Arab – Israeli war of 1948–9


Israeli armored vehicles in Lydda airport after the town’s capture by Israeli forces.



On 29 November 1947 the General Assembly, in UN Resolution 181, voted in favour of the partition of Palestine by a vote of thirty-three to thirteen, with ten abstentions. The Muslim countries (together with India, Yugoslavia and Greece) voted against partition. The United States and the Soviet bloc (together with several other nations, including France and Australia) supported partition. Although many construed partition as an American plan, Latin American and European nations supported partition in part because Catholics liked the special international status planned for Jerusalem.

It is now taken for granted that the passage of the UN partition resolution in November 1947 virtually assured a Jewish state in Palestine in that it liquidated the mandate, defined a legal framework in which the Yishuv could establish a state, and gave to the Haganah a definite goal around which it could rally its forces. The situation was not nearly so clear in early December 1947. In Sydney, a former governor general of Australia, Sir Isaac Isaacs publicly stated that the partition resolution ‘had broken the express terms on which Britain had accepted the mandate’, something he regretted.The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized that: ‘Time alone will show the wisdom of this momentous decision.’ Under the banner headline: ‘Palestine Crisis a Supreme Test for UNO’, the Herald reported that there was considerable doubt and misgivings in diplomatic circles in New York as to whether the United Nations had the legal right to partition the country against the will of the majority. The newspaper raised the even more important question as to the practical means of enforcing the decision should the Arabs resort, as they did, to armed force and the matter went before the Security Council.

The Herald pointed out that the UN was not yet equipped to enforce its will. The paper warned that if the decisions of the General Assembly were challenged by war the whole fabric of collective security created to protect the world from the horrors of atomic warfare would fail. The Herald urged the Arab states, despite their disappointment, to accept the decision, otherwise ‘Armageddon may yet be fought on the plains of Palestine.’ The signs were ominous. A leading Arab spokesman in London stated that: ‘UNO has set the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East irrevocably against each other and made war inevitable’, and pointed out that the UN charter authorized member states to oppose aggression, by force if necessary. Perhaps attempting to placate Arab hostility, world leader of the Jewish Agency, Chaim Weizmann, in a speech delivered in New York on 30 November, made the remarkable statement that there would be no mass migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine when the new Jewish state was created. On 4 December 1947 the British announced that they would depart from Palestine in August of the following year, but many predicted an earlier date, in May.

The next months were full of uncertainty and confusion. Jewish celebrations were matched by Arab determination to prevent partition’s realization. Efforts by moderate Arab and Jewish leaders to prevent bloodshed failed. Murders, reprisals and counter-reprisals took place, killing dozens of victims on both sides. Both sides resorted to terrorist atrocities against each other, especially in the major cities, with little regard for noncombatants or women and children. In one series of attacks and retaliation, in December 1947, Jewish terrorists (Irgun or Lehi members) threw bombs at a group of Arab oil refinery workers in Haifa, killing six and wounding 42. The Arabs then rioted and killed 41 Jews and wounded 48 before being dispersed by British troops.

Two days later, Haganah members disguised as Arabs entered a village close to Haifa and killed approximately 60 people, including a number of women and children, to avenge the Jewish deaths in the port city. British forces, who were withdrawing in a state of virtual collapse, found it increasingly difficult to be even-handed. During the period December 1947 through January 1948, it was estimated that nearly 1,000 people were killed and 2,000 people were injured. By the end of March the figure had risen to 2,000 dead and 4,000 wounded. These figures correspond to an average of more than 100 deaths and 200 casualties per week – in a population of 2,000,000. During this initial stage up to 100,000 Palestinians, chiefly those from the upper classes, sought refuge abroad or in eastern Palestine. The British devoted their energies to preparation for their evacuation and refused to assume responsibility for implementing the partition plan. From January onwards operations became more warlike, with the intervention into Palestine of a number of Arab Liberation Army (ALA) regiments organized, trained and armed by Syria for the Arab League states. At first the ALA had considerable success and the Haganah was forced on the defensive.

The British, meanwhile, resigned to the emergence of a Jewish state, favoured uniting the Arab areas of Palestine with Transjordan into a ‘Greater Transjordan’ under King Abdullah, who became king in 1946 when Britain recognized Transjordan’s independence. On 7 February 1948 Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin informed Jordan’s prime minister in London that Britain would support Transjordan’s annexation of the Arab part of Palestine when the British left, using the Arab Legion if necessary. The Jewish Agency, Abdullah and the British had a common interest in preventing a Palestinian state headed by al-Husseini. Abdullah had long sought to control Arab Palestine and there had been contacts over the years with officials of the Jewish Agency about their mutual interests.

Shortly before the UN partition resolution was approved, in early November 1947, Abdullah had met with senior representatives of the Jewish Agency, including Golda Meir, acting head of the agency’s political department. An understanding was reached in which the Agency agreed to Abdullah’s annexation of Arab Palestine; in return, Abdullah promised not to stand in the way of the establishment of a Jewish state. Another meeting was to have followed the vote on partition, but owing to the tumult in Palestine, it did not take place. There was one last meeting between Meir and the king just before the partition plan was to take effect, but by then the demands on the king to fight against the Jews were too great. The outbreak of hostilities provided him with an opportunity to cross the Jordan and annex central Palestine, whether or not a Jewish state came into being.

By late February the chaotic situation led Truman to the view that partition should be replaced by a temporary UN trusteeship. This encouraged the Arab League to believe that the Palestinians, with the aid of the Arab Liberation Army, could now put an end to the partition plan. On 19 March, in the Security Council, US ambassador Warren W. Austin called for a suspension of all efforts aimed at partition and asked for a special meeting of the General Assembly to approve a temporary United Nations trusteeship for a period of five years. Secretary of State George C. Marshall was afraid that partition might require implementation by the use of UN forces – he estimated upwards of 100,000 troops. Soviet troops would then be involved and they would probably remain, dangerously close to Greece, Turkey and the Arabian oil fields vital for the European recovery programme. The fact that the Soviets were looking for a warm-water port also added to the threat of Soviet military in the area. The only solution, Marshall believed, was to turn the matter over to the UN Trusteeship Council, where the Soviets were not represented, so the danger of Soviet military intervention would be avoided.

During April the Israeli forces, armed with a shipment of weapons that arrived from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, took the offensive. Arab leader Adb al-Qadir al-Husayni was killed, and all the towns and villages within the designated Jewish state were occupied. Tiberias was captured on 18 April and Haifa on 22–3 April. Most of Haifa’s 70,000 Arabs fled, many to Lebanon. By early May the Haganah also had control of Jaffa and most of eastern Galilee. But East Jerusalem remained in Arab hands.

By 2 May the Israelis had carved out for themselves a state roughly equivalent to that approved by the United Nations in November 1947. The Jews went ahead with plans to announce an independent state on 14 May. On the morning of 14 May 1948 the Union Jack was hauled down from Government House in Jerusalem for the last time and, as the British high commissioner, Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham, sailed out of Haifa at 11:30 pm that night, the mandate came to an end.

About 4 pm on the afternoon of Friday 14 May 1948, in the assembly hall of the Tel Aviv art museum, with a photo of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, on the wall behind him, stood David Ben-Gurion, the 61-year-old Polish-born head of the Jewish National Council. He read to the 350 assembled members and guests an announcement proclaiming the establishment and independence of Israel, ‘by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly’. The declaration of independence took the prime minister and minister of defence of the newly created provisional government seventeen minutes to read. As members of the council signed the declaration, the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra played ‘Hatikvah’, which was the new state’s national anthem. The declaration of independence did not define the borders of the new state, although it did extend ‘an offer of peace and good neigh-bourliness’ to the Arab states.

Eleven minutes later President Harry S. Truman extended de facto recognition to the new state. Truman’s decision to do this to the new state has raised considerable controversy over the past 60 years. Many argue that it was motivated by political considerations rather than by calculations of the national interest. In later years Truman himself basked in the praise lavished upon him by Israelis and their supporters for his swift action. Yet when in 1965 I asked him about this decision he merely observed that ‘something had to be done, so I did it’, which accurately reflects the essence of the man. The same kind of comment may be made about the president’s meeting with his former Kansas City haberdashery partner Eddy Jacobson in April 1948, in which he agreed to see Chaim Weizman and reassured the future Israeli president that the US would not back away from partition. This Truman-Jacobson meeting has been given considerable attention by historians, myself included. Yet when called upon to unveil a bust of Jacobson in Independence, Missouri, in 1965 to commemorate Jacobson’s role, Truman said nothing about this meeting, or Israel. Again revealing his pragmatic approach to life, he simply stated: ‘Eddy Jacobson was a good friend of mine. Always there when I needed him’, and sat down.

Just before midnight the same day, 14 May 1948, King Abdullah of Transjordan, standing on the eastern side of the Allenby Bridge across the River Jordan, fired his revolver into the air, so signalling his army, the Arab Legion, to enter and occupy the area on the west bank of the river the UN had allotted to the Arab state. Early on the morning of 15 May troops from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, together with volunteers from Saudi Arabia and Libya, entered Palestine to support local Palestinian irregular forces and the Arab League’s Arab Liberation army. The Arab League of Arab States informed the UN Secretary-General on 15 May that their aim was to create a ‘United State of Palestine’ in place of the two-state UN plan. They also claimed it was necessary to intervene to protect Arab lives and property. The first Arab – Israeli war had entered a new phase. Three days later, on 17 May, the Soviet Union extended full de jure recognition of the new state, ensuring that the dispute between Israel and the Arabs would become entwined in the developing Cold War between the two super powers and their allies. (The US extended de jure recognition following elections held in January 1949.)

On 15 May the first of around 1,000 Lebanese, 5,000 Syrian, 5,000 Iraqi and 10,000 Egyptian troops, with a few Saudi Arabian, Libyan and Yemenite volunteers, crossed the frontiers of Palestine with the intention of establishing a unitary Palestinian state. The first all-out Arab – Israeli war had begun. Israel, the United States and the Soviets called the Arab states’ entry into Palestine illegal aggression. The primary goal of the Arab governments, according to historian Yoav Gelber, was to prevent the total ruin of the Palestinians and the flooding of their own countries by more refugees. On 26 May 1948 the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) was officially established and the Haganah, Palmach and Irgun were absorbed into the army of the new Jewish state. As the war progressed, the IDF managed to mobilize more troops than the Arab forces. By July 1948 the IDF was fielding 63,000 troops; by early spring 1949, 115,000. The Arab armies had an estimated 40,000 troops in July 1948, rising to 55,000 in October 1948, and slightly more by the spring of 1949.

The war consisted of three short phases of violence, each followed by a truce. In the first phase, from 14 May to 11 June 1948, the Arab Legion captured Jerusalem but the Israeli forces defended their settlements and their territory against the Egyptians, Iraqis and Lebanese. The UN mediator, Folke Bernadotte, declared a truce on 29 May that came into effect on 11 June and lasted 28 days. In the second phase of fighting, from 8 to 18 July 1948, Israeli forces secured and enlarged the corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, capturing the roadside cities Lydda (later renamed Lod) and Ramle. Following the seizure of these cities, the Israelis forced the 50,000 residents to leave – the largest single exodus of the war. Israelis also captured the area in the north between Haifa and the Sea of Galilee. A second truce lasted from 18 July to 15 October. On 16 September Bernadotte proposed a new plan in which Transjordan would annex Arab areas including the Negev, al-Ramla and Lydda, Galilee would be allocated to Israel, Jerusalem internationalized, and Arab refugees be allowed to return home or receive compensation. The plan was rejected by both sides. On the next day Bernadotte was assassinated by the Lehi and was immediately replaced by his deputy, an American, Ralph Bunche.

The last phase of the war lasted from 15 October 1948 to 7 January 1949. In this final stage Israel drove out the Arab armies and secured its borders. Israel signed separate armistices with Egypt on 24 February 1949, Lebanon on 23 March, Transjordan on 3 April, and Syria on 20 July. Israeli casualties amounted to 6,000 killed (4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians). Arab losses are estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 killed.

The new borders of Israel, as set by the agreements, encompassed about 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River. This was about 25 per cent more than the UN partition proposal allotted it (55 per cent). These ceasefire lines were known afterwards collectively as the ‘Green Line’. Transjordan occupied and later annexed the thickly populated West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Gaza Strip was retained and administered by Egypt. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and Mixed Armistice Commissions were set up to monitor ceasefires, supervise the armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the region.

The Arab – Israeli war of 1948–9 and its outcome still determine the direction and dimensions of the contemporary Arab – Israeli conflict. Sixty years later most of the issues that caused that war have still not been resolved. Questions such as the borders of Israel, its ethnic make-up and its relationships with neighbouring Arab states remain unclear. Palestinian Arabs are still stateless, and more than half survive homeless, are prohibited from returning, and are unlikely to receive compensation. The future of the occupied or disputed territories, the status of Jerusalem, the sharing of water resources and many other contested matters have not been agreed upon. For all these reasons and many more, it is essential to examine closely the events that preceded and made up the war of 1948–9.

By twentieth-century standards the war of 1948–9 was not a large-scale war. At the beginning of the war neither side had more than 30,000 troops, although by the end of the war Israeli forces had risen to around 108,500, and the Arab armies to around 60,000. The weapons used were mainly World War II-vintage rifles and light and medium machine guns. Few tanks were involved, and not many aircraft. The repercussions of the war, however, were enormous. Israel emerged possessing territory 50 per cent greater than that which had been allocated by the UN, but beyond that nothing was settled. No peace treaties were signed, merely a series of uneasy armistices. No Palestinian Arab state was established. Palestinian Arabs had no independent voice in these negotiations; their spokesman was King Abdullah, whose forces had occupied the area of Palestine west of the River Jordan stipulated by the UN as an Arab state.

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