Arab-Israeli War (1948)

Israel army
Israel army

After World War II Great Britain was no longer able economically, politically, or militarily to control Palestine. The Labour government was elected to power in 1945, and the new foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, attempted to placate mounting Arab opposition to a Jewish state by enforcing limitations on Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Even during World War II some Revisionist Zionist groups had begun attacking British officials and forces in attempts to force the British to vacate Palestine. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, and LEHI (Stern Gang) both attempted to kill Sir Harold MacMichael, the British high commissioner in Palestine, and in 1944 LEHI killed Lord Moyne, the British minister of state for the Middle East.

In 1946 the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel, the British headquarters in Jerusalem, killing over 90 people. The British branded the Irgun a terrorist organization and arrested many of its members. The Irgun retaliated by kidnapping British soldiers; British arms depots were also raided.


Although the United States was reluctant to ease its own immigration quotas, it pressured Britain to allow increased Jewish immigration into Palestine. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the forced return or imprisonment on Cyprus of illegal Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe was an untenable moral and political position.

From the Zionist perspective there was no such thing as an "illegal" Jewish immigrant into Palestine, and numerous means of circumventing or evading British border controls were devised to allow the landing of new Jewish immigrants.

Some Zionists, including Chaim Weizmann, recognized the potential problem posed by the displacement of Palestinians, but he argued that the Jewish need was greater. David Ben-Gurion and others in Palestine continued to claim all of Palestine for the Jewish state.

Palestinian irregulars near a burnt armored Haganah supply truck, the road to Jerusalem, 1948
Palestinian irregulars near a burnt armored Haganah supply truck,
the road to Jerusalem, 1948

Following the war, the United States issued several public statements favoring the creation of a Jewish state. In the face of its domestic weakness and reliance on U.S. economic assistance, the British government in 1947 announced that it was turning over the entire problem of Palestine to the newly formed United Nations.

The UN then created the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), composed of 11 member states, to investigate the situation and to make recommendations as to what should be done regarding the mounting conflict between Zionist demands for a Jewish state and Palestinian demands for an independent Arab state in Palestine.

In 1947 UNSCOP traveled to Palestine, where it was well received by the Zionists and boycotted by the Arab Higher Command of Palestine under the mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, an implacable opponent of a Jewish state.

Proposed separation of Palestine by UN

From the Palestinian point of view, any Jewish state would result in a loss of territory that was considered part of the Palestinian national homeland. However, by boycotting the negotiations, the Palestinians lost an opportunity to present their side to the general Western public and politicians.

UNSCOP submitted a minority and majority report; the minority recommended a binational state, and the majority recommended partition. The proposed partition plan allotted approximately 50 percent of the land for the Jewish state and 50 percent for an Arab state, with Jerusalem and a large area around the city to be under international control.

The projected Jewish state included most of the north and coastal areas with the better agricultural land and sea access as well as the Negev desert in the south. Jaffa, totally surrounded by the proposed Jewish state, was to be an Arab port. 

Although the plan did not include all the territory the Zionists had claimed, Ben-Gurion and the majority Labor Party reluctantly accepted the UN partition scheme and launched an all-out effort to make an independent Jewish state a reality and to obtain recognition from the international community.

At the time there were 1.26 million Palestinian Arabs, or two-thirds of the total population, and 608,000 Jews, or one-third of the population, in Palestine, and Arabs still owned over 80 percent of the total land within Palestine.

Consequently, the Palestinians and other Arab states rejected the plan. At the pan-Arab conference in Bludan, Syria, in 1937, the Arabs had already unanimously rejected any partition of Palestine, so the rejection in 1947 came as no surprise to either side.

The United States lobbied several nations that were poised to abstain or vote against partition: Members of the UN narrowly voted in favor of the partition plan in November 1947.

Violence immediately broke out in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world, and in waves of anti-Semitism Jewish quarters and businesses in Cairo, Baghdad, and elsewhere were attacked. The mufti called for a three-day strike in Palestine, during which violence between the two communities escalated.

The British withdrew from Palestine in May 1948, and war immediately broke out. By the time of the British withdrawal the Haganah effectively controlled the area allotted to the Jewish state by the partition plan.

On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the independent state of Israel amid widespread rejoicing among Jewish communities. Ben-Gurion became the first Israeli prime minister in a coalition government dominated by the Labor Party, and the Haganah became the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The new state was immediately recognized by both the United States and the Soviet Union; however, the celebrations were tempered by the certainty of impending war with the surrounding Arab states and the Palestinians.

Israeli forces were well organized and trained with a unified chain of command and a plan for securing all the territory allotted to the new state. With the IDF, the Palmach, or shock troops, the police, and the Irgun and Stern Gang Israeli forces numbered about 60,000 in addition to 40,000 reservists. The Irgun and Stern Gang were not incorporated in the IDF but on some occasions coordinated efforts with it.

Arabs forces also numbered about 40,000 and included the Arab Liberation Army, volunteer forces led by Fawzi al-Kawakji, and the Jordanian Arab Legion, commanded by a British officer, Glubb Pasha. The legion was the best trained of the Arab forces.

Abd al-Kader al-Husseini commanded Palestinians in Jerusalem; Iraqi and Syrian soldiers also fought in the war. The Arab League supported the Palestinian cause but refused to provide money to the mufti or to recognize the establishment of a Palestinian state in exile.

The Palestinian population remained demoralized from their earlier defeat by the British in the Arab Revolt of 1936–39 and had no real unified political or military leadership. Arab armies also suffered from inferior armaments and corrupt leadership, and they had not coordinated their efforts or devised an effective plan for military victory.

Palestinian Refugees

By the time the war broke out massive numbers of Palestinians had already become refugees in neighboring Arab countries. Some upperand middle-class Palestinians had left for jobs and businesses in other Arab countries during the mandate period, and the peasantry, by far the majority of the Palestinian population, was frightened by the mounting violence and impending war.

The causes for the mass exodus remain highly controversial, with both sides blaming the other for the refugee problem. Some Palestinians undoubtedly left what was soon to become a war zone in the belief that they would return home after the war was over and the Arabs had been victorious. Attacks by Israeli forces, especially the Irgun, also terrorized the peasants and incited many to flee.

In the spring of 1948 the Irgun and LEHI attacked Deir Yasin, a peaceful village near Jerusalem, killing over 200 Palestinian civilians. The massacre at Deir Yasin spread terror among Palestinian peasants, who feared the same fate might befall their villages.

Palestinians left Haifa and the northern area of Tiberias; those from northern Palestine fled into Syria and Lebanon, those in the central area went to the West Bank and across the Jordan River into Jordan, and those in the south crowded into the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea. By the end of April over 150,000 Palestinians had left, and by May the numbers reached 300,000.

The 1948 war is known as the war of independence in Israel and called al-Nakba, or disaster, by the Palestinians. Military engagements in the war fell into three parts. In the first part, lasting from May to June, Egyptian forces crossed into the Negev in the south on May 15, and the Iraqis subsequently marched through Jordan into Palestine and Israel and at one juncture were within 10 miles of the Mediterranean.

According to an earlier secret agreement between the Zionists and King Abdullah of Jordan, Jordanian troops would not move into areas allotted to the Jewish state, in return for which Abdullah was to secure the West Bank.

The agreement held during the war, but since there had been no agreement regarding Jerusalem, Jordanian and Israeli forces fought over the city, and the Jews were forced to surrender the Jewish quarter in the old part of the walled city. The Syrians were halted in the north, and there was no Lebanese resistance.

The UN sent Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, a leading figure in the International Red Cross, to mediate; Bernadotte secured a truce in mid-June that lasted for four weeks, during which time the Israelis secured arms from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

Great Britain suspended the supply of arms to Iraq, Transjordan, and Egypt. The truce ended in July, followed by 10 days of fierce fighting during which time the Israeli victory became apparent. Israeli forces took all of northern Palestine and restored communication between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A second truce was negotiated in July, when al-Kawakji's forces had been decisively defeated and Israel held all Galilee; however, the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, remained under Jordanian control. In the negotiations Bernadotte had angered both sides, and there was fear among Israelis that his final report due in September would be favorable to the Arabs.

His report supported the partition plan but with the right of Palestinian repatriation; he also recommended that the Negev go to the Arabs, that Galilee be Jewish, the creation of a UN boundary patrol, and that Haifa be a free port. Jerusalem was to remain under UN auspices. The Stern Gang assassinated Bernadotte in September, and the report was never implemented. The U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche was appointed the new mediator.

In October the Israelis attacked the Egyptian forces in the Negev. A small group of Egyptian soldiers including a young officer, Gamal Abdul Nasser, held out for several months at Falluja but, lacking reinforcements or relief from Egypt, were ultimately forced to surrender.

Nasser blamed the corrupt regime of King Faruk for the loss and would lead a successful revolution against the monarchy in 1952. In December Israel moved further into the Negev and northern Sinai but reluctantly withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which was administered by the Egyptian military.

The 1948 war resulted in the partition of Jerusalem, with west Jerusalem held by Israel and east Jerusalem by Jordan. Through military victories Israel had increased its territory by about one-third more than the original partition plan had called for.

As far as Israel was concerned, the gains were nonnegotiable, and the land was immediately incorporated into the new state. The mufti attempted to establish a Palestinian state based in Gaza, but he was thwarted by King Abdullah.

Israel map by the end of the war
Israel map by the end of the war

In December Abdullah announced the unification of the West Bank and east Jerusalem with Jordan; Abdullah's claim as sovereign of Palestine was supported by handpicked notables, and the Palestinians remained without a state of their own.

Peace negotiations were held at Rhodes in early 1949. Because the Arabs refused to recognize Israel, Bunche had to shuttle back and forth between the Arab and Israeli delegations, and the negotiations became known as the Proximity Talks.

An armistice was reached with Egypt in February 1949, Lebanon in March, Jordan in April with clauses for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Jordanian territory, and Syria in July. No formal armistice was ever reached with Iraq.

Setting the Stage

The losses in the 1948 war left the Arabs humiliated and unforgiving and set the stage for future political upheavals through much of the region. Attempts by the UN to secure a full peace failed; although fullscale fighting ceased, technically the Arabs and Israel remained at war.

Nor was the Palestinian refugee issue resolved. Fearing the creation of a possible fifth column within its new borders and a possible Arab majority in the new Jewish state, Israel refused to permit the return of most of the refugees and blamed the Arab governments for having created the problem in the first place. The Arabs blamed Israel. The Palestinians were determined to return to their homes in the future and refused resettlement elsewhere.

Arab refugees in northern Israel on the road to Lebanon, November 1948
Arab refugees in northern Israel on the road to Lebanon, November 1948

Arab states were also ill equipped to deal with the influx of refugees; some Arab regimes also used the refugees as pawns in their own struggles with Israel. Only Syria volunteered to discuss granting citizenship to the refugees. Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate unless his preconceived terms were met, and the offer was dropped.

By 1949 there were about 800,000 Palestinian refugees, and the United Nations established an agency that became UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Administration) to provide minimal assistance of about 16 cents per day for them. As the conflict continued and as successive generations were born in the camps, the number of refugees grew. The issues of repatriation, reparations, or compensation for land and businesses lost remained unresolved into the 21st century.

The new Israeli government set about incorporating its territorial gains and assimilated over half a million new Jewish immigrants, many of whom came from Arab states, especially Iraq and Yemen. No peace settlement was reached between the Arabs and Israel, and the conflict continued to fester until full-scale war broke out again in 1956.