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1948 Arab–Israeli War

There were various causes which led to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, most of which stem from the conflicting views regarding Palestine between the Arabs and Jews. This essay will serve to explain the long term causes, and immediate causes and outcomes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Arab-Israeli conflict emerged following the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, wherein two separate ethnic groups emerged in Palestine: Arab Palestinians, who traced their ancestry back 3000 years in Palestine; and Zionist Jews, who claimed Palestine as the homeland given to them by God. Zionists believed that the Jews constituted a nation, not just an ethnic or religious community, and called to establish a national home in Palestine. The Palestinians however, felt Palestine was theirs, and desired to establish themselves as an independent state.

The legacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict continues after 60 years. The 1948 war can be seen as a “triumph and tragedy: triumph for the Israelis and tragedy for the Arabs.” [1] This essay will investigate and discuss the main causes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, and its immediate outcomes. It will begin by exploring the social, religious and ideological roots of the conflict, and will also provide a contextual background to the war. The establishment of Zionism, the impact of World War I and the role of the British mandate will be explored, in order to understand the separate aims, tactics and motivations of the two groups, and the developments that followed. There will be a focus on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the long term and immediate causes of the conflict, and its immediate aftermath and legacy.

Contextual Background:

The fall of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was founded in the 14th century by the Ottoman Turks, and came to include the majority of the countries of the Middle East. Palestine was under the rule of the Ottomans through the rapid military expansion of the empire in the early sixteenth century, and it remained under Ottoman rule for almost four hundred years, from 1516 to 1917. [2] Throughout this period, “the Ottoman attention was directed to preserving the empire in Europe, to the neglect of Palestine,” [3] as the province was of very little strategic importance. The conclusion of the First World War resulted in the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the empire was officially abolished in 1922. [4] 

When the Ottomans joined the Central Powers in 1914 during World War I, the United Kingdom and France plotted the division of the Middle East in accordance to their strategic interests and preferences. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 was an agreement between the governments of France and Britain, defining their respective spheres of influence and control in Western Asia after the expected downfall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. [5] Palestine was eventually placed under British administration.

The Zionist Movement and the Persecution of Jews in Europe

An important Jewish belief is the anticipation of the Messiah. Klausner defines the Messianic expectation as “the Prophetic hope for the end of this age, in which there will be political freedom, moral perfection, and earthly bliss for the people of Israel in its own land, and also for the entire human race.” [6] This anticipation was fundamental in the creation of Zionism in the late 19th century. According to Tessler, “Jewish doctrine asserts that God has granted His chosen people dominion over the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, in order that they possess a country in which to construct their commonwealth based on His law.” [7] The Jews held Israel as their ancestral and biblical homeland, and the concept of Messianism drove the hopes of the Jewish population for the capture of their Holy Land. As this theory developed throughout the 19th century, the establishment of Jewish colonies in Palestine was a significant step in preparation of a homeland for the Messiah. Zionism was thus established by Theodore Herzl in the late 19th century, as a “movement to create a national home for the Jews in Palestine.” [8] 

Judaism is closely associated with nationalism. The basis for the concept of Israel as a state emerged from the Bible and the belief that Eretz Yisrael was promised to the Jews by God. It was believed to be a territory in which the Jews, the chosen people, could live by God’s commandments by building a model state based on His laws, and thereby act as a guide for other states. Zionism emerged from the belief that the coming of the Messiah would not happen in the absence of several preparatory events, including the re-emergence of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, religion became an important aspect in the foundation of the Jewish state. The 19th century saw a rapid spread of Jewish Nationalism throughout Europe. Judaism set the Jews apart from the rest of Christian Europe, and this religious distinctiveness led to the perception that the Jews were a nation without a state. Thus, the need for Palestine as a Jewish homeland became greater.

Along with the nationalist and religious motives in forming a Jewish homeland, there was also the issue of security. During the 19th century, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews became widespread in Europe. Herwitt states that “throughout their history in Eastern Europe, Jews were confined to small, isolated communities and subject to various attacks, or pogroms. Realizing that life in Russia was intolerable, the Jews looked to acquire territory elsewhere, with many envisioning a return to Palestine.” [9] One of the benefits of a Jewish homeland would be security for the Jewish nation. Due to the increasing violence and persecution that Jews were subjected to throughout Europe, the Zionist movement continued to grow, encouraging Jews to migrate to Palestine. Due to the widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, the Jews “started to consider returning to their religious homeland of Israel and resettling, gaining political control and creating a Jewish state.” [10] 

Zionism formed the basis for the creation of Israel: it provided both a nationalistic and religious drive for the Jewish community. The urgency for a homeland continually increased, for both a fulfilment of their spiritual needs, and for the establishment of security for the Jews. The “political framework of Europe was unable to provide a place within it for the Jews as a distinct group,” [11] intensifying the need for the establishment of Israel. This ideology characterized the Jewish community and provided nationalistic ties to a Holy Land that represented their culture, identity and religion.

Long Term Causes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War:

Balfour Declaration

In 1897, The First Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland from August 29th to the 31st. [12] The congress formulated the Basel Program, and founded the Zionist Organization. The program set out the goals of the Zionist movement, which included various preparatory steps towards achieving its ultimate aim: “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.” [13] The Zionist movement continued to rally support for its cause until the First World War.

Towards the end of 1916, the British support for the Zionist cause grew significantly. Their assistance in the cause entailed the support of influential Zionists. This support was significant to the British in both their aims to encourage America to enter the war via pressure by American Jews, [14] and the support also appealed to Russian Jews, who were “influential among Russian revolutionaries,” [15] as the British feared that Russia would withdraw from the war. Thus in 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued the famous Balfour Declaration, which promised the “establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.” [16] The Balfour Declaration was the first promise by Britain to give the Jewish people a national home in Palestine. As the Zionists worked to create a Jewish state, the support of one of the world’s strongest powers, which was soon to take over Palestine, was crucial. The Balfour declaration entailed the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people, while promising to safeguard the civil and religious rights of its majority Arab inhabitants.” [17] 

However, during the First World War, Britain encouraged the Arabs to go against the Ottomans and support the British, and in return the Arabs were promised independence. This was agreed between Henry McMahon, the High commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Hussein of Mecca. [18] Through the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, McMahon promised “the independence of the Arab countries and their inhabitants, and [British] readiness to approve an Arab caliphate upon its proclamation.” [19] The promises were not honoured, as they directly contradicted the promises made to the Jews through the Balfour Declaration and between the British and French in the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The British Mandate in Palestine, 1922-1948

The Mandate system originated after the conclusion of the First World War. A mandate was a commission given to a nation to administer the government and affairs of another nation, and to prepare them for independence. Advanced countries were to administer the countries on the brink of independence, and to manage their affairs until they were ready to manage their own. Each country was assigned the role of a Mandatory Power, and were supervised by the League of Nations, an international organization established after the First World War.

Palestine constituted the spiritual home of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the future of Palestine concerned a number of countries and groups. Both the Arabs and Jews had claimed they were promised Palestine; the Arabs through the McMahon correspondences, and the Jews through the Balfour Declaration. These conflicting promises created most of the ongoing tensions. The Sykes-Picot agreement entailed that Palestine was to be under international administration. However, Britain arranged for the League of Nations to make Palestine a British mandate, as it realized that “its economic and strategic interests were better served if Palestine came under its direct rule.” [20] 

The San Remo conference, held in 1920, decided that Britain would be the Mandatory Power for Palestine. The conference recognized the Balfour Declaration, and to the disappointment of the Arab Palestinians, the declaration was honoured by Britain’s allies. The declaration was accepted by the League of Nations, and was embodied in the mandate that gave Britain temporary administrative control of Palestine. The provisions for the Mandate entailed that Britain and her Allies were “in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” [21] and that “the Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.” [22] 

The role of Britain in the Arab-Israeli conflict was detrimental to both nations. According to Khouri, “British politics frequently did more to aggravate the deteriorating situation than to ameliorate it.” [23] Britain constantly tried to appease both groups, the Jews and Arabs, living within Palestine under its mandate. Due to heavy Zionist influence, pressure and intense lobbying, it was extremely difficult for the British to pass laws in favour of the Arabs, such as “setting aside lands for Arabs and capping immigration by Jews to Palestine.” [24] Mandatory Palestine formed the construction of the conflict between the two communities of Arabs and Jews, and under the immediate consequence of the removal of the Mandate was the establishment of Israel.

Jewish Migration and Land Appropriation

The admission of Jewish migration to Palestine increased due to “the Balfour declaration and the British mandate, which seemed to promise new opportunities for Zionist development.” [25] In 1917, the Jewish population in Palestine amounted to 57,000, and constituted 3% of the total population. Despite the influx of Jewish immigration throughout the British mandate, the Arabs still constituted a majority of the population, and by 1940 they accounted for 70% of the total population.

There existed a dual society in Mandatory Palestine, and the ethnic make-up of the land included two rival groups: the Jews and the Arabs. Despite their religious differences, the main cause of the 1948 war was the struggle for the land. Palestinian Arabs claimed the land as theirs based on continuous residence in the country for many hundreds of years, and the fact that they represented the demographic majority. The newly established, and slowly growing, Jewish community claimed the land theirs based on Biblical ties to the land and the ideologies associated with Zionism. The immigration of Jews into Palestine was the major source of conflict between the two groups. The increasing influx of Jewish residents into Palestine increased the possibility of the creation of Israel, much to the contempt of the Arabs. Due to Arab resistance, the mandate failed to provide a specific independent Jewish state; thus, the large-scale Jewish immigration could have potentially put Jews into the majority.

There was a prominent social difference and political separation between the Arabs and Jews. Jewish migration to Palestine and their increased land appropriation met resistance from the Arab inhabitants. Palestine under the British mandate required the Arabs and Zionists to live within the same vicinity, yet “the contact between the two communities was limited.” [26] Each community was driven by increasing suspicion and fear of each other, and this translated into a violent collision between the two groups. Economic, social and political tensions drove the increasing anxiety between the Arab and Jewish communities, which later translated into violence and hostility. Communal violence erupted in 1929, [27] and as the years under the Mandate went by, any chance of peaceful co-existence between the two groups was eradicated. According to Khouri, “during the mandate the Jews in Palestine enjoyed many formidable advantages over the Arabs,” [28] including social, political and economic benefits. This was due to the Jewish advancements and improvements in political and economic maturity in comparison to the Arabs, who in contrast were not as politically or educationally advanced.

Musa Alami, a respected Palestinian politician, describes the growing estrangement of Arabs and Palestinians in his biography. As he recounts the increasing hostilities between the two communities, his biography offers a sad testimony to the steadily diminishing chances of cooperation between the two peoples. After returning to Palestine after World War I, in among the growing population of Jews under the British mandate, he found “the old friendless and classlessness, the tolerance between the races and creeds had evidently gone forever.” [29] Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, describing his encounters with the Arabs as a teenager in the 1930s, states: “Our attitude towards the Arabs was mixed. They seemed so strange to us, so terrifying, and yet the creatures closest to nature.” [30] Both are witnesses to the social and cultural chasm between the Jews and Arabs, and the growing estrangement between the two groups.

Immediate Causes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War:

U.N. Partition Vote

By the end of World War II, Mandatory Palestine continued to be plagued by problems and complications. Tensions between the Arab and Jewish community persisted, violence between the two intensified, and both groups were continually displeased with the Mandate. By 1946, the situation in Palestine was becoming increasingly unsustainable for the British mandate. The Jewish leadership in Palestine wanted “unlimited immigration.” [31] Tension and violence were escalating between the Jewish and Arab communities, and there was growing resentment towards the British by both groups. Under Arab pressure, the British limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. After the Nazi persecutions in 1933, the immigration of Jews, both legally and illegally, rose to 30% of the total population.

By February 1947, the British requested help from the United Nations in reference to the Arab-Jewish conflict, while retaining its mandatory responsibilities. The UN Security Council was asked to “investigate the question of Palestine and come up with a plan that would resolve the problem.” [32] Hence the UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, was formed. The UNSCOP consisted of seven neutral countries, which were to investigate the conflict and deliver their findings. The UNSCOP agreed on ending the British Mandate, and the partition of Palestine to a Jewish and Arab state. The Jewish state was to be larger than the Arab state, despite the Arab population of Palestine being the majority; thus, the proposals were denounced by the Arabs. The Zionist General Council “expressed some satisfaction with the partition recommendation,” [33] yet felt that too little territory was assigned to the Jews.

The Arabs protested the partition, debating the moral grounds of the plan, and “denied the legal and moral right of the UN to partition Palestine against the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants.” [34] The final General Assembly vote took place on the 29th of November 1947. 33 countries supported the plan; 13 countries voted against the plan; and 10 countries abstained from voting. [35] On the 14th of May 1948, the British Mandate in Palestine came to an end; and on the same day, the Jewish population proclaimed the state of Israel, and the Arab states invaded the State of Israel. [36] 

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War

The May 1948 Arab-Israeli War commenced following the termination of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the Arab rejection of the United Nations partition plan. The rejection of the plan culminated in five Arab states – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan – invading the newly formed Israel. [37] Their objective was to restore a unitary Arab Palestinian state. Despite the Israeli forces being significantly smaller in number, they were successful in battle and ultimately won the war. According to Beinin & Hajjar, “the Arab military forces were poorly organized, trained and armed,” [38] in contrast to the Israeli forces which were superior in these areas.

There were various factors which led to the defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 war. The supporting Arab countries all held different motivations and territorial designs on Palestine, with each country distrustful of the other’s motives. [39] The Arab states lacked the unity that was fundamental for their success. The Israeli army exhibited this unity, and were determined in fighting for their liberation, independence and defending their state. [40] The Israeli’s were also better equipped in terms of arms, and were more organized and trained in battle.

In 1949, the war between Israel and the Arab states concluded with the signing of the Armistice agreements. Palestine was separated into three parts; each under separate political control, with the state of Israel encompassing 77% of the overall territory. [41] The conclusion of the war saw the splitting of the Arab League, the creation of Israel and the loss of British influence in the area.

Consequences of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War:

The Palestinian Refugee Crisis

The 1948 Arab-Israeli saw the victory of Israel, and resulted in the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis and territorial gain for Israel. In 1947, the year before the war, one million Palestinians lived in the region that would become Israel the following year. Following the war, “75 per cent of them had left to become refugees, and most of them have remained in camps ever since.” [42] 

The Palestinians refer to the defeat of 1948 as al-Naqba, “the catastrophe.” Most of the Palestinian owned land was proclaimed as part of the Jewish state in consequence of the Arab defeat, and the territorial dimensions of Israeli land increased by approximately one-third. According to the Palestinian perspective, the creation of refugees was a result of the forceful tactics used by Israel, as Arabs were expelled from the newly established state of Israel. The evidence used for this viewpoint includes the Dier Yassin, and the concept of ethnic cleansing as employed by the Jews. From the Palestinian perspective, the war represented not only a Palestinian defeat, but also the loss of a large portion of their homeland to Israel. [43] 

The Palestinian diaspora, the forced dispersion of the Palestinians into other countries, is the most catastrophic and distressing consequence of the 1948 war. The impact of the war and the continual confliction between the Arabs and Jews is validated through the refugee crisis. The structural framework of the newly divided State of Israel could not allow the capacity of Palestinians to live in Israel. The diaspora and the refugees forced to depart Palestine are symbolic of the loss of a nation, and the failure of the Arabs experienced through the war.

Territorial Gain for Israel

While the Palestinians lamented their defeat and exile, the Jewish community were rejoiced with their success in war. Their victory allowed the immigration of more Jews into Israel. Through military force, Israel retained some territory originally assigned to the Arabs according to the partition plan. In 1949, “Israel occupied almost 80 per cent of the area of the original Palestinian mandate, and 20 per cent more than she had been promised in the partition plan.” [44] 

The most important consequence of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war from the Jewish perspective is that is consolidated the Zionist aim of a Jewish state in Palestine. By the end of the war, the Jewish population in Israel exceeded a million, with Jews all around the world returning to EretzYisrael, their newly established national homeland. [45] The Jewish immigration made Israel a viable Jewish state, and forbade a return of Palestinian refugees to claim land and property that once belonged to Palestinians. [46] The Jews were motivated by Zionism, creating a Jewish state of Israel in their biblical home land of Palestine. Zionism’s success is manifested in the establishment of the State of Israel and the territorial gain of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.


This essay served to discuss the long term causes, and immediate causes and outcomes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The 1948 war was the first full-scale war between the Arab states and the Jewish population, and resulted after a series of conflicts between the Arabs and Jews over Palestine. The long term causes of the war gave rise to increasing tensions and hostilities between the Arabs and Jews, and the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 ignited the flame. The culmination of the war saw a great victory for Israel, in terms of territorial increase and national pride, and loss of land and pride for the Arabs.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 represents two drastic turning points in two colliding communities. After decades of continual confliction and increasing antagonism between the two groups, the conclusion of the 1948 war saw the creation of a new state, after the outbreak of a bloody and long-running conflict. The war has two completely different outlooks. For the Jews, the war is celebrated and represents the re-creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. For the Arabs, the war represents a political and psychological failure and defeat. The prospect for creating a Jewish state in Palestine was won, and the hopes for the re-obtainment of Palestine for the Arabs were lost. The Palestinians were scattered around the Middle East and Arabia after the war, while Jews around the world were able to return to their homeland of Israel.

As reported by Jamal Abdul Nasser in 1963, “the Palestinian battle was a smear on the entire Arab nation. No one can forget the shame brought by the battle of 1948.” [47] Despite the thwarted nationalist aspirations of the Palestinians, the war also represented a grave military defeat and significant loss of land to Israel. This is displayed through the Jewish diaspora, and the refugee crisis of the Palestinian peoples that is still in continuation today. The territory awarded to Israel represents their establishment of the main aims of Zionism, and their national success that is celebrated in the legacy of the war.

The 1948 war led to a series of wars and conflicts between the two groups. After decades of conflict, multiple wars and millions of casualties, the conflict between the two communities ceases to stop. The Arab-Israeli conflict is still in continuation today, taking international dimensions and influencing a string of other countries and nations. If the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved peacefully and permanently, many other conflicts will be resolved automatically. Peace talks have been considered for decades, but no clear resolutions have been created, with the various obstacles to peace clouding the prospect of the two groups living harmoniously.


Work Cited:


Antonius, G. 1938, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement, Simon Publications, New York.

Cannon, M. 2009, IB Course Companion: 20th Century World History, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Davis, M. 1980, Zionism in Transition, Arno Press, New York.

Habibi, M. 2010, IB Course Companion: History of Europe and the Middle East, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hall, E. & Wilson, L. 2006, Power, people and ideas: VCE international politics units 1 & 2 (2rd ed.), Social Education Victoria, Melbourne.

Harkabi, Y. 1974, Arab attitudes to Israel, Halsted Press, New York.

Khatib, H. 2003, Palestine and Egypt Under the Ottomans: Paintings, Books, Photographs, Maps and Manuscripts, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London.

Klausner, J. 1956, The Messianic Idea in Israel: From its Beginning to the Completion of the Mishnah, G. Allen & Unwin, London

Morris, B. 2004, The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem revisited, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Osmańczyk, E. J. & Mango, A. 2003, Encyclopaedia of the United Nations and International Agreements: A to F, Routledge, New York.

Robinson, G. 2000, Essential Judaism: a complete g

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