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Seven decades ago, in the midst of a civil war and at the tail end of the decades-long British Mandate for Palestine, the state of Israel was born. The post-World War II era’s premier powers — the United States and the Soviet Union — recognized the young state at once. Official recognition from many other nations took longer; Spain, for example, did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1986.
Many of Israel’s neighbors, meanwhile, as well as more than a score of other countries around the world, from Afghanistan and Algeria to North Korea, Somalia, Yemen and beyond, have never officially recognized Israel, while others that shared diplomatic relations have, at one time or another, suspended or broken ties completely over the years.
Thus, in the years since its birth in May 1948, Israel — a country roughly the size of New Hampshire — has arguably played a more salient (and divisive) role in international geopolitics than any other non-superpower on the planet. Surrounded by enemies, today and at the hour of its creation, Israel remains what it has to some degree always been: a kind of Rorschach state that assumes myriad shapes for myriad observers — aggressor, defender, usurper, bastion, homeland.
For example, far from being universally celebrated, the period when Israel won its independence — i.e., the era of civil war and of the war against neighboring Arab states after May 14, 1948 — is commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba, or “the catastrophe.” And no wonder, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during, and long after, those wars of the late ’40s. In recent years, the contentious (to put it mildly) issue of Israeli settlements and continued Palestinian displacement on the West Bank has added fuel to what has always been a dangerous, smoldering fire.
In other words, for an awful lot of people around the Mideast and around the world, the intractable “Palestinian problem” might be better characterized as “the Israeli problem.”
In light of this fraught legacy — and the nature of the enmities that have, in large part, come to define the region — long-time Middle East watchers can perhaps be forgiven a certain pessimism when discussing the prospects for a lasting peace from the eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.
Here, however, through a series of rare photos — most of which never ran in LIFE magazine — LIFE.com looks back not at the Mideast’s thorny, enduring troubles, but at the immediate aftermath of Israel’s independence. A conflict photographer who made some of the most devastating images to emerge from the Second World War, Frank Scherschel brought to his coverage of Israel’s birth a correspondent’s cool, clear eye, and a storyteller’s ability to find the smaller, quieter narratives amid the ruin and chaos of a war-battered landscape.
For its part, in an article published just weeks after Israel’s official independence, LIFE magazine acknowledged the ancient hopes of the Israelis at the dawn of their new nation, while presciently noting that nothing, nothing at all, was ever likely to come easy to the fledgling, embattled state: