Dating back to Biblical times, both the Arabs and Jews were promised the land of Israel, and had extremely important religious ties to this land. In effect, Biblical conflict between both civilizations had already existed, such as the Prophet Mohammad’s dispute with the Jews of Medina, or the enmity between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael.
However, more direct paths towards conflict began to form in the 20th century. Indeed, in the late 1890s, Zionism was emerging within Europe, especially following Austrian Zionist thinker Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State”, which called for a home for all Jews, repeatedly referring to the Biblical promised land concept. Indeed, the concept of Zionism centers on the idea of unifying all Jews, who could all belong to one nation. Due to religious and cultural ties to the land of Palestine, it seemed like the place most fit to become a Jewish home. Reasons behind this concept of Zionism can be found in the perpetual persecutions of Jews in Europe throughout history, namely in Russia, from which 60000 Jews settled in Palestine following the 1905 revolution. Moreover, the Dreyfus affair of 1894, where the French condemned loyal French general Alfred Dreyfus because of his Jewish religion, was a major motivation for the Jews to find their own state in order to feel secure. The affair was in fact for Herzl a trigger to promote a Jewish State. Beginning with the first ‘Alyiah’, Jewish immigration into Palestine grew drastically, with 25000 Jewish immigrations between 1881 and 1900 and 35000 immigrations between 1904 and 1913 during the second Alyiah. Alongside Zionism grew Arab Nationalism, which also developed around the concepts of identity, nationhood and self-determination. Indeed they wanted to be free of European colonial power and foreign control over the Middle East, especially following the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Middle East into areas of French and British control. Ultimately, the principle of Arab Nationalism was to unify all 7 Arab states, that is, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Arabia. Despite a lack of sincere unity between the Arab states, who all had their own political and social structures that resulted in more localized nationalism, their common opposition to Zionist ideology brought them together. These two clashing and very powerful movements were undeniably key roots to the Palestinian instability. Undoubtedly, the First World War, as well as the interwar period, marked events that would be extremely significant in sewing the seeds of Middle Eastern conflict. Firstly, while the British were fighting the Ottomans in 1915, they saw the Arab States as convenient and almost indispensable allies in holding this empire back. Thus was made the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, where the Amir of Mecca Sharif Hussein agreed to help the British against the Ottomans, in return for a promise of Arab Independence. In his letter, Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt stated that “Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs” . However, in 1917, the British began to consider Jews as a potential ally, particularly aiming at obtaining funding from the extremely wealthy and powerful British Jewish family, the Rothschild’s. With the influence of Chaim Weizmann, Russian Zionist spokesperson, the British released the Balfour declaration on November 2nd 1917. Although the paper never actually contained the word ‘state’, it promoted the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” . By this point, the seemingly impetuous British had already made two conflicting promises to both the Arabs and the Jews, making tensions all the more menacing. Further, as Jewish institution building in Palestine characterized the interwar period, opposition on behalf of the Arabs towards the creation of a Jewish State only grew stronger. In effect, the Sir Herbert Samuel was encouraging the Arabs to mobilize, as well as this institution building by the Jewish agency (1928), which became framework for an Israeli state. Moreover, Jewish immigration between 1919 and 1928 rose up to 107 000 , stirring even more anger and fear in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. A key event that really watered the seeds of conflict was the Wailing Wall incident of 1929; when benches were set up in this holy place, violent uprisings resulted in 133 Jewish deaths and 116 Arab deaths . The fact that tensions had now resulted into actual killings and violent outbreaks meant that there was no turning back. Once again, the British only worsened the situation, with Colonial secretary Lord Passfield issuing a White Paper that blamed the Jews for the Wailing Wall incident, condemning land purchases in Palestine, and tightening restrictions on Jewish immigration. Because the Jews were so outraged by this, in order to appease them, the British released an explanation for this White Paper, which in turn deeply angered the Arabs. Ultimately, no matter what they did, the British managed the anger both sides, worsening the preexisting tensions.
Furthermore, one of the most significant causes would be the British mandate, made official by the League of Nations in 1922. Ironically, one of the main principles of the League of Nations was the idea of self-determination, so the fact that they were condoning a mandate seemed to contradict this postwar ideology. In effect, the British had entered Palestine in 1918, establishing a mandate in order to ensure access to the Suez Canal, as well as to prevent French ambitions in Lebanon and Syria from going further south. This not only suggests the falseness of the alliance between France and Britain, because as previously stated, the Sykes-Picot agreement was established in order to divide the Middle East equally between both, with the land of Palestine having been designated as an international zone, but also expresses the lack of loyalty on behalf of Britain towards the ideas of the League of Nations. During the British mandate, both the Arabs and the Jews were growing suspicious of the British; on one hand, the Arabs felt that they were purposely holding on to Palestine in order to attain a Jewish majority, and on the other, the Jews felt that they were in fact limiting Jewish immigration and helping the Arabs against them. It is fair to say that by making empty and conflicting promises to both sides, the British were an inadequate mandate, who ensured Palestinian instability. Further, the 1936 Peel Commission, stating that the Arabs and the Jews had “no common ground” and were therefore unable to coexist and required a mandatory partition plan, severely angered the Arabs, who refused for Palestine to be divided due to Nationalistic sentiments. By later issuing a second White Paper, a quota, limiting Jewish immigration to 15000 per year , the British in turn angered the Jews, who saw this as the “deepest act of betrayal” . Indeed, with the rise of Hitler in 1933, and the subsequent Nuremberg laws aimed at full scale Jewish persecution, the Jews were in a state of peril and needed somewhere safe to go. In addition, in 1936 arose the Arab revolt, which was an anti-colonialist and anti-Zionism strike against both the Jews and the British, beginning with the murder of a Jew near Nablus on the 15th of April. These strikes expressed Arab resistance against the inadequacy of British policy and the threat of Jewish immigration. Finally, the impact of the Second World War, and therefore, the end of the British mandate worsened tensions in the Middle East and made war inevitable. Firstly, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini had called on to the Germans to help the Arabs in preventing the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The Germans, in turn, saw this as a good opportunity to recruit Bosnian Muslims for the SS. Moreover, the British were recruiting Palestinian Jews to fight in the war, further creating division and tension. By 1942, the British Empire was economically and militarily threatened, and the safeguard of mandates was becoming too expensive; they needed to let go of the Palestinian mandate and focus on postwar reconstruction instead. In effect, the withdrawal of the British from Palestine made room for American involvement, with the extremely decisive Biltmore program of 1942, calling for the creation of a Jewish State. Although president Roosevelt was worried about Arab oil supplies that America needed for the war, the 1944 elections concluded endorsement of the Biltmore program. The American policy was now made clear, which was a huge threat to the Arabs, given the USA’s military and economic dominance and influence. Finally, when the British withdrew, Palestine was handed over to the newly established United Nations, who established the UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) in order to try and resolve the Palestinian issue. The Arabs however boycotted this, as they felt that the UN was biased towards the Jews due to the Holocaust, which wasn’t untrue. When the UNSCOP decided that reconciliation was impossible, much like the Peel Commission had stated, they issued a partition plan that triggered outrage amongst the Arabs and also encouraged the Jews to later expand their territory, proclaiming it the land of Israel on the 14th of May 1948. In conclusion, although there isn’t one sole cause, after analyzing several factors, we can deduce that the parallel development of Zionism and Arab Nationalism, the impact of the events of both World Wars as well as of the interwar period, the UNSCOP partition plan and evidently, the inadequacy of the British mandate and policies in Palestine were the most significant causes of tensions in Palestine between 1917 and 1939, which lead to the inevitable and ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.