percent of Palestine when in fact they had owned only seven percent of the country," says Philip Mattar, editor of The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians. "Four-hundred-fifty thousand Palestinians were going to end up within the Jewish state, and they did not see any reason why they should go along with that kind of inequality, that kind of injustice."

On May 14, 1948, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the independent state of Israel. Almost immediately, four Arab states -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq -- invaded the new state.

Israel "fought for its very existence on four fronts, but the Arab armies were disorganized and weak," Shuster says. "By November, it was clear they could not defeat Israel."

By the time the war ended in 1949, Israel had even more land than called for in the U.N. partition plan. "Israel ended up with 78 percent of Palestine," says Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, author of Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel. "The Palestinian community in Palestine just disintegrated. The majority of Palestinians became refugees, and Palestine -- the geographical term Palestine -- disappeared from the map."

In the war, 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes and became refugees. Most were driven out either by force or by fear, historians say. "In some cases there were massacres," says Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago. "In some cases people were put on trucks and sent away. In some cases they fled on their own."

"The Palestinians fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and what is now called the West Bank," Shuster reports. "Thousands with their children and grandchildren live in those camps until now. And from those camps would spring the Palestinian movement -- the guerrilla fighters and bombmakers and political leaders -- who would continue to fight Israel and challenge its right to exist, down to this day."


David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973)
David Ben-Gurion Zionist leader who declared the independence of the state of Israel. Born in Russia, arrived in Palestine in 1906. Fought in the British Army in the Middle East during World War I. Founded Histadrut, the confederation of Jewish workers in Palestine in 1920. Later became head of the Jewish Agency, the Zionist movement's quasi-government in Palestine. Became Israel's first prime minister and defense minister. Except for a brief hiatus (1953-1955), was Israel's leader until 1963. Remained a member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) until 1970.

Menachem Begin (1913-1992)
Menachem Begin Born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia. Active in Zionist movement through 1930s. Protégé of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of revisionist Zionism, a faction of the Zionist movement that eventually found its expression in Israel's Likud Party. Commander of the militant underground armed faction Irgun from 1943-1948. Became co-chairman of the Likud coalition in 1970. Elected prime minister of Israel in 1977. Recipient with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat of Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. Negotiated peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Ordered Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and retired the next year.


Other Resources

• Read U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, approved Nov. 29, 1947, which called for the partition for Palestine.

• See additional related documents and materials at the U.N. site on the "question of Palestine."

• See historic documents at the Truman Library about the U.S. recognition of the state of Israel in 1948.




   
   
   
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