Foundation of the State of Israel

Richard Cavendish describes the formation of the state of Israel, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion, on May 14th, 1948.

Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948.

By 1948 the British situation in Palestine, which Britain ruled under a mandate confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922, had become so impossible that the British government washed its hands of the whole Jewish-Arab imbroglio, gave up the mandate and announced that it would formally withdraw from the country at midnight on May 14th. On May 13th the British High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, broadcast a farewell message in which he called for moderation by both Jews and Arabs to preserve peace. On the 14th, in his full dress uniform at eight o’clock in the morning, he left Government House in Jerusalem after reviewing an honour guard of fifty men of the Highland Light Infantry, the last British troops in the country. He then flew to Haifa, where he took the salute from a detachment of the Palestine Police, shook hands with both the Jewish mayor of Haifa and the Arab deputy mayor, and at midnight sailed away on the waiting British cruiser Euryalus, no doubt with considerable relief.

At 4 o’clock that afternoon, meanwhile, in the little art museum on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion, white-haired 62-year-old leader of the Jewish National Council, rose to speak. Born in Poland, Ben-Gurion had emigrated to Palestine as a young man in 1906, fought against the Turks in the British Army in the First World War and enjoyed a successful career as a trade union organiser and politician. Now he announced the formation of the state of Israel, the first independent Jewish state in nineteen centuries of history, by reading out a proclamation. ‘By virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people and by resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine to be called Israel’ (Yisrael in Hebrew). The proclamation took twenty minutes to read out, to an audience of some 200 people. It was also broadcast on the new ‘Voice of Israel’ radio station in Tel Aviv. The Zionist anthem, the Hatikvah (‘Hope’), was sung and at just after 4.30pm Ben-Gurion said: ‘The State of Israel has arisen. This meeting is ended.’ In his private diary he wrote, ‘I am filled with foreboding.'

The long-cherished Zionist dream of a Jewish national home had come true at last, but from the moment of its birth the infant state was embroiled in war with the Arab League. The Arabs were determined to wipe out all the Jewish settlements in Palestine, there was already fighting in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and a state of emergency was declared to exist in the first order of the day to be issued by a Jewish military commander of Jerusalem for 2,000 years. As dawn broke on May 15th the country found itself invaded by three Arab armies – from Egypt, Syria and Jordan – and Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv. The United Nations attempted to mediate, but the Israeli armed forces, hastily equipped from Czechoslovakia and France, proved their superiority and the Arab powers were forced to negotiate an armistice in 1949.