From Its Beginning, Israeli Policy Promoted War, Not Peace

By Donald Neff

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , December 1987

It was 50 years ago, on May 14, 1948, that Britain ended its mandate over Palestine and Jews declared the establishment of Israel. General Sir Alan Cunningham, the British High Commissioner in Palestine, felt on his departure an “overwhelming sadness....Thirty years and we achieved nearly nothing.”1

In fact, he and many other Britons felt considerable bitterness toward the Jews. Since the end of World War II, Britain had lost 338 citizens at the hands of Jewish terrorists.2 Ahead was a half-century of bloodletting.

First there came an attempt by the Jews to complete the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem. As the British withdrew, Jewish troops completed their occupation of most of southern and western Jerusalem, popularly known as New Jerusalem.3 Reported Pablo de Azcarate, secretary of the Consular Truce Commission: “Hardly had the last English soldier disappeared than the Jews launched their offensive, consolidating their possession of Katamon which they occupied two weeks before and seizing the German Colony and the other southern districts of Jerusalem. The last remaining Arabs were liquidated, and from henceforth, the Jews were absolute masters of the southern part of the city.”4

One Palestinian resident, Naim Halaby, reported “an orgy of looting” by Jews. He saw “one group bring a horse and a cart up to his next-door neighbor’s abandoned home and systematically strip it bare. Down the street other looters carried away tires, furniture, kerosene and heaps of clothing from another house.”5

Arabs living in West Jerusalem accounted for more than half of the Arabs in the city, between 50,000 to 60,000 of the 101,000 total in 1948. They were undefended and either fled or were killed, leaving behind only those residing inside the Old City and three nearby districts. Jewish troops tried to capture the Old City—they attacked Jaffa Gate, Damascus Gate, New Gate, Nebi Daoud Gate—but failed to penetrate them.6

When the fighting for Jerusalem finally stopped in the autumn, Israeli forces occupied 12 of the 15 Arab districts in new, western Jerusalem: Deir Abu Tor, Greek Colony, German Colony, Katamon, Lower Bakaa, Mamillah, Musrarah, Nebi Daoud, Sheikh Bader, Sheikh Jarrah, Talbieh and Upper Bakaa. No Palestinians were left. The conquest of these Arab districts provided Jewish immigrants with some 10,000 homes, most of them fully furnished.7

Indicative of how the demographics of Jerusalem changed was the ratio between Jews and Arabs over the next two decades. The Jewish population increased from 99,690 in 1947 to 194,000 in 1967, while the Arabs went from 50,000 to zero in Jewish West Jerusalem and from 50,000 to 70,000 in the Old City and its environs.8

At 4 p.m. local time in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion read the proclamation of independence, declaring the birth of Israel as of midnight.9

The question of Israel’s borders went to the heart of the kind of country Israel would be.

Although Ben-Gurion’s proclamation promised in soaring words freedom and justice for all, there was no mention made of the U.N. Partition Plan’s call for creation of an Arab state, nor the extent of Israel’s borders. The question of Israel’s borders went to the heart of the kind of country Israel would be—whether a peaceful state content with its size mandated by the world community or an expansionist Zionist state determined to wrest away the Palestinians’ land.

The Jews chose expansion. Two days before declaring independence, the Provisional State Council, the Jewish pre-state government, had voted 5 to 4 not to mention borders. As Ben-Gurion had argued: “If the U.N. does not come into account in this matter, and they [the Arab states] make war against us and we defeat them...why should we bind ourselves?”10 It was an artful way to say the Jews should grab as much land as they could.

It is clear from its inception that Israel chose to be not only expansionist but also repressive of the Palestinians. In its declaration of independence, Israel adopted “the legal system prevailing on May 14, 1948,” including the British Defense (Emergency) Regulations.11 These laws numbered over 160 decrees promulgated by Britain in 1945 to put down Jewish terrorism and gave authorities the right to expel suspects, detain them without trial, restrict their movements, destroy their homes and other extralegal powers.12 The martial law regulations gave Israel unfettered power over the 160,000 Palestinians living under Israeli control.13 When Britain originally imposed the regulations, the Jews had been furious and charged London with inhumanity.

Dr. Bernard Joseph, later Israeli Minister of Justice Dov Yosef, called them “terrorism under official seal.” Yaakov S. Shapira, Israel’s future attorney general, said: “The regime created by the Emergency Regulations is without precedent in a civilized society. Even Nazi Germany had no such laws...Only one kind of system resembles these conditions—that of a country under occupation.”14 Menachem Begin called the regulations “Nazi laws” and vowed not to obey them, although he had no complaint about them when Israel later used them against the Palestinians.15

Martial Law

Israeli writer Tom Segev explained: “Martial law was initially instituted to prevent the return of refugees, or ”˜infiltrators,’ as they were called, and to prevent those who had succeeded in crossing the border from returning to their homes....

“The second role assigned to martial rule was to evacuate semi-abandoned neighborhoods and villages as well as some which had not been abandoned—and to transfer their inhabitants to other parts of the country. Some were evacuated from a ”˜security cordon’ along the borders, and others were removed in order to make room for Jews. The third function of martial rule was to impose political supervision over the Arab population. In the process, the Arabs were isolated from the Jewish population.”16

The regulations were used to rule over Israeli Palestinians until 1966 when martial law was finally declared ended.17 Since then Israel has found even more imaginative laws to enforce its occupation.

As for expansionism, Israel’s actions said more than any proclamation could. When the 1948 fighting ended, Israel held 8,000 square miles, equal to 77.4 percent, of the 10,434 square miles of Palestine’s land. Under the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947, it had been apportioned 56.47 percent even though its population was only half of the Palestinians’.18

Surely it was no accident—certainly not the “miraculous” event that Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, claimed19—that nearly two-thirds of the original 1.2 million Palestinian population was displaced and turned into refugees. Under Israeli pressure they fled their homes and businesses and Israelis took them over, enormously simplifying the task of establishing a new state. The value of immovable property left behind by the Palestinian refugees has been estimated at $4 million to $80 million in 1947 terms, to as high as seven times that amount.20 This massive loss was the reason that the war became known to Arabs as the nakba—the Catastrophe.21

Israel completed its conquest of Palestine with the capture of the entire area in 1967, including Syria’s Golan Heights. Since then, it has also taken over southern Lebanon and refuses to this day to surrender it as it does the Golan Heights and much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Suppression of the Palestinians and conquest of Arab land was a formula for war, not peace. And that was what Israel got for the next half century—and will continue to court until it allows the Palestinians their freedom and the Arabs their land.


Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim (ed.), Transformation of Palestine (2nd ed.), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987.
Azcarate, Pablo de, Mission in Palestine, 1948-1952, Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1966.
Bar-Zohar, Michael, Ben-Gurion: A Biography, New York: Delacorte Press, 1978.
Ben-Gurion, David, Israel: A Personal History, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Inc., 1971.
Ben-Gurion, David, Israel: Years of Challenge, Jerusalem: Massadah-P.E.C. Press Ltd., 1963.
Bethell, Nicholas, The Palestine Triangle: The Struggle for the Holy Land, 1935-48, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.
Cattan, Henry, Jerusalem, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Collins, Larry and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Davis, Uri & Norton Mezvinsky, Documents from Israel 1967-73: Readings for a Critique of Zionism, London: Ithaca Press, 1975.
Epp, Frank, H., Whose Land is Palestine?, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.
Forsythe, David P., United Nations Peacemaking: The Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
Karp, Yehudit, The Karp Report: Investigation of Suspicions Against Israelis in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, Israeli Government, 1984.
Khalidi, Walid (ed.), From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, second printing, 1987.
Laqueur, Walter and Barry Rubin (eds.), The Israel-Arab Reader (revised and updated), New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Lustick, Ian, Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1980.
Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Nakhleh, Issa, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem (2 vols), New York: Intercontinental Books, 1991.
Quigley, John, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice, Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
Sachar, Howard M., History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Tel Aviv: Steimatzky’s Agency Ltd., 1976.
Segev, Tom, 1949: The First Israelis, New York: The Free Press, 1986.
Shipler, David K., Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, New York: Times Books, 1986
Tannous, Izzat, The Palestinians: A Detailed Documented Eyewitness History of Palestine under British Mandate , New York: I.G.T. Company, 1988.


1 Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem! p. 13.
2 Bethell, The Palestine Triangle, p. 360. The text of Britain’s withdrawal statement is in New York Times, 5/14/48; the text includes a history of Britain’s policy during the Mandate.
3 Azcarate, Mission in Palestine 1948-1952, p. 43.
4 Ibid.
5 Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, p. 412.
6 Tannous, The Palestinians , pp. 565-67.
7 Cattan, Jerusalem, pp. 51, 61.
8 Ibid., p. 63.
9 Text of the proclamation is in New York Times, 5/15/48; Laqueur and Rubin, The Israel-Arab Reader, pp. 125-28; Ben Gurion, Israel, pp. 79-81. A total of 37 Jews attended the Tel Aviv independence meeting. Arab critics charged their action had no binding legal force in international law because they represented a minority population and only one of them had been born in Palestine; the others were from European countries. Declared Palestinian scholar Issa Nakhleh: “The Jewish minority had no right to declare an independent state on a territory belonging to the Palestinian Arab nation”; see Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, p. 4.
10 Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion, p. 161. Also see Flapan, The Birth of Israel, pp.34-36, for a detailed examination of early Israeli territorial intentions.
11 Ben Gurion, Israel: Years of Challenge, p. 43.
12 Quigley, Palestine and Israel, p. 102. Quigley points out that the British had rescinded the emergency relations just before their departure, so strictly speaking Israel did not adopt them. A selection of the regulations can be found in Karp, The Karp Report , Appendix II, pp. 65-84.
13 Lustick, Arabs in the Jewish State, p. 49.
14 Segev, 1949, p. 50. Also see James J. Zogby, Palestinians: The Invisible Victims, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1981, p. 32, and Rabbi Elmer Berger, “A Critique of the Department of State’s 1981 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in the State of Israel,” Americans for Middle East Understanding, undated.
15 Segev, 1949, p. 50n.
16 Ibid., p. 52.
17 Lustick, Arabs in the Jewish State, p. 123.
18 Epp, Whose Land is Palestine?, p. 195; Sachar, History of Israel, p. 350. For details of Israel’s plans for occupying Palestinian territory, see Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, pp. lxxv-lxxxiii, 755-61. For an excellent study of Jewish land ownership, see Ruedy in Abu-Lughod, Transformation of Palestine, pp. 119-138. Also see Davis & Mezvinsky, Documents from Israel 1967-1973, pp. 43-54; Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pp. 155, 179; Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, pp. 305-45; Shipler, Arab and Jew, pp. 32-36; Segev, 1949, pp. 69-71.
19 Sachar, History of Israel, p. 439.
20 Forsythe, United Nations Peacemaking, pp. 117-19.
21 Walid Khalidi, “The Palestine Problem: an overview,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1991, p. 9.