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The following is a summary or précis, using the author's exact words wherever possible, of a 2009 article by Walid Khalidi in the Journal of Palestine Studies. 1 Khalidi’s article addresses some of the myths regarding the transformation of the former Palestine into the State of Israel. --Ronald Bleier, September 2010

Walid Khalidi
“The Hebrew Reconquista of Palestine”

Since the issue was divine right, questions of who fired the first shot, and who did or did not accept partition are mere diversions and irrelevancies.
–-Walid Khalidi, 2009

The foundational premise of official Israeli historiography is that the Yishuv was in an essentially defensive mode during the 1947-48 war. (The Yishuv is the term for the pre-1948 Jewish settlement in Palestine.) In actuality, on the eve of the 1947-1948 war, the Yishuv was in a full-blown territorially expansionist mode. This militant mode long preceded the November 1947 UNGA partition resolution, which within six months led to the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe. 2

The change envisaged for Palestine by the Balfour Declaration was unprecedentedly radical. Article 2 of the League of Nations Mandate over Palestine, entrusted to Britain in 1922, provided for “placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of a Jewish national home.” The local Arab community could not partner with this colonial enterprise upon which rode an external actor, the Jewish diaspora as represented by the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

The element of nonconsent of the local community was paramount. Theodor Herzl in 1902 had unsuccessfully sought a charter for the settlement of Palestine over the heads of the Palestinians. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann had negotiated the Jewish national home with British Foreign Secretary James Arthur Balfour without permitting the Palestinians a voice in the formulation of the Mandate.

Every Jewish immigrant who entered Palestine between 1918 and 1948, incrementally eroding the country’s majoritarian demography, did so against the wishes of the Palestinians, for the most part with the help of British bayonets. Weizmann acknowledged to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 that it had been impossible to submit the Zionist project to the Palestinians because it would have been refused.

The genius of the Zionist narrative is its ability to depict the Palestinians’ resistance to this plan to dispossess them as Palestinian aggression, and the Zionist drive to impose this revolutionary status quo on the Palestinians by force of arms as Jewish self-defense. (25) 3


The UN General Assembly (UNGA) partition resolution of 27 November 1947 was the proximate portal of the Nakba. Britain had dumped the “Palestine problem” on the UN and got out of its difficulties by ostensibly creating two states, a Jewish and an Arab state to succeed the Mandate in Palestine, thus liquidating its moral responsibility to its policy’s principal victim: the Arab population. At the UN, British prime minister Clement Attlee pretended not to endorse it by abstaining, while seeing to it that Britain’s Commonwealth partners voted in its favor. Meanwhile U.S. president Harry Truman jammed partition down the throats of other UN member states.

The UNGA partition resolution is one of the foundational myths of Israel on the grounds that it was equitable, practicable and morally and legally viable and that the Jews had accepted it while the Palestinians and Arabs had rejected it. But the Palestinians and the Arabs rejected it precisely because it was not equitable, practicable, or morally and legally viable.

Aggression and offensive action were built into the very concept of the UN partition resolution. The area of the proposed Jewish state was 15 million dunams (1 dunam = 1,000 sq meters) while Jewish land ownership in 1948 totaled 1.7 million dunams. The UN was effectively saying to the Yishuv: go seize those additional 13.3 million dunams that you don’t own from those who do. (26)

Since the Yishuv was fully mobilized, and there was no central authority to oversee the process and no agreed mechanism for implementation, the Jewish forces were able to use the alibi of the UNGA partition resolution to establish the Jewish state by force of arms under the guise of conforming to the international will.

Israel’s legitimacy derives in part from Zionist acceptance of the partition plan. Yet the leadership of the Yishuv never had any intention of sticking to the borders proposed by the 1947 partition resolution. Accordingly the Haganah (the Yishuv’s main paramilitary organization later becoming the core of Israel’s armed forces) launched Plan Dalet, the master plan for the military conquest of Palestine six weeks before May 15, 1948, the day the British Mandate ended. (27)

In the civil war phase of the first Palestine war, from December 1947 until the declaration of the Israeli state on 14 May 1948, the combined operations of the Haganah and the Irgun and Stern paramilitary forces had already destroyed the fabric of Palestinian society, triggered the Palestinian exodus, conquered major Arab towns and scores of Arab villages and established Jewish control over the bulk of the territory allocated to the Jewish state and territories well beyond. The regular war, which began with the entry into the country of units of the regular Arab armies on 15 May 1948, would not have occurred had these events not preceded.

The outcome of the regular war was already sealed in favor of Israel by the time it began. The “existential threat” supposedly posed by the Arab armies, like the ostensible equity and moral viability of the UN partition resolution, is a myth. (27)


At the 1897 Basel congress that established the World Zionist Organization (WZO), only 4 of the 199 delegates were Palestinian-born. Fifty years later on 14 May 1948, only 1 of the 37 signatories of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv was Palestinian-born. In many ways this encapsulates the nature of the Zionist movement. It was not a native phenomenon. It was not of Palestinian provenance.

The Mandate was essentially a collaboration between the British administration and the WZO. Throughout the Mandate, the WZO was headquartered in London. Can one imagine Michael Collins, or Nehru, or Kenyatta leading their national movements against Britain from headquarters in London? And yet the Yishuv in Palestine was an emanation and literally the creation of the London-based WZO and its financial institutions overseas.

Even in its pre-Balfour, pre-World War I state of political and military powerlessness, Zionism exhibited a sense of exclusive entitlement and moral superiority that not only reflected current European attitudes to non-European peoples but also seemed rooted in the conviction of a primordial and preemptive birthright purblind to the indigenous Palestinians of the land. While analogies to the Zionist venture abound, particularly those of the English settlers in North America, Australia and New Zealand, nevertheless the atavistic, irredentist Zionist dimension is lacking. The English settlers did see America as the promised land but they did not believe that they had originated there. (29)

What kind of nationalist movement was Zionism? It was not a movement of liberation or self-determination against a foreign imperial or colonial power, like most Afro-Asian movements. It was not a settler rebellion against a metropolitan parent, like the American Revolution. It was not an intifada against a brutal and suffocating military occupation. It was not a Risorgimento à la Mazzini or Garibaldi aimed at the reunification of a fragmented nation like Italy.

After decades of reflection on the subject, the closest analogy I can think of is the Iberian Reconquista of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries under Castille and Aragon. Sensing the opportunity of waning Muslim influence, Castille and Aragon were determined to “take back” what they saw as their ancestral patrimony. It was about a people on the move, with its alchemy of religious and national motivation, its profound sense of prior ownership and entitlement, its insatiable land hunger, and its pitiless indifference to the fate of its inhabitants.

In this same fundamental way, Zionism was on the offensive -– a Reconquista from the very start. As in the Iberian case, there was never any serious thought about what to do with the “usurpers” or “strangers” on the land—they were simply obstacles to its forward march. Partnership was never a possibility because what was at issue was an exclusive primordial, unchallengeable, indeed divine right. In this light, questions of who fired the first shot, and who did or did not accept partition are mere diversions and irrelevancies. (30)


Under British protection, the tiny indigenous Yishuv gradually burgeoned into the “Jewish national home” that was the raison d'etre d’etre of the Mandate. It was thus that the Yishuv grew from 56,000 in 1917 to 174,000 by 1931 to 553,600 in 1944. As early as 1920, Ben-Gurion and his Labor colleagues had decided on the need for a secret underground army, the Haganah, on the realistic assumption that to convert a country whose vast majority was Arab into a Jewish national home required direct military force that the British government might not always be willing to provide.

At the same time, with the Jewish population still very thin on the ground in the rural areas, the Zionists established early on a brilliant method of controlling the land in any future showdown with the Palestinian peasantry. This was the kibbutz system, based in its strategic purposes on Prussian models designed for the control of the Polish peasantry in East Prussia. The kibbutz network—centrally directed and financed—occupied strong points in selected sites across the Palestinian countryside. (31)

Shabtai Teveth, the preeminent authority on Ben-Gurion, believes that thanks to British protected Jewish mass immigration, Ben-Gurion by 1936 felt the Yishuv was so strong that he could discontinue all political dialogue with the Palestinians.

Arab anxiety about the growing Jewish national home finally erupted in the great Palestine Rebellion of 1936-39, the largest and most sustained armed defiance of British imperial authority in the first half of the twentieth century. The brutal crushing of the rebellion by the British army massively and irreversibly shifted the balance of power in favor of the Yishuv.

The Palestinians were even more outraged by a royal commission headed by Lord Peel in 1937 which recommended for the first time the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Even more repellent was the commission’s recommendation of the compulsory “transfer” of the Palestinians from the proposed Jewish state to make room for Jewish immigrants. By contrast, Peel’s compulsory “transfer” proposal was music to the ears of the Zionist leadership. As early as January 1937, some six months before Peel’s report was published on 7 July 1937, partition and transfer were being discussed in camera by the royal commission and Chaim Weizmann. The concept of transfer continued to occupy a prominent niche in the strategic thinking of the Yishuv –as it does today in some Israeli circles. (32)

By 1939 Britain had created a Jewish auxiliary colonial army twenty thousand strong, which it armed, trained and officered. This new official Jewish army, when added to the underground “unofficial” Haganah army of thirty thousand men, made the Yishuv, with its population of less than a half million, one of the most militarized communities in the world.

A corollary of British policy in Palestine had been the suspension of democracy and representative government. Such a policy was integral to the very formation and growth of the Jewish national home because it was necessary to dismiss “the desires and prejudices”—in the words of Lord Balfour--of the vast majority of the population. (32)


With the storm clouds of World War II gathering, the adverse effects of its pro-Zionism on its relations with the Arab and Muslim world—the British Empire then contained the largest “native” Muslim population of any European colonial power—led to Britain’s reassessment of its entire Palestine policy. Accordingly, after a London conference in 1939 of Arab, Palestinian and Jewish leaders, the White Paper of 1939 put a temporary cap on Jewish mass immigration and on Zionist acquisition of Palestinian land in certain parts of the country. This was Britain’s belated attempt at evenhandedness. But evenhandedness was not to Zionism’s liking and the White Paper was the beginning of the parting of ways between London and the Yishuv.

In due course, the Yishuv’s shift to the United States as patron was formalized in the 1942 “Biltmore Program,” so called because it was declared at the Biltmore Hotel in New York at a meeting of major American Jewish leaders at Ben Gurion’s request. Committing the American Jewish establishment to a collision course with Britain and the Palestinians, the program demanded unrestricted postwar Jewish mass immigration into Palestine as well as the declaration of the whole of Palestine as a Jewish “commonwealth” – a code word for state.

By early 1944 the terrorist extensions of Ben Gurion’s domestic opposition, the ultra-Zionist Irgun and Stern groups declared war against Britain and began deploying electrically detonated mines hidden in milk cans, fruit baskets, cafés, etc., against the British as well as Palestinian civilians. (34)


Ben Gurion was without doubt the most capable political leader operating in the Middle East in the 40s and 50s. He had his priorities right. Unlike the leaders of the Irgun and Stern gang who fought the British, Ben Gurion understood that the real enemy was the Palestinians and Arabs. (Although one could argue that it came down to a question of shared responsibility: Stern and Irgun would fight the British-–with discreet help from Ben Gurion–-and so Ben Gurion could devote the bulk of his energies to uprooting the natives.)

At the end of WWII, in 1945, the Yishuv had sufficiently gained in strength to believe that the time had come for the establishment of the Jewish state, with maximal possible borders. Thus Britain had to be removed, but not by the direct military action of the Haganah itself.

Ben-Gurion’s grand strategy to remove Britain involved first, mobilizing the American Jewish community to put sustained pressure on Washington to put sustained pressure on London, second massive illegal Jewish immigration from Europe with American Jewish funding to undermine the White Paper restrictions, flood the Coast Guard facilities of the British Mandatory administration, and wear down the war-exhausted Royal Navy, third, a worldwide propaganda campaign to denounce Britain for pitilessly preventing Jewish European displaced persons from reaching the shores of Palestine, this sliver of territory depicted as the only place in this wide world capable of absorbing them; fourth, formulating a “partition” plan based on the Biltmore Program to win the support of the new unelected American president Harry Truman,” who had moved into the White House after Roosevelt’s death and who was facing presidential elections in November 1948; and finally, looking the other way while the Irgun and Stern gangs escalated their vicious terrorist campaign against Britain to nudge it toward the exit.

The strategy succeeded brilliantly, and Britain was ignominiously driven out of Palestine by its own adopted child and protégé. The terrorist innovations used against the British included the postal bomb and the letter bomb. According to the Times of London, Zionist letter bombs (all intercepted by Scotland Yard) were sent to current and former Foreign Secretaries Ernest Bevin and Anthony Eden and others. Still other Jewish terrorist innovations were taking British officers hostage in Palestine and whipping them; and kidnapping British noncommissioned officers, hanging them, and booby-trapping their hanging bodies. The masterminds behind these operations were Menachem Begin and Yizhak Shamir, later prime ministers of Israel—mentors and role models for the Tzipis, Bibis, Liebermans, and other leading contemporary Israeli politicians.

The British army in Palestine in the last years of the mandate was 100,000 strong—one for every three adult members of the Yishuv. This army could have smashed the Irgun and Stern overnight, but its hands were tied largely by President Truman’s ardent pro-Zionism. 4 Between 1945 and November 1947, the ratio of Britons to Jewish terrorists killed was on the order of six to one. This is an unheard-of ratio in the annals of colonial warfare between the regular army and “rebels.”

The green light for the Hebrew Reconquista came with the UNGA partition resolution of 29 November 1947. What followed could not be called military operations by one army against another army. There was no Palestinian army. On the Jewish side, the various Jewish military and quasi-military formations including the Haganah, the Palmach, Etzel, Lehi and others were merely the vanguard of a “nation on the march” à la Aragon and Castile, a march that had started in Basel, Switzerland in August 1897, bent on redeeming an “ancestral” land from Palestinian strangers and squatters.


Perhaps the mother of all ironies is that Ben-Gurion spent 1916 researching the history of Palestine in—of all places—the New York Public Library. One of the conclusions of his research was that the Palestinian peasantry were the real descendents of the ancient Hebrews. 5 (p. 36)

The End

1Walid Khalidi, “The Hebrew Reconquista of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies No. 153, Vol XXXIX, Number 1, Autumn 2009. Professor Khalidi is the founder and general secretary of the JPS. arrow

2The Palestinian catastrophe encompassed the expulsion of about three-quarters of a million people who were never allowed to return. arrow

3Numbers in parenthesis reference the JPS text arrow

4Kahalidi’s article is sourced with 84 footnotes, but he gives no documentation for his assertion that the British could have readily liquidated the Stern and Irgun groups, or that the U.S. stopped Britain’s hand. Kahalidi’s source is Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, pp. 30-31. arrow

5Kahalidi’s source is Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, pp. 30-31. arrow


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