The conflict between Jews and Arabs, which crystallized in the aftermath of the First World War, pits against each other "two legitimacies rooted in different temporalities".

* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.

Georges Bensoussan, author of, among other works, Une histoire intellectuelle et politique du sionisme, 1860-1940 (An Intellectual and Political History of Zionism, 1860-1940, 2002), proposes, in a short but remarkably dense book, an analysis of the sources of the Israeli-Arab conflict. He argues that an understanding of the origins of the conflict "points to its later direction", and considers that such an understanding requires us to look back a century and a half: "it was in Palestine in the second half of the 19th century that the conflict took shape", among Arab elites, the former Jewish community in Palestine and Zionists from Central and Eastern Europe.

From the 19th century until 1918, Palestine was under Ottoman rule. In 1914, it had a population of over 700,000, more than 10% of whom were Jewish, the old Jewish community having been renewed by immigration from Europe. However, part of this community did not recognize itself in Zionism, a term that appeared in 1890 to describe the project of a "return to Zion", another name for Jerusalem. The Arabs of Palestine were then divided between a Muslim majority and a small Christian minority. Although coexistence had long been fragile, at the beginning of the 20th century, Arab nationalism and a desire for Jewish independence began to assert themselves.

Given this starting point, the book takes the form of a chronological account, but its thematic richness is such that it offers an overview of the evolution of two societies, Arab and Jewish, up to the Second World War, and then describes their confrontation from 1936 to 1948. While Jewish society gradually built up a state in Palestine, Arab society eventually collapsed and disintegrated. Since 1948, the question of Arab refugees has been the fruit of this dual process of "construction / dislocation".

Structural weaknesses of Arab society up to 1939

Certain features are strikingly permanent: for example, the heterogeneity and divisions within Palestinian society as far back as the 19th century. The divisions are linked to clan structures, which set individuals and families against each other, but also to social disparities. These were accentuated under Ottoman domination, with the end of collective land use and the triumph of individual exploitation. Poor peasants, burdened by taxes and usury, sold their land to wealthy families or Jewish immigrants, swelling the urban proletariat. However, "although the borders of Palestine were theoretically closed to Jewish immigration (March 1884)", this measure was ineffective due to the corruption of the administrations supposed to enforce it.

The end of Ottoman domination in 1918 did nothing to change this situation. Rising land prices continued to encourage the sale of land to Jews, whether by notables or the poor, even though in 1934 a fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti (the religious leader of Jerusalem's holy sites) equated land sales to Jews with a sin against Islam. Nevertheless, the economic boom in Palestine as a whole in the 1930s also benefited the Arabs, "particularly in areas with a large Jewish population". Within Arab society, two social groups were thus differentiated: an educated urban middle class distinguished itself from a proletarianized illiterate population, by far the majority, part of which remained agricultural, while others crammed into the outskirts of the big cities.

Politically, until the First World War, Palestinian identity was shared by only a small circle, "composed mainly of wealthy city-dwellers who formed a new elite". "It was the eruption of Zionism in the 1900s (that) accelerated the crystallization process". The opposition of the Palestinian national movement to the British Mandate, approved by the League of Nations in 1922, became apparent with the end of the Ottoman Empire. But while the rejection of Zionism was shared, inter-clan quarrels weakened the Palestinian movement.

Community organization of Jewish society until 1939

In Palestine, as throughout the land of Islam, the old Jewish community had long been subject to the dhimma, a discriminatory status imposed on non-Muslim monotheists, Jews and Christians, ensuring protection for dhimmis, placed in a situation of legal inferiority, with payment of a specific tax. Although the dhimma was abolished by the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, "Islam vacillated between rejection and recognition of (Jewish) rights in the Holy Land". Against this backdrop, the transformation of the Jewish community was to take place in two stages, firstly through an internal process, then through the external contribution of immigration. By the mid-19th century, the community had established a flourishing number of schools, dispensaries, hospitals and a Hebrew press. But it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that immigration began to develop, especially from Central and Eastern Europe.

While it is often written that Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 19th century and Zionism were mainly the result of the rise of anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe, Georges Bensoussan's Histoire intellectuelle et politique du sionisme (available in French only) takes a very different view. In his view, Zionism was not born out of anti-Semitism, even if anti-Semitism accelerated its development: Zionism is first and foremost, in his words, "a national movement born out of the secularization of Judaism and the impasses of emancipation at the end of the 18th century". At the end of the 19th century, the idea of creating a national state in Palestine emerged. For Georges Bensoussan, this national revival was secular in nature, and opposed to religious orthodoxy, for which the Exile was willed by God. The revival of Hebrew was essential to the structuring of Zionism: in this movement, Hebrew was transformed from a vernacular and liturgical language into a language of instruction and a mother tongue. Breaking away from Yiddish, the language of exile and misfortune, it helped build a secularized Jewish culture and identity. By transforming a cultural movement into a political force, Zionism aimed "to restore national independence to the 'land of the ancestors'".

In 1897, in Vienna, Theodor Herzl, like other Jewish intellectuals, rejected the options of assimilation or cultural autonomy, and laid the foundations of an organization. In the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century, as a child of the Europe of the Enlightenment, a "national minority" was formed. Immigration at the end of the 19th century "was imbued with the ideals of socialism and Russian populism". The collectivist, self-managed kibbutz model was invented in 1913. From the start of the British Mandate, this "pre-state logic" was reflected in the institutional and economic framework put in place by the Jewish National Home: the founding of a trade union (Histadrut), a social security service, an urgent care service and a defensive force (Haganah) financed by an unofficial tax. Jewish immigration, urbanization and industrialization were linked, while Jewish land ownership continued to grow.

The early Zionists remained generally silent about the Arab presence in Palestine until at least 1900. In 1919, Zionist leader Ben Gurion privately declared that "the problem has no solution", while in public, Zionist leaders "disguise the national conflict as a social confrontation", explaining that it pitted "the progressivism of Labor Zionism" against "Arab thugs". In the 1930s, Zionists were torn between a "policy of restraint" and the choice of a showdown.

Radicalization of the confrontation

In 1936, an uprising led by the High Arab Committee and bringing together six parties unleashed a guerrilla war based on the Sharia, "witness to a process of Islamization that is gradually pushing aside the Christian component of Arab society". The aim was to drive out the Jews. But "little by little, the revolt slipped from the hands of urban, bourgeois youth into those of a peasant, traditionalist and religious population". The rebellion, harshly repressed by the British, turned to brigandage before turning to civil war. The weight of clan structures prevented the construction of a central power and, on the eve of the Second World War, the Palestinian movement was weakened.

During the war, many Palestinians were fascinated by the model offered by Nazi Germany, which asserted itself as a cultural, ethnic and anti-Semitic nation and supported the Arab rebellion of 1936, just like Fascist Italy. On the Jewish side, the revolt of 1936 led to a parallel radicalization of the population, particularly among the young, and, in the ordeal, the Haganah was transformed into an offensive force.

Towards the "Nakba"

At the end of the Second World War, Arab society was wracked by misery, anger and resentment. On the other hand, while Jewish immigration had plummeted during the war, in 1945 many Jewish survivors of the genocide (three million) did not want to return home, despite the fact that Jewish immigration was banned by the British; but tens of thousands of immigrants made their way clandestinely to Palestine.

In November 1947, the Zionists, supported in particular by American Jewry and President Truman (but not, initially, by the US State Department), with the votes of the USSR and the USA, obtained a vote at the UN on a partition plan for Palestine. This plan provided for the distinction of a Jewish state, then populated by 500,000 Jews and 325,000 Arabs, and an Arab state, populated by 800,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews, which the Palestinians and Arab leaders rejected. The Palestinian response is to set the country on fire. Indeed, the Jewish-Palestinian war of 1947-1948 was marked by atrocities on both sides. But the balance of power was not in favor of a divided Palestinian society, with no administrative structure, no centralized military organization and no strong support from Arab countries. The Palestinian defeat is complete. Even before it was complete, many Arabs fled Palestine. Then, the expulsions carried out by the Jews and a general panic among the elites and civilians created a situation that was soon irreversible. This was the Nakba, an Arab term first used in 1948, meaning "calamity", "cataclysm" and "designating both the Palestinian exodus and the creation of the Jewish state".

When the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, its founder Ben Gourion said that "it will grant full social and political equality to all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex". But the Arab High Committee refused to proclaim the Arab State of Palestine, so as not to appear to be accepting the de facto partition envisaged by the UN, which would have been seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian national movement.

The war was then launched by five states (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and Lebanon), without Palestinian society, "in the throes of chaos", being able to play a major role. Although, on paper, their superiority was overwhelming, the Arab states were defeated in a matter of months. The battles were fought, in particular, by young Jewish soldiers who had survived the Holocaust and "had just arrived from Eastern Europe, where they had witnessed the appalling barbarity of the German-Soviet war". The Jewish soldiers were "convinced, rightly or wrongly, that defeat would lead to widespread slaughter".

Gathered in an "Israeli Defense Army" (or Tsahal), born on May 16, 1948 from the merger of the Haganah and other combatant groups, they were commanded by a general staff for whom, from then on, "expulsion became a military objective intended to guarantee the survival of the State". The defeats resulted in the creation of 700,000 to 750,000 refugees: 200,000 in the West Bank, 200,000 in the Gaza Strip, 200,000 in Lebanon, 100,000 in Transjordan, 50,000 in Syria, while at least 160,000 Palestinians "remained in what became the State of Israel, of which they were now citizens".

Towards the 1948 "blocking"

Israel's victory, reflected in ceasefire agreements rather than peace treaties, enabled it to expand its borders. But from then on, the Israeli government rejected the creation of an Arab state of Palestine, which it had still accepted in November 1947. In Gaza on September 23, 1948, a "Palestinian Arab Congress", in the hands of Egypt, proclaimed the independence of Palestine, but its government, dependent in fact on Cairo, was a "fiction". For its part, Transjordan, against the advice of the Arab League, attached the West Bank to its territory: Jordan was born, putting an end to the project for an Arab State of Palestine. Although in 1949 Israel agreed to the return of 100,000 refugees in exchange for a peace treaty recognizing its existence, the Arab states refused to sign such a treaty and demanded the return of all refugees, while refusing (with the exception of Jordan) to integrate them: "the deadlock was complete". In fact, the Palestinians were left out of all negotiations.

Lacking structure and unity, and following the rejection of the UN solution and military defeats, the Arab State of Palestine was stillborn. For George Bensoussan, "the Zionist project carried with it, from the outset, the separation of populations". At the end of a richly structured book, he deliberately limits himself to noting the extent of cultural blockings, "essential but more often than not underestimated". In these times of fury and hatred, such a book is necessary to remind us of their deep origins.