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Review of "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War" by

This is a very well documented, readable and illuminating account of the war. Everyone will learn from it, regardless of their existing views about the conflict.


19 August 2016

As explained in more detail on my page “A personal view of the Israel / Palestine conflict” the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine has featured significantly in international affairs for many decades. Opinions about the dispute are highly polarised. The history of the conflict is also strongly contested.

I believe anyone who take a position on the conflict should learn its history.

Benny Morris is one of the so called “New Historians” in Israel who have been taking a fresh look at the history of Israel with the aim of being objective. The pivotal moment in the conflict's history is the 1948 war.

This detailed book, published in 2008, makes a major contribution to our understanding.

Overview of the book

The book comprises 420 pages +70 pages of notes and also a bibliography and index. It has the following chapters:

  1. Staking Claims: The Historical Background
  2. The United Nations Steps in: UNSCOP and the Partition Resolution
  3. The First Stage of the Civil War, November 1947 – March 1948
  4. The Second Stage of the Civil War, April – mid-May 1948
  5. The Pan-Arab Invasion, 15 May – 11 June 1948
  6. The First Truce, 11 June – 8 July 1948, the International Community, and the War
  7. The “Ten Days” and After
  8. Operations Yoav and Hiram
  9. Operation Horev, December 1948 – January 1949
  10. The Armistice Agreements, January – July 1949
  11. Some Conclusions

The book is very clearly written and held my attention throughout. In common with other quality academic writing, it cites its sources in very detailed endnotes.

While the details of the individual military clashes are interesting and informative, for me the sections of greatest continuing interest are those covering the origins of the conflict and the author’s conclusions.

I have quoted a fair amount from these sections to bring out the author's writing style, and his willingness to confront the history rather than shying away from facts that may be politically unwelcome for either side.

However the extracts below are of course only a tiny fraction of the total book. Even the chapters from which I have quoted contain far more material than is quoted below.

1. Staking Claims: The Historical Background

The author begins with a short history of Palestine since the mid-1800s, tracing the rise of Arab / Jewish hostility, running through to a short history of the British Mandate in Palestine.

He begins as follows:

“The War of 1948 was the almost inevitable result of more than half a century of Arab-Jewish friction and conflict that began with the arrival in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), or Palestine, of the first Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1880s. These “Zionists” (Zion, one of Jerusalem’s hills, was, by extension, a biblical name for Jerusalem and, by further extension, a name for the Land of Israel) were driven both by the age-old messianic dream, embedded in Judaism’s daily prayers, of re-establishing a Jewish state in the ancient homeland and by European anti-Semitism, which erupted in a wave of pogroms in the czarist empire.

The nineteenth-century surge in national consciousness, aspiration, and the development in Italy and Germany, Poland, Russia and the territories of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire provided an intellectual backdrop, inspiration, and guide to Zionism’s founders.”

The author proceeds to tell us about Palestine and early Jewish immigration.

“In 1881, Palestine had about 450,000 Arabs – about 90% Muslim, the rest Christian – and 25,000 Jews. Most of the Jews, almost all of whom were ultra-Orthodox, non-nationalist, and poor, lived in Jerusalem, the country’s main town (population 30,000). About 80% of the Arabs lived in 700 to 800 agricultural villages, the rest in about a dozen small towns, including Gaza, Hebron, Nablus, Tiberias, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. Many rural inhabitants, especially in the lowlands, were tenant farmers, their lands owned – in a semifeudal relationship – by wealthy urban landowners, or effendis.

The first wave of Zionist immigrants – the First Aliya (literally, ascent) – brought to Palestine’s shores between 1882 and 1903 some 30,000 Jewish settlers. Their aim was to establish a gradually expanding core of productive Jewish towns and agricultural settlements that would ultimately result in a Jewish majority and the establishment of an independent, sovereign Jewish state in all of Palestine (defined usually as the 10,000 square mile area lying between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River but occasionally – in line with the Bible and the subsequent Jewish conquests in the second century BCE – as also encompassing the north-south mountain ridge just east of the river, the biblical lands of Golan, Gilead, Moab, and Edom).

The Zionists planned to purchase land either piecemeal, dunam (a fourth of an acre) after dunam, or outright in bulk from the Ottoman sultan, who was always strapped for cash. But the sultan, who regarded Palestine, like all his territories, as sacred Islamic soil and whose vast empire was under increasing nationalist assault in the Balkans and European imperialist threat elsewhere, declined to part with the land.

So the Zionists generally maintained discretion about their objective. In private correspondence, however, the settlers were often forthcoming: “The ultimate goal… is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these 2,000 years… The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland.”

Of course, the integrity of the Ottoman imperial domain was not the only obstacle to Jewish statehood. There were also the native inhabitants, the Arabs. Often, the Zionists depicted Palestine as a “land without a people” awaiting the arrival of the “people without a land,” in the British philo-Zionist Lord Shaftesbury’s phrase from July 1853. But once there, the settlers could not avoid noticing the majority native population. It was from them, as two of the first settlers put it, that “we shall… Take away the country… through stratagems [,] without drawing upon us their hostility before we become the strong and populous ones.”

By “stratagems,” of course, they meant purchase; buying land occasionally required “stratagems” since the Ottoman authorities were generally ill disposed toward Jewish land acquisition. But the purchase of Palestine proceeded at a snail’s pace. And it was not mainly a problem of an effendi reluctance to sell. Most of the world’s Jews were non-Zionists, and most, simply, were poor, especially in the Zionist movement’s Eastern European heartland. And the rich, concentrated in Central and Western Europe, by and large refused to help. So, gathering a ruble here and a ruble there, the initially uncoordinated Zionist associations – Hovevei Zion, or Lovers of Zion – bought the odd tract of land for settlement and then sent out small groups of individuals or families to fulfil the dream.

The bulk of the settlers, of both the first and second waves of immigration (the Second Aliya was from 1904 to 1914), planted roots in the lowlands of Palestine – in the Coastal Plain, the upper Jordan Valley (from the southern end of the Sea of Galilee to the northern tip of the Galilee Panhandle), and the Jezreel Valley connecting them. These were the less crowded areas of Palestine, often swamp-infested and vulnerable to bedouin depredation, and owned largely by effendis. (The peasants of the hilly Judean, Samarian, and Galilean heartland tended to own their own lands and were rarely willing to sell.)

But the gradual Jewish population of these lowlands in fact competed with and trumped the natural expansion into them, ongoing since the early nineteenth century, of spillover Arabs from the relatively thickly inhabited hill country. In hindsight, what was effectively a demographic-geographic contest for the lowlands, between 1881 and 1947, was won by the Zionist movement and gave the Zionists the territorial base for statehood.

The new settlers, beset by an unwonted and difficult climate, unfamiliar diseases, and brigandage, viewed the native inhabitants as, at best, unwanted interlopers from Arabia and, at worst, as rivals for mastery of the land and potential enemies. But they had to be appeased at least temporarily, given their numerical superiority and their kinship with the Muslim Ottoman rulers. Like most European colonists in the third world, the settlers saw the locals as devious and untrustworthy and, at the same time, as simple, dirty, and lazy. Most did not bother to learn Arabic, and some mistreated their Arab workers, as the famous Russian Jewish essayist Ahad Ha’am reported after a visit in February-May 1891. The natives, in turn, regarded the foreign influx as inexplicable and the settlers as strange, foolish, infidel, and vaguely minatory.”

After writing in more detail about the reactions of the existing inhabitants, the author goes on to discuss the rise of violence.

“The Zionists encountered little Arab violence in the first 2½ decades of settlement. The Arabs lacked political, nationalist awareness and were thoroughly disorganised. The Turks ruled the land and, though generally sympathetic toward their coreligionists, often backed the settlers in disputes over land or settlement. Intercession by local Western and Russian consuls with Ottoman administrators and by ambassadors in Istanbul also benefited the settlers.

But there were occasional acts of violence. Until 1908-1909, they were mostly of a “criminal” nature or appeared to be routine feuds between neighbours. An Arab with a knife, bent on robbery, would waylay a settler on an isolated footpath, as happened to David Ben-Gurion in August 1909 near Sejera in the Lower Galilee (Ben-Gurion emerged with a wound in the arm and a deep-seated suspicion of “the Arabs”); or a group of Arabs would harass a Jewish couple strolling along the beachfront, as happened in Jaffa in March 1908 (the attack triggered a wider Jewish-Arab melee in the town centre); or settlers and their Arab neighbours would quarrel over farming rights and land usage in newly acquired tracts, as happened in Peta Tivka (Melabbes) in 1886, in Rehovot in 1892 and 1893, and in Gedera (Qatra) in 1887-1888. Despite an acknowledgement of Arab resentment or antagonism, the settlers and Zionist spokesmen were wont to dismiss such “brawls” as “common” among Arabs, “between one tribe and another, or one village and another.”

But in 1909-1914 the violence increased and took on a clearer “nationalist” flavour. During those six years, Arabs killed twelve Jewish settlement guards – the pre-eminent symbols of the Zionist endeavour – and Jewish officials increasingly spoke of Arab nationalist ferment and opposition. Already in 1907 Yitzhak Epstein, a Zionist educator, had published an article, “The Hidden Question, in which he acknowledged the emergence of a national conflict between Zionism and the Arabs. “We have forgotten one small matter,” he berated the Zionist leadership. “There is in our beloved land an entire nation, which has occupied it for hundreds of years and has never thought to leave it… We are making a great psychological error with regard to a great, assertive and jealous people… we forget that the nation that lives in [Palestine] today has a sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arabs, like every man, is tied to his native land with strong bonds.” Zionism, he warned, would have to face, and solve, the “Arab Question,” and he urged the settlers to get to know the Arabs, their culture, and their language to facilitate dialogue.

In 1910-1911 Arabs in the north tried to resist the Zionist purchase of and settlement in a large tract of land in the Jezreel. Ironically the opposition focused on the tenant farmer village of Fula, built on and around the ruins of La Fève, a Crusader fortress Saladin had conquered in 1187. Henceforward, Arab spokesmen were regularly to identify the Zionists as the “new Crusaders.” Arab notables sent off a stream of appeals to Istanbul, shots were traded, and an Arab and a settlement guard were killed. But nothing availed. The authorities upheld the purchase, Fula was evacuated, and within months, a Jewish settlement, Merhavia, took root on the site.”

The author goes on to discuss British attempts during the Mandate period to resolve the dispute. The most notable of these was the Peel Commission partition proposal of July 1937. The Peel Commission produced a map, which the author reproduces and I have also it reproduced below.

All of the maps in my review have been taken from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

“The commission further recommended that the bulk of the 300,000 Arabs who lived in the territory earmarked for Jewish sovereignty should be transferred, voluntarily or under compulsion, to the Arab part of Palestine or out of the country altogether. The commission “balanced” this by recommending that the 1,250 Jews living in areas earmarked for Arab sovereignty be moved to the Jewish area – deeming the proposed transaction “an exchange of population.”

The author discusses the development of the concept of transferring Arabs out, pointing out how unrealistic it was. He then summarises the Jewish and Arab reactions to the Peel recommendations.

“The Peel recommendations enshrined the principles of partition and a “two-state” solution as the international community’s preferred path to a settlement of the conflict and were adopted by the mainstream of the Zionist movement (the minority right-wing Revisionists dissented). But the Husseini-led Palestinian leadership, and the Arab states in its wake, rejected both the explicit recommendations and the principle: all of Palestine was and must be ours, they said. They also, of course, abhorred the transfer recommendation.”

2. The United Nations Steps in: UNSCOP and the Partition Resolution

The author begins this chapter by explaining: “On 14 February 1947, the British cabinet decided to wash its hands of Palestine and dump the problem in the lap of the United Nations.”

He goes on to quote Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary:

'We have decided that we are unable to accept the scheme put forward either by the Arabs or by the Jews, or to impose ourselves a solution of our own… The only course now open to us is to submit the problem to the judgement of the United Nations,' Bevin told the House of Commons on 18 February 1947, adding that Britain would not recommend to the United Nations “any particular solution.” The international community would have to take up the burden and chart a settlement. During the London conference, the Arabs had not been averse to the problem going before the United Nations, where they anticipated a favourable outcome. Conversely, the Zionist delegates had been wary. This may have affected Bevin’s decision.

Historians have since argued about Britain’s reasons. Some have suggested that Bevin and the cabinet had not been entirely straightforward: by threatening the two sides with the prospect of the unknown and the unpredictable, Britain’s intention had been to force the Jews and / or the Arabs to accept the latest set of Whitehall proposals or to agree to a continuation of the Mandate. Certainly David Ben-Gurion, then and later, believed that the move was a ploy designed to prolong British rule: Bevin would hand the United Nations an insoluble problem; the United Nations would flounder and fail, and Britain would be re-empowered to stay on, on its own terms, without UN or US interference.

Other historians (myself included) have taken the British decision at its face value: Bevin and his colleagues had truly had enough of Palestine; passing the ball to the United Nations was their only recourse. In the aftermath of world war, Britain was too weak and too poor to soldier on.

IZL [irgun zvai leumi (National Military Organisation, “Irgun”)] and LHI [lohamei herut yisrael (Freedom Fighters of Israel, “Stern Gang”)] veterans and their political successors have since claimed that it was mainly their terrorist campaigns that ultimately persuaded Bevin and the British public to abandon Palestine. Others have pointed to the large-scale Haganah [the main Jewish quasi-military forces] operations of 1945-1946 (the railway line and bridge demolitions) as being decisive: these portended an eventual full-scale British-Haganah clash that Whitehall was unwilling to contemplate. Also, the struggle against the Haganah’s illegal immigration campaign was a headache of major proportions.

Most historians agree about the importance of the growing Anglo-American rift, the DPs [displaced persons], and the pressure from Washington in the British government’s decision-making: given the Cold War context and Britain’s financial insolvency, Whitehall could ill afford to alienate Washington over a highly emotional issue that, when all was said and done, was not a vital interest.”

The author recounts the growing violence and attacks on the British by organisations such as the IZL. He then explains the developments at the United Nations.

“On 2 April the British had asked the UN secretary-general to convene a special session of the General Assembly, which duly met in New York on 28 April - 9 May. The General Assembly resolved to set up the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to recommend a solution to the Palestine conundrum.

The Arab delegations opposed UNSCOP’s appointment and sought, instead, a full-scale General Assembly debate and decision on immediate independence for an Arab-dominated “united Democratic… Palestinian state.” They were handily defeated, the majority of the 55 UN members preferring to leave debate and decision until after the committee had examined the problem. The Arabs then tried to restrict the committee’s terms of reference to Palestine and Palestinian independence. The Zionists, for their part, sought to include the problem of Europe’s Jewish DPs – of whom there were more than 400,000. Again, the Arabs lost.

The final terms, hammered out in the General Assembly’s First (Political) Committee, authorised UNSCOP to recommend a solution on the basis of an investigation in the country and “anywhere” else it saw fit, an allusion to the DP camps. Holland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Canada, Australia, India, Iran, Peru, Guatemala, and Uruguay were asked to send representatives. UNSCOP included no Zionist, Arab, or Great Power members.

Zionist officials were not in enamoured with this composition, given the membership of three Muslim, or partly Muslim, states (Iran, India, and Yugoslavia) and two Dominions (Canada and Australia) that, it was feared, would automatically defer to London.

The Arabs were not overly concerned about the ultimate upshot in the General Assembly. With five member states and a handful of reflexive Islamic and third world supporters, they expected an easy victory. They came to the assembly cocky and disorganised and remained so until the bitter end. They failed to appreciate the significance of Soviet deputy foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s General Assembly speech of 14 May 1947, a speech that stunned almost all Western and Zionist observers (though almost no one understood its full purport). Hitherto, Soviet policy on Palestine had been anti-British and pro-Arab. Now, while criticising the British, Gromyko spoke of “the Jewish people [’s]… exceptional [and ‘indescribable’] sorrow and suffering” during the Holocaust and of the survivors’ suffering as DPs across Europe since then; asserted the Jews’ right to self-determination; and suggested that if a unitary state proved impracticable, then Palestine should be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. Moscow had announced a pro-Zionist tack – and sent UNSCOP off to the Middle East with a clear message.

What led to this unheralded Soviet volte-face remains uncertain. Anti-British considerations probably predominated; in all likelihood, Moscow was intent on causing a rift between London and Washington. But the Soviets, at some level, to judge from Gromyko’s speech, which devoted a full three paragraphs to Jewish suffering, were also moved by the horrors of the Holocaust and by a sense of camaraderie with fellow sufferers at Nazi hands.

With the Swedish judge Emil Sandstrom – religious, “sly as a fox,” “dry and colourless” – in the chair, UNSCOP began work in New York on 26 May and spent five summer weeks in Palestine. In private, the British tended to dismiss as unimportant the work and prospective recommendations of the committee; they trusted that, when the committee’s work was done, the General Assembly would see its way independently and wisely, and they took care not to try overtly to influence its decisions.

The Zionists, by contrast, fully appreciated the committee’s significance and made every effort to persuade the committee to see the light. The Jewish Agency attached to UNSCOP as liaison three capable officials – Aubrey (Abba) Eban, later Israel’s legendary foreign minister; David Horowitz, later governor of the Bank of Israel; and Spanish-speaking Moshe Toff (Tov), the head of the Latin American Division in the Jewish Agency Political Department. The Zionists and the British surrounded the committee with spies and bugging devices to monitor its internal deliberations.

The AHC [Arab Higher Committee] announced its intention to boycott UNSCOP and failed completely to prepare for its visit. Palestine’s Arabs greeted UNSCOP with a one-day general strike. The AHC charged that UNSCOP was “pro-Zionist” and accompanied the committee’s deliberations with uncompromising radio broadcasts (“all of Palestine must be Arab”). Opposition figures were warned that they would pay with their lives if they spoke to UNSCOP.”

The author goes into considerable detail regarding the amount of effort that the Jews in Israel applied to putting their case forward to UNSCOP and then recounts the approach of the Palestinians. “The Arabs, in contrast, displayed sourness, suspicion, or aggressiveness. Everywhere the Arabs refused to answer the committee’s questions: in a school in Beersheba, the teachers continued with their lessons when UNSCOP entered the classrooms, and the pupils were instructed not to look at the visitors; in the Galilee village of Rama, the inhabitants evacuated the village, and UNSCOP was ‘greeted only by a delegation of children who… cursed them.’”

The author goes on to explain that despite the boycott, UNSCOP did manage to get some Arab input.

“Despite the boycott of UNSCOP, the Arab cause did not go unrepresented. Committee members privately met, through Bunche [Ralph Bunche the first African-American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize] or British mediation, several Arab officials and intellectuals. The most important conversation apparently took place at a festive dinner, on 16 July, on the eve of the committee’s departure from Palestine. Sandstrom and two aides spoke at length with Hussein al-Khalidi, a member of the AHC and mayor of Jerusalem.

Al-Khalidi argued that the Jews had always been a minority and had no “historic rights” in Palestine and that the Arabs should not have to suffer because of Hitler and the DPs in Europe. The Jews, he said, had always enjoyed a pleasant life in Arab lands – until they demanded a sovereign state. Al-Khalidi rejected both partition and a binational state and called for a democratic unitary state with an Arab majority.

Sandstrom also met several intellectuals at the Government Arab College in Jerusalem. Ahmed Khalidi, the college head (and Hussein al-Khalidi’s brother), complained that the Jewish education system in Palestine was “chauvinistic.” Musa Nasser, headmaster of the Bir Zeit secondary school, advocated a unitary state, in which the Arabs would remain a majority and Jewish immigration would be severely curtailed; perhaps the Jews would eventually receive “autonomous pockets.” The committee also received a string of memoranda from Palestinian Arab advocates (including, apparently, from Musa al-Alami and Cecil Hourani).

The AHC boycott in one way worked in the Palestinians’ favour: it enabled the Indian member, Abdur Rahman – who privately complained that the boycott was having a “disastrous effect on his colleagues” – to persuade the committee to hear outside Arab leaders. On 21 July UNSCOP travelled to Lebanon, meeting Prime Minister Riad al-Sulh. The following day they met Foreign Minister Hamid Faranjieh. Echoing the Arab League consensus, the Lebanese leaders called for an end to Jewish immigration and the establishment in Palestine of an independent, democratic Arab government. The Zionists, they charged, had territorial ambitions beyond Palestine, encompassing Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

On 23 July, at Sofar, the Arab representatives completed their testimony before UNSCOP. Faranjieh, speaking for the Arab League, said Jews “illegally” in Palestine would be expelled and that the future of many of those “legally” in the country but without Palestine citizenship would need to be resolved “by the future Arab government.”

UNSCOP tried to get other Arab representatives to soften or elucidate this answer but got nowhere – which led Mohn to conclude in his memoirs that “there is nothing more extreme than meeting all the representatives of the Arab world in one group… when each one tries to show that he is more extreme than the other.” The Iraqi foreign minister, Muhammad Fadel Jamali, compared the Zionists to the Nazis.

On the other hand, in private meetings outside Sofar, leading Maronite figures, including the patriarch, Antoine Pierre Arida, and former Lebanese president Emile Eddé, told UNSCOP that Lebanon’s Christians supported partition and the establishment of a Jewish state. The Maronite Archbishop of Beirut, Ignatius Mubarak, even disputed the Arab claims to Palestine and Lebanon.

From Lebanon, half the UNSCOP team, including Sandstrom, Simitch, Entezam, and Bunche, flew to Amman for a series of “unofficial” meetings. King Abdullah was less than forthright: he spoke ambiguously and carefully of the “difficulty” the Arabs would have in accepting a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. But he did not completely rule out partition. The DPs, the Jordanians argued in a twelve-page memorandum, could be settled outside Palestine. Jordanian prime minister Samir Rifai said that the Jews of Palestine would enjoy full minority rights and all would receive citizenship.

Privately, Abdullah was “enthusiastic” about partition but hinted that the Arab parts of Palestine should be joined to Transjordan. But the Jewish Agency was disappointed with Abdullah’s statement; its officials had expected full-throated support for partition.”

When it came to making recommendations, UNSCOP was divided.

“The chief unanimous recommendations were the termination of the Mandate at the earliest possible time and the granting of independence to Palestine.

The majority – the representatives of Sweden, Holland, Canada, Uruguay, Guatemala, Peru, and Czechoslovakia – proposed partition, with an enclave (a corpus separatum) under international control consisting of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Jewish and Arab states were to be bound in economic “union” – were to function as one economic entity – and the British would continue to administer the country for two years, during which 150,000 Jews would be allowed into the Jewish-designated areas in monthly quotas. During the first year of independence the inhabitants of each state desiring to move to its neighbour would be free to do so.

As it stood, the Jewish state, according to UNSCOP, was to have half a million Jews and 416,000 Arabs, along with some 90,000 bedouins who were not counted as permanent residents. The corpus separatum of Jerusalem-Bethlehem was to have a population of 200,000, half Jewish and half Arab. The Arab state was to have some 700,000 Arabs and 8,000 Jews. The proposed arrangement was described as the “most realistic and practical” possible.

The UNSCOP minority proposal, penned by the Yugoslav, Iranian, and Indian representatives, was for Palestine to be given independence as a “federal state,” with locally governed, separate Jewish and Arab autonomous areas (which they confusingly called “states”). Its frills removed, the proposal charted the establishment of a unitary state under Arab domination, to be established after a three-year transitional period. Jewish immigration was to be allowed only to the two Jewish areas (limited to the Coastal Plain and part of the northern Negev) – and, overall, was to be curtailed by the federal authorities in a manner that always left the Arabs with a countrywide majority.

The UNSCOP majority arrived at their recommendations mainly because they could see no better alternative. The Zionists saw things more positively. They regarded the majority recommendations as a “giant achievement” or, in Ben-Gurion’s words, “the beginning, indeed more than the beginning, of [our] salvation.”

The Arab reaction was just as predictable: “The blood will flow like rivers in the Middle East,” promised Jamal Husseini. Haj Amin al-Husseini went one better: he denounced also the minority report, which, in his view, legitimised the Jewish foothold in Palestine, a “partition in disguise,” as he put it.

The Arab states, too, expressed dismay and negativity concerning the majority recommendations; “No Arab Government,” Lebanese prime minister Riad al-Sulh told a British diplomat, “would dare to accept recommendations of UNSCOP. Public opinion was now highly incensed and the Government [s] were forced to take some action… or be swept away.”

According to Musa al-Alami, the Arab population of Palestine would rise up against both the majority and minority reports. In the case of the majority report, the rising would “command universal support”; as to the minority report, “the rising might still be fairly successful.”

Azzam, the Arab League secretary-general, reacted both passionately and analytically: “[To the Arab peoples] you are not an [existing] fact – you [the Jews] are a temporary phenomenon. Centuries ago, the crusaders establish themselves in our midst against our will, and in 200 years we ejected them… Up to the very last moment, and beyond, they [the Arabs] will fight to prevent you from establishing your State. In no circumstances will they agree to it.” But Azzam added that, in the past, the Arabs had “once had Spain, and then we lost Spain, and we have become accustomed to not having Spain… Whether at any point we shall become accustomed to not have a part of Palestine, I cannot say. The chances are against it, since 400,000 of our brethren will be unwilling citizens of your State. They will never recognise it, and they will never make peace.”

The issue then went to the United Nations General Assembly which passed a resolution for partition on 29 November 1947.

The author details the run-up to the General assembly vote and the intensive lobbying that took place, and mentions reports of bribery and intimidation.

“According to reports, one Latin American delegation voted for partition after receiving $75,000; another, perhaps Costa Rica, turned down a $45,000 bribe but nonetheless voted for partition. More telling, apparently, were promises and threats directed at individual governments by American Jewish businessmen and politicians. Apparently prominent in this lobbying effort was Samuel Zemurray, head of the United Fruit Corporation, which had large plantations in the Caribbean.”

On the other side, the author finds relatively ineffectual and limited lobbying by the Arabs.

“But the Arabs had failed to understand the tremendous impact of the Holocaust on the international community – and, in any event, appear to have used the selfsame methods, but with poor results. Wasif Kamal, an AHC official, for example, offered one delegate – perhaps the Russian – a “huge, huge sum of money to vote for the Arabs” (the Russian declined, saying, “You want me to hang myself?”).

But the Arabs’ main tactic, amounting to blackmail, was the promise or threat of war should the assembly endorse partition. As early as mid-August 1947, Fawzi al-Qawuqji – soon to be named the head of the Arab League’s volunteer army in Palestine, the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) – threatened that, should the vote go the wrong way, “we will have to initiate total war. We will murder, wreck and ruin everything standing in our way, be it English, American or Jewish.” It would be a “holy war,” the Arabs suggested, which might even evolve into “World War III.” Cables to this effect poured in from Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and Baghdad during the Ad Hoc Committee deliberations, becoming “more lurid,” according to Zionist officials, as the General Assembly vote and drew near.

The Arab states generally made no bones about their intention to support the Palestinians with “men, money and arms,” and sometimes hinted at an eventual invasion by their armies. They also threatened the Western Powers, their traditional allies, with an oil embargo and / or abandonment and realignment with the Soviet Bloc.

Zionist officials, aware of the potency of the fear of the outbreak of war, tended during September-November to pooh-pooh these threats. “There is a very great deal of bluff in it,” Shertock told American Zionist leaders. “These countries have much more serious worries in their own homes than to start hazardous military operations… [in] Palestine. [And] the Arabs of Palestine are extremely unwilling to engage in any new adventure.”

At the end of September, the American Zionist Emergency Council even issued a four-page memorandum analysing, and discounting, the threats: “John D. Rockefeller would sooner turn to Stalin to ask for aid in the reduction of his income tax than Ibn Saud and other Arab kings would call for Soviet intervention in the Middle East… An analysis of the military situation… will prove that there is no danger of any large-scale Arab attacks upon public order in Palestine… The military potential of the different Arab-speaking states is notoriously weak… Saudi Arabia’s troops are picturesque horsemen… It is inconceivable that any of these forces could interfere in Palestine without the consent and active cooperation of Great Britain… Ridiculous is the assumption that an armed conflict between Arabs and Jews… would lead to World War III.”

But in general, until the last three days before the vote, Arab diplomats at the United Nations, and their governments, refused to believe that partition would gain a two-thirds majority and made no concerted effort to mobilise votes.

Clear evidence of Arab desperation exists only for 27-29 November. The old Foreign Office Middle East hand Harold Beeley tried to orchestrate a last-minute postponement and compromise. But the AHC declined to “consider… any concessions” after replacing their more moderate spokesmen, such as Henry Kattan, Albert Hourani, and Musa al-Alami, with hardliners.

And the Arab states, given the shortness of time, their varying agendas, the poor communications between New York and their capitals, and fears of being branded soft on Zionism, failed to rally around a unified proposal. The Lebanese delegate, Chamoun, independently put forward a five-point “federal” proposal based on the minority report [of UNSCOP] but won no kudos, or agreement, from his fellow Arabs. And Pakistan’s delegate, Foreign Minister Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, who had led the Arab camp in the previous weeks’ deliberations – “one of the ablest and most impressive delegates present from any country,” according to a Zionist diplomat – made himself scarce during those final days.”

In final vote in the general assembly partition narrowly passed with a two thirds majority. 33 states voted “yes”, 13 states voted “no” and 10 states abstained.

The author reproduces the General Assembly partition plan, which is also reproduced below.

The author sets out the reactions of the two sides.

“The Zionists and their supporters rejoiced; the Arab delegations walked out of the plenum after declaring the resolution invalid. The Arabs failed to understand why the international community was awarding the Jews any part of Palestine.

Furthermore, as one Palestinian historian later put it, they could not fathom why 37% of the population had been given 55% of the land (of which they owned only 7%). Moreover, the Jews had been given the best agricultural lands (the Coastal Plain and Jezreel and Jordan Valleys) while the Arabs had received the “bare and hilly” parts, as one Palestinian politician, Awni Abd al-Hadi, told a Zionist agent.

More generally, “the Palestinians failed to see why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust… [And] they failed to see why it was not fair for the Jews to be a minority in a unitary Palestinian state, while it was fair for almost half the Palestinian population – the indigenous majority on its own ancestral soil – to be converted overnight into a minority under alien rule.”

On 2 December the ulema, or council of doctors of theology and sacred law, of Al-Azhar University in Cairo – one of Islam’s supreme authorities – proclaimed a “worldwide jihad in defence of Arab Palestine.” The Arab UN delegates denounced the resolution and declared that any attempt to implement it would lead to war.

Bevin described the Arab reactions to the vote as “even worse than we had expected.” A particular worry of Bevin’s was the safety of the hundreds of thousands of Jews scattered around the Arab world, and particularly the 100,000 Jews of Baghdad, who were at “risk of having their throats cut.”

Ben-Gurion, too, believed that war would ensue. But still, he argued: “I know of no greater achievement by the Jewish people… in its long history since it became a people.” Though the Arabs could not, or refused to, see it, Resolution 181, besides geopolitically redesigning a sliver of eastern Mediterranean coastline, was an emphatic ethical statement, one of those crossroads in history where morality and realism come together. Or as one Jewish historian later put it: “[It was] Western civilisation’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust… the repayment of a debt owed by those nations that realised that they might have done more to prevent or at least limit the scale of Jewish tragedy during World War II.”

Viewed in the longer span, the vote represented humanity’s amends for 2,000 years of humiliation and persecution – both by the Christian and Islamic worlds – of the Jews, the world’s eternally stateless people, the world’s eternal minority. This was the point made by the Jews of Rome when they celebrated the UN decision on 1 December beside Titus’s Arch, “the symbol of our destruction 1,877 years ago.” The Zionists had managed to obtain an international warrant for a small piece of earth for the Jewish people; it remained to translate the warrant into statehood.

When the Arab UN delegates threatened war if partition was endorsed they knew what they were talking about.

In May 1946, a summit of Arab heads of state at Inshas, Egypt, resolved that Palestine must remain “Arab” and that Zionism “constituted a threat not only to Palestine but to the other Arab states and all the peoples of Islam.” The following month, at the special Arab League meeting at Bludan, Syria, the delegates, alongside a public rejection of the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee and a demand for the cessation of all Jewish immigration into Palestine, secretly decided to help the Palestinian Arabs with funds, arms, and volunteers should it come to an armed struggle. The League demanded independence for Palestine as a “unitary” state, with an Arab majority and minority rights for the Jews.

The AHC went one better and insisted that the proportion of Jews to Arabs in the unitary state should stand at 1 to 6, meaning that only Jews who lived in Palestine before the British Mandate be eligible for citizenship.

At Inshas and Bludan, as in the get-togethers that were to follow, the Arab leaders were driven by internal and interstate considerations as well as by a genuine concern for the fate of Palestine. All the regimes, none of them elected, suffered from a sense of illegitimacy and, hence, vulnerability. All the leaders, or almost all (Jordan’s Abdullah was the sole exception), lived in perpetual fear of the “street,” which could be aroused against them by opposition parties, agitators, or fellow leaders, claiming that they were “selling out” Palestine.

As Shertock quoted the Syrian UN delegate Faris al-Khouri as saying in October 1947, the Arab states know they “may be heading for a disaster but they have no choice. They are committed up to the hilt vis-a-vis their own public. The position of all these governments was very weak. They were all tottering; they were all unpopular.” They had no choice but to adopt a “firm, unequivocal, uncompromising attitude” on Palestine.”

With this background, sadly it is no surprise that hostilities followed.

3. The First Stage of the Civil War, November 1947 – March 1948

The author gives us an overview of the situation.

“The 1948 War – called by the Arab world the First Palestine War and by the Palestinians al-nakba (the disaster), and by the Jews the War of Independence (milhemet ha’atzma’ut), the War of Liberation (milhemet hashihrur) or the War of Establishment (milhemet hakomemiyut) – was to have two distinct stages: a civil war, beginning on 30 November 1947 and ending on 14 May 1948, and a conventional war, beginning when the armies of the surrounding Arab states invaded Palestine on 15 May and ending in 1949.

The civil (or ethnic or intercommunal) war between Palestine’s Jewish and Arab communities, the latter assisted by a small army of volunteers from the wider Arab world, was characterised by guerrilla warfare accompanied by acts of terrorism.

The subsequent conventional war, which ended officially only in July 1949 but in fact stopped, in terms of hostilities, the previous January, saw the armies of Syria, Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq, with contingents from other Arab countries, attacking the newborn State of Israel and its army, the Haganah, which on 1 June 1948 became the Israel Defence Forces.

The civil war can roughly be divided into two parts or stages.

From the end of November 1947 until the end of March 1948, the Arabs held the initiative and the Haganah was on the strategic defensive. This stage was characterised by gradually expanding, continuous, small-scale, small-unit fighting. There was terrorism, and counterterrorist strikes, in the towns and ambushes along the roads. Arab armed bands attacked Jewish settlements, and Haganah units occasionally retaliated. It was formless – there were no frontlines (except along the seams between the two communities in the main mixed towns), no armies moving back and forth, no pitched battles, and no conquests of territory.

Then, in early April, the Haganah went over to the offensive, by mid-May crushing the Palestinians. This second stage involves major campaigns and battles and resulted in the conquest of territory, mainly by the Jews. At its end emerged clear frontlines, marking a continuous Jewish-held piece of territory, with the areas beyond it under Arab control.

In describing the first, civil war half of the war, it is necessary to take account of three important facts.

One, most of the fighting between November 1947 and mid-May 1948 occurred in the areas earmarked for Jewish statehood (the main exception being Jerusalem, earmarked for international control, and the largely Arab-populated “Corridor” to it from Tel Aviv) and where the Jews enjoyed demographic superiority. Almost no fighting occurred in the almost exclusively Arab-populated central and upper Galilee and Samaria, and the hostilities in the hill country south of Jerusalem were confined to the small Etzion Bloc enclave and the road to it.

Two, the Jewish and Arab communities in western and northern Palestine were thoroughly intermingled. In the main cities and in some towns – Haifa, Jaffa-Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Safad, Tiberias – the populations were mixed, with Arabs often sitting astride routes to the Jewish areas and Jews dominating the routes to and from Arab neighbourhoods. In the countryside, Jewish and Arab settlements flanked most of the roads, enabling each side to interdict the other’s traffic. This meant that Jewish settlers could cut off Arab villagers and the villagers, equally, could cut off and besiege Jewish settlers.

And three, the civil war took place while Britain ruled the country and while its military forces were deployed in the various regions. The British willingness and ability to intervene in the hostilities progressively diminished as their withdrawal progressed, and by the second half of April 1948 they rarely interfered, except to secure their withdrawal routes. Nonetheless, throughout the civil war, the belligerents had to take account of the British presence and their possible reaction to any initiative. Down to mid-April, this presence seriously affected both Arab and Jewish war-making.

Through the war, each side accused the British of favouring the other. But in fact, British policy – as emanating both from Whitehall and from Jerusalem, the seat of the high commissioner – was one of strict impartiality, generally expressed in nonintervention in favour of either side while trying to maintain law and order until the end of the Mandate. Both Whitehall and Jerusalem were eager to keep British casualties down. But at the same time, Whitehall was bent on quitting Palestine with as little loss to its power and prestige in the Middle East as possible.”

The author also assesses the relative military power of the two sides.

“At the start of the civil war, Whitehall believed that the Arabs would prevail. “In the long run the Jews would not be able to cope… and would be thrown out of Palestine unless they came to terms with [the Arabs],” was the considered judgement of the Chief of the Imperial General staff (CIGS).

And indeed, the battle between the Yishuv and the Arab community seemed, at least on paper, extremely unequal. The Palestinian Arabs enjoyed a rough 2-to-1 population advantage – 1.2 or 1.3 million to 630,000 – and physically populated more of the country’s surface than did the Jews. They also generally enjoyed the advantage of the high ground, whereas the Jews lived principally in the lowlands.

Moreover they benefited from a vast hinterland of neighbouring, sympathetic states, which could supply them with volunteers, supplies, and safe havens. The Zionists’ “hinterland” – Jewish and Zionist groups in the Diaspora – lay hundreds and thousands of miles away, and supplies and volunteers to the embattled Yishuv had to penetrate the British naval and air blockades of Palestine.

These factors aside, however, the Yishuv enjoyed basic advantages over the Palestine Arabs in major indexes of strength: “national” organisation and preparation for war, trained military manpower, weaponry, weapons production, economic power, morale and motivation, and, above all, command and control. Moreover, despite the general demographic tilt, the Yishuv had a disproportionate number of army-age males (20 to 44-year-olds) as, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Zionist leadership had taken care, as a matter of policy, to ship to Palestine, legally and illegally, young, fit males – deemed “good pioneering material.”

Facing off in 1947-1948 were two very different societies: one highly motivated, literate, organised, semi-industrial; the other backward, largely illiterate, disorganised, agricultural. For the average Palestinian Arab man, a villager, political independence and nationhood were vague abstractions: his affinities and loyalties lay with his family, clan and village, and, occasionally region.

Moreover, as we have noted, Palestinian Arab society was deeply divided along social and religious lines. And, among the more literate and politically conscious, there was a deep, basic fissure, going back to the 1920s, between the Husseinis and Nashashibis.

The 1936-1939 revolt had both irreparably deepened this divide (the rebellion ended with something like civil war between the two factions) and left Palestine Arab society largely decapitated, politically and militarily.

During the Mandate, the Arab community had periodically tried, but failed, to develop self-governing institutions, and not because of British obstructionism. The community’s sole veteran executive body was the Supreme Muslim Council, which dealt with religious affairs.

The AHC, dominated since its inception in 1936 by the Husseinis, was unelected and unrepresentative; in its remodelled form, during 1946-1948, it completely side-lined the Opposition. Although it possessed a large network of supporters and agents in the localities and to some degree oversaw the workings of the local National Committees, which were resurrected with the start of the hostilities, the AHC failed to establish working national “governmental” structures.”

Chapters 4 - 10

The author describes in very informative and highly readable detail what happened in the various stages of the hostilities.

At the end of the war there was an armistice. The 1949 armistice lines are shown in the map below. While they look similar to the 1947 partition map, a closer look shows how much territory the Arabs lost by going to war. The armistice lines held until the "Six Day War" in 1967.

11. Some Conclusions

After devoting the largest part part of the book to describing the war itself, in the final chapter the author steps back to draw some conclusions.

“… the first war between Israel and the Arabs, was the culmination of developments and a conflict that had begun in the 1880s, when the first Zionist settlers landed on the shores of the Holy Land, their arrival and burgeoning presence increasingly resented by the local Arab population. Over the following decades, the Arabs continuously inveighed, first with the Ottoman rulers, and then with their British successors, against the Zionist influx and ambitions, and they repeatedly attacked the new settlers, initially in individual acts of banditry and terrorism and then in growingly massive outbreaks, which at first resembled nothing more than European pogroms.

The Zionists saw their enterprise and aspirations as legitimate, indeed, supremely moral: the Jewish people, oppressed and murdered in Christendom and in the Islamic lands, was bent on saving itself by returning to its ancient land and there re-establishing its self-determination and sovereignty. But the Arab inhabitants, supported by the surrounding, awakening Arab world, decried the influx as an aggressive invasion by colonialist, infidel aliens; it had to be resisted. The culminating assault on the Yishuv in 1947-1949 was a natural result of this posture of antagonism and resistance.

David Ben-Gurion well understood these contradictory perspectives.

As he told his colleagues, against the backdrop of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939: “we must see the situation for what it is. On the security front, we are those attacked and who are on the defensive. But in the political field we are the attackers and the Arabs are those defending themselves. They are living in the country and own the land, the village. We live in the Diaspora and want only to immigrate [to Palestine] and gain possession of [lirkosh] the land from them.”

Years later, after the establishment of Israel, he expatiated on the Arab perspective in a conversation with the Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann: “I don’t understand your optimism… Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but 2,000 years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”

To be sure, while mentioning “God,” Ben-Gurion – a child of Eastern European social democracy and nationalism who knew no Arabic (though, as prime minister, he found time to study ancient Greek, to read Plato in the original, and Spanish, to read Don Quixote) – had failed fully to appreciate the depth of the Arabs’ abhorrence of the Zionist-Jewish presence in Palestine, an abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots. The Jewish rejection of the Prophet Muhammad is embedded in the Quran and is etched in the psyche of those brought up on its suras. As the Muslim Brotherhood put it in 1948: “Jews are the historic enemies of Muslims and carry the greatest hatred for the nation of Muhammad.”

Such thinking characterised the Arab world, where the overwhelming, majority of the population were, and remain, believers. In 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt sent out feelers about a negotiated settlement of the Palestine problem, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia responded that he was “prepared to receive anyone of any religion except (repeat except) a Jew.”

A few weeks earlier, Ibn Saud had explained, in a letter to Roosevelt: “Palestine… has been an Arab country since the dawn of history and… was never inhabited by the Jews for more than a period of time, during which their history in the land was full of murder and cruelty… [There is] religious hostility… between the Moslems and the Jews from the beginning of Islam… which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Moslems and their prophet.”

Jews were seen as unclean; indeed, even those who had contact with them were seen as beyond the pale. In late 1947 the Al-Azhar University ulema, major authorities in the Islamic world, issued a fatwa that anyone dealing with “the Jews,” commercially or economically (such as by “buying their produce”), “is a sinner and criminal… who will be regarded as an apostate to Islam, he will be separated from his spouse. It is prohibited to be in contact with him.”

This anti-Semitic mindset was not restricted to Wahhabi chieftains or fundamentalist imams. Samir Rifai, Jordan’s prime minister, in 1947 told visiting newsmen, “The Jews are a people to be feared… Give them another 25 years and they will be all over the Middle East, in our country and Syria and Lebanon, in Iraq and Egypt… They were responsible for starting the two world wars… Yes, I have read and studied, and I know they were behind Hitler at the beginning of his movement.”

The 1948 War, to be sure, was a milestone in a contest between two national movements over a piece of territory. But it was also – if only because that is how many if not most Arabs saw it (and see it today) – part of a more general, global struggle between the Islamic East and the West, in which the Land of Israel / Palestine figured, and still figures, as a major battlefront.

The Yishuv saw itself, and was universally seen by the Muslim Arab world, as an embodiment an outpost of the European “West.” The assault of 1947-1948 was an expression of the Islamic Arabs’ rejection of the West and its values as well as a reaction to what it saw as a European colonialist encroachment against sacred Islamic soil. There was no understanding (or tolerance) of Zionism as a national liberation movement of another people. And, aptly, the course of the war reflected the civilizational disparity, in which a Western society, deploying superior organisational and technological skills, overcame a coalition of infinitely larger Islamic Arab societies.

Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders. This is a mistake.

The 1948 War, from the Arabs’ perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity.

In the months before the invasion of 15 May 1948, King Abdullah, the most moderate of the coalition leaders, repeatedly spoke of “saving” the holy places. As the day of invasion approach, his focus on Jerusalem, according to Alec Kirkbride, grew increasingly obsessive. “In our souls,” wrote the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, “Palestine occupies a spiritual holy place which is above abstract nationalist feelings. In it we have the blessrd breeze of Jerusalem and the blessings of the Prophets and their disciples.”

The evidence is abundant and clear that many, if not most, in the Arab world viewed the war essentially as a holy war. To fight for Palestine was the “inescapable obligation on every Muslim,” declared the Muslim Brotherhood in 1938. Indeed, the battle was of such an order of holiness that in 1948 one Islamic jurist ruled that believers should forego the hajj and spend the money thus saved on the jihad in Palestine.

In April 1948, the mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Muhammad Mahawif, issued a fatwa positing jihad in Palestine as the duty of all Muslims. The Jews, he said, intended “to take over… all the lands of Islam.” Martyrdom for Palestine conjured up, for Muslim Brothers, “the memories of the Battle of Badr… As well as the early Islamic jihad for spreading Islam and Salah al-Din’s [Saladin’s] liberation of Palestine” from the Crusaders.

Jihad for Palestine was seen in prophetic-apocalyptic terms, as embodied in the following hadith periodically quoted at the time: “The Day of Resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews, until the Jews hide behind trees and stones and until the trees and stones shout out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’” [This hadith is also quoted in the Hamas Charter.]

The jihadi impulse underscored both popular and governmental responses in the Arab world to the UN partition resolution and was central to the mobilisation of the “street” and the governments for the successive onslaughts of November-December 1947 and May-June 1948. The mosques, mullahs, and ulema all played a pivotal role in the process.

Even Christian Arabs appear to have adopted the jihadi discourse. Matiel Mughannam, the Lebanese-born Christian who headed the AHC-affiliated Arab Women’s Organisation in Palestine, told an interviewer early in the Civil War: “The UN decision has united all Arabs, as they have never been united before, not even against the Crusaders… [A Jewish state] has no chance to survive now that the ‘holy war’ has been declared. All the Jews will eventually be massacred.”

The Islamic fervour stoked by the hostilities seems to have encompassed all or almost all Arabs: “No Moslem can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands,” reported Kirkbride from Amman. “Even the Prime Minister [Tawfiq Abul Huda] … who is by far the steadiest and most sensible Arab here, gets excited on the subject.”

Nor did this impulse evaporate with the Arab defeat. On the contrary. On 12 December 1948 the ulema of Al-Azhar reissued their call for jihad, specifically addressing “the Arab Kings, Presidents of Arab Republics, … And leaders of public opinion.” It was, ruled the council, “necessary to liberate Palestine from the Zionist bands… And to return the inhabitants driven from their homes.” The Arab armies had “fought victoriously” (sic) “in the conviction that they were fulfilling a sacred religious duty.” The ulema condemned King Abdullah for sowing discord in Arab ranks: “Damnation would be the lot of those who, after warning, did not follow the way of the believers,” concluded the ulema.”

The author points out that the immediate trigger for the war was the UN partition resolution which the Zionist movement accepted, even though it meant giving up the historic heartland of Judaism, Judaea and Samaria (the West Bank) with east Jerusalem’s Old City and Temple Mount at its core. The Zionists were also troubled by the inclusion of a large Arab minority within their designated state but said "yes" to the partition resolution.

Conversely, the Palestinian Arabs and the rest of the Arab world had flatly rejected any form of partition just as they had in 1937 with the Peel Commission. It was the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states that launched hostilities.

Arab war aim

“The Arab war aim, in both stages of the hostilities, was, at a minimum, to abort the emergence of a Jewish state or to destroy it at inception. The Arab states hope to accomplish this by conquering all or large parts of the territory allotted to the Jews by the United Nations.

And some Arab leaders spoke of driving the Jews into the sea and ridding Palestine “of the Zionist plague.” The struggle, as the Arabs saw it, was about the fate of Palestine / the Land of Israel, all of it, not over this or that part of the country. But, in public, official Arab spokesmen often said that the aim of the May 1948 invasion was to “save” Palestine or “save the Palestinians,” definitions more agreeable to Western ears.”

The author points out that the Arab war aims were complicated by the fact that the Arab countries did not want their regional rivals to gain too much from the war.

Zionist war aim

He then goes on to discuss the Zionists' war aim.

“The Yishuv’s war aim, initially, was simpler and more modest: to survive; to weather the successive onslaughts, by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states. The Zionist leaders deeply, genuinely, feared a middle eastern re-enactment of the Holocaust, which had just ended; the Arabs’ public rhetoric reinforced these fears.

But as the war progressed, an additional aim began to emerge: to expand the Jewish state beyond the UN-earmarked partition borders. Initially, the desire was to incorporate clusters of Jewish settlements in the state. West Jerusalem, with its hundred thousand Jews, figured most prominently in the Zionist leaders’ imagination.

But as the war progressed, a more general expansionist aim took hold: to add more territory to the minuscule state and to arm it with defensible borders. By September, some spoke of expanding as far eastward as the Jordan River, seen as a “natural” frontier (both the UN partition borders and the new lines created by the May-July 1948 hostilities were a strategist’s nightmare), while incorporating the historic heartland of the Jewish people, Judaea and Samaria, in the new state.

A third and further aim – which emerged among some of the political leaders, including Ben-Gurion and Moshe Shertok, and in the military, after four or five months of hostilities – was to reduce the size of Israel’s prospective large and hostile Arab minority, seen as a potential powerful fifth column, by belligerency and expulsion.”

Why the Palestinians lost

The author goes on to discuss why the Palestinians lost.

“Both Arabs and Israelis often argued during 1947-1948 that they were the weaker side, hoping to garner world sympathy and material support. (But occasionally, at the same time and somewhat confusingly, they argued the exact opposite – in order to frighten their enemies or magnetise support and recruits or generate public self-confidence.)

During the Civil War stage, the Palestinians rather shamefacedly appointed to their poverty and disorganisation as opposed to the “power of international Jewry.” The Israelis, reluctantly, often acknowledged Palestinian Arab weakness yet, during November 1947 - mid May 1948, argued (1) that the Palestinians enjoyed the support of the vast surrounding Arab hinterland and (2) that the Arab states would soon join in.

An honest appraisal of the balance of strength in the war requires a reassessment of the components of a state’s or a society’s strength and weakness and necessarily extends the discussion beyond the narrow parameters of military manpower and weapons rosters.

The organisation and unity of purpose of armies and the effectiveness of their command and control systems is of paramount importance. Measurable categories, such as financial resources, as well as less quantifiable elements, such as levels of motivation and morale, must also be considered. So, too, must details regarding types of weaponry, and stockpiles of given types of ammunition and spare parts at different points in time in a protracted struggle as well as the combat experience and training of officers and men. A clear understanding of these and other factors goes a long way to explaining the Yishuv’s victory.

In rough demographic and geopolitical terms, without doubt, the Arabs were far, almost infinitely, stronger than the Yishuv. The Palestinian Arabs outnumbered Palestine’s Jews by a factor of two to one. And the surrounding Arab states mustered a total population of 40 million, with an additional, vast demographic hinterland stretching into the Arabian Peninsula and across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, as compared with the Yishuv’s paltry population of 650,000. The Yishuv, to be sure, received a small stream of volunteers from Diaspora Jewry (and the Christian West). But the Palestinian Arabs and the Arabs of the confrontation states, who both also enjoyed the services of foreign volunteers, were incomparably stronger in demographic terms. And the disproportion in terms of land mass and economic resources, or potential economic resources, was, if anything, even greater.

But the Yishuv had organised for war. The Arabs hadn’t. The small, compact Jewish community in Palestine was economically and politically vibrant, a potential powerhouse if adequately organised and directed. And it enjoyed a unity of purpose and a collective fear – of a new Holocaust – that afforded high levels of motivation (as well as magnetising international support). The fact that the Yishuv was the victim of aggression and that each Jewish soldier was almost literally defending hearth and home added to the motivational edge. This edge was amply demonstrated in places where a handful of poorly armed defenders beat back massive Arab assaults, as at Nirim and Degania in May 1948.

The Palestinian Arabs, with well-established traditions of disunity, corruption, and organisational incompetence, failed to mobilise their resources. They even failed to put together a national militia organisation before going to war. The leaders may have talked, often and noisily, about the “Zionist threat,” but they failed to prepare.

Perhaps, by the late 1940s, they had come to rely on foreign intervention as the engine of their salvation. Much as, throughout the history, the Palestinian Arabs displayed a knee-jerk penchant to always blame others – the Ottomans, the British, Europe, the United States, the Jews – for whatever ailed them, so, from the mid-1930s on, they exhibited a mindless certainty that, whatever they did or whatever happened, someone – the United Nations, the Great Powers, the Arab states – would pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

The Palestinians (like the surrounding Arab states) had a socio-economic elite with no tradition of public service or ethos of contribution and sacrifice (typical was the almost complete absence of sons of that elite among the fighters of 1936-1939 and 1948); for many, nationalism was a rhetorical device to amass power or divert resentments rather than a deeply felt emotion. The Palestinian Arabs suffered from a venal leadership and a tradition of imperial domination as well as a sense of powerlessness and fatalism. These combined to neuter initiative.

When war came – at their instigation – the Palestinians were unprepared: they lacked a “government” (indeed, almost all the members of the AHC, and many, if not most, NC [National Committee] members were outside the country for most of the civil war), and they were short of arms and ammunition. All told, the 800 Arab villages and dozen or so towns of Palestine, in December 1947, may have possessed more light arms than the Yishuv. But they were dispersed and under local control and not standardised, and most of them probably never saw a battlefield. The Palestinians lacked the economic or organisational wherewithal to import arms and ammunition in significant quantities once the hostilities commenced, and the Arab states were niggardly with material support.

The Palestinian militias performed moderately well, when they were on the offensive, between late November 1947 and the end of March 1948 (though they, and their ALA [Arab Liberation (or Salvation) Army] reinforcements, never conquered a single Jewish settlement).

But once the Yishuv went over to the offensive, it was all over. From early April, the Haganah was able to concentrate forces and pick off Arab towns, villages and clusters of villages in succession and in isolation; villages failed to assist their neighbours, and clusters of villages, neighbouring clusters of villages. Almost no villagers came to the aid of townspeople and vice versa. In effect, each community was on its own. And the incompetent and small ALA, though deploying some heavy weapons, failed to make a difference.

Between early April and mid-May, Palestinian Arab society fell apart and was crushed by a relatively poorly armed and, in many ways, ragtag Jewish militia.

One day, when the Palestinians face up to their past and produce serious historiography, they will probe these parameters of weakness and responsibility to the full (as well as the functioning of their leadership and society in the months and years before 1948). Among the things they will “discover” will be how few young men from the Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus areas – largely untouched by the war – actually participated in 1948’s battles and how few of them died in the fighting in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem and the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys. The Yishuv had fought not a “people” but an assortment of regions, towns, and villages. What this says about the Palestinian Arabs, at the time, as a “people” will also need to be confronted.”

The author goes on to discuss why the armies of the Arab states also lost, evaluating in detail their levels of equipment, training and organisation.

Civilian deaths and massacres

The author does not shy away from discussing civilian deaths and massacres.

“Like most wars involving built-up areas, the 1948 War resulted in the killing, and occasional massacre, of civilians.

During the civil war half of the war, both sides paid little heed to the possible injury or death of civilians as battle raged in the mixed cities and rural landscape of Palestine, although Haganah operational orders frequently specifically cautioned against harming women and children. But the IZL and LHI seem to have indulged in little discrimination, and the Palestinian Arab militias often deliberately targeted civilians. Moreover, the disorganisation of the two sides coupled with the continued presence and nominal rule of the Mandate government obviated the establishment by either side of regular POW camps. This meant that both sides generally refrained from taking prisoners.

When the Civil War gave way to the conventional war, as the Jewish militias – the Haganah, IZL and LHI – changed into the IDF and as the Arab militias were replaced by more or less disciplined regular armies, the killing of civilians and prisoners of war almost stopped, except for the series of atrocities committed by IDF troops in Lydda in July and in the Galilee at the end of October and beginning of November 1948.

After the war, the Israelis tended to hail the “purity of arms” of its militiamen and soldiers and to contrast this with Arab barbarism, which on occasion expressed itself in the mutilation of captured Jewish corpses. This reinforced the Israelis’ positive self-image and help them “sell” the new state abroad; it also demonised the enemy.

In truth, however, the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948. This was probably due to the circumstance that the victorious Israelis captured some 400 Arab villages and towns during April-November 1948, whereas the Palestinian Arabs and ALA failed to take any settlements and the Arab armies that invaded in mid-May overran fewer than a dozen Jewish settlements.

Arab rhetoric may have been more blood curdling and inciteful to atrocity than Jewish public rhetoric – but the war itself afforded the Arabs infinitely fewer opportunities to massacre their foes.

Thus, in the course of the civil war the Palestinian Arabs, besides killing the odd prisoner of war, committed only two large massacres – involving 40 workers in the Haifa oil refinery and about 150 surrendering or unarmed Haganah men in Kfar Etzion (a massacre in which Jordanian Legionnaires participated – though other Legionnaires at the site prevented atrocities). Some commentators add a third “massacre,” the destruction of the convoy of doctors and nurses to Mount Scopus in Jerusalem in mid-April 1948, but this was actually a battle, involving Haganah and Palestine Arab militiamen, although it included, or was followed by, the mass killing of the occupants of a Jewish bus, most of whom were unarmed medical personnel.

The Arab regular armies committed few atrocities and no large-scale massacres of POWs and civilians in the conventional war – even though they conquered the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and a number of rural settlements, including Atarot and Neve Yakov near Jerusalem, and Nitzanim, Gezer, and Mishmar Hayarden elsewhere.

The Israelis’ collective memory of fighters characterised by “purity of arms” is also undermined by the evidence of rapes committed in conquered towns and villages. About a dozen cases – in Jaffa, Acre, and so on – are reported in the available contemporary documentation and, given Arab diffidence about reporting such incidents and the (understandable) silence of the perpetrators, and IDFA [Israel Defence Forces Archive] censorship of many documents, more, and perhaps many more, cases probably occurred.

Arabs appear to have committed few acts of rape. Again, this is explicable in terms of their general failure to conquer Jewish settlements. Altogether, the 1948 War was characterised, in relative terms, by an extremely low incidence of rape (as contrasted with, for example, the Soviet army’s conquest of Prussia and eastern Germany in 1945 or the recent Balkan wars).

In the yearlong war, Yishuv troops probably murdered some 800 civilians and prisoners of war all told – most of them in several clusters of massacres in captured villages during April-May, July, and October-November 1948.

The round of massacres, during Operation Hiram and its immediate aftermath in the Galilee and southern Lebanon, at the end of October and the first week of November 1948 is noteworthy in having occurred so late in the war, when the IDF was generally well disciplined and clearly victorious. This series of killings – at Eilabun, Jish, Arab al-Mawasi, Saliha, Majd al-Kurum, and so on – was apparently related to a general vengefulness and a desire by local commanders to precipitate a civilian exodus.

In general, from May 1948 onward, both Israel and the Arab states abided by the Geneva convention, took prisoners, and treated them reasonably well. Given that the first half of the war involved hostilities between militias based in a large number of interspersed civilian communities, the conquest of some 200 villages and urban centres, and the later conquest of 200 additional villages, 1948 is actually noteworthy for the relatively small number of civilian casualties both in the battles themselves and in the atrocities that accompanied them or followed (compare this, for example, to the casualty rates and atrocities in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s or the Sudanese civil wars of the past 50 years).”

How many were killed in the war?

The author goes on to assess the war dead.

“In the 1948 war, the Yishuv suffered 5,700-5,800 dead – one quarter of them civilians. This represented almost 1% of the Jewish community in Palestine, which stood at 628,000 at the end of November 1947 and 649,000 in May 1948. Of the dead, more than 500 were female (108 in uniform). The Yishuv suffered about 12,000 seriously wounded.

Palestinian losses, in civilians and armed irregulars, are unclear: they may have been slightly higher, or much higher, than the Israeli losses. In the 1950s, Haj Amin al-Husseini claimed that “about” 12,000 Palestinians had died. Egyptian losses, according to an official Egyptian announcement made in June 1950, amounted to some 1,400 dead and 3,731 “permanently invalided.” The Jordanian, Iraqi, and Syrian armies each suffered several hundred dead, and the Lebanese suffered several dozen killed.”

Refugees; Arab and Jewish

The author then goes on to discuss the refugee situation left after the war.

“The war resulted in the creation of some 700,000 Arab refugees. In part, this was a product of the expulsionist elements in the ideologies of both sides in the conflict. By 1948, many in the Zionist leadership accepted the idea and necessity of transfer, and this affected events during the war. But this gradual acceptance was in large part a response to the expulsionist ideology and violent praxis of al-Husseini and his followers during the previous two decades.

Both national movements entered the mid-1940s with an expulsionist element in their ideological baggage.

Among the Zionists, it was a minor and secondary element, occasionally entertained and enunciated by key leaders, including Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. But it had not been part of the original Zionist ideology and was usually trotted out in response to expulsionist or terroristic violence by the Arabs. The fact that the Peel Commission in 1937 supported the transfer of Arabs out of the Jewish state-to-be without doubt consolidated the wide acceptance of the idea among the Zionist leaders.

Although, from Theodor Herzl onward, Zionist leaders and proponents had occasionally suggested transfer, only in the mid-1930s and in the early 1940s did Zionist leaders clearly advocate the idea – in response to the Arab Revolt, which killed hundreds of settlers and threatened to destroy the Yishuv, and Nazi anti-Semitism, which threatened to destroy German, and then European, Jewry. The Zionist leaders believed that a safe and relatively spacious haven was an existential necessity for Europe’s hounded Jews, and that this haven could only be found in Palestine – but that to achieve safety and create the necessary space, some or all Palestinian Arabs, given their unremitting belligerence, would have to be transferred. Arab support for a Nazi victory and Haj Amin al-Husseini’s employment by the Nazis in World War II Berlin also played a part in this thinking. Zionist expulsionist thinking was thus at least in part a response to expulsionist, or murderous, thinking and behaviour by Arabs and European Christians.

Nevertheless, transfer or expulsion was never adopted by the Zionist movement or its main political groupings as official policy at any stage of the movement’s evolution – not even in the 1948 War. No doubt this was due in part to the Israelis’ suspicion that the inclusion of support for transfer in their platforms would alienate Western support for Zionism and cause dissension in Zionist ranks. It was also the result of moral scruples.

During the 1948 War, which was universally viewed, from the Jewish side, as a war for survival, although there were expulsions and although an atmosphere of what would later be called ethnic cleansing prevailed during critical months, transfer never became a general or declared Zionist policy. Thus, by war’s end, even though much of the country had been “cleansed” of Arabs, other parts of the country – notably central Galilee – were left with substantial Muslim Arab populations, and towns in the heart of the Jewish coastal strip, Haifa and Jaffa, were left with an Arab minority. These Arab communities have since prospered and burgeoned and now constitute about 20% of Israel’s citizenry. At the same time, the Arabs who had fled or been driven out of the areas that became Israel were barred by Israeli government decision and policy from returning to their homes and lands.

By contrast, expulsionist thinking and, where it became possible, behaviour, characterised the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement since its inception. “We will push the Zionists into the sea – or they will send us back into the desert,” the Jaffa Muslim-Christian Association told the King-Crane Commission as early as 1919.

For the Palestinians, from the start, the clash with the Zionists was a zero-sum game. The Palestinian national movement’s leader during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Haj Amin al-Husseini, consistently rejected territorial compromise and espoused a solution to the Palestine problem that posited all of Palestine as an Arab state and allowed for a Jewish minority composed only of those who had lived in the country before 1914 (or, in a variant, 1917). Thus he marked out all Jews who had arrived in the country after World War I and their progeny for, at the very least, non-citizenship or expulsion – or worse. In Arabic, before Arab audiences, he was often explicit. With Westerners, he was usually evasive, but one cannot doubt his meaning.

In January 1937, for example, in his testimony before the Peel Commission, al-Husseini was asked: “Does his eminence think that this country can assimilate and digest the 400,000 Jews now in the country?”

Al-Husseini: “No.”

Question: “some of them would have to be removed by a process kindly or painful as the case may be?”

Al-Husseini: “We must leave all this to the future.”

On which the commissioners commented: “We are not questioning the sincerity or the humanity of the Mufti’s intentions… But we cannot forget what recently happened, despite treaty provisions and explicit assurances, to the Assyrian [Christian] minority in Iraq; nor can we forget that the hatred of the Arab politician for the [Jewish] National Home has never been concealed and that it has now permeated the Arab population as a whole.”

Al-Husseini was to remain consistent on this point for the rest of his life. During the war, al-Husseini’s rhetoric was considerably upgraded. In March 1948 he told an interviewer in a Jaffa daily Al Sarih that the Arabs did not intend merely to prevent partition but “would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state.”

In 1974, just before his death, he told interviewers: “There is no room for peaceful coexistence with our enemies. The only solution is the liquidation of the foreign conquest in Palestine within its natural frontiers and the establishment of a national Palestinian state on the basis of its Muslim and Christian inhabitants and its Jewish [inhabitants] who lived here before the British conquest in 1917 and their descendants.”

Haj Amin was nothing if not consistent. In 1938, Ben-Gurion met Musa Husseini in London. Musa Husseini, a relative and supporter of the mufti (he was executed in 1951 by the Jordanians for his part in the assassination of King Abdullah), told Ben-Gurion that Haj Amin “insists on 7% [as the maximal percentage of Jews in the total population of Palestine], as it was at the end of the World War.” In 1938 the Jews constituted 30% of the country’s population. How Haj Amin intended to reduce the proportion from 30 to 7% Musa Husseini did not explain. (It is not without relevance that this objective was replicated in the constitution of the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO], the Palestine National Charter, formulated in 1964 and revised in 1968. Clause 6 states: “The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine before the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians.” This “beginning” is defined elsewhere as “1917” or the moment of promulgation of the Balfour Declaration [2 November 1917].)

Such sentiments translated into action in 1948. During the “civil war,” when the opportunity arose, Palestinian militiamen who fought alongside the Arab Legion consistently expelled Jewish inhabitants and razed conquered sites, as happened in the Etzion Bloc and the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Subsequently, the Arab armies behaved in similar fashion. All the Jewish settlements conquered by the invading Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian armies – about a dozen in all, including Beit Ha’arava, Neve Ya’akov, and Atarot in the Jordanian sector; Masada and Sha’ar Hagolan in the Syrian sector; and Yad Mordechai, Nitzanim, and Kfar Darom in the Egyptian sector – were razed after their inhabitants had fled or been incarcerated or expelled.

These expulsions by the Arab regular armies stemmed quite naturally from the expulsionist mindset prevailing in the Arab states. The mindset characterised both the public and the ruling elites. All vilified the Yishuv and opposed the existence of a Jewish state on “their” (sacred Islamic) soil, and all sought its extirpation, albeit with varying degrees of bloody-mindedness.

Shouts of “Idbah al Yahud” (slaughter the Jews) characterised equally street demonstrations in Jaffa, Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad both before and during the war and were, in essence, echoed, usually in tamer language, by most Arab leaders. We do not have verbatim minutes of what these leaders said in closed inter-Arab gatherings.

But their statements to Western diplomats, where caution was usually required, were candid enough. “It was possible that in the first phases of the Jewish-Arab conflict the Arabs might meet with initial reverses,” King Farouk told the American ambassador to Egypt, S. Pinckney Tuck, just after the passage of the UN General Assembly partition resolution. “[But] in the long run the Arabs would soundly defeat the Jews and drive them out of Palestine.”

A few weeks earlier, that other potentate, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, had written to President Truman: “The Arabs have definitely decided to oppose [the] establishment of a Jewish state in any part of the Arab world. The dispute between the Arab and Jew will be violent and long-lasting… Even if it is supposed that the Jews will succeed in gaining support for the establishment of a small state by their oppressive and tyrannous means and their money, such a state must perish in a short time. The Arab will isolate such a state from the world and will lay siege to it until it dies by famine… Its end will be the same as that of [the] Crusader states.”

The establishment of Israel, and the international endorsement that it enjoyed, enraged the Arab world; destruction and expulsion were to be its lot. Without doubt, Arab expulsionism fuelled Zionist expulsionist thinking during the 1930s and 1940s.

As it turned out, it was Palestinian Arab society that was smashed, not the Yishuv.

The war created the Palestinian refugee problem. Looking back, Israel’s Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok said, “There are those who say that we uprooted Arabs from their places. But even they will not deny that the source of the problem was the war: had there been no war, the Arabs would not have abandoned their villages, and we would not have expelled them. Had the Arabs from the start accepted the decision of 29 November [1947], a completely different Jewish state would have arisen… In essence the State of Israel would have arisen with a large Arab minority, which would have left its impress on the state, on its manner of governance, and on its economic life, and [this Arab minority] would have constituted an organic part of the state.”

The author goes on to discuss the persistence of the Palestinian refugee problem due to the refusal of the Arab states to absorb or properly resettle the refugees in their midst.

“The Arab states regarded the repatriation of the refugees as an imperative of “justice” and, besides, understood that, in the absence of a return, maintaining the refugees as an embittered, impoverished community would serve their anti-Israeli political and military purposes.

As a tool of propaganda, the existence of the refugee communities, many of them in dilapidated “camps,” bit into Israel’s humane image. And the refugees and their descendants provided a ready pool for recruitment of guerillas and terrorists who could continuously sting the Jewish state. Besides, many refugees refused permanently to resettle in the host countries because it could be seen as, and could promote, an abandonment of the dream of a return.”

The author points out that the war also created a second major refugee problem.

“Partly because of the clash of Jewish and Arab arms in Palestine, some five to six hundred thousand Jews who lived in the Arab world emigrated, were intimidated into flight, or were expelled from their native countries, most of them reaching Israel, with a minority resettling in France, Britain, and the other Western countries.

The immediate propellants to flight were the popular Arab hostility, including pogroms, triggered by the war in Palestine and specific governmental measures, amounting to institutionalised discrimination against and oppression of the Jewish minority communities.”

The author proceeds to give details of some of the pogroms that took place and other mistreatment of Jews by the Arab states after the 1948 war.

Author's final conclusion

The author concludes the book as follows:

“But 1948 has haunted, and still haunts, the Arab world on the deepest levels of collective identity, ego, and pride. The war was a humiliation from which that world has yet to recover – the antithesis of the glory days of Arab Islamic dominance of the Middle East and the eastern and southern Mediterranean basins.

The sense of humiliation only deepened over the succeeding 60 years as Israel visibly grew and prospered while repeatedly beating the Arabs in new wars, as the Palestinian refugee camps burst at the seams while sinking in the mire of international charity and terrorism, and as the Arab world shuttled between culturally self-facing westernisation and religious fundamentalism.

For almost a millennium, the Arab peoples were reared on tales of power and conquest. Ottoman subjugation ate away at the Arabs’ self-image; even more destructive were the gradual encroachment and dominance of (infidel) Western powers, led by Britain and France.

The 1948 War was the culminating affront, when a community of some 650,000 Jews – Jews, no less – crushed Palestinian Arab society and then defeated the armies of the surrounding states. The failure was almost complete. The Arab states had failed to “save” the Palestinians and failed to prevent Israel’s emergence and acceptance into the comity of nations. And what little Palestine territory the Arabs had managed to retain fell under Israeli sway two decades later.

Viewed from the Israeli perspective, however, 1948 wasn’t the irreversible triumph it at first appeared. True, the state had been established, Zionism’s traditional chief goal, and its territory had increased; true, the Arab armies had been crushed to such an extent that they would not represent a mortal threat to the Jewish state for two decades.

But the dimensions of the success had given birth to reflexive Arab non-acceptance and powerful revanchist urges. The Jewish state had arisen at the heart of the Muslim Arab world – and that world could not abide it. Peace treaties may eventually have been signed by Egypt and Jordan; but the Arab world – the man in the street, the intellectual in his perch, the soldier in his dugout – refused to recognise or accept what had come to pass. It was a cosmic injustice. And there would be plenty of Arabs, by habit accustomed to think in the long term and egged on by the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, who would never acquiesce in the new Middle Eastern order.

Whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen.”

Concluding comments

The book is an excellent, detailed history of the war by a historian who has spent a significant amount of time with the sources.

I recommend it to everyone who wishes to expand their understanding of the Israel / Palestine conflict.



Kindle edition above


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