Between early spring and late fall of 1948, Arab Palestine was radically transformed. At the beginning of that year, Arabs constituted over two-thirds of the population of the country, and were a majority in fifteen of the country's sixteen sub-districts. Beyond this, Arabs owned nearly 90 percent of Palestine's privately owned land.2 In a few months of heavy fighting in the early spring of 1948, the military forces of a well-organized Jewish population of just over 600,000 people routed those of an Arab majority more than twice its size. In the months that followed, they decisively defeated several Arab armies, which had entered the country on 15 May 1948. Over this turbulent period, more than half of the nearly 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs were driven from or fled their homes. Those Palestinians who did not flee the conquered areas were reduced to a small minority within the new state of Israel (which now controlled about 77 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine). At the end of the fighting, Jordan took over the areas of Palestine controlled by its army west of the Jordan River, while the Egyptian army administered the strip it retained around Gaza, adjacent to its borders. In the wake of this catastrophe – al-Nakba, as it was inscribed in Palestinian memory – the Palestinians found themselves living under a variety of alien regimes, were dispossessed of the vast bulk of their property, and had lost control over most aspects of their lives.
How and why did this momentous transformation happen? Most conventional accounts of the 1948 War tend to focus on events after 15 May 1948, the date when the state of Israel was founded, and the Arab armies intervened unsuccessfully in Palestine in the wake of the stunning collapse of the Palestinians.