1948 Arab–Israeli War

1948 Arab–Israeli War

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, known by the Israelis predominantly as War of Independence (מלחמת העצמאות) and War of Liberation (מלחמת השחרור), and by Palestinians as the Catastrophe (Arabic: al Nakba, النكبة ) was the first in a series of wars fought between the newly declared State of Israel and its Arab neighbors in the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict.

The War commenced on the termination of the Mandate on 15 May 1948 following a previous phase of war of 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine, commenced in Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (UN General Assembly Resolution 181) that would have created an Arab state and a Jewish state. The War was fought mostly on the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine, and for a short time also on the Sinai Peninsula. While the 1948 war was concluded with the 1949 Armistice Agreements it has not marked the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Allied Supreme Council met at the Villa Dechavan in San Remo, Italy, April 18–26 1920 to settle the final terms of the peace treaty with Turkey. The decisions of the conference mainly confirmed those of the First Conference of London (February 1920), and broadly reaffirmed the terms of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 16 May 1916 for the region's partition and the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. The San Remo Agreement stated that 'the mandatories chosen by the Principal Allied Powers are: France for Syria and Great Britain for Mesopotamia and Palestine.' The high contracting parties agreed further that the territorial boundaries of these regions would be 'determined by the Principal Allied Powers'.

In the case of Palestine the borders were agreed between the British and French in two separate conventions: the Franco-British Convention of 23rd December 1920 on Certain Points Connected with the Mandates for Syria and the Lebanon, Palestine and Mesopotamia and the Agreement Between the British and the French Governments Respecting the Boundary Line Between Syria and Palestine from the Mediterranean to El Hammé, 1923.

During meetings in Cairo and Jerusalem between Winston Churchill and Emir Abdullah in March 1921 it was agreed that Abdullah would administer the territory of Transjordan (initially for six months only) on behalf of the Palestine administration. In the summer of 1921 Transjordan was included within the Mandate, but excluded from the provisions for a Jewish National Home. On 24 July 1922 the League of Nations approved the terms of the British Mandate over Palestine and Transjordan. On 16 September the League formally approved a memorandum from Lord Balfour confirming the exemption of Transjordan from the clauses of the mandate concerning the creation of a Jewish national home and from the mandate's responsibility to facilitate Jewish immigration and land settlement.

In 1922 the population of Palestine consisted of approximately 589,200 Muslims, 83,800 Jews, 71,500 Christians and 7,600 others (1922 census). However, this area gradually saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants (most of whom were fleeing the increasing persecution in Europe). This immigration and accompanying call for a Jewish state in Palestine drew violent opposition from local Arabs, in part because of Zionism's stated goal of a Jewish state, which many Arabs believed would require the subjugation or removal of the existing non-Jewish population.

Under the leadership of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the local Arabs rebelled against the British, and attacked the growing Jewish population repeatedly. These sporadic attacks began with the riots in Palestine of 1920 and Jaffa riots (or "Hurani Riots") of 1921. During the 1929 Palestine riots, 133 Jews were killed, 67 of them in Hebron, and 355 wounded. By the time the British intervened 116 Arabs were also killed in the fighting.

The Great Arab Revolt (1936–1939) and its aftermath

In the late 1920s and early 1930s several factions of Arab society became impatient with the internecine divisions and ineffectiveness of the Arab elite and engaged in grass-roots anti-British and anti-Zionist activism organized by groups such as the Young Men's Muslim Association. There was also support for the growth in influence of the radical nationalist Independence Party (Hizb al-Istiqlal), Indian Congress Party. Most of these initiatives were contained and defeated by notables in the pay of the Mandatory Administration, particularly the mufti and his cousin Jamal al-Husayni. The death of the preacher Shaykh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam at the hands of the British police near Jenin in November 1935 generated widespread outrage and huge crowds accompanied Qassam's body to his grave in Haifa. A few months later a spontaneous Arab national general strike broke out. This lasted until October 1936. During the summer of that year thousands of Jewish-farmed acres and orchards were destroyed, Jews were attacked and killed and some Jewish communities, such as those in Beisan and Acre, fled to safer areas. In the wake of the strike and the Peel Commission recommendation of partition of the country into a small Jewish state and an Arab state to be attached to Jordan, an armed uprising spread through the country. Over the next 18 months the British lost control of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Hebron. During this period from 1936–1939, known as the Great Arab Revolt or the "Great Uprising", British forces, supported by 6,000 armed Jewish auxiliary police, suppressed the widespread riots with overwhelming force. This resulted in the deaths of 5,000 Palestinian Arabs and the wounding of 10,000. In total 10 percent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled (see Khalidi, 2001). The Jewish population had 400 killed; the British 200. In another significant development during this time the British officer Charles Orde Wingate (who supported a Zionist revival for religious reasons) organized Special Night Squads composed of British soldiers and Haganah mercenaries, which "scored significant successes against the Arab rebels in the lower Galilee and in the Jezreel valley by conducting raids on Arab villages. The squads were rumored to have used excessive and indiscriminate force, which has been cited by Israeli academic Anita Shapira. The Haganah mobilized up to 20,000 policemen, field troops and night squads; the latter included Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan. Significantly, from 1936 to 1945, whilst establishing collaborative security arrangements with the Jewish Agency (see below for details), the British confiscated 13,200 firearms from Arabs and 521 weapons from Jews.

In assessing the overall impact of the revolt on subsequent events Rashid Khalidi argues that its negative effects on Palestinian national leadership, social cohesion and military capabilities contributed to the outcome of 1948 because "when the Palestinians faced their most fateful challenge in 1947–49, they were still suffering from the British repression of 1936–39, and were in effect without a unified leadership. Indeed, it might be argued that they were virtually without any leadership at all".

The attacks on the Jewish population by Arabs had three lasting effects: First, they led to the further development of Jewish underground militias, primarily the Haganah ("The Defense"), which were to prove decisive in 1948. Secondly, the attacks solidified general sentiment that the two communities could not be reconciled, and the idea of partition was born. Thirdly, the British responded to Arab opposition with the White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish immigration. However, with the advent of World War II, even this reduced immigration quota was not reached. The White Paper policy also radicalized segments of the Jewish population, who after the war would no longer cooperate with the British.

The British Mandate administration and training of local Arabs and Jews

From 1936 onward the British government facilitated the training, arming, recruitment and funding of a range of security and intelligence forces in collaboration with the Jewish Agency. These included the Guards (Notrim), which were divided into the 6,000 to 14,000-strong Jewish Supernumerary Police, the élite and highly mobile 6,000–8,000 strong Jewish Settlement Police and the Special Night Squads, the forerunner of Britain's Special Air Service regiments. There was also an élite strike force known as the FOSH, or Field Companies, with around 1,500 members, which were replaced by the larger HISH or Field Force in 1939. The SHAI, the intelligence and counter-espionage arm of the Haganah, was the forebear of Mossad.

The British had enlisted 6,000 Palestinian Arabs during the Second World War and 1,700 Palestinian Arabs were recruited into the Trans-Jordanian Frontier Force or T.J.F.F. . In addition the British supplied officers, such as John Bagot Glubb Pasha for the Jordan's Arab Legion, and supplied the Egyptian army with trucks, rifles and airplanes. The British army therefore was intimately involved, ironically, in the training of both sides for the coming conflict.

World War II

On 6 August 1940 Anthony Eden, the British Secretary of State for War, informed Parliament that the Cabinet had decided to recruit Arab and Jewish units as battalions of the Royal East Kent Regiment (the "Buffs"). At a luncheon with Chaim Weizmann on 3 September Winston Churchill approved the large-scale recruitment of Jewish forces in Palestine and the training of their officers. A further 10,000 men (no more than 3,000 from Palestine) were to be recruited to Jewish units in the British Army for training in the United Kingdom.

Faced with Field Marshal Rommel's advance in Egypt, the British government decided on 15 April 1941 that the 10,000 Jews dispersed in the single defense companies of the Buffs should be prepared for war service at the battalion level and that another 10,000 should also be mobilized along with 6,000 Supernumerary Police and 40,000 to 50,000 home guard. The plans were approved by Field Marshall John Dill. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Cairo approved a Haganah proposal for guerrilla activities in northern Palestine led by the Palmach arm of the Haganah, as part of which Yitzhak Sadeh devised Plan North for an armed enclave in the Carmel range from which the Yishuv could defend the region and from which they could attack Nazi communications and supply lines, if necessary. British intelligence also trained a small radio network under Moshe Dayan to act as spy cells in the event of a German invasion.

After much hesitation, on 3 July 1944 the British government consented to the establishment of a Jewish Brigade with hand-picked Jewish and also non-Jewish senior officers. On 20 September 1944 an official communiqué by the War Office announced the formation of the Jewish Brigade Group of the British Army. The Zionist flag was officially approved as its standard. It included more than 5,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestine organized into three infantry battalions and several supporting units.

As soon as the war ended British policy reverted to that of the period immediately before the war. Arms were confiscated and some Haganah members were arrested and tried, one notable case being that of Eliahu Sacharoff, who received a sentence of seven years' imprisonment for possession of two stolen firearms cartridges.

Twilight of colonial rule in the region

Meanwhile, many of the surrounding Arab nations were also emerging from colonial rule. Transjordan, under the Hashemite ruler Abdullah, gained independence from Britain in 1946, but it remained under heavy British influence. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 included provisions by which Britain would maintain a garrison of troops on the Suez Canal. From 1945 on, Egypt attempted to renegotiate the terms of this treaty, which was viewed as a humiliating vestige of colonialism. Lebanon became an independent state in 1943, but French troops would not withdraw until 1946, the same year that Syria won its independence from France.

In 1945, at British prompting, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan, and Yemen formed the Arab League to coordinate policy between the Arab states. Iraq and Transjordan coordinated policies closely, signing a mutual defense treaty, while Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia feared that Transjordan would annex part or all of Palestine, and use it as a basis to attack or undermine Syria, Lebanon, and the Hijaz.

UN Partition Plan

On 29 November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly approved a plan, UN General Assembly Resolution 181, to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict by partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Each state would comprise three major sections, linked by extraterritorial crossroads; the Arab state would also have an enclave at Jaffa. With about 32% of the population, the Jews would get 56% of the territory, an area that then contained 499,000 Jews and 438,000 Palestinians, though this included the inhospitable Negev Desert in the south. The Palestinians would get 42% of the land, which then had a population of 818,000 Palestinians and 10,000 Jews. In consideration of its religious significance, the Jerusalem area, including Bethlehem, with 100,000 Jews and an equal number of Palestinians, was to become a Corpus Separatum, to be administered by the UN.

Although some Jews criticized aspects of the plan, the resolution was welcomed by most of the Jewish population. The Jewish leadership accepted the partition plan as "the indispensable minimum, glad as they were with the international recognition, but sorry that they didn't get more.

Arguing that the partition plan was unfair to the Arabs with regard to the population balance at that time, the representatives of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab League firmly opposed the UN action and even rejected its authority to involve itself in the entire matter. They upheld "that the rule of Palestine should revert to its inhabitants, in accordance with the provisions of [...] the Charter of the United Nations. According to Article 73b of the Charter, the UN should develop self-government of the peoples in a territory under its administration.

1947–1948 Civil War in mandatory Palestine

In the immediate aftermath of the United Nations' approval of the Partition plan, the explosions of joy amongst the Jewish community were counterbalanced by the expression of discontent amongst the Arab community. Soon thereafter, violence broke out and became more prevalent. Murders, reprisals, and counter-reprisals came one after the other, killing dozens of victims on both sides in the process.

Summarizing the military assessments of the British, Jewish Agency and the Arabs, historian Benny Morris writes, "all observers—Jewish, British, Palestinian Arab, and external Arab—agreed on the eve of the war that the Palestinians were incapable of beating the Zionists or of withstanding Zionist assault. The Palestinians were simply too weak.

During the period beginning in December 1947 and ending in January 1948, it was estimated that nearly 1,000 people were killed and 2,000 people were injured. By the end of March, the figure had risen to 2,000 dead and 4,000 wounded. These figures correspond to an average of more than 100 deaths and 200 casualties per week; in a population of 2,000,000.

From January onwards operations became more militaristic, with the intervention into Palestine of a number of Arab Liberation Army regiments who divided up around the different coastal towns and reinforced Galilee and Samaria. Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni came from Egypt with several hundred men of the Army of Holy War.

Having recruited a few thousand volunteers, al-Husayni organized the blockade of the 100,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem. To counter this, the Yishuv authorities tried to supply the city with convoys of up to 100 armoured vehicles, but the operation became more and more impractical and more and more died in this process. By March, Al-Hussayni's tactic had paid off. Almost the entirety of Haganah's armoured vehicles had been destroyed, the blockade was in full operation, and hundreds of the Haganah members who tried to bring supplies to the city were killed. The situation for those who dwelt in the Jewish settlements in the highly-isolated Negev and northern Galilee was even more critical.

Since the Jewish population was under strict orders obliging them to hold their dominions at all costs, the situation of insecurity across the country affected the Arab population more visibly. Up to 100,000 Palestinians, chiefly those from the upper classes, left the country to seek refuge abroad or in Samaria.

This situation caused the U.S. to retract their support for the Partition plan, thus encouraging the Arab League to believe that the Palestinians, reinforced by the Arab Liberation Army, could put an end to the partition plan. The British, on the other hand, decided on 7 February 1948 to support the annexation of the Arab part of Palestine by Transjordan.

Although a certain level of doubt took hold amongst Yishuv supporters, their apparent defeats were due more to their wait-and-see policy than to weakness. Ben-Gurion reorganized the Haganah and made conscription obligatory. Every Jewish man and woman in the country had to receive military training. Due to funds gathered by Golda Meir from sympathizers in the United States, and assisted by Stalin's support for the Zionist cause at the time, the Jewish representatives of Palestine were able to sign very important armament contracts in the East. Other Haganah agents retrieved stockpiles from the Second World War, which helped equip the army further. Operation Balak allowed arms and other equipment to be transported for the first time by the end of March.

Ben-Gurion assigned Yigael Yadin the responsibility to come up with a plan in preparation for the announced intervention of the Arab states. The result of his analysis was Plan Dalet, which was put in place from the start of April onwards. The adoption of Plan Dalet marked the second stage of the war, in which Haganah passed from the defensive to the offensive.

The first operation, named Operation Nachshon, consisted of lifting the blockade on Jerusalem. Fifteen hundred men from the Haganah's Givati Brigade and the Palmach's Harel brigade went about freeing the route to the city between 5 April and 20 April. The operation was successful, and enough foodstuffs to last two months were shipped to Jerusalem and distributed to the Jewish population. The success of the operation was added to by the death of al-Hussayni in combat. During this time, and beyond the command of Haganah or the framework of Plan Dalet, troops from Irgun and Lehi massacred more than 100 Arabs, mostly civilians, at Deir Yassin, a move that had an important impact on the Palestinian population, and one that was criticised and lamented by all the principal Jewish authorities of the day.

At the same time, the first large-scale operation of the Arab Liberation Army ended in a debacle, having been roundly defeated at Mishmar Ha'emek and having lost their Druze allies through defection.

Within the framework for the expansion of Jewish territory foreseen by Plan Dalet, the forces of Haganah, Palmach and Irgun intended to conquer mixed zones. Whether ethnic cleansing was the intention, encouraged, or merely accepted, Palestinian society was shaken. Tiberias, Haifa, Safed, Beisan, Jaffa and Acre fell, resulting in the flight of more than 250,000 Palestinians.

The British had, at that time, essentially withdrawn their troops. The situation pushed the leaders of the neighbouring Arab states to intervene, but their preparation was not finalized, and they could not assemble forces that would be able to turn the tide of the war. The majority of Palestinian hopes lay with the Arab Legion of Transjordan's monarch, King Abdullah I, but he had no intention of creating a Palestinian-run state, instead hoping to annex as much of the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine as he could. He was playing a double-game, being just as much in contact with the Jewish authorities as with the Arab League.

In preparation for the offensive, Haganah successfully launched Operations Yiftah and Ben Ami to secure the Jewish settlements of Galilee, and Operation Kilshon, which created a united front around Jerusalem.

Golda Meir and Abdullah I met on 10 May to discuss the situation, but the meeting was inconclusive and their former agreements were not confirmed. On 13 May, the Arab Legion, backed by irregulars, attacked and took Kfar Etzion, where 127 out of the 131 Jewish defenders were killed and the prisoners massacred.

On 14 May, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the state of Israel, and the 1948 Palestine war entered its second phase, with the intervention of several Arab states' armies the following day.

Political objectives

The Yishuv

Benny Morris points out Yishuv's aims evolved during the war.

Initially, the aim was "simple and modest": to survive the assaults of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states. "The Zionist leaders deeply, genuinely, feared a Middle Eastern reenactment of the Holocaust, which had just ended; the Arabs' public rhetoric reinforced these fears". As the war progressed, the aim of expanding the Jewish state beyond the UN partition borders appeared: first to incorporate clusters of isolated Jewish settlements and later to add more territories to the state and give it defensible borders. A third and further aim that emerged among the political and military leaders after four or five months was to "reduce the size of Israel's prospective large and hostile Arab minority, seen as a potential powerful fifth column, by belligerency and expulsion."

King Abdullah I of Jordan

King Abdullah I of Jordan was the commander of the Arab Legion, the strongest Arab army involved in the war. The Arab Legion had about 10,000 soldiers which were trained and commanded by British officers.

In 1946-1947, Abdullah said that he had no intention to "resist or impede the partition of Palestine and creation of a Jewish state." It was said that Abdullah supported the partition with the intention that the areas of the British Mandate allocated for Palestine would be annexed to Jordan. It is said that Abdullah had secret meetings with the Jewish Agency (at which the future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was among the delegates) that agreed to a partition plan independently of the United Nations, and that the plan had the approval of British authorities.

However, by 1948, the neighboring Arab states pressured Abdullah into joining them in an "all-Arab military intervention" against the newly created State of Israel, which he used to restore his prestige in the Arab world, which had grown suspicious of his relatively good relationship with Western and Jewish leaders. Abdullah's role in this war became substantial. He saw himself as the "supreme commander of the Arab forces" and "persuaded the Arab League to appoint him" to this position. Through his leadership, the Arabs fought the 1948 war to meet Abdullah's political goals.

The Arab Higher Committee of Amin al-Husayni

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, the Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In 1940, he asked the Axis powers to acknowledge the Arab right, "to settle the question of Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries in accordance with the national and racial interests of the Arabs and along the lines similar to those used to solve the Jewish question in Germany and Italy. He spent the second half of WWII in Germany making radio broadcasts exhorting Muslims to ally with the Nazis in war against their common enemies. In one of these broadcasts, he said, "Arabs, arise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion. This saves your honor. God is with you. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, such statements by Arab leaders (along with the Mufti's violently anti-Semitic history) led to a widespread belief that the Israelis were facing a new “warrant for genocide.”

At the beginning of 1948 al-Husayni was in exile in Egypt. The mufti was involved in some of the high level negotiations between Arab leaders, at a meeting held in Damascus in February 1948 to organize Palestinian Field Commands; however, the commanders of his Holy War Army, Hasan Salama and Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, were allocated only the Lydda district and Jerusalem. This decision

"paved the way for an undermining of the Mufti's position among the Arab States. On 9 February, only four days after the Damascus meeting, a severe blow was suffered by the Mufti at the Arab League session in Cairo [where his demands for] the appointment of a Palestinian to the General Staff of the League, the formation of a Palestinian Provisional Government, the transfer of authority to local National Committees in areas evacuated by the British, a loan for administration in Palestine and appropriation of large sums to the Arab Higher Executive for Palestinians entitled to war damages [were all rejected].

The Arab League blocked recruitment to the mufti's forces, which collapsed following the death of his most charismatic commander, his cousin, Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, on 8 April.

Following rumors that King Abdullah was re-opening the bi-lateral negotiations with Israel that he had previously conducted in secret with the Jewish Agency, the Arab League, led by Egypt, decided to set up the All-Palestine Government in Gaza on 8 September under the nominal leadership of the mufti. Avi Shlaim writes:

The decision to form the Government of All-Palestine in Gaza, and the feeble attempt to create armed forces under its control, furnished the members of the Arab League with the means of divesting themselves of direct responsibility for the prosecution of the war and of withdrawing their armies from Palestine with some protection against popular outcry. Whatever the long-term future of the Arab government of Palestine, its immediate purpose, as conceived by its Egyptian sponsors, was to provide a focal point of opposition to Abdullah and serve as an instrument for frustrating his ambition to federate the Arab regions with Transjordan.

Abdullah regarded the attempt to revive the mufti's Holy War Army as a challenge to his authority and on 3 October his Minister of Defence ordered all armed bodies operating in the areas controlled by the Arab Legion to be disbanded. Glubb Pasha carried out the order ruthlessly and efficiently.

Initial line-up of forces

Military assessments

Morris has argued that although, by the end of 1947, the Palestinians "had a healthy and demoralising respect for the Yishuv's military power" they believed in decades or centuries "that the Jews, like the medieval crusader kingdoms, would ultimately be overcome by the Arab world".

On the eve of the war the number of Arab troops likely to be committed to the war was about 23,000 (10,000 Egyptians, 4,500 Transjordanians, 3,000 Iraqis, 3,000 Syrians, 2,000 ALA volunteers, 1,000 Lebanese and some Saudi Arabians), in addition to the irregular Palestinians already present. The Yishuv had 35,000 troops of the Haganah, 3,000 of Stern and Irgun and a few thousand armed settlers.

On 12 May David Ben-Gurion was told by his chief military advisers, 'who over-estimated the size of the Arab armies and the numbers and efficiency of the troops who would be committed', that Israel's chances of winning a war against the Arab states was only about even.

Yishuv forces

In November 1947, the Haganah was an underground paramilitary force that had existed as a highly organised, national force since the riots of 1920–21, and throughout the riots of 1929, and Great Uprising of 1936–39 It had a mobile force, the HISH, which had 2,000 full time fighters (men and women) and 10,000 reservists (all aged between 18 and 25) and an elite unit, the Palmach composed of 2,100 fighters and 1,000 reservists. The reservists trained 3–4 days a month and went back to civilian life the rest of the time. These mobile forces could rely on a garrison force, the HIM (Heil Mishmar, lit. Guard Corps), composed of people aged over 25. The Yishuv's total strength was around 35,000 with 15,000 to 18,000 fighters and a garrison force of roughly 20,000. The two clandestine groups Irgun and Lehi had 2,000–4,000 and 500–800 members, respectively. There were also several thousand men and women who had served in the British Army in World War II who did not serve in any of the underground militias but would provide valuable military experience during the war. Walid Khalidi says the Yishuv had the additional forces of the Jewish Settlement Police, numbering some 12,000, the Gadna Youth Battalions, and the armed settlers. Few of the units had been trained by December 1947.

In 1946 Ben-Gurion decided that the Yishuv would probably have to defend itself against both the Palestinian Arabs and neighbouring Arab states and accordingly began a "massive, covert arms acquisition campaign in the West". By September 1947 the Haganah had "10,489 rifles, 702 light machine-guns, 2,666 submachine guns, 186 medium machine-guns, 672 two-inch mortars and 92 three-inch (76 mm) mortars" and acquired many more during the first few months of hostilities. The Yishuv also had "a relatively advanced arms producing capacity", that between October 1947 and July 1948 "produced 3 million 9 mm bullets, 150,000 mills grenades, 16,000 submachine guns (Sten Guns) and 210 three-inch (76 mm) mortars". Initially, the Haganah had no heavy machine guns, artillery, armoured vehicles, anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons, nor military aircraft or tanks.

Sources disagree about the amount of arms at the Yishuv's disposal at the end of the Mandate. According to Karsh before the arrival of arms shipments from Czechoslovakia as part of Operation Balak, there was roughly one weapon for every three fighters and even the Palmach armed only two out of every three of its active members. According to Collins and LaPierre, by April 1948 the Haganah had managed to accumulate only about 20,000 rifles and Sten guns for the 35,000 soldiers who existed on paper. According to Walid Khalidi "the arms at the disposal of these forces were plentiful".

Arab forces

There was no national military organisation in the Arab Palestinian community. There were two paramilitary youth organizations, the pro-Husayni Futuwa and the anti-Husayni Najjada ("auxiliary corps"). According to Karsh, these groups had 11,000–12,000 members, but according to Morris, the Najjada, which was based in Jaffa and had 2,000–3,000 members, was destroyed in the run-up to the 1948 war, during Husayni's attempt to seize control of it, and the Futuwa never numbered more than a few hundred. At the outbreak of the war, new local militia groups, the National Guard, mushroomed in towns and cities. Each was answerable to its local Arab National Committee.

In December, Abd al-Qadir Husseini arrived in Jerusalem with one hundred combatants who had trained in Syria and that would form the cadre of the Holy War Army. His forces were joined by a few hundred young villagers and veterans of the British army.

The equipment of the Palestinian forces was very poor. The British confiscated most of their arsenal during the 1936–39 rebellion and World War II A report of 1942 by the Haganah intelligence service assessed the number of firearms at the disposal of the Palestinian at 50,000 [but] this was probably an overestimate or even "highly exaggerated".

The Arab Liberation Army (Jaysh al-Inqadh al-Arabi) had been set up by the Arab League. It was an army of around 6,000 volunteers, largely from Arab countries, and was led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Its officially allotted area was Northern Palestine, including Samaria.

Transjordan's Arab Legion was considered the most effective Arab force. Armed, trained and commanded by British officers, this 8,000–12,000 strong force was organised in four infantry/mechanised regiments supported by some 40 artillery pieces and 75 armoured cars. Until January 1948, it was reinforced by the 3,000-strong Transjordan Frontier Force.

The Arab Legion joined the war in May 1948. It fought only in the areas that king Abdullah wanted to secure for Transjordan: the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In 1948 Iraq had an army of 21,000 men in 12 brigades and the Iraqi Air Force had 100, mostly British, planes. Initially the Iraqis committed 3,000 to 5,000 men to the war effort including four infantry brigades, one armoured battalion and support personnel. These forces were to operate under Jordanian guidance During the first truce the Iraqis increased their force to about 10,000. Ultimately, the Iraqi expeditionary force numbered around 15,000 to 18,000 men.

The first Iraqi forces to be deployed reached Transjordan in April, 1948 under the command of Gen. Nur ad-Din Mahmud. On 15 May Iraqi engineers built a pontoon bridge across the Jordan River and attacked the Israeli settlement of Gesher with little success. Following this defeat Iraqi forces moved into the Nablus-Jenin-Tulkarm strategic triangle, where they suffered heavy casualties in the Israeli attack on Jenin which began on 3 June, but managed to hold on to their positions. Active Iraqi involvement in the war effectively ended at this point.

In 1948 Egypt was able to put a maximum of around 40,000 men into the field, 80 percent of its military-age male population being unfit for military service and its embryonic logistics system being limited in its ability to support ground forces deployed beyond its borders. Initially, an expeditionary force of 10,000 men was sent to Palestine under the command of Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali al-Mwawi. This force consisted of five infantry battalions, one armoured battalion equipped with British Mark IV and Matilda tanks, one battalion of sixteen 25-pounder guns, a battalion of eight 6-pounder guns and one medium-machine-gun battalion with supporting troops.

The Egyptian Air Force had over 30 Spitfires, 4 Hawker Hurricanes and 20 C47s modified into crude bombers.

By the time of the second truce the Egyptians had 20,000 men in the field in thirteen battalions equipped with 135 tanks, (...) and 90 artillery pieces.

Syria had 12,000 soldiers at the beginning of the 1948 War grouped into three infantry brigades and an armoured force of approximately battalion size. The Syrian Air Force had fifty planes, the 10 newest of which were World War II-generation models.

On 14 May Syria invaded Palestine with the 1st Infantry Brigade supported by a battalion of armoured cars, a company of French R 35 and R 37 tanks, an artillery battalion and other units. On 15–16 May they attacked the Israeli village Tzemah, which they captured, following a renewed offensive, on 18 May. The village was abandoned following the Syrian forces' defeat at the Deganias a few days later. Subsequently, the Syrians scored a victory at Mishmar HaYarden on 10 June after which they reverted to a defensive posture, conducting only a few minor attacks on small, exposed Israeli settlements.

The Lebanese army was the smallest of the Arab armies, consisting of only 3,500 soldiers. According to Gelber in June 1947 Ben-Gurion "arrived at an agreement with the Maronite religious leadership in Lebanon that cost a few thousand pounds and kept Lebanon's army out of the War of Independence and the military Arab coalition. According to Rogan and Shlaim a token force of 1,000 was committed to the invasion. It crossed into the northern Galilee and was repulsed by Israeli forces who occupied South Lebanon until an armistice agreement was signed on 23 March 1949.

Saudi Arabia sent a contingent of 800–1,200 men to fight with Egyptian and Jordanian forces .

Yemen also committed a small expeditionary force to the war effort.

Intervention by Arab League countries

Five of the seven countries of the Arab League at that time, namely Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria, backed with Saudi Arabian and Yemenite contingents invaded the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine on the night of 14–15 May 1948. The official motives for their intervention were set out in a statement of 15 May 1948 :
the only solution of the Palestine problem is the establishment of a unitary Palestinian State, in accordance with democratic principles, whereby its inhabitants will enjoy complete equality before the law, [and whereby] minorities will be assured of all the guarantees recognised in democratic constitutional countries, ....
The main objection the Arab League had to the division of Palestine in UN Resolution 181 was that it did not respect the rights of its Arab inhabitants
in accordance with the provisions of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Charter of the United Nations.
Security and order in Palestine have become disrupted. The Zionist aggression resulted in the exodus of more than a quarter of a million of its Arab inhabitants from their homes and in their taking refuge in the neighbouring Arab countries.
Nevertheless, some speeches were more aggressive. Azzam Pasha, the Arab League Secretary, declared on Cairo radio: 'This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.'

According to Yoav Gelber, the Arab countries were "drawn into the war by the collapse of the Palestinians and the Arab Liberation Army [and] the Arab governments' primary goal was preventing the Palestinians' total ruin and the flooding of their own countries by more refugees. According to their own perception, had the invasion not taken place, there was no Arab force in Palestine capable of checking the Haganah's offensive".

"[Yishuv] perceived the peril of an Arab invasion as threatening its very existence. Having no real knowledge of the Arabs's true military capabilities, the Jews took Arab propaganda literally, preparing for the worst and reacting accordingly.

British forces in Palestine

There were 100,000 British troops deployed in Palestine "in two ground forces divisions, two independent infantry brigades, two mechanised regiments, some artillery units and a number of RAF squadrons" (Karsh, p. 28). The peak deployment was in July 1947 when 70,200 British troops were stationed in Palestine, serviced by 1,277 civilian drivers and 28,155 civilian employees.

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First phase: 14 May 1948–11 June 1948

The British mandate over Palestine was due to expire on 15 May, but Jewish Leadership led by future Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared independence on 14 May. The State of Israel declared itself as an independent nation, and was quickly recognized by the United States, the Soviet Union, and many other countries.

Over the next few days, approximately 1,000 Lebanese, 5,000 Syrian, 5,000 Iraqi, and 10,000 Egyptian troops invaded the newly-established state. Four thousand Transjordanian troops invaded the Corpus separatum region encompassing Jerusalem and its environs, as well as areas designated as part of the Arab state by the UN partition plan. They were aided by corps of volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen.

In an official Cablegram from the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the UN Secretary-General on 15 May 1948, the Arab states publicly proclaimed their aim of creating a "United State of Palestine" in place of the Jewish and Arab, two-state, UN Plan. They claimed the latter was invalid, as it was opposed by Palestine's Arab majority, and maintained that the absence of legal authority made it necessary to intervene to protect Arab lives and property.

Israel, the United States and the Soviets called the Arab states' entry into Palestine illegal aggression, while UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie characterized it as "the first armed aggression which the world had seen since the end of the [Second World] War." China, meanwhile, broadly backed the Arab claims. Both sides increased their manpower over the following months, but the Israeli advantage grew steadily as a result of the progressive mobilization of Israeli society and the influx of an average of 10,300 immigrants each month.

Israeli Forces 1948
Initial strength 29,677
4 June 40,825
17 July 63,586
7 October 88,033
28 October 92,275
2 December 106,900
23 December 107,652
30 December 108,300

On 26 May 1948, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was officially established and the Haganah, Palmach and Irgun were dissolved into the army of the new Jewish state.

As the war progressed, the IDF managed to field more troops than the Arab forces. By July 1948, the IDF was fielding 63,000 troops; by early spring 1949, 115,000. The Arab armies had an estimated 40,000 troops in July 1948, rising to 55,000 in October 1948, and slightly more by the spring of 1949.

All Jewish aviation assets were placed under the control of the Sherut Avir (Air Service, known as the SA) in November 1947 and flying operations began in the following month from a small civil airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv called Sde Dov, with the first ground support operation (in an R.W.D. 13) taking place on 17 December. The Galilee Squadron was formed at Yavne'el in March 1948 and the Negev Squadron was formed at Nir-Am in April. By 10 May, when the SA suffered its first combat loss, there were three flying units, an air staff, maintenance facilities and logistics support. At the outbreak of the war on 15 May the SA became the Israeli Air Force, but, during the first few weeks of the war, with its fleet of light planes it was no match for Arab forces flying T-6s, Spitfires, C-47s and Avro Ansons and indeed the main Arab losses were the result of RAF action in response to Egyptian raids on the British air base at Ramat David near Haifa on 22 May during which 5 Egyptian Spitfires were shot down. It was also during this time that the balance of air power began to swing in favor of the Israeli Air Force following the purchase of 25 Avia S-199s from Czechoslovakia, the first of which arrived in Israel on 20 May. This created the ironic situation of the young Jewish state using derivatives of the Bf-109 designed in Nazi Germany to help counter the British-designed Spitfires flown by Egypt. The first raid on an Arab capital followed on the night of 31 May/1 June when three Israeli planes bombed Amman. By the fall of 1948, The IDF achieved air superiority and had superiority in firepower and knowledgeable personnel, many of whom had seen action in World War II.

The first mission of the IDF was to hold on against the Arab armies and stop them from destroying major Jewish settlements, until reinforcements and weapons arrived.

The heaviest fighting would occur in Jerusalem and on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, between Transjordan's Arab Legion and the Israeli forces. Abdullah ordered Glubb Pasha, the commander of the Transjordanian Arab Legion, to enter Jerusalem on 17 May, and heavy house-to-house fighting occurred between 19 May and 28 May, with the Arab Legion succeeding in expelling Israeli forces from the Arab quarters of Jerusalem as well as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. All the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City were expelled by the Jordanians. Iraqi troops failed in attacks on Jewish settlements (the most notable battle was on Mishmar HaEmek), and instead took defensive positions around Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

On May 24, 1948 IDF forces at Latrun-consisting of the 7th Armoured Brigade (Israel) and the Alexandroni Brigade-attacked the Arab Legion forces in Operation "Bin-Nun A" and on June 1, 1948 the same IDF forces again attacked Latrun Arab Legion forces in Operation "Bin-Nun B". Both attacks failed and both Brigades suffered heavy casualties of a total of 139 killed.

In the north, the Syrian army was blocked in the kibbutz Degania, where the settlers managed to stop the Syrian armored forces with only light weapons. One tank that was disabled by a Molotov cocktail is still present at the kibbutz. Later, an artillery bombardment, made by cannons jury-rigged from 19th century museum pieces, led to the withdrawal of the Syrians from the kibbutz.

During the following months, the Syrian army was repelled, and so were the Palestinian irregulars and the ALA.

In the south, an Egyptian attack was able to penetrate the defenses of several Israeli kibbutzim, but with heavy cost. This attack was stopped near Ashdod.

The Israeli military managed not only to maintain their military control of the Jewish territories, but to expand their holdings.

First truce (11 June 1948–8 July 1948)

The UN declared a truce on 29 May which came into effect on 11 June and would last 28 days. The cease-fire was overseen by the UN mediator Folke Bernadotte. An arms embargo was declared with the intention that neither side would make any gains from the truce. At the end of the truce, Folke Bernadotte presented a new partition plan that would give the Galilee to the Jews and the Negev to the Arabs. Both sides rejected the plan. On 8 July, before the expiration of the truce, Egyptian General Naguib renewed the war by attacking the Negba position of Israel.

Second phase (8 July 1948–18 July 1948)

The ten days at the height of the summer between the two truces were dominated by large scale Israeli offensives and a defensive posture from the Arab side. Operation Dani was the most important Israeli offensive, aimed at securing and enlarging the corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by capturing the roadside cities Lydda (later renamed Lod) and Ramle. Following their capture, the residents of Lydda and Ramle, some 50,000 Palestinians, left the city, in the largest single exodus of the war.

In a second planned stage of the operation the fortified positions of Latrun, overlooking the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, and the city of Ramallah, were also to be captured but this part of the operation failed.

The second plan was Operation Dekel whose aim was to capture the lower Galilee including Nazareth. The third plan, to which fewer resources were allocated, Operation Kedem was to secure the Old City of Jerusalem.

Operation Dani

Lydda (Lod) was mainly defended by the Transjordanian Army, but also local Palestinian militias and the Arab Liberation Army were present. The city was attacked from the north via Majdal al-Sadiq and al-Muzayri'a and from the east via Khulda, al-Qubab, Jimzu and Danyal. Bombers were also used for the first time in the conflict to bombard the city. On 11 July 1948 the IDF captured the city.

The next day, 12 July 1948 Ramle also fell to the hands of Israel.

15 July16 July an attack on Latrun took place but did not manage to occupy the fort. A desperate second attempt occurred (18 July) by units from the Yiftach Brigade equipped with armored vehicles, including two Cromwell tanks, but that attack also failed. Despite the second truce, which began on 18 July, the Israeli efforts to conquer Latrun continued until 20 July.

Operation Dekel

While Operation Dani proceeded in the centre, Operation Dekel was carried out in the north. Nazareth was captured on 16 July and when the second truce took effect at 19:00 18 July, the whole lower Galilee from Haifa bay to the Sea of Galilee was captured by Israel.

Operation Kedem

Originally the operation was to be executed on 8 July, immediately after the first truce, by Irgun and Lehi. However, it was delayed by David Shaltiel, possibly because he did not trust their ability after their failure to capture Deir Yassin without Haganah assistance.

The Irgun forces that were commanded by Yehuda Lapidot (Nimrod) were to break through at The New Gate, Lehi was to break through the wall stretching from the New Gate to the Jaffa Gate and the Beit Hiron Battalion was to strike from Mount Zion.

The battle was planned to begin on the Sabbath, at 20:00 Friday 16 July a day before the Second Cease-fire of the Arab-Israeli war. The plan went wrong from the beginning and was postponed first to 23:00 and then to midnight. It was not until 02:30 that the battle actually began. The Irgunists managed to break through at the New Gate but the other forces failed in their missions. At 05:45 in the morning Shaltiel ordered a retreat and to cease the hostilities.

Second truce: 18 July 1948–15 October 1948

19:00 18 July, the second truce of the conflict went into effect after intense diplomatic efforts by the UN.

On 16 September, Folke Bernadotte proposed a new partition for Palestine in which Transjordan would annex Arab areas including the Negev, al-Ramla, and Lydda. There would be a Jewish state in the whole of Galilee, internationalization of Jerusalem, and return or compensation for refugees. The plan was once again rejected by both sides. On the next day, 17 September, Bernadotte was assassinated by the Lehi and his deputy, American Ralph Bunche, replaced him.

Third phase (15 October 1948–20 July 1949)

Israeli operations

Between 15 October and 20 July Israel launched a series of military operations in order to drive out the Arab armies and secure the borders of Israel.

On 24 October, the IDF launched Operation Hiram and captured the entire Upper Galilee, driving the ALA and Lebanese army back to Lebanon. It was a complete success and at the end of the month, Israel had not only managed to capture the whole Galilee but had also advanced into Lebanon to the Litani River.

On 15 October the IDF launched Operation Yoav in the northern Negev. Its goal was to drive a wedge between the Egyptian forces along the coast and the Beersheba-Hebron-Jerusalem road and ultimately to conquer the whole Negev. Operation Yoav was headed by the Southern Front commander Yigal Allon. The operation was a huge success as it shattered the Egyptian army ranks and forced the Egyptian forces to retreat from the northern Negev, Beersheba and Ashdod. On 22 October the Israeli Navy commandoes sank the Egyptian flagship Amir Faruk.

On 22 December the IDF drove the remaining Egyptian forces out of Israel, by launching Operation Horev (also called Operation Ayin). The goal of the operation was to secure the entire Negev from Egyptian presence, destroying the Egyptian threat on Israel's southern communities and forcing the Egyptians into a cease-fire.

The operation was a decisive Israeli victory, and Israeli raids into the Nitzana and the Sinai peninsula forced the Egyptian army, which was encircled in the Gaza Strip, to withdraw and accept cease-fire. On 7 January a truce was achieved. Israeli forces withdrew from Sinai and Gaza under international pressure.

On 5 March Operation Uvda was launched. On 10 March the Israelis reached Umm Rashrash (where Eilat was built later) and conquered it without a battle. The Negev Brigade and Golani Brigade took part in the operation. They raised a hand-made flag ("The Ink Flag") and claimed Umm Rashrash for Israel.

UN Resolution 194

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which declared (amongst other things) that in the context of a general peace agreement "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so" and that "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." The resolution also mandated the creation of the United Nations Conciliation Commission. However, parts of the resolution were never implemented, resulting in the Palestinian refugee crisis.

British aircraft

Just before noon on 7 January 1949, four Spitfire FR. 18s from No. 208 Squadron RAF on routine reconnaissance in the Deir al-Balah area inadvertently flew over an Israeli convoy that had just been attacked by the Royal Egyptian Air Force. IDF soldiers in the convoy shot down one of the British planes. The remaining three planes were then shot down by patrolling Israeli Air Force Spitfires flown by Slick Goodlin and John McElroy, volunteers from the United States and Canada respectively. Later that day four RAF Spitfires from the same squadron escorted by seven No. 213 Squadron Tempests and another eight Tempests from No. 6 Squadron, searching for the lost planes from No. 208 Squadron were attacked by four Israeli Air Force Spitfires and one of the Tempests was shot down, killing its pilot David Tattersfield. Another Tempest was damaged by an IAF plane flown by Ezer Weizman. There was only one other clash between the IAF and the RAF during the war when a No. 13 Squadron Mosquito PR. 34 on a photo-reconnaissance mission over Israel was shot down on 20 November 1948 by an Israeli P-51 flown by Waine Peake.


Largely leftover World War II-era weapons were used by both sides. Egypt had some British equipment, the Syrian army had some French. German and British equipment was used by Israel.

Type Arab armies IDF
Tanks Matilda tank, Mark IV tank, R-39, FT-17, R35, Panzer IV(dug in and used stationarily by Egypt)

Cromwell tanks, H39, Valentines.
APCs/IFVs British WW2 Era Trucks, Humber Mk III & IV, Automitrailleuses Dodge of the Bich type, Improvised Armoured Car/Truck, Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car, Universal Carrier, Lloyd Towing Carriers

British WW2 Era Trucks, Improvised Armoured Car/Truck, White M3A1 Scout Car, Daimler Armoured Car, IHC M14 half-track, M5 half-track, M3 Half-track
Artillery Mortars, 15 cm sIG33 auf Pz II, 25 mm anti-tank guns on Bren carriers, Improvised self-propelled guns used by Syrians in 1948-49, 65 mm mountain gun on Chenillette Lorraine 38L 2-pounder anti-tank gun, 6-pounder anti-tank gun,

Mortars, converted 19th century museum pieces, 2 inch British mortars 65 mm French Howitzers "Napoleonchiks", 120 mm French mortars, Davidka artillery pieces
Aircraft Spitfires, T-6 Texan, C-47 Dakotas, Hawker Hurricane and Avro Ansons

Spitfires, Avia S-199, B-17 Flying Fortresses
Small Arms Lee Enfield rifles

Sten guns, mills Grenades, Karabiner 98k (Czech copies)


1949 Armistice Agreements

In 1949, Israel signed separate armistices with Egypt on 24 February, Lebanon on 23 March, Transjordan on 3 April, and Syria on 20 July. The new borders of Israel, as set by the agreements, encompassed about 78% of mandatory Palestine as it stood after the independence of Jordan in 1946. Considering the original British mandate (including Jordan, which was included within the Mandate in the summer of 1921, but excluded from the provisions for a Jewish National Home), however, Israel was created only on 18% of the total area of Palestine and Transjordan. This was about 50 percent more than the UN partition proposal allotted it. These cease-fire lines were known afterwards as the "Green Line". The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were occupied by Egypt and Transjordan respectively. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and Mixed Armistice Commissions were set up to monitor ceasefires, supervise the armistice agreements; to prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the region.


Israel lost about 1% of its population in the war: 6,373 of its people. About 4,000 were soldiers and the rest were civilians.

The exact number of Arab losses is unknown but are estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 people.

See also the List of massacres committed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Demographic Outcome

During the 1947-1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that followed around 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. In 1951 the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine estimated that the number of Palestinian refugees displaced out of Israel was 711,000. This number did not include displaced Palestinians inside Israeli-held territory. The List of villages depopulated during the Arab-Israeli conflict includes more than 400 Arab villages depopulated during the war. It also includes about ten Jewish villages and neighborhoods.

The Causes of the 1948 Palestinian exodus are a controversed topic among historians who debate on the degree of responsibility of Arab leaders and if the events were planned by Yishuv leaders or were a "result of the war".

The Palestinian refugee problem and the debate around the right of their return are also a major issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab Palestinians have staged annual demonstrations and protests on May 15 of each year. The popularity and number of participants in these annual al Nakba demonstrations has varied over time, though the increasing anti-Israeli sentiment in the Middle East has tended to increase the attendance in recent years. During the al-Aqsa Intifada after the failure of the Camp David 2000 Summit, the attendance at the demonstrations against Israel increased.

During the 1948 War, around 10,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Palestine but in the three years following the war, 700,000 Jews settled in Israel, mainly along the borders and in former Arab lands. Around 136,000 came from the 250,000 displaced Jews of the Second World War. Most others were part of the 758,000 to 900,000 Jews who left Arab countries between 1948 and the Six-Day War following widespread anti-Jewish attacks.

IDF Forces in 1948

See also



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The War in Fiction

  • The Hope by Herman Wouk, a historical novel that includes a fictionalized version of Israel's War of Independence.

External links


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