The fourth episode of Al Jazeera’s nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, looks at the roots of that conflict and asks if the Palestinian question is A Cause for Unity?
In November 1947, the UN voted to divide Palestine in two. While the British accepted the resolution and made plans to withdraw, the Arabs and Palestinians rejected it.
On May 14, 1948, the day before the British withdrawal, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the creation of the State of Israel on the land granted by the Partition Plan.
The next day, as the last British troops were leaving, war broke out between Palestinians and the Haganah.
Seven Arab armies entered the war.
Hani Abdel Hadi, from the Palestinian Strategic Studies Institute, says: “You could see Arab leaders interest in having a say in Palestine, since Palestine is the core of not the Arab-Palestinian conflict or Arab-Israeli conflict, but is the consciousness of the Arab world. He who governs Jerusalem, he who has a say in Palestine will have the upper hand in the Arab World.”
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Opinion: Arabism’s greatest loss
After nine months of fighting the Arab armies, including the forces of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan, were defeated and the Israelis captured 75 per cent of Palestine, giving it an area one-third greater than the area assigned to them under the UN partition plan.
The remainder of Palestine, namely the West Bank, was controlled by Jordanian forces, while the Gaza Strip was left under Egyptian control.
This period is known by the Arabs as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Abu Talab, a Palestinian refugee, says: “The Arab army didn’t help. When the Jews attacked, they ran for their lives before the locals had a chance to flee. They abandoned the country and its helpless population with no means of defence.”
Over 750,000 Palestinian refugees fled to neighbouring Arab countries where they were housed in camps. The camps were crowded and unsanitary and the fate of the refugees lay in the hands of their hosts.
The official policy of most Arab states was that the Palestinian refugees should be kept in a permanent state of readiness, prepared to return to Palestine at any moment.
In December 1948, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 194 which recognised the right of refugees to return to their homes.
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The occupation of Palestine and the plight of the refugees caused new awareness amongst ordinary Arabs. Now, more than ever before – united by tragedy – they began to think in collective terms.
Fawwaz Traboulsi, a political analyst, says: “The tragedy of Palestine to begin with, became a rallying point for Arabs, in a sense became one form of Arab unity, you unite around Palestine.
“Second, you can say the opposite. Palestine became a supplement or a displacement of a wish or a desire, which is not implemented, which is the desire for Arab unity. So the Arabs cannot be united effectively but they can be united symbolically around Palestine.”
The unanimity on the Arab street did not translate into concerted action. Preoccupied with managing the transition from colonial domination to independence, most Arab leaders were concerned with matters closer to home.
One future Arab leader, however, gained his first battle experience in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and the defeat had a profound influence on him. Gamel Abdel Nasser became determined to solve the Palestinian problem and make Arab unity work.