The Forgotten War

As Israelis celebrate Independence Day, it is useful to remember that the victory in the war that enables them to so celebrate it actually occurred in two stages:  the “Civil War” stage (November 30, 1947—May 15, 1948) fought between the Yishuv and various Arab militias inside Palestine, and the so-called “International” stage between May 15, 1948 and the armistices of early 1949, between Israel and the armies of the surrounding Arab states after they invaded Palestine. It is the latter stage that receives the most attention in most accounts. The earlier stage, which saw the Yishuv survive months of siege and attacks and then, finally, rebound to take the offensive and decisively defeat the Arab and Palestinian forces inside Palestine, has always somehow seemed to me to receive short shrift. Of course, all historians of the 1948 War discuss the period, to be sure, but, by and large, most accounts of the first Arab-Israeli War devote at best cursory attention to the earlier stage compared to familiarity of its famous successor period. 

Even worse, in many recent accounts the civil war fought in Palestinebetween the Yishuv and the Arabs between November 30, 1947—May 15, 1948is being erased altogether. Palestinian propagandists and their myriad western supporters and apologists have for some time been hard at work redeveloping and disseminating a new narrative of the first Arab-Israeli war, 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 victim. Phrases like the “rape of Palestine” and the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” have 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. These attempts to take a tragic, complex historical event and reduce it to a simplistic, one-sided caricature is a sad testimonial to how politics and ideology have been, and are, polluting and distorting the writing, reading, and interpretation of history. 

Of course, no will deny that the recording and writing of history is a peculiar and contentious craft in which debate, disagreement, differences in interpretation, and revision are all inextricably linked. The greatest of all historians—in my view—is Thucydides, and his history of the Peloponesian War, the greatest ever written. Thucydides hoped his history “would be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future,” as opposed to Herodotus, who, in his history, sought only “to preserve the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory”—i.e., history as p.r. and propaganda. The Roman historian Livy, similarly spins like a press agent for the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire—“the establishment of which is now, in power, next only to the immortal Gods”—a shining city on a hill. The Rome described by Tacitus, in contrast, is a filthy brothel of debauchery and degeneration, and he spares no lurid, disgusting detail in order to, as he once said, “let no unworthy action go uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”

History is thus a battle between the spinners and the truth seekers.  In fulfilling their role as exponents of the former category, historian Ilan Pappe and others of his ilk have leveled the charge of “Nakba Denial”—a gross parody of Holocaust denial—to denote those who challenge the fanciful narrative that has the Jews of Palestine waking up one fine, peaceful day, and expelling and ethnically cleansing some 600-700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes to create a “Greater Israel.” Thus, any suggestion that the Yishuv accepted the partition, that there was a war of aggression waged by the Arabs against the Yishuv the moment after the partition passed, that the overwhelming number of refugees fled the fighting that followed the Arabs’ war of aggression (which they were in fact winning by late March 1948), or that the Yishuv were ever fighting for their lives, is, in the eyes of these partisans, the equivalent of denying that there was a Holocaust.

But if ever there was an inarguable fact of history that cannot be denied, it is this: The fact that between the passing of the partition on November 29, 1947 to the beginning of April 1948, the Mufti and his Arab High Committee, along with the nations of the Arab League, through their respective proxy armies inside Palestine—the Arab Liberation Army for the League, the Arab Legion from Jordan, the Muslim Brothers from Egypt, and the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (“Army of the Holy War”) for the Mufti and the Palestinian AHC—were all waging full scale war on the Yishuv in an open and unabashed attempt to overrun and destroy the Jewish settlements, strangle the roadways between them, besiege Jewish Jerusalem, and, ultimately, to abort the implementation of the partition and the creation of a Jewish state by force.

The attempts to erase or deny this conflict, and to portray the events of November 30, 1947 to May 15, 1948 as one huge act of wanton, unprovoked Jewish/Israeli aggression, conquest and ethnic cleansing is more than a form of historical distortion. It involves a brazen, wholesale rewriting of the historical record. The Yishuv had accepted the partition, the Arab states and the Mufti had rejected it, swore to oppose the partition and the creation of any sovereign Jewish entity by arms, and did so with all the force that they could muster. And both the Mufti and Fawzi al-Qawuqji (commander of the Arab Liberation Army) also made perfectly clear that merely preventing the partition was not enough; they had frankly expulsionist ambitions in store for a defeated Yishuv, the Mufti pointing out more than once over the years that all the Jews who came toPalestineafter 1917 would have to leave.

For there was indeed a war fought here, and one of the most consequential wars of the entire twentieth century. I am an American, am not Jewish, and have no religious or ancestral connection to the state Israel. But the circumstances of Israel’s founding have always had a special fascination for me. I am drawn to this period of the war, in particular, not only because it was a momentous event, but because it is a great epic story that holds a special fascination to the student of military history. Here, under-manned and under-resourced and isolated settlements and kibbutzim—Kfar Szold, Kfar Yavetz, Kfar Etzion—stretching from the Galilee panhandle all the way down the coastal plain to the Negev heroically held their ground against countless assaults by numerically superior enemy forces. Here, impervious to modernity, runners braved weather, terrain, and the enemy to hand deliver messages, supplies  came by horse wagon and donkey cart almost as often as they did by vehicle; village fought against village, and man fought against man, sometimes house to house and room to room in battles with rifles, pistols, and shotguns; battled on highways and brawled in desert settlements and olive groves hand to hand using rifle-butts, bayonets, knives, and entrenching spades, and battles were won more by cunning and stealth, than by numbers and brawn.

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. 

It was then, in more primitive form, everything it remains today: two peoples locked in conflict over the same scratch of sacred soil.  The ramifications of these 5 ½ months reverberate every bit as strongly today as they did sixty-four years ago. For here was the crucible in which the Yishuv of Palestine was forged into the state ofIsrael. Here was the war that created the modernMiddle East: where the still-persisting Palestinian refugee crisis was sired, and where all the foundations of the still-intractable Arab-Israeli conflict as we know it today, were laid.

For there would have been no refugee crisis if there had been no war, and there would have been no war if the surrounding Arab states had not rejected the partition. From the moment it passed the General Assembly the Arab states have literally organized their whole polity around denying any Jewish sovereign state whatever its size, and to delegitimizing and destroying it when it was established.

The free, vibrant, sixty-four-year-old state that exists today is an eloquent testimonial to the failure of these efforts. 

Happy sixty-fourth anniversary,Israel, and God bless all your sons and daughters who have sacrificed and served.






About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.