By Walid Khalidi
Palestinian Nakba Day. This date commemorates the end, on 15 May 1948, of the so-called “Mandate” over Palestine “granted” to Britain by the League of Nations (the UN’s predecessor) following the end of World War I.
The Mandate system, a form of imposed international trusteeship, was devised by the victorious powers, chiefly Britain and France, to give a veneer of legality to their post-war military occupation and rule over the former Middle Eastern Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Thus, while Britain obtained mandates over Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan, France obtained mandates over Syria and Lebanon. The main purpose of Britain’s mandate over Palestine was to give effect to a unilateral promise made by its government in 1917 (the Balfour Declaration, after the then British foreign secretary) to the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to establish “a Jewish National Home” in Palestine.
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, about 90 percent of the population of Palestine was Arab and about 10 percent Jewish. Needless to say the Palestine Arabs were never consulted about either the Balfour Declaration or the British mandate over their country.
Advancing from British-occupied Egypt, British forces had wrested Jerusalem from the Ottomans in December 1917. The period 1920-1948 saw the relentless growth of the Jewish National Home through massive Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe under Britain’s imperial protection, despite increasingly desperate Palestinian protests and resistance.
Already by the mid-1940s the Zionist leadership, headed by the redoubtable David Ben-Gurion and drawing upon the support of the American Jewish community, felt strong enough to want Britain out of the way. With the Yishuv (1) highly militarized, it was confident that it could overcome any Arab opposition to turning the Jewish National Home into the Jewish state, which had been the WZO’s objective ever since the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Caught between the two contending parties in a conflict of its own making, Britain finally decided to turn “the problem” over to the UN, successor to the League of Nations.
In November 1947, thanks to massive US pressure on the UN member states, (1948 was an American Presidential election year), the UNGA recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, with a special international regime (corpus separatum) for Jerusalem and its hinterland.
The UN partition plan, presented as a compromise between the two communities was anything but. It gave the Jewish population, which by then had artificially grown into about 30 percent of the population, over half (55 percent) of Palestine where Jews owned less than 8 percent of the land. It condemned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within the UN-drawn boundaries to live in separation from their compatriots as a minority in the Jewish state-to-be.
The Jews were overjoyed, but the Palestinians were outraged at this dismemberment of their country and fragmentation of their society – a prolonged nightmare realized. Artfully the Zionist leaders represented their “acceptance” of partition as evidence of their readiness to “compromise” and to comply with the will of the international community.
Well before November 1947, David Ben-Gurion had already envisaged partition (i.e. a Jewish state in a part of Palestine) not only as an opportunity to “transfer” (i.e. expel) the Palestinians from the state to make way for Jewish immigrants from overseas, but also as a bridgehead to expand the state beyond its borders with the help of these immigrants (2). To achieve his geostrategic objectives, he had devoted the decade before November 1947 to building the military might of the Yishuv via the Haganah (and its striking force the Palmach) as well as to detailed military planning. The November 1947 UNGA partition resolution was the ultimate green-light for Ben-Gurion to go into action.
Ben-Gurion’s master plan for the military takeover of Palestine and the transfer of Palestinians in the wake of the 1947 UNGA’s resolution was known as “Plan Dalet” (3). British withdrawal from Palestine began soon after the resolution was passed. The vacuum created by this withdrawal was quickly filled by the Haganah, which carefully avoided clashing with the departing British. In early April 1948, Plan Dalet was put into operation. Within six weeks, such were the Zionist victories that Israeli statehood could be declared the day the Mandate officially ended, on 15 May 1948 – symbolically chosen by the Palestinians as Nakba Day.
By that time the Plan’s devastating impact on the civilian Palestinian population (hundreds of thousands had already abandoned their homes) was well in evidence. Indeed, but for this vast Palestinian exodus into the neighboring Arab countries generated by Plan Dalet (and the atrocities committed by the “dissident” terrorist gangs, Irgun and Stern), it is doubtful that the collective intervention on 15 May of the regular forces of the Arab League member states would have taken place following the departure of the British. But already this intervention was too little and too late.
As for nascent Israel’s “Davidian” status vis-a vis the Goliath of the “invading” Arab states, Ben Gurion provides eloquent testimony on it in his War Diary. Thus, on 24 May 1948, less than ten days after the Arab armies had entered those parts of Palestine allocated to the Arab state under the partition plan to preempt the advancing Jewish forces, David Ben-Gurion wrote (4):
Maklef [Carmeli brigade] should receive reinforcements. His job is to occupy South Lebanon after bombing Tyre, Sidon and Beirut from the air. We will also shell Beirut from the sea. Yigal [Alon] should hit Syria [Syrian army] at [Mishmar Haemek] from the East and the North. Our airforce must bomb and destroy Amman. The weak link in the Arab coalition is Lebanon because Muslim authority there is artificial, and easy to undermine. We must establish a Christian state with the Litani River as its southern border (5). We will form an alliance with it.
Once we destroy the power of the Arab Legion [the army of Trans-Jordan] we will destroy Tran-Jordan and Syria will then fall. If Egypt dares to continue fighting, we will bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. This is how we shall end this war and wind up our ancestors’ accounts with Egypt, Ashur and Aram….
General Secretary, Institute for Palestine Studies
(1) The Hebrew name of the Jewish community in Palestine during the British Mandate
(2) See David Ben-Gurion’s letter to his son Amos, 5 October 1937. [PDF]
(3) See Walid Khalidi “Plan Dalet Revisited” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol XIII, No. 1, #69 Autumn 1988 pp. 3-70.
(4) David Ben-Gurion Yoman Hamilhimah Malhimet Hatzm’ut 1947-1949 (War Diary; War of Independence 1947-1949), eds. Gershon Rivlin, Dr. Ilhanan Oren (Propagation of DBG’s Teachings’ Society, Ministry of Defence Press, Tel Aviv, 1984), p. 454 ff.
(5) This incorporates into Israel the predominantly Shiite region of South Lebanon.
River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian
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