In 1948, Jewish Forces in Palestine outnumbered Palestinian and Arab Fighters

By William R. Polk

The General Assembly had issued its verdict [in late 1947 suggesting a partition of Palestine] but it left open the question of how to actually carry out the resolution when no UN-controlled military or police forces were available. Britain’s 84,000 troops were leaving. And they had proved insufficient to maintain law and order, in the face of a campaign of terrorism waged by highly organised Jewish forces equipped with all the weapons of the modern infantryman.” To appreciate the full meaning of the UN General Assembly decision, I consider it in the context of in four interacting categories:

First, the British military force began to disengage not only overall but selectively from cities, towns and camps. As it did, it opened areas that became essentially free fire zones. The British commander reasonably took the position that his priority was to keep his soldiers out of harm’s way. They should be evacuated as quickly and as safely as possible. What happened after they had left, or even what happened during the process of their leaving, was not their responsibility. Thus, as they vacated their former positions, one at a time, they necessarily if inadvertently favored one side or the other. Where they could, they tried to protect the residents; thus, for example in the city of Tiberias, they evacuated the nearly half of the residents who were Palestinians. Thus, they acted to protect the Palestinians but effectively turned the city over to the Jews. Overall, their actions necessarily favored the Zionists.

Second, the Arab states loudly and repeated proclaimed the responsibility to protect the Palestinians. However, until after the legal end to the Palestine mandate, they could not intervene. Doing so would have constituted an act of war against Britain, and the British would not allow them to move. So in the months between the beginning of the British withdrawal and May 15, they were effectively immobilized.

Legality was not the only reason. There were two other reasons for their inactivity:

The first reason for their inactivity was that they were weak. Egypt and Iraq were effectively under British military occupation since their abortive revolts against the British (Iraq in 1941 and Egypt in 1942), and their armed forces were kept small, disorganized and ill-equipped. Corruption sapped their logistics while purges of officers suspected of political ambition or nationalist ardor weakened their command structures. When the Iraqi army was sent to Palestine, many of its soldiers were not adequately armed, and some were without uniforms or even suitable footwear. The Egyptian army was the butt of British jokes — it was said to be the largest army in the world, judged by the girth of the officers. They were scorned as inferior colonials. The Army had only cast-off British equipment. Morale was naturally low. The only reasonably effective Arab military force was the Jordanian Legion which had been designed to patrol the desert and to provide income for bedouin tribesmen who were its recruits. It was composed of only four battalions and one (as yet untrained) artillery unit. It had no transport and little ammunition. Moreover, it was not a “national” force: it was under the command of British officers.

None of the Arab governments was an effective leader in its own country. King Farouk was generally despised by educated Egyptians; the mass of Egyptians lived on the edge of starvation, Egypt was already a “country of crowds” — with roughly 1,000 people on each square kilometer of inhabitable land — disease was common and life expectancy was short. Like the Egyptians, the Iraqis had troubles of their own. And they thought their governments were a big part of their troubles. The King of Iraq was a little boy who was under the control of a much hated regent who was regarded as a puppet of the British. Only Trans-Jordan’s Amir Abdullah seemed popular among his mainly bedouin subjects.

The second inhibition was that the leaders of the Arab states were divided by personal ambitions. Each pursued his own goals. King Farouk’s Egypt wanted to take over at least Gaza to anchor the Sinai Peninsula while Abdullah had secretly worked with the Zionists for years to get their support for his incorporation of “Arab Palestine.” Neither he nor Farouk were interested in the Palestinians. Farouk confiscated military equipment destined for Abdullah. Each ruler espoused a different Palestinian faction. In short, jealousies, ambitions and personal quarrels were of much more importance to them than their declared protection of the Palestinians. Thus, the Arab states had no unified strategy and did not seek, even separately, to work with such forces as the Palestinians mustered.

Realizing their incapacity, the Arab states got the Arab League to offer on March 21, two months before the Mandate was due to lapse, a compromise peace. They offered to take in the thousands Jewish “illegals,” whom the British were holding on Cyprus, as citizens of their countries and urged that, rather than being divided as the UN had voted, the whole Mandate area be put once again under a trusteeship.

Third, the Palestinian cause attracted volunteer fighters — a category of combatants we see in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq — who began to infiltrate the Mandate before the British left. Some of them were displaced Palestinians who had been in exile since they had fought against the British in the 1936-1938 “revolt.” Most were from other Arab countries. They are believed to have numbered about a thousand by the end of 1947 and rose to perhaps 3,000 in the next year.

How effective these volunteers were is in doubt. Some carried out terrorist acts, particularly against Zionist targets in the area the UN had designated as the Arab Palestinian state, but the record shows that while they were brave, they were not decisive. In the village structure of Palestine, they were alien. In some villages which still sought to remain neutral, they were unwelcome.

Overall, the Palestinians had little military capacity. The intelligence agents of the Jewish Agency had been monitoring the Palestinians for years and reported in detail on their arms, organizations and sources of supply: they reported that the Palestinians had no arms production capability except in primitive bombs, few and mostly antiquarian rifles, usually with only 20-50 bullets a gun, practically no heavier weapons, no mortars, no machineguns, no artillery, no armored vehicles and no aircraft — their only potential source of supply, Britain, embargoed arms sales to them. Perhaps even more important, they had no cadres of trained troops, no staff, no planning and no command and control organization. Perhaps most important, they had no intelligence sources in the Jewish community, Their only significant military leader was killed on April 8. Villages operated independently and so, as the Israeli military intelligence reports confirm, “Villages in 1948 often fought — and fell– alone, the Haganah was able to pick them off one at a time in many districts. In many areas there was not even defensive co-operation between neighbouring villages, since relations between them, as often as not, were clouded by clan and family feuds…”

In short, the Palestinians had no significant military capacity. They were a typical colonial society. Already before May 1948, they had suffered at least 5,000 casualties. While the Israelis talked of the threat of an Arab-inflicted holocaust, “They were fully aware that the Arab war rhetoric was in no way matched by any serious preparation on the ground.”

Fourth, in every category, the Zionists had overwhelming superiority. Since much of the information in this section was sternly denied for years I have checked what I have collected against the two major and more recent Israeli accounts, both of which were derived from Israeli military and political archives.

From Ottoman times, the Jewish community, the Yishuv, had thought of itself as a proto-government and from the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate “all institutions were built with an eye to conversions into institutions of state.” The British government dealt with and recognized the “Jewish Agency” as a de facto government which is how the Yishuv regarded it. Thus, it was able to make decisions that would be carried out. It had departments headed by ministers under a leader, David Ben-Gurion, who was virtually a head of state. The Yishuv was literate, highly motivated, relatively wealthy and able also to draw upon European and American financial, political and personnel support. In short, it was a modern Western society and one with a multi-state capability.

The Yishuv had long had an agreed strategy: from the late Nineteenth century, the Zionist leaders worked toward making Palestine into a Judenstaat. While in public, they disguised their long-term objective, using the subterfuge homeland (heimstätte), among themselves their aim was never in doubt. There was never, in private communications, serious consideration of either a bi-national state in which Arabs would also live or a smaller state in a partitioned Palestine. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Zionists claimed the southern part of what became Lebanon and most of the agricultural area of what became Trans-Jordan as well as the major sources of water for the Mandate area . . .

The force at the disposal of the Yishuv began to be established in 1920 when the collectives (Hebrew: kibbutzim ) set up semi-formal and part-time security guards units (Hebrew: HaShomer). In 1936, in response to the Arab nationalist revolt, the British enrolled some 5,000 Jews into what became the paramilitary wing of the Jewish community. This evolved into the Haganah that would evolve into the Israel Defense Force. Under a British military expert, the soldiers were trained in guerrilla and counterinsurgency warfare. In what may have been the first punitive mission against a Palestinian village — a kind of tactic the British had long used in India and along the Northwest Frontier to suppress nationalist revolts — a joint British-Haganah expedition in June 1938 attacked a Palestinian village on the Lebanese border.

During the early part of the Second World War, when a German break-through appeared likely, the British enrolled, trained and equipped Jewish military formations and incorporated individual Jews into its Middle East intelligence organization. By about 1942, some 15,000 men were serving in the British army in some capacity. In addition, fearing what might happen if the British were unable to hold off Erwin Romel’s Deutsches Afrikakorps, the Jewish Agency in 1941 formed a “special forces” corps or shock troops known as Palmach (Hebrew: p’lugot mahatz).

But the Jewish leadership never forgot that its long-term enemy was Britain. Ben-Gurion and others soft-pedaled the long term and emphasized self-restraint (Hebrew: havlagah). This policy provoked a revolt within the Haganah by a group that came to be known as the Irgun Zva’i Leumi. The Irgun was inspired by Ben-Gurion’s rival, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who set out what was then the extreme right wing of the Zionist movement (and later became today’s Likud Party) . It favored an all-out war on both the Palestinians and the British. (The Irgun in turn would be split when Abraham Stern led about 200 of its members to form an even more radical and violent group called the Lohamei Herut Yisraeli or “Stern Gang.”) These radical, terrorist groups, although differing somewhat in their philosophy, remained under the control of the Haganah High Command. While the Zionists publicly denied it, the British published (Cmd. 6873) intercepted Jewish Agency telegrams proving that it was using Irgun and the Stern Gang to carry out actions it wished to disavow. As one telegram put it

“We have come to a working arrangement with the dissident organisations, according to which we shall assign certain tasks to them under our command. They will act only according to our plan.”

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the growing power of the Yishuv was in the field of intelligence. Already in 1933, a rudimentary organization had been created. A professor at the Hebrew University proposed that the Jewish National Fund make an inventory of Palestinian villages. His idea called for a dynamic, constantly up-dated, “map” of Palestinian society. It was a mammoth task. As Jews from Iraq and other Arabic-speaking countries began to arrive, they were often assigned to this organization; then in 1944 a training school was established at Shefeya to train Hebrew-speaking operatives in Arabic and Palestinian culture and who were sent into every Palestinian village to identify potential enemies, map entry routes, inventory weapons, etc. In short, the agents produced an “appreciation” comparable to the CIA’s National Intelligence Studies but were much more detailed. They shaped the 1946-1949 campaign and determined the outcome.

The Jewish Agency and overseas Zionist organizations also recruited European and American volunteers. These men and women were much more numerous than the Arab volunteers. More important, they included highly trained people, some of whom had flown for the RAF or the USAF, commanded ships of war in the Royal Navy or the US Navy or worked in high technology intelligence (such as code breaking and wireless interception).

By May 1948, the Haganah numbered 35,700 standing troops of whom 2,200 were the Special Forces of Palmach. That is, as Benny Morris pointed out, the Yishuv army numbered some 5,500 more soldiers than the combined strength of the regular Arab armies and paramilitary Palestinian forces. In addition, Haganah could draw on 9,500 members of the paramilitary youth corps. By July 1948, when the Haganah was renamed the Israel Defense Force, it had 63,000 men under arms. Perhaps more important than numbers, it had a command and control capability that allowed it to conduct division-size or multiple-brigade, operations. No Arab force even remotely approached its power.

The size and organization of manpower was matched by weaponry. While the British embargoed arms sales to both sides, their actions particularly affected the Arabs. Meanwhile, the Yishuv got around the British embargo in four ways: first, it worked with the local Communist Party to effect an arms purchase deal with Czechoslovakia and the USSR; second, it used some of the money it received from Jewish organizations in Europe and America to buy arms; third, it raided British army depots in Palestine and Europe; and, fourth, it had already begun producing in its own workshops such weapons as mortars, sub-machineguns, heavy machineguns, and the particularly devastating and terrifying flame throwers. These activities gave the Yishuv an overwhelming advantage. Finally, it achieved “aerial superiority” when, on March 27, 1948, it employed its first airplanes, some provided by South Africa and others stolen from the RAF. As the Jewish army chief of staff Yigael Yadin proudly told Israeli officers in the last weeks of March 1948, “Today we have all the arms we need; they are already aboard ships, and the British are leaving and then we bring in the weapons, and the whole situation at the fronts will change.”

William R. Polk, MA (Oxford) PhD (Harvard) was teaching at Harvard when President Kennedy invited him to become a Member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia He served for 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, During that time he was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis and head of the interdepartmental task force that helped to end the Franco-Algerian war. From 1965 he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and Founder and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. At the request of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, he negotiated with President Gamal Abdul Nasser the cease fire that ended Israeli-Egyptian fighting on the Suez Canal in 1970. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Out of Iraq (with Senator George McGovern); Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique . He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, both available on Amazon, are Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

British Pathe: Last British troops leave Palestine

5 Responses

  1. Thanks to you Dr Cole for presenting William Polk’s very excellent summation of the situation in 1948 and the years leading up to it. I read this just after viewing “The Violence of Architecture” which is about Israeli building patterns in the West Bank. This Polk essay and that 25-minute video make for a good juxtaposition. link to aljazeera.com

  2. It looks as if the jews out thought and outfought all their enemys of the time…that after the world helped hitler kill 6 million of them ….then built a strong and prosperous nation..fighting wars all along…hooray for them

  3. During the 1948-49 war “Zionist forces committed abuses so terrible that David Ben-Gurion…declared himself ‘shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears.’ In the town of Jish, in the Galilee, Israeli soldiers pillaged Arab houses, and when the residents protested, took them to a remote location and shot them dead.” According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, “the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and PoWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948.″ link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  4. Polk had a lot of the details right . . . and some wrong. Irgun broke with the Haganah and the Jewish agency, to the point where in 1948 the Haganah fired on the Altalena, a ship bringing arms into Palestine in direct opposition to a Ben-Gurion directive. Even after independence Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun and subsequently the Herut Party, and David Ben Gurion never reconciled. Ben Gurion in fact refused to acknowledge Begin’s existence.

    As to comparative force size, that’s a more difficult question, though as Polk says a lot of it had to do with both the intra-national politics of the Arab states, but also the class composition of Palestinian society in 1948. A good source is Meron Benvenisti’s 2000 book “Sacred Landscape” which covers the period in admirable detail. For relations between Irgun and the Jewish Agency, a good source, though perhaps difficult to find now is Ehud Sprinzak’s book, “Likud: the Road to Power.”

    • The Haganah and Irgun both wanted the Deir Yassin Massacre publicized – for different reasons.

      The Haganah felt that attention to the incident would discredit the Irgun as an organization.

      The Irgun felt that publicizing the massacre would encourage Palestinian villagers to voluntarily abandon their homes without resistance.

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