The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 is just one of a series of armed conflicts over territory in the Middle East. Tensions had been rising in the years prior to 1948, with several different events playing a part in the Arab decision to invade, and since 1948 Israel and the Occupied Territories have experienced virtually constant conflict. The 1948 war remains a key moment in the region’s history owing to its connection with the declaration of Israeli independence. For some of the region’s Arab residents, the day Israel came into being is known as “al-Nakba” or "the Catastrophe."
Up to 1918, the territory of modern-day Palestine and Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire, but after the empire’s disintegration with the Treaty of Sèvres after World War I, the Middle East was divided among the victorious Allied nations. Palestine was allocated to the British, becoming the Palestine Mandate. The Arabs already living there were disappointed at not gaining their independence and resented the immigration of Jews, while Jewish groups bought land and pressed for the creation of a Jewish homeland. By 1936, immigration from Europe had raised the Jewish population in the Mandate to close to 400,000 -- one-third of the total population -- while in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, permits were granted to a further 100,000 Holocaust survivors to settle in Palestine.
Partition of Palestine Mandate
After World War II, the British government wanted to withdraw from Palestine and asked the newly formed United Nations to negotiate a solution to the region’s divided population. In 1947 the U.N. General Assembly agreed to partition the area, effectively creating a Jewish state and an Arab state. A third area, around Bethlehem and Jerusalem, would remain an international zone. Palestinian Arabs refused to recognize the agreement, while Zionist Jewish leaders accepted it but hoped to increase the area allotted to them.
Fighting Within Israel
Tensions were high between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine following the partition agreement, and combatants on both sides staged attacks on the other’s territories. Two Jewish groups, LEHI and Irgun, were particularly successful in capturing and occupying areas allocated to the Arabs. On April 9, LEHI and Irgun fighters killed around 100 Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem. Fearing for their own lives following the incident, hundreds of thousands of Arabs left Palestine for Egypt, Lebanon and the West Bank.
The new Jewish state of Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, the same day the last British soldiers left Palestine. The following day, troops from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia crossed the border into the former Palestinian Mandate. However, Israeli forces gained the upper hand and by the time of the ceasefire the following year, had secured a larger area for the new Israeli state. Jordan took control of the West Bank, while Egypt secured Gaza, and the previously international territory around Jerusalem was divided.
- CIA World Factbook: Israel
- BBC News: 1948, The State of Israel is Founded
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Palestine 14
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Palestine 15
- Middle East Research and Information Project: The United Nations Partition Plan
- Department of State: Office of the Historian, The Arab-Israeli-War of 1948
- BBC News: Israel and the Palestinians, Establishment of Israel
- Israel and Judaism Studies: The Nature of Arab and Jewish Responses to the Question of a Jewish Homeland post-WW2
- Jewish Virtual Library: The Capture of Deir Yassin
- Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images