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Arab-Israeli Conflict #2: 1948 War of Independence

Arab-Israeli Conflict #2: 1948 War of Independence

A few rag-tag Jewish militiamen manage to stave off a coordinated Arab onslaught.

by

Violence in the Holy Land broke out almost immediately after the United Nations announced partition on November 29, 1947. Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee's spokesman, had told the UN prior to the partition vote that the Arabs would drench "the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood..."

Husseini's prediction began to come true after the UN announcement. The Arabs declared a protest strike and instigated riots that claimed the lives of 62 Jews and 32 Arabs. By the end of the second week, 93 Arabs, 84 Jews, and 7 British had been killed, and scores were injured.

Two days later, the jurists of Al-Azhar University in Cairo called on the Muslim world to proclaim a jihad (holy war) against the Jews.

GUERILLAS START THE WAR EARLY

Fighting in the undeclared war gradually escalated. The first large-scale assaults began on January 9, 1948, when approximately 1,000 Arabs attacked Jewish communities in northern Palestine. By February, the British said so many Arabs had infiltrated that they lacked the forces to run them back. In fact, the British surrendered bases and arms to Arab irregulars and the Arab Legion, facilitating their raids and eventual invasion.

By contrast, Britain refused to allow the Jews to form a militia to defend themselves until the termination of the mandate. This put the Jews at a disadvantage because they were unable to form an army or legally import weapons. Meanwhile, the existing Arab states were free to import weapons to use against the Jews. The British compounded the problem by signing a treaty with Transjordan that provided the Arabs with arms, while a blockade was maintained against the Jews.

The British not only prevented the Jews from obtaining arms, but took away those they found in their possession. On February 12, 1948, the British arrested four members of the Haganah (Jewish Legion) and turned them over to an Arab mob in Jerusalem, which shot one and castrated the others before hacking them to death. Afterward, the Haganah resisted being disarmed.

Two weeks later, Sternists launched an "all-out" attack on British troops in Jerusalem. One raid on a British troop transport near Rehovot killed five and wounded 35. By April, the strategic picture in Palestine had changed dramatically. The occasional Arab raids and guerilla incursions from beyond Palestine's borders had escalated to full-scale battles. At that point, the Jews' fight against the Arabs took precedence over their struggle against the British.

Still, the British remained a major obstacle to the Jews' efforts to defend themselves and implement the UN resolution. In addition to the arms embargo, the British continued their human blockade. Even as their control began to slip away and Palestine slid toward war, the British prevented Jewish immigrants who would be needed in the upcoming fight from entering the country.

THE END OF PARTITION

The Palestine Commission finally told the UN Security Council on February 17, 1948,that the partition plan could not be carried out without the aid of military force. By this time, it was too late; it was no longer possible to create such a force. The problem was politics, not logistics. The Russians insisted on sending a contingent to Palestine if the Americans did. Truman did not want the Russians in Palestine under any circumstances.

The other member-nations believed the force should include the major powers and refused to form one without them; consequently, no agreement on a military force was ever negotiated, and Palestine was allowed to slip into a war.

In the first phase of the war, lasting from November 1947, until April 1, 1948, the Palestinian Arabs took the offensive, with help from volunteers from neighboring countries. The Jews suffered severe casualties, and passage along most of their major roadways was disrupted.

The UN blamed the Arabs for the violence. The UN Palestine Commission was never permitted by the Arabs or British to go to Palestine to implement the resolution. On February 16, 1948, the Commission reported to the Security Council: "Powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein."

The Arabs were blunt in taking responsibility for starting the war. Jamal Husseini told the Security Council on April 16, 1948: "The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight."

Despite the disadvantages in numbers, organization, and weapons, the Jews began to take the initiative in the weeks from April 1 until their declaration of independence on May 14. The Haganah captured several major towns, including Tiberias and Haifa, and temporarily opened the road to Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM FACES STRANGULATION

The United Nations resolved that Jerusalem would be an international city apart from the Arab and Jewish states demarcated in the partition resolution. The 150,000 Jewish inhabitants were under constant military pressure; the 2,500 Jews living in the Old City were victims of an Arab blockade that lasted five months before they were forced to surrender on May 29, 1948. Prior to the surrender and throughout the siege on Jerusalem, Jewish convoys tried to reach the city to alleviate the food shortage, which, by April, had become critical.

Meanwhile, irregular Arab forces began to make an organized attempt to cut off the highway linking Tel Aviv with Jerusalem -- the city's only supply route. The Arabs controlled several strategic vantage points, including the villages of Kastel and Deir Yassin, which overlooked the highway and enabled them to fire on the convoys trying to reach the beleaguered city with supplies.

The Irgun decided to attack Deir Yassin on April 9, while the Haganah tried to capture Kastel. This was the first major Irgun attack against the Arabs. Previously, the Irgun and Sternists had concentrated their attacks against the British.

BATTLE AT DEIR YASSIN

Approximately 100 members of the two Jewish splinter groups carried out the assault. Menachem Begin stated that a small open truck fitted with a loudspeaker was driven to the entrance of the village before the attack and broadcast a warning to civilians to evacuate the area, which many did. The warning was probably never issued, however, because the truck with the loudspeaker rolled into a ditch before it could broadcast its warning.

Contrary to revisionist histories that the town was filled with peaceful innocents, residents opened fire on the attackers. The battle was ferocious and took several hours. The Irgun suffered 41 casualties, including four dead. Though Arabs and Israelis still dispute the total, The New York Times reported at the time that more than 200 Arabs were killed and 40 more held captive.

The Jewish attackers left open an escape corridor from the village and more than 200 residents left unharmed. After the remaining Arabs feigned surrender and then fired on the Jewish troops, some Jews killed Arab soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. Arab men disguised as women were found among the bodies.

The killings of civilians along with combatants, combined with the relatively large number of dead, provoked the Jewish Agency to express its "horror and disgust." It also sent a letter expressing the Agency's shock and disapproval to Transjordan's King Abdullah.

Nevertheless, the Arabs began to refer to the battle as a "massacre." The Arab Higher Committee hoped exaggerated reports about a bloodbath at Deir Yassin would shock the population of the Arab countries into bringing pressure on their governments to intervene in Palestine. Instead, the immediate impact was to stimulate a new Arab exodus from Palestine.

The Palestinians knew, despite their rhetoric to the contrary, that the Jews were not trying to annihilate them; otherwise, they would not have been allowed to evacuate Tiberias, Haifa, or any of the other towns captured by the Jews. Moreover, the Palestinians could find sanctuary in nearby states. The Jews, however, had no place to run had they wanted to. They were willing to fight to the death for their country. It came to that for many, because the Arabs were interested in annihilating the Jews.

AMBUSH AT HADASSAH

Just four days after the reports from Deir Yassin were published, an Arab force ambushed a Jewish convoy on the way to Hadassah Hospital, killing 77 Jews, including doctors, nurses, patients, and the director of the hospital. Another 23 people were injured.

This massacre attracted little attention and is never mentioned by those who are quick to bring up Deir Yassin. Moreover, despite attacks such as this against the Jewish community in Palestine, in which more than 500 Jews were killed in the first four months after the partition decision alone, Jews did not flee.

On May 4, 1948, the Arab Legion attacked Kfar Etzion. The defenders drove them back, but the Legion returned a week later. After two days, the ill-equipped and outnumbered Jewish settlers were overwhelmed. Many defenders were massacred after they surrendered. In all, 148 people were killed, including the settlement's Palmach defenders. Only four people survived.

INDEPENDENCE DAY

The UN partition resolution was never suspended or rescinded. Thus, Israel, the Jewish State in Palestine, was born on May 14, as the British finally left the country. Israel's Declaration of Independence enunciated the new state's commitment to the principles of freedom and equality:

The State of Israel... will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace... will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture... we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to... play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship...

The day after Israel declared its independence, five Arab armies -- Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq -- invaded Israel. The United States, the Soviet Union, and most other states immediately recognized Israel and condemned the Arabs.

FIVE AGAINST ONE

At the time of the invasion, the five Arab armies, despite their large populations, were composed of only 80,000 men. Israel mobilized its entire population of 650,000. The Haganah had 60,000 trained fighters, a third of whom had combat experience, but on May 12, only 18,900 Jewish soldiers were fully armed and prepared for war.

The Jews' position was even worse, because the Arabs held the superior terrain and were capable of cutting the Jewish state in half. Arab cities that could be used as bases of operations were only minutes from the heart of Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem was already under siege. In the south, nothing could stop Egyptian forces from streaking across the Negev.

Meanwhile, the Old City in Jerusalem had been isolated by an Arab blockade for five months. On May 29, the last holdouts surrendered, marking the end of nearly 2,000 years of continuous Jewish residence in the Old City.

Many Jews found the loss of the site of Judaism's holiest shrine, the Western Wall, spiritually devastating. From a military standpoint, however, it was far more important for Israel to hold the New City, the urban center of Jerusalem that had been developed outside the Old City walls during the preceding 30 years. To save the Jews living there, the Arab blockade had to be broken. As it turned out, the city found an unlikely savior.

THE AMERICAN GENERAL

After the partition decision, David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community, asked an American friend, Mickey Marcus, to recruit an American officer to serve as military advisor to Israel. The Jewish leader got more than he bargained for.

Marcus was a Jew from Brooklyn who graduated from West Point and became a federal attorney in New York. When it became clear that the United States would eventually enter World War Two, he volunteered for service and parachuted into Normandy with D-day airborne forces.

As an attorney, Marcus was involved in drafting surrender terms for Germany and Italy, and later was chief of the War Crimes Division that gathered evidence and prosecuted the Nazis at Nuremberg. In between, Marcus was given the responsibility for clearing out the concentration camps and ensuring that the survivors of the war did not starve. Never a Zionist, his wartime experiences changed his views and led him to agree that an independent state in Palestine was necessary for Jewish survival and as a homeland for Holocaust survivors.

When Ben-Gurion came to him, Marcus did not expect to volunteer to assist the Jews in Palestine. Since he was still a reservist, he needed permission from the U.S. War Department, which he received, provided that he did not use his own name or U.S. military rank. Thus, American Michael Stone became Ben-Gurion's confidante.

Stone imposed military discipline on the somewhat ragtag forces of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Israel. He designed a command structure, wrote training manuals, and taught the Haganah strategy and tactics. His most important contribution may have been to construct the "Burma Road" (named for the military supply route used by the Allies in WW2 to cross the mountainous region between Burma and China) through a seemingly impassable route that bypassed the main road to Jerusalem. This allowed the Jewish forces to relieve the Arab siege on June 9, just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease-fire. Had the convoys not gotten through, the Jews remaining in Jerusalem would have starved or been forced to surrender.

Ben-Gurion rewarded Marcus by giving him the rank of Lieutenant General, the first general in the army of Israel in nearly 2,000 years. The story did not end happily, however, because Marcus was killed tragically six hours before the cease-fire went into effect. He had gone for a walk after not being able to fall asleep. When he returned, the Israeli guard asked Marcus to identify himself. Marcus never learned Hebrew and did not give the proper response, so the guard shot him.

Jew Versus Jew

After May 15, the vast majority of the underground was absorbed into Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which was composed primarily of Haganah members. On May 28, the Sternists formally disbanded as 850 of its fighters marched together to join the Tzahal.

The activities of the underground did not cease entirely, however, and the leaders of the new Israeli government were extremely suspicious of their motivations. This distrust spilled into the open on June 20 when the Altalena, an Irgun ship laden with arms, tried to land at Kfar Vitkim. Ben-Gurion, who had become the head of state in the transition to statehood, feared the remaining dissidents were a threat to the central authority, and he suspected a possible coup attempt. He ordered the Tzahal to prevent the ship from landing.

The Irgunists resisted. After suffering a number of casualties, they sailed for Tel Aviv where the Tzahal welcomed the ship with a barrage of shells in what soon became an all-out battle. The Altalena was set on fire and had to be abandoned. The fighting left 14 Irgunists dead and 69 wounded, while two members of Tzahal were killed and six wounded.

Meanwhile, the initial phase of fighting between Jews and Arabs was winding down and ended after the UN Security Council threatened on July 15 to cite the Arab governments for aggression under the UN Charter. By this time, the fledgling IDF had succeeded in stopping the Arab offensive.

WEAPONS SEARCH

The Jews won their war of independence with minimal help from the West. In fact, they won despite efforts to undermine their military strength. As noted earlier, the United States vigorously supported the partition resolution, but the State Department didn't want to provide the Jews with the means to defend themselves. "Otherwise," Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett argued, "the Arabs might use arms of U.S. origin against Jews, or Jews might use them against Arabs." Consequently, on December 5, 1947, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on the entire region.

Many in the State Department saw the embargo as yet another means of accomplishing their goal of obstructing partition. President Truman nevertheless went along with the embargo, hoping it would be a means of averting bloodshed. This was naive, given Britain's rejection of Lovett's request to suspend weapons shipments to the Arabs, and subsequent agreements to provide additional arms to Iraq and Transjordan.

The Arabs had no difficulty obtaining all the arms they needed. In fact, Jordan's Arab Legion was armed and trained by the British and led by a British officer. At the end of 1948 and the beginning of 1949, British R.A.F. planes flew with Egyptian squadrons over the Israel-Egypt border. On January 7, 1949, Israeli planes shot down four of the British aircraft.

The Jews, on the other hand, were forced to smuggle weapons, principally from Czechoslovakia. When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the army did not have a single cannon or tank. Its air force consisted of nine obsolete planes. On the eve of the war, Chief of Operations Yigal Yadin told Ben-Gurion, "The best we can tell you is that we have a 50-50 chance."

COST TO ISRAEL

The Arab war to destroy Israel failed. Indeed, because of their aggression, the Arabs wound up with less territory than if they had accepted partition. Had the West enforced the partition resolution or given the Jews the capacity to defend themselves, many lives might have been saved.

The cost to Israel, however, was enormous. A total of 6,373 Israelis were killed, nearly 1 percent of the entire Palestinian Jewish population of 650,000. Military expenditures totaled approximately $500 million and the prospect of recouping the financial loss was bleak, given that much of the Jewish state's most productive agricultural land was laid waste. In particular, the citrus groves that had been the basis for the Jewish community's economy had been ravaged.

After decisively defeating all but Jordan's Arab Legion, Israel expected its neighbors to accept its independence as a fact and negotiate peace. This was not to be.

The Arab countries signed armistice agreements with Israel in 1949, starting with Egypt (February 24), followed by Lebanon (March 23), Jordan (April 3), and Syria (July 20). Iraq was the only country that did not sign an agreement with Israel, choosing instead to withdraw its troops and hand over its sector to Jordan's Arab Legion. It would be 30 years before an Arab state would agree to make peace with Israel.

Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books -- Macmillan USA)

Published: February 23, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Gary M. Rosenberg, June 24, 2011 12:16 AM

I have a question about the curriculum at West Point.

I heard from a well-informed friend that in its classroom course(s) on military strategy and analyses of the great battles of history (Hastings 1066, Midway, Battle of the Bulge, etc.), West Point leaves out the '48 Israeli War of Independence, and some years ago when a Jewish student questioned this omission, he was told by a professor it was because the academy's instructors couldn't logically explain how, given their lack of equipment and geographical disadvanges, Israel's forces survived and prevailed. Is there evidence to support what I heard?

(4) DUNNO, February 14, 2008 10:44 AM

...

I think tht all this is very bad and there shud b a stop put 2 it as it can get far more worse...hundreds of ppl are dieing for no good enuf reezon in my opinion.

(3) Anonymous, October 22, 2006 9:03 PM

Both sides shoul learned the lesson of war.

Arab must be reasonable and must show care for human life which is the most important creation of God the creator, istead of killing in the name of God.

(2) MORRIS SCHWARTZ, March 6, 2002 12:00 AM

EXCELLENT SUMMARY

YOUR SUMMARY OF THE ALTALENA AFFAIR ARE NOT TOTALLY CORRECT. TH IRGUNS PURPOSE FOR BRINGING IN THE ARMS WAS NOT TO ''OVERTHROW'' THE NEW GOVT., BUT TO SUPPLY ARMS TO HE NEW ARMY AND TO RSERVE SOME OF THE ARMS FOR FIGHTING IN JERUSALEM TO RECAPTURE THE OLD CITY, PART OF A PROMISE THAT AS MADE TO THEM.ALSO, DURINGTIS ''CEASE-FIRE'', THE ARABS NEVER STOPPED THEIR RE-SUPPLY EFFORTS AND FELT NO OBLIGATION TO UPHOLD IT.

(1) Anonymous, February 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Arab men disguised as women prove to the contrary

The fact that Arab men disguised as women were found among the bodies after the battle at Deir Yassin proves that the Irgun fighters didn't shoot indiscriminately. The Arabs disguised as women exactly because they knew that Jews would not shoot women. Only when the fighters discovered that they were being shot at by men in women disguise, did they start shooting back at them.

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