Opinion: from the Israeli daily Haaretz
It is one of the most enduring myths surrounding the 1948 war: The epic battle between a fearsome Arab Goliath and a new-born Israel to liberate Palestine. And it’s a fable that continues to inflict harm today.
By Serai Assi
May. 3, 2022
As Palestinians mark the 74th anniversary of the Nakba, and Israelis 74 years of statehood, we should take a moment to debunk one of the most enduring myths surrounding the 1948 war: The legend of great Arab armies, unified in spirit, invading Israel to liberate Palestine.
In a time-honoured fable perpetuated by both Arabs and Israelis alike, the war is depicted as an epic battle between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath. This is the sheer mythologizing of history. But the war was not a little Israeli David facing a giant Arab Goliath. It was a highly motivated and relatively organized Israel fighting a fragmented Arab coalition whose governments entered the war to compete for their slice in Palestine.
King Abdullah I of Jordan was there to annex Palestine and create a Hashemite Greater Syria. The Syrians, who feared Jordan more than Israel, were there to stop Jordan from annexing the West Bank. Egypt was there to block the Hashemites, occupy the Gaza Strip, and assert its supremacy over its Arab neighbours. Palestine was a proxy battlefield for their ambitions and fears. The fate of the Palestinians themselves barely figured in the Arab autocrats’ calculations.
The myth of Israel’s military inferiority has been debunked by Israeli historians themselves. According to Avi Shlaim, at each stage of the war the Israeli forces outnumbered and outgunned all the Arab forces mobilized against them. In mid-May 1948, the total number of Arab troops in Palestine, both regular and irregular, was under 25,000, whereas Israel fielded omore than 35,000 troops. By mid-July, Israel had 65,000 men under arms, and by December its numbers had reached a peak of nearly 100,000 troops.
Arab volunteers in a dugout are taught by Arab soldiers (instructor standing at the left) to shoot and defend themselves in Tulkarm, Palestine during the 1948 Jewish Arab conflictCredit: AP Photo
“The final outcome of the war was therefore not a miracle but a faithful reflection of the underlying military balance in the Palestine theatre. In this war, as in most wars, the stronger side prevailed,” Shlaim comments, in The War for Palestine.
On the eve of the war, the façade of Arab unity concealed deep divisions and cracks. Arab rulers were more wary of each other than of Israel. The Arab armies crossed into Palestine to fight among themselves and sabotage one another.
They entered the war not as Arabs, but as Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, and Iraqis. They had neither a unified command nor a unified vision. The Arabs took their cold war to Palestine. They were fighting a war within a war. The whole venture was doomed from the start. To quote historian Eugene Rogan: “The Arab states ultimately went to war to prevent each other from altering the balance of power in the Arab world, rather than to save Arab Palestine.”
None of the Arab states who entered the war wished to see a viable Palestinian state emerge on its flank. Hashemite Jordan laboured hard to ensure that such a state would never see the light of day. It was a great betrayal hatched in secret.
In November 1947, on the eve of the Partition Plan, King Abdullah of Transjordan met secretly with Zionist leader Golda Meir to sign a non-aggression pact: the king pledged not to oppose the creation of the Jewish state in return for annexing the West Bank.
Three months later, in February 1948, the British gave their green light to Abdullah’s secret plan. No wonder that Jordan was the only Arab country not to oppose the Partition Plan. Three months later, the British left Palestine, and Israel declared independence.
The following day, the Arabs declared war on Israel, ostensibly to reclaim Palestine, but mainly to undermine each other. By the time the dust of war had settled, Palestine was lost.
The glare from flares and fires set by mortar and artillery shells light up the sky above David’s Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the heaviest exchanges of fire between Arabs and Jews Credit: AP Photo/Jim Pringle
Transjordan, meanwhile, was able to snatch the West Bank with East Jerusalem (with British blessing), while Egypt seized Gaza. As it transpired, the Hashemites had entered the war with two goals: to annex the West Bank, and to prevent their bitter rival, Hajj Amin al-Huseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, from creating a viable Palestinian state. The other Arab states went there to contain Transjordan rather than save Palestine. Ultimately, the Hashemites prevailed.
One man saw it all coming. Fawzi Qawuqji was the commander of the Arab Liberation Army. While the ALA was an army of volunteers set up by the Arab League as a counterforce to the Mufti’s Holy War Army, Arab governments prevented thousands of Arab recruits from joining either force.
Like many of his Arab comrades, Qawuqji crossed to Palestine with grandiose promises of liberation. Yet once in Palestine, he found himself battling the war of attrition on Arab unity. “It was there to prevent a war between the Arab states,” he wrote of the ALA. Instead of fighting the Zionists, the Arab commander was now fighting his way between the Hashemites and the Syrian nationalists.
King Abdullah of Transjordan, left, and his host, King of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on June 29, 1948, on a visit to discuss the Palestine QuestionCredit: AP Photo
The Arab political climate that spawned the ALA posed a great quandary for Qawuqji. He wrote in his memoir: “King Abdullah was determined to realize his Greater Syria Project by means of Palestine. This possibility more than any other troubled the Syrian government. And as for Iraq, which would send its army to the field of battle in Palestine by passing through Transjordan, how might it possibly act? Would it aid Jordan in the realization of the project?”
It was a genuine concern. After all, the Iraqis were not willing to vex their Hashemite cousins for the sake of Palestine, or the Mufti, for whom they harboured a deep mistrust.
Reflecting on the mutual misgivings prevailing among the Arab states on the eve of the war, Qawuqji bitterly lamented: “Each Arab state feared its so-called sister state. Each coveted the territory of its sister, and conspired with others against its sister. This was the situation in which the Arab states found themselves as they prepared to save Palestine, and this, first and foremost, is what troubled them. Only after this, very far after this, came the problem of Palestine itself.”
The shock of the defeat was biblical. No other event in modern Arab history was so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.
It was, in the words of Syrian intellectual Constantin Zureiq, who coined the term “Nakba” in his seminal book “The Meaning of the Nakba,” “the worst disaster that has befallen the Arabs in their long history.” He noted, pointedly: “Seven [Arab] countries go to war to abolish the partition and to defeat Zionism, and quickly leave the battle after losing much of the land of Palestine.”
It was an Arab defeat, staged and orchestrated by Arab regimes, a self-inflicted disaster for which Palestinians have paid the ultimate price, ever since.
In the end, the Arab defeat had been sealed from the start. As the great Arab nationalist Sati al-Husari would later reflect: “The Arabs lost Palestine because we were seven states.”
British Commander of the Transjordan Arab Legion, Brigadier John Bagot (“Glubb Pasha”), right, talks soldiers of his command in a forward post near Ramallah, Palestine, July 20, 1948Credit: AP Photo
In fact they were hardly Arab states, but client states, under colonial auspices. In 1948, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan were still under British control. The Jordanian Army, known as the Arab Legion, was led by a British officer, John Bagot Glubb, aka Glubb Pasha, whose loyalty was split between the Hashemites and his British superiors.
It was naive to expect the Arabs to liberate Palestine when the Arabs themselves were not liberated. As Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future Egyptian president who fought in the war, later reflected in his memoir: “We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were in Egypt.”
And so the Arab armies invading Israel were no Goliaths. In fact, there were no Arab armies, only a mishmash of uncoordinated paramilitary groups, who were poorly armed and barely trained, highly improvised, greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed. Official Arab military commitment to Palestine was timid at best. The nascent Arab states, who were still dominated by former colonial generals and puppet rulers, had no real fight in them.
The 1948 war was not an Arab-Israeli war so much as an Arab-Arab war. To paraphrase Jean Baudrillard’s famous phrase: the 1948 War did not take place. For decades since 1948, Arab states have taxed the Palestinians – demanding their gratitude and obedience – with their wartime sacrifices on behalf of Palestine. But history shows that Arab commitment to Palestine is largely the stuff of legend. Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic Studies from Georgetown University, and is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routled