Jews are indigenous to the Palestine region and have lived there continuously for over 3,000 years. Even after the Roman conquest in the first century, Jewish communities remained and periodically flourished and exiled Jews returned in waves of immigration. But Jews became an oppressed minority in their homeland, and their numbers rose and fell depending on the kindness or cruelty of the region’s different rulers. In the 1700s and early 1800s, crippling taxes, discrimination, persecution and natural disasters brought the Jewish community to a new low.
Between 1882 and 1914, a new kind of Jewish immigrant arrived — the “Lovers of Zion” and other early Zionists — who laid the groundwork for the modern Jewish State.
They were young, energetic idealists imbued with Western political principles and the dreams of national liberation that were sweeping across Europe.
The returning Jews had no powerful nation to help them. They had no weapons. They were often penniless.
The land was only sparsely populated, and much of it had become barren. The Jews wanted to restore the land’s once-famous fertility and build villages and communities where none existed. The region was an impoverished backwater of the Ottoman Empire. In 1880, there were only an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 people, many of whom were also recent arrivals, who had no sense of unity or ethnic or national identity. Their allegiance was to the Ottoman Empire, their religious group, their clan and their local community.
The Jews legally bought the land they developed primarily from absentee landowners. Most of it was uncultivated swampland or sand dunes.
Through backbreaking labour, the early Jewish pioneers cleared the wastelands and malarial swamps, reforested the hillsides and built towns and villages.
Britain and the League of Nations created the Palestine Mandate as the Jewish National Home in part because of the growing number of Jews and their achievements in the pre-World War I period. Between 1890 and 1915, the Jewish population rose from 42,900 to 83,000. They had built thriving farms, created villages and towns and social institutions, introduced innovations like socialist communes, revived Hebrew and created a rich culture.
During the Mandate (1920-1948), Zionists continued their pre-war policies of purchasing and restoring the land, often using innovative agricultural techniques.
Zionists also developed industry, power plants, urban life and social institutions, such as labour unions, political parties, hospitals, universities and a national orchestra. Three universities were founded before 1948. The Hebrew Opera ﬁrst performed in 1922. The Palestine Orchestra, later the Israeli Philharmonic, was founded in 1936.
Zionists hoped to live in friendship and cooperation with the Arab population and believed that restoring the land would beneﬁt everyone. Many Arabs welcomed this development, which also attracted Arab immigrants from the neighbouring countries. An estimated 25 percent to 37 percent of immigrants to pre-state Israel were Arabs, not Jews. Between 1922 and 1946 alone, approximately 100,000 Arabs entered the country from neighbouring lands. Approximately 363,000 Jews immigrated in the same period.
The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan is regarded as the final straw leading to the war. As the conflict in what was then known as Palestine spun out of control, Britain, which controlled the area, handed off the question of Palestine to the U.N, which formed a special committee to investigate the problem.
The recommendation presented was to form two separate states within Palestine, one Jewish, one Arab, and that Jerusalem should be kept as an internationally controlled entity. The Jews living in the region accepted the agreement, but the Arabs immediately denounced it. Once the plan was approved by the U.N. in November 1947, war broke out in Israel between the Arab and Jewish communities. An estimated 2,000 people were killed and 4,000 wounded between December 1947 and March 1948.
During the conflict, hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the region, fleeing to the West Bank (then controlled by Jordan) or other Arab countries. Contrary to what Israel’s critics sometimes maintain, there was no policy of expelling Israel’s existing Arab population — in fact, it was assumed that the new Jewish state would include a sizable Arab community. While there were isolated incidents of the Haganah — the Jewish paramilitary force that later became the core of the Israel Defence Forces — evacuating Arab villages, the Arab population largely fled because they anticipated worsening violence. Many assumed they would return once the Arabs were victorious and the fighting ended. By some estimates, more than 600,000 Arabs had fled the region by 1949.
Then, May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the new State of Israel. With this announcement, what had been primarily a civil war between the regions Jewish and Arab populations became an international war. On the night of May 14 – 15, five Arab League countries — Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria — invaded Israel. Their stated intention was to create a Palestinian state, claiming that the two-state solution proposed by the U.N. violated the wishes of the area’s Arab population.
The United States and the Soviet Union condemned the Arab invasion. On May 28, 1948, the Israel Defence Forces was officially formed, combining the forces of Jewish paramilitary forces that existed at the time, including the Haganah. Heavy fighting commenced between the IDF and the Arab League. The heaviest fighting, on the road to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, occurred between the IDF and the Jordanian forces. Eventually, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem fell to the Jordanians.