Did Israel ever attack first


Maximilian Felsch

Prof. Dr. Maximilian Felsch is Associate Professor at the Haigazian University in Beirut and has headed the Institute for Political Science there since 2011. His main research interests are regional and international relations in the Middle East and the interplay between politics and religion in the Arab world.

The Jewish influx to Palestine and the emergence of the State of Israel encounter resistance from the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. A conflict arises that escalated into several armed conflicts in the following decades and continues to this day.

The Arab population rose up against increasing Jewish immigration and the British mandate in the uprising from 1933 to 1936. Unrest at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem in October 1933. (& copy Everett Collection / Bridgeman Images)

From neighborhood to conflict, 1901 to 1952

At the end of the 19th century, almost half a million Arabs lived peacefully with around 25,000 Jews in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. When the Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901, began to systematically acquire land in the Mandate Palestine from the 1920s in order to force Jewish settlement and create the basis of a future Jewish state of Israel, tensions arose with the Arab population.

Immigration and land acquisition were concentrated in rural areas because, in contrast to the previous Arab owners, the Zionist landowners intended to inhabit and cultivate the land themselves. Landless farmers who had previously worked for the previous owners lost their livelihoods. They were forced to move to the cities, where they mostly fell into poverty. Thus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began as a social conflict between the rural Arab population and the Jewish settlers. At the same time, an ever stronger national feeling spread among the Arabs, which gave the conflict between the two groups additional dynamism. Since both sides claimed Palestine for themselves, a territorial conflict that continues to this day developed.

Regional reorganization after the First World War

The regional political changes after the First World War were decisive for the further development of Jewish-Arab relations. The Ottoman Empire, to which Palestine had belonged for 400 years, fell apart after losing World War I to the Allies. A political reorganization of the entire Middle East was now on the agenda, under which Palestine became a British mandate in 1920. The British had promised both the Arabs and the Zionists the territory of Palestine during the First World War. While the Arabs invoked the British promise to establish an Arab kingdom that also included Palestine, the Zionists referred to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the then British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour gave the Jewish people a "national home" Palestine pledged.

The Jewish immigrants legitimized their presence with the argument that they could contribute to the modernization and economic revitalization of Palestine. But many Palestinians feared that they would be economically left behind by the Jewish immigrants and politically controlled by others. With the establishment of their own institutions and companies, two separate societies developed in Palestine early on.

Source text

British mandate over Palestine

Occupied by Great Britain during World War I, Palestine was placed under British administration on April 25, 1920 by the Allied Supreme Council at a conference in San Remo. […] On July 24, 1922, the League Council confirmed the British mandate over Palestine. […] The British mandate over Palestine lasted until May 14, 1948. [...]

[…] Article 1.
The mandate should have all legislative and administrative powers, as long as they are not restricted by the provisions of the mandate.

Article 2.
The mandate should be responsible for ensuring that the country is placed under such political, administrative and economic conditions that the establishment of the Jewish national homeland [...] and the development of self-governing institutions as well as the protection of the civil and religious rights of all inhabitants of Palestine, without distinction of race and religion. [...]

Article 4.
An appropriate Jewish agency is to be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as the establishment of the Jewish national homeland and the interests of the Palestinians concern the Jewish population in Palestine and, always subject to the control of the administration, to help and participate in the development of the country. [...]

Article 6.
The administration of Palestine should, while ensuring that the rights and the situation of other parts of the population are not impaired, facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and, in cooperation with the [...] "Jewish Agency", a closed settlement of Jews in the countryside, including state lands and fallow lands that are not required for public purposes. [...]

Article 22.
English, Arabic and Hebrew are said to be the official languages ​​of Palestine. […] Given in London on July 24, 1922

"British Mandate over Palestine (1922)", in: 100 documents from 100 years. Partition plans, settlement options and peace initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (1917–2017), ed. by Angelika Timm, AphorismA Verlag Berlin 2017, p. 30 ff.



Arab resistance to immigration and partition plan

From 1929 onwards there were Arab uprisings and attacks on Jews and representatives of the British mandate in several places. Superficially it was about the control of the holy places in Jerusalem, at the same time two warring national movements crystallized in the context of the outbreaks of violence. Historically, 1929 can therefore be seen as the beginning of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Britain was unable to pacify this conflict and instead got more and more between the fronts. When, in the course of an Arab revolt in 1936, peaceful coexistence between the two population groups seemed increasingly impossible, London drew up a plan for the partition of Palestine. While the Zionist Congress approved this plan in principle in 1937, the Arabs rejected it and continued their uprising against the mandate power. Great Britain then dissolved all of the Arab national committees and arrested thousands of insurgents.

In the meantime, Jewish immigration to Palestine skyrocketed as the Nazis who came to power in the German Reich in 1933 persecuted, expelled and deported the Jews in order to finally commit an unprecedented genocide against them during the Second World War. In order to prevent the Arab states from allying themselves with the warring German Reich during the war, Great Britain tried to limit Jewish immigration with strict quotas and placed thousands of illegal immigrants in internment camps in Cyprus. Nevertheless, Jewish organizations managed to smuggle up to 100,000 Jews into Palestine illegally.

When violence in Palestine escalated again after the Second World War and radical Zionists carried out attacks on British authorities, Great Britain agreed to cede its mandate of Palestine to the newly created United Nations. In 1947, the UN General Assembly decided against the votes of Arab and Muslim states and, with Great Britain abstaining, in its Resolution 181 on its own partition plan for Palestine. This awarded Jews and Arab Palestinians several areas of roughly the same size, which, however, were poorly connected to one another. The partition plan provided for an international administration for Jerusalem. The Arab world immediately rejected this partition plan, and bloody fighting broke out between Jewish and Arab militias in Palestine.

Source text

UN partition resolution of November 1947

1. The mandate for Palestine ends as soon as possible [...].

2. The armed forces of the Mandate Power are gradually withdrawn from Palestine, with the withdrawal to be completed as soon as possible, in any case by August 1, 1948 at the latest. [...]
The Mandate Power does everything possible to ensure that an area within the sovereign territory of the Jewish state, including a seaport and hinterland with sufficient opportunities for considerable immigration, is vacated at the earliest possible time and in any case by February 1, 1948 at the latest.

3. Two months after the completion of the withdrawal of the armed forces of the Mandate Power, in any case no later than October 1, 1948, an independent Arab state and an independent Jewish state as well as the […] international special regime for the city of Jerusalem are established in Palestine. [...]

"Resolution of the General Assembly adopted on November 29, 1947. 181 (II). The future government of Palestine", in: 100 documents from 100 years. Partition plans, settlement options and peace initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (1917–2017), ed. by Angelika Timm, AphorismA Verlag Berlin 2017, p. 109 ff.



As soon as the British mandate formally expired on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in Tel Aviv. In response, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq attacked Israel, but suffered defeat in that first Middle East war. Israel, in turn, succeeded in enlarging its national territory by a third compared to the UN partition plan with this war.

After the war, all people living in the new Israeli state became Israeli citizens - according to the Nationality Law of 1952, this also included around 160,000 Palestinian Arabs. The vast majority of Arabs, around 700,000 people, had fled or been driven to neighboring countries before the fighting. Israel refused to return them after the war. From this it becomes understandable that the war from 1948 to the present day has received two very different evaluations: What Jewish Israelis celebrate as the birth of their state, most Palestinians still consider to this day Nakba, "Catastrophe".