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It was the First World War that launched the Israel-Palestine conflict

When it comes to drawing the borders of Palestine and whether to recognize a "Jewish state," the troublesome issues began some 97 years ago in the later stages of the Great War.

With regular reports that the British army was steadily advancing from Gaza toward Jerusalem, the holy city's Ottoman governor, Izzat Bey, summoned the local Arab mayor late on December 8, 1917. He handed the surprised official a quickly scrawled note of capitulation that said the governor surrendered "one Palestine, complete," and told him to deliver it to the commander of the advancing British forces. The governor then took a horse-drawn carriage from the city's American Colony, a benevolent Christian society, and beat a hasty retreat in the direction of Istanbul, thus ending 400 years of Ottoman rule over the holy sites.

Hussein Salim al-Husseini, the mayor, rose early the next day to deliver the writ of surrender. It took seven tries, as various ranks of soldiers refused to accept responsibility but, eventually, General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British forces, accepted the document in the name of his King.

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The surrender gave the British what they sought: control over the territory of Palestine; as well, they inherited all the Arab and Jewish issues that came with it.

Just six weeks earlier, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour had written a letter to Baron Rothschild, leader of Britain's Jewish community, declaring that "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…"

The Balfour Declaration gave succour to the nascent Zionist movement seeking to settle in Biblical Israel, despair to the resident Arab population in Palestine and a persistent headache to the British.

As the British took the reins of Palestine, promising to use the mandate they were given by the League of Nations to prepare the territory for self-government, they made Balfour's implementation a top priority. Sir Herbert Samuel, himself an ardent Zionist who had lobbied for the Balfour Declaration, was appointed Britain's first High Commissioner to Palestine. He was a man who sought to maximize Jewish immigration and economic prosperity in the territory.

But the Balfour Declaration doesn't refer to a Jewish state, only to a homeland, and it also says that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..."

So Britain's mandate proved cautious, and even Sir Herbert found he had to restrict the numbers of Jewish immigrants at times.

The Jews would have to wait until after the Second World War, after the Holocaust, before the newly created United Nations would vote to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem left as an international zone. It was perhaps the first official recognition of the term "Jewish state," even though a large number of Arabs were living in it.

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The plan called for 56 per cent of the territory of Palestine to be awarded to the Jewish state and 43 per cent to the Arab state. While Jews accounted for only about 37 per cent of the population, it was assumed that a large influx of Jewish immigrants would justify the larger area.

The Arabs of Palestine and their supporters around the region rejected the plan despite the UN vote, setting the stage for war.

Palestine's Jewish community largely embraced the plan and used it as the basis for declaring an independent state, but the community's political and military leaders still hoped to improve upon what they were being offered. They worried that the overall size of the territory wasn't big enough, that the narrowness of the state left too many of their communities exposed to shelling, and that there were too many Palestinian Arabs in their population.

Indeed, by the time the smoke had cleared from 10 months of fighting, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) controlled more territory than when the fighting began and many Arabs had fled from the areas captured by Jews, taking refuge in neighbouring states.

Then, in the Armistice talks with Jordan that followed, the Israelis resorted to intimidation to get another slice of land.

Following a ceasefire, and as talks with Jordan were underway, Israel launched an operation they called "shin-tav-shin." They rapidly deployed a large number of Israeli troops in the central Wadi Ara region, greatly outnumbering the Jordanian forces that then controlled this entirely Arab district.

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Under the pressure, Jordan's King Abdullah, who had been having his own secret talks with Israeli leaders, agreed to hand over the area, thereby widening the middle of Israel by about 5-8 km and giving the Jewish state greater security. (Abdullah's willingness to compromise with the Israelis earned him the enmity of many Palestinians and, in 1951, the King was assassinated while in Jerusalem.)

Along with the land Israel acquired in this operation came some 16 Arab villages and about 20,000 people. And, this time, no one was fleeing.

This area and those communities had been designated as part of the Arab state in the 1947 partition plan, they fell under Jordanian control following the Arab-Israeli war, but still Israel sought to obtain the territory in order to improve its depth of security.

Today, those 20,000 people have multiplied and the "triangle" represents one of the obstacles to Israel's greatest wish: to be recognized as a Jewish state.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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