The Establishment of the State of Israel as a Jewish State
From Chapter I in: Israel – An Apartheid State, by Uri Davis, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1987
Is the state of Israel a sovereign, independent and democratic state, or is Israel a Jewish state? Is the state of Israel governed by and for all its citizens, or is Israel governed by and for all Jews throughout the world? Is the Israeli government accountable to all its nationals, Arabs and Jews, or is the Israeli government accountable only to Jews both inside and outside the land of Palestine, whether they are Israeli nationals or not ? These are not new questions in Israeli political discourse for they have accompanied the process of the establishment of the state of Israel since its earliest days.
The state of Israel was established by unilateral declaration on 15 May 1948. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel – popularly and wrongly known as ‘Israel’s Declaration of Independence’ – does not declare Israel an independent state, nor does it declare Israel a sovereign state; rather it declares Israel a Jewish state:
We, the members of the National Council representing the Jewish people in Palestine and the Zionist Movement, are met together in solemn assembly today, the day of termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people and of the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine to be called Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel) (Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 15 May 1948, henceforth Declaration II 1948) (original Hebrew)
What may seem to an uninformed outside observer a minor technical quibble was in fact the object of explicit discussion and controversy at the meeting of the People’s Council on 14 May 1948, the eve of the announcement of the establishment of the state of Israel. Meir Vilner, then as today a leading member of the Communist Party and a signatory of the Declaration, pointed out as follows:
Members of the Council: we are all united today in recognition of the significance of this great day for the Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Palestine] and the Jewish people, the day of the abolition of the Mandate and the declaration of the independent Jewish state….The Eretz Israel Communist Party (sic) supports the proposed resolution of the declaration of the Jewish state, has reservations on a number of issues, and proposes a few amendments and additions….We propose, in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations [General] Assembly, to add the following paragraph:
‘The Council declares that a fundamental principle of its policy is that of the right of both peoples to self-determination and to independent states of their own’
In section 9, where it says, ‘Calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel’, we propose to add the word ‘ independent’, namely: ‘Calling for the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Eretz Israel’.
…At the end of section 11 it says: ‘We…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel’. We propose to add the words ‘sovereign independent’, thus ‘the establishment of a sovereign, independent Jewish state…’ (State of Israel, Protocols of Debates, vol. I, pp.13-14, Hebrew)
Vilner’s proposal were not accepted. The debate, however, highlights the fact that those who formulated the draft consciously avoided the words that would have specified the sovereignty and independence of the proposed state, emphasizing its Jewishness.
Thus, the state of Israel was above all declared a Jewish state: ‘We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine to be called Medinat Yisrael’ [the state of Israel, namely, the state of the Jewish people] (Declaration, 1948). Significantly, the borders of the new state were intentionally left undefined. The relevant discussion was summarized by David Ben Gurion in the same debate as follows:
There was a discussion of this matter in the People’s Executive. There was a proposal to determine the borders, and there was opposition to this proposal. We decided to evade (and I choose this word intentionally) the matter for a simple reason: If the UN fulfils all its resolutions and undertakings and maintains the peace and prevents bombardments and uses its powers to execute its own resolutions, then we on our part (and I express the opinion of the people) will honour all the resolutions in their entirety. So far the UN has not done so….therefore, we are not bound by anything, and we have left this matter open. We did not say no UN borders, but neither did we say the opposite. We have left this matter open for developments. (Declaration, 1948, p.19; emphasis in the original)
Over the first five decades of the twentieth century, the infrastructure for the Jewish state were laid out through the Zionist colonial effort in Palestine as institutionalized in the various departments and offices of the Jewish Agency for the Land of Israel (JA), the executive arm of the World Zionist Organization and its affiliated companies: the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Foundation Fund, Hemnutah, etc. It is interesting that in their capacity as voluntary confessional associations, the success of the various Zionist agencies in Palestine was fairly limited. The JNF, for instance, since the year of its incorporation in London in 1907 and throughout the period of its activity under the Ottoman and the British regimes until 1948, had failed to purchase more than 936,000 dunums of land, at the most (Ephraim Orni, Agrarian Reform and Social Progress in Israel, p.66; Walter Lehn, ‘Zionist Land: The Jewish National Fund’, Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1974, p.66), namely, some 3.5 percent of the 1922 Mandate Palestine or some 5 percent of the pre-1967 Israeli territory.
Following the establishment of the state of Israel, however, and the introduction of the legislation detailed below into the body of Israeli law, the legal situation governing the activities of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, the Histadrut, the Workers’ Company, and their various subsidiaries radically altered. Their respective restrictive constitutions, which were legally binding on what were, until 1948, technically voluntary organisations, are now incorporated into the legal foundations and the body of law of the state of Israel, thereby establishing a situation of radical legal apartheid of Jew versus non-Jew.
By the conclusion of the 1948-9 Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement which brought to an end armed conflict in Palestine, Israel has achieved a significant territorial expansion from 57 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine, as allocated to the Jewish state by the 1947 UN Partition Plan, to 68 percent (20,600 km.sq.). Of the remaining area, the West Bank (6,400 km.sq.) was annexed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1950, and the Gaza Strip (362 km.sq.) came under Egyptian military administration.
In the territories thus coming under Israeli rule and occupation lived some 900,000 Palestinian Arabs. They inhabited approximately 500 villages as well as all major cities: Tiberias, Safad, Nazareth, Shafa ‘Amr, Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Ramleh, Jerusalem, Majdal (Ashqelon), Isdud (Ashdod), and Beer Sheba. Of these people, only some 150,000 remained under Israeli rule inside Israeli armistice boundaries (the ‘Green line’). The majority of the Palestinian Arab population either fled during the hostilities, or was forcibly expelled by the Israeli army and has never been permitted by Israel to return; nor has Israel ever acknowledged the right of these people to return.
Having expelled the majority of the people, the Israeli authorities then pursued the systematic destruction of their homes. Of the 500 or so Palestinian Arab villages, some 400 (385 according to the list compiled by the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights; below) were razed to the ground by the Israeli army during the 1948-9 war and throughout the 1950s.
As noted above, the state of Israel has consistently denied the right of return to the erstwhile Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the land, and violated UN General Assembly resolutions recognizing their right to return and calling for their repatriation. In fact, all 1948 Palestinian Arab displaced persons and refugees were subsequently legislated as ‘absentees’ through the Absentee Property Law (1950). Thus, they were alienated from all rights to Israeli citizenship, to their lands, and to their properties in Israel. The enormity of this nation-wide, systematic practice of war crimes is indicated in the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights’ list of destroyed Palestinian Arab villages. The list refers to Arab villages destroyed in pre-1967 Israel alone.
It is worth noting that official statistics list only 103 Arab localities (101 villages and the two towns of Nazareth and Shafa ‘Amr) and 44 Bedouin tribes (22 in the Northern and Central regions and 22 in the Southern region). The Arab population of the cities of Tiberias, Safad, Majdal, Isdud and Beer Sheba was expelled in its entirety. In Lydda, Ramleh, Jaffa, Haifa and Acre, the surviving Arab population was confined to ghettoes.
The vast properties defined under the Absentee Property Law (1950) as ‘absentee property’ can be further assessed if one recalls that, until 1947, individual or corporate Jewish land ownership in Palestine did not exceed 7 percent, or 10 percent of the territories that came under Israeli rule and occupation following the 1948-9 war. Of the remainder, according to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, almost 70 percent of the territory of pre-1967 Israel consists of land classified as ‘absentee property’:
The Custodian of Absentee Property does not choose to discuss politics. But when asked how much of the land of the state of Israel might potentially have two claimants – an Arab and a Jew holding respectively a British Mandate and an Israeli deed to the same property – Mr. Manor [the Custodian in 1980] believes that ‘about 70 percent’ might fall into that category (Robert Fisk, ‘The Land of Palestine, Part Eight: The Custodian of Absentee Property’, The Times, 24 December, 1980)
Jewish National Fund estimates, on the other hand, set the figure as high as close to 90 percent:
Of the entire area of the state of Israel only about 300,000-400,000 dunums …are state domain which the Israeli government took over from the mandatory regime [2 percent]. The JNF and private Jewish owners possess under two million dunum [10 percent]. Almost all the rest [i.e. 88 percent of the 20,225,000 dunums within the 1949 armistice lines] belongs at law to Arab owners, many of whom have left the country (Jewish National Fund, Jewish Villages in Israel, p.xxi, quoted in Lehn and Davis, The Jewish National Fund)
Consider, for instance, the following outline by Don Peretz [estimates of the value of the abandoned property of Palestinian Arabs vested with the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property]:
Much information concerning the use, amounts and distribution of abandoned Arab property and the government’s policy toward it was secret. Records and most reports of the Custodian of Absentee Property were secret. Sessions of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, when it discussed the problem, were closed. Even the United Nations, in spite of frequent requests, was unable to obtain adequate information about Israel’s disposition of Arab property. In its Fifteenth Progress Report of October 4, 1956, the CCP [UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine] stated that its representatives had still received no reply to a request submitted to the Israel Government the previous February for information concerning the administration of Arab refugee property or the measures taken to protect it, safeguard its identity, an provide restitution to the refugee owners. Therefore much information in this Chapter and Chapter IX concerning absentee property necessarily came from indirect sources.
The CCP Refugee Office estimated that although only a little more than a quarter was considered cultivable, more than 80 percent of Israel’s total area of 20,850 km.sq. represented land abandoned by the Arab refugees. Three-quarters of the former Arab land was sub-marginal land or semi-desert in the Negeb. Evaluation of the property varied from that of the United Nations – 120 million pounds sterling – to the Arab League’s estimate of over than ten times that amount.
Abandoned property was one of the greatest contributions toward making Israel a viable state. The extent of its area and the fact that most of the regions along the border consisted of absentee property made it strategically significant. Of the 370 new Jewish settlements established between 1948 and the beginning of 1953, 350 were on absentee property. In 1954, more than one third of Israel’s Jewish population lived on absentee property and nearly a third of the new immigrants (250,000 people) settled in urban areas abandoned by Arabs. They left whole cities like Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Ramleh, Baysan (Bisan), Majdal (Ashqelon); 388 towns and villages and large parts of 94 other cities and town, containing nearly a quarter of all the buildings in Israel. Ten thousand shops, businesses and stores were left in Jewish hands. At the end of the Mandate, citrus holdings in the area of Israel totalled about 240,000 dunums of which half were Arab owned. Most of the Arab groves were taken over by the Israel Custodian of Absentee Property. But only 34,000 dunums were cultivated by the end of 1953. By 1956 73,000 dunums were either cultivated or fit for cultivation. In 1951-2, former Arab groves produced one-and-a-quarter million boxes of fruit, of which 400,000 were exported. Arab fruit sent abroad provided nearly 10 per cent of the country’s foreign currency earnings from export in 1951. In 1949 the olive produce from abandoned Arab groves was Israel’s third largest export, ranking after citrus and diamonds. The relative economic importance of Arab property was largest from 1948 until 1953, during the period of greatest immigration and need. After that, as the immigrants became more productive, national dependence upon abandoned Arab property declined relatively.
The CCP estimated that the amount of Israel’s cultivable abandoned Arab land was nearly two and half times the total area of Jewish-owned property at the end of the mandate. The Israel Custodian of Absentee Property estimated that only two and half million of the four million dunums of Arab land held by him were cultivated. No account was given for the discrepancy between the amount of cultivable area cited by the CCP (4,574,000 dunums) and the cultivated area held by the Custodian. Neither was the difference between the total of four million dunums of absentee property held by the Custodian and the CCP’s total of 16,324,000 dunums clearly explained…
In 1951 abandoned cultivable land included nearly 95 per cent of all Israel’s olive groves, 40 thousand dunums of vineyards, and at least 10 thousand dunums of other orchards excluding citrus.
Twenty thousand dunums of absentee property were leased by the Custodian in 1952 for industrial purposes. A third of Israel’s stone production was supplied by 52 Arab quarries under his jurisdiction.
The amount and value of movable Arab property was never accurately determined. In the chaotic war conditions which prevailed after the Arab flight most of their property was destroyed, looted or lost. More than four million pounds worth of movable property was in the warehouses of the Custodian in 1951. The CCP’s Refugee Office estimated that the approximate value of all movable Arab refugee property was about 20 million Palestine pounds…(Don Peretz, Israel and the Palestine Arabs, pp. 142-6)
By all accounts, the massive properties vested in the Custodian of Absentee Property following the 1948-9 war constituted the primary rural and urban resources for post-1948 Israeli, exclusively Jewish, settlements projects, cultivation and development. As Moshe Dayan noted in his famous speech before students at the Israeli Institute of Technology (Techniyon) in 1969:
We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs, and we are building here a Hebrew, Jewish state. In a considerable portion of localities we purchased the land from the Arabs. Instead of the Arab villages Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the name of the villages and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist. Not only the books, but also the villages no longer exist. Nahalal was established in the place of Mahalul, Gevat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Hanifas and Kefar Yehoshu’a in the place of Tel Shaham. There is not a single settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab village (Dayan, 19 March 1969; as quoted in Haaretz, 4 April 1969)
POSTSCRIPT BY ELIAS DAVIDSSON
While Israel was formally established as the "Jewish State in Palestine" (see above), the Israeli goverment proceeded without delay to mislead the United States government, both regarding the nature and the borders of the newly established State. In a letter sent to the US Government on 15 April 1948 , as the Jewish State in Palestine was established, the Provisional Government of Israel announced to its benefactor government that
the state of Israel has been proclaimed as an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947
This lie has seldom been exposed.
In the letter the Provisional Government expresses "the hope that the [US] government will recognize…Israel". It transpires that the US accorded de facto recognition to the State of Israel already on the day before the date of that letter, namely on 14 April 1948. [See Letter From the Agent of the Provisional Government of Israel to the President of the United States, May 15, 1948 ]