This Day in Jewish History / Civil War Breaks Out in Palestine

Violence had been escalating for months – and then Resolution 181 was passed in the UN, partitioning the land

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Haganah scouts in action, from the village file of Al-Kubeb, 1947. The scout's faces were blurred so they could not be identified.
Haganah scouts in action, from the village file of Al-Kubeb, 1947. The scout's faces were blurred so they could not be identified.Credit: Archives of the History of the Haganah

It was on this day, November 30, 1947, that civil war broke out between Jews and Palestinian Arabs in British Mandate Palestine. The war would continue for five months, transforming into the War of Independence when the Mandate regime ended at midnight May 14, 1948, and the State of Israel formally began to exist.

Though hostilities had been simmering for decades, the immediate trigger for the civil war was the United Nations’ adoption of Resolution 181 in favor of partitioning Palestine, on November 29, 1947. The Partition Plan proposed to divide the territory – which had been under British rule since 1920 – into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under a special international regime.

The British, still recovering from World War II, were keen to leave and loath to intervene as the violence escalated.

Most Jews celebrated the resolution, but the Palestinian Arabs and Arab states rejected partition. The next day, on November 30, 1947, the Arab Higher Committee, which acted as the governing body of Palestine’s Arabs, called for protests and a strike. Arab gunmen ambushed two Jewish buses near the city of Petah Tikva, killing seven, and Arab snipers shot at buses and pedestrians in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The civil war had begun.

At that time, there were over 600,000 Jews and around 1,340,000 Arabs in Palestine.

Recruiting poster for 'All men aged 18-25' by the Jewish Agency for Eretz Israel.Credit: Alona Ferber

In December 1947, the Arab League pledged support for Palestinian Arabs, organizing a several thousand-strong volunteer force. Meanwhile, David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, reorganized the Haganah, the pre-independence Jewish army, and instituted compulsory conscription.

At first, the Haganah took a defensive position in the face of Arab attacks in predominantly Jewish areas. Some 10 days into the fighting, when the violence did not abate, they moved to “active defense.”

Restraint or weakness

Viewing the Haganah’s restraint as weakness, Jewish underground militias – the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (or Etzel) and Lehi (the Stern Gang) – launched deadly attacks of their own, often in retaliation for Arab attacks. For instance, when dozens  were killed in three attacks on Jerusalem’s Jewish community on February 22, with the help of British deserters, the Lehi placed a land mine on a train track between Cairo and Haifa, killing 28 British soldiers and wounding 35.

As the months passed, both sides suffered from a dearth of arms and munitions. While Arab states sent weapons and money to Palestine, the Jews sent representatives – including future-PM Golda Meir – on fund-raising missions to the United States and Europe.  

The Arabs were less organized than the Jews, their leadership divided, and much of their middle and upper classes had fled Palestine by March 1948, but the Jews’ situation looked bleak. Aside from lacking weapons and losing most of their armored cars, West Jerusalem’s 100,000 Jewish residents were under siege. Even more worrying, the United States had expressed a desire to abandon partition.

Terrified others would follow suit, from April the Haganah went on the offensive in a last-ditch attempt to win. They implemented a series of campaigns, starting with Operation Nachshon, to get convoys of food, fuel and munitions to Jerusalem. 

These operations were the implementation of the controversial Plan Dalet, which laid out the Haganah's strategy. The plan, finalized in March 1948, has divided historians: Was it a plan to conquer Palestine and expel the Arabs, or defensive, military strategy to prepare for the likely invasion of other Arab armies?

In any case, on April 8, 1948, Jewish forces killed Abdel Qadir al-Husseini, the Arab militia commander in the Judean Hills.

Another major blow was dealt to the Arabs on April 9, with a controversial episode in the history of the conflict, when Irgun and Lehi forces took the village of Deir Yassin, massacring over 100 villagers. The news traveled fast; by June, another 300,000 Arabs had left.

Operation Nachshon marked a turning point, from which the Haganah began to make significant gains, taking Haifa on April 22, and Jaffa on May 13.

By May, it was clear the Jews had won. The Arabs sustained heavy territorial losses, but the Jews held on to every Jewish settlement, except in the Gush Etzion bloc. The Jews lost nearly 2,000 people, but the Arabs had probably lost two or three times that number, with many now refugees in neighboring states.

On May 14, British High Commissioner Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham left Palestine. Emboldened by victory, the Jews declared the State of Israel that day. On May 15, the next chapter in the conflict began when the armies of Syria, Transjordan, Iraq and Egypt attacked.

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