For centuries, the population of the land known today as Israel barely changed. But in the late 1800s, waves of immigrants poured in, fighting for the right to control the territory. The modern state of Israel was created in 1948.
The Changing Demographics of Palestine
In 1854, the United States Congress allowed residents of Kansas to decide the question of slavery for themselves - despite the land being in the North. Nearly overnight, people from neighboring territories poured across the border, both fighting violently for the right to control the destiny of 'their' land. It was a bizarre situation that bears a resemblance to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, when nearly all of the people fighting were either not residents of the land, or hadn't been living there just a generation before.
Back in 1517, the Ottoman Empire conquered the Levant. They gained authority over a tiny Jewish remnant that survived the Roman holocaust of the 1st century C.E., a handful of Armenians and a scattered population of Arab Muslims that had moved into the land alongside them five centuries later. Over the next 365 years, the population held steady at about 300,000 total residents. Then, a rise of anti-Semitism in the late 1800s drove thousands of Jews back to their traditional homeland. Then, their businesses and towns attracted non-Jews from neighboring countries. In a single generation, the population more than doubled.
And then WWI broke out, pitting the Ottoman Empire against Britain and the other Allied Powers. Britain promised independence to both Jews and non-Jews there if they would rise up against the Ottomans, and then at the conclusion of the war, the victorious Allies oversaw the Ottoman lands. More people crowded into the British section, the Mandate of Palestine, hoping to gain control, and they have been fighting ever since.
It's worth mentioning that during the war, an attempted genocide against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire drove thousands of refugees to the land. Although the immigrants were neither Arab nor Muslim, they tend to be lumped together as non-Jewish in the historical record. But the new Armenians, though present in large numbers, were generally non-partisan.
The Palestine Problem
Almost immediately after the mandate was established, Britain created the promised independent Arab nation on the east side of the Jordan River. Called Transjordan, the Arab state comprised more than three quarters of the original mandate's land. But still, within a decade, the population of the remaining mandate (the less than 25 percent left) soared above a million inhabitants - both Jewish and non-Jewish. And they kept on fighting for control.
Following a destructive Arab revolt in the late 1930s, Britain determined that the mandate was unworkable. Three separate plans divided up the remaining land, but the Jews, Arabs and British could never agree on terms. Britain struggled to maintain peace while also keeping up with developments in Europe, especially the rise of a German dictator named Adolf Hitler.
By the end of WWII, the population of the remaining mandate approached two million people. A movement known as Zionism (which originally referred to the 19th century migration, but came to represent the desire for Jewish sovereignty) gained momentum. And when the full story of the Nazi Holocaust became known at the war's conclusion, there was world-wide support for a Jewish homeland. Within the mandate, Britain faced opposition from Arabs and mounting pressure from Zionist militia. The two groups also continued fighting each other. In February 1947, Britain turned the troubled mandate over to the newly-formed United Nations and walked away from the problem.
After investigating the situation, the U.N. agreed unanimously that a Jewish state should be created; the only thing left to do was divide up the former mandate fairly. In November, the U.N. approved Resolution 181, creating independent Arab and Jewish states, while maintaining Jerusalem as an international mandate.
Jews, comprising about a third of the population, gained slightly more than half of the remaining mandate. And though Jewish leadership regretted the loss of Jerusalem and protested that much of their land was unlivable desert, they did accept the partition plan. By contrast, non-Jews in Palestine - and most of the Arab world outside the mandate - rejected the plan outright. Within hours of the resolution's passage, civil war raged as the non-Jewish residents tried to prevent Israeli statehood.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948
Then, on May 14, 1948, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared Israel's independence in accordance with the U.N. resolution. The British army marched out, while troops from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq marched in to support the non-Jewish resistance effort, followed later by Transjordan (whose name was changed to Jordan at this time). Despite the Arabs' overwhelming superiority in terms of troop numbers and firepower, they lacked a coordinated war effort. Israel withstood the invasion and, within five and a half months, managed to gain the upper hand. Iraq simply withdrew from the fighting, while the other Arab nations were forced into armistice agreements.
In the dealings, Israel won control of some of the land designated for an Arab state. Jordan seized some of their territory known today as the West Bank, including the 'Old City' of Jerusalem. Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. The peace settlement and the borders held for almost 20 years. The non-Jewish residents, who began to refer to themselves as Palestinians, never organized a government.
The Refugee Crisis
Back in November 1947, as soon as the partition plan was announced, roughly 75,000 non-Jews emigrated. After Israeli statehood the following spring, a massive population exchange began in the Middle East. Israel absorbed about 650,000 Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, including the rescue of thousands threatened with violence in Yemen and Iraq. Jewish residents were also forced from the areas now controlled by Egypt and Jordan. By contrast, approximately 720,000 Palestinians fled from Israeli control, but just over half were welcomed by neighboring Arab countries. The rest poured into refugee camps.
Officially, Israel would respect 'the full rights, needs and freedom of the Arabs in the Jewish state without discrimination.' But while there was no deliberate plan of ethnic cleansing on the part of the Israeli government, the exodus was certainly encouraged. Some of the refugees had been ordered from their homes by Israeli leaders, but many of them were ordered away by Arab leaders. Many left after real or rumored attacks on Palestinian villages. Some refugees feared chaos in the wake of Britain's withdrawal. Others simply needed jobs, or they wanted to join Muslim nations.
Despite Israel's open immigration policy for Jewish refugees, the population temporarily dipped back down under a million in 1948. Just 18 percent were non-Jews. Later that year, the United Nations issued Resolution 194, asserting that the Palestinian refugees had a right to return to their homes. But Israel refused their admission, arguing that an influx of people who had actively fought against their state (and who could constitute a near-majority) would threaten their national security.
When the war was finally concluded, the U.N. mediator noted that the obstacles to political peace in 1948 were 'the Arab world's continued rejection of the existence of a Jewish state; Israel's new 'philosophy', based on its increasing military strength, of ignoring the partition boundaries and conquering what additional territory it could; and the emerging Palestinian Arab refugee problem.' Indeed, these three factors have continued to be obstacles in Arab-Israeli conflicts ever since.
Let's review. The land known today as Israel remained sparsely populated for the better part of a thousand years, until the end of the 19th century. Following WWI, in light of British promises for independence, both Jews and non-Jews poured into the land - and into conflict with each other and Great Britain. Despite the creation of Transjordan as an independent Arab land, the Mandate of Palestine continued to swell for the next two decades. After WWII, Britain turned Palestine over to the United Nations, who divided the remaining land and designated it for a Jewish homeland and another Arab state. The Jews accepted; the Arabs refused.
In 1948, after Israeli statehood went into effect, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan attacked. The results? Israel won. Non-Jews in the former mandate now called themselves Palestinians. Israel, Egypt and Jordan seized some Palestinian territory. Jews moved into Israel while many Palestinians moved out. But without a country to take them in, many of the Palestinians became refugees, and never attempted to organize a government in the land designated for them by the U.N.
After this lesson is finished, you should be able to:
- Recall the series of events that led to a population flux in Israel
- Discuss the Israeli-Arab War and the outcome
- List and explain the three points of Arab-Israeli conflict that continue today