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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1868

The end of World War II in Europe in May, 1945, brought the full extent of the Holocaust to the attention of the world. Some six million Jews had perished at the hands of the Nazis. In the aftermath, as Benny Morris relates in 1948 , the concept of a...

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The end of World War II in Europe in May, 1945, brought the full extent of the Holocaust to the attention of the world. Some six million Jews had perished at the hands of the Nazis. In the aftermath, as Benny Morris relates in 1948, the concept of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, originating with the Balfour Declaration by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917 and envisioned by a generation of European Jews, found international support with the United Nations Partition Resolution on November 29, 1947. Palestine was still under British control, the result of a post-World War I mandate, but as events unfolded the British increasingly desired to simply vacate the region.

Both Jews and Arabs had their own claims on Palestine. For the Jews the land represented their national homeland. More immediately, it represented the land to which survivors and displaced persons could emigrate after the war. Certainly no country, even the United States, showed any desire to incorporate hundreds of thousands of European Jews. Both the Franklin Roosevelt administration and that of Harry Truman initially avoided any strong support for the Jews. However, as the level of events in Europe became known, Truman modified his views to one of support for the resettling of displaced Jews into Palestine.

Arab support for the Allied armies had been minimal. At most, some six thousand had fought with the Allies, and many of those had deserted. Political support among the Arabs for the Allied cause grew only with the recognition of who the victors would be. In contrast, more than thirty thousand Palestinian Jews fought with the British army. The disparity in land was equally glaring. The five Arab countries in the Middle East encompassed more than one million square miles; the British mandate of Palestine included approximately 10,500 square miles and a population of approximately 1.6 million, two-thirds of whom were Arabs, at the end of the war.

Numerous books have been written on the subject of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, or nakba (catastrophe) as it has been called by their Arabic adversaries. Most of this material has been written from the perspective of the victorious Israelis, with an obvious, if not unexpected, bias. In part this has been the result of the availability of primary sources: Israeli sources have been readily accessible, while Arabic sources have been limited. Those sources, which are believed to exist in Egypt or Syria, remain largely inaccessible.

Morris divides the period between the earliest Jewish settlements (circa 1915) and the war of independence into three parts. The first, titled “Staking Claims,” provides the background to the conflict during the period from the end of the war until the U. N. vote on partition in November, 1947. The Israeli nascent defense forces consisted of the Haganah, the paramilitary defense force, and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the National Military Organization that evolved into a more or less terrorist organization often at odds with the Haganah. For the Arabs, the British support for pan-Arab unity resulted in the formation of a League of Independent Arab States, signed in a seven-nation pact in March, 1945. Among the demands of the Arab League was the cessation of further Jewish immigration into Palestine and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine.

The second portion of Morris’s account covers the civil war that ensued between the Arabs and Jews in the aftermath of the vote on partition in November, 1947, and lasting until the Israeli formal declaration of independence in May, 1948. Caught in the middle were the British occupying forces. The theoretical disparity in potential forces among the adversaries was most apparent during this period. The Arabs had a combined population of some forty million, while the nascent Jewish state had a population of fewer than seven hundred thousand. The numbers were misleading. Not least among the Arab difficulties was the lack of any central command structure. During this period of civil war, volunteers from a number of the Arab states formed the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), a force of between four and five thousand men led by a mix of retired officers from their respective states. Much of the Arab military, however, consisted of local militias raised by isolated villages. Weapons were often obsolete, and often these villages were as willing to help the Jews, in expectation of whom the victors would be, as they were to join their Arab brethren.

Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, the declaration being read at four in the afternoon by David Ben-Gurion, who would become the state’s first prime minister. Minutes later Truman announced the recognition of the state. The Pan-Arab invasion that followed constitutes the third and largest portion of this book. Morris attempts to “read” the Arab mind through a combination of first-person Arab accounts in this period and his interpretation of policy and military decisions that subsequently took place. To his credit, Morris has attempted to be evenhanded, and he is in no small part handicapped by limited Arab sources.

For all of their bluster, the Arab armies were largely unprepared for the war that followed. As Morris points out, a portion of the dilemma lay in the roles played by the British and the French in the region. Arab armies were useful in maintaining internal order, but they were not meant to serve as a military force. This changed with the beginning of the Cold War, when both the British and the French began a modernization of those armies as a bulwark against Soviet forces.

The invasion in anticipation of declaration of the Jewish state was approved at the end of April. The initial plan was limited in scope: an attack in the eastern Galilee. However, as Morris points out, the greatest handicap to the Arab armies was a lack of central command or a semblance of unity. At the last moment, Lebanon in the north declined to participate, and both the Syrian and Egyptian invasion plans were changed. Abdullah, king of Transjordan, had little adherence to his Arab allies. The goal of his army was to take the western bank of the Jordan. As pointed out by Morris, Abdullah was arguably the most reasonable of the Arab leaders. In November, 1947, he met secretly with Golda Meir, future Israeli prime minister and at the time acting head of the Jewish Agency Political Department, and he met again with her the following May. Abdullah would likely have been satisfied with some form of de facto partition, similar to that agreed upon by the United Nations, for the region, and he had reluctantly participated in the war. Abdullah was certainly not “pro-Jewish,” by any stretch of the imagination; he had been among the most vocal critics of any nascent Jewish state. However, Abdullah was also a realist who recognized the Jews could quickly evolve into an effective fighting force, while Arab armies would remain divided. His willingness to negotiate with representatives of the Jewish state would cost him his life several years later.

Morris attempts to provide a balanced account of the struggle that began with the Arab invasion of the new state. He begins with an assessment of the two sides: the Arabs holding the initiative and, at least in the beginning, the larger force as well as heavier weapons. Further, much of the high ground was Arab territory. The Haganah, the Jewish force, fighting largely on interior linesalbeit often surroundedhad greater motivation and, with a cadre of war veterans, was often better trained and led. The role played by Ben-Gurion is clearly pointed out in Morris’s account. Unification and training of the army began well in advance of independence. Between the end of 1947 and independence in May, 1948, the number of full-time soldiers was expanded from two thousand to more than sixty thousand. By then known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), it incorporated not only the fighting force of the Palmach but also the Irgun, and, more important, it was organized under a unified general staff and a command structure of a modern army. At the same time, an effort was made on an international scale to obtain the weaponry, equipment, and airplanes necessary to defend Israel. The effort, obviously opposed by the Arab states, had to take place in the face of the British, who were opposed to the arming of the new state as well. As noted by Morris, by the end of the fighting, the Haganah outnumbered the Arab forces.

The vastly outnumbered forces fighting to establish a Jewish state is not the only historical myth addressed in this book. Each side has its own stories of the massacre of civilians as well as of captured fighters, the Arabs describing the killing at Deir Yassin near Jerusalem in April, 1947, as a massacre, and the Israelis likewise reporting the killing of Jewish prisoners and civilians during the course of the fighting. Morris is evenhanded in his approach to this sensitive topic. Events that took place at Deir Yassin continue to reverberate decades later. The British and Arab estimate that upward of 250 villagers had been murdered was significantly inflated; the actual number was probably around a hundred. Nonetheless, the incident remains an atrocity, even at the lower number. Morris notes the long-term significance of the murders was its effect on the Arab population at large. Arab villagers were panicked, fleeing from areas which in the partition were meant to remain in Arab hands. Further, the accounts of events at Deir Yassin resulted in similar reprisals from Arab forces; shortly afterward, a ten-vehicle convoy of Jewish nurses and doctors traveling to Hadassah Hospital was ambushed. The British refused to intervene, and nearly eighty people were murdered, many burned alive.

These events were more the exception than commonplace during the fighting. Morris suggests several reasons for this. First, the opportunity for indiscriminate killing on the part of the Arabs was probably limited, since most villages had been overrun by Jewish fighters early in the conflict; more Arabs were probably killed by Jewish fighters than the reverse. Second was the nature of the soldiers themselves. During the civil war portion of the fightingpre-May, 1948few prisoners were taken by either side. Morris notes only two “true” Arab massacres: forty workers at a Haifa oil refinery, and 150 unarmed Haganah fighters at Kfar Etzion. However, as Jewish militias were replaced by the IDF, and the Arab armies were being manned by regular, disciplined soldiers, killing of civilians and prisoners became less common.

Morris concludes 1948 with an extensive summary of the war. The Jewish fighters were indeed outnumbered, at least at the outset. However, their war aims were simpler: to survive. As the war progressed, the burgeoning Jewish state began to expand beyond the boundaries set by the United Nations in the vote for partition. The Arab armies, meanwhile, remained divided, with no true central command. Morris points out the failure of the Palestinians to acknowledge their defeat by this “ragtag Jewish militia.” Could things have been different? For decades prior to 1948, Arab leaders refused any form of territorial compromise. Jewish settlements captured during the civil war were routinely destroyed, the Jewish inhabitants expelled. Whichever side one supports, and arguments can be made for both, the events of 1948 continue to have an impact generations later.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

The Chronicle of Higher Education 54 (May 16, 2008): B6.

Foreign Affairs 87, no. 5 (September/October, 2008): 148-156.

History Today 58, no. 7 (July, 2008): 64.

Journal of Military History 72 (July, 2008): 978.

Library Journal 133, no. 6 (April 1, 2008): 94.

The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, p. 19.

The New Yorker 84, no. 12 (May 5, 2008): 72-77.

Publishers Weekly, May 9, 2008.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 2008, p. 25.

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