Chapter 4: The War of 1948
- “The Jews started the first war with the Arabs.”
- “The United States was the only nation that criticized the Arab attack on Israel.”
- “The West’s support of Israel allowed the Jews to conquer Palestine.”
- “The Arab economic boycott was imposed in response to the creation of Israel.”
“The Jews started the first war with the Arabs.”
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.”1 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. 2 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. . . .”3
Map of Arab Invasion, 1948
Husseini’s prediction began to come true almost immediately after the UN adopted the partition resolution on November 29, 1947. The Arabs declared a protest strike and instigated riots that claimed the lives of 62 Jews and 32 Arabs. Violence continued to escalate through the end of the year.4
The first large-scale assaults began on January 9, 1948, when approximately 1,000 Arabs attacked Jewish communities in northern Palestine. By February, the British said so many Arabs had infiltrated they lacked the forces to run them back. 5
In the first phase of the war, lasting from November 29, 1947, until April 1, 1948, the Palestinian Arabs took the offensive, with help from volunteers from neighboring countries. The Jews suffered severe casualties and passage along most of their major roadways was disrupted.
On April 26, 1948, Transjordan’s King Abdullah said:
All our efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Palestine problem have failed. The only way left for us is war. I will have the pleasure and honor to save Palestine. 6
On May 4, 1948, the Arab Legion attacked Kfar Etzion. The defenders drove them back, but the Legion returned a week later. After two days, the ill-equipped and outnumbered settlers were overwhelmed. Many defenders were massacred after they had surrendered. 7 This was prior to the invasion by the regular Arab armies that followed Israel’s declaration of independence.
The UN blamed the Arabs for the violence. The UN Palestine Commission, which was never permitted by the Arabs or British to go to Palestine to implement the resolution, reported to the Security Council on February 16, 1948, that “powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein.” 8
The Arabs were blunt in taking responsibility for the war. Jamal Husseini told the Security Council on April 16, 1948:
The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight. 9
The British commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, John Bagot Glubb admitted:
Early in January, the first detachments of the Arab Liberation Army began to infiltrate into Palestine from Syria. Some came through Jordan and even through Amman . . . They were in reality to strike the first blow in the ruin of the Arabs of Palestine. 10
Despite the disadvantages in numbers, organization and weapons, the Jews began to take the initiative in the weeks from April 1 until the declaration of independence on May 14. The Haganah captured several major towns including Tiberias and Haifa, and temporarily opened the road to Jerusalem.
The partition resolution was never suspended or rescinded. Thus, Israel, the Jewish State in Palestine, was born on May 14, as the British finally left the country. Five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq) immediately invaded Israel. Their intentions were declared by Abd Al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League: “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.” 11
Military Situation at Cease Fire (June 11, 1948)
“The United States was the only nation that criticized the Arab attack on Israel.”
The United States, the Soviet Union and most other states recognized Israel soon after it declared independence on May 14, 1948, and immediately condemned the Arabs for their aggression. The United States urged a resolution charging the Arabs with breach of the peace.
Soviet delegate Andrei Gromyko told the Security Council, May 29, 1948:
This is not the first time that the Arab states, which organized the invasion of Palestine, have ignored a decision of the Security Council or of the General Assembly. The USSR delegation deems it essential that the council should state its opinion more clearly and more firmly with regard to this attitude of the Arab states toward decisions of the Security Council. 12
On July 15, the Security Council threatened to cite the Arab governments for aggression under the UN Charter. By this time, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had succeeded in stopping the Arab offensive and the initial phase of the fighting ended.
“The West’s support of Israel allowed the Jews to conquer Palestine.”
The Jews won their war of independence with minimal help from the West. In fact, they won despite actions that undermined their military strength.
Although the United States vigorously supported the partition resolution, the State Department did not want to provide the Jews with the means to defend themselves. “Otherwise,” Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett argued, “the Arabs might use arms of U.S. origin against Jews, or Jews might use them against Arabs.” 13 Consequently, on December 5, 1947, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on the region.
Many opponents of the Jewish state in the State Department saw the embargo as a means of obstructing partition. President Truman, however, supported it because he hoped it could avert bloodshed. This was naive given Britain’s rejection of Lovett’s request to suspend weapons shipments to the Arabs and subsequent agreements to provide additional arms to Iraq and Transjordan. 14
Armistice Lines, 1949
The Arabs had no difficulty obtaining all the arms they needed. In fact, Jordan’s Arab Legion was armed and trained by the British, and led by a British officer. At the end of 1948, and beginning of 1949, British RAF planes flew with Egyptian squadrons over the Israel-Egypt border. On January 7, 1949, Israeli planes shot down four of the British aircraft. 15
The Jews, on the other hand, were forced to smuggle weapons, principally from Czechoslovakia. When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the army did not have a single cannon or tank. Its air force consisted of nine obsolete planes. Although the Haganah had 60,000 trained fighters, only 18,900 were fully mobilized, armed and prepared for war. 16 On the eve of the war, chief of operations Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion: “The best we can tell you is that we have a 50–50 chance.” 17
The Arab war to destroy Israel failed. Indeed, because of their aggression, the Arabs wound up with less territory than they would have had if they had accepted partition.
The cost to Israel, however, was enormous. “Many of its most productive fields lay gutted and mined. Its citrus groves, for decades the basis of the Yishuv’s Jewish community economy, were largely destroyed.” 18 Military expenditures totaled approximately $500 million. Worse yet, 6,373 Israelis were killed, nearly one percent of the Jewish population of 650,000.
Had the West enforced the partition resolution or given the Jews the capacity to defend themselves, many lives might have been saved.
The Arab countries signed armistice agreements with Israel in 1949, starting with Egypt (Feb. 24), followed by Lebanon (March 23), Jordan (April 3) and Syria (July 20). Iraq was the only country that did not sign an agreement with Israel, choosing instead to withdraw its troops and hand over its sector to Jordan’s Arab Legion. None of the Arab states would negotiate a peace agreement.
“The Arab economic boycott was imposed in response to the creation of Israel.”
The Arab boycott was formally declared by the newly formed Arab League Council on December 2, 1945: “Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries.” All Arab “institutions, organizations, merchants, commission agents and individuals” were called upon “to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods.” 19 As is evident in this declaration, the terms “Jewish” and “Zionist” were used synonymously. Thus, even before the establishment of Israel, the Arab states had declared an economic boycott against the Jews of Palestine.
The boycott, as it evolved after 1948, is divided into three components. The primary boycott prohibits direct trade between Israel and the Arab nations. The secondary boycott is directed at companies that do business with Israel. The tertiary boycott involves the blacklisting of firms that trade with other companies that do business with Israel. 20
The objective of the boycott has been to isolate Israel from its neighbors and the international community, and deny it trade that might be used to augment its military and economic strength. While undoubtedly isolating Israel and separating the Jewish State from its most natural markets, the boycott failed to undermine Israel’s economy to the degree intended.
In 1977, Congress prohibited U.S. companies from cooperating with the Arab boycott. When President Carter signed the law, he said the “issue goes to the very heart of free trade among nations” and that it was designed to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.” 21
The boycott has gradually crumbled and few countries outside the Middle East comply with it. The primary boycott—prohibiting direct relations between Arab countries and Israel—cracked when nations such as Qatar, Oman and Morocco negotiated deals with Israel. Saudi Arabia, pledged to end its economic boycott as a condition for membership in the World Trade Organization but, after winning acceptance, continued its prior policy. 22 Meanwhile, the boycott remains technically in force. 23
1 New York Times, (December 1, 1947).
2 Facts on File Yearbook, (NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1948), p. 48.
3 J.C. Hurewitz, The Struggle For Palestine, (NY: Shocken Books, 1976), p. 308.
4 Palestine Post, (January 2, 7, 27; April 1; May 1, 1948).
5 Facts on File 1947, p. 231.
6 Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 322.
7 Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1976), p. 47; Ralph Patai, ed., Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, (NY: McGraw Hill, 1971), pp. 307--308.
8 Security Council Official Records, Special Supplement, (1948), p. 20.
9 Security Council Official Records, S/Agenda/58, (April 16, 1948), p. 19.
10 John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, (London: Staughton and Hodder, 1957), p. 79.
11 “Interview with Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha,” Akhbar al-Yom (Egypt), (October 11, 1947); translated by R. Green.
12 Security Council Official Records, SA/Agenda/77, (May 29, 1948), p. 2.
13 Foreign Relations of the United States 1947, (DC: GPO, 1948), p. 1249. Henceforth FRUS.
14 Mitchell Bard, The Water’s Edge And Beyond, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1991), pp. 171-175; FRUS, pp. 537--39; Robert Silverberg, If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: American Jews and the State of Israel, (NY: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1970), pp. 366, 370; Shlomo Slonim, “The 1948 American Embargo on Arms to Palestine,” Political Science Quarterly, (Fall 1979), p. 500.
15 Sachar, p. 345.
16 Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 352.
17 Golda Meir, My Life, (NY: Dell, 1975), pp. 213, 222, 224.
18 Sachar, p. 452.
19 Terence Prittie and Walter Nelson, The Economic War Against The Jews, (London: Corgi Books, 1977); Dan Chill, The Arab Boycott of Israel, (NY: Praeger, 1976), p. 10.
20 Prittie and Nelson, pp. 47–48; Sol Stern, “On and Off the Arabs’ List,” The New Republic, (March 27, 1976), p. 9; Kennan Teslik, Congress, the Executive Branch and Special Interests, (CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 11.
21 Bard, pp. 91–115.
22 “Congress to Saudis: End Israel Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, (April 6, 2006).
23 “Saudis Flout Vow to End Israel Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, (May 29, 2006).