Who Really Started the 1948 War and When

Relatively few Arabs remained within Israel’s post-1948 borders, but the fact that no Jews remained in the territories conquered by the Arabs has been forgotten.

Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery
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War of Independence
Allenby Street in Haifa during the War of Independence.Credit: AP
Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery

In the wake of my last op-ed in Haaretz (“The Green Line is not sacred,” Feb. 15), in which I noted that the Arabs launched the 1948 war after the United Nations adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine, I received some angry responses from readers. They argued that the Zionists started the war, with the intention of driving out the Palestinian population. Since I participated in the events – I was 24 at the time – and wrote two books about the war, one during the war itself and one immediately afterward (published in English in a single volume, as “1948. A Soldier’s Tale – The Bloody Road to Jerusalem”), I feel it my duty to describe what really happened, insofar as possible.

To describe the atmosphere before the war, I will relate one of the greatest experiences of my life. At the end of the summer of 1947, the annual folk dance festival was held in a natural amphitheater on the Carmel mountain chain. About 40,000 young people were there, a large number considering that the entire Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, numbered around 635,000. A delegation from the UN Special Committee on Palestine, which had been appointed a few months earlier to find a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, was traveling around Palestine.

We watched the troupes, including one from an adjacent Arab community, dance the debka with such verve that it could barely be induced to leave the stage, when it was announced over the loudspeakers that members of UNSCOP had come to visit. Spontaneously, all those thousands rose to their feet and sang “Hatikva,” the national anthem, with such enthusiasm that the song rang among the hills. It was the last time our generation was to convene. Within a year, thousands of them were dead.

Following the UNSCOP recommendations, on November 29 of that year the UN General Assembly approved a plan to create independent Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem to remain a separate entity, under UN control. Although the area designated for the Jewish state was small, the Jews realized that independence was the most important thing. It was one of the lessons of the Holocaust, which had ended just three years earlier. On the other hand, the entire Arab world objected to the solution. Why, it asked, should the people of Palestine pay the price for the Holocaust that had been perpetrated by peoples of Europe?

A few days after the UN resolution was passed, shots were fired at a Jewish bus. That is how the first stage of the war began.

To understand the events, the situation bears describing. The two populations in Israel were geographically intertwined. Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv had Jewish and Arab neighborhoods next to one another, within touching range. Practically every Jewish village was surrounded by Arab villages. Their existence depended on roads that were controlled by Arab villages. After the UN resolution, gunfire erupted throughout the land. True, formally the British still controlled it, but they endeavored not to get involved.

The Haganah Jewish militia, which was still underground, got Jewish traffic moving, in convoys that were commanded by the organization’s young men and women. The women were especially important, because they could conceal weapons in their clothes.

On the Arab side, on the other hand, there was no central command. The attacks were being perpetrated by villagers, often armed with old rifles. Since some of these villagers were primitive, there were atrocities. Our side responded in the same coin, and thus the confrontation became more vicious. A group of 35 Haganah fighters, most of them students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was ambushed on the way to delivering supplies on foot to the four besieged kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem. All of them were slaughtered. We saw photographs showing their severed heads being paraded through the Old City of Jerusalem.

The inevitable strategy of the Jewish side was to expel the Arabs from around the roads. The Jewish communities were ordered to stay put, at any cost. Only a handful of isolated settlements were evacuated. In February 1948, the British withdrew from the area of Tel Aviv, which became the core of the Jewish state. At the same time, the British also withdrew from the Arab areas.

By late March, both sides were suffering terrible losses. On April 1, we received the order to scramble to Tel Aviv’s makeshift port to receive a large shipment of Soviet arms. A year before, the Soviet bloc, in an astonishing turnabout, supported the Zionist side in the conflict. Joseph Stalin, who had been anti-Zionist, apparently decided that a Jewish state in Israel would be better for him than an American-British base.

Jewish fighters in the War of Independence.Credit: Kluger Zoltan

We spent the day cleaning off the grease in which the rifles and submachine guns had been packed. They had been manufactured in Czechoslovakia for Adolf Hitler’s army (but arrived too late for World War II). Thus the second phase of the war began.

Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods were separated from the rest of the Yishuv by the Arab villages that controlled the road. The aim of the war’s first big campaign, Operation Nahshon, was to regain control. For several kilometers, the road traversed a narrow pass between steep hills. Bab al-Wad (Sha’ar Hagai) terrified all our soldiers. When we were shot at from above, we had to get out of our vehicles, climb the hillsides under fire and fight on the slopes. Not a cheery prospect.

A huge convoy, with 135 trucks and cars, came together, and we were assigned to bring it to Jerusalem. My squad got a truck loaded with crates of cheese. We tried to shelter between the crates. Happily, we were not attacked. We entered Jerusalem at midday on Shabbat, and were greeted by hordes of religious Jews who came out of the synagogues to welcome us with fervor. It was like Charles de Gaulle entering Paris during World War II. We returned to the coastal plain without trouble, but our convoy was the last one that got through to Jerusalem safely. The next was attacked and had to turn around.

In subsequent battles to open the road, the Yishuv failed and suffered terrible losses, especially at Latrun, where the road was held by irregular foreign Arab forces. The fighters of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah, found an alternative route. We dubbed it the “Burma Road,” after the road the British took from India to China during World War II.

By then it was already obvious that the armies of the surrounding Arab states were poised to join the war. That awareness changed the nature of the warfare completely. In preparation for the anticipated battles, the Jewish army “cleansed” large areas of its Arab population, in order not to leave concentrations of Arab civilians behind our lines. It could be justified on tactical grounds.

Israeli soldiers guarding Egyptian prisoners of war during the 1948 War of Independence.Credit: Government Press Office

The last of the British left on May 14. The following day, the armies of five Arab nations – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq – joined the war, with some assistance from Saudi Arabia. These were standing armies trained by their previous colonial masters, Britain and France, who also supplied them with planes and cannons. We had none of those.

On paper, the Arab side had a tremendous advantage in arms, training and numbers, but we had three big advantages. First of all, we knew we were fighting for our lives and the lives of our families, exactly that, with our backs to the wall. Second, we had a unified command, while the Arab forces competed with each other. Third, the Arabs were contemptuous of us. Who ever heard of fighting Jews? And we had a certain tactical advantage by being inside the lines – we could move forces from one front to another quickly.

The weeks to come, the war’s third phase, brought its most desperate battles. Some of them recalled those of World War I. In the battle for Ibadis, near Kibbutz Negba in the Negev, I saw almost all our fighters die or get shot and only one heavy gun still fired. There were hours in which all seemed lost. But then, slowly, our luck began to change. As this phase drew to a close, we were still on our feet.

The fourth phase also saw hard battles, even one with bayonets. But we smelled victory. This was the stage of mass expulsions of Arabs from the cities and villages. It was clear that this was an intentional policy by the Jewish leadership. At this point I was badly wounded and quit the front lines.

When both sides were completely exhausted, the war ended with a series of cease-fire agreements and the Green Line – the 1949 Armistice Line marking Israel’s de facto borders – was created.

A small number of Arabs remained within these borders, but the forgotten fact is that not one single Jew remained in the territories conquered by the Arab side. Luckily for us, these territories were small relative to the territories conquered by our side. Both sides engaged in ethnic cleansing before the term had been coined.

Those are the facts. Anybody can build on them interpretations and ideologies as he sees fit. But, without Trumpian “alternative facts,” please.

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