1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

by Benny Morris

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This history of the foundational war in the Arab-Israeli conflict is groundbreaking, objective, and deeply revisionist. A riveting account of the military engagements, it also focuses on the war's political dimensions. Benny Morris probes the motives and aims of the protagonists on the basis of newly opened Israeli and Western documentation. The Arab


This history of the foundational war in the Arab-Israeli conflict is groundbreaking, objective, and deeply revisionist. A riveting account of the military engagements, it also focuses on the war's political dimensions. Benny Morris probes the motives and aims of the protagonists on the basis of newly opened Israeli and Western documentation. The Arab side—where the archives are still closed—is illuminated with the help of intelligence and diplomatic materials.


Morris stresses the jihadi character of the two-stage Arab assault on the Jewish community in Palestine. Throughout, he examines the dialectic between the war's military and political developments and highlights the military impetus in the creation of the refugee problem, which was a by-product of the disintegration of Palestinian Arab society. The book thoroughly investigates the role of the Great Powers—Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—in shaping the conflict and its tentative termination in 1949. Morris looks both at high politics and general staff decision-making processes and at the nitty-gritty of combat in the successive battles that resulted in the emergence of the State of Israel and the humiliation of the Arab world, a humiliation that underlies the continued Arab antagonism toward Israel.


Editorial Reviews

Glenn Frankel
[Benny Morris] first came to prominence with his 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, a ground-breaking, revisionist account of how Israeli forces uprooted and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel's independence war. His new book is an ambitious, detailed and engaging portrait of the war itself—from its origins to its unresolved aftermath—that further shatters myths on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide.
—The Washington Post
David Margolick
The history of the 1948 war desperately needs to be told, since it's so barely understood or remembered and since so many of the issues that plague us today had their roots in that struggle…No one is better suited to the task than Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who, in previous works, has cast an original and skeptical eye on his country's founding myths. Whatever controversy he has stirred in the past, Morris relates the story of his new book soberly and somberly, evenhandedly and exhaustively. Definitely exhaustively, for 1948 can feel like 1948: that is, hard slogging. Some books can be both very important and very hard to read.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Morris (history, Ben-Gurion Univ.) offers a study of Israel's war of independence, effectively debunking many of the myths surrounding it. He divides that war into phases: civil war between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, begun in November 1947, followed by a Pan-Arab (i.e., Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq) invasion in May 1948. The Arab defeat in the civil war resulted in hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fleeing, most expecting to return behind a triumphant Arab invasion force. Although outnumbered, the Israelis had spent months after the UN partition resolution in 1947 preparing for war, while their opponents spent more time calling for jihad against the Jews, which naturally inspired Jewish fear of a second Holocaust. The Israelis had a unified command system, internal lines of communication, and the ideological fervor that came from defending their homes. The invaders (the author's term), meanwhile, lacked coherent leadership and a unified strategy, so by the fall of 1948 the Israelis had achieved local military supremacy. Morris disputes the assertion that Israel had an overall policy of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians. He meticulously documents the expulsions and atrocities that occurred on both sides. His work demonstrates that passion, not polemic, about this controversial era leads to good history. Recommended for all libraries.
—Frederic Krome

Benjamin Kedar
“This is the best book by far on the war of 1948.”—Benjamin Kedar, Professor of History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ronald W. Zweig
"This is a wonderful contribution to the historiography of the Israel/Palestine War of 1948. Morris has written a fresh account, substantiated by a lot of new documentation."—Ronald W. Zweig, Professor of Israel Studies, New York University

New Yorker - David Remnick
"A commanding, superbly documented, and fair-minded study of the events that . . . gave a sovereign home to one people and dispossessed another. . . . What is so striking about Morris's work . . . is that it does not flatter anyone's prejudices . . ."—David Remnick, New Yorker
New York Times Book Review - David Margolick
"Morris relates the story of his new book soberly and somberly, evenhandedly and exhaustively. . . . An authoritative and fair-minded account of an epochal and volatile event."—David Margolick, New York Times Book Review
The Jewish Exponent - Jonathan S. Tobin
"Readers can do no better that to go to a new authoritative source about the beginnings of the Israeli state, Benny Morris' 1948."—Jonathan S. Tobin, The Jewish Exponent
The Chronicle Review - Carlin Romano
"As [Israel] celebrates six decades of reborn existence on May 14 and books about it cascade into stores, the most important among them [is] Benny Morris's 1948."—Carlin Romano, The Chronicle Review
Washington Post Book World - Glenn Frankel
"An ambitious, detailed and engaging portrait of the war itself—from its origins to its unresolved aftermath—that further shatters myths on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide."—Glenn Frankel, Washington Post Book World
New York Post - Billy Heller
"Morris, born in 1948, is among a group of Israeli 'new historians,' whose work has challenged the traditional, accepted line of the birth of Israel. In this well-researched book, he strives for balance."—Billy Heller, New York Post (Required Reading)
Hartford Courant - David Holohan
"A compelling 'aha' book, 1948 brings order to complex, little-understood subjects . . . with [Morris'] vivid narrative prose and masterly analysis."—David Holahan, The Hartford Courant
Sunday Times - Max Hastings
"Morris's account seems admirable, because he is unafraid of upsetting both camps. . . . His commitment to the pursuit of historical truth deserves as much admiration as his dismay at Arab intransigence commands sympathy."—Max Hastings, Sunday Times (London)
Toronto Globe and Mail - Michael Bell
"A considerable achievement, meticulously detailing and analyzing both Israel's war of Independence, on the one hand, and its mirror Palestinian face: the Catastrophe (al nakba), on the other."—Michael Bell, Toronto Globe and Mail
Military Review - Col. Jonathan M. House
"1948 is a superb attempt to provide a reasoned assessment of a very contentious period. It is well worth study by anyone seeking to understand the Middle East that this war helped create."—Col. Jonathan M. House, Military Review
Shofar - Joel Streicker
"Readers interested in military strategy and tactics will appreciate the book's comprehensiveness on this score, while others will be drawn in by the sheer drama of the war, with its interweaving of military and political action, told clearly and swiftly."—Joel Streicker, Shofar
Books & Culture - Paul C. Merkley
"Morris has reviewed all the revisionist literature, re-worked the shelves of the archives to make sure that nothing has been overlooked, and given us a meticulously researched day-by-day narrative of the first Arab-Israeli war."—Paul C. Merkley, Books & Culture
"Highly recommended."—Choice
MESA - John W. Sutherlin
"Morris tenders a well-documented work with more than one hundred pages of endnotes that support every major point. That fair-minded, impartial balancing of Arab and Jewish standpoints is what distinguishes Morris’ work."—John W. Sutherlin, MESA

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A History of the First Arab-Israeli War


Copyright © 2008 Benny Morris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12696-9

Chapter One

Staking Claims: The Historical Background

The War of 1948 was the almost inevitable result of more than half a century of Arab-Jewish friction and conflict that began with the arrival in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), or Palestine, of the first Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1880s. These "Zionists" (Zion, one of Jerusalem's hills, was, by extension, a biblical name for Jerusalem and, by further extension, a name for the Land of Israel) were driven both by the age-old messianic dream, embedded in Judaism's daily prayers, of reestablishing a Jewish state in the ancient homeland and by European anti-Semitism, which erupted in a wave of pogroms in the czarist empire. The nineteenth-century surge in national consciousness, aspiration, and development in Italy and Germany, Poland, Russia, and the territories of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire provided an intellectual backdrop, inspiration, and guide to Zionism's founders.

The Jewish people was born in the Land of Israel, which it ruled, on and off, for thirteen centuries, between 1200 BCE and the second century CE. The Romans, who conquered and reconquered the land and suppressed successive Jewish revolts in the first and second centuries CE, renamed theland Palaestina (derived from the country's southern coastal area, named Pleshet, in Hebrew, or Philistia, in Latin, after its second millennium BCE inhabitants, the Philistines) in an effort to separate the Jews, many of whom they exiled, from their land. Among the Gentiles, the name Palestine stuck.

By the early nineteenth century, after centuries of Byzantine rule and successive Persian, Arab, Crusader, Arab, and Ottoman conquests, Palestine was an impoverished backwater. But it had religious cachet for the three monotheistic faiths: it was the divinely "promised land" of the biblical "chosen people," the Jews; Jesus was born, preached, and died there; and the Muslim prophet Muhammad, according to an early interpretation of a line in the Qur'an, had begun his nighttime journey to heaven from Jerusalem, though the land was conquered for Islam only by his mid-seventh-century successors. Jews and Christians and, later, some Muslims, especially those living in Palestine, designated the country "the Holy Land."

But neither before the twelfth-century defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of the Muslim general Saladin nor after it was Palestine administered or recognized as a distinct and separate province by any of its Muslim rulers. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled the area from the early sixteenth century, divided Palestine into two or three subdistricts (sanjaks) that were ruled from the provincial capital of Damascus. From the 1860s, the southern half of Palestine, from a line just north of Jaffa and Jerusalem southward, was constituted as an independent sanjak (or mutasaraflik) and ruled from Istanbul, while the northern parts of the country, the sanjaks of Nablus and Acre, were ruled from the provincial capitals of Damascus and, from the 1880s, Beirut.

In 1881, Palestine had about 450,000 Arabs-about 90 percent Muslim, the rest Christian-and twenty-five thousand Jews. Most of the Jews, almost all of whom were ultra-Orthodox, non-nationalist, and poor, lived in Jerusalem, the country's main town (population thirty thousand). About 80 percent of the Arabs lived in seven to eight hundred agricultural villages, the rest in about a dozen small towns, including Gaza, Hebron, Nablus, Tiberias, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. Many rural inhabitants, especially in the lowlands, were tenant farmers, their lands owned-in a semifeudal relationship-by wealthy urban landowners, or effendis.

The first wave of Zionist immigrants-the First 'Aliya (literally, ascent)-brought to Palestine's shores between 1882 and 1903 some thirty thousand Jewish settlers. Their aim was to establish a gradually expanding core of productive Jewish towns and agricultural settlements that would ultimately result in a Jewish majority and the establishment of an independent, sovereign Jewish state in all of Palestine (defined usually as the ten-thousand-square-mile area lying between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River but occasionally-in line with the Bible and subsequent Jewish conquests in the second century BCE-as also encompassing the north-south mountain ridge just east of the river, the biblical lands of Golan, Gilead, Moab, and Edom).

The Zionists planned to purchase land either piecemeal, dunam (a fourth of an acre) after dunam, or outright in bulk from the Ottoman sultan, who was always strapped for cash. But the sultan, who regarded Palestine, like all his territories, as sacred Islamic soil and whose vast empire was under increasing nationalist assault in the Balkans and European imperialist threat elsewhere, declined to part with the land. So the Zionists generally maintained discretion about their objective. In private correspondence, however, the settlers were often forthcoming: "The ultimate goal ... is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these two thousand years.... The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland." The nineteenth-century poet Naftali Hertz Imber, who later penned the lyrics for what was to become Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva" (the hope), wrote:

If you long to inherit the land of your birth, Buckle on the sword and take up the bow, And go in the footsteps of your fathers. With weeping and tearful pleadings Zion will not be won. With sword and bow-hark ye! Jerusalem will be rebuilt.

Of course, the integrity of the Ottoman imperial domain was not the only obstacle to Jewish statehood. There were also the native inhabitants, the Arabs. Often, the Zionists depicted Palestine as a "land without a people" awaiting the arrival of the "people without a land," in the British philo-Zionist Lord Shaftesbury's phrase from July 1853. But once there, the settlers could not avoid noticing the majority native population. It was from them, as two of the first settlers put it, that "we shall ... take away the country ... through stratagems[,] without drawing upon us their hostility before we become the strong and populous ones."

By "stratagems," of course, they meant purchase; buying land occasionally required "stratagems" since the Ottoman authorities were generally ill disposed toward Jewish land acquisition. But the purchase of Palestine proceeded at a snail's pace. And it was not mainly a problem of an effendi reluctance to sell. Most of the world's Jews were non-Zionists, and most, simply, were poor, especially in the Zionist movement's Eastern European heartland. And the rich, concentrated in Central and Western Europe, by and large refused to help. So, gathering a ruble here and a ruble there, the initially uncoordinated Zionist associations-Hovevei Zion, or Lovers of Zion-bought the odd tract of land for settlement and then sent out small groups of individuals or families to fulfill the dream.

The bulk of the settlers, of both the first and second waves of immigration (the Second 'Aliya was from 1904 to 1914), planted roots in the lowlands of Palestine-in the Coastal Plain, the upper Jordan Valley (from the southern end of the Sea of Galilee to the northern tip of the Galilee Panhandle), and the Jezreel Valley connecting them. These were the less crowded areas of Palestine, often swamp-infested and vulnerable to bedouin depredation, and owned largely by effendis. (The peasants of the hilly Judean, Samarian, and Galilean heartland tended to own their lands and were rarely willing to sell.) But the gradual Jewish population of these lowlands in fact competed with and trumped the natural expansion into them, ongoing since the early nineteenth century, of spillover Arabs from the relatively thickly inhabited hill country. In hindsight, what was effectively a demographic-geographic contest for the lowlands, between 1881 and 1947, was won by the Zionist movement and gave the Zionists the territorial base for statehood.

The new settlers, beset by an unwonted and difficult climate, unfamiliar diseases, and brigandage, viewed the native inhabitants as, at best, unwanted interlopers from Arabia and, at worst, as rivals for mastery of the land and potential enemies. But they had to be appeased at least temporarily, given their numerical superiority and their kinship with the Muslim Ottoman rulers. Like most European colonists in the third world, the settlers saw the locals as devious and untrustworthy and, at the same time, as simple, dirty, and lazy. Most did not bother to learn Arabic, and some mistreated their Arab workers, as the famous Russian Jewish essayist Ahad Ha'am reported after a visit in February-May 1891.5 The natives, in turn, regarded the foreign influx as inexplicable and the settlers as strange, foolish, infidel, and vaguely minatory.

Initially, the Zionist settlement enterprise was haphazard and disorganized. But in the mid-1890s, at last, an organizer-and prophet-arose. He was an unlikely savior. Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1860 to an assimilated, German-speaking Jewish family. He was a doctor of law but quickly changed professions and became a successful journalist, feuilletonist, and playwright. The coffee shops, theaters, and salons of Vienna were his milieu. Herzl knew no Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, or Polish and had no contact with the poor masses of Eastern Europe. The pogroms and the anti-Semitic discrimination in the czar's empire may have niggled at his conscience. But the eruption of the Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894 converted Herzl to Zionism. He was then the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, a liberal Viennese daily. Alfred Dreyfus was an (assimilated) Jewish army captain on the French General Staff when he was wrongly convicted of spying for Germany and sent to Devil's Island. A number of French intellectuals protested and were shouted down as unpatriotic. Right-wing crowds flooded the streets of Paris shouting, "Down with the Jews!" Herzl was shocked-and quickly persuaded that popular anti-Semitism was not restricted to the backward czarist empire but was the patrimony of the entire Gentile world, including its refined French core, the heartland of liberalism, socialism, and democracy. Herzl reached a dismal conclusion: There was no hope and no future for the Jews in Europe; it could not and would not assimilate them. And in the large, multiethnic Continental empires, Jews would eventually face the hostility of the various minorities bent on self-determination. Ultimately, the Jews of Europe faced destruction. The solution was a separate, independent Jewish state to be established after a mass migration of Jews out of Europe.

Herzl dashed off a political manifesto, The Jews' State (1896), and spent his remaining years organizing the "Zionist" movement. He unsuccessfully canvassed Europe's potentates, including Sultan Abdulhamid II of Turkey, to grant the Jews a state. But the sultan, unwilling to relinquish any part of his steadily diminishing empire, rebuffed Herzl, a master bluffer, who had promised the Ottomans billions (which he did not have and probably could not have raised). And although some of Europe's leaders, notably Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, were interested in getting rid of their Jews, none was enthusiastic enough to challenge Ottoman rule in Palestine or to vouchsafe any of their own imperial domains for a Jewish purpose. Herzl was equally unsuccessful with Europe's Jewish financial barons. The Rothschilds and their ilk were wary of the wild-eyed prophet or of seeming to engage in an activity that smelled of dual loyalty. Herzl died (possibly of syphilis) in 1904, a broken man at the head of a poor, unsuccessful movement.

But Herzl's was a success story. He had generated enough noise to place the Jewish problem, and his preferred "Zionist" solution, on the international agenda and to hammer together the rudiments of a world-embracing Zionist organization. In Basel, in 1897, the First Zionist Congress, organized by Herzl, had resolved to establish a "publicly and legally secured home [Heimstätte]" for the Jewish people in Palestine. The delegates had avoided the words state and sovereignty for fear of alarming or antagonizing Gentiles, including the sultan, or Jewish magnates. But that was what the Zionists intended.

However, of course, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire-which was hostile to Zionism both because it was a Jewish enterprise (Islam had little respect for or empathy with the Jews, who were "sons of apes and pigs," in the Qurhan's unfelicitous phrase) and because it promised to reduce still further the sultan's domain-and it was inhabited. For most of Palestine's impoverished, illiterate inhabitants at the end of the nineteenth century, "nationalism" was an alien, meaningless concept. They identified themselves simultaneously as subjects of the (multinational) Ottoman Empire and as part of the (multinational) community of Islam; as Arabs, in terms of geography, culture, and language; as inhabitants of this or that region and village of a vaguely defined Palestine; and as members of this or that clan or family. There was no Arab national movement and not even a hint, in 1881, of a separate Palestinian Arab nationalism.

But European ideas had begun to penetrate the Levant, via commerce, tourists, missionaries, and books and newspapers. Nationalism began to touch the minds of a thin crust of the better educated and rich in Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad. And Palestine's notable families, collectively known as the a'yan, from whom sprang the country's doctors and lawyers and municipal and religious leaders, were not completely immune. Perhaps the first expressions of their dawning Arab national consciousness are to be found in their, at first hesitant, later vociferous, appeals to Istanbul, from 1891 on, to halt the Zionist influx. They warned that Zionist immigration and settlement threatened to undermine the country's "Arab" character and perhaps, ultimately, to displace its inhabitants. "The Jews are taking all the lands out of the hands of the Muslims, taking all the commerce into their hands and bringing arms into the country," complained a group of Jerusalem notables. They called on the sultan to halt Jewish immigration and to bar Jewish land purchases. Indeed, by 1899 the mufti of Jerusalem, Taher al-Husseini (the father of Muhammad Haj Amin al-Husseini, the future leader of the Palestinian national movement), was proposing that all Jews who had settled in the country after 1891 be harassed into leaving or expelled.

These petitioners sensed that the initial trickle of settlers was but the thin edge of the wedge and would be followed by masses of European Jews who, backed by the Jews' reputed legendary wealth, would Judaize the country. They were vaguely aware of the anti-Semitism that was propelling the Jews to Palestine (indeed, some of them shared the prejudice). But they saw no reason why they should host Europe's expellees or pay any price for the plight of Europe's Jews. And they failed to acknowledge the Jews' historic ties to the land, denying these Russian-speaking, strangely appareled immigrants any innate rights or just claims.

In this sense, Yusuf Dia al-Khalidi, Jerusalem's mayor, was highly unusual. In a letter to Zadok Kahn, the chief rabbi of France, he wrote that the Zionist idea was, in theory, "natural, fine and just.... Who can challenge the rights of the Jews to Palestine? Good lord, historically it is really your country." But in practice, he was as opposed to Zionism as the rest of the Palestine notables. The land was already inhabited, and Zionist immigration would spark resistance; Palestine could be reclaimed only by the sword. Better that the Jews reestablish themselves elsewhere. "In the name of God, let Palestine be left in peace," he wrote in March 1899. Kahn passed on al-Khalidi's letter to Herzl, who replied on 19 March. Herzl reassured al-Khalidi that the Zionists, with their vast wealth, expertise, and initiative, would bring benefit to all of Palestine's inhabitants, Arab and Jew. The Jews, he averred, were not "warlike," and there was no reason to fear their influx.

But al-Khalidi and his fellow notables were not persuaded. Indeed, in 1905 an exiled anti-Semitic Lebanese Arab nationalist, Negib gAzoury, voiced what was probably on the minds of Palestine's politically conscious notables when he wrote that the Jews were bent on reconstituting their ancient state in the whole territory stretching from Mount Hermon to the Arabian Desert in the south and the Suez Canal in the west. The Jews, he added, were destined to clash, in a fight to the finish, with the emergent Arab national movement.


Excerpted from 1948 by Benny Morris Copyright © 2008 by Benny Morris. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Benny Morris is professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is the leading figure among Israel's "New Historians," who over the past two decades have reshaped our understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict. His books include Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001; Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956; and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.

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