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1948 Arab-Israeli War

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, called the "War of Independence" (Hebrew: מלחמת העצמאות) by Israelis and "al Nakba" (Arabic: النكبة, "the catastrophe") by Arabs, was the first in a series of wars in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It established the state of Israel as an independent state, dividing the remaining areas of the British Mandate of Palestine into areas controlled by Egypt and Transjordan.



Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the League of Nations granted the British and the French temporary colonial administration over former Ottoman provinces south of present day Turkey. These regions had been called "vilayets" under the Ottomans, but were referred to as "mandates" at the time, after the process that allocated them. The two powers drew arbitrary borders, dividing the area into four sections. Three of these -- Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon -- survive to this day as states.

The fourth section was created from what had been known as "southern Syria." The region was officially named the British Mandate of Palestine, and was called "Falastin" in Arabic and "Palestina-Eretz-Israel" in Hebrew. The British revised its borders repeatedly, but under the direction of Winston Churchill the region was divided along the Jordan River, forming two administrative regions. The portion east of the Jordan River was then known as Transjordan, and later became the Kingdom of Jordan. The area to the west of the Jordan retained the former name of Palestine.

At this time (1922) the population of Palestine consisted of approximately 589,200 Muslims, 83,800 Jews and 71,500 Christians. However, this area became the center of Zionist aspirations for a Jewish homeland or state, and gradually saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants. (most of whom were fleeing the increasing persecution in Europe) This immigration drew immediate and violent opposition from local Arabs.

Under the uncompromising leadership of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the local Arabs rebelled against the British, and attacked the growing Jewish population repeatedly. These sporadic attacks began with the Jerusalem pogrom of April, 1920 and Jaffa riots (or "Hurani Riots") of 1921. During the riots in Palestine of 1929, 67 Jews were massacred in Hebron, and most of the survivors were driven out. During the Great Uprising from 1936 to 1939, Arab general strikes and riots targeted both the British and Jews alike.

These attacks had three lasting effects: First, they led to the formation and development of Jewish underground militias, primarily the Haganah, which were to prove decisive in 1948. Secondly, it became clear that the two communities could not be reconciled, and the idea of partition was born. Thirdly, the British responded to Arab opposition with the White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish immigration. However, with the advent of World War II, even this reduced immigration quota was not reached. The White Paper policy also radicalized the Jewish population, and after the war, they would no longer cooperate with the British.

During this period, the Arab leadership never changed, even after the Grand Mufti fled the country in 1938. He eventually settled in Berlin, where he became a leading collaborator with the Nazis, responsible for recruiting an entire SS division. The Grand Mufti's uncompromising propaganda, combined with a distaste for organization and planning, were to prove disastrous to the Palestinian Arab cause.

Meanwhile, many of the surrounding Arab nations were also emerging from colonial rule. Transjordan, under the Hashemite ruler Abdullah, gained independence from Britain in 1946, but it remained under heavy British influence. The British placed Abdullah's half-brother Faisal on the throne in Iraq. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 included provisions by which Britain would maintain a garrison of troops on the Suez Canal. From 1945 on, Egypt attempted to renegotiate the terms of this treaty, which was viewed as a humiliating vestige of colonialism. Lebanon became an independent state in 1943, but French troops would not withdraw until 1946, the same year that Syria won its independence from France.

In 1945, at British prompting, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan, and Yemen formed the Arab League to coordinate policy between the Arab states. Iraq and Transjordan coordinated policies closely, signing a mutual defense treaty, while Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia feared that Transjordan would annex part or all of Palestine, and use it as a basis to attack or undermine Syria, Lebanon, and the Hijaz.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a plan which partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine into two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Each state would be composed of three major sections, linked by extraterritorial crossroads, plus an Arab enclave at Jaffa. The Greater Jerusalem area would fall under international control. Both Jews and Arabs criticized aspects of the plan. The Jewish population largely welcomed the plan, but the Arab leadership and some Jewish opposition groups rejected it.

Phases of the War

First phase: November 29, 1947 - April 1, 1948

Right after the UN partition plan was approved, heavy fighting broke out in Palestine. The British Army frequently intervened, but as the end of British involvement in Palestine drew nearer and attacks on them by Irgun and Lehi increased, their intervention grew steadily more inconsistent and reluctant.

On December 18 the Palmach, the kibbutz-based force of the Haganah commanded by Moshe Dayan, attacked the village of Khissas. Three weeks later the first Arab irregulars arrived and the Arab leadership began to organize Palestinians in order to wage guerrilla war against the Jewish forces. The largest group was a volunteer army, the Arab Liberation Army, created by the Arab League and led by Arab nationalist Fawzi Al-Qawuqji . In January and February, Arab irregular forces attacked Jewish communities in northern Palestine but achieved no substantial successes.

The Arabs concentrated their efforts on cutting off roads to Jewish towns and Jewish neighborhoods in areas with mixed populations. They also massacred several Jewish convoys. At the end of March, the Arabs completely cut off the vital road going from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem where one sixth of Palestine's Jews lived.

The Haganah armed itself with arms bought from Czechoslovakia. The Yishuv began working on a plan called Plan Dalet (or Plan D).

Second phase: April 1, 1948 - May 15, 1948

Jewish forces proved to be militarily stronger than the Arabs expected, and by May their forces were counterattacking Arab towns and villages, especially those controlling roads to isolated Jewish populations.

The road to Jerusalem was interdicted by Arab fighters located in the villages surrounding the road. The city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Arabs. Numerous convoys of trucks bringing food and other supplies to the besieged city were attacked. In Operation Nachshon, the Haganah continued its attacks on Arab fighters co-located with civilians, and temporarily opened the road to Jerusalem (April 20).

Some of these villages along Jerusalem road were attacked and demolished. The April 9 massacre of at least 109 Arabs at the village of Deir Yassin inflamed public opinion in Arab countries, providing those countries further reason for sending regular troops into the conflict. Four days later, on April 13, the Arabs launched a retaliatory strike on a medical convoy traveling to Hadassah Hospital. Around 77 doctors, nurses, and other Jewish civilians were massacred.

To lift the siege, the Jewish forces (guided by the American Army Colonel David (Mickey) Marcus) constructed the Burma Road (named for the road built by the Allies from Burma to China during World War II), a make-shift winding road through the difficult mountains to Jerusalem. The Burma Road allowed the Jewish forces to relieve the Arab siege on June 9, just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease-fire. [1]

Meanwhile, frantic diplomatic activity took place between all parties. On May 10, Golda Meir represented the Yishuv in the last of a long series of clandestine meetings between the Zionists and Transjordan's King Abdullah. Whereas for months there had been a tacit agreement between the Zionists and Transjordan to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, with Transjordan taking over the Arab areas, at the May 10 meeting Abdullah offered the Yishuv leadership only autonomy within an enlarged Hashemite kingdom. This was unacceptable to the Jewish leadership. Nevertheless, the Transjordanian army refrained from attacking the designated Jewish areas of Palestine in the ensuing war.

On May 13, the Arab League met and agreed to send regular troops into Palestine when the Mandate expired. Abdullah of Transjordan was named as the commander-in-chief of the Arab armies, but the various Arab armies remained largely uncoordinated throughout the war.

Third phase: May 15, 1948 - June 11, 1948

On May 14, the British Mandate expired. The State of Israel declared itself as an independent nation, and was quickly recognized by the Soviet Union, the United States, and many other countries.

Over the next few days, approximately 1,000 Lebanese, 6,000 Syrian, 4,500 Iraqi, 5,500 Egyptian, 6,000-9,000 Transjordanian troops and unknown number of Saudi and Yemenite troops invaded Israel. Together with the few thousand irregular Arab soldiers, they faced an Israeli Zionist army numbering 30,000-35,000. Both sides increased their manpower over the following months, but the Israeli advantage grew steadily.

On May 26, 1948, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was officially established and the Haganah, Palmach and Etzel were dissolved into the army of the young Jewish state.

However, on paper, the Arabs had clear superiority in heavy arms and firepower. The ordnance on May 15 were as follows:

IDF Arabs
Tanks 1 w/o gun 40
Armored cars (w/ cannon) 2 200
Armored cars (w/o cannon) 120 300
Artillery 5 140
AA and AT guns 24 220
Warplanes 0 74
Scout planes 28 57
Navy (armed ships) 3 12

(Source: Yeuda Wallach , "Not on a silver plate")

In fact, the Arab forces were inferior to the IDF. By mid-May 1948 the IDF was fielding 65,000 troops; by early spring 1949, 115,000. The Arab armies had an estimated 40,000 troops in July 1948, rising to 55,000 in October 1948, and slightly more by the spring of 1949. Of the Arab aircraft, only less than a dozen fighters and three to four bombers saw action, the rest were unserviceable. With only a dozen or so airplanes the IDF achieved air superiority by the fall of 1948. And the IDF had superiority in firepower and knowledgeable personnel, many of whom had seen action in WWII. Source: "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001", Benny Morris (2001), pp. 217-18.

Therefore, the first mission of the IDF was to hold on against the Arab armies and stop them from destroying major Jewish settlements, until reinforcements and weapons arrived.

The heaviest fighting would occur in Jerusalem and on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, between Transjordan's Arab Legion and the Israeli forces. Abdullah ordered Glubb Pasha, the commander of the Transjordanian Arab Legion, to enter Jerusalem on May 17, and heavy house-to-house fighting occurred between May 19 and May 28, with the Arab Legion succeeding in expelling Israeli forces from the Arab quarters of Jerusalem as well as the Jewish quarter of the old city. Iraqi troops failed in attacks on Jewish settlements (the most notable battle was on Mishmar Haemek ), and instead took defensive positions around Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

In the north, the Syrian army was blocked in Kibbutz Dgania, where the settlers managed to stop the Syrian armored forces only with light weapons. One tank that was disabled by a Molotov cocktail is still presented at the Kibbutz. Later, an artillery bombardment, made by cannons jury-rigged from 19th century museum pieces, led to the withdrawal of the Syrians from the Kibbutz.

During the following months, the Syrian army was repelled, and so were the Palestinian irregulars and the ALA.

In the south, an Egyptian attack was able to penetrate the defenses of several Israeli kibbutzim, but with heavy cost. This attack was stopped near Ashdod.

The Israeli military managed not only to maintain their military control of the Jewish territories, but to expand their holdings.

First truce: June 11, 1948 - July 8, 1948

The UN declared a truce on May 29 which came into effect on June 11 and would last 28 days. The cease-fire was overseen by the UN mediator Folke Bernadotte. An arms embargo was declared with the intention that neither side would make any gains of the truce. But the Israeli side managed to obtain illicit weapons from Czechoslovakia, while Arab forces did not gain significantly more weapons. At the end of the truce Folke Bernadotte presented a new partition plan that would give the Galilee to the Jews and the Negev to the Arabs, both sides rejected the plan. On July 8, Egyptian forces resumed warfare, thus re-starting the fighting.

Fourth phase: July 8, 1948 - July 18, 1948

The ten days at the height of the summer between the two truces was dominated by large scale Israeli offensives and an entirely defensive posture from the Arab side. The three Israeli offensives that were carried out had been carefully crafted during the first truce in anticipation for its end. Operation Dani was the most important one, aimed at securing and enlarging the corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by capturing the roadside cities Lydda (later renamed Lod) and Ramle. Following their capture, the residents of Lydda and Ramale, some 50,000 Palestinians, were expelled by the IDF, in the largest single expulsion of the war.

In a second planned stage of the operation the peripheral cities Latrun and Ramallah was also to be captured.

The second plan was Operation Dekel whose aim was to capture the lower Galilee including the Arab city Nazareth. The third plan, to which fewer resources were allocated to, Operation Kedem was to secure the Old City of Jerusalem. (map of the attacks: [2]).

Operation Dani

Lydda (Lod) was mainly defended by the Transjordanian Army, but also local Palestinian militias and the Arab Liberation Army was present. The city was attacked from the north via Majdal al-Sadiq and al-Muzayri'a and from the east via Khulda , al-Qubab , Jimzu and Danyal . Bombers were also used for the first time in the conflict to bombard the city. On July 11, 1948 the IDF captured the city.

The next day, July 12, 1948 Ramle also fell to the hands of Israel.

July 15-16 an attack on Latrun took place but did not manage to occupy the city. A desperate second attempt occurred July 18 by units from the Yiftach Brigade equipped with armored vehicles, including two Cromwell tanks, but that attack also failed. Despite the second truce which begun on July 18 the Israeli efforts to conquer Latrun continued until July 20.

After Ramle and Lydda had been captured, the Zionist leadership was surprised to see that the inhabitants didn't flee spontaneously. That was a large problem to them as they couldn't leave such a large and hostile population in that area. Therefore some 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly expelled from their homes starting from July 14.

Operation Dekel

While Operation Dani proceeded in the centre, Operation Dekel was carried out in the north. Nazareth was captured July 16 and when the second truce took effect at 19.00 July 18, the whole lower Galilee from Haifa bay to Lake Kinneret was captured by Israel.

Operation Kedem

Originally the operation was to be done on July 8, immediately after the first truce, by Irgun and Lehi but it was delayed by David Shaltiel possibly because he did not trust their ability after their failure to capture Deir Yassin without Haganah's assistance.

The Irgun forces that was commanded by Yehuda Lapidot (Nimrod) was to break through at The New Gate, Lehi to break through the wall stretching from the New Gate and the Jaffa Gate and the Beit Hiron Batallion to strike from Mount Zion.

The battle was planned to begin at the Sabbath, 20.00 Friday July 16 a day before the Second Cease-fire of the Arab-Israeli war . The plan went wrong from the beginning and was first postponed first to 23.00 then to midnight. It wasn't before 02.30 that the battle actually begun. The Irgunists managed to break through at the New Gate but the other forces failed in their missions. At 05.45 in the morning Shaltiel ordered a retreat and to cease the hostilities.

Second truce: July 18, 1948 - October 15, 1948

19.00 July 18, the second truce of the conflict went into effect after intense diplomatic efforts by the UN.

On September 16, Folke Bernadotte proposed a new partition for Palestine in which Transjordan would annex Arab areas including the Negev, al-Ramla, Lydda. A Jewish state in the whole Galilee, internationalization of Jerusalem and return or compensation for refugees. The plan was once again rejected by both sides. On the next day, September 17, Bernadotte was assassinated by the Lehi and his deputy the American Ralph Bunche replaced him.

Fifth phase: October 15, 1948 - July 20, 1949

Israeli operations

Between October 15 and July 20 Israel launched a series of military operations in order to drive out the Arab armies and secure the borders of Israel. The operations were launched due to the belief that the UN would hand out all the territories the Israelis had managed to capture to the Arab states until the UN imposed a cease-fire.

On October 24, the IDF launched Operation Hiram and captured the entire Upper Galilee, driving the ALA and Lebanese army back to Lebanon. It was a complete success and at the end of the month, Israel had not only managed to capture the whole Galilee but had also advanced 5 miles into Lebanon to the Litani river.

On October 15, the IDF launched Operation Yoav in the northern Negev. Its goal was to drive a wedge between the Egyptian forces along the coast and the Beersheba-Hebron-Jerusalem road and ultimately to conquer the whole Negev. Operation Yoav was headed by the Southern Front commander Yigal Allon. The Operation was a huge success as it shattered the Egyptian army ranks and forced the Egyptian forces to retreat from the northern Negev, Beersheba and Ashdod. On October 22 the Israeli Navy commandoes sunk the Egyptian flagship Amir Faruk .

On December 22, the IDF drove out the remaining Egyptian forces out of Israel, by launching Operation Horev. The goal of the operation was to liberate the entire Negev from Egyptian presence, destroying the Egyptian threat on Israel's southern communities and forcing the Egyptians into a cease-fire after all the Negev was liberated.

The operation was a huge success, and Israeli deep raids into the Nitzana and the Sinai peninsula forced the Egyptian army, which was encircled in the Gaza Strip to withdraw and accept cease-fire. On January 7, a truce was achieved. Israeli forces withdrew from Sinai and Gaza under international pressure.

On March 5, Operation Uvda was launched. On March 10, the Israelis reached Um Rashrash \Eilat and conquered it without a battle. The Negev Brigade and Golani Brigade took part in the operation. They raised an ink-made flag ("The Ink Flag") and claimed Eilat for Israel.


In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which declared (amongst other things) that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so" and that "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." However, General Assembly resolutions do not carry the weight of law as Security Council resolutions do and it was never implemented.


1949 Armistice Agreements

In 1949, Israel signed separate cease-fire agreements with Egypt on February 24, Lebanon on March 23, Transjordan on April 3, and Syria on July 20. Israel was able to draw its own borders, occupying 70% of Mandatory Palestine, fifty percent more than the UN partition proposal allotted them. These borders have been known afterwards as the "Green Line". The Gaza Strip and West Bank were occupied by Egypt and Transjordan respectively.


Israel lost 6,373 of its people. About 4,000 were soldiers and the rest (about 2,400) were civilians. This was about 1% of the Jewish population in Israel during that period and was considered a very heavy price for the little state that was just born.

Exact number of Arab losses is unknown, but scholars estimate they lost between 5,000 to 15,000 people. According to Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson, International Conflict : A Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management 1945-1995 (1997) about 8,000 Arabs were killed. According to World Political Almanac, 3rd Ed. (Facts on File: 1995) by Chris Cook about 15,000 Arabs were killed. [3]

Demographic outcome

About 750,000 Arab Palestinian refugees (See Israeli Map, and Israeli Estimate), and more than 600,000 Jewish refugees (See Map and Israeli Estimate), were created during this conflict. Jewish refugees from Arab lands migrated to Israel, while Arab refugees were prevented from settling in neighboring countries and have remained in refugee camps up to the time of writing. (For more on the flight of Palestinians, see Palestinian exodus.)

The humiliation of the Arab armies at having been routed by the Jewish forces, together with the rising nationalist frenzy in Arab nations, contributed to rising hatred for the Jews living in Arab lands. The status of Jews in Arab states varied greatly from state to state. Some observers wish to maintain that the Jewish populations were more "prevented from leaving" than "expelled". Their civil liberties, too, were in many cases vastly inferior to of their Muslim fellow citizens. For example, in Yemen, Jews were and are prohibited from carrying weapons of any type, even to the point of prohibiting traditional ceremonial Yemeni knives, carried by a large portion of the Yemeni population. The net result was that after over two thousand years of living in Arab controlled countries, the atmosphere was sufficiently anti-Jewishly charged that almost to a man, entire communities of Jews in the hundreds of thousands felt they had no option but to take leave of old homes and move to the uncertainties of the new Jewish state of Israel in effect becoming "refugees" in everything but name. These fears were compounded by the Holocaust, which ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany three years before the founding of the state of Israel.

Arabs Palestinians have staged annual demonstrations and protests on May 15 of each year, one day after the anniversary of Israel's declaration of independence. The popularity and number of participants in these annual al Nakba demonstrations has varied over time, though the increasing anti-Israeli sentiment in the Middle East has tended to increase the attendance in recent years. During the al-Aqsa Intifada after the failure of the Camp David 2000 Summit, the attendance at the demonstrations against Israel have increased exponentially.



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