Why Did Palestinian Jaffa Fall More Quickly Than Jerusalem in 1948?

New and pioneering work sheds light on these similar yet different cities in their war against the Jewish community and the State of Israel.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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A convoy of refugees departs from Jaffa, May 1948.
A convoy of refugees departs from Jaffa, May 1948.Credit: AP
Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

“Bein shtei arim: Ha’aravim hapalestinaim beyerushalayim uveyaffo 1947-1948” (“A Tale of Two Cities: The Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem and Jaffa, 1947-1948”), by Itamar Radai (in Hebrew), Tel Aviv University, 302 pages, 80 shekels

On all sides, the extensive literature dealing with the defeat of the Palestinian Arabs in their war against the Jewish community and the State of Israel in 1947-1948 excels in controversy, accusations, self-righteousness and often the denial of the other side’s legitimacy. This is characteristic of writing focusing on conflicts between two national movements. What’s sometimes missing in our case is an analysis of Arab society and the reasons for its collapse in the face of the challenges it faced.

Setting out to fill that vacuum, Dr. Itamar Radai, who teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, conducted a thorough, in-depth study of Palestinian society in an attempt to explain its debacle under seemingly advantageous conditions. Despite the usual claim that any discussion of the War of Independence is vitiated by the lack of access to Arab archives, Radai is able to construct a comprehensive picture based on a variety of sources: Jewish and British archives, Arab archives seized by the Israeli army, memoirs of Jews and Arabs, and the Hebrew and Arabic press.

By painstakingly cross-checking and confirming these sources, Radai has produced an account in which the abundance of details does not obscure the view of the general course of events. He also avoids the judgmental trap, leaving it to the intelligence of the reader to draw conclusions. Moreover, Radai understands that in every war, however just, there are neither absolute saints nor total demons, and that the historian’s role is to try his utmost to step back from the warring sides.

Nevertheless, the picture that emerges is far from being devoid of conclusions concerning the overall responsibility – historical and social – for what transpired. That is a rare scholarly achievement, particularly in the highly charged Middle Eastern atmosphere.

To assist him in comparing developments in Jaffa and Jerusalem, Radai also draws on insight culled from general historical research, such as Fernand Braudel’s theories of Mediterranean society, and Lucien Fevre’s distinction between “coastal cities” and “mountain cities.” These sources add a comparative demographic and social dimension – with implications for the military campaign – and their use by the author is innovative in this context.

Radai’s central research question was: What accounts for the difference in the steadfastness and resilience of Arab society in Jerusalem as compared with Jaffa, in 1948? Whereas Jaffa imploded, in Jerusalem (with a smaller Arab population), though some of the Arab neighborhoods collapsed, others held out.

The book goes into detail about the general causes of the weakness of Arab society in Palestine, notably the absence of an efficient organizational infrastructure, the lack of a political leadership in control of military means, and competition over command and resources between the Arab Higher Committee (the nominal institution representing Palestinian Arabs), led by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, then resident in Cairo, and the Arab League’s military committees. As a result, violent clashes erupted and tensions ran high between the local population and the Arab Army of Salvation recruited by the Arab League, which consisted of Syrian, Iraqi and other volunteers, if not mercenaries. The situation was compounded by the early flight of large segments of the Palestinian elite to Lebanon and Egypt.

These developments were common to both Jaffa and Jerusalem in the wake of the United Nations Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, and Radai describes them in detail that is usually missing in the research literature. But he also adds a singular dimension: the difference in the structure of Arab society in the two cities. In large measure, this is what decided the respective fates of each city.

Moderate Jaffa

Arab Jaffa, in Radai’s description, was a coastal city and port that had undergone intensive processes of modernization, urbanization and migration. Its population had soared from 27,000, in 1922, to 71,000, in 1947. A middle class evolved, comprising merchants, citrus growers and practitioners of the liberal professions. Jaffa was also the center of the country’s Arabic press. About a third of the city’s Arab residents were Christians; they constituted a substantial segment of the middle class, and resided mainly in such wealthy neighborhoods as Ajami and Jabaliyya.

Jaffa’s municipality largely represented these well-off groups. Indeed, the mayor at the time, Dr. Yusef Heikal, Sorbonne-educated and a leading member of the local intelligentsia, was a prime representative of this bourgeois class. Taking a moderate approach on national issues, he and his followers were in opposition to the militant line pursued by the mufti and the AHC.

However, the accelerated urbanization in the British Mandatory period also brought to Jaffa tens of thousands of migrants from the city’s rural hinterland. They settled in peripheral areas like Manshiya and Abu Kabir, which became impoverished neighborhoods. No fewer than 70 percent of the city’s Arab inhabitants lived in these poor quarters or in the Old City, cut off from the flourishing middle class and its cultural achievements (social and sports clubs, cinemas, cafes), which were readily visible on King George Boulevard, a modern thoroughfare (now Jerusalem Boulevard).

As occurred elsewhere in the country, the downward spiral into violence in Jaffa was precipitated by the general strike declared by the AHC on December 2, 1947, to protest the partition resolution. Disturbances broke out in the mixed, Arab-Jewish neighborhoods along the boundary line between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Jews were wounded and murdered; the flight of Jewish inhabitants began. In return, the pre-state Jewish underground organizations – Haganah, Irgun and Lehi – launched reprisal raids, sparking the departure of local Arab residents.

At this stage, the Arab side in Jaffa lacked any sort of cohesive military organization, but in short order a so-called National Committee was established by the mufti’s supporters there. It, in turn, spawned at least 10 municipal subcommittees, though their activity was more symbolic than practical. However, the local National Committee found itself in conflict with the municipality: Even as the committee began recruiting fighters in the neighborhoods bordering Tel Aviv, the municipality adopted a merely defensive stance and even sought cease-fire agreements with the Jews through British mediation.

Concurrently, the mufti, still in Cairo, set up a security committee and appointed its commanders, whom he then proceeded to dismiss in rapid succession. Finally, in February 1948, an Iraqi commander was appointed for Jaffa, who brought about a modicum of stabilization on the front.

However, the arrival of volunteer fighters from abroad generated friction with the local population and the municipal police. Many Arab testimonies cited by Radai describe cases in which the foreigners engaged in looting and arbitrary confiscation of merchandise from local Arab shopkeepers.

Overall, the foreign volunteers – not the locals – did almost all of the fighting, but their relations with the residents of Jaffa were complex and in some cases hostile. Defections were rampant. The city government, which tried to ensure that residents had sufficient supplies and means of livelihood, did not receive significant financial support from the AHC.

The general picture is one of chaos descending on Jaffa. The municipality and its institutions ceased to function, the foreign Salvation troops were largely alienated from the residents, and military actions were not coordinated with the local leadership. As a result, flight from the city intensified, by both land and sea.

It turns out that Jaffa’s modernization processes were instrumental in causing its collapse. With its rapid development and massive migration from the surrounding villages, it lacked the cohesive strength of extensive, traditional family and clan networks, which could have afforded security and protection.

In the main, two very different groups spearheaded the flight from the city. On the one hand, the inhabitants of the slum areas on the periphery, whose origins lay in nearby rural environments, were among the first to leave when the hostilities erupted, returning to their villages. On the other hand, the leaders of the established middle class, among whom the Christian population was prominent, first sent their families off and then themselves left, too, often by sea to Lebanon or Egypt.

Neither of those very different groups took part in the fighting, nor did they provide Jaffa society with the defensive backbone that every population needs in order to defend its home. Shortly before the city surrendered to Jewish forces, Mayor Heikal left, too, and the remnants of the foreigners in the Arab Liberation Army squabbled among themselves over who was in control before also joining the many earlier deserters in abandoning the city.

Jaffa surrendered to forces of the Haganah on May 13, 1948, two days before the State of Israel was declared. According to estimates, no more than 3,000 inhabitants remained in the beleaguered city.

Thus, in addition to the lack of a united political and military leadership, the fact that Jaffa was a coastal city that had undergone rapid modernization processes in the decades leading up to 1948, brought about the unraveling of the social fabric and the city’s collapse.

Jerusalem’s decline

Jerusalem was a very different city, but some aspects of its situation were essentially similar to those of Jaffa. Here, too, Radai offers a detailed description of the gradual decline from unorganized disturbances, after the passage of the UN partition plan, to an attempt by the Palestinians to create a united military and urban leadership.

In this case, too, the results were not particularly successful, although the establishment of a National Committee, whose secretary was Anwar Nusseibeh (later a leading figure in Jordan), succeeded to a certain degree in ensuring the supply of basic commodities and other provisions. However, the committee had to cope with the fact that activities in the military realm fell victim to competition between units under rival commands.

The appointment of Abdul Kader al-Husseini as commander of the Arab Liberation Army in the Jerusalem region, after he’d spent 10 years in exile in Egypt, boosted morale. But his death in battle outside Jerusalem, on April 8, 1948, and the massacre perpetrated by the Jewish Lehi and Irgun underground forces in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin on the city’s western outskirts a day later, did little to overcome substantive organizational-military flaws. The murderous Arab vengeance attack on the Hadassah Hospital convoy to Mount Scopus on April 13, in which 78 doctors and nurses were killed, did not basically change the strategic picture.

Radai shows that the Arabs’ public-relations success in leveraging the Deir Yassin massacre (while inflating the number of victims and condemning the killing of innocents) paradoxically boomeranged, in the sense that it heightened fears among the Arab population and spurred mass flight.

In part, the Jaffa pattern repeated itself in Jerusalem. However, the latter’s social structure (a “mountain city,” more anchored in its immediate surroundings than coastal Jaffa), and the more complex modernization process it had undergone, brought about somewhat different results. Nevertheless, the middle-class neighborhoods – such as Katamon, Talbieh, Baka, the German Colony and the Greek Colony – which in Jerusalem, too, were largely Christian, collapsed in a way similar to their counterparts in Jaffa.

In the affluent Katamon neighborhood, to which Radai devotes a special chapter, the residents organized a local guard organization of 160 people. It consisted of craftsmen from the outlying rural areas and of servants from the homes of the wealthy – so in fact here, too, the population itself did not directly participate in the defense of its home. Eventually, troops sent by Husseini arrived and fought fiercely to defend the neighborhood and to hold onto the topographically dominant St. Simeon Monastery there. Nonetheless, by the time the fighting neared its end, most of the neighborhood’s residents had fled.

A leading Palestinian educational figure from Katamon, Khalil al-Sakakini, wrote a touching memoir about the siege atmosphere in the neighborhood, which intensified after the Haganah blew up the Semiramis Hotel there (January 1948). Sakakini and his family left for Egypt on the very day that the Arab forces fought a courageous battle, almost overcoming the units from the Palmach, the Haganah’s strike force, which had captured the monastery.

As Radai observes, the disconnect between the armed forces and the local population was compounded by the gap between the lofty declarative nationalist rhetoric of the elite and its unwillingness to make sacrifices and participate in the fighting..

In contrast, the traditional family cohesiveness in the poorer Muslim neighborhoods, most of them in the Old City and its immediate environs, helped the population there withstand the pressures. Conservative and traditional areas survived, whereas the neighborhoods and population groups that had undergone modernization crumbled.

Indirectly, Radai also refers to the more general aspect of the Palestinians’ flight, which Israeli sources usually attribute to an order issued by the mufti to the population to leave their homes in order to facilitate the fighting. No such order has ever been found.

In contrast, Radai cites a circular sent on March 8, 1948, by the AHC to all the National Committees, stating that the fact that the people were fleeing constituted “an act of desertion from the field of honor and sacrifice that is harming the nobility of the jihad movement, damaging the reputation of the Palestinians in the Arab states [and] weakening the morale of the Arab peoples [in regard to] the Palestine issue The national interest obliges the Palestinians to continue to pursue their affairs in their country.”

There is no better testimony to the debacle of Arab society in 1948 than the fact that this call remained a cry in the wilderness: The AHC was helpless in the face of its inability to provide a true response to the challenges facing its people – and it, in the end, did not heed the call.

Radai has produced a pioneering work. He shows that military tenacity is a function of social cohesiveness and the ability to create institutions that are capable of exercising authority and realizing it – what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refers to, rightly, as “one authority, one law, one gun” – and that the absence of such institutions will lead to defeat.

Radai’s study also helps us understand some of the reasons for the current crumbling of some of the Arab states, as well as for the Palestinians’ inability to create a legitimate authority today.

The situation of endless rivalries among contending groups of notables in exile and between them and fighters on the ground who do not always obey orders coming from abroad – a tendency that underscored the weakness of the Palestinians in 1948 – is being reprised today by the Syrian opposition in its struggle against Bashar Assad. The crisis of modernization continues to haunt present-day Arab societies as it did, albeit under different conditions, 70 years ago.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s most recent book is “Herzl: Theodore Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State” (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

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