Israel has fought and won three major wars in its 61-year existence. The best-known today are the Six-day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The first war it fought as a nation was in 1948, today referred to by Israelis as the “War of Independence” and by Palestinian Arabs as “al-Nakba,” the catastrophe. But perhaps the most important clashes in Israel’s relatively brief history took place in the months preceding its declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, when the Haganah, the predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces—aided in a minor way by the dissident groups, the IZL and the LHI—battled Arab militias in the towns and villages of Palestine and along the roads linking them. At the time, Great Britain, while nominally charged with maintaining order as it disengaged from the Palestinian territory it had ruled since 1917, focused mainly on withdrawing with minimal casualties and with its political prestige in the Middle East intact, and only occasionally intervened in the fighting.
Palestine’s Jews responded to the Arabs’ first attempt to wipe them out with a fierce, all-out war
At stake in this civil war was Israel’s existence, and in the early months the Arabs appeared to be winning. By the end of March 1948, most of the Haganah’s armored car fleet lay in ruins, and Jewish West Jerusalem, with 100,000 residents, was under siege. Had the run of successful Arab convoy ambushes continued, and had Jerusalem gone under, it seems certain that the armies of the Arab states that invaded the country seven weeks later would have aborted the tiny state before its birth.
Instead, in April 1948, with its back to the wall, the Yishuv (in Hebrew, the Settlement)—as the 630,000-strong Jewish community in Palestine called itself—struck back. In a series of campaigns lasting six weeks, they battled mercilessly with the Palestinian Arab militias and overran dozens of Arab villages and towns. Slowly but surely, the balance of the war began to tip in their favor.
By 1947, waves of immigration had brought about half a million Jews to Palestine’s shores. Most came from Eastern Europe, fleeing bouts of anti-Semitic legislation and violence—pogroms—in the czarist empire and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in central Europe, cresting with the Holocaust during World War II. Underlying their desire to return to the Land of Israel was an age-old messianic longing for the ancestral territory and the resurrection of Jewish sovereignty.
Palestinian Arab resistance to the Zionist immigration was slow to get off the mark—like Arab nationalism in general—but grew increasingly violent and increasingly religious during the 1930s, precisely when the Zionist movement was most desperately seeking a safe haven for Europe’s persecuted Jews. Even before this escalation, Jews had little trust in Palestinian Arabs. The Axis powers, Italy and Germany, had politically and economically supported the Palestine Arab revolt in 1936–1939, against both British rule and the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. And the Palestinian national movement’s leader, the anti-Jewish Muslim cleric Haj Amin al-Husseini, sat out the war years (1941–1945) in Germany, received a salary from the Third Reich’s foreign ministry, and broadcast calls to the Arab world to join in the anti-British jihad.
The Zionists feared nothing less than a second Holocaust should the Arabs win political control of Palestine, obliterating the Jews and their dreams of a homeland. And, from 1939 on, the Zionists also had to contend with a British government that had turned from pro-Zionism to appeasing the Arabs. That year London issued a new Palestine White Paper, severely curbing Jewish immigration and providing for an independent Palestine governed by its Arab majority within 10 years. In response, the clandestine Jewish militias, the mainstream Haganah and the right-wing IZL (irgun zvai leumi, or National Military Organization, which the British called the “Irgun”) and its offshoot, the LHI (lohamei herut yisrael, or Freedom Fighters of Israel; the British called it the “Stern Gang” after its leader Avraham Stern), launched a campaign to oust the British from Palestine.
The campaign had been suspended for much of the world war as Jews and Britons fought the common Nazi enemy, but it was renewed in 1944 with a surge of Irgun and Stern Gang attacks that claimed dozens of British lives. Meanwhile, the Haganah dispatched ships laden with thousands of illegal European immigrants to Palestine.
The world war had vastly weakened Great Britain. By 1947, the country no longer had the resolve to deal with the dilemma in Palestine: the Zionists demanding statehood, at least in part of the country, and the Palestinian Arabs demanding all of the country as their indivisible patrimony. The additional embarrassment of having to fight illegal immigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors, and the trauma of continuous Jewish terrorist attacks finally persuaded Whitehall to throw in the towel. In February 1947 Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin announced that Britain would terminate its rule and hand over the Palestine problem to the United Nations.
The UN duly appointed a commission of inquiry, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), whose majority in September recommended to the General Assembly that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, both having sites holy to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, were earmarked for international rule. The General Assembly proceeded to reduce the size of the recommended Jewish state to 55 percent of Palestine (the Arabs were to get close to 45 percent) and voted for partition: 33 in favor (including all of Western Europe, the United States, the Soviet bloc, and most of Latin America), 13 against (mostly Arab and Muslim or partly Muslim countries), and 10 abstentions (including Britain and China).
The Zionist leadership and mainstream parties, though not the right-wing Revisionist movement, accepted the division, despite Zionism’s original quest for sovereignty over the whole Land of Israel; David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive (the Yishuv’s “government”), and Chaim Weizmann, Zionism’s most prominent statesman, bowed to the diktat of history and circumstance.
The Arab world, spearheaded by Palestine’s Arab leadership, responded with a resounding “no”—as they had in 1937, when the British Peel Commission had recommended that only 17 percent of Palestine be awarded for Jewish statehood, and most of the remainder for Arab sovereignty.
The United Nations General Assembly passed the partition resolution (No. 181) on November 29, 1947, and Palestinian Arabs, in disorganized and dispersed fashion, launched hostilities to stymie the carrying out of the resolution.
On November 30, Arab gunmen, in the first shots of the war, ambushed two Jewish buses near Petah Tikva, killing seven passengers, and snipers firing from the Arab town of Jaffa hit pedestrians in neighboring Tel Aviv. The Husseini-led Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the Palestinian Arabs’ “government,” called a general strike. The civil war had begun.
The two sides were ill-matched. The Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, was much smaller: 630,000 to the Arabs’ 1.3 million. However, the Yishuv was tightly knit, highly mobilized, largely urban, educated, European, and motivated by the trauma of the just-ended Holocaust. Their leaders were public-service oriented and committed; they included the best and the brightest.
From the 1920s into the 1940s the Yishuv had fashioned a state within a state, with its own governing institutions, including a cabinet (the Jewish Agency Executive), departments (such as the Jewish Agency political, settlement, and finance departments), and a militia, the Haganah, with some 35,000 members.
When hostilities commenced, the Haganah had about 10,000 rifles, 3,500 submachine guns, 775 light machine guns, 157 medium machine guns, 16 antitank launchers, 670 two-inch mortars, and 84 three-inch mortars. Several thousand additional light weapons were in the hands of Jewish supernumerary policemen serving the British, most of whom were Haganah members. The Haganah had several spotter aircraft, though no combat aircraft, tanks, or artillery. In the course of the civil war, Haganah armorers produced makeshift armored cars—trucks protected by steel sheeting—and thousands of Sten submachine guns, as well as light mortars, grenades, mines, and ammunition.
The Haganah had a standing, efficient strike force of some 2,000 to 3,000 members, the Palmach, which served as its backbone and shield as it mobilized and, from November 1947 to May 1948, was transformed from a militia into an army, with battalion and brigade formations. By May the Palmach could field 10 functioning, if underequipped and undermanned, brigades. Most of the Yishuv’s roughly 250 rural settlements—which were the front line for much of the civil war and the conventional interstate war that followed—had trenchworks, perimeter fences and lighting, bomb shelters, and a central armory, which usually included a few machine guns and light mortars. The Haganah was familiar with the terrain and had nowhere to flee—except into the Mediterranean.
The Palestine Arabs enjoyed the support of the vast hinterland of Arab states, who, though in niggardly fashion, sent arms, money and, between December 1947 and February 1948, a 4,000-strong force of relatively well-equipped volunteers, most of them Syrians and Iraqis, known as the Arab Liberation Army (ALA). The ALA had medium and heavy mortars, armored cars, and, by April, half a dozen field pieces.
In addition, hundreds of lightly armed Muslim Brotherhood volunteers arrived in southern Palestine from North Africa.
But the Jews had organized for war; the Arabs had not. Although each of Palestine’s approximately 800 Arab villages and towns had a local militia, each with dozens or even hundreds of personal weapons, the Palestinians had failed to put together a national militia organization—and when it came to civil war, each village, town and, at best, region fought alone against the Haganah, the Irgun and LHI. Some of the militias were obedient to the Husseini family–dominated Arab Higher Committee (AHC) that nominally governed the Arab community; others obeyed local authorities (the urban national committees or village mukhtars). The Arab militiamen probably, like the Jews, felt that they were fighting for hearth and home—but, unlike the Jews, they always had the option of flight to hinterland Arab villages and states. And their militias had almost no mortars or armored cars. The Palestinians, like the Arab states, had no independent arms production capabilities.
Palestine Arabs were largely illiterate, poor, mainly agricultural, and disunited, with a cluster of venal families, led by the Husseinis, at the helm. The leaders had little or no public-service orientation. The better-educated, wealthier Christian 8 percent of the Arab population feared the Muslim majority, townspeople looked down on fellahin (typically, farm laborers) and Bedouins (members of nomadic tribes), while fellahin feared and contemned Bedouins. The notable families had been bitterly divided since the 1920s by a power struggle between the Husseini-led leadership and the “Opposition,” led by another notable Jerusalem family, the Nashashibis.
In the late 1930s, against the backdrop of the Palestine Arab revolt, the rivalry had erupted in systematic Husseini terrorism against their Arab opponents, leaving a trail of blood feuds and treachery that was to disunite the Palestinians when they confronted the Zionists a decade later. The Palestine Arabs also failed to put together an autonomous governmental structure. The Husseini-dominated AHC nominally “governed” the Arab community—but many Arabs opposed it. At the start of the civil war, local notables from the various factions set up “national committees” in each town, which tried to run the communities during the crisis. But in effect, most of the the middle and upper classes declined to join the fight—and most of them (including many national committee members) fled the country during the following months, beginning as early as November 1947. Very few sons of the urban upper and middle classes participated in the war.
In the hilly spine of the country, running from Galilee through Samaria and Judea, the Arabs enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in numbers; there were practically no Jewish settlements. But in the areas earmarked by the United Nations for Jewish sovereignty—in the central and northern Coastal Plain, in the Jezreel and Jordan valleys and in Jerusalem—the populations were thoroughly intermixed. Along each road were Arab and Jewish villages, and many of the towns—Haifa, Safad, Tiberias—had both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The civil war, chaotic like most, was fought mainly in the predominantly Jewish areas. That included the lowlands—the Coastal Plain and the Jezreel and Jordan valleys—and in and around Jerusalem. In the city and its surrounds were roughly 100,000 Jews and a similar number of Arabs. Because the Arabs lacked a national militia and suffered from a deficit of national consciousness and commitment, especially among the majority rural population, the inhabitants of the core Arab areas—around Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, and Nazareth—did not take part in the fighting.
The Arabs may have started the war, albeit in disorganized, haphazard fashion, but they did so with widespread reluctance and deep foreboding; many, perhaps most, did not believe they could win, and lacked confidence in their political and military leaders. “The fellah is afraid of the Jewish terrorists….The town dweller admits that his strength is insufficient to fight the Jewish force and hopes for salvation from outside….[The] majority…are confused, frightened…All they want is peace, quiet,” reported one Haganah Intelligence Service (HIS) agent already in October 1947.
The first stage of the civil war was characterized by a gradual snowballing of the hostilities, which at first engulfed only some seam neighborhoods in the mixed towns and certain rural roads (the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv road, the north-south Jordan Valley road). At no point between November 1947 and May 1948 did the Arab Higher Committee issue a blanket order to the various militias to “assault the Yishuv.” And during the war’s first four months the AHC blew hot and cold, occasionally instructing militias to attack this or that settlement or neighborhood, at other times vaguely instructing the locals to keep their powder dry until a general assault was ordered (an order that never came). Many Arab national committees, run by the propertied middle and upper classes, were reluctant to order or allow their militiamen (and in each of the large towns—Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem—there were a number of militia groups, each loyal to a different boss) to attack the Jews for fear of Jewish retaliation, which was bound to damage property and businesses and to cost lives.
Attacks in the first four months of the war were limited to Arab bombings and snipings in the urban centers; assaults on Jewish urban neighborhoods and rural settlements; and ambushes against Jewish traffic, which from December 1947 generally moved in organized convoys, guarded by Haganah members, often riding in open vans and makeshift armored vehicles, and British armored cars. There were also, as feared, Jewish retaliatory attacks on Arab urban neighborhoods, villages, and traffic.
In December, Arab militiamen assaulted and partly took Tel Aviv’s southern Hatikva Quarter before being driven back by Jewish militiamen. The following month, the ALA’s 2nd Yarmuk Battalion, supported by local militiamen, unsuccessfully attacked Kibbutz Yehiam in Western Galilee. In February 1948, the ALA attacked Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, in the Beit Shean Valley, but the Jewish defenses (and the vastly outnumbered Jewish defenders) and the mud proved too formidable. A British relief column arrived on the scene at the end of the battle and briefly engaged the Arabs. The ALA suffered 40 to 60 dead; the kibbutzniks, one dead and one wounded.
As the war wore on, and partly in response to Jewish reprisals, the Arab militiamen also unleashed a wave of urban bombings. The focus was Jerusalem. On February 1, Arab bombers, aided by British deserters, struck the offices of the Palestine Post (today the Jerusalem Post), killing one person and injuring 20. On February 22, the bombers—most of them British deserters in this case—struck more effectively, blowing up three trucks in downtown Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street, levelling four buildings and killing 58 people. A third bomb, in an American consular car driven by an Armenian Arab, blew up in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building, killing 12.
For the first 10 days of hostilities, the Haganah limited itself to pure defense, hoping that the bout of violence would blow over after Arab tempers cooled, as had happened with previous anti-Zionist violence in 1920, 1921, and 1929.
But on December 9, 1947, the Haganah General Staff decided to change to “active defense,” maintaining a general strategy of defense while occasionally retaliating against Arab targets. For the next three months, Haganah raiders responded to attacks on Jewish targets with similar, if less frequent, attacks on Arab traffic and villages. Usually, the orders were to avoid harming women and children, though there is no evidence that such instructions were ever issued to Palestinian Arab assailants. Inevitably, noncombatants died in the Haganah reprisals, which also tended to suck more and more Arabs into the circle of hostilities.
From the start of the hostilities, the Irgun and the Stern Gang had deemed restraint a sign of weakness and ineffectiveness, and they now responded to Arab attacks with terrorism of their own; sometimes their targets were Arab militiamen and headquarters, more often the attacks were indiscriminate. In Jerusalem, Irgun men repeatedly threw grenades and bombs at milling groups of Arabs outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate; in Jaffa, in January 1948, LHI men, in a bold attack, levelled with explosives the old Saraya building, which housed a militia headquarters. In Jerusalem, also in January, the Haganah—in an uncharacteristic attack—blew up the Semiramis Hotel in the Katamon district, believing it to be a militia headquarters, though it probably wasn’t, and the Spanish vice consul was among the two dozen dead. Nonetheless, the Haganah for weeks refrained from attacking in areas not yet caught up in the fighting in the hope that the conflagration would die down.
As in all civil wars, the hostilities resulted in and were often characterized by local revenge cycles. One such cycle occurred in Haifa. On December 30, 1947, an Irgun team threw a grenade into a crowd of Arab workers at a bus stop outside the Haifa Oil Refinery gate. Eleven were killed. This triggered a rampage by the Arab workers inside the refinery compound against their Jewish coworkers, and 39 were slaughtered with knives, crowbars, and hammers. On the night of December 31, the Haganah avenged the massacre by raiding the nearby village of Balad ash Sheikh, in which many refinery workers lived. Dozens of villagers died, some dragged from their homes and executed.
A Haganah intelligence report from mid-May 1948 evaluated the Haganah, Irgun, and Stern Gang reprisals of December 1947 through March 1948 on the Palestine Arab community: “The main effect of these operations was on the Arab civilian population…[leading to] economic paralysis, unemployment, lack of of fuel and supplies because of the severance of transport. They suffered from the destruction of their houses and psychologically their nerves were badly hit, and they even suffered evacuations and wanderings….[All this] weakened the Arab areas and made the operations of the militiamen more difficult.” The hardier Yishuv, under similar hardships, stood fast.
That report proved to be putting a gloss over a touch-and-go situation. It’s true that from early December 1947 on, Arabs began evacuating areas near Jewish population concentrations and in seam neighborhoods in the mixed towns. By late March 1948, much of the middle- and upper-class population had left, moving either into the Arab-populated interior of Palestine (Tulkarm, Nablus, Ramallah) or out of the country, to hotels and second homes in Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. Most were fearful of being caught up in the fighting.
The Arab Higher Committee was generally opposed to evacuations but was often ambiguous in its instructions to local authorities, except with regard to young males, who were reproached for leaving. Local authorities, such as the national committee in Haifa, often advised or even ordered the population to stay put, but to little avail. In the areas earmarked for Jewish sovereignty in the partition resolution, local Arab leaders or military commanders often ordered or advised rural communities to send away their women and children if they were already engulfed in the hostilities or about to be. In the Coastal Plain, complete evacuation was ordered in a handful of villages, so they would not appear to be accepting Jewish rule. In the period from November 1947 through March 1948, only one Arab village, Qisariya (Caesarea), south of Haifa, was forcibly evacuated by the Haganah.
Down to the end of March 1948, the Haganah—and the Jewish Agency—abided by the Zionist mainstream’s policy of acquiescing in the emergence of a Jewish state with a large Arab minority. As Yisrael Galili, Ben-Gurion’s deputy as political head of the Haganah, put it in an order on March 24 to all the brigades, the organization was to respect “the rights, needs and freedom…without discrimination” of the Arab communities in the Jewish areas. (Exceptions were to be made only in the event of clear military necessity.)
Evacuations aside, by late March, the situation along the roads had steadily deteriorated, and the Haganah General Staff began to fear a Jewish collapse, at least in Jewish West Jerusalem (which, with 100,000 people, contained a sixth of the country’s Jewish population). Early in the civil war, the Arabs noted the Yishuv’s main vulnerability: the roads that linked the main urban centers to one another and to clusters of rural settlements. On December 31, 1947, Haganah intelligence reported: “The Arabs intend to paralyze all Jewish traffic on the roads within the next few days.” Gradually during the first months of 1948 the Arab militias concentrated their attention on the convoys; by March their firepower and methods of operation had proved highly successful. For the Haganah, the last weeks of March were disastrous, as they lost much of their armored car fleet and dozens of troops.
First came the convoy ambushes, all in the Jerusalem area, at Har-Tuv on March 18, Atarot on March 24, and Saris on March 24, in which a total of 26 died and 18 vehicles were destroyed. Then came two great disasters. On March 27, thousands of local militiamen swooped down on a 50-vehicle convoy heading back to West Jerusalem from the isolated Etzion Bloc—a cluster of four kibbutzim between Hebron and Bethlehem—and halted it, pouring fire on the 186 Haganah. By the following morning, the Jews’ situation was desperate. The overflights of Haganah spotter planes, dropping the occasional grenade on the militiamen, did little good. At last a British armored column got through and negotiated a ceasefire. The Haganah men were forced to abandon all their vehicles and hand over their arms. The Haganah lost 15 dead and 73 wounded, and 10 armored cars, 4 buses, and 25 armored trucks.
An even worse fate befell a smaller Haganah convoy in Western Galilee, heading for Kibbutz Yehiam, on March 27. The convoy was lost to Arab Liberation Army and local ambushers, with 47 Haganah men killed; many of the bodies recovered by the British afterwards had been mutilated. A third convoy, on its way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was badly mauled at Hulda on March 31.
The British High Commissioner in Palestine, Gen. Alan Cunningham, understood the significance of what had occurred. “It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Yishuv and its leaders are deeply worried about the future. The intensification of Arab attacks on communications…has brought home the precarious position of Jewish communities, both great and small, which are dependent on supply lines running through Arab-controlled country,” he reported to London on April 3. “In particular it is now realized that the position of Jewish Jerusalem, where a food scarcity already exists, is likely to be desperate after 16th May.…The balance of the fighting seems to have turned much in favour of the Arabs.”
Throughout the conflict the British, gradually downgrading their military and civilian presence, tried to maintain law and order, and generally, until mid-March, aided the Haganah—with escorts for the convoys that travelled between the towns and occasional active intervention against attacking Arab militiamen. The Arabs were usually the aggressors and the British were committed to protecting life and property. At the same time, many British soldiers, for years targets of Irgun and Stern Gang terrorism, and occasionally with anti-Jewish biases, sympathized with and occasionally helped the Arabs; dozens of British deserters fought with the Arab militias.
Politically, British policy and its implementation was evenhanded. British officials and troops generally turned over their installations to the majority population in each area (and the evacuated British police stations—in reality, forts—were often to be crucial during both the civil and conventional parts of the war). But during late March to mid-May, British policy was often ambiguous, partly because continued Irgun and LHI attacks on their personnel alienated them, partly because the British commanders, about to depart, saw no point in losing men in interventions against the belligerents, and partly because Whitehall was keen on leaving behind, in the (Arab) Middle East in general, as much sympathy and friendship as possible. Zionist feelings were of much less concern in London, where the anti-Zionist foreign secretary, Ernst Bevin, ruled the roost.
The Zionist leadership was keenly aware of the impending British departure, scheduled for May 15, and the pan-Arab invasion that was to follow, as announced almost daily by the Arab leaders and media. The main Jewish areas, the roads between them, and the border areas of the emergent Jewish state all had to be secured before the Arab armies invaded—which meant that the Palestinian Arab militias had to be crushed first if there was to be any hope of beating the invaders.
Additionally, the United States in mid-March had signalled its imminent abandonment of partition. Warren Austin, the U.S. delegate, proposed to the Security Council on March 19 that the United Nations suspend implementing Resolution 181 and impose an open-ended UN trusteeship on Palestine. It was clear to Ben-Gurion that the international community would follow the American lead—unless the Yishuv could prove that it was viable by defeating the Palestinian Arabs and establishing a state.
No one was more acutely aware of the deteriorating situation for the Zionists than Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv’s “defense minister.” He was particularly perturbed by the fate of Jewish Jerusalem, whose fall, he knew, would be a mighty blow to the Jewish side.
At a nightlong meeting with the Haganah General Staff on March 31–April 1, he decided to mount an operation in the Jerusalem sector that was to inaugurate a general change of strategy—going from the defensive to the offensive.
Haganah also switched to the offensive in early April simply because it could. It had mobilized and trained a small army organized into battalions and brigades, and arms from Czechoslovakia, purchased by Zionist agents, had at last begun arriving in Palestine. A first shipment arrived by air on the night of March 31; a second, larger shipment, arrived by ship in Tel Aviv on April 2—all together 4,700 rifles, 240 medium machine guns, and 5.2 million rounds of ammunition. At last the Haganah would have a relatively large supply of weapons at hand to divert to a particular front. (Most of its arms until then had been dispersed among the different localities, in defense, and the localities refused to “loan” the headquarters arms, fearing they would be attacked when the arms were elsewhere.)
The offensive decided upon on the night of March 31, dubbed “Operation Nahshon,” was designed to force open the Hulda–Jerusalem section of the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road so that several large food, fuel, and munitions convoys could push through to the besieged capital. Shimon Avidan commanded the operation. The German-born, 36-year-old Avidan, operations commander of the Givati Brigade, had been actively organizing illegal immigration from Europe at the end of World War II—and executing Nazi war criminals.
Nahshon involved some 1,500 troops. As it turned out, it was to be the first of a succession of offensive operations—most of them triggered by Arab attack, siege, or pressure—that represented the piecemeal, staggered implementation of Tochnit Dalet (Plan D) and, taken together, quickly resulted in the conquests of Arab towns, urban neighborhoods, and swaths of countryside. From early April, although Haganah leaders did not agree on or institute a blanket policy of expulsion, an atmosphere of “transfer” took hold among them as margins of safety narrowed and as the prospective pan-Arab invasion loomed. Facing a war for survival, the Yishuv took off the gloves.
Plan D had been finalized on March 10 by the 32-year-old Yigael Yadin, chief of operations of the Haganah and, in effect, its chief of general staff through the 1948 war. The plan was a blueprint for Haganah operations, originally scheduled to be unleashed during the fortnight before the final British pullout, and was designed to prepare for the expected pan-Arab invasion. It authorized the Haganah brigades to secure the main routes between the Jewish centers of population, the main Jewish urban concentrations and the border areas, and potential Arab invasion routes. It gave the Haganah brigade OCs carte blanche with regard to Arab villages—to conquer and garrison villages or to destroy them and expel their inhabitants. Each brigade was assigned specific targets.
(Arab and pro-Arab chroniclers, like Walid Khalidi and Ilan Papper, were later to define Plan D as the “master plan” for expelling the Palestine Arabs—but it was not, although in putting the plan into effect, commanders depopulated large chunks of Arab territory.)
Nahshon—in effect, the first stage of Plan D—was unleashed on April 2 and 3 with the conquest of the Arab hilltop village of al-Kastal, which dominated the road to Jerusalem. During the following days, Haganah battalions conquered a handful of Arab villages along the road—which served as the militias’ bases—and pushed two and a half supply-laden convoys to Jerusalem. On April 8, a Haganah sentry killed Abdel Qadir al-Husseini, the leader of the Arab militias in the Jerusalem hills area and the Palestinian Arabs’ foremost military commander, at Kastal as he approached the village, which he thought had already been retaken by his irregulars. A few hours later, the Arabs retook the village—but then abandoned it and streamed to Jerusalem for Husseini’s funeral. Palmach troops then peacefully reoccupied the village. The day before he died, Husseini, a cousin of Haj Amin’s, had jotted down a poem, dedicated to his son Faisal (later a senior PLO official):
This land of the brave is the land of our forefathers.
The Jews have no right to this land.
How can I sleep while the enemy rules it?
Something burns in my heart.
My homeland beckons.
Husseini’s death was a major blow to the Palestinian cause. So, for different reasons, was a second incident during Nahshon: the conquest of the village of Deir Yassin by Irgun and Stern Gang troops (marginally assisted by Haganah) on April 9. In the course of the fight, four Jewish soldiers were killed and several dozen were wounded. One hundred ten of the villagers, including women and children, died, some massacred after the battle. The survivors were then trucked to Arab East Jerusalem where they told horrific tales of Jewish atrocities, some of them true. These were subsequently broadcast by Arab radio stations—who exaggerated the number of Arab dead—in the hope of persuading other Arab villages to fiercely resist conquest.
Instead, the broadcasts had a boomerang effect and triggered mass Arab flight around the country. The Haganah Intelligence Service defined Deir Yassin as “a major accelerating factor” in the mass exodus that was set off by the Haganah shift to the offensive. Between 250,000 and 300,000 Arabs left their homes from April through June 1948, becoming displaced persons.
Arab militiamen eventually resealed the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road and reinstated the siege of the capital. But Nahshon, which lasted until April 15, was a pivotal event. It heralded the Haganah’s shift to the offensive, which proved decisive. For the first time, the organization had deployed a brigade-sized force, had cleared a swath of Arab territory, and, together with the Irgun and Stern Gang, had incited widespread flight from rural Palestine. During the following days the focus of the fighting switched to the country’s urban centers.
From April 16 through 18, Haganah troops defeated the Arab militia in the mixed town of Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, which resulted in the Arabs’ organized departure under British escort. The town’s militiamen had interdicted Jewish traffic between the Jezreel and Beit Shean valleys and the upper Jordan Valley settlements to the north. Some of the approximately 5,000 Arab townspeople were trucked out to Nazareth; others fled to Transjordan. The Jews issued no expulsion order but it seems that the local British commanders had advised the Arabs to leave, arguing that they would have no protection after the British departed.
Haifa followed. Haifa was Palestine’s most modern city and the country’s main port, earmarked, like Tiberias, by the UN partition plan for Jewish sovereignty. For decades its Arabs and Jews had lived in relative harmony. At the end of 1947 it had about 70,000 Jews, and a slightly smaller number of Arabs.
On April 21, the Haganah, based in the Carmel Mountain Jewish neighborhoods that dominated the Arab-populated Lower City, attacked the seam neighborhoods. The British northern region commander, Gen. Hugh Stockwell, did not intervene in the fighting, though he prevented reinforcements from reaching the town from nearby Arab villages. Stockwell was interested in a swift end to the battle since Haifa was the main departure point from Palestine for the remaining British civilian administrators and military. The Arab militias quickly collapsed, their leaders fleeing the city at the start of the battle. By the afternoon of April 22, it was all over.
That afternoon, Gen. Stockwell organized a meeting of the remaining Arab leaders and Jewish representatives in the town hall to hammer out terms of surrender (which the Arabs insisted on calling a “truce”).
But the Arabs rejected what Stockwell deemed the Haganah’s moderate terms and announced instead that they would all depart the city. Apparently they feared that the Husseinis would consider them traitors should they remain, surrender, and accept Jewish rule. In the following days, the Arab population began leaving, by boat or in British-escorted transports. By early May, only some 5,000 Arabs remained in Haifa.
The fall and evacuation of Arab Haifa undermined the staying power of Arab communities throughout the north. In itself, this accounted for about one-tenth of the war’s Arab refugees.
Without doubt, Haifa also affected Jaffa. The Haganah had decided to leave Jaffa alone, believing it—with 70,000 to 80,000 Arabs, the largest Arab city in Palestine—would fall once the British left. The partition resolution had earmarked Jaffa as a sovereign Arab enclave inside the Jewish state area.
But the Irgun also sought to emerge from the war with a bit of glory—and Jaffa had been harassing Tel Aviv, the Irgun’s main base of power, since November. The Irgun commanders, directed by the organization’s leader Menachem Begin, decided to take Jaffa. On April 25, six Irgun companies attacked the southern part of Manshiya, Jaffa’s northernmost neighborhood, threatening to cut it off from the town center, which they proceeded to barrage with mortars for three days.
By April 27, after hard house-to-house fighting with the local militiamen, the Irgun troops had reached the Mediterranean—and Manshiya was cut off. Its population fled southward.
This time, the British reacted—after being blamed throughout the Arab world for the fall of Arab Haifa and “collusion” with the Jews. Bevin sought to prove that he was the Arabs’ friend. He ordered in the Royal Air Force—which strafed a Jewish position—some destroyers, and an armored column, proceeding to push out the Irgun force. But Jaffa’s reprieve was short-lived. As chaos reigned during the following fortnight, most local inhabitants fled, and Arab militiamen, including an ALA contingent, and British troops looted the abandoned houses. On May 13, with the British gone, Haganah units quietly occupied the town. Only some 4,000 Arabs remained.
The Jewish offensives also encompassed rural areas. In Operation Hametz, at the end of April, Haganah troops conquered the rural hinterland east of Jaffa. From April 15 through mid-May, other Haganah units, in Operation Yiftah, conquered Eastern Galilee, humbling the Arab Liberation Army and local militiamen. Yigal Allon commanded the operation. The Palestine-born officer in command of the Palmach was the Haganah’s best field commander. (During the following months, he was to display his skills when, in charge of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Front, he defeated the Egyptian Army in operations Yoav and Horev.)
The Palmach took Safad—the “capital” of Eastern Galilee—originally with some 10,000 Arabs and 1,500 mostly Orthodox Jews, on May 9 and 10, the Arabs fleeing eastward, to Syria. Beit Shean, the Arab town at the center of the Beit Shean Valley, fell three days later, the inhabitants mostly going to Jordan. A few days after that, Jewish forces expelled those who remained to Nazareth. The rural areas of Eastern Galilee—designated for Jewish sovereignty—also fell to the Haganah. In all, the operation had also helped seal off the likely invasion routes from Syria.
The coastal area of Western Galilee was next. In Operation Ben-Ami, a two-battalion column of Haganah’s Carmeli Brigade pushed north from Haifa’s suburbs on May 13; additional troops landed by sea at the small Jewish resort town of Nahariya. In 36 hours, the column linked up with the Nahariya forces and the isolated Jewish settlements of Eilon and Hanita, on the Lebanese border. They occupied and systematically levelled Arab villages along the way. Their populations had fled as the Jewish column approached.
In the second stage of Ben-Ami, on May 20–22, Carmeli units pushed east, widening the Jewish-held area in Western Galilee. The operation, which had closed off the planned Lebanese army invasion route into Palestine, had probably helped to persuade the Lebanese to stay out of the war.
During the last days of the civil war, as Arab Palestine was collapsing and the Yishuv braced for the pan-Arab onslaught, both sides tried to marginally improve their positions along what had become continuous front lines. Jewish troops of the Givati Brigade occupied a handful of Arab villages in the south, trying to block the expected Egyptian invasion routes and deny the Egyptians the Palestinian-inhabited forward bases. For their part, the Arabs—spearheaded by several companies of Jordanian troops with gun-mounting armored cars, who were seconded to the British Army in Palestine until May 14—attacked the Etzion Bloc.
The attack was probably ordered by Gen. John Glubb, the British commander of the Jordanian army (known as the Arab Legion), and led by Col. Abdullah Tal, the commander of the Legion’s 6th Battalion. The Jewish defenders were badly outgunned—they had no artillery or antitank guns, and only a few PIATs (projector, infantry, antitank—a type of bazooka), whereas the Legion deployed gun-mounting armored cars and heavy mortars.
The main settlement, Kfar Etzion, fell on May 13. As the Jewish troops surrendered, they were massacred by militiamen. Some Jordanian officers apparently tried to save some Jews, although others participated in the killing. All together, about 150 prisoners of war were killed. The next day, their position having been rendered untenable, the three remaining settlements surrendered. However, these combatants were shipped off to Jordanian prisoner of war camps. On May 15 the bulk of the Arab Legion crossed the Jordan into Palestine and linked up with the stay-behind companies, including those in the ruined Etzion Bloc.
But the Etzion Bloc was the exception. By May 15, the Haganah and its allies had essentially won the Palestine civil war of 1947–1948. In doing so, they had managed to carve out and consolidate the core of a state.It comprised a continuous strip—actually three linked strips—of territory (the Jordan Valley, the Jezreel Valley, and the northern and central Coastal Plain), with two adjacent, if semi-besieged, enclaves to the east (Jewish Jerusalem) and south (the Negev settlements zone)—from which it was to face, and eventually contain and repel, the invading armies of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
The Yishuv suffered 1,700 to 1,800 dead in the course of the civil war (and another 4,000 dead during the conventional war of the Arab invasion). The community incurred severe infrastructure and economic damage. But, apart from the Etzion Bloc, it had lost no settlements, and financial aid began to pour in from world Jewry.
Arab society in Palestine had been shattered. The Palestinian Arabs had failed to establish a state or even to secure for themselves any part of Palestine. Their losses, in casualties, were probably two or three times as large as the Jewish totals—and their economic losses were much larger. The refugees ultimately landed in the Arab states or the areas these states were about to occupy in Palestine—the West Bank near Jordan and the Gaza Strip near Egypt—and were to be a burden on these states. The refugee problem, which was to grow threefold during the following months, was to destabilize the Middle East during the following decades, and Palestine remains a problem on the international agenda.
The defeat of the Palestinian Arabs, without doubt, forced the Arab states’ hand and pushed their leaders into fulfilling their promises to invade Palestine—and attack Israel—on May 15. The most moderate of the Arab leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan (who in 1947 had secretly agreed with the Jewish Agency to share Palestine between them) on May 10—the eve of the invasion—explained to Golda Myerson (Meir), the Jewish Agency representative, that he was now one of a five-member coalition and could not act independently. “After Deir Yassin, Tiberias and Haifa,” much to his reluctance, he would have to participate in the invasion and the war. And so he did.
But the civil war also affected the Yishuv, now the state of Israel. It emboldened the Yishuv’s political leaders to decide, on May 12, to declare the establishment of the state, against advice from the United States—and despite the certain prospect of pan-Arab invasion. (The Americans pressed the Zionists for a postponement, knowing that the declaration would provoke the invasion and possibly pull the United States into the war to defend Israel. But this did not happen. During the following months, Israel managed to defeat the Arab armies all by itself, while the United States continued to refuse to sell Israel any arms or provide any other nondeclarative help.)
The civil war successes steeled the Yishuv as it faced the Arab states’ armies, and provided the Haganah with a great deal of military experience and self-confidence—both of which were to prove important in containing and eventually beating the invading Arab armies. MHQ
Map of Israel at the end of the war for independence courtesy of Baker Vail, Small World Maps.
To read about the current situation in this region and its recent history, see “Israel and Gaza – Intervention Time,” on GreatHistory.com.