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

Morning Edition: October 2, 2002

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

BOB EDWARDS: As World War II ended, the struggle for Palestine intensified. The Zionists, who wanted a Jewish homeland, and who had supported the British during the World War, prepared for a new conflict.

Leaders of both Arabs and Jews could see they would soon have to fight each other for the territory. The British turned the whole problem over to the newly created United Nations.

In the third part of the series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: In 1939, Great Britain had become disillusioned with its support for a Jewish state in Palestine. It was unable to fashion a political solution that would satisfy both Jews and Arabs, and it could not stop the growing strife between the two communities.

The British placed a strict ceiling on Jewish immigration to Palestine. At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of desperate Jews populated Europe's concentration camps, but the British were still unwilling to allow them to leave for Palestine.

Once it was certain that Hitler's Germany was defeated, the Zionists turned on their erstwhile allies, says historian Howard Sachar.

HOWARD SACHAR: There seemed therefore no alternative to the Jews but to launch a full-fledged campaign against the British, and it took several forms. One was diplomatic. And secondly there would be an appeal to the compassion of the world by launching a kind of illegal immigration effort, bringing over tens and tens of thousands of refugees from Europe in these leaking little refugee boats.

SHUSTER: The campaign against the British also used violence, with the first shots fired on British military and government facilities by underground Jewish armed groups: the Stern Gang and the Irgun. Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion called them misguided terrorists and at times even helped the British fight them.

But their operations intensified. In 1946, the Irgun blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem housing the British administration. Ninety were killed: roughly 30 Jews, 30 Arabs and 30 British.

NEWSREEL: As the toll of dead mounts daily in the bitter war of reprisals, tight security measures are imposed by the British. Scores of Jewish leaders are jailed and rigid searches are conducted for terrorists' weapons. These measures follow the hanging of two British sergeants by extremists. Palestine becomes an armed camp... .

SHUSTER: The armed Jewish gangs were commanded by men who would lead the Israeli state many years later.

SACHAR: Menachem Begin of course, ultimately to become a long-governing prime minister, was a member of the Irgun Z'vai Leumi, which was the largest element among the right-wing underground forces. But there were others who were even more extreme than he. One of them was a later prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

SHUSTER: Eventually the larger Zionist military organization, the Haganah, led by Ben-Gurion, joined the fight against the British.

By the end of 1946, an exhausted Britain decided to withdraw from Palestine, and turned the whole problem over to the United Nations, which had just been born that same year.

The U.N. immediately resurrected the idea of partitioning the territory, first proposed by the British in 1937.

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

WILLIAM QUANDT: 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.

SHUSTER: The Arab majority in Palestine was poorly organized to respond to the U.N. Palestinian leaders refused to discuss partition, says Philip Mattar, editor of The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians.

PHILIP MATTAR: The Jews were being offered 55 percent of Palestine when in fact they had owned only seven percent of the country. 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.

SHUSTER: The vote on partition in the General Assembly occurred on November 29, 1947 -- one of the critical dates of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thirty-three states said yes, including the United States and the Soviet Union; 13 no, mostly Arab and Muslim states; 10 abstained, among them Britain.

The Zionists rejoiced. The Arabs rejected the vote, and skirmishing broke out in Palestine the next day.

Then on May 14th, 1948, Ben-Gurion, on the basis of the U.N.'s support for partition, announced the establishment of the independent state of Israel, the day after Britain formally ended its rule.

In response, the Arab states surrounding Israel -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq -- attacked.

NEWSREEL: The city of Haifa and its harbor become the center of bitter conflict as the new Jewish state is born in the tense atmosphere of civil war. Arab strong points are taken after being blasted to rubble. During the mopping-up operations, Haganah forces seek out every Arab, and barricades are set up to screen those who had not already fled the city. Everyone is searched. With the relinquishing of the British Mandate, Palestine is rocked by full scale war, and both sides mobilize... .

SHUSTER: The new Israeli state fought for its very existence on four fronts, but the Arab armies were disorganized and weak. By November it was clear they could not defeat Israel; in fact, Israel had occupied more of Palestine than had been given to it in the partition plan, says Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, of Haifa University.

BENJAMIN BEIT-HALLAHMI: Israel ended up with 78 percent of Palestine. The Palestinian community in Palestine just disintegrated. The majority of Palestinians became refugees, and Palestine -- the geographical term Palestine -- disappeared from the map.

SHUSTER: Three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled their homes during the war, initiating one of the most contentious debates between Jews and Palestinians. The Zionists and their supporters claimed -- and some still claim -- that the Arab governments ordered the Palestinians to leave.

Historian Howard Sachar says that is not true.

SACHAR: No Arab government was ordering these people to flee. On the contrary, they were ordering them to stay put, under no circumstances to give over their territory to the Jews. It is a myth to assume that these people left voluntarily.

SHUSTER: Over the past two decades younger historians in Israel have argued, using declassified government papers, that in fact Zionist military operations caused the Palestinians to flee. There is now some agreement on this greatest of controversies, between traditional Zionist historians and the so-called revisionists.

SACHAR: There was a good deal of intimidation and even terrorization here and there, particularly along the coastal plain area that was coveted by the Jews. They were terrified by the shooting, by the bombardment.

BENNY MORRIS: In addition to that, Israeli troops in various areas carried out expulsions.

SHUSTER: Benny Morris did the groundbreaking original research on the roots of the Palestinian refugee exodus. He teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

MORRIS: For good military reasons they wanted clear lines of communication behind the lines. They didn't want snipers. They didn't want guerrillas operating behind the lines. So they wanted to get rid of Arab communities. So there were expulsions in various areas.

SHUSTER: The Palestinians call the war An Naqba, the catastrophe, and point to massacres at villages such as Deir Yassin as evidence that the Jews forced them to leave.

University of Chicago historian Rashid Khalidi argues that the Jews did not want nearly half the population of their new state to be Arab, which would have been the result had both sides accepted the U.N. partition plan.

RASHID KHALIDI: To establish a Jewish state in such circumstances required one of these three options. You either had to boot them out, or they had to become Jews, or you had to accept the possibility that you would one day have an Arab majority in the so-called Jewish state. I'm not suggesting that that in and of itself explains what happened. In each village, locality, city, town, a different outcome obtained for different reasons. In some cases there were massacres. In some cases people were put on trucks and sent away. In some cases they fled on their own. That most Palestinians fled, either because they were driven out or were afraid, I don't think is really disputable.

SHUSTER: The Palestinians fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and what is now called the West Bank. 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.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: Tomorrow, the 1967 Six Day War. It begins with Israel striking its Arab neighbors to defend its very existence, and ends with Israeli occupation of territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that are disputed to this day.

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