Between 1950 and 1966, the Arab-Israeli conflict was less of a struggle largely between Jews and Palestinian Arabs and more of a regional conflict among states, which in turn became in many respects part of the cold war between the West and the Soviet bloc by the mid-1950s. Israel solidified itself as a fact on the international scene and fortified the Zionist order it had established within its post-1948 boundaries. The loss of Palestine continued to reverberate throughout the Arab world; a number of established regimes were overthrown, often replaced by military men who had felt the sting of defeat in 1948. Meanwhile, the Palestinians themselves began to seek ways to reverse the outcome of that cataclysmic war.The failure of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) to move Israel and the Arab states toward a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the Lausanne Conference (April-September 1949) left Israel free to consolidate its victory in 1948 and transform the spatial and demographic face of those parts of Palestine now under its control. From 1948 to 1951, Israel’s Jewish population doubled, as approximately six hundred thousand Jewish immigrants poured into the country under the 1950 Law of Return, which granted immediate citizenship to virtually any Jew in the world who moved to Israel. Half of these immigrants were Holocaust survivors from Europe, while the rest were primarily Jews from Arab countries. This influx of Jewish immigrants, combined with the loss of approximately 80 percent of the indigenous Palestinians who had lived in what became Israel (because they had fled or been driven out as refugees during and shortly after the war) gave the new state a Jewish majority.
Israel stood on 20,330 square kilometers of what had been Palestine. To build new towns for Jewish immigrants and to prevent the Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, Israel destroyed more than four hundred abandoned Palestinian villages in the first three years of its existence. The Israelis also confiscated millions of dunams of land abandoned by the refugees, whom they called “absentees,” according to the March 1950 Absentees’ Property Law. The state sold much of this land to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which used it to settle incoming Jews. The government even declared about one-half of the Palestinians who stayed in Israel “absentees” and confiscated their land; it also laid claim to land that under the British had been categorized as state or public land. The result was that by 1962, approximately 93 percent of all the land in Israel had become “Israel Lands,” controlled either by the state or the JNF. To appreciate the magnitude of the gain, one must recall that on the eve of the 1948 war, slightly less than 7 percent of all the land in Palestine was controlled by Jews.
The 1948 war had a devastating effect on the Arab world as well. The Arabs had expected to thwart the Zionist project, and for many years they were still reeling from the massive defeat and loss of the bulk of Mandate Palestine to well-organized and well-funded foreign colonizers. The political results were felt immediately. Frustrated with their civilian political leadership, army officers in Syria took power through three different coups d’état in 1948. In July 1952, army officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt and eventually abolished the monarchy. After Jordan annexed the West Bank in April 1950, a Palestinian assassinated Jordan’s King Abdullah in Jerusalem in July 1951. The Arab Middle East was swept with ideological fervor: pan-Arab nationalism, pan-Syrian nationalism, and communism vied for influence among the masses.
In the absence of formal peace treaties, Israel remained technically at war with its Arab enemies after the 1949 armistice agreements. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization worked with Israel and the front-line Arab states to keep border incidents from escalating. The Arab League declared a boycott of Israel and Israeli products and of foreign companies doing business with Israel. Despite allowing some refugees to return under family reunification programs, Israel categorically refused to repatriate the bulk of the Palestinian refugees. Some refugees managed to return, crossing the borders and cease-fire lines by stealth, but many others were killed by Israeli forces in the attempt.
The UNCCP continued its efforts to broker a final Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Following up on the failed Lausanne Conference of 1949, it convened another conference among the warring sides from January through July 1950 in Geneva, and a third from September through November 1951 in Paris. None led to a comprehensive peace deal. Thereafter, the UNCCP essentially gave up trying to broker Arab-Israeli peace, working instead on specific matters such as carrying out a massive study of Palestinian refugee property losses for the eventuality of a future compensation arrangement, a project that lasted from 1952 to 1964.
During the 1950s, the Arab-Israeli conflict became increasingly an arena of the cold war between the United States and its Western allies, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. Israel grew closer to the Western allies, as did Arab states like Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and (until the July 1958 coup d’état that overthrew the monarchy) Iraq. Others maintained friendly relations with the Soviet bloc. In addition to stoking inter-Arab tensions, the cold war also increased the lethality of Middle Eastern armies, as both blocs poured weapons into the region. Israel received a large shipment of modern weaponry from France in 1955, the same year that the Soviet Union sent arms to Egypt via Czechoslovakia. Egypt’s new weaponry and its sponsorship of armed Palestinian infiltration into Israel gave Israel increasing cause for concern. Meanwhile, Egyptian president Nasser’s growing prestige and his refusal to join the pro-West Baghdad Pact alliance system angered Britain, while his support for Algerian revolutionaries angered the French.
These factors ultimately led to a tripartite agreement among Israel, France, and Britain to attack Egypt in late 1956, the second major Arab-Israeli war. The war’s immediate trigger was Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company in July 1956. On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces invaded Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Under the pretext of trying to protect the canal from battle damage, British and French forces invaded Egypt along the canal and engaged Egyptian forces. Hostile international reaction to the tripartite invasion (including from both the United States and Soviet Union) forced the British and French to withdraw by December 1956. Israeli forces finally left Sinai and Gaza in March 1957.
After the Suez War ended, Israel and the Arab states returned to a period of relative calm. Egypt rebuilt its military with additional Soviet weapons. Israel began a highly secret program to produce nuclear weapons at the nuclear reactor it built at Dimona with French assistance. Tensions began to mount again in 1964, when Israel started pumping water out of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias). In response, the Arab states convened their first summit meeting in Cairo in January 1964 and decided to establish an agency to plan for the diversion of the Jordan tributaries and to mandate Ahmad al-Shuqairi, the Palestine Representative in the Arab League, to put in place the basis for organizing the Palestinian people so that it plays “its role in liberating its homeland and determining its future.” In May 1964, the Palestine National Council convened for the first time in East Jerusalem and proclaimed the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with Ahmad al-Shuqairi as its chairman. The PLO was allowed to form an army, the Palestine Liberation Army, with units stationed in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
In practice, however, these forces operated as adjuncts to the respective host countries’ armies rather than as independent troops controlled by the PLO. Other Palestinians became frustrated with the inability of the Arab states to work for the liberation of Palestine. One group of activists in Kuwait formed a secret revolutionary organization called Fatah in 1959. Its leaders included Yasir Arafat (Abu Ammar), Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Khalid al-Hasan (Abu Sa‘id). Impatient with the Arab states and the PLO, Fatah activists declared that they would liberate their homeland themselves through armed struggle, and on 1 January 1965, Fatah announced that its military forces, called al-‘Asifa, had carried out its first armed raid into Israeli territory. Only a few years after that, this small group of Palestinian refugees would find themselves at the helm of a Palestinian national movement that had asserted itself on the world stage.
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Gerges, Fawaz A. The Superpowers and the Middle East: Regional and International Politics, 1955–1967. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.
Khalidi, Walid, ed. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
Kyle, Keith. Suez. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Morris, Benny. Israel’s Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Robinson, Shira. Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000.
Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.