Not everyone understands this crucial background of the Palestinian conflict.
The Palestine of 1914 was part of the Ottoman Empire. Jews made up less than 12 percent of its population. And that was not the result of recent persecution or pogroms. The region had been mostly Muslim for more than 1,000 years. When Muslims came on the scene in the 7th century, they had found a population that was predominantly Christian.
Britain needed allies in World War I. It made potentially conflicting promises, of an Arab state including Palestine, and of support for the Zionist back-to-Palestine movement founded by European Jews in the 1890s. That promise was a bid for the backing of Jews in the U.S. and Russia.
After the war, Britain administered Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate. The British allowed heavy Zionist immigration and encouraged hopes for a "Jewish national home," despite protests and an unsuccessful revolt by the native Arabs.
Jews were still only 33 percent of the population in 1947. But with Britain eager to pull out, the United Nations voted to give them a state with 55 percent of the land. This was not even a land allocation that reflected their numbers and allowed for some continuing immigration; it sought to provide for massive immigration that might never materialize. More than 450,000 Arabs would have been under Jewish rule unless they relocated.
The U.N. General Assembly only approved the partition of Palestine because the Soviet Union delivered the votes of a bloc of satellite countries. The Soviets were not friends of Zionism. They wanted the British out, and that was the only proposal on the table for getting them out.
Palestinian Arabs refused to settle for 45 percent of their homeland. They were a two-thirds majority, and their ancestors had lived there continuously for more than 1,000 years. Some Muslims and Christians were undoubtedly descended from long-ago converts from Judaism, and had thus had ancestors living there continuously for 3,000 years.
In 1944, near the end of what the British considered "legal" immigration, Jews were more than 30 percent of the population in only four of the Mandate's 16 administrative districts. Those districts were in the same region, but no two of the four were contiguous. Jews were a majority in only one district, the one that included their city of Tel Aviv. That was the most populous of the 16; but it was one of the two smallest in area, and also included heavily Arab Jaffa.
The U.N. Palestine Commission proposed a state comprising 55 percent of Palestine that would have had a majority, but less than two-thirds, Jewish population. Both Jaffa and Jerusalem, home to many Jews, were to be excluded, the former allocated to the Arabs and the latter internationalized.
It seems clear that the Commission's goal had been to gerrymander and create the largest possible state, excluding Jerusalem, for which borders could be drawn to produce a Jewish majority. It included the large Negev region, desert and semi-desert, which was lightly populated--with Jews making up less than 3 percent of the population--but provided critically important access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea.
It seems equally clear that a disproportionate number of the Jews in that proposed state lived in the single metropolis of Tel Aviv.
Even if that had not been the case, its creation would have forced a shockingly large minority to choose between leaving lands their families had treasured for generations, or living under the rule of hostile immigrants admitted by an occupying power. That's what Britain was, in essence, despite its having prevailed upon the League of Nations--which it, along with France, dominated--to legitimize its rule by the grant of a Mandate.
Britain had voluntarily submitted the Palestine question to the U.N. Now, to its credit, it refused to assist in implementing a solution that was not acceptable to both Jews and Arabs.
The U.S. had supported partition. It, like the Soviet Union, had influenced enough other General Assembly votes that their reversal would have changed the outcome. But the U.S. opposed forcible implementation. After civil war broke out it called for suspension of the Commission's work, a truce, and reconsideration of the problem by the U.N.
The Zionists refused to halt nation-building or military operations, defying their principal international benefactors. In the weeks following the U.S. call for a truce they launched two offensives, and Zionist terrorists raided the Arab village of Deir Yasin, where they massacred between 110 and 254 men, women, and children. Zionists used reminders of that massacre to terrorize other civilians into fleeing.
The day before Israel declared its independence, its military captured Jaffa. Zionists were seeking not merely to secure and defend the state the U.N. had voted to give them, but to enlarge it through conquest.
Arab states came to the Palestinians' aid. But they were young states, founded after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the decline of larger-scale Western colonialism. Their armies were small, poorly equipped and poorly led. Britain had crushed the Palestinian Arab revolt in the 1930s, then looked on benignly while the Zionists, financed by world Jewry, built a formidable military establishment. Now the U.N. imposed an embargo on arms shipments to both sides; only Israel succeeded in getting around it.
In a section of a forthcoming book posted on the website of al-Awda.org (an advocacy group for Palestinian refugees), author Mazin Qumsiyeh gives us an idea of what Israel's "War of Independence" was like for Palestinian civilians. This narrative by an Israeli soldier describes his unit's takeover of the village of al-Duwayima on October 29, 1948; it was first published in the now-defunct Israeli newspaper Davar on June 9, 1979.
"Killed between 80 to 100 Arabs, women and children. To kill the children they fractured their heads with sticks. There was not one house without corpses. The men and women of the villages were pushed into houses without food or water. Then the saboteurs came to dynamite the houses. One commander ordered a soldier to bring two women into a house he was about to blow up. Another soldier prided himself upon having raped an Arab woman before shooting her to death. Another Arab woman with her newborn baby was made to clean the place for a couple of days, and then they shot her and the baby. Educated and well-mannered commanders who were considered 'good guys' became base murderers, and this not in the storm of battle, but as a method of expulsion and extermination. The fewer the Arabs who remained, the better. "
Israel defeated the Arabs and wound up with far more territory than the U.N. had envisioned. An estimated 800,000 Palestinians had fled their homes. Those displaced persons and their descendants now number more than 5 million; roughly one-third still live in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.
The West Bank and East Jerusalem were held by Jordan, the Gaza Strip by Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees went no farther than the Arab-controlled remnants of their homeland--22 percent of Palestine, less than half the land the U.N. had earmarked for a Palestinian state.
In 1967, Israel invaded and occupied those territories. More hundreds of thousands became refugees, some for the second time.
What was the outcome of the Zionists' hope for a continuing influx of like-minded Jewish immigrants? Not what most Americans think.
The flood of immigrants into Palestine in the 1940s consisted of refugees from war-torn Europe. Most of them really wanted to settle in the U.S. or Britain. If the Zionists had never been allowed to launch their unsavory colonization scheme, those countries would have had no excuse for not taking them in.
In the first few years of Israel's existence, it did indeed experience heavy Jewish immigration--but not of the kind its founders wanted. Most Jews in the U.S. and other Western countries stayed put, content with aiding Israel financially. The new immigrants were Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, who had been happy in what they perceived as their homelands until Arab fury at the Zionist takeover of Palestine forced them to leave. They went to Israel only to be treated as inferiors, second-class citizens.
By the late 1980s, those Mizrachi ("Oriental") Jews were a majority or on the verge of becoming a majority. But they lost that chance due to yet another wave of immigration, from the former Soviet Union. Many of the Russian immigrants are secularized Jews, even atheists. And many, if they want to leave Russia, are being forced to go to Israel when their destination of choice would be the U.S.
Israel is encouraging this immigration--and appealing for more from other countries--in a seemingly doomed attempt to keep the burgeoning Arab population from once again outnumbering Jews in the area of the former British Mandate (Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza). According to a recent demographic study, Jews still outnumber Arabs, but they've already ceased to be a majority, due to the many non-Jews of Western origin living in Israel.
All Palestinian refugees and descendants have the right under international law to return to their original homes. Israel refuses to let them do so, despite its having been required to acknowledge the 1948 refugees' right of return as a condition of U.N. membership.
And there is room for them. Small though Israel is, 78 percent of its people live in 14 percent of the country. Another 20 percent of Israelis live in cities in the remaining 86 percent of the country; only 2 percent live in its rural areas.
Those statistics underscore the injustice of the 1947 vote that gave the Zionists 55 percent of Palestine. Even now, with a population exceeding 6 million (more than half foreign-born), most of Israel's territory is unused.
By contrast, author Dilip Hiro wrote in 1999 that "the residents of the Gaza Strip, about a million strong...are crammed into an area of about 28 miles by 5 miles--two-fifths of which is under Israeli control and closed to them, because of settlements populated by a mere 4,000 Jewish Israelis." The number of settlers has since grown to 7,500.
In addition to those settlers in Gaza, Israel has encouraged more than 300,000 of its people to move into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 49, Paragraph 6, reads: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
These violations of law are important, not only because of the harm being done the long-abused Palestinians, but because of the precedent being set. If Israel is allowed to continue flouting international law with impunity, it may never be enforceable again.
Israel is one of only four countries that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The others are India, Pakistan, and Cuba. Cuba has signed a regional pact, and in fact has no nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan are historic enemies; while the rest of the world would feel more secure if neither of them had nuclear weapons, their both having them has thus far assured mutual deterrence. Almost everyone would agree that their both having them is better than one having them and the other not.
Israel's case is different. Just as Britain allowed the Zionists to build the most effective conventional military force in the region before they had a state, the West has let Israel amass an arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons, a Sword of Damocles suspended over the heads of its defenseless neighbors.
It's that arsenal that should be dismantled, not the pathetic weapons caches of the Palestinian Resistance.