On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. On May 15, Palestinians solemnly commemorate Nakba Day. “Nakba” means catastrophe, and that’s precisely what Israeli independence was for the more than 700,000 Arabs who were driven from their homelands, sometimes through brutal violence, in order to make way for the Jewish state.
That state had first been promised to the Jews in 1917 when British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared that Britain would designate Palestine as “a national home for the Jewish people.” Zionists — those who support the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there — correctly point to the Balfour Declaration when defending claims of Israel’s legitimacy against detractors. But what is seldom discussed is that the declaration also says that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” those non-Jews still numbering more than 90 percent of the population of the territory that would be officially called Israel within a generation.
In the years following the Balfour Declaration, hundreds of thousands of European Jews, many fleeing ethnic cleansing in the Ukraine, flooded into the British mandate of Palestine (the UK and France had carved up the old Ottoman empire after their victory in World War I) and came into conflict with the Arabs who had been living there for centuries. Hundreds of Jews were murdered in Arab attacks; Jewish militias formed in response to the killing. The rise of Hitler in Germany accelerated the Jewish exodus to Palestine. Still, by 1936, more than 70 percent of the mandate’s population was non-Jewish.
Jewish newcomers in Palestine were sometimes met by riots. In response, the British formed the Peel Commission to examine the “Palestine problem.” The commission’s solution involved two states; one for Jews, another for Arabs, with Jerusalem remaining under British control to protect Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
By 1938, Jewish militias were attacking Arabs. A group called Irgun, later led by future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, began bombing crowded Arab markets in Haifa and Jerusalem. The British then issued the McDonald White Paper, which established limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine. The document declared that the goal of “a national home for the Jewish people” had been fulfilled and that “His Majesty’s government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country.”
From that moment on, Jewish militias attacked not only Arabs, but also the British occupiers of Palestine. Irgun declared open revolt against the British, and Menachem Begin’s group carried out a series of assassinations and terror attacks meant to drive the British out. Another militant group, the Stern Gang — headed by Yitzhak Rabin, another future Israeli prime minister — assassinated British minister of state Lord Moyne in Cairo. They planned to kill Winston Churchill as well. Dozens of British soldiers were kidnapped and killed in actions that very much resemble those of the Palestinians during the recent intifadas.
The most infamous of the Jewish terrorist attacks was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946. Ninety-one people, including 17 Jews, died in that attack which — much to Britain’s dismay — is still celebrated in Israel to this very day.
By the summer of 1947, the British withdrew in frustration and handed the “Palestine problem” over to the newly-formed United Nations. Without consulting the Arabs, the U.N. (under intense U.S. pressure) voted to partition the territory into two very uneven states. Although they made up just over a third of Palestine’s population, Jews would get 55 percent of the mandate’s land. Arabs were enraged; hundreds of Jews were killed in the ensuing violence.
There was a major problem with the U.N. plan, however. If Israel was to be both Jewish and democratic, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would need to be persuaded to leave their homes for good. Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Land Fund, made this very clear:
“Among ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both people in this country… and there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer them all… we must not leave a single village, a single tribe,” he declared.
In order to accomplish this goal, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister after independence, drafted Plan Dalet with his inner circle. Dalet called for attacks on Palestinians with the “principal objective of the operation [being] the destruction of Arab villages.” One of the most notorious massacres carried out under Plan Dalet occurred at Deir Yassin, where Stern Gang forces slaughtered more than 100 men, women and children on April 9, 1948. The shocking brutality of Deir Yassin caused many Arabs to flee their homes in terror throughout Palestine, a fact celebrated by Menachem Begin. “We created terror among the Arabs and all the villages around. In one blow, we changed the strategic situation,” he boasted.
The strategic situation had indeed been changed, and on May 14, 1948 Israel declared independence. Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invaded immediately afterwards. Before, during and after the war, some 700,000 Arabs were driven from Palestine, never to return. More than 400 Arab villages were abandoned or destroyed. Said Moshe Dayan, a future Israeli defense minister hailed as a hero for his role in the expulsion: “We came to this country, which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is, a Jewish state here. Jewish villages were built in place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because those geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal rose in place of Malalul; Givat in the place of Jibta; Sarid in the place of Haneifa, and Kfar Yehoshua in the place of Tell Shamon. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
Palestinian Arabs who fled for their lives became refugees, many of them ending up in squalid camps in neighboring countries. And despite U.N. Resolution 194, which states that all Palestinian refugees had the right to return to their homes and the right to compensation for any damages incurred, none of them were ever allowed to do so.
This is the uncomfortable truth that many Israelis and their supporters, especially in the United States, usually avoid today: that a people who had just (barely) survived one of history’s most horrific genocides had secured a state of their own through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. More honest Israeli voices have repeatedly acknowledged this, but to level such accusations in America unfortunately often results in charges of anti-Semitism or, if the critic is Jewish, of being a “self-hating Jew.” Sadly, this insidious label has been used to tar even Holocaust survivors who criticize Israeli treatment of the occupied Palestinians today.
But even David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood the implications of Israeli actions. “If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel,” he presciently acknowledged. “That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them?… There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only know but one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why would they accept that?”