1948: What Happened, When and Why

29 November 1947

On 29 November 1947 the member states of the United Nations – almost a quarter of the current membership – voted for the partition of Palestine into two states. Jerusalem was to be internationalised. The Arab state was 99% Arab while the population of the Jewish state was 55% Jews 45% Arab – virtually a binational state, but with the prospect of mass immigration after the Holocaust.

The Zionist Jews accepted the UN decision, the Palestinian Arabs did not.

A two thirds majority was required for the resolution to pass. Both the USSR and the USA voted in favour – the UK which abstained was the only major World War II ally not to support the creation of a state of the Jews. The USSR had unexpectedly reversed its long-held hostile attitude towards Zionism. The US recognised Israel within eleven minutes, the UK took eight months.

This however was not the first partition of Mandatory Palestine, conquered by the British and ruled by London since the end of World War I. In April 1921 the East Bank of the river Jordan became the Emirate of TransJordan, ruled by the Hashemite prince Abdullah from the Hejaz. The British Mandate for Palestine now covered only present-day Israel and the West Bank of the river Jordan.

Since the end of World War II in 1945 many Zionists and their organisations had come to accept a second partition as the only realistic solution at a time when many Holocaust survivors were subsisting in displaced persons camps in Europe. Thus Golda Meir who had opposed partition in 1937 accepted it in 1947. Religious Zionists such as members of Hapoel Hamizrahi who aspired to the Biblical borders of the Land of Israel now accepted partition. Only right-wing Zionists, Menahem Begin’s Irgun, Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi and the official Revisionists opposed both the first and second partitions of Palestine.

In Britain prime minister Clement Attlee and his Foreign Secretary, the former right-wing trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, never sympathised with Jewish aspirations for a homeland. Instead the Labour Left, congregated around the Tribune group, led by Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS, were passionately pro-Zionist.

30 November 1947 – 15 May 1948

The military struggle from the passing of the UN Resolution 181 until the declaration of independence in May 1948 was essentially a civil war between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs. There were approximately 1,300,000 Arabs and 600,000 Jews. There was initially a tremendous uncertainty as to what would happen. Amidst all the celebrations, Ben-Gurion was unable to participate:

I could not dance. I could not sing that night. I looked at them so happy and dancing – and I could only think that they were all going to war.

On the morning of 30 November two buses were attacked by Arabs near Kfar Syrkin and several passengers were killed. On 1 December the Arab Higher Committee declared a general strike. On 2 December large numbers of Palestinian Arabs, armed with staves and knives, emerged from the Old City in Jerusalem and began to attack Jewish passers-by. This civil war was fought in the territory designated to be the Jewish state.

The Jewish forces consisted of 35,000 members of the Haganah, a few thousand Irgun fighters and a few hundred Lehi militants. Most Jewish settlements were prepared for attack and strongly fortified. The Palestinian Arabs were poorly organised militarily and still carried the memory of their defeat and humiliation by the British during the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939). 5000 volunteers from the Arab Liberation Army entered from Syria in 1948.

Jews and non-Jews volunteered to fight for Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Many had military experience during World War II. The comparison with the Spanish civil war was often drawn. ‘No pasaran’ – ‘they shall not pass’.

During the first few months of this civil war, the Haganah exercised self-restraint and occupied defensive positions. In April 1948 Haganah forces went over to the offensive. Mixed cities of Jews and Arabs became the sites of bitter fighting. The Arab control of roads and in particular those leading to Jerusalem caused the loss of food and arms convoys. On both sides, civilians were targeted and suffered. A UN arms embargo to the Zionists was only overcome when the first delivery of rifles, machine guns and ammunition from Czechoslovakia took place in April 1948.

This period of the war for independence bore witness to many atrocities. The Jewish Agency condemned the killing of over one hundred Arab civilians by the Irgun and Lehi – with a part played by the Haganah – at Deir Yassin, an Arab village outside Jerusalem. On 13 May 120 defenders of Kfar Etzion who had already surrendered were mowed down by Arab irregulars, shouting ‘Deir Yassin’.

14 May 1948 – 29 July 1949

On the following day, David Ben-Gurion signed the declaration of independence. It commenced

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

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

In 32 minutes, a Hebrew republic was re-established in the Land of Israel. Yet such jubilation was superficial for those who were in charge politically and militarily. Moshe Sharett, later the first Foreign Minister of Israel, commented that at the time he felt ‘as though he were standing on a cliff with a gale blowing up all around him and nothing to hold onto except his determination not to be blown over into the raging sea below’. That evening, a Friday night, Egyptian bombers dropped their payload over Tel Aviv. The military forces of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan had invaded – the war changed from a civil war to one between states.

The Arabs initially exhibited an overwhelming superiority in aircraft and heavy weaponry. The Israeli historian, Benny Morris, later commented on this parlous situation.

The Israelis had two tanks, one of them without a gun; and one, then two, batteries of light pre-World War I vintage 65mm Mountain artillery; and makeshift armoured cars, civilian trucks patched up with steel plates in Tel Aviv workshops.

Ceasefires during the hostilities provided opportunities to rearm and train new recruits. Holocaust survivors in Israel often found themselves on the front line defending their new homeland often within days of arrival. By the autumn of 1948, Israeli forces were growing in strength, competence and confidence. Communist Czechoslovakia provided arms and uniforms left behind by the Nazi occupiers of their country. Thus dogfights between Israeli piloted Messerschmitts and Egyptian piloted Spitfires took place.

Voluntary and Involuntary Exodus

The civil war had been marked by a psychosis of flight’, particularly after the killings of Deir Yassin. The atrocity had been widely broadcast in the Arab media and catalysed further Arab departure. A Haganah document of June 1948 estimated that 391,000 Arabs had fled including 152,000 from the proposed Palestinian state. It also noted that fourteen out of 250 villages had been evacuated on express orders of the Haganah – some 20,000 people in total. Another 300,000 left during the Israeli-Arab war which ended in an armistice in the spring of 1949. Some were expelled by commanders such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Carmel.

This exodus was unexpected and an Israeli cabinet meeting in June 1948 voted not to allow the refugees to return while war prevailed and the growth of a fifth column postulated.

The Jews believed Arab threats to push them into the sea were not idle ones – and coming so soon after the Holocaust were not to be ignored as mere propaganda. Benny Morris famously wrote that the Palestinian refugee problem was ‘born of war, not by design, Jew or Arab’. Yet the Nakhba – the Palestinian Catastrophe – was the tragic obverse of the Israeli war of independence.

There was no master plan to expel the Palestinian Arab population. Plan D was directed against hostile villages on invasion routes which militarily resisted in the context of the Arab advance of May 1948. Benny Morris writes that ‘nowhere does the document speak of a policy or desire to expel ‘the Arab inhabitants’ of Palestine or any of its constituent regions’.

The war was also marked by the failure of Arab governments to protect their Jewish communities. ‘Jews’ were equated with ‘Zionists’. In Egypt and Iraq, they were equated with ‘Communists’. Discriminatory legislation, state confiscation of property, imprisonment and arbitrary violence were features of this period in Arab history. It is estimated that over 800,000 Jews left the Arab world – more often involuntarily. Many were settled in Israel including ironically Iraqi Jewish Communists who were opposed to Zionism.

Armistice agreements were eventually signed with Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Israel expanded from the pre-war designated borders to 78% of Mandatory Palestine. Egypt ruled in Gaza and Jordan in the West Bank. The armistice line was dubbed ‘the Green Line’.

During the cease-fire negotiations with the Arab states, Israel held its first election in January 1949. Ben-Gurion’s social democratic Mapai emerged as the largest party with the Marxist-Zionist, Mapam in second place. Between them, they commanded a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Jewish Chronicle 20 February 2018

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