Israel-Arab Conflicts: Before the Creation of the State of Israel

When Jews began arriving in Palestine en masse in the late 19th century, the land had an Arab presence. The number of Arabs in Palestine at the time and questions surrounding when many of the Arabs came to the land remain the subject of dispute among historians. The early Zionist pioneers saw the Arab population as small, apolitical and without a nationalist element and they therefore believed that there would not be friction between the two communities. They also thought that development of the country would benefit both peoples and they would thus secure Arab support and cooperation. Indeed, many Arabs migrated to Palestine in the wake of economic growth stimulated by Jewish immigration. They were attracted to the area by its employment opportunities, higher wages and better living conditions.

Contrary to their expectations, the Jews were met with intense Arab opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine. In the early years of Jewish immigration, individual and small bands of Arabs engaged in violence against Jews and Jewish settlements. As time went on, Arab attacks against Jews became more organized and more widespread. The British authorities often failed to stave off Arab attacks and refused to come to the assistance of Jews during attacks. Particularly brutal Arab assaults swept Palestine in 1929, of which the Hebron massacre, in which 67 Jews were murdered, is the most infamous.

The Jewish response to Arab opposition to the Zionist project and Arab violence was not monolithic. Mainstream Jewry advocated a policy of "self-restraint" while underground Jewish groups advocated harsh retaliatory policies.

From 1936-1947 the struggle over the land became more intense and Arab opposition became more extreme and more violent. In 1936, the British Peel Commission concluded that Arab-Jewish coexistence was impossible and recommended partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. The Jews accepted the principle of partition while the Arabs rejected it. From 1936-1939, the Arabs in Palestine revolted against British rule.

Following the United Nations' decision to partition Palestine in November 1947, Arab preparation for a war to thwart the establishment of a Jewish state began. Armed attacks by Palestinian bands and militias against Jewish villages and civilian settlements in Palestine escalated. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, launched a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Dissident Jewish factions not associated with the Haganah, the official Jewish defense forces, engaged in violence against Arab civilians.

From December 1947 through March 1948, the Haganah engaged only in self-defense activities and retaliated only against those Arabs responsible for acts of terror and violence. A U.S. arms embargo made it difficult for the Jews to purchase military equipment while British weapons continued to flow into the Arab states. By March 1948, the Jewish community in Palestine suffered enormous casualties and the loss of a number of strategic areas. The Arab campaign along the roads was slowly strangling Jewish towns and outlying rural settlements. The community also anxiously expected a large-scale Arab invasion in May, when the British were set to withdraw. Beginning in April 1948, therefore, the Haganah shifted to offensive actions.