The years 1947–1949 were among the most decisive in modern Palestinian history, and their outcome was catastrophic for the Palestinian people. By the time the British referred the question of Palestine to the United Nations in April 1947, they had already helped to create a shift in the local balance of power in favor of the Zionists and at the expense of the Palestinians. Relying on the diplomatic and political assets provided by the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947 and on strong U.S. support, the Zionists embarked on an offensive to conquer as much land as possible beyond the recommended partition lines, to destroy and empty whole Palestinian villages and towns, and to transform most of the Palestinians into refugees. Arab military and political support, not nearly commensurate to the scope of the sustained Zionist existential threat, could not prevent the Palestinian Nakba.
British policy in Palestine since the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and the ensuing struggle between the Zionist movement and the Palestinians for control over the future of the country, left Britain incapable of managing the situation politically and militarily, and finally led it, in April 1947, to refer the problem of Palestine’s future to the UN. By that time, the population of Palestine was one-third Jewish and two-thirds Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian. On 15 May 1947, the UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to devise a plan for post-Mandate Palestine. After touring both the Middle East and displaced persons camps in Europe that held thousands of Jewish Holocaust refugees, UNSCOP arrived at a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international zone in and around Jerusalem. The borders seemed unworkable—each state consisted of three major parts only barely connected with one another—and the Jewish state was larger than the Arab state, yet its population would be only about one-half Jewish. UNSCOP also issued a minority plan that rejected partition in favor of a federal Palestine. The UN General Assembly voted to adopt the UNSCOP majority proposal on 29 November 1947. The Zionists publicly accepted partition; neither the Arab states nor the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the de facto Palestinian leadership, did.
Arab-Jewish fighting in Palestine broke out almost immediately after the UN partition vote. Jewish forces were larger and much better organized. They consisted of the Haganah militia and its full-time strike force, the Palmach, plus two smaller militias: Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi (National Military Organization; also called Irgun and Etzel) and the Lohamei Herut Yisra’el (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel; also called LEHI and the Stern Gang). There was no national Palestinian fighting force. The major armed group was the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (Holy War Army), formed by the AHC and led by Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini. It operated only in the Jerusalem area. In northern Palestine, an Arab League–sponsored army called the Jaysh al-Inqadh al-Arabi (Arab Liberation Army) operated. It was made up of volunteers from surrounding Arab countries and led by a Lebanese officer, Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Various villages also formed their own militias for defense. By May 1948, Zionist forces were on the offensive and had captured several major towns such as Jaffa, Haifa, and Tiberias, as well as large areas of the proposed Arab state, particularly in Galilee. Tens of thousands of Palestinians had already fled as refugees, especially after news of Zionist atrocities like that at Deir Yasin—where on 9 April, Zionist paramilitary forces killed more than 100 Palestinian villagers—spread through the population.
On 14 May 1948, the day that the last British soldiers and administrators left Palestine, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state called Israel. During the years of the Mandate, the Zionist movement had carefully prepared for independence and had created a network of institutions ready to begin the process of governing. By contrast, there were no real national Palestinian institutions for governance or defense. On 15 May, units of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia entered the country to protect the Palestinian community and fight the Israelis. Despite being nominally coordinated by the Arab League, these armies generally acted independently of one another. Within two weeks, Arab forces had fought the Israeli army to a standstill. Israeli-Jordanian fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City was particularly fierce. After a short truce arranged by the UN on 11 June, the fighting resumed from 8 to 18 July. Israeli forces captured the towns of Nazareth, Ramla, and Lydda. By that time, the Israeli army had received a massive shipment of weapons from Czechoslovakia. Newly arrived Jewish immigrants and foreign Jewish volunteers swelled the Israeli army, and aircraft purchased from Czechoslovakia and smuggled from the United States helped create a formidable air force. A second cease-fire held from 19 July until 15 October. Thereafter, the Israeli army went back on the offensive, capturing the rest of Galilee and the Negev, and winning the war.
By early 1949, the proposed UN partition boundaries had become irrelevant. Israeli forces controlled 77 percent of pre-1948 Palestine, including large areas of what was designated in the UN plan as part of the Arab state. Of the other 23 percent of Palestine, Egyptian forces controlled Gaza while Jordanian and Iraqi troops held onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem. No Palestinian state emerged. Although the Arab League endorsed the formation of the AHC-led All Palestine Government in Egyptian-controlled Gaza on 20 September 1948, this body never exercised any real power, even in Gaza. In the West Bank, a gathering of Palestinian notables in Jericho on 1 December 1948 called for Jordan to annex the West Bank.
Palestinians call the war the Nakba—the catastrophe. By far, the most disastrous consequence of the war was the massive depopulation of Palestine’s Arabs. More than 725,000 Palestinians had fled their homes or were expelled by Zionist forces, only to become refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding Arab countries. Israel categorically refused to allow them to return. The approximately 150,000 Palestinians who stayed, a large number of whom were also internally displaced homeless refugees, were subjected to martial law in the new Jewish state.
The UN intervened to bring an end to the fighting, dispatching the Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte as UN Mediator for Palestine. After several months’ effort, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem on 17 September 1948 by members of LEHI. He was replaced by an American, Ralph Bunche. After the fighting ended, Bunche gathered delegations from the warring sides and brought them to the island of Rhodes to arrange for final armistice agreements. Starting in February 1949 and lasting until July, he arranged armistices between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Iraq never signed an armistice and simply withdrew its forces from the West Bank.
Although the armistices ended the bloodshed, no peace treaties emerged from Rhodes. On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194, which created the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), whose three members were France, Turkey, and the United States. The UNCCP convened the Lausanne Conference in April 1949 to achieve a final peaceful end to the conflict. The conference, which included delegations from Israel and four Arab states—the Palestinians had no official representation—failed to produce an agreement by the end of the conference in September 1949. Resolution 194 also called for the refugees to be allowed to return to their homes or, for those choosing not to, to be compensated for their losses. One year later, on 8 December 1949, the UN General Assembly established an agency specifically for the refugees—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—to provide relief services such as food rations and health services, as well as social services such as education.
Thus, the uneasy status quo that emerged after the war left the significant issues facing Palestinians—including the situation of the Palestinian refugees and the question of political representation of the Palestinian people—largely unresolved. This lack of resolution only compounded the scale of the disastrous loss of Palestine.
The Arab-Israeli Armistice Agreements, February-July 1949: UN Texts and Annexes. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1967.
Masalha, Nur. Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Pappé, Ilan. The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951. New York: I.B. Tauris, 1994.
Rogan, Eugene L., and Avi Shlaim. The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Shlaim, Avi. Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Shlaim, Avi. “The Rise and Fall of the All-Palestine Government in Gaza.” Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.1 (Autumn 1990): 37-53.