Today in Middle Eastern history: the Arab-Israeli War begins (1948)

A civil war quickly morphs into one of the most consequential regional wars of the 20th century.

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To say that the Arab-Israeli War “began” on May 15, 1948, obscures the reality, which is that we’re talking about the third phase of an Israeli war of independence that stretched back to 1944. That conflict’s first act pitted the Yishuv (the pre-Israel Jewish community in what was then Mandatory Palestine) against the British mandatory authorities, and its second act pitted the Yishuv against Palestinian Arabs. It wasn’t until the sovereign nation of Israel came into being became, on May 14, that the surrounding Arab states became directly involved in the conflict.

Jewish leaders in Mandatory Palestine walked a tightrope throughout much of World War II, supporting the British war effort even as they were making plans to achieve independence after the war, by force if necessary. The movement for independence had been stoked by the promulgation of the British government’s infamous White Paper of 1939, a response to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 that imposed strict quotas on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine and heralded the creation of an independent Palestine jointly controlled by Arabs and Jews. This was supposed to meet the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s promise to create a “national home for the Jewish people,” but in actuality it satisfied practically nobody aside from a handful of Arab moderates.

Future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, head of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel (the main Zionist political organization in Mandatory Palestine), said at the time, “We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war.” In keeping with that sentiment, the Jewish Agency’s Haganah paramilitary arm aided the British war effort while also running an illicit immigration program to smuggle Jews into Mandatory Palestine in excess of the White Paper’s quota limits.

Ben-Gurion had no intention of undertaking an outright military action against Britain until the war ended, but the conflict really began in 1944. The Irgun, an offshoot of Haganah that specialized in terror tactics and only sometimes followed the Jewish Agency’s direction, began targeting British mandatory personnel in its attacks. Another militant Jewish group, Lehi (aka the Stern Gang), joined in and managed to assassinate the British minister responsible for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in November of that year. Since the fight was on anyway, Haganah began undertaking its own attacks against British targets in Mandatory Palestine in 1945. But the biggest blows of this first phase of the conflict were struck by Lehi (the Moyne assassination) and Irgun (the King David Hotel bombing in July 1946 that targeted Britain’s administrative headquarters in Palestine). In early 1947, the British government decided enough was enough and asked the United Nations to take its Palestine problem off of its hands.

The UN spent the next several months putting together plans to partition Mandatory Palestine into an independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state, with Jerusalem as an internationally administered corpus separatum. The terms of the partition, it has to be said, were very generous toward the Jewish side. Although Jews constituted around one-third of the population of Mandatory Palestine, the partition left them with around 56 percent of the land. Furthermore, their territory was to be contiguous, albeit funneled through a couple of narrow corridors, while the Palestinians would get three physically separated blocs, and while the two groups split Palestine’s Mediterranean coast, the new Jewish state would get its small outlet onto the Red Sea. Unsurprisingly, Jewish leaders accepted the plan, albeit grudgingly, while Arab leaders were apoplectic.

The second phase of the conflict, an Arab-Jewish civil war if you want to think of it that way, began immediately following the UN’s adoption of the partition plan, in late November 1947. Both sides had been preparing for conflict since Britain announced in September that it was getting the hell out of Palestine no matter what the UN decided to do, and for the Jewish side the preparations had begun well before that. The Haganah, anticipating independence and conflicts with Palestinian Arabs as well as with an independent Israel’s Arab neighbors, began an intense arms smuggling campaign in 1946, including machine guns, artillery, tanks, and even aircraft. Meanwhile, Arab volunteers began moving into Palestine to join the fight against partition, and the two sides inconclusively pounded one another to the tune of around 2000 dead by the end of March, 1948. It was at this point that the Israelis adopted the still-controversial Plan Dalet, which would carry them through the end of the war.

Plan Dalet called for the Haganah to seize territory and expel potentially hostile elements from that territory. Where the controversy lies is in terms of its scope. Defenders argue that its aim was to secure the territory that was supposed to become part of an independent Jewish state under the terms of the UN plan, and that it only set out to expel groups that were actively, violently resisting that Jewish state. Critics say the plan was a land grab, intended to expand the borders of the Jewish state beyond what the UN envisioned and to expel all Arabs from that territory. A middle ground argues that the intent of Plan Dalet was to defend Jewish territory under the UN plan, but that its lack of specificity allowed front-line commanders to interpret it as they wished in terms of who got to stay and who was forced to go. Either way there’s no question that most of Plan Dalet’s operations were carried out beyond the UN-specified borders of the Jewish state and did create a larger Israel than the UN plan had envisioned. This is still a relevant debate because it has implications in terms of the Palestinian Right of Return, which in part hinges on whether the Palestinians who fled their homes in this period did so voluntarily or because they were forced to flee by Jewish/Israeli forces.

Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq began preparing to invade Palestine. Lebanon also prepared a small force to participate, but the Israelis knocked it out of the war very quickly. The Haganah, meanwhile, anticipating the eventual Arab intervention, focused its efforts on breaking a Palestinian blockade around Jerusalem. The resulting Operation Nachshon succeeded in mid-April, and subsequent Jewish operations secured the Haganah’s position in Jerusalem against the Arabs.

Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14 was followed immediately—really, Syrian forces invaded from the north on that same day and Egyptian forces invaded from the south a day later—by the expected Arab invasion. Haganah—now the core of the Israeli Defense Force—was for the most part able to halt the Arab advances, which weren’t coordinated, and captured several towns and cities. Only around Jerusalem did the Arabs have any success—Jordanian forces were able to take East Jerusalem, while the Israelis seized control of West Jerusalem.

A UN-brokered four-week truce went into effect on June 11, and despite the arms embargo that accompanied it the IDF used the time to import vast amounts of weaponry and more than double its size from around 30,000 to around 65,000. The Arabs reinforced their armies with fighters sent from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Yemen, but were still outnumbered by the Israelis. Yes, that story you heard about the outnumbered, outgunned Israeli army fending off hordes of Arabs was not true—there was probably no point during the 1948-1949 war at which the Israelis were fielding fewer troops than their Arab opponents combined, and they definitely had the advantage in weaponry. But the size of the respective combatant forces mattered far less than the fact that the Israeli army was a unified command fighting for a single cause—the defense of their new homeland—while the various Arab armies were never able to put their own national allegiances aside and get on the same page.

Fighting resumed on July 8 but was interrupted by a second truce on July 18, which lasted until mid-October. Following the expiration of that truce the war was mostly an Israeli rout. By February 1949, the borders of the Israeli state looked pretty much like the borders of Israel today and the Arab states were all looking for an exit. Reflecting their failure to act as a cohesive unified force during the war, the various Arab governments that took part all signed separate armistice agreements with Israel—Egypt on February 24, Lebanon on March 23, Jordan on April 3, and Syria on July 20. Iraq had technically lent its forces to Jordan, so the Jordanian armistice covered its participation as well. The conflict’s end was punctuated by the Israeli capture of an old British outpost on the Red Sea coast in the southern Negev called Umm Rashrash, which is today the Israeli port city of Eilat.

All told, the 1948 war was an event of profound ramifications that fundamentally changed the course of Middle Eastern history. Israel’s birth as an independent nation had been punctuated with a decisive military victory, its boundaries now far exceeding what the UN had laid out in 1947. The West Bank and East Jerusalem became part of Jordan and Gaza part of Egypt, though of course the 1967 Six Day War changed that. Some 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from the new nation (this is known as the nakba, or catastrophe, by the Palestinians), fueling a refugee crisis and resistance struggle that still haven’t been resolved. Tens of thousands of Jews began leaving Muslim countries to emigrate to Israel, either voluntarily or because they were driven out in the wake of the war, and that migration continued into the 1970s and even up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Combined, these mass migrations completely changed Israel’s demographics.

As for the Arab world, the defeat in 1948 led directly to the 1952 Egyptian revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, and Nasser became the dominant political figure in the Arab world for most of the mid-20th century. The war was so transformational that the region, as you can probably tell, is still working through many of its effects to the present day.