This post is about the 1947-1949 Palestine War. Firstly, it is the first war of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. During this war, the British Empire withdrew from Mandate Palestine; which had been a province of the Ottoman Empire before British occupation in 1917. Actually, the war reaches its peak when the Jewish population decides to Establish the State of Israel in May 1948.
This transformed the demographic map of Palestine with the displacement of around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. With the complete destruction of their villages; towns and cities. The Palestinians find themselves stateless, displaced either to the Palestinian territories captured by Egypt and Jordan or to the surrounding Arab states; many of them, as well as their descendants, remain stateless and in refugee camps. As a result of the war outcome, about 300,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries left and immigrated to Israel.
1947-1949 Palestine War: Let’s Go Even Further Back
The 1948 War was the outcome of more than 60 years of friction Between Jews and Arabs who inhabited the land. Historically it is the birthplace of Judaism and the Jewish people. The land is called by Jews ‘Eretz Yisrael’ which means in Hebrew “Land of Israel”. The Roman Empire, which crushed a couple of Jewish Revolts in the 1st and 2nd century to the common era and sacked Jerusalem; resulting in the worldwide Jewish Diaspora. The Romans changed the land’s name from Judea to Palaestina, meaning “land of the Philistines”; a nation that occupied the southern shore of the land in ancient times. The name lasted till this day among non-Jews and became common usage.
Even though the Jews were scattered all over the Jewish diaspora, always there was a small Jewish population in the Land of Israel. So in the 19th century, there were 25,000 Jews (about 8% of the total population), who constituted the “Old Yishuv”. A term that refers to all those Jews living in Israel up to the 19th century. Most of them living in Jerusalem and were Ultra-Orthodox and poor by choice with no nationalistic aspirations.
1947-1949 Palestine War: Jewish Immigration To Palestine In The Modern Period
With the rise of nationalism in Europe in mid 19th century, Jews faced internal and external resistance to assimilation, as well as increasing xenophobic Anti-Semitism, radical demands began to develop among the stateless Jewish population of eastern and central Europe for their own national home and refuge. In 1897, inspired by the Hungarian-born Jewish nationalist Theodor Herzl, the First Zionist Congress was held in Basel; and declared their national ‘home’ should be in Palestine – or to say it simply – Zionism.
Zionism formed in Europe as the national movement of the Jewish people. The main idea of Zionism was to reestablish Jewish statehood in the ancient homeland. The First Wave of Zionist Immigration, lasted from 1882 to 1904. Some 30,000 Jews mostly from the Russian Empire reached Ottoman Palestine. The main motivation that made them leave was the growing Anti-Semitism in Europe, especially in the Russian Empire, which came in the form of brutal pogroms. The land on which they settled was acquired by cash. They settled mostly the sparsely populated lowlands, which were swampy and not fit for agriculture.
1947-1949 Palestine War: Palestinian Nationalism As Counter Reaction To Zionism
Under the Ottomans, Palestine’s Arab population mostly saw themselves as Ottomans’ subjects. Members of the Islamic community and as Arabs, geographically, linguistically, and culturally. Their strongest affiliation was to their clan, family, village, or tribe. There was no Arab or Palestinian movement. In the first two decades of Zionist immigration, the clashes were more on a local level and not in a nationalistic context. The disputes were over land boundaries and such but crime or violent events did not carry any nationalistic traits. Most of the opposition came from the wealthy landowners and noblemen who feared they would have to fight the Jews for the land in the future.
The First Nationalistic Clashes Between Palestinians and The Jewish Population
While there were few incidents so far, in 1909 things change, as Arabs kill 12 Jewish guards and Palestinian nationalism and opposition to the Zionist enterprise increases. In 1911, Arabs attempt to thwart the establishment of a Jewish settlement in the Jezreel Valley. The Palestinians call the Jews the “new crusaders” and anti-Zionist rhetoric flourished. Tensions between Arabs and Jews led to violent events on several occasions, notably in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936-1939. It is those events in the 1920s and 1930s that convinced the leaders of the Jewish Yishuv to lay the foundations for a self-defense organization. To be ready for that inevitable conflict waiting to happen in the future.
“We Are The Silver Platter Upon Which The Jewish State Was Served To You”(Nathan Alterman, An Israeli Poet)
1947-1949 Palestine War: Building An Armed Force For The Inevitable War
The term “the silver platter” is attributed to Chaim Weizmann, who in December 1947 stated that “the state will not be given to the Jewish People on a silver platter.” Soon after that poet Nathan Alterman referred to the silver platter in a poem that foresaw the great sacrifices in lives that the Jewish community would have to make in the pursuit of statehood. Thus, those who were killed in the course of the War of Independence – one percent of the Jewish population of the country at the time – are the “silver platter.”
The Jewish leadership in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century understood very well – we are headed for an armed collision with the local Arab population. Here a short description of how the Zionist Movement was building their armed forces against all odds.
1947-1949 Palestine War: In The Beginning
During the late Ottoman Period in Palestine was not a safe place to live. Especially after the First Wave of Zionist Immigration, there are lots of violent incidents like robbery and mugging. At that time the Ottomans officially lose control over their empire. And the roads like the personal security of their subjects was very low. Nomadic Bedouins were stealing from Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Also, Arab villagers repeatedly attacked their Jewish neighbors and just random people using the roads.
Even the Bilus that insisted on Jewish labor and Jewish guards couldn’t obey that principle. Because of the fact that the first Jewish newcomers were few. Obviously, they need outside help especially during the harvest or for the picking season; And armed guards. I am saying armed guards because under the Ottoman rule only Arabs were allowed to carry weapons, Jews – No.
Moreover, the Arab guards knew the local police and had connections with the Ottomans, and even enjoyed their support. Also, the Jewish pioneers can not plow the fields during the day and serve as watchmen during the night. Not to mention that if there is an incident and somebody is getting shut down and ending up dead; there are no issues of a feud being declared between the Jewish pioneers and the local Arabs.
1947-1949 Palestine War: Bar-Giora Organization
“In fire and blood did Judea fall;
in blood and fire, Judea shall rise”
But things changed. The Arabs guards were stealing while on the job. Frequently the guards were the same guys the pioneers were paying protection too. When the Second Wave of Zionist Immigration came they engraved Jewish Labor as a part of their Ethos.
So a few of its members decided to establish the first armed organization among the Jews that in the beginning, the idea was to assist the Jewish colonies with armed guards instead of the Arab local guards. Indeed it was a very modest start! In September 1907 in Jaffa, a group of Poalei Zion gathered, in the unfurnished apartment of Yitzhak Ben Zvi, forming Bar-Giora, a Jewish self-defense organization named for Simon Bar Giora, one of the leaders of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans.
The organization, in the beginning, counts only ten people! The goal is settling the land and guarding it against Arab attacks. As a moto, Bar Giora chose the line: “In fire and blood did Judea fall; in blood and fire Judea shall rise.” Indeed, this is the first time since the Roman rule, 2,000 years ago, we have a Jewish self-defense organization in Palestine!
But Bar-Giora had clear downsides. Firstly, it is a small organization that in the beginning was able to meet the challenge but quickly the tasks grew more and more. And 10 guards can not accomplish all missions. Especially true was the situation after the revolution of the Young Turks in 1908 when Arab violence grew.
Hashomer Organization: The Grandfather Of The I.D.F
Hashomer (The Watchman) founded in 1909 was the outgrowth of the Bar-Giora organization. It is not a small organization anymore but actually counted already 100 members and 300 hired men. So the reality in 1909 started to change rapidly. Hashomer was successful in providing defense for settlements throughout the country. Though it sometimes aroused the ire of Arab watchmen, who lost their jobs, and of pilferers, and antagonized the Arab population by retaliatory raids. But in the end, it was still a small, elitist organization. Even David Ben Gurion tried out and was rejected for being a little short; a little chubby and not very handy using a musket while riding a horse. In summary, Hashomer was a vital organization for the Jewish Yishuv. And laid the foundations for the biggest self-defense organization before the foundation of Israel – The Haganah.
The Haganah Organization – The Father of the I.D.F
The Haganah was the biggest military organization and played a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel during the British Mandate. The Shomer was a good start no doubt. But in the end, a few armed men and some horses can perhaps aid to protect a colony here and a colony there. But not an entire state. And due to that fact, a much bigger organization was needed. In 1920 at Kinneret Farm next to the Sea of Galilee a historic decision was taken. Consequently, the Shomer is dispersing, and instead, the Haganah is declared.
It is after the Arab riots against Jews in April 1920 that the Yishuv leadership sees the need to create a nationwide underground defense organization. And the Haganah was founded in June of the same year. The Haganah became a full-scale defense force after the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, with an organized structure, consisting of three main units – the Field Corps, Guard Corps, and the Palmach strike force.
1947-1949 Palestine War: The British-Jewish Cooperation
In light of the Arab revolt, the Haganah and the British start to cooperate together. For example, the Notrim, a Jewish police force; The Mobile units, meant to locate and defeat Arab resistance groups before they achieved operational capability; The Fosh (lit. Field Companies) their purpose was to protect the Jewish localities from Arab bands that attacked them during the riots; Special Night Squads, were a joint British-Jewish counterinsurgency unit.
During the Second World War, the British and the Jewish Yishuv joined forces against the Nazi invasion of Palestine. Primarily I mean the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah. Without the British, there is doubt about it the Jewish Yishuv couldn’t create such an effective fighting force.
So as you can see the evolution of Jewish defense organizations in Palestine and later Israel is going from small self-defense groups active during the Ottoman rule, to ever larger and more sophisticated ones during the British Mandate, leafing through the Haganah to the national army of Israel, the IDF. The evolution went step by step from Bar-Giora, to Hashomer, To Haganah, to IDF.
The Balfour Declaration And Its Contribution To The Conflict
The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British Government in 1917 during the First World War announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a small minority population. But at the same time, the declaration states: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine[…]”
Well, the problem is that this was exactly what the declaration did. Most of the population in those days were Muslim Arabs, Palestinians and they saw this land as their own homeland, not the Jews’. So as you can see the Balfour Declaration has an inherent contradiction. And the British Mandate had no option but to deal with this situation for 30 years from 1917 when they took over Palestine till 1948 when they pulled out.
Already in 1919, a young Major in the British army intelligence was communicating directly to the Ministry of War in London. And he is describing the situation in Palestine in a lengthy report where he says; “Gentleman, we got ourselves mixed up to our neck in a new Ireland”. Sadly he was so right.
The British Deliberating On What To Do With This Hot Potato
Since mid-1930s Britain is trying to come up with ways how to end its rule over this hot potato called Palestine. And they are looking for all kinds of creative ways to do that. To include Palestine in some kind of a Middle Eastern federation. To divide the land was another option, meaning the famous White Paper. Another option was the Peel Plan – which in its essence meant a transfer of the Jewish population. Even an idea of dividing the land to cantons came up. All kinds of ideas that nothing much came out of it.
1947-1949 Palestine War: The 1947 UN Partition Plan
So It is now November 29th, 1947. The British are fed up with the situation and decides to hand this hot potato back to the UN. And the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews. Allowing for the formation of the Jewish state of Israel. Since 1917, Palestine had been under the control of Britain, which supported the creation of a Jewish state in the holy land. Sympathy for the Jewish cause grows even more during the genocide of European Jews during the Holocaust. In 1946, the Palestine issue was brought before the newly created United Nations Which drafted a Partition Plan.
The plan, which organized Palestine into a Jewish section, an Arab section, and the internationally-administered city of Jerusalem, had strong support in Western nations as well as the Soviet Union. It was opposed by Arab nations. The General Assembly voted, 33-13, in favor of partition, with 10 members, including Britain, abstaining. The six Arab nations in the General Assembly staged a walkout in protest. Officially the war starts a day after. But I will keep the suspense for another post.