Israel's War of Independence

Establishing a New Nation and Defending Itself.

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The War Escalates

The immediate challenge faced by the newly formed Israel Defense Force was to rebuff the Arab attack, defending Jewish settlements until the arrival of reinforcements. The first month of the war was marked by heavy fighting against Jordan's Arab Legion in Jerusalem; by the end of May the Jordanians had conquered the Old City and expelled its Jewish inhabitants. Syria's advance into the Galilee was repulsed by the inhabitants of Kibbutz Degania, and the Egyptian invasion was blocked just north of Gaza at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai.

Following a month long truce brokered by the United Nations, hostilities resumed in July 1948. In Operation Dani, the IDF broke the siege of Jerusalem by capturing Lod and Ramle, two Arab towns in the Jerusalem corridor; 50,000 Palestinian refugees fled their homes. In October, following a second UN sponsored truce, the IDF captured the upper Galilee in Operation Hiram and, in operations Yoav and Horev, drove the Egyptian army out of the Negev by December. In March 1949, Operation Uvda saw Israeli forces complete their conquest of the southern part of the country by capturing Eilat.

The War of Independence was concluded by the signing of armistice agreements between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. Israel was left in control of 78% of mandatory Palestine--around 50% more than it had been allocated in the partition plan. The remaining 22% was split between Jordan(West Bank and East Jerusalem) and Egypt (Gaza Strip). An independent Palestine was never established, and no Arab state recognized Israel's existence.

Repercussions of the War

In the shadow of the Holocaust, the victory of the new Jewish state over five Arab armies has sometimes been interpreted as little short of a miracle. Yet more prosaic explanations are available. Israel's troops numbered twice as many as those under Arab command. Moreover, partly as a result of the high number of WWII veterans in its ranks, the IDF benefited from better training and organization than its adversaries. Ben Gurion referred to the Arab armies as Israel's secret weapon: "they are such incompetents, it is difficult to imagine."

Yet the Jews paid a high price for their victory. More than 6,000 Israelis--one percent of the population--were killed. Many of the casualties were refugees and Holocaust survivors, newly arrived in the country. The war also intensified divisions within the Jewish population. After the creation of the IDF, it had been agreed that independent paramilitary units (the Etzel and the Lehi) would be absorbed into the new national army.

But in June 1948, the Altalena--a ship carrying arms destined for the Etzel--reached Israel. Determined to head off separatism and the threat of civil war, Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered the Etzel to hand over the weapons to the IDF. When the ultimatum was ignored, Ben Gurion ordered the ship to be shelled; 16 Etzel fighters and three IDF soldiers were killed during the confrontation.

Ultimately, the war's biggest losers were the Palestinians: prevented from establishing a state, forced to live under Israeli, Egyptian, or Jordanian rule and, in the case of more than 700,000 refugees, unable to return to their homes. Traditional Zionist accounts of the war claimed that the refugees fled at the order of the Arab leadership, to clear the way for the invading armies. But contemporary historiography paints a more complex picture.

Drawing on government and military archives, Israeli historians such as Benny Morris have concluded that most Palestinians fled during the fighting, afraid of imagined--or occasionally real--atrocities committed by Jewish soldiers, but that some were victims of an ad hoc Israeli policy of deportation. Prevented by the Israeli authorities from returning home after the war and kept in squalid camps in every Arab country except Jordan, these refugees became an important catalyst for the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict into the 1950s and beyond.

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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.