In a fourth excerpt from Benny Morris's new book on Israel's founding, the author provides a brief history of the 1947-1948 war that would define the Jewish state's effective borders
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 Nov. 30, 1947 and ending on May 14, 1948, and a conventional war, beginning when the armies of the surrounding Arab states invaded Palestine on May 15 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 characterized 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 June 1, 1948 became the Israel Defense 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 characterized 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 front lines (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 involved major campaigns and battles and resulted in the conquest of territory, mainly by the Jews. The end of this war resulted in clear front lines, marking a continuous Jewishheld 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.
The military's guidelines were explicit: "Our forces would take no action except such as was directed towards their own withdrawal and the withdrawal of our stores; i. e., they would not be responsible for maintaining law and order (except as necessary for their own protection)." But the high commissioner, Alan Cunningham, was also interested in leaving behind him as orderly a country (and reputation) as he could, and this required the maintenance of law and order for as long as possible. Cunningham put it this way: "It is our intention to be as impartial as is humanly possible. [But] we wish to protect the law-abiding citizen." This meant that the British would try to protect those attacked.
In practice, British troops intervened in the fighting quite frequently from November, 1947, down to March, 1948, and occasionally in April as well. This was one reason for the precipitous increase in British casualties during the Mandate's last five months. (Another was attacks on British troops by Irgun and Stern Gang gunmen, usually triggered by Arab attacks on Jews in which Britons were known to have assisted.) In all of 1947, British forces in Palestine suffered 60 dead and 189 wounded; in the period Jan. 1 to May 14, 1948, British losses were 114 dead and 230 wounded.
The further contradiction, between strict impartiality and a desire to maintain Britain's standing in the Middle East, which required a pro-Arab tilt, led to inconsistent behavior, causing confusion among British officials and officers and among many Arabs and Jews.
British military interventions down to mid-March, 1948, tended to work to the Jews' tactical advantage since during the war's first four months the Arabs were generally on the offensive and the Jews were usually on the defensive. British columns repeatedly intervened on the side of attacked Jewish settlements and convoys. And the British regularly supplied escorts to Jewish convoys in troubled areas, such as the road to Jerusalem. This led to Arab accusations that the British were pro-Zionist.
But in a larger strategic sense, the massive British military presence tended to inhibit Haganah operations. The Haganah could not contemplate large-scale operations, of which it became more capable as the war advanced, or conquest of Arab territory, out of fear of British intervention; and it understandably shied away from fighting the British while its hands were full with the Palestinian Arab militias and their foreign auxiliaries. Until April, 1948, the Haganah operated under the assumption that the British military would block or forcefully roll back large-scale operations.
To a lesser extent, however, the British presence also inhibited Palestinian Arab attack at certain times. Moreover, the British military presence, and continued sovereignty over the country, certainly deterred the regular Arab armies from crossing the frontiers and interfering in the fighting before May 15. The Arab leaders' periodic threats to this effect during the civil war remained empty bluster.
The guideline of impartiality, authorized by a British cabinet decision on Dec. 4, 1947, translated during the following months into a policy of quietly assisting each side in the takeover of areas in which that side was demographically dominant. In practice, this meant the handover, as the British successively withdrew from each area (Tel Aviv in December, 1947, Gaza in February, 1948, and so on), of Mandate government installations -- police forts, military camps, utilities -- to the majority community's control.
The police forts and camps in the hill country of Judea, Samaria and Galilee generally were turned over to Arab militia commanders; installations in the coastal plain and the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys went to the Haganah. This policy sometimes occasioned a more radical expression -- British advice or urging to specific threatened or defeated communities to evacuate. For example, on April 18, 1948, the British urged the Arab inhabitants of Tiberias to evacuate the town; a week later they proffered the same advice in Balad ash Sheikh, an Arab village southeast of Haifa. In the course of January through May, 1948, the British periodically urged the small Jewish communities north of Jerusalem (Neve Yagakov and Atarot) to clear out, as they did the inhabitants of the four kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc, south of Bethlehem.
British troops did not always abide by the guideline of impartiality. Occasionally, they indulged in overt anti-Jewish behaviour. During the war's first months, British troops occasionally confiscated arms from Haganah units protecting convoys or manning outposts in urban areas (the British argued that they also seized arms from Arab militiamen). And on a number of occasions, British units disarmed Haganah men and handed them over to Arab mobs and "justice."
For example, on Feb. 12, 1948, a British patrol disarmed a Haganah roadblock and arrested its members on Jerusalem's Shmuel Hanavi Street. The four men were later "released" unarmed into the hands of an Arab mob, which lynched them and mutilated their bodies. A similar incident occurred a fortnight later, on Feb. 28, when British troops disarmed Haganah men at a position in the Hayotzek Factory near Holon. Eight men were "butchered." The next day, Stern Gang terrorists blew up a British troop train near Rehovot, killing 28 British troops and wounding dozens more. - Excerpted, with permission, from 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris, published by Yale University Press. © 2008 Benny Morris.
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