Violence in Palestine (1945-1948)

Palestinian children British tank
Figure 1.--This AP wire photograph was dated February 24, 1948. It shows Haganah teenagers guarding a reservoir and surrounding farm land from Arab attack. The caption read, "Haganah youthss guard reservoir: A Haganah boy and girl are shown here gurding a resivoir and the surrounding farm land in the Negev, Palestine's vast strach of southern desertland bordering the Egyptian frontier. They are part of a grouo of reinfircements sent from the cities in Palestine to help guard the farming settlements of the Jews from Arab attacks. There are some 25 settlements of Jewish pioneers in the Negev, where farms have been established in the desert by combining irrigatiin projects with modern farming methods." Photo by Lasar Dunner.

Isreali terrorists after World War II targetted the British whonattempted to limit Jewish emigration to Palestine. Palestinian Arabs carried out attacks on Jews who retaliated. The British attempted to disarm both sides which given potential intervention by Arab armies might be considered a pro-Arab poliy. Palestinian Arabs stepped-up a campaign of violence on the eve of the UN Partition Resolution (November 1947). We do not yet have details on the violence that occurred both before and after the U.N. vote to partition Palestine. Ultimately the irregular activity within Palestine was supported by an actual invasion of Arab regular armies after Israel declared indepencence (May 1948).

World War II (1939-45)

NAZI diplomacy with its anti-British and anti-Semitic approached appealed to the Arabs. Here they met considerable sympathy both because of rising anti-Semitism and opposition to British colonialism. The British attempted to counter this by issuing a White Paper before the War began withdrrawing their support for a Jewish homeland. The German position in the Middle-East was strengthen with the fall of France (June 1940). Vichy France was recognized by authorities in French North Africa, Syria, and Lebanon. Palestenians religious figures openly courted Hitler and the NAZIs. The Grand Mufti fleeing arest in Palestine sought refuge in Iraqi where a colaborator, Rashid Ali, led a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq. Saddam's uncle was also involved. It failed. The Grand Mufti tied to do the same in Iran, but was forced to again flee with the Soviets and British intervened. Both the Grand Mufti and Rashid found refuge in Berlin. The Mufti received financial support from the NAZIs and made proaganda broadcasts. He also helped recruit Muslim SS Divisions in both Bosnia and Kosovo. The the NAZIs as under the cover of the war launched the Holocaust. The Grand Mufti incouraged NAZI leaders to kill more Jews. The NAZIs of course needed little encoracment. The Grand Mufti's propaganda broadcasts to the Arab world, however, had considerable political resonance. Future Arab leaders like Nasser and Sadat were among thoses impressed. Many Arabs, especially those in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq hope for what they saw as liberation from NAZI armies in North Africa and Russia. And for a time in 1942 it look like Rommel in the Western Desert and the Paulis in the Ukrain might just deliver such a victory. The ironic aspect of this was Grand Mufti and the NAZI supporting Arabs seem to have been oblivious to the fact that the NAZIs saw Semetic people in geneeal as inferior and not just the Jews. And thus they would have been destimed to an infrior status in a NAZI controlled world. Nor do the seem to hasve understood that Hitler did not want to demolish the British Empire. His concept was to use the British to help control the "inferior" peoples outside Europe. British resistance forced Hitler to persue the War against Britain, but it was not his desire. He wanted the British as an ally. Actually the Axis had one Arab colony during the War--Libya. The brutality of the Italians in Libya might have given the Grand Mufti and other Arabs pause about an Axis victgory in the Mikddle East, but it never seems to have done so.

British Attempt to Limit Jewish Immigration

One of the issues that the British faced after seizing Palistine from the Ottoman Empire and establishing a Mandate regime was Jewish immigration. The British had no real interest in Palestine other than security for the Suez Canal, but in administering Palestine they found themslves mired into the Arab-Jewish differences. Herbert Samuel, a British Jew, was appointed the first High Commissioner of Palestine. Unlike areviling myth, he proceeded to place restrictions on Jewish immigration. He set up two governing concerns: 1) the ‘interests of the present population’ and 2) the ‘absorptive capacity’ of Palistine. [Cohen, p. 172] The Arabs and their British supporters claimed that Jew immigrants were forcing the Arab fellahin (peasantry) off the land. At the time less than a million people lived in an area that now has a population of 9 million. Actually it was the British who significanly limited the absorptive capacity of Palestine. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill approved severing four-fifths of Ottoman Palestine, from mandatory Palestine (35,000 square miles) to create a new Arab state--Transjordan (1921). This was the area east of the Jordan River. This was a kind of consolation prize for the Hejaz and Arabia which the Saudis seized from Sherif Hussein. Transyordan was awarded to Sherif Hussein’s son Abdullah for his part in the World War I fighting against the Ottomans. He was installed as Transjordan’s emir and moved to flatly prohibit Jews from his new state. The British also placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in what remained of Palestine. This was a violtion of the provision of the Mandate (Article 6) stating that “the Administration of Palestine ... ​shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency ... ​close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not acquired for public purposes.” British authoritres during the Mandate period allotted most of the 187,500 acres of cultivable land to the Arabs (87,500 acres) and very little to Jews (4,250 acres). [Auman, p. 25.] Ultimately, the British admitted the argument about the absorptive capacity of Palistine was largely specious. The Peel Commission found: “The heavy immigration in the years 1933–36 would seem to show that the Jews have been able to enlarge the absorptive capacity of the country for Jews.” [PRC, p. 300.] A range of factors affected the Jewish population and immigration in Palistine. The Jewish population in Palistine was basically unchanged during World War I, about 83,000-84,000. The Arab population, however, expanded from 590,000 to 643,000 (1915-22). [Census data]. We are not entirely sure why, but assume it was an influx from tribal areas of Atrabia seeking economic opportunity. Fluctuations during the 1920s were due to anti-Jewish economic legislation in Poland and restrictive American emmigration quota enacted by the United states. The fluctuations in the 1930s resulted from the NAZI seizure of power in Germany. The peak was in 1935 with the enactmnent of the Nuremberg Race Laws. British authorities were disturbed by the large numbers and informed the Jewish Agency that only a third of the requested quota would be allowed (1936). [Cohen, p. 53.] The British after the Arab Revolt moved to plascate the Arabs by establishing limits on Jewish immigtation in the 1939 White Paper. They commited to creating an independent Arab state within 10 years. And Jewish immigration would be limited to 75,000 for the next 5 years. Then it would cease completely. The British also prohibited land sales to Jews in 95 percent of Palestine. The Arabs, however, rejected the British proposal out of hand.

Jewish Attacks on the British

Isreali terrorists targetted the British who attempted to limit Jewish emigration to Palestine. After a period of reconciliation with the British during World war II, the Irgun began bomb attack on British immigration offices in Mandatory Palestine (February 12, 1944). No casualties resulted. Soon after Lehi also renewed its attacks on the British. While the war continued against the NAZIS, these Jewish groups refraned from attacks on the British military. The Irgun escalates thecattacks on the British by blowing up the King David Hotel (July 22, 1946). This proved to be the turning point in the British commiment to the Mandate. The British decided that the Mandate was untenable and that their national interest was in developing good relations with the Arabs. They believed that once they withdrew, the surrounding Arab states with well-equipped armies would quickly crush any Jewish resistance. Lehi set off a truck bomb outside Jaffa's Town Hall, killing 26 civilians (January 4. 1947). Hagana bombed the Shemiramis Hotel (January 6).

Palestinian Arab Attacks

Palestinian Arabs continud carried out attacks on Jews during the World War II. With German military strength collapsing, the Grand Mufti in Berlin managed to obtain NAZI support for Operation ATLAS, an attack on Jews in Palistin (October 1944). A joint German-Arab commando unit is parchuted into Palestine with chemical weapons to murder as many Jews as possible in Tel Aviv. This was not a military opertion, the idea was to kill Jewish civilians by poisoning the Tel Aviv water supply. The comandos with chemical weapons were caught near Jericho by Jordanian and British Police forces. [Bar-Zohar] The Grand Mufti continued propaganda brodcasts from Berlin, urging Arabs to kills Jews. The runp NAZI Government surrendered (May 8, 1945). The French arrested the Grand Mufti, but he escaped and found refuge in Egypt. From Egypt he helped organize attcks on Jews and the British. Scattered attacks such as children throwing ir slinging stines became more orgab=nized a targeted. Following the U.N. vote on the Partition Plan, Palestinian Arabs reacted violently and fighting broke out with Jews in what became known as the 'Civil War' (November 30, 1946). The Arab Higher Committee declared a strike and public protest in Jerusalem of the U.N. partition vote. Arabs organized a march to Zion Square, but were stopped by the British (December 2). The Arabs instead turned towards the undefended commercial center of the city where many Jewish buildings and shops were attacked. This becane known as the Jeruslem Riots. By this time, the Jews were both organized and possessed some small arms. Violence in the center of the city continued for two more days. The Arabs iniitiated the violence, but once thevfigting began, Jews not only resisted, but carried out attacks of their own. After the British restored order, 70 Jews and 50 Arabs laid dead.

Jewish Retaliation

Jewish self-defense units retaliated in response to Palestinian attacks. After the Arab Jerusalem Riots (December 1946), the Irgun retaliated (December 30). Irgun terrorists throw two bombs into a crowd of Arab workers from a passing vehicle, killing 6 workers and wounding 42. This ended the relative peace between the two groups in Haifa. An Arab crowd firm to protest the attavk. They broke into the refinery compound, killing 39 Jews and wounding 49. Scatered attacks continued in Haifa and the suounding region. The Palmach, a Haganaharm attacked Balad al-Shaykhwhile the residents were asleep, firing from the slopes of Mount Carmel, in retaliation for the killing of 39 Jews during the Haifa Oil Refinery (December 31-January 1).

British Attempts to Maintain Order

The British attempted to disarm both sides which given potential intervention by Arab armies might be considered a pro-Arab policy. The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry proposed admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees into the Mandate (May 1. 1945).

The Undeclared War (1947)

The war betwen Arans and Jews in early 1947, lthough undeclared as he British were still in Mandatory Palestine. Haganah members were killed attempting to carry supplies cross country to Kfar Etzion (January 16-35, 1947). This began the 'Battle of the Roads' (Winter-Spring 1947). The newly formed Arab League sponsored an Arab Liberation Army, composed of Palestinian Arabs and Arabs from neighbiring Muslim countries. They began attacking Jewish communities Jewish vehicles on major roads. Arabs set off car bombs in Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem (February 2). The result was 58 Jewish civilians killed and 140 injured. The Palmuch strikes at Sa'sa' (February 14). Some 60 Arab villagers are killed.

Umited Nations Partition Plan (November 1947)

The Allies at the end if World War II formaly formed the United Nations (1945). It was a term used by the Allies during the World War II even before the organization's formal creation. As the sucessor organization to the League of Nations, the UN assumed responsibility for the League mandates, imcluding Palestine. The Arabs resisted UM efforts to mediate the Palestinian issue. The UN appointed an 11-member Committee to study the issue (1947). The Jewish Agency cooperated with the UN Committee, but the Arabs boycotted it (May 1947). The Committee voted 8-3 to recommend partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Jeruselum was to be an international zone. The UN General Assembly approved a resolution to partition Palestine (November 29, 1947). The UN Resolution was supported by France, USSR, USA, Liberia, etc. The vote in the General Assembly was very close. The Arab nations as a bloc opposed partition. The Arabs rejected the Resolution. Partition was unacceptable to either the Palestinians or the neighboring Arab states. The Arabs threaten to invade if the Jews moved to establish a Jewish state. Armed irregulars, both Palestinian and other Arabs, immediately began to attack Jewish communities. Low level attacks comtinued as the British withdrawl from Palestine approached.

Palestinian Arabs Step Up Violencce (1947-48)

The response to U.N. Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine was an increase in the violence that had racked the British mandate since the end of World War II (1945). Sniping and mall unit attacks increased as did bombing. Given that the vote went against the Arabs, it is not difficult to see it was the Arabs that were moved toward acts of violence. The violence seems more associated with Arab opposition to the U.N. partition and the Jewish defensive actions, but as with virtually everything associated with this issue, the Arabs and Jews have different views. The six Arab nations in the General Assembly staged a walkout in protest to the vote. The New York Times reported after the vote, “The walkout of the Arab delegates was taken as a clear indication that the Palestinian Arabs would have nothing to do with the Assembly’s decision. The British have emphasized repeatedly that British troops could not be used to impose a settlement not acceptable to both Jews and Arabs, and the partition plan does not provide outside military force to keep order. Instead, it provides for the establishment of armed militia by the two nascent states to keep internal order.” The British with a well-armed force had been able to keep the two sides at bay and prevent them from acquiring weapons, at least heavy weapons. Here the Arabs had a huge avntage, borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt all of which had no problem with supplying arms to Arab irregulars. The Jews on the other hand had only the sea to obtain weapons, and the Royal Navy made this very difficult. As the British began withdrawing their forces, it was inevitale that the communal violence would increase. As the British troops left, thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled or fled. Many Jews also withdrew into Jewish designated areas by the U.N. partition plan. There is an ongoing historical debate as to whether the Palistians fled or were expelled. Three is no doubt that both occurred. Just to what extent the Palistinians were expelled is probably a question that is lost to history. There undoubtedly were atrocities, but these were committed on both sides. We find it a little difficult to believe that the poorly armed Jewish militias could have forced out so many Palistinians given that Palistinian irregular forces were also armed. Also radio broadcasts from the Front Line Arab states encouraged Palistinians Arabs to flee so that their armies could better attack Jewish forces without the fear of civilian casualties. Gen. Nasser himself broadcast warnings to regional Palestinian Arabs to evacuate so that the invading Arab armies could 'drive the Jews into the sea.' Much of the Palistianian movement occurred after Israel dcalared independence (May 4, 1948). Again this seems strange that with well armed Arab armies entering Palestine that the Palestinian civilians could have been expelled in such numbers. We do not mean to suggest that no Palistinian Arabs were expelled. It certainly occurred. We simply believed that what occurred after the U.N. Partition vote was violence on both sides and the movement of the Palistinians is a much more complicated matter than sugested by most Arab sources.

British Withdrawl (April-May 1948)

Conflict between the Arabs and Jews after World War II became too intense for the British to control. Both sides began targetting the British. The most notable attack was the Irgun attack ob the King David Hotel when many British officials were living. As a result of expanding Arab and British terrorism, the British proceeded to withdraw and turn over Palestine to the United Nations. The U.N. partition plan was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal from the Mandate Territory of Palestine. The British began withdrawing their military force (early April). The British mandate over Palestine was due to expire on May 15, 1948. The Jewish Leadership led by future Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared independence on May, 14, the day before the expiration. One observer calls the British withdrawl "probably the most shamefaced British withdrawal" from any of its possessions. [Shepherd]

Israel Declares Indepence (May 1948)

The decision for Israeli independence was taken by the Minhelet HaAm (מנהלת העם‎‎), the People's Administration (May 12, 1948) The Minhelet HaAm was essentially Israel's pre-independence parliament with representatives from the dufferent bpolitical parties. Tel Aviv was a largely Jewish city and thus a safe place to for officials to meet and decide the independence question. This could not be done in Jerusalem because the city was surrounded by largely Arab areas and the Jews in the city were beseiged. Three of the 13 members were missing, The Minhelet HaAm meetig convened 1:45 PM aand went on until after midnight. The issue was whether to accept: 1) a proposal for a truce and a U.N. Trusteeship to replace the League Mandate or 2) declaring independence. The members voted on the second alternative. Six of the ten members in attendance voted for it. The British Mandate originally granted by the League of Nations over Palestine expired (May 14, 1948). The British High Commissioner for Palestine, Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, and British military forces completed their withdraw by midnight. The Jewish People's Council, the leadership of the Jewish Agency, led by Dabid Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, on the same day meeting at the Tel Aviv Museum approved a proclamation establishing the State of Israel. News of the announcement leaked out and people on the streets of Tel Aviv began singing Hatikvah in the streets before David Ben-Gurion even began reading the dceclaration. The actual ceremony was held at 4 p.m. before the British left to avoid making the declaration on Shabbat. It took 17 minutes to read the entire document in a 32 minute ceremony. David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Palestine National Council, read the declration, "We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel. ....” Some Jewish officials signed the declaration later and one person even signed twice. Gunfire could be heard from fighting near Tel Aviv during the ceremony. Jewish flags soon flashed on all important Tel Aviv buildings, automobiles appeared with newly minted Jewish license plates, and Haganah officers exchanged toasts in the cafes. That night Tel Aviv was blacked out because of the danger of Egyptian bombing. Celebrations went on throughout the city, especially behind cafe doors. Just before midnight, the celevrations broke into the streets. News reached Tel Aviv that the United States had recognized the new state of Israel. of the United States recognition had just reached Tel Aviv. Four hours after the announcement, the Egyptian Air Force bombed Tel Aviv without any clear targets. Israel did not yet have an air force. An invasion by the rmies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebnon, and Syria immediately followed.

Arab Invasion: Isreali-Arab War (May 1948)

Ultimately the irregular activity within Palestine was supported by an actual invasion of Arab regular armies after Israel declared indepencence (May 1948). The Arab States responded to the creation of the UN-mandated Jewish State of Israel with a joint invasion (May 1948). Each of the neigboring Arab states had armies with modern weapons although the training was uneven. The neigboring Arabs states (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt) invaded to destroy the new Jewish state. The invasion force included five regular Arab armies along with armed Palestinians, and armed Arab volunteers (including Moslem Brotherhood elements). One of the participants was the Cairo-born and educated engineering student, Yasser Arafat. He was 19 years old and young Leiutenant in the Egyptian Army. He fought on the Sinai front. Palestenian Arab irregulars attack Jewish settlements. Here the Arabs targeted both the Jewish fighters and non-conbatants. Few thought the Jews could prevail. The Haganah was not a modern army and the British had prevented then from acquiring weapons. The Haganah had only a small number of rifles (of a myriad of types and caliburs), few heavy weapons, and no tanks. About 4,000 foreign volunteers join the Isrealis. The Jews proved to be a more formidable force than the Arabs had anticipated. Somehow the Israelis with a hodgepoge of weapons fought off the invading Arab armies. A Jewish Kibutz, Yod Mordichai stoped the entire Egyptian army for 5 days while the Isrealis organized the defense of Telaviv. The most professional military proved to be the British-trained Jordanian army--the Arab Legion. The Isrealis and Jordanians fought each other to a srandstill in Jeruselum. A series of truces failed to stop the fighting. Atrocities were reported on both sides. After a year of fighting, a ceasefire finally ended the war (1949). One of the countroversies resulting from the War was the Palestinian Arab refugees. Some fled Palestine because of both the fighting and Jewish attacks like that Deir Yassin village near Jerusalem. It is unclear to what extent the Arab refugees resulted from this or the fact that the Arabs called on the Arab Palestinians to evacuate Palestine. The idea was to create a "free-fire zone" in which Jews could better be targeted. This was the genisis of the Paestinian refugee problem.


Bar-Zohar, Michael. The Quest for the Red Prince (1983).

Shepherd, Naomi. Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine, 1917-1948 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 290p.


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Created: 6:42 AM 11/2/2007
Last updated: 9:22 AM 11/6/2017