The Jihad That Wasn't

Reviewed by Yoav Gelber

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2008, 523 pages.

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he basic facts of the first Arab-Israeli war are well known but worth repeating. On November 30, 1947, the day after the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition British Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, local riots broke out among the country’s Arab population. Under the shadow of the vanishing British Mandate, they spread like wildfire in the following weeks, ultimately engulfing the entire land in a bloody ethnic war between Jews and Arabs.
From December 1947 until the beginning of April 1948, the fighting took place in mixed towns, isolated settlements, the roads leading to them, and the Negev desert. The “civil war” phase of hostilities pitted the defense organization of the Jewish Yishuv—the Hagana—against Palestinian irregulars and volunteers from the Arab states who were organized within the framework of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), established by the Arab League as an alternative to direct intervention by the Arab states and their regular forces. During this period, fighting was limited to local skirmishes, ambushes, a few Arab attempts to storm Jewish settlements, and retaliatory strikes and preemptive raids by the Hagana on Arab villages and transportation.
The situation changed in April, however, when the final phase of British withdrawal began. With the ruling power gone, the two sides enjoyed much greater freedom of action, and the Hagana exploited the situation to the utmost. Within six weeks, it had defeated and dispersed both the Palestinian combatants and the ALA. In the process, a quarter of a million Palestinians had fled their homes to Arab-held territory or the neighboring Arab states.
The ALA’s disintegration and the collapse of the Palestinians left the Arab governments with no other option but to intervene. Their invasion of Palestine opened a new stage in the war: a full-scale military confrontation between the newborn State of Israel and an alliance of seven Arab countries, which between them mustered four armies—the Egyptian, Transjordanian, Iraqi, and Syrian.
Though it paid a heavy price, the newly formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) successfully blocked the invasion and retook the initiative. The result was a crushing defeat for the Arabs. Instead of saving the Palestinians, the Arab invasion increased their plight, costing them more territory and creating more refugees. Having entered the war as members of a coalition, the Arab states were forced to end it through separate negotiations in order to avoid the total destruction of their expeditionary forces at the hands of the IDF. These talks produced a series of cease-fire and then armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Palestinians, who had started the war, temporarily disappeared from the stage of history. They dispersed as refugees across the entire Middle East and were forgotten by the regional powers and the international community alike.
These are the basic facts regarding the 1947-1948 war, known to Israelis as the “War of Independence” and to Palestinians as the “Nakba”—the catastrophe. About these facts there is almost no dispute. About everything else to do with the war, however, from the smallest details to the grandest strategies, there is nothing but dispute. In this ongoing controversy over the events of 1948, which for both peoples residing in the Land of Israel touches the rawest of nerves, a unique place is reserved for Benny Morris.


Yoav Gelber is director of the Herzl Institute for the Research and Study of Zionism at the University of Haifa.

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