The Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 has a few different names. Some call it the Palestine War. Others call it Israel’s War of Independence. Another common name for it is the Nakba, or “Disaster Day” in Arabic. Depending on the information one receives and who they identify as, the Arab-Israeli war can arouse a lot of different emotions and there is intense debate about the ethics of it.
However, debating and knowing the causes of the war can help to prevent more bloodshed (the COW data set by Meredith Reid and Frank Wayman 2010 lists that about 8000 battle deaths occurred among Israel, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon in the 1948 war), if not within Israel, then in any part of the world that might go through something similar in the future.
My research question is thus as follows, “what factors led to the onset of the Arab Israeli war of 1948?” The main factors that I conclude to have caused the onset of the Arab-Israeli war include: nationalism, power transition, and the pursuance of collective guilt on both sides.
In more detail, the Zionist nationalist agenda is what caused a consistent influx of Jews to Palestine and caused tension, the increase in the power of Israel is what caused the Arab states to act with suspicion and condemnation, and finally the terrorist attacks based on collective guilt committed both by the Arabs and Israelis is what continues the wars and cycle today. Of course, the whole Israeli-Arab conflict is very complicated and is not limited to these factors, but these are the main causes which I believe have had the most significant impacts leading up to the first and subsequent wars.
The first, and biggest underlying cause for the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war were the Zionist leaders’ ideology and their desire to create their ideal system of government in Palestine, a Jewish nation-state.
A nation-state is a state with groups of people who share a common identity and kinship ties that live in the same territory and have achieved statehood. Nationhood was a hot topic during this time period (1800s) for many scholars, and the idea was that the development in a certain kind of state was so important and critical for serving as a force of merit in society and that the development of a modern state was something that would enable a state to be a better carrier of ethical ideas. The modern state was emphasized as a particularly rich development that would enable the fulfillment of mankind, where a state would have the ability to make human progress, and new forms of the modern state with patriotism and nationalism would enable man’s fulfillment.
One of the first scholars to advocate for the facilitation of nation states to facilitate peace during this time was Giuseppe Mazzini, in his essay On the Duties of Man in 1840, and he argued that nation states should form the basis for how states are created in the international system. He was one of the first to theorize about nationalism and how if you allow nations to have their own states, then that would lead to peace and enable the fulfillment of human potential. He strongly argued that people with kinships ought to be able to have their own state and he endorsed all nationalisms, with the conviction that statehood would eliminate the conflicts that arise from national differences (John a. Vasquez 1995, 457-485).
The Zionists would have agreed with Mazzini that they deserve their own nation-state. Before the creation of Israel, Zionists aspired for statehood for Jews everywhere in the globe because of Jewish persecution and prejudice that had occurred in much of their history and was the current climate for almost every place where Jews lived. Zionism, established as a political organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl, answered the “Jewish question”: a Jewish nation would be created and protected in Palestine, their claimed ancestral homeland, where Jews could immigrate freely to and live as a majority.
To sum up the ideology behind Zionism and the desire for Jewish nationhood, I provide a select few quotes from Theodor Herzl, from his pamphlet The Jewish State (1896), “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so” (Walter Laqueur and Dan Schueftan 2016, 5), “In our economically upper classes it causes discomfort, in our middle classes continual and grave anxieties, in our lower classes absolute despair” (Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 7),
I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council (Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 5),
The forms of persecutions vary according to the countries and social circles in which they occur. In Russia, imports are levied on Jewish villages; in Rumania, a few persons are put to death; in Germany, they get a good beating occasionally; in Austria, anti-Semites exercise terrorism over all public life; in Algeria, there are travelling agitators; in Paris, the Jews are shut out of the so-called best social circles and excluded from clubs (Walter Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 6).
The essence of his argument was that in whichever nation the Jew lived, the governments and people were all either covertly or openly anti-Semitic. In order for Jews to live without fear of persecution, they’d have to be given sovereignty over a portion of the globe and create their own nation, and he argued that other means of dismantling Jewish prejudices such as education or intermarriage would take far too long and was unwanted by the majority (Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 6).
This vision of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, that had long been around and now became rejuvenated with the Zionist movement, was not going to be given up easily. While Mazzini’s idea was that nationhood fostered peace and the Zionist argument was in accord with that argument, it is actually the opposite of what happened, as the Zionist nationalist ideology is what led to the massive amount of bloodshed and resentment in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and all the way up to today’s time.
The second cause of the Palestine War is due to the concept of “power transition”. A.F.K Organski was an Italian born political scientist who escaped Mussolini’s Italy. From there, he came to the US, joined the army, and fought for the US in 1924. Then he received his masters and PHD from NYU and came up with the “Power Transition Theory” in 1958. He argued that when you look at the historical record there are greater periods of peace when there is an imbalance of peace and rejected the notion that a more evenly distributed power arrangement in the international system leads to greater peace, instead he found that it leads to greater conflict.
The logic is that when a state thinks it’s evenly matched and it has grievances or ambitions to expand for conquest, then the state will be more likely to go for it, but if the state that it is up against is someone who is more powerful, then the state may be deterred from advancing conquest, which leads to a greater period of peace. The periods of balance, real or imagined, are periods of warfare, while periods of known preponderance of power are periods of peace.
According to his theory, war is most likely to occur when you have one state that is a rising state and it suddenly becomes more powerful and is also dissatisfied with the status quo, called challengers, or in other words people who suddenly acquire wealth or power and don’t conform to the same customs, norms, or rules of the neighborhood or class they just joined. Thus, newly powerful states, who are dissatisfied, become the trouble-maker states because they challenge the order of the international system and the states around them, and they want to be recognized as a powerful state. He also argued that the fact they’ve acquired this new wealth rapidly has led to stress internally on their state and perhaps some grievances that adds additional strain on their domestic political structure. As a result, the international system may not recognize the power of these states and these states may be tempted to change and reorder international structure to give themselves greater benefits.
Peace is more likely to be maintained when the powerful and more satisfied states together with their allies enjoy a huge preponderance of power over the challenger and its allies because great powers will be satisfied with the status quo and dissatisfied states who become challengers are more likely to start world wars, since they will think they have enough power to be aggressive and gain what they want. Once the trouble-maker state is of a size or at its peak that it’ll be roughly equal to the dominant state(s) in terms of economic power, then there will be war. Other factors in the Power Transition Theory that lead to war include: if the dominant state or alliance is inflexible in its policies, there’s no tradition of friendship between the dominant state and the challenger, and if the challenger sets out to replace the existing international order with an order of its own (Vasquez 1995, 303-306).
Although Organski uses this model to claim that the Soviet Union is the challenger state that will cause the next war, Israel can be applied almost perfectly to this model in explaining the onset of the first Arab-Israeli war and those to come. Israel was the new state in the Middle East, which was growing in economic power, population numbers (by allowing an unlimited influx of Jewish immigrants), and territory.
By claiming land in Palestine against the will of the Natives, or Southern Syrians (it wasn’t until years after Israeli independence that Arabs living in Palestine referred to themselves as Palestinians), and by establishing their own government and state within this contested territory, Israel therefore did not assimilate to the surrounding Arab states and disrupted the natives in Palestine. While the dominant states, the Arab countries surrounding Israel, and Palestine itself, rejected this idea of an independent Jewish state in Palestine the stronger and more evasive Israel became as it grew in power and recognition, leading up to war. Among the first Arab statements on record opposing the idea of Israel is a statement by the General Syrian Congress to the King-Crane Commission on July 2, 1919:
We oppose the pretensions of the Zionists to create a Jewish commonwealth in the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine, and opposite Zionist migration to any part of our country; for we do not acknowledge their title but consider them a grave peril to our people from the national, economical, and political points of view (Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 22).
The King-Crane Commission, created by President Woodrow Wilson, with the purpose of determining which Western nation should act as the mandatory power for Palestine, also expressed their concerns in August 28, 1919:
The non-Jewish population of Palestine—nearly nine-tenths of the whole—are emphatically against the entire Zionist program. The feeling against the Zionist program is not confined to Palestine, but shared very generally by the people throughout Syria. More than 72 percent—1350 in all—of the petitions in the whole of Syria were directed against the Zionist program… No British officer believed that the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms” (Laqueur and Schueftan 2016, 24).
The ultimate evidence of this power transition leading to the onset of war applied to this case was when Israel became an independent state following the UN resolution calling for the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states on May 14th, 1948, and as expected by the theory, the Arab states attacked immediately the next day (Quackenbush Stephen 2015, 351). Israel reaching its peak power at the time by gaining formal recognition of statehood is what ultimately triggered the first war, as the Arab states and natives refused to give up their land and accept the challenger state.
The final onset of the Arab-Israeli war and the many more wars to come within this region was the idea of collective guilt with the use of revenge killings and expulsions that the Israelis pursued on a massive scale. This vicious cycle of revenge began when the UN handed over half of Palestine to the Jews, even though the Arabs represented two-thirds of the population (Eric Gartman 2015, 97). In response, Abdul Khader Husseini, the best military leader that the Arabs of Palestine had, decided to cut off supplies to West Jerusalem, where the largest Jewish settlement was. Believing Husseini was there, the Jews bombed the Semiramis Hotel in Arab Jerusalem killing twenty-six Arabs. The result was a revenge explosion by the Arabs.
The Haganah, or Jewish militia, then set to commit “Plan D”, which was how to deal with Arab towns and villages and became the most controversial Israeli document in the conflict’s history.
For a full day Irgun and Stern soldiers stood and slaughtered men, women, and children—not in the course of the operation, but in a premeditated act which had as its intention of slaughter and murder only. They also took spoils, and when they finished their work, they fled (Gartman 2015, 109).
There came an argument between the Haganah and Irgun about whether it is okay to disarm the Arabs and shoot them if they refuse and if it were okay to kill residents at Deir Yassin who did not leave when the Irgun claimed that they announced in a loudspeaker at the entrance of the village for civilians to leave. This debate was quite similar to the ancient debate between Cleon and Diodotus in the Mytilenian dialogue when Athenians decided to halt the order to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children.
Cleon argued for the destruction of all the inhabitants, asserting collective guilt. Diodotus argued for restraint, which he argued was in Athens best interest. The line of argument by Cleon was ruling by an iron fist and with the claim that the inhabitants would do it to us if they had the opportunity. By slaughtering them, this punishment would be very harsh and an effective deterrent so that other city states (in this case the Arab villages) would not rise up against Athens (Israel).
If you let someone off the hook uninjured then they’ll pose a greater danger (Israel must strike to prevent more attacks) and dead men don’t revolt. In the end, they were spared, and the ones who initiated the revolt were slaughtered (Brown, Nardin, & Rengger 2002, 34-60). In this case, however, the Jews went the Cleon route. Inhabitants were killed and raped, including the innocent, in revenge attacks.
The bloody news of Deir Yassin had caused many Arabs to flee, including eighty thousand of the elite of Palestine (Gartman 2015, 111). In the city of Haifa, the second largest Arab city in Palestine, the population was reduced from sixty-two thousand Arabs to only a few thousand Arabs. (Gartman 2015, 112). Jaffa, the largest Arab city, went from a population of eighty thousand to only a few thousand after panic had struck after word got out that the Irgun were going to conquer Jaffa next.
More offensive attacks were then launched in Safed, home to twelve thousand Arabs, which was then taken also (Gartman 2015, 115). When Lydda was taken, forty-thousand residents were expelled and some of them were forced to walk on foot to the neighboring country Jordan, urged on by Israeli soldiers firing over their heads in temperatures of over one hundred degrees uphill. It is estimated that 335 died on the way there (Gartman 2015, 141).
Within just six weeks before British withdrawal, Palestinian society was destroyed, and in total there were about seven hundred thousand Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli War (Gartman 2015, 142). This Cleon route that the Israelis took planted a deep seed of condemnation and resentment for Israel and its Jews from the Arabs. Had Israel gone about earning the respect of its Arab neighbors a different way, the Deodotus route, then there would have been a severely altered future of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, perhaps even peace.
To sum up, the Arab-Israeli war can be attributed to three main causes: the strength of the ideology of nationalism/Zionism, a push-back of a power transition/attempted deterrence of a balance of power, and the vicious cycle of murder and expulsion under the idea of collective guilt and deterrence.
All these independent variables can be applied broadly to several different crises throughout history, for example there is an abundance of cases of nationalism that have led to war (such as the Indio-Pakistani wars), power transition struggles (the World Wars), and conflicts that never end because of a cycle of revenge (War on Terror, 2003 invasion of Iraq and the development of terrorist groups).
In hindsight these three variables have been the cause of the subsequent wars in Israel with the same adversaries following the first Arab-Israeli war. Since none of these variables have changed and still exist today, the likelihood that there will be another Arab-Israeli war in the future is bound to occur sometime in the next decade, it’s just a matter of when exactly.