Why is Israel problematic


Angelika Timm

To person

Angelika Timm, Middle East scholar and historian. Her research and publication activities focus on the history, politics and culture of Israel, the Middle East conflict, Israeli civil society and German-Israeli relations.

The British mandate over Palestine ended on May 14, 1948. That afternoon, Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. A Jewish dream came true. For the Arabs, the day went down in history as a "nakba" - catastrophe.

May 14, 1948: Cabinet members of the new State of Israel sing the national anthem. (& copy AP)
The founding of the State of Israel is rooted in both European history and Middle Eastern events in the 20th century. The Zionist vision of Jewish intellectuals to create a community in Palestine as the "Land of the Fathers" was a response to the challenges and questioning emerging at the end of the 19th century, particularly anti-Semitism and assimilation trends. Central concerns were the preservation of Judaism, the reunification of Jews in their own "home" and the redefinition of Jewish identity in modern society.

Theodor Herzl, the initiator and first president of the Zionist World Organization (ZWO) founded in Basel in 1897, is considered the "father of political Zionism". The Basel program - the guiding principle of Zionist activity until 1948 - proclaimed the "creation of a homestead in Palestine protected by public law" as its central goal. This was to be achieved through the "settlement of Palestine with Jewish farmers, craftsmen and tradespeople". At first, Herzl's vision seemed a long way off. The Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II rejected the Zionist project; the major European powers also held back. In the context of the First World War, the status of Palestine increased. Great Britain, whose troops occupied Jerusalem in December 1917, strengthened - alongside France - its dominant role in the Middle East. In order to safeguard their strategic and economic interests, the British had held secret talks, some of which were contradicting content, about the future fate of Palestine before the end of the war. So they agreed with France to partition the Ottoman Empire (Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916). At the same time, they promised the Sherif of Hejaz and Mecca to found a great Arab empire (Hussein-MacMahon correspondence of 1915/16). Finally, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour assured the Zionist movement of his government's support for "the creation of a national homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people" in a letter addressed to the President of the English Zionist Federation, James de Rothschild.

The Balfour Declaration found its way into the peace treaty between the victorious powers and Turkey; on April 25, 1920 Great Britain was entrusted with the administration of Palestine at the conference of San Remo. The League of Nations confirmed the British mandate on July 24, 1922.

Jewish immigration and national conflict

Since the end of the 19th century, several waves of immigration have increased the proportion of Jews in Palestine from five percent (1882) to 11.1 percent (1922) and 30.6 percent (1945). The new immigrants saw themselves as chaluzim (pioneers). They created Jewish self-governing bodies, their own economic sector, as well as political parties and organizations.

In particular, the dominant social democratic faction in Zionism took the view that the Jewish people must acquire a right to Palestine through physical labor and reclamation of the land. Accordingly, the immigrants established collective agricultural settlements (kibbutzim and moschavim), organized Jewish workers in the Histadrut trade union, and set up military organizations to protect the newly established settlements. At the end of 1946, Jewish land ownership in Palestine was 11 percent of the cultivable area and 20 percent of the cultivated area. When the state was founded in 1948, the Yishuv numbered 649,600 people - a third of the total population of Palestine. The Zionist-motivated immigrants came into conflict with the Arab-Palestinian national movement early on. Their representatives had initially called for liberation from the Ottoman yoke. After 1920 they sued for the national self-determination and statehood that the British had promised them. Arab unrest or uprisings in 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1936 to 1939 were initially directed against the Zionist settlers, but increasingly also against the British mandate authorities. For fear of the further escalation of national contradictions, Great Britain restricted the immigration of Jews to Palestine to a minimum from 1939 - despite knowledge of the anti-Semitic persecution in Germany. After the USA entered the war, in May 1942 delegates from Zionist organizations from the United States, Europe and Palestine as well as executive members of the Jewish Agency supported the goals of the anti-Hitler coalition. The "Biltmore Program" they passed, which called for the "opening of the gates of Palestine" and the establishment of a Jewish state after the end of the war, is considered an important milestone on the way to statehood.

UN partition plan and founding of the state

The global political constellation after the Second World War and in particular the trauma of the Shoah had far-reaching effects on Palestine. In view of the murder of a third of the world's Jewish population in German extermination camps and the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities, concerns about the Zionist experiment became less important.

In Palestine the contradictions came to a head. Both the Zionist and Arab national movements vehemently called for the end of British rule. At the same time they tried to implement the diametrically opposed national goals. Militant clashes between Jews and Arabs, but also attacks on mandate authorities' facilities, were the order of the day. The British government was no longer able to maintain the mandate and asked the United Nations to mediate.

From April 28 to May 15, 1947, an extraordinary UN General Assembly dealt with the Palestinian problem. The special committee it set up (UNSCOP) unanimously proposed, after careful examination, that the British mandate be terminated. While seven representatives voted for the partition of Palestine, the remaining four voted for an Arab-Jewish federal state.

On November 29, 1947, the Second UN General Assembly voted for Resolution 181 (II) with 33 votes for and 13 against, with ten abstentions. This called for the UK's mandate to end as soon as possible and for Palestine to be divided. An Arab-Palestinian and a Jewish state were to be created in the approximately 25,000 square kilometers of territory with a population of 1.3 million Arabs and 608,000 Jews. Jerusalem - central to Jews, Christians and Muslims - was intended as a neutral enclave. The tripartite Palestine should be combined into an economic union. The positioning of the USSR was important for setting the course in the Middle East. The Permanent Representative of the USSR to the United Nations and later Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, had initially advocated a binational Arab-Jewish federal state at the General Assembly in May 1947; should this option not be feasible, he regards the partition of Palestine as inevitable. In view of the murder of millions of Jews, Gromyko told the UN, a denial of the Jewish people's right to their own state cannot be justified.

The Arab League founded in 1945 and its six UN member states vehemently rejected the partition decision. In the event of its implementation, they announced that they would take military measures and set up an "Arab Liberation Army". Immediately after the UN decision, bitter fighting broke out between Arab and Jewish military units. In the spring of 1948, the fighting increasingly focused on the army camps, police posts and government buildings abandoned by the British.

On April 1, 1948, "Operation Dalet" began a military offensive by the Haganah. It pursued the goal of securing all areas intended for the Jewish state, but also Jewish settlements beyond the UN border line as well as the connecting routes between the Jewish settlement areas and free access to Jerusalem. Fierce fighting broke out on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in particular, during which, on April 9, 1948, units of the Ezel military organization in the Arab village of Deir Jassin wreaked havoc, killing over 250 men, women and children. Retaliatory actions by Palestinian irregulars contributed to further escalation.

In view of the increasing military conflicts, the USA temporarily withdrew its approval of the partition resolution in March 1948. They proposed placing Palestine under UN trusteeship. After the offer had been rejected by both the Jewish and Arab sides and by numerous UN members, the US administration again supported the establishment of the Jewish state.

The British mandate over Palestine ended on May 14, 1948. That afternoon, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in the Tel Aviv City Museum. This was diplomatically recognized by the USA and the Soviet Union just a few hours later. Like the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, the Jewish population of Palestine enthusiastically welcomed the proclamation of the Jewish state, as both events included the safeguarding of a long-sought goal under international law. In contrast, protest demonstrations took place in several Arab capitals, during which facilities in the USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union were demolished.

First Middle East War

The prospects for peaceful development were slim. The Arab states and the Arab High Committee, the highest representative of the Palestinian national movement, viewed the partition plan as a reason for war. The British government, which abstained from the vote on the future of Palestine in the UN in 1947, showed little interest in the implementation of Resolution 181 (II). Two months before the end of the mandate, she signed an alliance treaty with King Abdallah of Transjordan, with which the Arab intervention in Palestine was backed.

On the night of May 14-15, 1948, the armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon invaded Palestine to reverse the proclamation of the Jewish state. Not least thanks to extensive arms deliveries from Czechoslovakia and financial support from the USA and other countries, the first Middle East war ended in January 1949 with Israel's military victory. Through the mediation of the United Nations, armistice agreements were concluded with Egypt (February 24, 1949), Lebanon (March 23, 1949), Transjordan (April 3, 1949) and Syria (July 20, 1949).

The chances for the proclamation of an Arab-Palestinian state legitimized by the UN resolution of November 1947 were through the occupation of parts of the designated areas by Israel, the incorporation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which was proclaimed by King Abdallah in 1950 and the subordination of the Gaza Strip to Egyptian administration has become obsolete for a long time. The events of 1948/49 entered the collective memory of the Palestinians as Nakba (catastrophe).

A heavy peace mortgage formed the problem of the Arab Palestine refugees. By October 1948, the UN Aid for Palestine had already registered over 650,000 refugees. Few were allowed to return to their homeland after the armistice.

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