It is only natural that the 65th anniversary of the First Arab-Israeli War (War of Independence to the winners, Nakba to the losers) would occasion some fairly provocative retrospectives on the subject, and it is a certainty that we have not seen the last of them. (Just wait till “Nakba Day”). Anyone who has read the articles of Yousef Munayyer in Peter Beinart’s Open Zion, will have little trouble discerning his solid conviction that Israel is a colonialist, racist, apartheid state, that has murdered, oppressed, and ethnically cleansed its way to statehood, and who only plans more of the same in the future.
In a recent article, Munayyer gives forth what might be called the BDS-reliable version of Israel’s founding: Several months following the passing of the partition plan in late March 1948, the Zionists, fearing the ruin of their “colonial project,” took matters into their own hands when America announced its withdrawal of support for the partition plan at the UN. Said Munayyer:
“If the international community wasn’t going to give the Zionists a state of their own in Palestine at the expense of the natives, the Zionists were determined to take it by force. Mobilization was key. It was during this period that Zionist militant activity, both by the Haganah and the Irgun, aggressively increased.”
The means by which this nefarious act of aggression would be accomplished was in the Haganah’s Plan Dalet, which Munayyer calls “the military plan for the conquest of Palestine….adopted by the Zionists.”
Thus, in Munayyer’s telling, it was the Zionists, fearing the ruin of their “colonial” enterprise, who then wantonly disturbed the peace and harmony that were then prevailing throughout Palestine, and, hastening to send the Arabs packing, attacked a “vastly civilian population that stood little chance against the organized fighting force of the Zionists,” depopulated some 200 towns and villages, and put to flight some 400,000 Arab refugees. All this, Munayyer notes, took place before the Pan-Arab invasion of May 15, 1948.
The tale of the planned dispossession of Palestine’s Arabs by the Yishuv is, of course, an old, familiar one, and Munayyer embroiders it here with his usual lurid imagery, and paranoid, hysterical anti-Zionism. For here, in unexpurgated form, is the narrative of the Nakba: one that has the Jewish state waging a war of unprovoked aggression, ethnic cleansing, and territorial expansion against a helpless Palestinian victim. The narrative has been gaining ground in some unlikely quarters, as of late. Phrases like the “rape of Palestine” and the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” have now become commonplace in academic and even diplomatic circles, and student activists touting the new narrative have recently even disrupted classes being taught on the subject at colleges and universities across the country. With sleepless vigilance, they are combating “Nakba denial.”
Indeed, in historian Ilan Pappe’s “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006), the war fought in Palestine in the 5 ½ months following the passing of the United Nations partition creating a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, is virtually invisible. There really is no war recounted here; just one long catalogue of Jewish aggression, expulsion, land-theft, and wanton depravity.
But the Pappe-Munayyer-Nakba narrative is but a fairy tale, not to mention an astonishingly brazen distortion of the historical record. The truth is, between the passing of the partition on November 30, 1947, and April 2, 1948, the various Arab and Palestinian militias launched company sized (80-225 soldiers) and battalion sized (300-1200 soldiers) assaults against the Efal neighborhood outside Tel-Aviv (December 4), the Hatikva quarter of Tel-Aviv (December 8 &10), Jewish Jerusalem (December 10), a major convoy to Ben-Shemen (December 14), the settlements of Kfar Yavetz (December 27), Kfar-Szold (January 10), Kfar Uriah (January 11), and on January 14, a Palestinian militia attacked Etzion Bloc, taking heavy casualties, but, in the next two days, wiping out a platoon of 35 Jewish fighters sent in as reinforcements, and brutally mutilating their bodies. The Arab Liberation Army also attacked the Jewish settlements of Yechiam (January 20), Tirat Svi (February 16), Magdiel (March 2), Ramot-Naftali (March 4), and Arab militias also successfully ambushed three major Jewish convoys on March 27, 28, & 31, 1948.
To wit: there were no less than twelve company and battalion scale military assaults against Jewish settlements, the successful sabotage of several major convoys, not to mention some forty-one individual terrorist attacks and bombings on Jewish urban targets—six in December, nine in January, thirteen in February, and thirteen in March—killing some 295 civilians. In the four months between the passing of the partition and the end of March 1948, the Yishuv had suffered about 1,000 dead soldiers and civilians—mostly civilians.
The Haganah, in this period (Nov.30, 1947-April 2, 1948), adopted a posture of “aggressive defense.” The policy, such as it was, was to retaliate for individual attacks against the Yishuv, but to avoid large scale attacks that could escalate the level and scale of hostilities. Certainly the Stern and Irgun militias were busy in this period with individual bombings and acts of retaliation, but there was simply no large scale military activity on the part of the Haganah in this period. Indeed, a peek at the period discussed here by Munayyer (March, 1948), shows that the situation, far from containing any increased “Zionist military activity,” shows the Arab-Palestinian war effort against the Yishuv charging along in high gear.
A March 17, 1948 NY Times article notes increased Arab military activity in the Nablus-Tulkharm-Jenin triangle, saying that “the army’s strength was reported to have reached close to 8000 men, with more arriving daily.”
It also records Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, the Mufti-appointed commander of the Jerusalem front of the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (“Army of the Holy War”) as saying he was “not willing to consider a truce under any circumstances.”
Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), told Al-Ahram on March 9, 1948 that the ALA was fighting for “the defeat of the partition and the annihilation of the Zionists.”
The Mufti told the Jaffa daily Al Sarih on March 10, 1948 that preventing partition was not enough, and that they “would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state.”
The sentiments expressed above by al-Qawuqji on March 9, the Mufti on March 10, and by Abd al-Qader al-Husayni on March 17, all gave voice to the well founded confidence among the Arabs that they were winning the war against the Yishuv at this stage. This was also the consensus view in the international community at the time; the editorial pages of the London Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman, all of whom would not be caught dead defending the Jewish state today, all pleaded with the governments of Britain and the United States to intervene more decisively in the conflict to rescue the Yishuv from their desperate plight at the time. A British report in late March similarly commented:
“The intensification of Arab attacks on communications and particularly the failure of the Kfar Etzion convoy (March 27-28), probably the Yishuv’s strongest transport unit, to force a return passage has brought home the precarious position of Jewish communities both great and small which depend on supply lines running through Arab controlled country. In particular, it is now realized that the position of Jewish Jerusalem, where a food scarcity already exists, is likely to be desperate after 16 May.”
Another British report in early April read:
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Yishuv and its leaders are deeply worried about the future. The 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem have been held to ransom and it is doubtful that the Arab economic blockade of the city can be broken by Jewish forces alone. If the Jewish leaders are not prepared to sacrifice the 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem, then they must concede, however unwillingly, that the Arabs have won the second round of the struggle which began with a Jewish victory in the first round on the 29th of November.”
This then was the dire situation facing the Yishuv in early April of 1948. After the successful ambush of the latest Jewish convoy to Jerusalem on March 31, it was precarious to say the least. The sabotage of the convoys was increasing, the strangulation of the roadways and all arteries of communication between the scattered communities of the Yishuv were sharpening, the attendant shortages of basic commodities and weapons inside Jerusalem were growing, and the siege around the city was tightening. When US Rep to the UN Warren Austin announced in late March that the war in Palestine proved that the partition was impossible, thus indicating a backtracking of American support, it only added to the gloom and the increasing demoralization of the Yishuv.
As Benny Morris wrote, “Given the state of the Yishuv after the terrible losses along the roads, it had no choice: Either it went on the offensive, or it would lose Jewish Jerusalem, and, perhaps, the war.”
The Haganah’s Plan Dalet was originally envisaged as a military operation to consolidate a defensive perimeter among all the Jewish communities in Palestine from Galilee down to the Negev in preparation for the anticipated Pan-Arab invasion that was expected to follow the withdrawal of the British on May 15.
But the urgency of the situation would not wait until May. In Jewish Jerusalem, the water and electricity shortages were noted with satisfaction by the Arab High Command in Damascus. A March 28, 1948 NY Herald Tribune report has Hussein Khalidi, Secretary of the Arab Higher Executive Committee for Palestine pouring scorn on “what he termed ‘sudden Jewish efforts’ to obtain an international force to protect the Holy Land’s Shrines,” and that this was “due to a realization by the Jews that they could not protect their 100,000 people in Jerusalem.”
Also, in contrast to the present naval blockade of Gaza, where humanitarian supplies flow in abundance, a British report at the time noted that the Arab High Committee
“declared proudly that it had refused to heed the request of the [British] High Commissioner to enable Jewish supply columns to come into the city even on condition that they would be searched by Arab forces.”
It was in response to this supreme emergency that the Haganah conceived Operation Nachshon, whose objective would be the opening and safeguarding of the road to Jerusalem along the eastern end of the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road. In the words of the chief of the High Command, “Anxiety gave birth to daring, and that brought forth Nachshon.” Realizing the inadequacy of a small unit operation to achieve the task, the Haganah would launch its first brigade size attack of the war.
On the night of April 2-3, 1948, a Palmach company seized the hilltop village of al-Qastal, about 3 miles west of Jerusalem, meeting little resistance. On the night of April 4 a detachment of the Giv’ati brigade attacked and bombed the heavily fortified headquarters of Hasan Salame, Palestinian commander of the Lydda Front in Ramle. Salame was uninjured, but 17 of his men were killed in the fight, his reputation took a hit, and Arab morale had taken a bitter blow.
A few days later fighting flared up around al-Qastal again, for both sides realized the strategic importance of the village: whoever controls it controls the western approaches to Jerusalem. The fighting was intense, and the village changed hands several times over the next several days between the Palmach and the militia forces under Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, arguably one of the ablest of the Arab commanders of the entire war. It was Abd al-Qader who had been tying up the Jewish settlements with attacks while attacking the roadways and which had done so much to put the Yishuv in dire straits up until this time. His death in the battle of al-Qastal was a bitter blow to the direction and the morale of the entire Arab/Palestinian war effort—as bitter a blow as the death of Stonewall Jackson was to the Confederacy in the American Civil War—for, like Jackson, he was irreplaceable in both his charisma and ability.
The death of Abd al-Qader al-Husayni and the loss of al-Qastal, the defeat of Salame at Ramle, the defeats suffered by the Arab forces in the surrounding villages along the Jerusalem road and elsewhere, not to mention the panic sparked by the hysterical propaganda concerning the attack on Deir Yassin, all set the stage for the continuing demoralization and deterioration of the Arab/Palestinian war effort, not to mention of Palestinian Arab society in general, and this, along with the flow of refugees, was to increase as the war intensified and was brought home to village after village.
Israeli historian Yoav Gelber made a very sharp observation about Arab historiography of the 1948 War:
“Arab scholars have scarcely endeavored to find out what really took place in that war. Instead, they have elaborated extensively on the rightness of their own case and illegitimacy of the Israeli arguments. In these discussions, exact chronology, reliable sources and accurate arguments have been marginal.”
‘Tis true. Operation Nachshon (April 2-April 15), the first of several counter-offensive operations launched by the Haganah outlined by Plan Dalet against Arab and Palestinian militias before May 15, was thus not the unprovoked, optional, and leisurely campaign of ethnic-cleansing and conquest as it is portrayed by the likes of Ilan Pappe, Walid Khalidi, and Yousef Munayyer; it addressed a deteriorating situation and a grave, existential threat to the Yishuv.
More than anything else, Nachshon was the crucible in which the Yishuv of Palestine was forged into the state of Israel. Seeing Jewish Jerusalem surrounded, besieged, and on the verge of starvation and collapse, the roadways between the settlements being sabotaged and strangled, and after suffering some four months of unrelenting attacks, the embattled Yishuv finally took to the counter-offensive with Operation Nachshon, drove back and defeated the Arab militias, cleared a path to Jerusalem, and transformed a series of vulnerable, tenuously connected settlements whose defense would be any staff officer’s nightmare, into a defensible entity capable of withstanding the looming Pan-Arab invasion.
The Yishuv took to the attack in response to this threat, and only in response to this, and henceforth chose to survive, rather than not to.