Israel's War of Independence

Establishing a New Nation and Defending Itself.

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The history of the 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war is deeply controversial. Israelis and their supporters have traditionally referred to the conflict as the War of Independence, seeing it as a defensive war to prevent the destruction of the fledgling Jewish state in the face of overwhelming Arab aggression. Palestinian Arabs and their allies know the events around it as the Nakba (catastrophe)--the destruction of Palestinian society, the establishment of Jewish rule in Palestine, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes.

Jewish Immigrants Seek a Safe Haven

The war had its roots in waves of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel, beginning in the 1880s and peaking in the 1930s and 40s, with the flight of Jews from the Holocaust. Their plight and the absence of a single country willing to give them a home made urgent the need for a Jewish state.
war of independence
Following WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons set their sights on aliyah, but the British government--in control of Palestine since 1917 and keen to maintain friendly relations with the Arab world--refused to admit them. As violence between Jews, Arabs, and the British mounted, Britain handed over the problem to the United Nations.

In 1947, Palestine's population of 1.85 million was approximately one-third Jewish and two-thirds Arab. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed the end of British rule and the partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states and an internationally controlled area around Jerusalem. The Zionists, desperate to enable Jewish immigration and with an eye to future territorial expansion, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it as they opposed any Jewish rule in Palestine.

On November 29, on the heels of the UN General Assembly's vote in favor of partition, Jewish settlements and neighborhoods were attacked by Palestinian guerrillas.

What ensued was, in effect, two separate conflicts: a civil war between Palestine's Jews and Arabs (November 29 1947-May 14 1948) was followed by the establishment of the state of Israel and its invasion by five Arab armies; the ensuing war lasted until July 1949.

A Civil War

In the civil war, the Haganah--the Jews' underground defense organization--together with two smaller paramilitary units, the Etzel (National Military Organization) and the Lehi (Israel Freedom Fighters), fought against loosely organized Palestinian fighters and volunteers from Arab countries. Between November and March, the Haganah's main challenge was to repel Arab attacks on isolated settlements, Jewish areas of mixed cities, and on the roads.

The road to Jerusalem came under attack and the Jewish neighborhoods of the capital were cut off, unable to receive supplies, food, or water. The Jewish forces repelled most Arab attacks, but suffered heavy defeats, for example the loss of 35 soldiers en route to defend the Etzion bloc of settlements.

In April 1948, in anticipation of the British departure, the Haganah launched Plan D, an offensive program for the expansion of Jewish-controlled territory. Operation Nahshon--hoped to open the road to Jerusalem. On April 9, the Etzel and Lehi invaded Deir Yassin, an Arab village near Jerusalem, killing more than 100 Arab civilians and prompting the flight of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Tens of thousands of additional refugees fled following the Palmah's conquest of Haifa, Jaffa, Safed, and Tiberias.

Jewish casualties followed: on April 13, 77 medical personnel of Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus were killed by Arab forces, and on May 13, following the fall of Kfar Etzion, 129 of the settlement's defenders were killed by Arab villagers from the Hebron area.

By mid-May, the Haganah had routed the Arab forces and was in control of the major cities and more than 100 Palestinian villages. It had 30,000 fighters under arms and had taken delivery of a major arms purchase from Czechoslovakia. On May 14, 1948, the eve of Britain's departure, David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel at a ceremony in Tel Aviv. The next day, the new state was invaded by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.