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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The War of Return

How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace

Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf

All Points Books




Historians may search, but they will not find any nation subjugated to as much torture as ours.



A few nights before he fell in battle on April 8, 1948, at the Castel mountain, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini found time to write his son Faisal a poetic letter. “This land of the brave,” wrote the commander of the local Palestinian militia forces in the Jerusalem area during Israel’s War of Independence, “is the land of our forefathers. The Jews have no right to this land. How can I sleep while the enemy rules it? Something burns in my heart. My homeland beckons.”1

Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini was an exceptional figure in Palestinian society—his father, Musa, had been mayor of Jerusalem, and his cousin Amin was mufti of the city and the most prominent Palestinian leader during the British Mandate period. Despite this aristocratic lineage, al-Husseini used to go out to battle with his low-ranking soldiers and fight with them shoulder to shoulder. But the spiritual inheritance he left his son Faisal—to vigorously oppose the Jewish bid for independence—was not at all exceptional. It reflected the position of all sections of Palestinian society at the time.2

The Arabs and Palestinians would later claim that the 1948 war caused the outrageous injustice of the refugee problem. But this is anachronistic: in fact, the belief that Zionism was an outrageous injustice predated the war and caused the Arabs to violently oppose the Jewish national liberation movement many decades earlier. Before even a single Palestinian had fled his home in the Mandate territory, there prevailed the notion in the Arab world that Jewish sovereignty in the region was a crime against justice. It was this Arab view of Zionism as an inherent injustice that led to the war of 1947–49 and to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in the first place.

The Arabs of Mandatory Palestine3 were divided between village and city, coast and mountain, and they were split between supporters of the Husseini clan and of the rival Nashashibi clan. Nevertheless, they were very much united politically in their rejection of the principle of Jewish sovereignty over any part of the land. At no stage did they accept the Jewish demand for independence, in even part of the Land of Israel. During the years of the Mandate, which was given to Britain in 1920 by the newly created League of Nations to govern the territory in order to establish a national home for the Jewish people,4 the Arabs had never stopped opposing this goal, seeing the whole land as Arab, and compromise as impermissible.5

The violent intercommunal struggle between Jews and Arabs, which started almost at the outset of British rule in the 1920s, eventually exhausted Britain, which decided to refer the question of Palestine to the United Nations after WWII. In a speech in Parliament on February 18, 1947, British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin—known for his hostile attitude to Zionism and the Jewish pre-state community (Yishuv)—explained his country’s decision: “His Majesty’s Government have thus been faced with an irreconcilable conflict of principles … For the Jews the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish State. For the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine” (our emphasis). Bevin understood that this was not a conflict between two national movements, each seeking first and foremost its own independence, but rather about one group (the Arabs) seeking first and foremost to foil the independence of another (the Jews).6

On November 29, 1947, after the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended the partition of Mandatory Palestine, the UN General Assembly voted to partition the land into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.7 In its explanatory report, the committee wrote that “the basic premise underlying the partition proposal is that the claims to Palestine of the Arabs and Jews, both possessing validity, are irreconcilable, and that among all of the solutions advanced, partition will provide the most realistic and practicable settlement, and is the most likely … [to meet] in part the claims and national aspirations of both parties” (our emphasis). By endorsing the partition between a Jewish state and an Arab state, the international community accepted the legitimacy of both Jewish and Arab claims to the land.8

The Jewish state was supposed to span 55 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine, encompassing most of the Negev Desert, the coastal plain between Rehovot and Haifa, eastern Galilee, the Jezreel Valley, and the northern portion of the Jordan Valley (including the Galilee Panhandle). The Arab state was supposed to include the northwestern Negev, the southern coastal plain around Gaza, the mountainous areas of Samaria and Judea going as far south as Beersheba, and central and western Galilee. Jerusalem was designated as a corpus separatum—a separate region—to be administered by the United Nations.

The Jewish state was supposed to contain a large Arab minority of 450,000 people, which constituted some 47 percent of the population at that given moment. This minority would become a much smaller proportion of the total population as soon as a newly established sovereign state of Israel would finally be able to open the doors to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors: some were waiting in displaced persons camps across Europe, and others were waiting in British internment camps in Cyprus, after the British yielded to Arab pressure and denied entry of the survivors into the land.9

The Jewish side responded with enthusiasm. David Ben-Gurion (who would later become Israel’s first prime minister) declared the plan to be the Jewish people’s greatest achievement, and Moshe Dayan later recalled that his heart pounded with excitement with every ambassador who said “yes” at the UN vote. In Jerusalem, hundreds gathered outside the National Institutions Building on King George Street. At two a.m., when the result of the vote was known, they started singing and dancing, and packed buses continued bringing more and more Jews to the area. In Tel Aviv, masses thronged to Magen David Square and burst into exuberant song and dance as soon as they heard the result of the vote.10

The Zionist movement had initially demanded the whole of Mandatory Palestine (claiming even more at the end of the First World War); but from the mid-1930s, it had begun to consistently express openness to territorial compromise and partition, because its objective was sovereignty. As such, Jewish leaders saw the partition plan as a tremendous achievement that fulfilled the foremost purpose of Zionism: political independence, even if only in part of the Land of Israel. “Our aspirations have been reduced, our territory has been shrunk, and the borders are politically and militarily bad,” said Ben-Gurion on December 3, 1947, “but there has never been a greater achievement than this. We have received most of the coastal plain, most of the valleys, most of the water sources in the north, most of the empty spaces, two seas, and recognition of our independence from most of the world.”11

By contrast, the Arab world completely rejected partition.

In their view, the entire land, carved out from the deceased Ottoman Empire, should have been given for an Arab state. From the beginning of the Mandate, they had tried to prevent Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel through violence, consistently rejecting any possibility of compromise (including the Peel Commission proposal of 1937, the first partition plan).12 In their minds, the Jews had no political or collective rights in the land, because they were not a nation.13 At most, they were eligible for the status Islam accords non-Muslims of monotheistic religions: the status of protected persons (dhimmis), who may live and retain their property and faith, but must be reconciled to their social and political inferiority to Muslims.14

In practice, partition would have meant that out of the 11.5 million square kilometers encompassed by Arab states at the time, many of which were also set in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, some fifteen thousand square kilometers (one one-thousandth) would be allocated to the Jewish people, who were also an indigenous people. In fact, had the Jewish people been allocated their fair share of the lands of the Ottoman Empire, based on their population, the land allocated to them would have been more than seven times larger. Partition also meant that out of sixty million Arabs, a few hundred thousand (a little more than half a percent) would live as a minority in a Jewish state.15 But for the Arabs, the very idea of a sovereign state where the Jewish people would enjoy international status equivalent to that of Arab and Muslim states was a blow to natural justice, and therefore anathema.

In 1944, for example, the Palestine Arab Party, which spoke for the center ground of Palestinian society, demanded the immediate “dissolution of the Jewish National Home,” and at the inaugural conference of the Arab League in October 1944, it was ruled that “Palestine constitutes an important part of the Arab world.” The Arab Higher Committee, which led the Palestinians before and during the 1948 war, informed the UN Special Committee on Palestine on its 1947 visit that “all of Palestine must be Arab.” Arab Higher Committee member Hussein al-Khalidi told the delegation that the Jews had always enjoyed comfortable lives in Arab countries until they began demanding their own sovereign state. He rejected the possibility of territorial partition and called for a single state with an Arab majority.16

Indeed, as soon as the result of the UN vote became known, Hajj Amin al-Husseini declared that the Arabs neither recognized the partition resolution nor intended to respect it. His brother, Jamal al-Husseini, vowed that “the blood will flow like rivers in the Middle East.” Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam (also known as Azzam Pasha), the secretary-general of the Arab League, stormed out of the General Assembly hall and warned the Jews that “up to the very last moment, and beyond, they [the Arabs] will fight to prevent you from establishing your State. In no circumstances will they agree to it.”17

Nothing made war and the loss of life and the creation of refugees necessary other than the Arabs’ opposition to the partition plan and aspirations of Jewish independence. The Arabs said as much explicitly, and even took pride in it. This was what Abba Eban, then a member of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, heard from Arab League secretary-general Azzam Pasha after Eban offered to try to reach an understanding on the eve of the partition resolution. In their meeting at London’s Savoy Hotel, Azzam told Eban:

If you win the war, you will get your state. If you do not win the war, then you will not get it … If you establish your state the Arabs might one day have to accept it, although even that is not certain. But do you really think that we have the option of not trying to prevent you from achieving something that violates our emotion and our interest? It is a question of historic pride. There is no shame in being compelled by force to accept an unjust and unwanted situation. What would be shameful would be to accept this without attempting to prevent it. No, there will have to be a decision, and the decision will have to be by force.18

Several attempts were made to avoid war, but the Arabs conditioned this on the complete renunciation of the idea of Jewish independence in any part of the land and with any borders. Immediately after the adoption of the partition resolution, the United Nations established a special committee for the orderly transfer of power from the British authorities to the two states that would be established, but the Arabs boycotted it. In its special report to the UN Security Council in February 1948, the committee wrote of “strong Arab elements inside and outside Palestine, [determined] to prevent the implementation of the Assembly’s plan of partition and to thwart its objectives by threats and acts of violence.”19

Violence broke out almost immediately following the passage of the partition resolution. The Arab Higher Committee called for a general strike across the land. The following day, a bus carrying Jewish passengers was attacked near Kfar Sirkin. Two days later, a Palestinian mob stormed the Jewish commercial center near Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate. The war had started. In the end, the young Jewish state was left standing, but at a heavy price: six thousand Jews (1 percent of the Jewish population) were killed, and thousands more were injured and left permanently disabled.

The Palestinians also paid a heavy price: they did not establish their own state next to Israel. Thousands were killed; hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes. But the fact is that none would have been uprooted if not for the war that the Arabs themselves insisted on waging, and if not for the Arabs’ belief, in the spirit of Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini, that “the Jews have no right to this land.”20

Copyright © 2020 by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf