Israel - Day One: The Story of the Day of Independence

On that day, the British Mandate ended and David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence. As the Arab armies attacked, he rushed to the command center to take charge of the war.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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David Ben-Gurion declaring independence in 1948.
David Ben-Gurion declaring independence in 1948.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The High Commissioner of British Mandate Palestine, General Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham started the day early on May 14, 1948. It was his last day on the job, which was to keep the land under his control in order.

This order was unraveling. Even as he was ceremoniously inspecting a guard of honor at 8 A.M. that morning before leaving Government House, his home and office since his arrival in November 1945, elsewhere in Jerusalem Jewish and Arab militants were shooting one another, vying for control of the city he was about to leave.

The small ceremony ended and Sir Alan left in a car to an airport north of Jerusalem, where he would board a flight to Haifa.

That morning British installations around the country were finishing their packing, holding small ceremonies and starting their way in convoys to Haifa, where they would board a ship for home. One such force was the Scottish garrison of Jaffa, which at 6 A.M., to the sounds of bagpipes, lowered the Union Jack from the Jaffa police station. By 11 A.M. the last British soldier had left the city, which was bracing itself for occupation by their Jewish neighbors to the north. The Arab leadership of Jaffa had already agreed to surrender the day before and much of the Arab population had fled. Late leavers could be seen packing their belongings and going.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, the streets were decked with blue and white flags with the Star of David. The excitement was palpable, but one man - soon to be Israel’s first prime minister and then the leader of the Yishuv - was extremely concerned. David Ben-Gurion started off his day meeting with the heads of the Haganah forces, which would soon become the Israel Defense Forces.

At first the news was good: Israeli forces had taken the Arab part of Kfar Sava and the recalcitrant village of Kfar Brir. But later, at 11 A.M. the news that Gush Etzion had fallen to Jordanian forces came in.

The feared Arab invasion had begun.

By 9 A.M. Sir Alan was already in Haifa presiding over the ceremony ending the mandate. At the Haifa Port, the general lowered the Union Jack and folded it ceremoniously, then proceeded to a boat that carried him to the HMS Euryalus as a 17 gun salvo roared. The ship would remain in Palestine waters until midnight, when it will set sail for Britain.

At noon, Ben-Gurion was at a meeting of the temporary government of the Yishuv in Tel Aviv, where some final changes were made to the text of the Declaration of Independence. The text itself was prepared by a legal team. At 1 P.M. the final draft was approved.

David Ben-Gurion, May 14, 1948.Credit: Government Press Office

A bit to the south in Tel Aviv, Rothschild Blvd. between Herzl St. and Allenby St. was closed to traffic. It began to swell with a large crowd of people in the afternoon, as did cafes and balconies along the boulevard. People were waving little flags and singing. At 3 P.M. journalists from around the world started filing into the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Then the dignitaries joined, to the applause of the crowd.

At exactly 4 P.M. Ben-Gurion started the ceremony with a gavel.

Outside and around the country people were listening to the ceremony in the first broadcast of Israel Radio. In Ma’aleh Hahamisha, a kibbutz in the Jerusalem hills, a group of Haganah combatants were recovering from the last night’s hard-fought battle and were listening to Ben-Gurion speak. One of them was their commander, Yitzhak Rabin. But then a combatant huddled in one of the room’s corners opened his eyes and shouted “Guys! Turn that off. I’m dying to sleep...We’ll listen to the declaration tomorrow.” The radio was shut off and the room went silent.

Ben-Gurion read the declaration, which opened with a historic prologue delineating the Jews’ connection to the land. Then it went on to describe what kind of nation Israel was to be.

“Thus, we, the members of the People’s Council assembled, the representatives of the Hebrew Yishuv and the Zionist Movement, on the last day of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel, and in light of our natural and historic rights and on the basis of the United Nations’ resolution, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, named the State of Israel,” Ben-Gurion read.

When Ben-Gurion was done reading, he called the visibly moved Yehuda Leib Maimon to speak. With cracked voice, he read the ancient prayer, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” The crowd shouted “Amen!”

Then Ben-Gurion announced that the British restrictions on Jewish immigration were void and the crowd responded with enthusiastic applause. Ben-Gurion signed the declaration and then the members of the People’s Council were invited one by one to come up to the stage and sign the declaration alphabetically. The ceremony ended with the singing of “Hatikva,” the national anthem.

As they sang, Ben-Gurion was rushing to the command center. While the people celebrated, he would write in his diary, “I was again a mourner among celebrants.”

Ben-Gurion’s commanders briefed him on developments he missed while he was busy declaring independence: Jaffa was occupied with no resistance, his forces in Jerusalem had taken all the key strongholds in the city deserted by the British. Ominous reports of Arab forces making their way from Jordan, Syria and Egypt were coming in.

While crowds were out celebrating in the streets, the new Israel Police made its first arrest - a book thief was placed in custody. The courts were in session that day. The first court case to be filed under free rule was opened that day - a man sued his neighbor for three pounds, which he said claimed should be returned to him from a donation he made in 1942.

In the cities, young men and women lined up at military bases to be drafted. Everyone knew the war was about to enter a new, deadly phase.

At 1 A.M., Ben-Gurion was woken up and informed that U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized the State of Israel. Before dawn, Arab jets bombed Tel Aviv’s airport and power station.

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