Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Arab-Israeli War (1948–1949)

Arab-Israeli War (1948–1949)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: The newly formed state of Israel
vs. the Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan,
Lebanon, and Iraq


DECLARATION: No formal declaration

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Arab nations opposed
the creation of Israel.

OUTCOME: Israel gained control of disputed areas in
Palestine and began the development of a formidable
standing army.

Israel, 45,000; Arab nations, 55,000

CASUALTIES: Israel, 21,000 soldiers and civilians; Arab
nations, 40,000 soldiers and civilians


The roots of Zionism are as old as the commencement of
the Jewish Diaspora in the Babylonian Exile of the sixth
century B.C.E., during which the Jews began longing for
a return to Zion, or Jerusalem. But it was not until the
emancipation of the Jews in 1791 during the FRENCH
REVOLUTION that organized Zionist movements first
During the 19th century, largely in response to rising
nationalist sentiment throughout Europe coupled with
persecution of European Jews, especially in Russia, Jewish
political activists worked to raise the national consciousness
of ghetto Jewry. Jewish financiers such as Moses Montefiore
(1784–1885), Eduard de Rothschild (1868–1949),
and Maurice de Hirsch (1831–96) backed several plans for
the return of Jews to the Middle East, the most important
of them led by Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), the man historically
considered the founder and foremost leader of the
modern Zionist movement. In 1897 Herzl’s World Zionist
Congress, held at Basel, Switzerland, created a worldwide
political movement.
After some 20 years of struggle, the Zionist Congress
secured the so-called Balfour Declaration. Contained in a
November 2, 1917, letter from the British Foreign Office’s
Lord Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930) to Lord Rothschild,
it was a clear statement of the British policy
toward Zionism during WORLD WAR I, endorsing the
establishment of “a national home” for the Jewish people
in Palestine.
Soon afterward, British general Sir Edmund Allenby
(1861–1936) invaded Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in
December. Following the war the League of Nations in
1922 approved a British “mandate” over Palestine and
neighboring Transjordan, and the substance of the Balfour
Declaration was written into the mandate.
The mandate was intended to encourage the development
of self-government. Transjordan (modern Jordan)
did indeed become autonomous in 1923 and was recognized
as independent in 1928. However, in Palestine
independence was withheld because of the apparently
hopeless conflict between Arab and Jewish claims.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Arab-Jewish violence
was often intense, especially as more and more Jewish
immigrants fled to Palestine from Nazi-dominated
Europe, and the Jewish population of some 60,000 tripled
by the end of the 1920s. Arab resentment against this
mass immigration exploded into riots in 1929. Under the
encouragement of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, an
admirer of the Nazis, Arab rioting had become endemic
by 1936. In response the Jews formed Haganah (Defense),
and Palestine erupted into civil war.
By 1939 Haganah had grown from an underground
militia to a semiprofessional army that served as a cobelligerent
with the British during the war against Germany.
But British diplomacy did not always reflect conditions in
the combat zones. At the 1939 London Round Table Conference,
the British government issued a “White Paper”
promising the creation of an independent Palestine within
a decade and limiting Jewish immigration to 1,500 individuals
per month until 1944, when Jews would no longer
be admitted at all. So Zionists turned from Great Britain to
the United States for support, demanding in the May 1942
Biltmore Conference in New York the formation of an
independent Jewish state—a demand that attracted much
U.S. support.
The Nazi treatment of Jews spawned a sympathy for
Zionism worldwide, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(1882–1945) in his 1944 reelection campaign endorsed the
founding of a “free and democratic Jewish Commonwealth.”
This put the United States at odds with Britain,
which at war’s end was seeking to maintain its hegemony
in the Middle East through good relations with the Arabs.
The more radical Jewish organizations—Menachem Begin’s
(1913–92) terrorist Irgun and the Abraham Stern Group—
had turned against the British occupation by 1944.
During WORLD WAR II there had always been a subtle
tension between Roosevelt and his ally and friend British
prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Roosevelt
disapproved of British and French colonialism and
had little patience with Churchill’s plans to shore up
Britain’s waning colonial empire after the war, especially in
the Middle East. This lack of patience would color the
“special relationship” between the two powers after the
war, a faint if persistent irritant in the background of
American-British diplomacy that came closest to breaking
out into the open in the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. (See
Immediately after the war, however, the United States
was generally content to let the British wield their influence
in the Middle East to protect American COLD WAR
interests against the Soviet Union so long as it was evident
that Britain continued to divest itself directly of its colonial
holdings. In keeping with this subtle pressure, Britain
conducted a gallant balancing act, favoring the growth of
Arab unity in the region but striving to ensure that Arab
governments favorable to Britain would dominate any
such alliance. Thus, during the war Britain had supported
an Arab unity conference that met in Alexandria, Egypt, in
October of 1944, and led to the formation of the Arab
The league’s founding members were Egypt, Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Rivalries and tensions among league members and clauses
calling for unanimous votes weakened the body, headquartered
in Cairo, and often made it impossible for the
league to adopt common policies. Unable effectively to
resist the growing Zionism in Palestine, the league came
increasingly under the dominance of an Egypt struggling
to free itself of its French and British colonial past and
thus did not become the ally for which Great Britain had
hoped. Instead, Egypt used the league to develop a common
Arab front against the continued British and French
military presence in the Middle East as well as against
If the Arab League was created first and foremost to
prevent the birth of a Jewish state in Palestine, it was also
formed in anticipation of liberation from the old colonial
shackles. The Islamic nationalism that had been awakened
during World War I by Allied promises of autonomy in
exchange for Arab support in the conflict also finally
reached fruition at the end of World War II. The first great
wave of decolonization came when the British and the
French, honoring their war-time promises, evacuated—
then recognized the sovereignty of—Egypt and Syria in
1947 and Iraq in 1947. There was nothing magnanimous
about the Allied support; it came in response to the strategic
importance of the Middle East, deriving from its vast
oil reserves, the Suez Canal, and its position along the
south rim of the Soviet Union.
While the Arab kingdoms and republics, all Islamic,
were not drawn to communist ideology, the USSR. hoped
nevertheless to expand its influence by keeping up the
pressure on Turkey and Iran and insinuating itself in the
many quarrels of the region. From the beginning the most
intractable of these disputes was the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that
immediately following World War II large numbers of
Holocaust survivors sought homes in Palestine. When the
immigration met with British resistance, renewed violence
erupted, and a war-weary Britain, under U.S. pressure, at
last caved in, turning the entire problem over to the
United Nations in 1947. On May 14, 1948, the eve of
Britain’s evacuation, Palestine’s Jews, who had been waiting
since the Balfour Declaration for the homeland the
British had promised them, proclaimed the state of Israel.
The immediate result was the first of several Arab-Israeli
wars, as Arab armies invaded the former Palestine on the
very day that the Jewish state of Israel was formally created.
The Arab nations of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan,
Lebanon, and Iraq sent forces into the new country and
seized control of territory in southern and eastern Palestine.
Although new, the Israeli army was determined to
halt the Arab advance. Now the lack of unity and cooperation
within the Arab League and its alienation from Great
Britain and France (and thus the United States) took their
toll, as the Israelis pushed back the invaders in 1949. The
United Nations secured a four-week truce in June, but
fighting was under way once again in July. Periods of
truce and warfare alternated throughout the year, and
ultimately the Israelis gained control of the Negev Desert,
with the exception of the Gaza Strip. Israel started seeking
armistices with its Arab neighbors beginning in February
1949, and by July of that year agreements had been concluded
with Egypt, Syria, and Transjordan. Israel ended
the conflict with its territory increased by half and in control
of most of the disputed areas of Palestine. Perhaps
even more significantly, the Israeli troops had become a
strong standing army. As more Jews immigrated into
Israel, some 700,000 Arab Palestinians fled the territory
into Transjordan, whereupon the Israelis confiscated their
property. The Middle East “problem” had been born.


Further reading: Dan Kurzman, Genesis 1948: The
First Arab-Israeli War (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992);
Edgar O’Ballance, The Arab-Israeli War, 1948 (Westport,
Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1981); Ilan Pappé, The Making of
the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947–51 (London and New York:
I. B. Tauris, 1992).

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