Israel’s costliest war: The Independence War of 1948 and its outcome

Israel's Declaration of Independence

Tel Aviv May 14, 1948: Israel Declaration of Independence. 

By Gideon

By 1947, waves of immigration had brought about half a million Jews to Eretz Israel’s shores. Most came from Eastern Europe, fleeing anti-Semitic legislation and violence in the czarist empire and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in central Europe, cresting with the Holocaust during World War II. Underlying their desire to return to the Land of Israel was an age-old messianic longing for the ancestral territory and the resurrection of Jewish sovereignty. Palestinian Arab resistance to the Zionist immigration grew increasingly violent and increasingly religious during the 1930s, precisely when the Zionist movement was most desperately seeking a safe haven for Europe’s persecuted Jews. Even before this escalation, Jews had little trust in Palestinian Arabs. The Axis powers, Italy and Germany, had politically and economically supported the Palestine Arab revolt in 1936–1939, against both British rule and the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. The Palestinian national movement’s leader, the anti-Jewish Muslim cleric Haj Amin al-Husseini, sat out the war years (1941–1945) in Germany, received a salary from the Third Reich’s foreign ministry, and broadcast calls to the Arab world to join in the anti-British jihad.

Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, there were two main Jewish fighting forces battling both the British and the Arabs. Although they had combined briefly, each army represented the two different main political parties and views in Israel. The Haganah was the “mainstream” army representing the Jewish Agency, Labor Zionists and secularists who ran the pre-government during the British Mandate. The Irgun/Etzel forces were more radical in their thinking and tactics, and subscribed to a more right wing ideology established by Zeev Jabotinksy. 

The Zionists feared nothing less than a second Holocaust should the Arabs win political control of Eretz Israel obliterating the Jews and their dreams of a homeland. From 1939 on, the Zionists also had to contend with a British government that had turned from pro-Zionism to appeasing the Arabs. That year London issued a new Palestine White Paper, severely curbing Jewish immigration and providing for an independent Palestine governed by its Arab majority within 10 years. In response, the clandestine Jewish militias, the mainstream Haganah and the right-wing Irgun/Etzel launched a campaign to oust the British from the country.

The Palmach (Strike Forces in Hebrew) was established by the Haganah High Command on 14 May 1941. Its aim was to defend the  Jewish community in Eretz Israel against two potential threats. Firstly the occupation of Palestine by the Axis in the event of their victory over the British in North Africa. Secondly, if the British army were to retreat from Eretz Israel, Jewish settlements might come under attack from the Arab population. Between 1941 and 1943, there was close cooperation between the Palmach and the British, with the British using Palmach units for behind-the-lines assaults in Vichy-dominated Lebanon and Syria. By 1943, as the Axis threat receded, the British began to fear that the Palmach might become a threat to their continued rule in Eretz Israel, and they therefore began to make unsuccessful attempts to suppress the Palmach. From late 1945 to mid-1946, the Palmach worked together with the Irgun in attempting to undermine British rule in Palestine. From 1946 until 1947, the Palmach concentrated on helping to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine. When the War of Independence began, the Palmach was the only ready standing army available to repel the Arab attack.

In December 1946, at the first post WWII Zionist Congress in Basle, David Ben Gurion became responsible for the defense portfolio, including responsibility for the Haganah, which at the time concentrated on the struggle against the British and smuggling Jews from Europe to Eretz Israel. Ben-Gurion decided to build a military force in preparation for an assault by the regular armies of the Arab countries, which the Jewish people in Eretz Israel would have to face alone, without outside help. 

WWII had vastly weakened Great Britain. By 1947, the country no longer had the resolve to deal with the dilemma in Eretz Israel: the Zionists demanding statehood, at least in part of the country, and the Palestinian Arabs demanding all of the country as their indivisible patrimony. The additional embarrassment of having to fight illegal immigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors, and the trauma of continuous Jewish terrorist attacks finally persuaded Whitehall to throw in the towel. In February 1947 Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin announced that Britain would terminate its rule and hand over the  problem to the United Nations. The UN appointed a commission of inquiry recommended to the General Assembly that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 (also known as the Partition Resolution) that would divide Great Britain’s former mandate area into Jewish and Arab states in May 1948. Under the resolution, the area of religious significance surrounding Jerusalem would remain under international control administered by the United Nations. The Palestinian Arabs refused to recognize this arrangement, which they regarded as favorable to the Jews and unfair to the Arab population that would remain in Jewish territory under the partition. The United States sought a middle way by supporting the United Nations resolution, but also encouraging negotiations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.The UN General Assembly approved the recommendation. The Zionist leadership accepted the division.The Arab world, spearheaded by Palestine’s Arab leadership, responded with a resounding “no”.

The Arabs made clear they would go to war to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. The chairman of the Arab Higher Committee said the Arabs would “fight for every inch of their country.” Two days later, the holy men of Al-Azhar University in Cairo called on the Muslim world to proclaim a jihad (holy war) against the Jews.  Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee’s spokesman, had told the UN prior to the partition vote the Arabs would drench “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood. . . .” 

The Palestine Arabs enjoyed the support of the Arab states, who sent arms, money and, between December 1947 and February 1948, a 4,000-strong force of relatively well-equipped volunteers, most of them Syrians and Iraqis, known as the Arab Liberation Army (ALA). The ALA had medium and heavy mortars, armored cars, and, by April, half a dozen field pieces. In addition, hundreds of lightly armed Muslim Brotherhood volunteers arrived in southern Palestine from North Africa.

The Jewish community in Eretz Israel was much smaller: 630,000 compared with the Arabs’ 1.3 million. However, the Jewish community was tightly knit, highly mobilized, largely urban, educated, European, and motivated by the trauma of the just-ended Holocaust. Their leaders were public-service oriented and committed; they included the best and the brightest. The Haganah had a standing, efficient strike force of some 2,000 to 3,000 members, the Palmach, which served as its backbone and shield was transformed from a militia into an army with battalion and brigade formations. 

On November 29, the Jewish settlements and neighborhoods were attacked by Palestinian guerrillas. The first large-scale assaults began on January 9, 1948, when approximately 1,000 Arabs attacked Jewish communities in northern Eretz Israel. By February, the British said so many Arabs had infiltrated they lacked the forces to run them back. In the First Phase (29 November 1947 – 1 April 1948), it was the Palestinian Arabs who took the offensive, with the help of volunteers from neighboring countries; the yishuv had little success in limiting the war – it suffered severe casualties and disruption of passage along most of the major highways.

In the Second Phase (1 April – 15 May) the Haganah took the initiative, and in six weeks was able to turn the tables – capturing, inter alia, the Arab sections of Tiberias, Haifa and later also Safed and Acre, temporarily opening the road to Jerusalem and gaining control of much of the territory alotted to the Jewish State under the UN Resolution.

Israel’s Independence war of 1948 broke out when five Arab nations invaded territory populated by Jewish people in the formerly British controlled area of Eretz Israel, immediately following the announcement of the independence of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, upon the exit of the last British soldier from Erets Israel. After Israel declared its independence the fighting intensified with other Arab forces joining the Palestinian Arabs in attacking Jewish Settlements. The Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon invaded the new Jewish state. The Arab forces were significantly larger than Israel’s and were better equipped. Yet, coordination and organization were lacking and the Arab armies were often at odds with each other, seeking to incorporate territory from Eretz Israel into their own states. Despite their small numbers, the Jews were well-organized, well-disciplined and well-trained. 

On 31 May the Haganah was renamed the “Israel Defence Forces”. The IDF suffered initial setbacks, including the loss of the Etzion Bloc in Judea, the area of Mishmar Hayarden in the north and Yad Mordehai in the south, but after three weeks was able to halt the offensive, to stabilize the front and even initiate some local offensive operations.

The Fourth Phase (19 July 1948 – 20 July, 1949) was characterized by Israeli initiatives: Operation Yoav, in October, cleared the road to the Negev, culminating in the capture of Be’er Sheva; Operation Hiram, at the end of October, resulted in the capture of the Upper Galilee; Operation Horev in December 1948 and Operation Uvda in March 1949, completed the capture of the Negev, which had been allotted to the Jewish State by the United Nations.

Simultaneously, the Arab countries signed Armistice Agreements: first came Egypt – 24 February 1949; followed by Lebanon – 23 March; Jordan – 3 April; and Syria – 20 July. Only Iraq did not sign an armistice agreement with Israel. It preferred to withdraw its troops and hand over its sector to the Arab Legion of Jordan. In the end Israel not only ejected the invading Arab forces – it also captured and held some 5,000 km2 over and above the areas allocated to it by the United Nations.

The Arab states, however, refused to recognize Israel’s existence and negotiate peace and remained in a state of war with the Jewish state. They continued their economic, political, social and cultural boycott of the Jewish state which was instituted by the Arab League in 1945. The Arab economic boycott of Israel prohibited Arab peoples, companies and states from conducting business both with Israel and with other companies who do business with Israel. They also embarked on a campaign to isolate the Jewish state in the international community.

Displaced Palestinian Arabs, known as Palestinian refugees, were settled in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Arab world. The United Nations established UNRWA as a relief and human development agency tasked with providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. Arab nations refused to absorb Palestinian refugees, instead keeping them in refugee camps while insisting that they be allowed to return.

The war was marked by long periods of fighting and temporary cease-fires. Finally, fighting officially ended in January 1949. The war consisted of 39 separate operations, fought from the borders of Lebanon to the Sinai Peninsula and Eilat. In human terms, the military conflict of 1948 between the Jews and the Arabs, which was named the War of Independence, was Israel’s costliest war.  Israel lost 6,373 of its people, about 1% of its population at the time. About 4,000 were soldiers and the rest were civilians. Around 2,000 were Holocaust survivors. 15,000 wounded. It was also the costliest war for the Palestinians: During the war, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, out of approximately 1,200,000 Arabs living in former British Mandate of EretzIsrael. The exact number of Arab casualties is unknown. One estimate places the Arab death toll at 7,000, including 3,000 Palestinians, 2,000 Egyptians, 1,000 Jordanians, and 1,000 Syrians. 

The Outcomes:

  • One outcome is the creation of an independent state where Jews live in relative safety for the first time after 2000 year of discrimination, hardship, and routine violent attacks on them. The State of Israel became a safe haven for Jews. Immigration of Jews due to hardship and antisemitic attacks began immediately after the war and continues even today. The first wave of immigrants came to Israel from neighboring Middle Eastern countries. Large wave of immigrants came to Israel from Soviet  Russia in the 1970s and 1990s. Today, there is a significant, antisemitic driven, immigration wave to Israel from France 
  • Another outcome is the ongoing, unresolved, Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A conflict which on one side Palestinians refuse to recognize the Jewish state and  live peacefully side-by-side with their Jewish neighbors, and on the other side, the Israeli Jews who have no intention of giving up their country by letting millions of Palestinians move to Israel and change the demographic balance in a way that will make the Jews a minority in their own country. A minority that would  live at a mercy of a democratically elected Palestinian-Arab government. A government, which will end the existence of the Jewish state, force Jews out of their houses, and make every effort to uproot them from the country.

Israel Independence War is not over; it is still going on. The fighting is now between the third generation of Israelis and Palestinians. The Middle East will not be a stable place until Israel’s Independence war is over, with a Palestinians recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and the dismantlement of the Palestinian refugee camps in a satisfactory manner to the Palestinian people.

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