In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain promised to set aside Palestine as a national homeland for the Jewish people on the condition that this decision would no way negate rights of the indigenous population. During the 1930s, communal violence erupted between the Jewish immigrants and the local Arabs as immigration from Europe increased. The British attempted to solve the crisis by imposing quotas on Jewish immigration. The Jews of Palestine felt betrayed and began armed resistance movements against the British for their independence.
The War of Independence
For these Jewish resistance groups, the United Nations’ decision in 1947 to partition British Palestine into two states – one Arab and one Jewish – was a cause for celebration. The Jewish community would gain 55 percent of historic Palestine. The Arab community rejected the compromise and declared war, believing the entirety of Palestine was rightfully theirs. In Israel, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is known as the War of Independence. The 1948 War displaced at least 750,000 Palestinian refugees into neighboring Arab countries. In the decades to come hundreds of thousands of Jews would immigrate to Israel from neighboring Arab states. Many Israelis view the Palestinian refugee problem as a regrettable consequence of the Arabs’ decision to go to war. To them, Israel’s victory is one of the most momentous events in Jewish history–the first time that they truly had a home safe from persecution where they were free to be Jewish. From their perspective, the tragedy of the Palestinians was the result of Arab leaders’ unwillingness to compromise and the fault of neighboring Arab countries for not assimilating the Palestinian refugees into their societies.
While a small indigenous community of Jews persisted in Palestine over the centuries and assimilated the language and culture of their Muslim and Christian neighbors, non-Jewish communities in Palestine also have a history at least 2000 years old. As Jews from Europe immigrated and bought Palestinian farmland, they displaced the local Arab tenant farmers. Rising unemployment accompanied by increased immigration created tensions between the Jewish immigrants and Palestine’s indigenous community, which became an all out war in 1936. Palestinians note that at the time the international community, including the United States, classified the Jewish resistance groups that fought the British in the 1940s as terrorist organizations.
When the British turned the problem over to the UN, they resolved to partition Palestine. The 1947 Partition Plan would have taken over half of their land and given it the Jewish community that at the time comprised only 33 percent of the population. No Arab leader considered the partition to be a fair compromise. They viewed the partition as an act of European imperialism that necessitated war. During the 1948 war, Palestinians maintain that Jewish forces followed a deliberate strategy of clearing the land of its native population. Palestinians refer to the 1948 War as the Nakba–the Catastrophe. The Nakba is the defining historical event for Palestinians.