1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
By Benny Morris
Yale University Press
'The Palestine problem is still in its infancy. The preface ended with the [end of the] Mandate and Chapter One began [in November 1947]... Do not miss [the 'next installment']!" recommended the British consul general in Jerusalem midway through the 1948 War.
"Chapter One," 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, as 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 reestablishing 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, inï¬del 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 two thousand 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 Qur'an 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 characterized 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 Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia responded that he was "prepared to receive anyone of any religion except (repeat except) a Jew." A few weeks earlier, Ibn Sa'ud 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 Muslims and the Jews from the beginning of Islam... which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims 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 Rifahi, 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 and 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 organizational 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 approached, 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 blessed 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 forgo 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.'"
The jihadi impulse underscored both popular and governmental responses in the Arab world to the UN partition resolution and was central to the mobilization 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 Organization 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 fervor stoked by the hostilities seems to have encompassed all or almost all Arabs: "No Muslim can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands," reported Kirkbride from Amman. "Even the Prime Minister [Tawï¬q 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 immediate trigger of the 1948 War was the November 1947 UN partition resolution. The Zionist movement, except for its fringes, accepted the proposal. Most lamented the imperative of giving up the historic heartland of Judaism, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), with East Jerusalem's Old City and Temple Mount at its core; and many were troubled by the inclusion in the prospective Jewish state of a large Arab minority. But the movement, with Ben-Gurion and Weizmann at the helm, said "yes."
The Palestinian Arabs, along with the rest of the Arab world, said a ï¬‚at "no" - as they had in 1937, when the Peel Commission had earlier proposed a two-state solution. The Arabs refused to accept the establishment of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. And, consistently with that "no," the Palestinian Arabs, in November-December 1947, and the Arab states in May 1948, launched hostilities to scupper the resolution's implementation. Many Palestinians may have been unenthusiastic about going to war - but to war they went. They may have been badly led and poorly organized; the war may have been haphazardly unleashed; and many able-bodied males may have avoided service. But Palestinian Arab society went to war, and no Palestinian leader publicly raised his voice in protest or dissent.
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 hoped 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 picture of Arab aims was always more complex than Zionist historiography subsequently made out. The chief cause of this complexity was that ï¬‚y-in-the-ointment, King 'Abdullah. Jordan's ruler, a pragmatist, was generally skeptical of the Arabs' ability to defeat, let alone destroy, the Yishuv, and fashioned his war aim accordingly: to seize the Arab-populated West Bank, preferably including East Jerusalem. No doubt, had his army been larger and Zionist resistance weaker, he would have headed for Tel Aviv and Haifa; after all, for years he had tried to persuade the Zionist leaders to agree to Jordanian sovereignty over all of Palestine, with the Jews to receive merely a small, autonomous zone (which he called a "republic") within his expanded kingdom. But, come 1948, he understood the balance of forces: the Jews were simply too powerful and too resolute, and their passion for self-determination was not to be denied.
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