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Monday, 27 April, 1998, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
The birth of Israel
people and banner
Israelis salute their new state
The former BBC Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, looks back at the history of Israel.

The contrast between the growing Jewish society in Palestine - the Yishuv - and the indigenous, mainly Muslim Arab population could not have been greater.

In 1917, two-thirds of the roughly 600,000 Arab population, were rural and village-based, with local, clannish loyalties and little connection with the towns. What passed for "national" Arab leadership was based in the towns, though there was little national identity. Two or three established, rival families dominated Palestinian politics.

Tilling the land
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The majority of the Jews arriving in Palestine were well organised, motivated and skilled. In the early 1920s, they set up an underground army, the Haganah, or Defence. A Jewish shadow government was set up, with departments which looked after every aspect of society: education, trades unions, farmers, the "kibbutzim" settlements that spread across Palestine, the law, and political parties.

During World War II, Haganah fighters joined the British Army, acquiring military skills and experience. Not so the Arabs.

blown up hotel
Prime target: In 1946, Irgun Zwei Leumi bombed the British army headquarters at the King David Hotel
At the same time, extremist groups such as the Irgun Zwei Leumi and the Lehi, or Stern Group, began a brutal campaign of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, intimidations, disruptions and sabotage. Their actions were directed against Briton, Arab and even Jews.

During the World War, the Zionist movement clearly defined its objective as a dominant Jewish state in Palestine. Deep plans were laid.

Zionist colonist
Building a new home in Palestine
After 1945, as the facts and consequences of Hitler's death camps became evident, the Jewish underground intensified the terror campaign to oust the British, whom they accused of Arab sympathies. Jewish organisations tried to restart unlimited immigration.

Enormous emotional and political support for the Zionists came from the United States. The enfeebled postwar British Government no longer had the strength or the stomach to control Palestine or try to find a middle way that would suit both Jews and Arabs.

The first Israeli-Arab war

Arabs rioted followed the UN vote
Britain handed the problem to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors.

There was violent and total Arab opposition, but wild Jewish acclaim. Fighting started almost immediately.

Even before the mandate ended, in April and May, Jewish fighters moved to protect, consolidate and widen the territory for the new Jewish state. Often they attacked areas designated for Arabs, and tried to depopulate Arab areas in the planned Jewish sector.

large tent in distance
Palestinian refugee camp in Jericho
On April 9, Jewish fighters massacred scores of Palestinian villagers, including old people, women and children, in the West Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin, causing widespread panic and greatly augmenting the flight of Palestinians from their homes across the country.

As the Jewish authorities had predicted, Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon tried to invade Palestine as soon as the British forces actually left. But the Arab campaign was a generally badly organised, uncoordinated affair with untrained units who were no match for the Haganah and, later, the Israeli Defence Force.

The Palestinian militias and other Arab irregulars were also easily crushed.

Arab Legion fighting
A soldier of the Arab Legion fighting in Jerusalem
There was one exception: the British-trained and British-officered Arab Legion, under the command of King Abdullah of Jordan. But it was constrained financially and politically by the British-dominated King, who had already colluded with the Jewish leaders on territorial matters and who had ambitions in Palestine.

The Arab Legion, therefore, was restricted to defending territory in and around East Jerusalem and the Old City and on the West Bank of the Jordan, which it did successfully.

Israeli soldiers raise the flag over Um-Rashrash, now Eilat
Israeli soldiers raise the flag over Um-Rashrash, now Eilat
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The refugees

By the middle of 1949 up to 700,000 of about 900,000 Palestinian Arabs had left the affected region, forced out by a combination of Jewish/Israeli terror tactics, the frightening thrust of war, the contagious panic of local residents, fractious and incompetent Arab leadership, the flight of some richer and therefore influential families and the actual sale of Arab land to the Jews without coercion, often by absentee Arab landlords.

These Palestinians had fled from their homes for ever, though they did not know it at the time. They ended up in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egyptian-run Gaza and in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which was ruled by the Jordanian King Abdullah, as was Arab East Jerusalem.

Those Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the region now number more than three million. Israel has since refused to allow the refugees to return as long as Arab states remain pledged to its destruction, often claiming that there was no room for them anyway.

Peace treaties and agreements with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian movement have not altered this.

Celebrating the UN vote
In 1917, there had been 50,000 or so Jews in Palestine. By 1948, they had become 650,000 Israelis. At the same time, the majority of Palestinian Arabs had left Israel; only 200,000 or so withstood the war and other depradations and remained in Israel.

Israel became a state on May 15, 1948, and was recognised by the United States and the Soviet Union that same day.

The History of Israel
Part 1: The return of the Jews to the promised land
Part 2: The birth of Israel
Part 3: Israel builds a nation
Part 4: Israel in war and peace
Part 5: Israel and the PLO
Part 6: The Intifada
Part 7: The road to Oslo
Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.

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