Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

More than 400,000 Palestinians were driven from their homeland after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, joining those who fled to safety after the United Nations initially voted to create Israel as a Jewish state.

Summary of Event

As World War I raged in the Middle East, Great Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)[Sykes Picot Agreement] in 1916 to divide the region into British and French zones of influence. Meanwhile, the British high commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, carried out diplomatic contacts with Hussein ibn Abdallah, emir of the Hijaz, whereby the British promised the Arabs independence if they joined the Allies against the Turks. On November 2, 1917, however, British foreign minister Arthur Balfour issued a declaration favoring the idea of establishing a Jewish national home Israel;as Jewish homeland[Jewish] Zionism in Palestine. Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Refugees;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Israel;Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Palestinian diaspora [kw]Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis (Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949)[Arab Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis] [kw]Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis, Arab- (Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949) [kw]War Creates Refugee Crisis, Arab-Israeli (Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949) [kw]Refugee Crisis, Arab-Israeli War Creates (Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949)[Refugee Crisis, Arab Israeli War Creates] Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Refugees;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Israel;Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Palestinian diaspora [g]Middle East;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] [g]Palestine;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] [g]Israel;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Nov. 29, 1947-July, 1949: Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis[02190] Balfour, Arthur Bernadotte, Folke Husseini, Haj Amin al- Weizmann, Chaim Ben-Gurion, David

David Ben-Gurion announces the independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

(Library of Congress)

The Balfour Declaration Balfour Declaration (1917) stipulated that nothing would be done to harm the rights of the indigenous Arab population, at the time numbering nearly 575,000, or 92 percent of the population. Subsequent events proved otherwise. Violence was already foretold by the King-Crane Commission, dispatched by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in the summer of 1919 to investigate conditions of the region in preparation for the Paris Peace Conference.

The Zionist delegates at the conference argued that Great Britain, not France, should be given the League of Nations’ League of Nations mandate to rule Palestine Palestinian mandate Mandates, territorial . Having been supported by the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists were handed their second victory when the British were given the mandate to govern Palestine and when the preamble of the mandate contained a copy of the Balfour Declaration. Article 2 of the mandate gave the British responsibility “to place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.”

Article 4 called for the establishment of a Jewish agency Jewish Agency for Palestine “as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home.” The agency was allowed “to construct or operate, upon fair and equitable terms, any public works, services and utilities, and to develop any of the natural resources of the country.” Thus, the British were constrained by their commitment to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine from protecting the civil rights and nurturing the national aspirations of the indigenous population, as mandate powers were supposed to do.

A rural, largely peasant, society long ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the Palestinians entered the twentieth century ill-equipped to cope with the problems presented by the modern world. The traditional Palestinian leadership consisted mostly of urban notables, who failed to unite and to form an effective response either to the British or to the Zionists. Palestinian political parties were divided according to family or local, rather than national, interests. Furthermore, the Palestinians found themselves isolated as the Sykes-Picot Agreement took effect and the new Arab states fell under British and French colonial rule.

The imbalance in the benefits of the British mandate became manifest in the growing ability of the Zionist movement and the Jewish Agency to create an infrastructure for a future state, especially as Jewish immigration Immigration;Israel increased in the 1930’s. Palestinians and their political parties became gravely alarmed as the institutional gap between the two communities widened. The parties set aside their differences and, in 1935, formed the Palestine Arab Higher Committee Palestine Arab Higher Committee , headed by Haj Amin al-Husseini. The Palestinians resisted the British and the Zionist program with a long general strike, followed by the 1936-1939 revolt. The weakness of the Palestinians, the might of the British troops, and the pressure applied by surrounding Arab governments combined to defeat the revolt.

The Zionist drive to establish a Jewish state in Palestine began to bear fruit. Already the Peel Commission Peel Commission , sent in 1937 to investigate the sources of Palestinian unrest, had recommended partition of the country. The United Nations United Nations;and Palestine[Palestine] authorized the creation of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate all questions and issues relevant to the Palestine problem and to make its recommendations to the United Nations by September, 1947.

When UNSCOP finally submitted its findings to the U.N. General Assembly, it recommended partition of the country into a Jewish state and an Arab state and that Jerusalem become an international city. The Palestinians rejected partition on the grounds that it violated their rights, as it violated the provisions of the U.N. Charter. They pointed out that the proposed Jewish state included 56 percent of Palestine, even though Jews were not in the majority. Also, Jews owned only 10 percent of the land in the proposed Jewish state. Despite the misgivings of some and the total rejection by others, the partition was passed on November 29, 1947.

The partition resolution guaranteed, in theory, the civil, political, economic, religious, and property rights of the Arabs who were to be included in the Jewish state. It stipulated, among other things, that no discrimination of any kind would be made among the inhabitants on the grounds of race, religion, language, or sex. Palestinians and Arabs, however, rejected even the right of the existence of the Jewish state and indeed sought immediately after the partition to exterminate it. Small numbers of Arab forces entered Israel to support local Palestinian resistance almost immediately after the approval of the partition plan, and were resisted by Israeli army and irregular forces such as the Irgun, in small-scale actions. British forces eventually abandoned the mandate.

The Arab Liberation Army Arab Liberation Army formed by the Arab League Arab League undertook largely ineffective attacks in northern Israel, but elsewhere irregular Arab forces had greater success in cutting off the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Waves of violence resulted throughout the winter and spring months of 1948 and nearly 300,000 Palestinians fled their homes to safer areas before May 14, 1948, the date the state of Israel was proclaimed. A significant event in this period was the April 9 attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassin Deir Yassin massacre (1948) Massacres , on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where about 120 men, women, and children were massacred. News of the massacre spread, raising the level of fear and panic among the population. This Israeli attack was followed four days later by an Arab attack on a Jewish medical convoy in which 77 Jewish personnel were killed in what seems to have been a retaliatory action. Having already lost its leadership and having no institutional support, the Palestinian civil and political authority quickly collapsed. Villagers felt defenseless, and the numbers of those fleeing to safety grew. The exodus left some areas with no resistance to approaching Zionist forces. Tiberias fell on April 18, Safad on May 10, and Jaffa on May 13, 1948.

Neighboring Arab states alternatively supported Palestinian guerrilla action, but also at times encouraged Palestinians to flee on the theory that they would crush the fledgling Jewish state, making room for Palestinians to reclaim all of their land. King Abdullah Abdullah of Jordan quietly opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state and eventually claimed areas that came under the control of the Transjordanian Army. The full-scale invasion by about thirty thousand regular Arab forces occurred on May 15, after Israel’s declaration of independence, which was rapidly recognized by both the United States and the Soviet Union.

During the ensuing war, in which Israel steadily consolidated and expanded its territory at the expense of Arab forces, thousands more villagers fled to safety, hoping to return soon, but the Arab armies failed to destroy Israel, and so the Palestinians who fled awoke to the hard reality of indefinite exile. On May 22, the United Nations ordered a cease-fire, which was affirmed on May 29. Intermittent truce violations and outbreaks of fighting led to another U.N. Security Council-sponsored cease-fire on July 15. Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. special mediator, was charged with the supervision of truce arrangements. In his attempt to reconcile the two sides, Bernadotte submitted plans for a settlement advocating the refugees’ right to return home. He argued that “It would be an offense against the principles of elemental justice if those innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine.”

On November 16, with no peace in sight and with more refugees being forced out of their homes, the United Nations ordered the establishment of an armistice in Palestine. Armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors were negotiated between February and July of 1949 with the mediation of Ralph Bunche Bunche, Ralph , who became U.N. special mediator after Bernadotte’s assassination. By then, Israel controlled 77 percent of Palestine, and neighboring Arab governments controlled the rest, leaving Palestinians without any territory of their own. Estimates of the total number of refugees range from 750,000 to 900,000. Most of them were placed under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA UNRWA ), established on December 9, 1949.


The war of 1948 is regarded by the Palestinians as a catastrophe. They had become a shattered nation. Palestinians who remained under Israeli rule suddenly found themselves a defeated minority in their own land. Palestinian national authority was destroyed. The majority of Palestinians became stateless refugees, even when living in areas originally intended to be part of the new Palestinian state but now occupied by neighboring Arab countries. To add insult to injury, many of these lived in makeshift camps and depended on rations issued by the United Nations.

The Arab host countries were poor and underdeveloped, and were often reluctant hosts. Their fledgling, and largely agrarian, economies were unable to absorb the sudden influx of refugees. The UNRWA offered food and health care, started development programs, and built schools, among other assistance programs. Once education and vocational training became available to the Palestinians, their social, economic, and political role in the region improved. Many moved to Saudi Arabia and to the Gulf emirates when these began to develop their oil economies. Palestinians served in a variety of roles, such as educators and skilled laborers. Many became wealthy, but they remained stateless, except for those who acquired Jordanian citizenship.

Their presence throughout most of the Arab world was a reminder to the Arab people as well as to various governments of the plight of the Palestinians. To the Arab people, the Palestinians became a symbol of their own lack of power and the backward conditions of the region after years of misrule. A bond would be established between the forces for social change. To the majority of Arab governments, for whom realization of the Palestinians’ right to return became a humanitarian duty and a political necessity, their presence was viewed as a radicalizing factor. This shaped the relationship of the Palestinians to the Arab governments: sometimes championed, at other times barely tolerated because of their influence, and sometimes even expelled, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was from both Jordan and Syria, when those governments believed the PLO to be a threat to their national stability. For the most part, Palestinians’ civil rights were neglected whether they were living in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries or were under Israeli rule.

The region experienced revolutionary upheavals after the creation of Israel in 1948, changing the nature of the ruling groups and radicalizing the domestic and international policies of the Arab states. The Arab-Israeli conflict remained alive and led to major wars in 1956, in 1967 (when Israel took over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), and in 1973. Two major Israeli military operations against the Palestinians in Lebanon were carried out in 1978 and in 1982. In 1979 Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat agreed to the Camp David Peace Accords, by which Egypt recognized Israel, removing Egypt as a threat to its security and drastically reducing Arab hopes of any future military victory.

The Palestinian question had global repercussions as the United States and the Soviet Union supplied arms and extended, to their respective allies, economic assistance and diplomatic backing. During the era of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict remained a dangerous issue for the two superpowers. The PLO, formed in 1964, represented the Palestinians after 1967. Arab and non-Arab governments gradually recognized the position of the PLO, which was eventually granted observer status at the United Nations in the continuing effort to find a just solution to the Palestine question and to redress the loss of Palestinian national rights. Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Refugees;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Israel;Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Palestinian diaspora

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim, ed. The Transformation of Palestine. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Written by a host of scholars, this book contains valuable articles on the demography of Palestine, land alienation, resistance to the British mandate, and regional and international perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flapan, Simha. Zionism and the Palestinians. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A valuable account of the relationship of the Zionist movement to the Palestinians before 1948 by a well-known Israeli author. The details that Flapan provides will challenge the myths of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation of the refugee problem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Joseph L. The Birth of Israel, 1945-1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Details the events that led to the founding of Israel and features a study of the many contenders fighting for leadership of this new state. Included are a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. A comprehensive history of the Arab people from the rise of Islam to the present. Places the political developments in the region and their international implications in historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khouri, Fred. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma. 3d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. An excellent, well-documented account of the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1947 through the 1980’s, with chapters on the refugee problem, Jerusalem, and the American administrations’ involvement. This book has been described as a model of objectivity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter, ed. The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Citadel Press, 1969. An important sourcebook for students of the modern Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It contains excerpts from major works on Zionism, Israel, the Palestinians, Arab-Israeli relations, Pan-Arabism, and other topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: 1947-1949. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A controversial issue regarding Palestinian refugees is whether they left on their own accord or as a result of their leaders’ urging. Benny Morris, one of few Israeli scholars to challenge official claims and Zionist propaganda, shows in this well-documented account that Palestinians were forced out of their homes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reich, Bernard, ed. An Historical Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Invaluable research tool for examining many aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Includes a chronology and extensive bibliographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rouhana, Nadim N. Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. The author, who grew up in Palestine, provides a psychological and sociological account of the influences of Israel on its Arab minority. Includes appendixes and a bibliography.

Israel Is Created as a Homeland for Jews

United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization

Fatah Launches Its First Terrorist Strike on Israel

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

United Nations Security Council Adopts Resolution 242

Habash Founds the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Categories: History