Ted Thornton
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The Arab-Israeli Wars



Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

BBC Maps on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 having left Arabs deeply dissatisfied, the months prior to the end of the British Mandate in Palestine were characterized by bitter fighting between Arabs and Jews. Most of the Arab fighters were  non-Palestinians led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji and funded by the Arab League which was bent on thwarting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. (see Kirsten Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (London: Longman, 1999), 12; also Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Fourth edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001), 195ff.). 

On March 10, 1948, the Jewish defense force Haganah issued "Plan D ("Dalet") claiming it was a vision for defending the newly emerging state of Israel. Palestinians saw it differently: as a set of concrete steps by Zionists to subject Palestine to an ethnic cleansing of Arabs. Debate over the intentions and interpretation of Plan Dalet continues (Schulze, 13-14 -- Text at MidEastWeb). 

On April 9, 1948, the Irgun, one of whose commanders is Menachem Begin, and the Stern Gang, commanded by Yitzak Shamir, stormed the Arab village of Deir Yasin. Two hundred and fifty people, over one hundred of whom were women and children, were massacred. The event struck terror among the Arabs, such that by the time war broke out, 300,000 Arabs had already fled Palestine. A few days after the attack on Deir Yasin, an Arab force ambushed a medical convoy of Jewish physicians, staff, and patients on their way to Hadassah Hospital killing at least 75.

Israel was to claim that Arab radio broadcasts had urged Arab civilians to flee so that Arab armies could sweep in against the Israelis without harming Arab non-combatants. Investigations of these charges by American and British analysts (including examinations of transcripts of the monitored broadcasts) painted a different picture: the broadcasts had, in fact, urged Arabs to stay put. Contention between factions of historians on this point has been intense.  (See Fred Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, Third edition (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 551;  See also Kirsten Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (London: Longman, 1999), 16-19).

On May 12, thousands of Arabs attacked the "Etzion Bloc" kibbutzim (between Bethlehem and Hebron). The following day, they massacred about 130 Jews at Kfar Etzion who had attempted to surrender to them.

On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed. British troops by this date had pulled out. The next day Arab forces from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon occupied areas in the south and east not apportioned to the Jews, then captured the small Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. Azzam Pasha, the Secretary-General of the Arab League made the intentions of many Arabs clear when he declared, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades."  (Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/myths/mf4.html, Jan. 7, 2004, and Foreign Relations of the United States 1947, (DC: GPO, 1948), 1249)

During a series of battles at Latrun for control of the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was nearly killed in the fighting. However, Israel eventually won control of that road through and repelled Arab attacks.  

On June 1, 1948, the brand new state of Israel (barely two weeks old) was threatened with civil war.  Regular Jewish (Haganah ) forces loyal to Ben Gurion, who was now Prime Minister, had agreed to merge with the Irgun Zvai Leumi paramilitary forces under the command of Menachem Begin. The pact called upon the Irgun to turn over its arms supply and stop independent operations.  A dispute arose over what to do with an old American Navy ship, the Altalena, which had been purchased by American supporters of the Irgun and loaded with arms.  Ben Gurion ordered the ship turned over to the Haganah.  Begin wanted it (and the arms and the 900 Irgun men aboard) to remain in Irgun hands.  Ben Gurion regarded this as a challenge to the sovereignty of the new government. He feared the Irgun would try to take over Israel, precipitating a civil war in the new state following the war with the Arabs. With this in mind, Ben Gurion, ordered the Haganah to shell the Altalena. Menachem Begin was thrown overboard by his men and carried safely to shore as the ship sank. 

Arab unity, the notion of the single Arab umma ("nation"), had been a myth from the beginning. One of the principal concerns animating King Farouk of Egypt, it appears, was the not so secret ambition of King Abdullah of Jordan who dreamed of conquering the Mandate territories and resurrecting "Greater Syria." This is thought to have been one of the chief, if not the most important, reasons Farouk sent his troops off to battle the Israelis. On this subject, Arthur Goldschmidt writing in his book A Concise History of the Middle East (Boulder, CO, 1988, 270) is informative:

"The main reason the Arabs failed to defeat Israel in 1948, or in any of the later wars, and why (except for Egypt) they have equally failed to make peace, is that they are politically divided. In principle, all the Arab states were united in their opposition to the 1947 Partition Plan and to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. As members of the Arab League, they had vowed to fight against Israel, putting their armies under the nominal command of an Iraqi general. Some, however, had refused to appropriate funds or to commit troops as long as the British had stayed in Palestine. Transjordan's Abdullah still wanted to create a 'Greater Syria.' Even in 1948 he was willing to make a deal with the Jews in order to annex parts of Palestine to his own kingdom, a first step toward his taking over Lebanon and Syria, some of whose citizens still backed the Greater Syria idea...(The) Hashemite family of Mecca had hoped to unite all the Arabs after World War I, but the French had taken over in Syria and Lebanon. Abdullah was a Hashemite. So was Iraq's ruling family, which supported his Greater Syria plan and Arab nationalism generally, provided, of course, that the Baghdad government became the senior partner. But, Kings Farouk and Ibn Saud had no use for the Hashemites or their claims to unite the Arab world. Egypt now aspired to be the leading Arab country, inasmuch as it had the largest population, universities, newspapers, and broadcasting stations in the Arab world. The Arab League headquarters was situated in Cairo, and its energetic secretary-general was an Egyptian. And Egypt did not want to have a Hashemite king ruling in next door Palestine and scheming to take over Syria and Lebanon. Ibn Saud, having driven the Hashemites out of Arabia, emphatically agreed with Farouk."

On June 15, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett was quoted as saying, "‘The most spectacular event in the contemporary history of Palestine - more spectacular in a sense than the creation of the Jewish state - is the wholesale evacuation of its Arab population...The reversion to the status quo ante is unthinkable’" (Quoted by Keith Kyle, Suez, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991, 22).

By early 1949, Israel occupied the Negev desert up to the Egypt-Palestine line except for Gaza strip. The set of documents known as the General Armistice Agreements (GAA) were signed on the island of Rhodes between Israel and its Arab antagonists Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (in that order) between January and July, 1949 under the supervision of U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche. Egypt was left in administrative control of Gaza city and its environs, and the Gaza strip was created. Gaza had held tremendous symbolic importance for Muslims since its conquest in 635 (see Islamic Conquests). Hashim Ibn Abd-al Manaf, great grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, was believed to be buried there. Although administered by Egypt, Gazans were not permitted to become Egyptian citizens, nor was the territory ever formally incorporated into Egypt. The area since the '49 war suffered from overpopulation of Arab refugees who fled there from Palestine hoping for a quick Arab victory that would enable them to return quickly to their homes. The ambiguous terms of the GAA (Arabs claimed the right to renew hostilities at any time and refused to recognize Israel) paved the way for future wars (1956, 1967, and 1973). 

Israel ended up gaining more territory than it had been allotted under the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan. Jerusalem, however, was divided with Jordan holding all the shrines within the walls of the old city. During the nineteen years of Jordanian occupation of the old city, all synagogues were destroyed and sacred Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives were desecrated. Many of these synagogues had been converted by Israeli troops into armed military positions and used against the Jordanians. Jordanian authorities allowed squatters to build huts along the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Garbage and sewage accumulated rapidly.

In the Hula Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee, kibbutzim (communal farms), operating on what had been malarial swampland before the Jewish settlers arrived, were shelled regularly from Syrian bunker positions along the Golan Heights east of the valley for the next nineteen years until Israel occupied the Golan in the 1967 war. The shelling was in retaliation for illegal cultivation conducted by Israeli farmers in parts of the Golan Heights, along with water diversion projects in the Jordan River (see Sheldon Richman, "The Golan Heights: A History of Israeli Aggression," The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, November, 1991, 23).

760,000 Palestinians became refugees in surrounding Arab countries as a result of the 1948 war.  Their future status became a significant source of disagreement in later phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The U.N. General Assembly had addressed this problem with its Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948 (Text at MidEast Web) in which it urged that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return..." (New York Times, March 29, 2002, A11).  See also U.N. Resolution 3236 of 1974.

Failure to resolve the territorial struggle between Arabs and Israelis, the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the division of Jerusalem - all fruits of the 1948 war - set the framework for the struggle which continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first.

Additional Reading:

Benny Morris. A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. (Read reviews of this book at the Islamic Middle East Blog.)


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Last Revised: January 25, 2009