The War of 1948-1949
On November 29th the United Nations approved the Partition Plan that recommended the division of the British Mandate of Palestine into two provisional states, one Jewish and one Arab. It also provided for an economic union between those states. It was the tipping point for a situation that was already explosive. There had been skirmishes between Jewish and Arab fighters in the years before the UN-decision had been made, but everybody realised that soon the gloves would be off. Shootings and attacks on Arabs and Jews, on armed men and civilians, increased in frequency. The scale of these clashes also increased. Arab forces sought to isolate Jewish villages and towns by cutting-off roads leading towards them and attacking convoys with supplies and personnel.
At that time the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground military organization, consisted of some 35,000 armed men and women. There were also several thousand fighters belonging to other groups that had been operating in the shadows. This Jewish ‘army’ was only lightly armed and barely trained, but was shored up by men who had previously fought with the British army. They lacked heavy weapons and the air force had an inventory of only nine obsolete planes. This hiatus was largely filled by a deal with Czechoslovakia that provided for tens of thousands of light weapons and even two dozen Avia S-199 fighter aircraft – a Czech version of the wartime German Messerschmitt Me-109.
The Palestinians and Arabs
The opposing Arab and Palestinian forces consisted of loosely organized militia in Palestine itself, with an estimated strength of some 10,000 men, backed by regular armies of the neighbouring states of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. These had several tens of thousands of soldiers equipped with heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks – mostly pre-World War II models. The British forces in the Middle East had also handed over considerable numbers of fighter aircraft such as Spitfires and Hurricanes and transport planes. Sizable contingencies from Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen would play a role in the hostilities that followed.
14 May 1948
On 14 May 1948 Israel declared its independence and the regular Arab armies moved in. The day before the Arab League had already decided to send regular troops to the conflict zone that would officially be handed over by the British authorities to end the Mandate. The UN denounced the intention stated by the Arab League to protect the lives of civilians in the absence of any legal authorities.
The Arab offensive was not well coordinated, mostly because the national Arab commands did not cooperate. The attacks were blunted, stopped and repelled by prepared positions of the Jewish forces in kibbutzim and towns. However, especially in and around Jerusalem fighting between Israeli forces and the Arab Legion, led by former British general John Glubb (Pasha), raged fiercely.
Gradually, within weeks, the first outnumbered – at least on paper – Israeli forces grew in quantity and quality and gained the upper hand. The net result was that after the fighting had died down, Israeli forces held more land than before the Arab offensive. The United Nations declared a ceasefire on 29 May 1948 and presented a new partition plan that both sides rejected.
At the beginning of July hostilities broke out again on the southern front. This time Israeli offensives led to consolidation of earlier gains and to new gains on the northern, central and southern fronts. There was also a large exodus of Palestinians fleeing the conflict zones, evicted by Jewish forces or told by their leaders to leave. Again, in September a new proposal of the UN that would settle territorial matters and compensation for refugees was rejected by both sides.
In October, Israeli armed forces clashed again with the Egyptian army and succeeded in driving a wedge between the Palestinian forces and the Egyptians. At the beginning of 1949, the Israeli borders were defined by armistices negotiated separately with its neighbouring countries.