CONFRONTATION IN PALESTINE
As Britain prepared to withdraw her forces in May 1948, and as the
Jewish community in Palestine braced itself for the inevitable Arab onslaught, there emerged a factor that was to influence Israel’s military considerations throughout the initial part of the War of
Independence. The leadership of the British armed forces had expressed itself in unequivocably hostile terms about the struggle of the Jewish population. They controlled the country’s major arteries and strongpoints; their ships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean and the coast; and the Royal Air Force controlled the skies above Palestine.
Furthermore, their forces included two Arab elements, namely the Arab
Legion and the Transjordan Frontier Force. Both these units were to play no small part in favour of the Arab forces during the ensuing hostilities.
Israeli forces and dispositions
The most vulnerable aspect of the Jewish position lay in tenuous lines of communications between settlements, and it was inevitable that these would become the first targets for Arab attacks. The Jewish population was concentrated mainly in long strips of agricultural communities in eastern Galilee, across the valley of Jezreel and down the coastal plain to the south of Tel Aviv. In many towns and areas there was no clear dividing line between Jewish and Arab populations; the institutions and offices of government and major utilities such as electricity and oil refineries were common to both. Particularly vulnerable were communications with the isolated settlements of western
Galilee and the Negev and the links between Jerusalem’s 100,000 Jews and the coastal plain (not to mention those linking the outlying Jewish
Jerusalem settlements with the bulk of the Jewish population in the city proper). Nor were the official frontiers secure. Controlled primarily by units of the Arab Legion and the Transjordan Frontier
Force, the long land borders could not be closed effectively to the passage of Arab forces and military supplies into Palestine. The Legion numbered some 8,000 troops, while the Frontier Force was 3,000 strong;
in addition, the British Palestine Police numbered some 4,000.
Nominally, the British forces were responsible for law and order in the country, but both Jewish and Arab irregulars were by now operating freely within the areas under their respective control.
Over the years, the Jewish armed forces or militia had grown, sometimes with the connivance and assistance of the British and sometimes
‘underground’, despite the British. At the outset, locally organized defence units had been established throughout the country in order to defend Jewish settlements, but these had gradually been amalgamated into a national organization, the ‘Haganah’. The Arab revolt of 1936—39
brought into existence the field companies of the Haganah, which were the first units activated on a national country-wide basis, to counter the effects of the uprising and to protect the oil pipeline crossing the valley of Jezreel on its way from Iraq to a terminal at Haifa. They were inspired by a British Army Captain, Orde Wingate (later to become famous as leader of the ‘Chindits’ in Burma during the Second World
War), who set up ‘Special Night Squads’ to fight against the Arab guerrillas bent on sabotaging the pipeline. There also existed auxiliary forces known as the ‘Jewish Settlement Police’, who assisted in the defence of Jewish settlements and the maintenance of the lines of communications between them. Numbering some 2,000 men, officered by the British and financed by the Jewish Agency, they were organized in sections and armed only with small-arms.
In May 1941, the Haganah created a full-time military force known as the ‘Palmach’ (from ‘Plugot Mahatz’ or ‘shock troops’). This force was under the exclusive control of the Haganah, and was led initially by
Yitzhak Sadeh, a large and flamboyant Haganah leader who, by personality and example, was a major driving force in its creation.
(Later, with the establishment of the Israel Defence Forces, his record as a military leader in conventional operations did not live up to the promise of these early years.) He gathered around him a group of youngsters destined to be the leaders of Israel’s armed forces–indeed,
many of the men who were later to lead Israel’s army into battle received their first training in the ranks of the Palmach–men such as
Yitzhak Rabin (later Chief of Staff and Prime Minister), Chaim Bar-Lev
(later Chief of Staff and a minister in the Israeli Government), David
Elazar (Chief of Staff in the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and many others. It was in one of the first operations of the force, acting with the
British to oust the Vichy French from Syria, that Moshe Dayan (later to become Chief of Staff, Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign
Affairs in various Israeli Governments, and to command Israel’s army in the 1956 Sinai Campaign) lost an eye. In command of one of two select reconnaissance units of the Palmach sent to secure a bridge across the
River Litani, his binoculars were hit by a French sniper’s bullet as he was surveying the bridge. In command of the second unit that day was
Yigal Allon, later to become commander of the Palmach and subsequently
Deputy Prime Minister and a minister in several Israeli Governments.
During the Second World War, many Jews had volunteered for service in the British armed forces, either as individuals or in Palestinian units. In 1944, a Jewish Brigade Group was established and saw action in Italy against the Germans. The wartime experience acquired by some
30,000 volunteers, in all arms of the British forces, later proved to be invaluable in the creation of the Israel Defence Forces, providing as it did much of the organizational, training and technical background that hitherto had been absent in the Haganah. By the time that Rommel’s army–which had threatened to overrun Egypt and enter Palestine–had been defeated by the British in 1942, the Palmach under Yitzhak Sadeh comprised a force of over 3,000, including some 2,000 reserves. In
1947, at the time of the United Nations Partition Resolution, the
Palmach numbered over 3,000 men and women with approximately 1,000 on active reserve who could be called up at a moment’s notice. (In 1944, a naval company, ‘Pal Yam’, and an air platoon had been established within the Palmach organization.)
In mid-1947, David Ben-Gurion, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for
Palestine (which was, in effect, the government of the Jewish population in Palestine), began preparing the Haganah for the expected war. By six months before the outbreak of hostilities, he had created military districts or commands astride the possible invasion routes of the Arab armies, established brigades on a territorial basis and set out the guidelines for the acquisition of arms and the training of forces. Thus, by February 1948, the ‘Golani’ Brigade was operating in the Jordan valley and eastern Galilee; the ‘Carmeli’ Brigade covered
Haifa and western Galilee; the ‘Givati’ Brigade the southern lowlands;
the ‘Alexandroni’ Brigade the Sharon central area; the ‘Etzioni’
Brigade the Jerusalem area; and the ‘Kiryati’ Brigade covered the city of Tel Aviv and its environs. In the course of the following months,
three other Palmach brigades were created out of the independent
Palmach battalions: the ‘Negev’ Brigade in the southern lowlands and the northern Negev; the ‘Yiftach’ Brigade in Galilee; and the ‘Harel’
Brigade in the Jerusalem area.
It is well to recall that, when one talks about brigades and military units, one is not depicting a normal military line-up. The entire
Haganah operation was an underground one, and its military organization and deployment had to be carried out under the vigilant eyes of British troops and police in the full knowledge that the possession of weapons was a crime punishable by death. Moreover, British soldiers carried out raids on Jewish villages and towns from time to time, revealing secret storage dumps of weapons. Ingenious, devious means of transporting and storing weapons were an essential facet of Haganah skills. The Arabs did not suffer from this disability, because they were less in confrontation with the British forces and often moved around freely in the areas under their control openly armed. In this respect, they benefited considerably from the active support of the units of the Arab
Legion, which were part of the British forces. A modest domestic war industry was created in which small-arms such as Sten guns and hand grenades were manufactured, but the disadvantage with which the Jewish forces set out to do battle is emphasized by the fact that the total armament at the Haganah’s disposal in 1947 consisted of 900 rifles, 700
light machine-guns and 200 medium machine-guns with sufficient ammunition for only three days’ fighting–even the standing force, the
Palmach, could only arm two out of every three of its active members.
At this stage, heavy machine-guns, anti-tank guns and artillery were but a dream: not one existed in the Jewish forces.
The total Jewish force that could be mobilized from an overall Jewish population of 650,000 was some 45,000, but these included some 30,000
men and women whose functions were limited to local defence,
particularly in the villages throughout the country–they could at no time be included in the field forces. The effective force that the
Jewish population could field on a national basis on the outbreak of hostilities therefore numbered approximately 15,000. The air platoon of the Palmach consisted of eleven single-engined light aircraft manned by twenty Piper Cub pilots plus some twenty fighter pilots with Royal Air
Force experience. These civilian aircraft were the nucleus of the
Israeli Air Force. No airport or landing strip was at their exclusive disposal, and only two airfields in the country, Haifa and Lod (Lydda),
could be used by civilian aircraft. The naval company numbered some 350
sailors with Royal Navy and ‘illegal’ immigrant-running experience,
with a few motor boats and a number of frogmen.
In addition to the Haganah, there existed in Palestine the two Jewish dissident organizations, who did not accept the authority of the Jewish
Command. The 2,000—4,000 members of the Irgun, under the command of
Menachem Begin, continued with militant anti-British activity even when the official Jewish policy was not to engage in such activity. Pursuing a policy of constant attack on British police posts, government and army installations, it was trained primarily to carry out small-unit,
commando-type raids, but had very little experience in large-scale,
open fighting. The 500—800 member Lehi, or Stern Group, was even more extreme in its dissident policy, and remained consistently anti-British throughout the war. The ultimate integration of these two units into a unified Israeli Army was not to be accomplished without severe problems and some internecine bloodshed.
Arab forces and dispositions
The bulk of the Arab population in Palestine was led by Haj Amin el-Husseini, exiled Mufti of Jerusalem. His openly-declared purpose was to destroy the entire Jewish community of Palestine or to drive it into the sea. Born in Jerusalem in 1893, his active participation in the
Arab nationalist movement dates from about 1919, and he led the anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in April of the following year, for which he was jailed by the British authorities. But the British High
Commissioner at the time, Sir Herbert Samuel, attempted to appease the nationalists and to improve the balance of power between the rival Arab families by appointing him Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921. Husseini,
however, made use of his new power to encourage an extreme policy: he took an active part in organizing the anti-Jewish riots in 1929, and headed the Arab Higher Committee that directed the 1936 rebellion. In
1937, the British dismissed him and outlawed his Committee, but he escaped to Damascus, from where he led the rebellion. In 1940, he moved to Iraq, where he took part in the pro-German coup of 1941, after the failure of which he escaped to Germany. At the end of the war, he made his way to Cairo, from where he began to organize the Arabs in
Palestine once more. (After the Arab defeat in 1948, he was to remain in exile, primarily in Egypt and Lebanon, his influence waning rapidly until his death in exile in his late seventies.)
Most Arab villagers carried weapons and could be mobilized by the
Faza’a, an Arab alarm system whereby each sheikh could call up the males in his district for an operation, whether for defence or attack,
on a purely guerrilla basis. The Palestinian Arabs had two paramilitary organizations, the Najada and the Futuwa, which operated openly as scout movements. Within their framework, a certain amount of urban guerrilla training was given to their members, but they were to be no match for the Haganah. They could, of course, rely on the backing of the local Arab population and benefited also from a loose co-operation with the Arab Legion and the Transjordan Frontier Force. From time to time, the Arab forces were able to make use of a number of deserters from British units: posing as British regular troops on duty and travelling around in stolen British Army vehicles, these were used to cross into heavily-populated Jewish areas in the cities, particularly
Jerusalem, and introduce bombs, which created considerable damage and heavy casualties. Thus, of the three major attacks that succeeded in
Jerusalem, two–the blowing-up of the Palestine Post building and the attack in Ben Yehuda Street in which some fifty people were killed and most of the area destroyed–were carried out by such deserters. The third attack was perpetrated at the Jewish Agency Headquarters by the use of a United States consular car, which was driven into the courtyard. (On the other side, when the war developed, a small number of deserters from the British forces joined the Haganah, in one case bringing the first tank, a Cromwell, to join Israel’s armed forces.)
The Mufti’s two guerrilla forces, known as ‘The Army of Salvation’,
each about 1,000 men strong, were led by his cousin, Abd el Kader el-Husseini, and Hassan Salameh, who had undergone a certain degree of military training with the Germans during the war. Arriving in
Palestine to begin the ‘jihad’ (‘holy war’), Abd el Kader began operations in the area of Jerusalem while Salameh became active in the
Lod-Ramle district. To complicate the Arab military picture further,
there existed in southern Palestine a radical and somewhat disorderly group of guerrillas organized by the extreme fanatical Moslem
Brotherhood of Egypt, who maintained but a tenuous liaison with the other Arab parties. Backing these Arab forces was the military potential of the Arab world, which numbered several hundred aircraft in the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, plus British and French artillery and armour. In addition, they had ready access to arms,
ammunition and spares, in contrast to the embargo that affected the
As the date of the British withdrawal from Palestine drew near, the decision was taken by the Arab League that its member states would intervene militarily in Palestine. But the preparation for war against the infant Israeli state took place against a background of the inevitable inter-Arab differences, intrigues and manoeuvrings of the various rulers against each other. In April 1948, they appointed King
Abdullah of Transjordan to be Commander-in-Chief of the invading armies: not only did he control the most effective of the Arab armies,
the Arab Legion, but he also enjoyed the initial advantage of having part of his forces already in Palestine, within the framework of the
British Army. This served to increase the other leaders’ suspicions of his motives, for there was little doubt of his desire to reunite the west and east banks of the River Jordan and create a
Palestinian-Jordanian kingdom. There was always the possibility that he would enter into active co-operation with the Mufti of Jerusalem. In sum, the various Arab countries were more divided than united, their common cause being limited to opposing Jewish settlement in Palestine,
and the creation of a Jewish state. It was a pattern that was to continue over the years.