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Palestinian Arabs

When the state of Israel was declared and recognized by the United Nations in 1948, the militaries of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq invaded the new nation (Cleveland, 260). In a conflict that spoke both to the tenacity and unity of the Israelis as well as the disunity and diverging interests of the Arab armies, Israel emerged from the war victorious, independent, and larger than the UN had originally mandated (Dupuy, 19). Since the Arab states had rejected the UN proposal that the territory of Palestine be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state, they had also rejected the proposed borders of these states.

Therefore, after the 1948 war, Israel was larger than the UN had proposed. The Israelis consolidated their Jewish state as 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes, crowded into refugee camps in Arab-controlled territory. Although there was a ceasefire at the end of 1948, there was no real peace. No Arab state recognized Israel’s right to exist and most maintained a formal state of war with the Jewish state. The next major shift in Israeli-Arab relations came with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in the 1950’s.

Nasser was the most popular Arab leader of the modern era, as he mixed populism, socialism, and Arab nationalism to rally the Arab street far beyond his native Egypt. Because of his populist appeal and military experience, Nasser posed a challenge to Israel. When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel was eager to join with France and Britain in an effort to undermine Nasser. The 1956 Suez War began when French, British, and Israeli troops invaded Egypt. The interests of the invading parties, however, were halted when the United States intervened and forced a ceasefire.

The war ended with Nasser emboldened and with Israel having failed to achieve its objective (Dupuy, 497-9). After the Suez War, Nasser’s popularity grew. The highpoint of Arab nationalism was reached in 1958. Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic. A revolutionary government in Iraq seemed poised to join them. In a recurring theme, however, the Arab states failed to maintain the very unity which would have been so overwhelming for Israel to defend against. The UAR dissolved in 1961 without Iraq or any other Arab state having joined (Cleveland, 305-6).

Despite all the rhetoric of Arab solidarity, the Arab states had their own individual interests. Many conservative American-backed Arab monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, were threatened by Nasser’s popularity and socialist rhetoric. Divisions within the Arab world continued to undermine an effective attack on Israel. It is important to note that, for the first several decades of the Arab-Israeli dispute, Israel was confronted predominantly with secular enemies. Secular Arab strongmen like Nasser or Hafez al-Assad of Syria were very sincere in their desire to wipe Israel off the map, but they never claimed to be motivated by Islam.

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