Israel, the birth of a nation 70 years ago

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Paris (AFP)

On May 14, 1948 Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the creation of the state of Israel, formed out of Palestine where the British mandate had expired hours before.

Here is a look back at Israel's early days ahead of the 70th anniversary of its founding on May 14.

- Call for a homeland -

Zionism, the movement aimed at bringing together Jews in Palestine, had its first political expression in the 1896 pamphlet "The Jewish State" by journalist and writer Theodor Herzl.

A year later the first Zionism congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, where it was stated the aim of Zionism was to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine.

Jews had already begun moving to Palestine, their flow accelerated by anti-Semitism and pogroms in Europe. They numbered 47,000 in 1895 compared with 24,000 in 1882.

In 1917 Britain published the Balfour Declaration that called for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

- Independence declared -

In November 1947 the United Nations adopted a plan to split Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the holy city of Jerusalem under international control.

Zionist leaders accepted the plan but it was rejected by Arab leaders.

Months later Jewish leaders were called to meet at a Tel Aviv art museum, considered a politically and religiously neutral venue, on May 14, 1948.

At dawn that day, British High Commissioner Alan Cunningham had for the last time reviewed the guard of honour in Jerusalem.

At 4pm, in front of a solemnly silent gathering, Ben-Gurion pulled out a roll of parchment: the declaration of independence.

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped...," he read aloud.

"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people ... never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."

"Accordingly we ... here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate ... hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the state of Israel."

- 'Congratulations, Israel' -

Just 200 people were in the room, a portrait of Herzl and a painting by Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall hanging on the wall.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was crowded into the balcony. Radio technicians had hastily installed a studio to broadcast the ceremony.

After the declaration, the entire room rose and joined the orchestra in a rendition of "Hatikvah" ("Hope"), later to become the national anthem.

"Mazel tov, Israel (congratulations, Israel)," murmured Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion's close collaborator.

Each member of the leading Jewish People's Council present signed the document, with Ben-Gurion the first and insisting everyone used their Hebrew name.

The ceremony lasted just 32 minutes. A new country was born.

- Jubilation on the streets -

Despite efforts to keep the event low-key, crowds massed outside and followed developments via loudspeakers.

Jubilation erupted at the declaration.

But the streets emptied quickly afterwards, partly because it was the Sabbath but also for fear of an attack after Arab countries had warned their troops would enter Palestine at the end of the British mandate.

- First conflict -

The first Arab-Israeli war broke out on May 15, 1948, a day after the declaration of independence, as forces from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria went to war against the new Jewish state.

The "war of independence" ended on January 7, 1949 with a ceasefire. It had expanded Israeli territory from the 14,000 square kilometres (5,400 square miles) agreed by the United Nations to 21,000 square kilometres.

During the conflict more than 760,000 Palestinians were pushed to exodus or fled from their homes in what is known as the Nakba or "disaster". Nearly 400 villages were razed.