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The Road to 1948

February 1, 2024
in The New York Times

One year matters more than any other for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1948, Jews realized their wildly improbable dream of a state, and Palestinians experienced the mass flight and expulsion called the Nakba, or catastrophe. The events are burned into the collective memories of these two peoples — often in diametrically opposed ways — and continue to shape their trajectories.

If 1948 was the beginning of an era, it was also the end of one — the period following World War I, when the West carved up the Middle East and a series of decisions planted the seeds of conflict. To understand the continuing clashes, we went back to explore the twists and turns that led to 1948. This path could begin at any number of moments; we chose as the starting point 1920, when the British mandate for Palestine was established.

Over the following decades, two nationalisms, Palestinian and Jewish, took root on the same land and began to compete in a way that has ever since proved irreconcilable. The Arab population wanted what every native majority wants — self-determination. Jews who immigrated in growing numbers wanted what persecuted minorities almost never attain — a haven, in their ancient homeland from the hatred and danger they around the world

In the time of the British mandate, Jews and Palestinians, and Western and Arab powers, made fundamental choices that set the groundwork for the suffering and irresolution of today. Along the way, there were many opportunities for events to play out differently. We asked a panel of historians — three Palestinians, two Israelis and a Canadian American — to talk about the decisive moments leading up to the founding of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians and whether a different outcome could have been possible.

The conversation among the panelists, which took place by video conference
on Jan. 3, has been edited and condensed for clarity, with some material reordered or added from follow-up interviews.

Emily Bazelon:
Why is 1920 a good place to start the story of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

Leena Dallasheh:
The British mandate was crucial in laying the grounds for the creation of the state of Israel and the prevention of the creation of a Palestinian state. Zionism was only able to take root in Palestine because the mandate recognized Zionist organizations as representative of the Jewish population and as self-governing institutions, basically creating the structure of a quasi state. It did this by incorporating in its text the Balfour Declaration, which the British issued in 1917.

The mandate did not similarly recognize Palestinian organizations or representation. The majority, the Palestinians, were only mentioned in the negative, as “non-Jewish communities” given civil and religious rights. That meant the Palestinians were trapped, as the Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi says, in an iron cage. The structure of the mandate prevented them from being able to have national rights or sovereignty. And that set in motion the developments in 1948 and after.

Salim Tamari:
The mandate period completely thwarted the possibility of a common notion of citizenship. There was a period, at the end of the Ottoman era, when the new Constitution was adopted in 1908, establishing equal citizenship for all Ottoman subjects, instead of dividing Muslims from non-Muslims. Language was a very important articulator of national identity. Arabic was not only the language of the Muslims and Christians but the language of the Jews — the language of the land. The British framework changed all of that, creating three official languages, English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Itamar Rabinovich:
The British made a lot of contradictory promises during the war. To persuade the Arabs to rebel against the Ottomans, they promised Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, who was from an important Hashemite family, a very large kingdom.

It’s the mandate that creates the political entity called Palestine. Before that, it was a geographic term. And the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism was over the question of what would be the nature of this entity — an Arab state, a Jewish state, a binational state or partition?

In 1920, we speak about Jews and Arabs. It’s only in 1948 that the Arabs become Palestinians and the Jews become Israelis.

I don’t agree with that. The research has been quite extensive and shows that there is clear expression of Palestinian identity already by World War I, and definitely clear expressions of Palestinian nationalism in the 1920s.

In 1920, in fact, one of the first mass violent outbursts occurred during the Nebi Musa procession, where Palestinian national leadership objected to Zionist plans in Palestine.

Nadim Bawalsa:
The mandate period sets a precedent for how Palestine will be handled at the international level, which is to say as an exception to the law. Britain started off as the military occupier of Palestine at the end of World War I and then unilaterally altered its own status to civil administrator, even though it didn’t have the power to do so under international law. The League of Nations then left it to the British authorities to manage Palestine however they saw fit.

Around the same time, local Muslim-Christian associations were springing up all over historic Palestine, in Haifa, Jaffa, Nablus, Jerusalem. They would convene regularly to draft grievances and submit them to the British authorities in Jerusalem. They always made the same demands: self-determination as part of an undivided Arab Syria and opposition to Jewish immigration and land acquisition.

So the British were very much aware of exactly what it was that the Arabs or the Palestinians wanted. But to serve their own interests, they pitted the Palestinians against one another. Right after the Nebi Musa riots, they sacked the mayor of Jerusalem and appointed Raghib al-Nashashibi in his place. He was of the Palestinian nationalist elite who opposed Zionism, but he was more obedient and agreeable to British interests. The British also created the Supreme Muslim Council to oversee Islamic property, endowments, schools and courts and appointed Haj Amin al-Husseini, from a rival elite family, to head the council as the grand mufti of Jerusalem. He was seen as more of a people’s leader, but he also collaborated with the British. The point is that during the 1920s and early ’30s, Palestinian nationalists could oppose Zionism all they wanted so long as they didn’t get in the way of Britain’s goals.

And of course, all of this falls short of actually giving the Palestinians national and territorial rights.

Derek Penslar:
Many Zionists wanted to believe that they represented progress — they would come with their technology and electricity, with better farm machinery, and improve everyone’s lives. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose version of Zionism was the precursor to Likud, the party of Benjamin Netanyahu, had a more realistic vision. He said: Don’t condescend to the Arabs. They have every reason to oppose Zionism, and they will do so, until they are met with overwhelming force.

Read the full article.