Status Report: The Birth of Israel
The upcoming weekend will mark 68th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the major conflict that followed. On the 14th of May 1948, the independence declaration, read by David Ben-Gurion, was broadcast by radio to the entirety of Israel. Israel celebrates this date as its Independence Day, one of its most important holidays.
This act was followed by the Arab invasion. On the 15th of May 1948, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Syria invaded the Jewish-held territory that would become Israel with the intention of destroying the newly-born entity. It is not possible to describe all the events that led to the creation of Israel within one book, let alone one article, but some events that led to the Declaration of Independence should be mentioned.
By 1947, Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Second World War was victorious, but also completely exhausted any reserves the country had and the upkeep of several of the colonial territories, including the Palestinian Mandate, was staggering. Under the circumstances, Britain – mostly through the actions of Ernest Bevin, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs – sought to release itself from this burden.
By that time, Palestine was a powder keg for several years – even decades. During the Second World War, Palestinian Arabs – under the influence of Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – sided with the Axis forces. Mufti himself was a known anti-Semite and a personal friend of Adolf Hitler, going so far as to recruit Muslim soldiers for Nazi Germany in the Balkans for Waffen SS divisions (these units were however more a rabble than an effective combat force). Mufti fled Germany during the last days of the war – he was caught attempting to enter Switzerland, but managed in the end to evade arrest. He fled over France to Egypt, where he continued to exercise his immense personal power (stemming from both his position as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his ties to one of the most important families in Jerusalem) through a body called Arab Higher Committee (the central Arab political organ of the Palestine region).
The British hated Mufti for both his wartime Axis support and for inciting unrest amongst the Arab populace in Palestine before, during, and after the war, he was a persona non grata during all of the post-war Mandate negotiations. This considerably influenced the Arab negotiating strategy that focused on blocking all the British and Jewish attempts to resolve the situation instead of participating in constructive debates and no attempts from moderates such as Azzam Pasha (First Secretary of the Arab League at the time) could change this position.
And of course there were the Jewish immigrants to Palestine. While the attempts to establish Palestine as the true Jewish homeland went back to the Balfour declaration of 1917 (on the British side) and the Zionist movement (from Jewish side), it was the tragedy of the Holocaust that caused mass numbers of surviving European Jews to attempt to move away from the continent ravaged by war to Palestine, which many of them viewed as the promised land.
The British strategy in this matter was based on the simple fact that the Arabs were far more numerous than Jews and that this superiority alone (conveniently kept in place by restrictive British Mandate policies) justified the attempts to appease the Arabs. Britain’s precarious economic situation demanded peace with the Arab countries in order to access their oil reserves and to negotiate the best deals for British companies (something the Americans agreed on).
The Palestinian Jews were led by men whose reputation was nothing short of legendary, such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, who understood that the British position could only be changed by a show of force that would convince Britain and the United States that the Jews are just as strong partners as the Arabs were. Apart from some shrewd talks, this unfortunately also led to a wave of anti-British violence in Palestine by radical Jewish elements such as Irgun on even more radical Lehi.
There were several stages of planning regarding the fate of Palestine between 1945 and 1948 that can be divided into two types:
- An Arab-Jewish federation (or a cantonal system), single state
- Partition (separating the Jewish and Arab territories, leaving each to govern itself)
Through series of convoluted events and negotiations, the perhaps defining moment was the support of the so-called Partition Plan by the United Nations from the 29th of November 1947. This plan was uncharacteristically supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States, albeit for different reasons:
The American position, while influenced by the needs to gain access to middle-eastern oil (just like in the British case) was ultimately decided by Harry Truman, the President of the United States at the time. Harry Truman was personally deeply moved by the tragedy of the Jewish people and also influenced by his personal friendship with the Jewish leader Chaim Weizmann. On the other hand, he did write in his memoirs that the people who nearly “sunk” the partition support were the representatives of radical American Jews themselves (such as Abba Hillel Silver), whose rude demands strongly contrasted with Weizmann’s calm dignity.
The Soviet position on the other hand was mostly based on opportunism. The Soviets clearly recognized the rising strength of the Jewish movement in comparison to the backward nature of the Arab social structure in the region and considered it a great opportunity to earn Jewish gratitude and to undermine British influence at the same time.
Britain of course was against partitioning. This was not only influenced by the above mentioned British interests in the Arab World, but also by the fact that the British forces lost 127 men (with 331 more wounded) to Jewish irregulars between May 1945 and October 1947. Last but not least, the position of the British leadership was strongly shifted at that time against the Jews on personal level – the pressure on Ernest Bevin to resolve the situation one way or another was immense. During one meeting, Richard Crossman (British Member of Parliament at the time) commented on how Bevin’s opinions on Jews could have been described as roughly corresponding to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known pre-war anti-Semitic hoax. Bevin was also heard saying that it’s possible the Nazis learned their worst atrocities from the Jews – as a result of this meeting Crossman assumed that Bevin had not only been exhausted from the matter, but completely unhinged.
On the other hand, some British politicians were not too worried. Even if the plan succeeded, it was considered a certainty that the numerous Arab forces would simply invade and destroy the Jewish state and the British interests in the region would not be threatened in the long run if the British had proved themselves as the allies to the Arabs. In the meanwhile, they were starting with the planned military evacuation of the region.
However, to make their intentions clear, the British formally obstructed the United Nations committee sent to the region on a fact-finding mission as best as they could – the members of the UN committee had to for example live in a flimsy shed and were reduced to spend their days procuring food and water. While they did what they could, under the circumstances they achieved nothing.
The military policies of British armed forces in Palestine are easily understood in the light of the previous information. The military staff in London and (including Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery) was generally convinced that the Jewish armed forces would stand no chance against the Arabs, but the local British forces in Palestine went even further, selling arms to the local Arabs and occasionally going even further. Iraqi General Taha al-Hashimi, tasked with the training of Arab volunteers in Damascus reported that Arab irregulars were getting detailed pieces of information about British deployment and withdrawal plans so that they could immediately occupy the “vacant” military installations.
In the meanwhile, the Arab reaction was just as violent as the British had expected it to be with attacks on synagogues, Jewish housing and shops, supported by Mufti and his followers. At the same time, Mufti’s Arab Higher Committee started recruiting irregular forces from Palestinian Arabs with the task of ambushing Jewish transports and terrorizing outlying Jewish settlements. Their attacks were however largely ineffective due to the hostility between various factions within them.
Other Arab countries didn’t want to stay away either and the result was the creation of “Arab Liberation Army”, a volunteer organization consisting of Syrian mercenaries, a few Muslims from Yugoslavia and even of some German Waffen SS veterans. This force was commanded by the feared Fawzi al-Qawuqji, a guerrilla commander who had previously been active in the pro-Axis anti-British riots. Unlike Mufti’s gangs that terrorized even local Arab populace, the ALA was generally a competent military force that was very active in ambushing Jewish supply transports and caused a lot of damage later on. By March 1947, the unit consisted of roughly 7000 men. Another 5000 men were commanded by Abd al-Qadir al-Husayn, Mufti’s nephew.
The Jewish forces were considerably smaller. They consisted of roughly 3000 members of elite Palmach units, 5000 members of Irgun (very poorly armed) and around 1000 members of Lehi. Another 21000 men formed the reserves of Haganah (Jewish paramilitary organization that would later on become the core of the Israeli Defence Force), but these had no arms. Weapons were very hard to export under the British prohibition (all the while the Arab weapons were often supplied by the British themselves) but the Jewish forces managed to smuggle a large number of small arms (mostly from France and Czechoslovakia) to Palestine.
Soon, the war began in earnest. Arab infiltrators attacked unprotected Jewish targets while the poorly-armed members of the Jewish resistance were desperately trying to keep the major routes open. Very few believed in their ability to do so and under the circumstances the American support for the Partition Plan started waning. It was again Harry Truman who overrode the American establishment (especially the attempts of the Secretary of State, George Marshall) to return to some sort of British Mandate in the region. Ironically enough the British were now supporters of the Partition, as they were afraid that the Americans would ask them to return to the costly Mandate system.
Faced with this situation, David Ben-Gurion recognized that to prove the abilities of the Jewish forces once again, a successful offensive against the Arabs had to be mounted to show the world that the forces of the future Jewish state could prevail even against odds. It was a difficult decision – by the end of March 1948, the British were still in the region and Ben-Gurion was afraid that they’d intervene in Arab favor.
The Jewish forces found however an unlikely ally in the hostility between Arab factions. What started as conflict for power between Fawzi al-Qawuqji and Mufti soon grew into an open hostility. ALA commanders were bitterly complaining about the incompetence of Mufti’s gangs while Mufti was insulting Fawzi al-Qawuqji personally, calling him a coward. As a result even the last remnants of coordination between the two factions broke down completely. The rivalry culminated in March 1948, when the Palmach veterans launched an offensive against Abd al-Qadir al-Husayn’s fortified position near Jerusalem. Al-Husayn called al-Qawuqji for help, but none was sent, resulting not only in the loss of the positions but also in his death.
This event was a part of the larger Jewish offensive to liberate the roads leading to major settlements and was quite successful, if only for a time. It however did save countless Jews from starving, since Haganah sent several relief convoys using the liberated communications to the settlements (including Jerusalem itself).
The offensive saw Safed liberated from ALA forces, a significant political blow to Mufti, who chose the city as his future seat in Palestine. More importantly however, the demonstration of strength showed the world that the Jewish forces were not only capable of holding their own, but also of winning against an enemy who boasted superior numbers. Under the circumstances, the British proclamations about restoring “peace and order” in Palestine were not taken seriously by anyone.
The chaos of the conflict heavily influenced the common people of Palestine. The basic services (such as telephones, postal service, railways and many more) completely broke down. The Arab population was unable to fulfil this void in any way – the leaders of the Palestinian Arabs were the first to flee before the advancing Jewish troops in fear of repercussions for the acts of terror committed by Mufti’s gangs.
The Jewish Agency on the other hand became extremely active in restoring the state to working order, starting by re-establishing all the offices left vacant by the British and the Arabs, including all branches of administration, the tax system and many more. The effort was colossal but in the end paid off, as by mid-May 1948 the administrative core for the new Jewish state was read. The Arabs on the other hand panicked – the Higher Committee eventually issued a proclamation that Arab officials were to remain in their places, but it was too little and too late and this collapse resulted in an exodus of an unprecedented scale with practically all the members of Arab elite leaving Palestine to live in exile.
In the end, the Jewish offensive broke the back of the paramilitary Arab forces in Palestine and established a new political reality. On the 14th of May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of Israel from the Tel Aviv Museum.
The armies of four Arab nations invaded Israel the very next day.