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Israeli War of Independence: Background & Overview

(1947 - 1949)

Arabs Take Responsibility
Superpowers Recognize Israel
The Old City Falls
The Bernadotte Plan
The United States Holds Back Support
A Costly Victory
No Boundaries


Violence in the Holy Land broke out almost immediately after the United Nations announced partition on November 29, 1947. Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee’s spokesman, had told the UN before the partition vote the Arabs would drench “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood.”1

Husseini’s prediction began to come true after the UN announcement. The Arabs declared a protest strike and instigated riots that claimed the lives of 62 Jews and 32 Arabs. By the end of the second week, 93 Arabs, 84 Jews, and 7 Englishmen had been killed and scores injured. From November 30-February 1, 427 Arabs, 381 Jews, and 46 British were killed, and 1,035 Arabs, 725 Jews, and 135 British were wounded. In March alone, 271 Jews and 257 Arabs died in Arab attacks and Jewish counter­attacks.2

The chairman of the Arab Higher Committee said the Arabs would “fight for every inch of their country.”3 Two days later, the holy men of Al-Azhar University in Cairo called on the Muslim world to proclaim a jihad (holy war) against the Jews.4

The first large-scale assaults began on January 9, 1948, when approximately 1,000 Arabs attacked Jewish communities in northern Palestine. By February, the British said so many Arabs had infiltrated they lacked the forces to run them back.5 The British turned over bases and arms to Arab irregulars and the Arab Legion.

The Arab Invasion

In the first phase of the war, lasting from November 29, 1947, until April 1, 1948, the Palestinian Arabs took the offensive with help from volunteers from neighboring countries. The Jews suffered severe casualties, and passage along most of their major roadways was disrupted.

On April 26, 1948, Transjordan’s King Abdullah said:

[A]ll our efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Palestine problem have failed. The only way left for us is war. I will have the pleasure and honor to save Palestine.7

On May 4, 1948, the Arab Legion, commanded by a British officer, John Bagot Glubb, attacked Kfar Etzion, a bloc of four kibbutzim. The defenders drove them back, but the Legion returned a week later. After three days, the ill-equipped and outnumbered settlers were overwhelmed and surrendered. On the day Israel declared independence, Legion fighters murdered 127 men and women, and only three villagers escaped.6 The defenders of three other kibbutzim were accorded the status of POWS and taken away. The entire bloc was then looted and destroyed.

Arabs Take Responsibility

The UN blamed the Arabs for the violence. The Arabs and British never permitted the UN Palestine Commission to go to Palestine to implement the resolution. On February 16, 1948, the Commission reported to the Security Council:

Powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein.8

The Arabs were blunt in taking responsibility for starting the war. Jamal Husseini told the Security Council on April 16, 1948:

The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight.9

The British commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, John Bagot Glubb admitted:

Early in January, the first detachments of the Arab Liberation Army began to infiltrate Palestine from Syria. Some came through Jordan and even through Amman . . . They were in reality to strike the first blow in the ruin of the Arabs of Palestine.10

Despite the disadvantages in numbers, organization, and weapons, the Jews began to take the initiative in the weeks from April 1 until the declaration of independence on May 14. The Haganah captured several significant towns, including Tiberias and Haifa, and temporarily opened the road to Jerusalem.

The partition resolution was never suspended or rescinded. Thus, Israel, the Jewish State in Palestine, was born on May 14, as the British finally left the country. Five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq) immediately invaded Israel. Their intentions were declared by Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League: “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”11

Before leaving Palestine, the British prodded the Arabs to go to war. They believed the Arabs would use their advantage in manpower and weapons to launch a lightning strike to seize the area designated for the Arab state and the Negev, which was given to the Jewish state. As the Jews mobilized and added to their arsenal, the British expected a counteroffensive to give the Jews an advantage as Arab forces grew short of supplies and became demoralized. The British hoped to prevent this by pushing for an early cease-fire.11a

Superpowers Recognize Israel

Military Situation On Effective Date of Cease-Fire (June 11, 1948)

The United States, the Soviet Union, and most other states immediately recognized Israel and indicted the Arabs. The United States urged a resolution charging the Arabs with breach of the peace.

Soviet delegate Andrei Gromyko told the Security Council on May 29, 1948:

This is not the first time that the Arab states, which organized the invasion of Palestine, have ignored a decision of the Security Council or of the General Assembly. The USSR delegation deems it essential that the council should state its opinion more clearly and more firmly with regard to this attitude of the Arab states toward decisions of the Security Council.12

The Old City Falls

In the early fighting, the Arabs successfully cut the Old City of Jerusalem off from its supply routes. Hundreds of Jews left before the end of the British Mandate. By the time the war began, approximately 1,700 civilians had remained in the Jewish Quarter. The city had been under siege for five months and had no more than 150 fighters with little training, few weapons, and little ammunition.

Arab irregulars attacked the city on May 16 and soon captured one-third of the Jewish Quarter. On the 18th, the Arab Legion joined the battle. By the 28th, the situation for the Jews had become dire, and the Haganah asked for a ceasefire. 

Two rabbis carrying a white flag of truce crossed into Arab territory to begin negotiations to surrender. They were followed by the head of the municipal government of the Jewish quarter of the Old City and two Israeli military officers who were told that younger men would be interned “outside of Palestine” and older ones turned over to the Red Cross. Women, noncombatants, and the wounded were sent to the Jewish lines on Mount Zion.

The JTA reported, "Many of the survivors are wounded, and all are starved because there has been no food inside the Jewish lines for several days. Ammunition was extremely short, and all Jews, concentrated in three houses, were exhausted.”

The same day the Palestine Post reported Arabs had razed the Hurva Synagogue. According to the report, the demolition of the holy place was timed to coincide with King Abdullah’s pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, where he prayed for the welfare of his army.

On May 30, the Palestine Post reported that “bold city defenders yield after epic resistance.” The Jewish Telegraphic Agency published this account:

The Old City, ancient walled town in the center of Jerusalem in which Jews have dwelt for tens of generations, fell this afternoon to King Abdullah’s Arab Legion after a siege of eleven days during which the outnumbered and outgunned Jewish defenders turned every stone and house into a sniper’s post and a fortress. Jewish sources estimated that the trapped Jews numbered between 1,500 and 1,600 persons, including 300 women and children who will be turned over to the Red Cross.12a

Major Abdullah el-Tell recalled how devastating the defeat was for the Jews in his memoirs. “Al Quds was purged of Jews and for the first time in 1000 years no Jews remained there.” He added, “I have seen in this defeat of the Jews the heaviest blow rendered upon them, especially in terms of morale, since they were evicted from the Western Wall and from the Jewish Quarter, for the first time in 15 generations.”12b

The initial phase of the fighting ended after the Security Council threatened on July 15 to cite the Arab governments for aggression under the Charter. By this time, the Haganah had been renamed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and succeeded in stopping the Arab offensive.

When the British failed to secure a ceasefire to prevent the Jews from gaining an advantage, they tried to save the Arab forces by demanding an end to the fighting. If the Arabs survived the second stage, the British believed the fighting would become a “war of attrition,” which would allow them to wear down the Jewish forces.

The Bernadotte Plan

During the summer of 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte was sent by the UN to Palestine to mediate a truce and try to negotiate a settlement. The British had wanted the Arabs to seize the Negev, but when they failed, they supported Bernadotte’s plan, which called for the Jewish State to relinquish the Negev and Jerusalem to Transjordan and to receive the western Galilee. This was similar to the boundaries proposed before the partition vote and had been rejected by all sides. Now, the proposal was being offered after the Arabs had gone to war to prevent partition, and a Jewish state had been declared. The Jews and Arabs both rejected the plan.

Ironically, Bernadotte found little enthusiasm among the Arabs for independence. He wrote in his diary:

The Palestinian Arabs had at present no will of their own. Neither have they ever developed any specifically Palestinian nationalism. The demand for a separate Arab state in Palestine is consequently relatively weak. It would seem as though in existing circumstances most of the Palestinian Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated in Transjordan.13

The failure of the Bernadotte scheme came as the Jews began to have greater success in repelling the invading Arab forces and expanding control over territory outside the partition boundaries.

The United States Holds Back Support

The Jews won their war of independence with minimal help from the West. In fact, they won despite efforts to undermine their military strength.

Although the United States vigorously supported the partition resolution, the State Department did not want to provide the Jews with the means to defend themselves. “Otherwise,” Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett argued, “the Arabs might use arms of U.S. origin against Jews, or Jews might use them against Arabs.”14 Consequently, on December 5, 1947, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on the region.

Many in the State Department saw the embargo as another means of obstructing partition. President Truman nevertheless went along with it, hoping it would be a means of averting bloodshed. This was naive given Britain’s rejection of Lovett’s request to suspend weapons shipments to the Arabs and subsequent agreements to provide additional arms to Iraq and Transjordan.15

The Arabs had no difficulty obtaining all the arms they needed. Jordan’s Arab Legion was armed and trained by the British and led by a British officer. The British also considered intervening by invoking its defense treaties with Egypt and Jordan if Israel attacked either country. At the end of 1948 and the beginning of 1949, British RAF planes flew with Egyptian squadrons over the Israel-Egypt border. On January 7, 1949, Israeli planes shot down four British aircraft.16

The Jews, on the other hand, were forced to smuggle weapons, principally from Czechoslovakia. When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the army did not have a single cannon or tank. Its air force consisted of nine obsolete planes. Although the Haganah had 60,000 trained fighters, only 18,900 were fully mobilized, armed, and prepared for war.17 On the eve of the war, chief of operations Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion: “The best we can tell you is that we have a 50­-50 chance.”18

A Costly Victory

The Arab war to destroy Israel failed. Indeed, because of their aggression, the Arabs wound up with less territory than they would have had if they had accepted partition.

The cost to Israel, however, was enormous. “Many of its most productive fields lay gutted and mined. Its citrus groves, the basis of the Yishuv’s [Jewish community] economy for decades, were largely destroyed.”19 Military expenditures totaled approximately $500 million. Worse yet, 6,373 Israelis were killed, nearly one percent of the Jewish population of 650,000.

Had the West enforced the partition resolution or given the Jews the capacity to defend themselves, many lives might have been saved.

The war lasted one year, three months, and ten days starting November 30, 1947. The Arab countries signed armistice agreements with Israel in 1949, beginning with Egypt (Feb. 24), followed by Lebanon (March 23), Jordan (April 3), and Syria (July 20). Iraq was the only country that did not sign an agreement with Israel, choosing instead to withdraw its troops and hand over its sector to Jordan’s Arab Legion.

No Boundaries

When Israel declared its independence, historian Martin Kramer noted, Ben-Gurion decided not to draw the border based on the partition plan or the mandate. Ignoring legal experts who believed the state could not be declared without borders, he left out any reference to boundaries in the declaration, believing the war's outcome would determine them. After the war, however, Israel agreed only to recognize armistice lines, which were “not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial border.” Final borders, Israel insisted, would only be determined by peace treaties.20

See also: The Israeli-Arab War of 1948

Sources: 1J.C. Hurewitz, The Struggle For Palestine, (NY: Shocken Books, 1976), p. 308.
2Facts on File Yearbook, (NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1948), p. 231.
3New York Times, (December 1, 1947).
4Facts on File 1948, p. 48.
5Facts on File 1947, p. 231.
6Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1976), p. 47; Ralph Patai, ed., Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, (NY: McGraw Hill, 1971), pp. 307­308.
7Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 322.
8Security Council Official Records, Special Supplement, (1948), p. 20.
9Security Council Official Records, S/Agenda/58, (April 16, 1948), p. 19.
10John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, (London: Staughton and Hodder, 1957), p. 79.
11“Interview with Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha,” Akhbar al-Yom (Egypt), (October 11, 1947); translated by R. Green.
11aMeir Zamir, “Intelligence Documents Reveal What Ben-Gurion Learned on the Eve of Declaring Israel’s Independence,” Haaretz, (May 18, 2020);
12Security Council Official Records, SA/Agenda/77, (May 29, 1948), p. 2.
12a“Old City of Jerusalem Falls to Arabs; Jews Gain in Battle for Tel Aviv Highway,” JTA, (May 30, 1948).
12bMaoz Azaryahu and Arnon Golan, “Photography, Memory, and Ethnic Cleansing: The Fate of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, 1948 – John Phillips’ Pictorial Record,” Israel Studies, Vol. 17, No. 5, (Summer 2012), pp. 62- 76.
13Folke Bernadotte, To Jerusalem, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), p. 113.
14Foreign Relations of the United States 1947, (DC: GPO, 1948), p. 1249. [Henceforth FRUS].
15Mitchell Bard, The Waters Edge and Beyond, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1991), pp. 171­175; FRUS, pp. 537­39; Robert Silverberg, If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: American Jews and the State of Israel, (NY: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1970), pp. 366, 370; Shlomo Slonim, “The 1948 American Embargo on Arms to Palestine,” Political Science Quarterly, (Fall 1979), p. 500.
16Sachar, p. 345.
17Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 352.
18Golda Meir, My Life, (NY: Dell, 1975), pp. 213, 222, 224
19Sachar, p. 452.
20Martin Kramer, “The Significance of San Remo,” Mosaic, (February 15, 2021).