Page last updated at 09:08 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 10:08 UK

Sixty years of Middle East division

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Ben Gurion reading the declaration of Israeli independence
War followed the declaration of independence and British withdrawal

Where Israel's good farmland starts to turn into the scrub of the Negev desert there stands an agricultural settlement called kibbutz Yad Mordechai.

It is a delightful spot on a spring evening. Residents keep livestock, grow crops, and produce some of the country's best honey.

Sixty years ago they were preparing to fight for their lives.

The British, rulers of Palestine since 1917, were going home, leaving behind a legal system, red pillar boxes, chaos and war.

At 1600 on 14 May 1948 Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion read out its declaration of independence in a hall in Tel Aviv.

Just before midnight a Royal Navy battle cruiser carrying Britain's last high commissioner slipped out of Palestine's territorial waters.

By dawn the next day, forces from Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt crossed into territory the British left behind.

Turned back

Yad Mordechai was on Egypt's invasion route, blocking its path to Tel Aviv. The fight they put up made the kibbutz a symbol of resistance for Israelis.

Although it fell, the Egyptians were held long enough for the Israeli army to prepare a new defence line further north where the advancing troops were stopped and turned back.

The kibbutz was founded by Jewish immigrants from Poland, who wanted to escape centuries of persecution and build a new life and a new kind of state in Palestine.

In 1943 they renamed their settlement after Mordechai Anielewicz, the Jew who led the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis.

The Holocaust created a compelling new moral argument for a Jewish state, and history is everywhere at the kibbutz.

Yad Mordechai has its own Holocaust museum, and a statue of Anielewicz, heroically posed.

They have preserved a water tower that was smashed in the fighting in 1948, and the battlefield, where metal cut outs of Egyptian soldiers still charge towards a rusty line of weapons - Bren guns, Lee Enfields and Mausers - concreted into the trenches they defended 60 years ago.

Since Israel's victory there has been six decades of remarkably successful nation-building, though the wars have never ended.

Half-finished story

Jewish refugees and migrants have been absorbed into a modern state, with a parliamentary democracy, a hi-tech economy and nuclear weapons.

Shimon Peres
I don't mind what historians are writing. Ben Gurion did not want the Arabs to leave the country
Israeli President Shimon Peres
Its closest ally is the United States. On this anniversary Israelis and their friends around the world have a great deal to celebrate.

But that is only half the story. The other side of it is Palestinian.

The members of kibbutz Yad Mordechai, like almost everyone else in the land that became Israel, originally had Palestinian Arab neighbours, mainly farmers whose families had worked the land for centuries.

Every year for Palestinians this anniversary is a reminder of what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe. For them the last 60 years have been about dispossession and exile.

In 1948 Palestinian society collapsed under the weight of war. Starting in the last months of 1947, and going on until the early part of 1949, about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees from the land that became Israel.

Many were expelled by force or left because of the fear that they might be killed. Their property was expropriated and they were not allowed to return.

Around 4.5 million Palestinians are now registered as refugees by Unrwa, the United Nations agency that looks after them. Many Palestinians believe that Israel's success has been built on the backs of their loss.


You have to know what to look for to see the signs left behind by the Palestinians who used to be the neighbours of kibbutz Yad Mordechai.

Palestinians surrender to Israeli forces in Ramla
Many Palestinians think Israel's success has been bought at their expense
Their villages were destroyed by Israel after they left. Sometimes clumps of prickly pears are a clue about what used to be there.

Cactus was used as hedging by Palestinian farmers, and in a land where two peoples who could scarcely be farther apart share many things, its fruit, the prickly pear, is also a national symbol for native-born Israelis.

They are known by its Hebrew name - sabra - because, they like to say, they are spiky on the outside but sweet when you get past the tough outer skin.

Even though Yad Mordechai's former Arab neighbours can no longer be seen from the kibbutz, many of them are in fact not very far away.

The kibbutz stands only a couple of miles from the main crossing point into the Gaza Strip, the narrow, overcrowded piece of land where 1.4 million Palestinians live in what they call the world's biggest prison.

Most of them are refugees. Children are brought up to know their home villages, even though their parents and sometimes even their grandparents have never been to them.

Why did they leave?

The reasons why the refugees left their homes are still bitterly contested, by historians as well as by leaders and activists.

Palestinian refugee children mark Nakba day in Lebanon
Palestinian refugees await an answer to their demand to return
Much of the controversy swirls around Plan D, which was adopted by Mr Ben Gurion and his generals in March 1948.

Some historians say it was a blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine. Others say it was a simple military plan for seizing strategic ground and there was no political scheme to drive the Arabs out of a future state.

It is politically red-hot because agreement on the causes of the problem might eventually be part of a solution, and leaders do not want to abandon deeply-held positions.

Israel's President, Shimon Peres, an aide to Mr Ben Gurion in 1948, told the BBC in an interview to mark his country's 60th anniversary that it bore no responsibility for the exodus of Palestinians.

"I was present at the occasion," President Peres said. "I don't mind what historians are writing. Ben Gurion did not want the Arabs to leave the country."

Strength and weakness

The former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Hazem Nusseibeh, a Palestinian who was a journalist in Jerusalem in 1948, expressed surprise when the BBC put the Israeli president's words to him.

"No responsibility whatsoever? Then what caused the exodus to happen? It was the Israeli massacre of the villages of people whom they encountered," he said.

"I can count you the scores of massacres which happened all over the country. Do you think anyone would leave his home unless he was really threatened?"

Despite their country's strength, some Israelis today also feel threatened - by Palestinian nationalism, by Islamist extremists who target Jews, and by Iran.

Many more Palestinian civilians die and lose their homes than Israelis, and they believe that what they call the catastrophe of 1948 has never ended.

The current peace process - sponsored by US President George W Bush - will fail like all the others if it cannot solve problems that have a direct connection to l948.

Partition is still on the agenda, as it was 60 years ago, because they need to divide the land between Israel and a Palestinian state. Jerusalem is still claimed by both sides. And Palestinian refugees await a future.

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