History of Israel



The War of Independence was the most costly war Israel has fought; more than 6,000 Jewish fighters and civilians died. At the war's end in 1949, the fledgling state was burdened with a number of difficult problems. These included reacting to the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and to a festering refugee problem on its borders, maintaining a defense against a hostile and numerically superior Arab world, keeping a war-torn economy afloat, and managing foreign policy alignments. Faced with such intractable problems, Ben-Gurion sought to ensure a fluid transition from existing prestate institutions to the new state apparatus. He announced the formation of a Provisional Council of State, actually a transformed executive committee of the Jewish Agency with himself as prime minister. Weizmann became president of the council, although Ben-Gurion was careful to make the presidency a distinctly ceremonial position. The provisional government would hold elections no later than October 1948 for the Constituent Assembly to draw up a formal constitution. The proposed constitution was never ratified, however, and on February 16, 1949 the Constituent Assembly became Israel's first parliament or Knesset.

A key element of Ben-Gurion's etatism was the integration of Israel's independent military forces into a unified military structure. On May 28, 1948, Ben-Gurion 's provisional government created the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Hebrew name of which, Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael, is commonly abbreviated to Zahal, and prohibited maintenance of any other armed force. This proclamation was challenged by the Irgun, which sailed the Altalena, a ship carrying arms, into Tel Aviv harbor. Ben-Gurion ordered Haganah troops to fire on the ship, which was set aflame on the beach in Tel Aviv. With the two camps on the verge of civil war, Begin, the leader of the Irgun, ordered his troops not to fire on the Haganah. Although the Altalena affair unified the IDF, it remained a bitter memory for Begin and the Irgun. Begin subsequently converted his armed movement into a political party, the Herut (or Freedom Movement). By January 1949, Ben-Gurion had also dissolved the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah.

Ingathering of the Exiles

The first legislative act of the Provisional Council of State was the Law and Administrative Ordinance of 1948 that declared null and void the restrictions on Jewish immigration imposed by British authorities. In July 1950, the Knesset passed the Law of Return, which stated that "Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an olah (new immigrant)."

In 1939 the British Mandate Authority had estimated that about 445,000 out of 1.5 million residents of the Mandate were Jews. Israeli officials estimated that as of May 15, 1948, about 650,000 Jews lived in the area scheduled to become Israel under the November 1947 UN partition proposal. Between May 1948 and December 31, 1951, approximately 684,000 Jewish immigrants entered the new state, thus providing a Jewish majority in the region for the first time in the modern era. The largest single group of immigrants consisted of Jews from Eastern Europe; more than 300,000 people came from refugee and displaced persons camps.

The highly organized state structure created by Ben-Gurion and the old guard Mapai leadership served the Yishuv well in the prestate era, but was ill prepared for the massive influx of nonEuropean refugees that flooded into the new state in its first years of existence. Between 1948 and 1952 about 300,000 Sephardic immigrants came to Israel. Aside from 120,000 highly educated Iraqi Jews and 10,000 Egyptian Jews, the majority of new immigrants (55,000 Turkish Jews, 40,000 Iranian Jews, 55,000 Yemeni Jews, and thousands more from Jewish enclaves in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Cochin in southwest India) were poorly educated, impoverished, and culturally very different from the country's dominant European culture. They were religious Jews who had worked primarily in petty trade, while the ruling Ashkenazim of the Labor Party were secular socialists. As a result, the Ashkenazim-dominated kibbutz movement spurned them, and Mapai leadership as a whole viewed the new immigrants as "raw material" for their socialist program.

In the late 1950s, a new flood of 400,000 mainly undereducated Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Egyptian Jews immigrated to Israel following Israel's Sinai Campaign. The total addition to Israel's population during the first twelve years of statehood was about 1.2 million, and at least two-thirds of the newcomers were of Sephardic extraction. By 1961 the Sephardic portion of the Jewish population was about 45 percent, or approximately 800,000 people. By the end of the first decade, about four-fifths of the Sephardic population lived in the large towns, mostly development towns, and cities where they became workers in an economy dominated by Ashkenazim.

Israeli Arabs, Arab Land, and Arab Refugees

Events immediately before and during the War of Independence and during the first years of independence remain, so far as those events involved the Arab residents of Palestine, matters of bitter and emotional dispute. Palestinian Arab refugees insist that they were driven out of their homeland by Jewish terrorists and regular Jewish military forces; the government of Israel asserts that the invading Arab forces urged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their houses temporarily to avoid the perils of the war that would end the Jewish intrusion into Arab lands. Forty years after the event, advocates of Arabs or Jews continue to present and believe diametrically opposed descriptions of those events.

According to British Mandate Authority population figures in 1947, there were about 1.3 million Arabs in all of Palestine. Between 700,000 and 900,000 of the Arabs lived in the region eventually bounded by the 1949 Armistice line, the so-called Green Line. By the time the fighting stopped, there were only about 170,000 Arabs left in the new State of Israel. By the summer of 1949, about 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were living in squalid refugee camps, set up virtually overnight in territories adjacent to Israel's borders. About 300,000 lived in the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by the Egyptian army. Another 450,000 became unwelcome residents of the West Bank of the Jordan, recently occupied by the Arab Legion of Transjordan.

The Arabs who remained inside post-1948 Israel became citizens of the Jewish state. They had voting rights equal to the state's Jewish community, and according to Israel's Declaration of Independence were guaranteed social and political equality. Because Israel's parliament has never passed a constitution, however, Arab rights in the Jewish state have remained precarious. Israel's Arab residents were seen both by Jewish Israelis and by themselves as aliens in a foreign country. They had been waging war since the 1920s against Zionism and could not be expected to accept enthusiastically residence in the Jewish state. The institutions of the new state were designed to facilitate the growth of the Jewish nation, which in many instances entailed a perceived infringement upon Arab rights. Thus, Arab land was confiscated to make way for Jewish immigrants, the Hebrew language and Judaism predominated over Arabic and Islam, foreign economic aid poured into the Jewish economy while Arab agriculture and business received only meager assistance, and Israeli security concerns severely restricted the Arabs' freedom of movement.

After independence the areas in which 90 percent of the Arabs lived were placed under military government. This system and the assignment of almost unfettered powers to military governors were based on the Defense (Emergency) Regulations promulgated by the British Mandate Authority in 1945. Using the 1945 regulations as a legal base, the government created three areas or zones to be ruled by the Ministry of Defense. The most important was the Northern Area, also known as the Galilee Area, the locale of about twothirds of the Arab population. The second critical area was the socalled Little Triangle, located between the villages of Et Tira and Et Taiyiba near the border with Jordan (then Transjordan). The third area included much of the Negev Desert, the region traversed by the previously apolitical nomadic beduins.

The most salient feature of military government was restriction of movement. Article 125 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations empowered military governors to declare any specified area "offlimits " to those having no written authorization. The area was then declared a security zone and thus closed to Israeli Arabs who lacked written permission either from the army chief of staff or the minister of defense. Under these provisions, 93 out of 104 Arab villages in Israel were constituted as closed areas out of which no one could move without a military permit. In these areas, official acts of military governors were, with rare exceptions, not subject to review by the civil courts. Individuals could be arrested and imprisoned on unspecified charges, and private property was subject to search and seizure without warrant. Furthermore, the physical expulsion of individuals or groups from the state was not subject to review by the civil courts.

Another land expropriation measure evolved from the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, which were passed in 1949 and renewed annually until 1972 when the legislation was allowed to lapse. Under this law, the Ministry of Defense could, subject to approval by an appropriate committee of the Knesset, create security zones in all or part of what was designated as the "protected zone," an area that included lands adjacent to Israel's borders and other specified areas. According to Sabri Jiryis, an Arab political economist who based his work exclusively on Israeli government sources, the defense minister used this law to categorize "almost half of Galilee, all of the Triangle, an area near the Gaza Strip, and another along the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway line near Batir as security zones." A clause of the law provided that permanent as well as temporary residents could be required to leave the zone and that the individual expelled had four days within which to appeal the eviction notice to an appeals committee. The decisions of these committees were not subject to review or appeal by a civil court.

Yet another measure enacted by the Knesset in 1949 was the Emergency Regulations (Cultivation of Waste Lands) Ordinance. One use of this law was to transfer to kibbutzim or other Jewish settlements land in the security zones that was lying fallow because the owner of the land or other property was not allowed to enter the zone as a result of national security legislation. The 1949 law provided that such land transfers were valid only for a period of two years and eleven months, but subsequent amending legislation extended the validity of the transfers for the duration of the state of emergency.

Another common procedure was for the military government to seize up to 40 percent of the land in a given region--the maximum allowed for national security reasons--and to transfer the land to a new kibbutz or moshav. Between 1948 and 1953, about 370 new Jewish settlements were built, and an estimated 350 of the settlements were established on what was termed abandoned Arab property.

The property of the Arabs who were refugees outside the state and the property expropriated from the Arabs who remained in Israel became a major asset to the new state. According to Don Peretz, an American scholar, by 1954 "more than one-third of Israel's Jewish population lived on absentee property, and nearly a third of the new immigrants (250,000 people) settled in the urban areas abandoned by Arabs." The fleeing Arabs emptied thriving cities such as Jaffa, Acre (Akko), Lydda (Lod), and Ramla, plus "338 towns and villages and large parts of 94 other cities and towns, containing nearly a quarter of all the buildings in Israel."

To the Israeli Arabs, one of the more devastating aspects of the loss of their property was their knowledge that the loss was legally irreversible. The early Zionist settlers--particularly those of the Second Aliyah--adopted a rigid policy that land purchased or in any way acquired by a Jewish organization or individual could never again be sold, leased, or rented to a nonJew . The policy went so far as to preclude the use of non-Jewish labor on the land. This policy was carried over into the new state. At independence the State of Israel succeeded to the "state lands" of the British Mandate Authority, which had "inherited" the lands held by the government of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish National Fund was the operating and controlling agency of the Land Development Authority and ensured that land once held by Jews-- either individually or by the "sovereign state of the Jewish people"--did not revert to non-Jews. This denied Israel's nonJewish , mostly Arab, population access to about 95 percent of the land.

The Emergence of the IDF

In February 1950, the Israeli government had discreetly negotiated a draft treaty with King Abdullah of Transjordan, including a five-year nonaggression pact, open borders, and free access to the port of Haifa. In April Abdullah annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus creating the united Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Ben-Gurion acquiesced because he thought this would mean an end to independent claims on Israeli territory and material claims on confiscated Arab territory. Abdullah, however, was assassinated in July 1951. Moreover, Israel was boycotted by all its Arab neighbors, and from the end of 1951 the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran (at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, where it opens into the Red Sea) were closed to Israeli shipping.

Surrounded by enemies and having to integrate thousands of immigrants into the new state, Ben-Gurion attempted to make the IDF the new unifying symbol of the fledgling state. He realized that the socialism of the Histadrut was ill suited to solving the problems facing the new state. Above all, Israel needed a unity of purpose, which in Ben-Gurion's thinking could only be provided by a strong army that would defend the country against its enemies and help assimilate its culturally diverse immigrants. Thus, Ben-Gurion added to the socialist ethos of the Histadrut and kibbutz movements an aggressive Israeli nationalism spearheaded by the IDF. To carry out this new orientation, he cultivated a "new guard" Mapai leadership headed by dynamic young General Moshe Dayan and technocrat Shimon Peres. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the Dayan-Peres supporters in Mapai and the "old guard" Labor establishment would compete for power.

In November 1953, Ben-Gurion tendered his resignation, and the less militaristic Moshe Sharett took over as prime minister. Under Sharett's weaker leadership, the conflict between the old-guard Mapai leadership and Ben-Gurion's new technocratic elite festered openly. This led to a major scandal in the Labor Party called the Lavon affair. Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon, an important figure in the old guard, had authorized intelligence chief Benjamin Gibly to launch Israeli spy rings in Cairo and Alexandria in an attempt to embarrass Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Egyptians, however, caught and later executed the spies, and the affair proved to be a major embarrassment to the Israeli government. The commission authorized to investigate the affair became embroiled in a test of strength between the young military establishment-- including Dayan and Peres--and the Mapai old guard, whose support Lavon solicited.

In February 1955, Ben-Gurion returned to the Ministry of Defense, and with the malleable Sharett still as prime minister was able to promote his hard-line defense policy. This position resulted in a number of raids against the Egyptians in response to attacks on Israeli settlements originating from Egyptian-held territory. Subsequently, Ben-Gurion was restored to leadership of the Mapai government. At this time, his biggest concern was the rising power of Nasser. By October 1955, Nasser had signed an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to supply Israel with weapons.

Ben-Gurion sought to inflict a mortal blow on the Egyptian regime. Because Nasser threatened Western interests in the Suez Canal, Ben-Gurion entered into secret talks with Britain and France about the possibility of Israel striking at the Sinai Peninsula, while Britain and France moved in on the Suez Canal, ostensibly to help protect Western shipping from combat. In late October, the IDF routed the Egyptian army at Gaza and after a week pushed to the Gidi and Mitla passes. On November 5, 1956, the French and British took over the Suez Canal area. After intense pressure from the Eisenhower administration, which was worried about the threat of Soviet military involvement, the European powers acceded to a cease-fire.

In March 1957, Israeli troops were forced to withdraw. The war served to spur Ben-Gurion's drive toward greater militarization. Although Israel was forced to withdraw from Sinai, Ben-Gurion deemed the war a success: the raids from Gaza ceased, UN peacekeeping forces separated Egypt and Israel, greater cooperation with France led to more arms sales to Israel and the building of a nuclear reactor, and, most important, the army's near-perfect performance vindicated his view on the centrality of the IDF.

Israel History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress