Below is an excerpt from my new book, Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East: From European Colony to US Power Projection Platform. The excerpt is from Chapter 3, titled Nakba. The book is available from Baraka Books.
May 14, 2019
By Stephen Gowans
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved Resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, linked by an economic union, with Jerusalem set aside as an international territory outside the jurisdiction of either state. Palestine would be divided into eight parts. Three parts would constitute the Jewish state, while the Arab state would be comprised of three other parts, plus a fourth, Jaffa, which would be an Arab exclave within the territory of the Jewish state. Jerusalem—envisaged as a corpus separatum, or international city—was the eighth part.
The Jewish population had grown rapidly from World War I under the stewardship of the British colonial administration from approximately 10 percent of the population to about one-third. Yet, while Jewish settlers remained in the minority and were outnumbered two to one by the indigenous Arabs, the resolution granted the Jewish state 56 percent of the Palestinians’ country, while the Arabs, with two-thirds of the population, were given only 42 percent. The balance, two percent, represented Jerusalem.
Some people continue to see the partition resolution—and its descendant, the two-state solution—as fair and practical, but it was neither of these things. Laying aside the inequitable apportionment of a greater territory for a Jewish state to a smaller Jewish population, there are larger issues to confront.
The first is the denial of Palestinian sovereignty. There is no question that the indigenous population was adamantly opposed to the expropriation of its land. While it made up the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants, its wishes were completely ignored by the United Nations. This was predictable. At the time the world body was dominated by First World powers steeped in the colonial tradition. Many of the countries that voted for the resolution were settler colonial states themselves: Britain, France and Belgium, and the British settler offshoots, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. There was no chance that a similar resolution would have passed from the 1960s onwards, when the balance of power in the United Nations General Assembly shifted from the First World to the Third World. Countries with colonial pasts unwaveringly considered Zionism a legitimate political ideology, while countries victimized by colonialism regarded it as a form of colonialism.
The second issue, following from the first, is that the partition resolution called for the creation of an unacceptable institution: a colonial settler state. Colonial settler states have been overcome one by one by determined resistance—in Algeria, Rhodesia, South Africa, and elsewhere—to the deserved applause of the majority of humanity. The demise of each settler colonial state is a sign post in the progress of humanity. The question of whether the Jewish state envisioned by the partition resolution, or Israel today, is a colonial settler state isn’t even controversial. Neither Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, David Ben-Gurion, the father of the state of Israel, nor Le’ev Jabotinsky, founder of revisionist Zionism, were in any doubt that a Jewish state built by settlers on the land of another people was unequivocally settler colonialism.
As to the practicality of Resolution 181, it is as indefensible as the partition plan’s alleged equity. A practical settlement to the conflict would have been one that all sides accepted. But neither side accepted the resolution. The indigenous population rejected it for the obvious reason that it denied them sovereignty over 56 percent of their territory and handed it to a minority population of recent immigrants. No people on earth would have accepted this proposal for themselves; why the Palestinians were expected to accept it, boggles the mind. Ben-Gurion accepted the resolution in words, but only as a tactical manoeuvre, recognizing that an embryo Jewish state could be incubated into the Land of Israel through military conquest. The Revisionists rejected the planned partition, because it fell short of fulfilling Zionist aspirations for a Jewish state in all of south Syria (the name by which Palestine and Jordan were known by the indigenous population.)
For the settlers, the demographics of the partition plan were all wrong. The Jewish state would contain 500,000 Jews but almost as many Arabs. There would be 440,000 Arabs living in the territory Resolution 181 envisioned for the Jewish state. Jews, then, would constitute only a bare majority. A bare majority could quickly become a minority, depending on immigration, and on the birth rates of the two communities. Moreover, how could 500,000 Jews rule almost as many Arabs, considering that the Arabs rejected Jewish rule? The plan was completely unworkable. The only way to create a viable Jewish state would be to engineer a radical reduction in the number of Arabs living within its frontiers while at the same time expanding its borders to absorb as many of the 10,000 Jewish settlers the resolution had assigned to the Arab state.
The resolution’s proclamation immediately touched off fighting between the native Arabs and the immigrant Jewish settlers. The settlers were determined to drive as many natives as possible out of the territory assigned by the UN to a Jewish state, while capturing territory assigned by the UN to an Arab state. When the dust settled, a Jewish state, named Israel, was proclaimed, comprising 78 percent of Palestinian territory, not the 56 percent envisaged by the resolution. Meanwhile, 700,000 Arab natives had been exiled from their homes and the settlers refused their repatriation, keen to protect the outcome of their demographic engineering.
Today, Israelis insist their state grew out of a UN resolution that Arabs rejected and Jewish settlers accepted. While the Arab natives certainly rejected the resolution, the settlers rejected most of it as well, accepting only one small part of it—the call for the creation of a Jewish state. They rejected all the other parts, including the call for the creation of an Arab state within specified borders; the prohibition against expropriating Arab land within the Jewish state; the designation of Jaffa as an Arab exclave; the creation of an international Jerusalem; and the creation of an economic union between two states.
British rule of Palestine came to an end on May 15, 1948. On May 14, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, sparking what has become known as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was the first in a series of settler-native wars—armed conflicts between the army of the Jewish colonial settler state and various Arab armies and Arab irregulars.
The Arab belligerents in 1948—Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria—dispatched some 20,000 troops to help their compatriots resist settler efforts to transform Palestine into the Land of Israel. Only three of these states— Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq—had armies of consequence, and only one, Jordan, had an army that was prepared for war. All three states were British clients, governed by kings who served at the pleasure of London. All were armed by John Bull, and Jordan’s army was under the direct command of 21 British officers who took their orders from London. This was significant, since Britain favored the settlers, and could—and did—restrict the flow of weapons and ammunition to their client states. It’s not by accident that the core Arab armies did not intervene in Palestine until after British forces exited Palestine, even though settler forces began operations to drive the Arab natives out of Palestine five months earlier. When the British-controlled Arab armies did finally intervene, the settlers had largely ethnically-cleansed Palestine, and their entry into the affray was a near farce.
The Arab forces had no central command and no coordination. It has been remarked that one of the reasons five Arab armies were defeated by one Israeli army was because there were five Arab armies.
Worse, there were inter-Arab rivalries that further weakened the combined Arab forces. Jordan and Iraq, led by British-installed kings, brothers of the Hashemite dynasty, were eager to see the defeat of the Egyptian army of King Farouk. Farouk was a rival for influence in the Arab world, and the Hashemites desired his defeat. Jordan and Iraq, then, had no intention of doing anything to help their rival’s military forces.
On top of these problems, was the general weakness of the Arab armies. The Egyptian forces were under equipped and poorly led. They had no maps, no tents, and insufficient logistical support. Their officers were generally incompetent, having attained their rank through political connections. When orders were issued to soldiers in the field, they were often contradictory. The Iraqi army was even worse; it was sent into battle without ammunition.
Finally, there was betrayal. Abdullah, the king of Jordan, had secretly worked out an arrangement with the settlers to annex the West Bank to his kingdom. Glubb Pasha, the British officer who commanded Abdullah’s army, deliberately restrained his forces, ordering them not to enter territory assigned by the UN to a Jewish state, though Israeli forces had seized territory assigned to an Arab state.
It would have been difficult enough for the Arab armies to prevail under these trying circumstances, but the fact that they were outnumbered made victory all but impossible. Under-manned, lacking coordination, incompetently-led, ill-equipped, largely untrained, betrayed from within by Abdullah, and sabotaged by their British masters, 20,000 Arab soldiers were no match for the 60,000 unified and determined settlers under arms, many of whom were highly trained soldiers, having served in the British Army during the Second World War.
The Israelis have misnamed the First Settler-Native War as The War of Independence, as if it were a national liberation struggle of an oppressed people against a colonial power, Britain. On the contrary, it was a colonial war fought by Jewish settlers whose victory was aided in the background by the British. It was a war of dispossession, not a war of restitution.