How they stood militarily: The Arab states on the eve of the 1948 war

There are reasons why the Jews won and the Arabs lost the war of 1948. The fact that the Arab states were not equipped or prepared is not one of them, as some “new historian” accounts and other revisionists have argued. The Arabs clearly had a militarily edge on May 14, 1948. They should have been victorious against the nascent State of Israel.

They possessed an overwhelming military edge that should have brought quick victory. But, underestimating a tenacious Jewish defense, an incompetent officer corp, and most of all not unifying the command between the five armies out of petty jealousies and childish demands, gave the Jews a victory that the Arab States are still kicking themselves for today.

As an example of Arab battlefield ineffectiveness, an American colonel was visiting Israel in the early 1950s and received a military tour of the battles of the War of Independence. He was taken to Yad Mordecai, a small kibbutz just south of Ashkalon on the Mediterranean costal road of Israel.  130 defenders  held off an entire Egyptian mechanized division for six days which gave Zionist forces time to mount a better defense  to stop  the northern advance into Israel’s heartland, an essential piece to the puzzle of Israeli survival over those first few desperate weeks of the war. The American Colonel couldn’t believe it. His only comment was “I could have taken this place in two hours.”

The British left on May 14th, the Jews declared their state, and on May 15th the armies of five Arab nations with support from several others invaded the new State of Israel.

Arab military forces fighting Israel in 1948 starting with the strongest were:


The best trained and equipped force in the Middle East was the Jordanian Legion. Led by John Bagot Glubb, a retired British officer, his force was highly trained and far better equipped than the fledgling IDF.

Military historians regard the Jordanian Legion as the best in the Middle East during that time. Glubb’s force had been training and fighting together since 1941. Formed and trained as a unit of the British army in case of a Nazi invasion of Asia, which in 1941 was a distinct possibility. When, the politics of the region began to formulate themselves after the war, they became Jordan’s army. Glubb’s force contained somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 highly disciplined fighting soldiers.

They were commanded by battle hardened World War II British officers seconded from the British army, with only the rank and file being of local Arab stock. Their weapons came directly from British store houses in Egypt. They were well armed, well trained, and presented a formidable opposition to Jewish war aims.

All these claims can be substantiated in Glubb’s memoir of the time “A soldier with the Arabs.” Luckily, since they were considered by all intents and purposes to be a proxy British force when the regular forces left Palestine,  Glubb was given strict instructions by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin not to violate the UN partition areas, so as not to call Britain out for violations of international law. Otherwise results could have been very different.

In Jerusalem however, the inferior Jewish forces eventhough outmanned and outgunned somehow fought  the Legion to stand still, with armistice granting West Jerusalem to Israel and East Jerusalem to Jordan.


The largest force to invade Palestine on May 15th, Egypt was also far better equipped and trained than the Zionists in 1948.

They had the benefit of Britain leaving behind its entire World War II surplus. For example, O’Balance writes in “The Arab Israeli War, 1948” that they had over thirty British spitfire fighter planes and four Hawker Hurricanes, all operational. In Pollack, “The Arabs at War,” he says in addition to the fighter planes they also had twenty C-47 transports.

British personnel were in Egypt training Egyptian fliers since the early days of the North African campaign of World War II, hoping to use them against Axis forces. The Jews had no fighter aircraft of any kind on May 15, the day the war broke out. Egypt had tanks trucks with cannons and machine guns mounted to them, fully mechanized.

British further involvement in actually commanding or other actions violating international protocol is sketchy and speculative. But, it wouldn’t surprise me if some researcher down the line exposes direct British involvement on the Egyptian side in that war.

They fielded around 20,000 troops in May but by the following October, the Egyptians had somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 men inside Israel.


The Syrians were probably on a par with Zionist forces. They had an army but like the Jews, it was also fledgling. Just beginning to train with French equipment and advisors, on May 15, they were probably not ready to take on the Jews.  O’balance writes they had some impressive battles in the North where they held the Jews off for months.


The weakest force was the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) for all intents and purposes the forerunner of the PLO.  In Walid Khalidi’s “Selected Documents of the 1948 Palestine War” published in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1998, he discusses among other things the preparations and assessments of both the ALA and the Jews.

An invention of the Syrian regime to organize both indigenous Palestinian Arabs and Muslims from everywhere who wanted to take part in the Jihad against the Jews, the ALA never really amounted to much of an army and if forced to stand alone, would not have been able to last long with new IDF.

Translated by Khalidi and Jenab Tutunji, he documents a report from General Ismail Safwat commander of the Arab League Military Committee to the Chairman of the Palestine Committee, Syrian Prime Minister Jamil Mardam Bey on the status of defenses, both Jewish and Arab.

Safwat was way off on his intelligence estimates in most areas of Jewish strength. He makes several gross errors in numbers. For example, he says that “the reports indicate that the Jews have…100 tanks in Tel Aviv alone.” In March when this was written the Jews had none but did obtain two tanks by May 15th thanks to Menachem Begin’s Urgun who stole them from the British.

I have the feeling that the Haganna had known about his mission to assess their strengths and fed him this info purposely to lower the Arab soldier’s morale. That wasn’t uncommon for Jewish counter intelligence to conduct miss information campaigns like claiming 250 dead Arabs at Deir Yassin when Bir Zeit University in the 1980s could not substantiate more than 107 Arab casualties total. His letter to Prime Minister Mardem Bey was filled with these sorts of distortions and screwball assessments.

On the other side he describes paltry enlistments from foreign Muslims totaling no more than 5,200 armed men, with virtually low numbers in ammunition and training of these men to fight as a group.

He does however get one thing right, that the ALA by itself was no match for Jewish defense. He calls for the Arab States to invade if there is any chance for an Arab victory. He did know that the Jews had many innovations including a clandestine small arms industry hidden well out of sight of Mandate authorities.

Note: Lebanon and Iraq also sent armies into Israel during that war. They are not included in this assessment.

The Jewish army

Zionist forces were trained as militias and shock troops. They were pretty good at tracking terrorists in small groups and harassing British troops at any particular time of day or night,  but, an army on May 15th they weren’t.  And, actually began the war fighting as those different groups. They came together officially on May 26th forming the Israel Defense Force.

The Jews fielded 12,000- 15,000 well trained men. Having weapons for all of them however,  was a problem on May 15th, and continued so until the third or fourth week in the war. There were another 10,000 or so who were able bodied and received training secretly the last couple of months before May15th. Of course, since this was a fight to the death, all 550,000 Jews in the new state of Israel took part any way that was called on them to do, since each one was a target from the smallest baby to the oldest grandmother.

Israel had no heavy artillery and no fighter planes. They had a couple of tanks that were stolen by the Irgun from the British as mentioned earlier but no ammunition for the big guns. According to David Ben Gurion, the first prime Minister of Israel and Ken Pollack, “Arabs at War,” They possessed 670 2” mortars, and 96 3” mortars.  They had about 10,000 rifles and around 2500 machine guns either hand held, mostly of the sten variety, or tripod based. Everything else had to be improvised.

They welded steel plates on half tracks and busses to pass as armored vehicles. They designed and used the Davidka rocket which was almost useless but made a big noise,  and they had their own small arms clandestine munitions factory for months before May 15th so at least they wouldn’t run out of bullets.

They had some small single engine crop dusting planes which they used to drop mortar shells on to enemy troops during the first two weeks of fighting. But, those planes were sitting ducks for Egyptian spitfires.

The Jews won that war because they held out from getting overrun those first four weeks of the war until the first truce  on June 9th. If there were any miracles, as some Israeli supporters have said, it happened during those first four weeks.

From that moment of the second ten days of fighting beginning on July 9th they were equipped, trained, coordinated, and no Arab army has been able to defeat them since. They had become what we know today as the most powerful military force in the region and have never relinquished that title.

About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.