In 1948, Israel Survived Assault by Five Arab States
One percent of all Israelis died
May 14, 1948, was a Friday and time was running out. David Ben-Gurion was determined to declare the state of Israel on the same day the British mandate over Palestine expired. However, he had to do it before Shabbath was about to begin.
It was 4:00 P.M. sharp when he started to read the prepared declaration of independence at the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard. Thereby the Jewish state came into existence. Only a few hours later, the United States acknowledged the state of Israel.
However, in the early morning hours of the following day, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese forces invaded the newly established state. The Israelis had to fight for their lives and for the survival of their young state with their back against the wall.
As a result of rampant anti-Semitism in Europe, political Zionism evolved at the end of the 19th century, aiming at the establishment of a Jewish state. In the following decades, half a million European Jews migrated to Palestine, which had been a part of the Ottoman Empire since 1516.
In addition, Zionist lobbyists advocated their cause before the governments of literally all European great powers. Their biggest success was a profession of sympathy by the British foreign minister for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine — the Balfour Declaration from 1917.
With Britain’s conquest of the southern Levant in World War I and her appointment as mandatory power over the area by the League of Nations in 1922, the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine appeared to be in the Zionists’ grasp. However, the further the institutional and demographic establishment of a Jewish state developed, the more severe became the clashes with the local Arabs. Although London invested a lot of resources, it lost control incrementally.
Eventually, Britain passed the responsibility on to the United Nations in February 1947. The U.N. General Assembly suggested in November 1947 to separate Mandatory Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Zionists accepted, whereas the Arabs bluntly declined. Afterward, the conflict between Zionists and Arabs escalated into a downright civil war.
The day the British Mandate over Palestine expired, and David Ben-Gurion established the State of Israel, Jewish forces had secured one third of the area that the U.N. Partition Plan had attributed to the Jewish state.
At top — an Egyptian Spitfire shot down over Tel Aviv in May 1948. Above — Arab forces surrender to the victorious Israelis in Ramla. All photos via Wikipedia
The balance of power
In 1948, the Middle East comprised a range of young states with relatively weak economies and small population sizes. The military forces of these states were still in a build-up phase and far from ready for major offensive operations. Thus, the general military potential of the Middle Eastern forces was quite limited.
Surprisingly, the comparison of the committed troop strength yielded an advantage of the Israeli forces. On May 1948, 21,000 soldiers on the Arab side were opposed by 36,000 Israeli men and women in uniform. However, the Israeli military forces were short of weapons. Only around 40 per cent of Israeli soldiers were armed.
Making things worse, Israel’s armory was limited to small arms, improvised armored cars and mortars. Heavy weaponry like tanks, APCs or artillery were unavailable to the Israeli forces at the beginning of the war. The Arab troops, in contrast, commanded heavy field guns, APCs and even a few tanks, as well as fighter planes. Thus, in the onset of the war, the Arabs outgunned the Israelis in terms of firepower.
The IDF, however, countered this advantage through their superior training, experience, and organizational skills. Several thousand Israeli soldiers had enjoyed military training in the British army and had gained fighting experience in World War II. The Arab troops, however, lacked sufficient training and particularly fighting experience.
In the 1930s, the colonial powers Great Britain in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq and France — in Syria and Lebanon — had established the armed forces as a local support to obtain order. Thus, they were neither trained nor equipped for independent offensive operations.
Israel’s war of independence lasted from May 14, 1948 until the beginning of 1949. Two ceasefires arranged by the United Nations — June 11 until July 8 and July 18 — until Oct. 15 divide the combat action in three phases.
In the first phase — May 15 until June 11, 1948 — Israel’s main task was to withstand the Arab offensive on multiple fronts. Whereas the Lebanese forces remained passive most of the time, Syrian troops advanced into Israeli territory in the northeast. Jordanian and Iraqi units occupied the West Bank, including parts of Jerusalem.
The Egyptian forces pushed towards Tel Aviv and advanced — farther south — towards Hebron via Beer Sheba. However, the IDF managed to establish a defensive line in the south between Ashdod and Bet Guvrin, thus halting the Egyptian offensive 40 kilometers before Tel Aviv. On June 11, the first phase of the war ended in a ceasefire. Israel had survived the critical part of the invasion.
The Jewish state made the most of the truce and upgraded its forces significantly. In June and July, the IDF was not only superior in manpower but also in terms of weaponry and munition. The Arab states, however, were cut off from their military suppliers and grew constantly weaker in the course of the war.
On July 9, the war went into the second round. With its military strengthened, Israel took the initiative. During a 10-day offensive, the IDF fought back Egyptian forces in the south, as well as Syrian and Lebanese troops in the Galilee. In addition, the Israelis opened a corridor towards Jerusalem. Nevertheless, major parts of Jerusalem — including the Old City with the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel — remained in Jordanian hands. Now, the IDF was on the offensive at all fronts.
On Oct. 15, the Israeli forces broke the truce again and opened the third round of the war. The IDF conducted a successful assault on Egyptian troops in the Negev. In the northern theater, the Israelis managed to clear the Galilee of Arab forces.
On Jan. 13, 1949, the Arab states consented to armistice negotiations. Between February and July, Israel signed bilateral ceasefires with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Iraq has refused to sign a truce with Israel until today. Egypt remained in possession of a narrow area around Gaza City, later to be known as the Gaza Strip. Jordan kept the West Bank — including East-Jerusalem — which it annexed in 1950. Israel had increased the territory that the U.N. Partition Plan had attributed to a Jewish state, by around 6,500 square kilometers.
Israeli soldiers in Nirim
The weak link
How had it been possible that the small and newly established state of Israel could dominate her Arab neighbors? Besides motivational and other characteristics of the Jewish state, as well as the shortcomings of the Arab troops, the main reason for the latter’s weak performance on the battlefield was the incoherence of the Arab alliance. At no time did the Arab states act as a unified alliance. Mistrust, self-interests and intra-Arab rivalries determined their military behavior.
Within the Arab bloc, two fractions opposed each other: the Hashemite monarchies in Jordan and Iraq vs. Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Besides being dynastically linked — Faisal II of Iraq was the grandnephew of King Abdullah I of Jordan — Amman and Baghdad had entered a pact in April 1947. The anti-Hashemite bloc felt threatened by Abdullah’s territorial aspirations of establishing a “Greater Syria” under his rule — including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
His conquest of the West Bank in the 1948 war had widely been considered as the first step of this endeavor. For obvious reasons, Syria and Lebanon objected these plans that would probably have ended their sovereignty. Egypt joined them in their opposition against Amman. In this constellation of constant internal balancing in the Arab war alliance, it was impossible to operate in a coordinated and effective manner. Thus, Israel could focus on one enemy at a time.
The Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld once described the Israeli war of independence as the most total war the Jewish state has fought so far. Not only was it the longest of the Arab-Israeli wars, it also was the only military conflict that had threatened Israel’s survival temporarily. Furthermore, it was the costliest war Israel had ever fought — one percent of the Jewish population perished in the fighting.
Nevertheless, Israel succeeded and consolidated her own existence with an impressive military performance. Moreover, the territorial gains accomplished by the Israeli forces significantly enhanced Israel’s strategic position. According to the U.N. Partition Plan, the Jewish state would have been composed of several separate units. After the war, however, Israel was a coherent and more defensible country.
The Arab-Jewish civil war in Mandatory Palestine and the following Israeli war of independence created considerable migration movements. During and after the war, anti-Jewish pogroms swept through the whole Middle East, forcing hundreds of thousands of Jews to flee from their homes. At the same time, 600,000 Arabs fled from Israel. At the beginning of 1949 only 150,000 remained.
The causes of the Arab migration are complex and highly political, because until today the “right to return” has been a central issue on the Palestinian agenda in negotiations with Israel.
Israel’s War of Independence was only the first of a series of Arab-Israeli wars and countless military confrontations with Arab terrorist and guerrilla organizations. Only two of Israel’s enemies of the 1948 war have made peace with the Jewish state — Egypt and Jordan. Thus, 70 years after her birth Israel still exists in a rather hostile environment.