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French Intel on British Support for Arabs
Influences Jews’ Decision to Declare Independence

(May 12, 1948)

French intelligence informed David Ben-Gurion as early as July 1947 that British military and intelligence officers in Cairo and Bagdad were secretly trying to incite a war against the Jews in Palestine to discourage their government from evacuating Palestine. They had no success at that time, however, and when the UN decided to partition Palestine the government declared its intention to terminate its mandate on May 15, 1948.

Though not yet a full-fledged war, Arab irregular forces had started attacking Jewish communities, as they had promised, almost immediately after the UN vote. As violence escalated, 10 members of the Minhelet Ha’am (the “people’s administration”) met on May 12, 1948, to decide whether to accept an American demand for a cease-fire or declare the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

The timing was also influenced by information Ben-Gurion received from French intelligence. Two days earlier, Golda Meir’s met secretly with Transjordan’s King Abdullah hoping to avert war, but he had been convinced by the British to go to war and was determined so “save Palestine.”

The British believed that if Abdullah went to war, the other Arab leaders would be compelled to join him to avoid being seen as less committed than the Jordanian king to defending the Arabs of Palestine. Before, during and after the war, the British were convinced Arab leaders would have to act to satisfy their publics’ desire to see the Jews thrown into the sea. They also stoked the anger of the Arab street. In Egypt, for example, the British encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to demonstrate and demand that the king save the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Palestine’s Muslims.

British intelligence officers and the British High Command in Egypt persuaded King Farouk to join the Arab war coalition despite opposition within his government and military who feared the army was unprepared for war. To reassure the king, the British promised to provide weapons, ammunition, and aircraft.

Meir Zamir notes that the Arab leaders grew more confident after the Etzion Bloc was captured on May 13 by the Arab Legion, the Transjordanian army commanded and trained by a British army officer (John Bagot Glubb). During the fighting “many of the residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were massacred and hundreds more from neighboring settlements were taken captive and paraded in trucks through the streets of Amman to the cheers of the crowd.” Zamir adds that the “conquest of the Etzion Bloc also had an immediate military purpose: ensuring the functioning of the supply lines from the British Army depots at the Suez Canal to the Arab Legion.”

Ben-Gurion also learned from French intelligence that the British were helping the Arab states as they planned to invade Palestine once British troops left. “It is learned from an authoritative source that the Arab states have made a final decision to attack together and simultaneously on May 15.” The Arabs were apparently not entirely confident they would prevail. The message Ben-Gurion received said, “They have decided to do so even if it entails a risk of failure. They are relying on a lack of heavy weapons and of Jewish air power. Tel Aviv will be attacked immediately from the air.”

Zamir concludes:

The decision to establish the state was made from a deep conviction that this was a historic moment for the Jewish people and the Zionist movement. But it was based on a realistic situation appraisal, on up-to-date intelligence about the enemy and its intentions, and on an assessment of the ability of the Yishuv’s forces to contain a lightning attack by the Arabs and launch a counteroffensive.

Source: Meir Zamir, “Intelligence Documents Reveal What Ben-Gurion Learned on the Eve of Declaring Israel’s Independence,” Haaretz, (May 18, 2020).