Yesterday was Israel's Independence Day. It is celebrated immediately following the remembrance day commemorating Israel's fallen who have made the independence celebration possible. The proximity of the two days is a constant reminder of the price Israel has paid for its independence.
In recent years many critics have tried to frame Israel's struggle for independence as an exclusive and ruthless attempt to drive the Palestinian people off their land. However, the current attempts to reach a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and the current Palestinian-Israeli struggle must not blind us to the fact that the war of independence was not a war waged by the Jews in Palestine against a helpless local Arab population. Israel's war of independence was a war for existence and the events of that war must be placed in that context. Current concerns with the plight of the Palestinian people must not lead to a misreading of the past.
In the years following World War II, Britain's inability to reconcile the conflicting demands of the Jewish and Arab communities in Mandatory Palestine led the government to request that the "Question of Palestine" be placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly. The U.N. Special Committee on Palestine recommended the division of Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
Although the small piece of land designated for the Jewish state was a far cry from the hopes and expectations of the Jewish population in Palestine, the leaders did not let a dogmatic vision blind them to the necessity of establishing a state. Rather than pursue an impossible dream, the Jewish leadership geared its effort towards creating and establishing a state regardless of its size.
The overriding concern was to enable the survivors of the Holocaust, who were in displaced persons camps all over Europe, and the endangered Jewish minorities in the Arab world to join the established Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Jewish leadership made every possible effort to end the misery of the European refugees, rather than letting them languish for decades in camps as an international bargaining tool in a quest for an impossible dream.
The Arab countries of the U.N. and the local Arab leadership in Palestine declared that they would forcibly resist the implementation of partition; Britain declared that it would not support it, nor cooperate in carrying it out. The U.N. did not possess a military force to impose its authority and implement its resolution. The actual establishment of the Jewish state was therefore the task of the Jews in Palestine, with the aid of the Jewish people from around the world.
Thus, following the U.N. Resolution, the Arab states and local Arab leaders went into high gear to secure their prediction that "any line of partition would be a line of fire and blood." A day after the U.N. General Assembly's resolution, the Arabs opened their attack on Jewish transport. They carried out raids and arson in outlying Jewish quarters in mixed-population towns.
The local Arab groups initiated attacks against Jewish civilians such as the murder of 39 workers at the Haifa refineries and the planting of explosives in Jewish towns which killed dozens of people. In Ben-Yehuda Street, Jerusalem, scores of men, women and children were killed or maimed when Arab assailants exploded a bomb in the crowded city center. By March, 1948, more than 1,200 Jews had been killed, half of them civilians.
There were tragedies in early April that affected innocent civilians. On April 9, joint extremist Irgun and Lechi forces captured the village of Deir Yassin and killed over 250 Arabs, mostly women and children. Already at the time, without waiting for 50 years, without American pressure and with no need for letterhead faxes, the official Zionist bodies expressed their execration of this act, which in their view went beyond the intrinsic savagery of war. Indeed, due to the singularly aberrant nature of the event, whenever the Arabs henceforward had something against the Jews, the banner `Deir Yassin' was raised.
World opinion tended to forget that Arab violence had preceded and would also follow the Deir Yassin incident. A few days later, Arab forces attacked a convoy of doctors and nurses of the Hadassah Medical Center. The Director of Hadassah and his 75 dedicated colleagues were burned alive.
Tensions on both the Arab and the Jewish side mounted as the designated date for the British departure on May 14 was drawing near. Five Arab armies were deployed on the mandatory border, preparing to enter into the newly-established state and annul any declaration of independence by force.
By midday of May 14, Egyptian forces had advanced deep into the southern Negev. An Iraqi column moved toward the Jordan river. The Transjordanian Arab Legion was arrayed along the river. On the upper reaches of the Jordan, a Syrian brigade was ready to attack the villages in the valley. Apart from the impetuous Egyptians who had already printed stamps to commemorate their "imminent victory," the Arab governments were awaiting the Mandate's last official hour before launching their attack.
On Friday, May 14, 1948, the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Israel assembled in the Tel Aviv Museum, and David Ben-Gurion read out the Scroll of Independence: "By virtue of our national and intrinsic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which shall be known as the State of Israel."
As expected, on the following night five Arab armies simultaneously invaded Israel. What ensued were 15 months of intermittent fighting, during which the newly-formed Israeli Defense Forces repulsed the invading armies, at a cost of over 6,000 Israeli lives, nearly one percent of the country's total Jewish population at the time.
A controversy has raged for more than four decades about the reasons for the exit of the Palestinian Arabs in 1947-1948. Any attempt to attribute this mass exit to a single cause is only true in part, and therefore false. In part, the Palestinian Arabs fled with the encouragement of their own leaders; in part, it was the policy of the Israeli High Command to secure the evacuation by Arab populations of areas into which the Israeli army entered; in part, the Arabs, unlike the Jews, had somewhere to go if they wanted to avoid the terrors of war and the very possibility of escape became a source of their weakness. After all, those who have nowhere to flee cling most tenaciously to their existing ground. This was the Jewish strength.