12-1: The Formation of Israel

The Formation of Israel

Part 1 of 1: Read the Information about the creation of the state of Israel. Then answer the questions that follow.

The Zionist movement, which sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine,  acquired large tracts of land in Palestine. The region lacked a clear system of private property rights, and, especially during the hard times of the 1930s, Arab landowners were willing to sell. This led to an anti-Zionist backlash however as Arab resistance to Jewish immigration intensified. It often led to violence. An organization called the Arab Higher Committee called a general strike and issued three demands:

  • An end to further Jewish immigration
  • An end to land sales to Jews
  • The establishment of an Arab national government.

And so in 1939 the British government changed its policy. It issued a white paper— a statement of government policy—that ended its commitment to the Jews in Palestine. Instead, it called for the creation of a Palestinian (Arab) state within 10 years. The Palestinians would take over as soon as “peace and order” could be restored. This plan would severely limit Jewish immigration to 75,000 a year for five years. After that, further immigration would require the Palestinian government’s consent. This policy change did not go down well with the Zionists. The outbreak of World War II further complicated the situation. However disappointed the Jews were in the British government, they really had no choice but to support Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany, which was rounding up and murdering millions of European Jews. As David Ben-Gurion, who would eventually become Israel’s first prime minister in 1948, put it, “We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war.” And so they did. Ben-Gurion played another key leadership role in Israel’s founding as chairman of the Jewish Agency, which helped settle immigrants into Palestine. He held the post from 1935–1948. In 1945 the Jewish Agency joined forces with armed radical groups to form the Jewish resistance. This resistance sometimes resorted to violence in support of its goals. By the end of World War II, the British effort to limit Jewish immigration was becoming untenable. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust were stuck in camps for “displaced persons” in Europe. They clamored for permission to go to Palestine. They had world opinion on their side. US President Harry Truman felt morally bound to help the refugees and pushed Britain to change its policy. It was more than Britain, weakened by World War II and straining under the weight of its empire, could sustain.

On 18 February 1947 British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that his government would hand the issue over to the United Nations. On 15 May the UN set up an 11-member Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). On 31 August the committee announced a plan to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Jerusalem would have special international status. An economic union would link the three entities. A majority of UNSCOP’s members supported the partition plan. So did the United States and the Soviet Union. The UN General Assembly adopted the plan on 29 November 1947. The Zionist General Council thought the plan fell short of what Zionists had expected from the League of Nations mandate to Britain 25 years before. But the council was willing in principle to accept partition. On the other hand, the League of Arab States said it would do whatever was necessary to block the deal. The US Department of State then told Truman that a Jewish state would not be viable—able to survive. So in January 1948 the president reversed himself. He said he could not support Israel. He agreed to postpone partition and transfer the British Mandate to a UN trusteeship council.

The Arab political parties on the ground in Palestine rejected the plan as well and called for a general strike. Violence mounted between Arabs and Jews. British forces in Palestine sided with Arabs. They tried unsuccessfully to keep the Yishuv— the Jewish community in Palestine before statehood—from arming itself. The Jews’ first clandestine—secret—shipment of heavy arms arrived from Czechoslovakia in March 1948. The Haganah—the military arm of the Jewish Agency—went on the offensive. It set up communications links for the territory the UN plan designated as the Jewish state. Jewish forces also attacked Arabs. When the news came that they had killed 250 Arab civilians at the village of Dayr Yasin, Arabs fled from places with large Jewish populations. Meanwhile, the US policy stance changed yet again. A Zionist leader named Chaim Weizmann persuaded Truman to pledge support for the proposed Jewish state. On 14 May 1948 Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Britain gave up its mandate the next day at 6 p.m.



  1. How were the Zionists able to acquire land prior to the ‘white paper’?
  2. What was the ‘white paper’ the British issued? How did World War II alter this policy?
  3. Why did the British hand over the land of Palestine to the United Nations?
  4. Why did President Truman reverse his opinion on the creation of Israel?
  5. What caused violence to erupt in Palestine in 1948?