Jerusalem Contested

The Holy City changed hands many times before the War of Independence.

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During World War II another partition scheme was put forward by the High Commissioner of the mandatory authority. This proposal called for a Jewish state, an Arab state and a "State of Jerusalem," to be ruled by the British. This idea found great favor with Winston Churchill, though not with the British foreign office. It too was abandoned, however, after Jewish terrorists from the group Lehi assassinated British minister Lord Moyne in 1944.

Mandate in Crisis

Following World War II, the situation in mandatory Palestine became increasingly dire, as the mandate descended into chaos. The coming years saw a surge in illegal Jewish immigration as well as terrorist acts against the mandatory authority, including, most notably, the Irgun bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel--where the mandatory government and army were headquartered--in July 1946, resulting in the deaths of 91 people.  Shortly after, in August 1946, the Jewish Agency Executive (the defacto Jewish government of pre-state Palestine) agreed, at least in principle, to accept the partition of Palestine, and set about fixing borders for the international area that would guarantee a Jewish majority and contiguity to the Jewish state. The Palestinian Arab leadership, however, remained divided, unable to come up with an agreed course of action.

In February 1947, Great Britain turned the problem of Palestine over to the United Nations, which formed a Special Committee on Palestine. This committee came up with two proposals:  1) partition, with an internationalized Jerusalem (the majority opinion), and 2) a single, federated state, with a divided and demilitarized Jerusalem as its capital (the minority opinion). The majority plan was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in November 1947--the Zionists were overjoyed, but the Palestinian Arabs, furious, declared a strike and began to riot. The U.N. partition plan for Palestine and Jerusalem would never be implemented.

Violence in Jerusalem

The mandate was set to end on May 15th, and as this date hastened, the British allowed much of Jerusalem to pass into Jewish and Arab control. Meanwhile, the Arabs and the Jews divided into two armed camps. As tension grew, several grievous acts of violence were committed that changed the face of the future conflict and compromised possibilities for a peaceful settlement. In April of that year, an Irgun unit entered Deir Yassin, an Arab village slightly to the West of Jerusalem, and massacred at least 100 Arabs, including many civilians, women, and children. Vengeance came four days later, when Palestinians ambushed a convoy of doctors and nurses on their way to Haddasah Hospital on Mount Scopus, killing seventy-seven. Many Palestinians, fearing a repeat of Deir Yassin as well as the anticipated retribution for the violent acts and rhetoric of their own people, fled Jerusalem and Palestine.

The U.N. attempted at this point to impose a ceasefire and form an international police force, but found that it lacked the manpower to ensure Jerusalem's peace and protection. On May 14, 1948, the day before the Mandate's end, the Zionists declared the establishment of the State of Israel. (though this declaration, it should be noted, made no mention of Jerusalem). The Palestinian Arabs took no similar political action, and Arab forces prepared to attack.

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Lili Kalish Gersch

Lili Kalish Gersch is Director of Literature, Music & Dance at the DCJCC. She was the Managing Editor of