The Proclamation of the State of Israel and the First Arab-Israeli War, 1948-9

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Key learning aims:

By the end of this section you should be able to:

  • Explain the reasons why Israel survived the First Arab-Israeli War
  • Explain the impact of this war on Palestinians
  • Explain the reasons for Jewish migration to Israel, and the impact of this

Key themes, concepts and processes:

  • First Arab-Israeli War
  • Three phases of the war:
    • May-June 1948
    • July 1948
    • October 1948-July 1949
  • Reason for Israeli victory
  • Palestinian refugee problem
  • Law of Return – for Jews, but not for Palestinians
  • The Green Line
    1. The War of 1948-9 
      • Hilary Brash, The Middle East: Conflict, Crisis and Change, 1917-2012, pp. 25-33

      Key developments

      • 14th May 1948 – David Ben-Gurion announced the foundation of the state of Israel
      • At midnight on 14th May the British Mandate ended
      • On May 15th five Arab states invaded simultaneously – Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq – it seemed like 45 million Arabs were going to war against 650,000 Jews.
      • Phase 1 (15th May-11th June): In the first 3 weeks of the war, Israel struggled for survival; The Arab Legion (army of Transjordan), occupied the West Bank and captured east Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount); Iraqi forces invaded the north; Egyptians attacked from the south. The UN negotiator, Count Folke Bernadotte, managed to arrange a month’s truce. This gap proved crucial, allowing the new state to use American Zionist money to buy weapons from Czechoslovakia, including 30,000 rifles, 4,500 machine guns, 47 million rounds of ammunition and 84 aeroplanes.
      • Phase 2 (8th-18th July):Israel took the initiative, resuming conflict two days ahead of the end of the ceasefire, and capturing Arab towns of Lydda and Ramleh before a second truce was arranged, this time lasting for three months. During the truce Folke Bernadotte proposed a partition of the Negev and for Jerusalem to be an international city. The proposals were rejected by both sides. On September 17th, member of Lehi (the Stern Gang), assassinated Folke Bernadotte. On 22nd September, Israel announced that it was keeping the land it had captured from the Arabs
      • Phase 3 (October 1948-July 1949): once again, Israel broke the truce early and used its advantage to capture Galilee from Lebanaon and the Negev Desert from the Egyptians. An armistice was gradually agreed with Egypt (February), Lebanon (March), Transjordan (April and Syria (July). Iraq refused to sign an armistice. No peace treaty was created, so no recognition was given to the new state of Israel.


    2. Reasons for Israel’s victory
      1. Arab states did not send full armies – the combined forces sent to attack Israel amounted to about 20-25,000 troops. Both sides increased their armies, but the Israeli army outgrew Arab armies by some distance, so that by December 1948, Israel’s forces were 108,000 strong – double the size of the Arab forces
      2. Israeli soldiers were more experienced fighters, the Haganah having been trained by the British, and Irgun/Lehi having fought the British after WWII
      3. The first truce undoubtedly benefitted Israel more than the Arabs and Jewish ambassadors such as Golda Meir, visiting the United States to drum up support from wealthy Jews in America and using the funds to buy arms from Soviet Czechoslovakia
      4. Israeli tactics were more effective – attacks co-ordinated and communications infrastructure within Israel used to move troops quickly from one part of the country to another. The Arabs by contrast had poor communications and were badly co-ordinated. The lack of an agreed plan (e.g. the Transjordan Army didn’t attack Israel, but only occupied those given to Palestinians) worked to Israel’s advantage.
      5. The Israeli army knew it was fighting for survival, and having recently experienced near annihilation during WWII Jews fought were tenacity and determination


      • Brash, pp. 25-26
      • Hodder, pp. 16-17: The War of 1948-49;
      • Edexcel, pp. 15-20


      1. Explain:
        • Why the Israelis were at a disadvantage
        • Why the Israelis won
        • What Israelis gained from the war
        • The results for the Arab states
      2. Homework: Question b Explain two causes of Israel’s success in the First Arab-Israeli War (See Brash pp. 22-23, for advice)
  1. The Consequences of the 1948-9 WarFor Palestinians
    • al-Nakba: for Palestinians 1948-9 was ‘The Catastrophe’. About 900,000 Arabs lived in the region that became Israel; about 300,000 fled before the war started and a further 400,000 fled during the war. By its end 700,000 Palestinians had become landless refugees. Even the lands given to Palestinians by the partition plan had been lost to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
    • Ever since Palestinians have argued that they have the right to return to their lands since – they did not choose to leave; Israel’s plan (as indicated by events at Deir Yassin) was an Israel without Arabs<; and Israel achieved its goal by violence and terror.
    • By contrast, Israel has argued that the war was started by arabs; that the Palestinians chose to leave but were not forced; the Arab leadership had made up stories of atrocities in order to frighten them into leaving; and they could not return after the war because they would represent a security threat
    • Many middle class Palestinians (100,000) left to settle elsewhere in the USA or in the Middle East; but the majority became refugees in neighbouring states – where they occupied vast tented camps where they received water, sanitation and health care from the United Nations Relief Works Agency
    • The Arab League told its member to deny citizenship to the Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants in order that they would keep their identity and ‘right to return’ – but with the result that Palestinians found it difficult to travel or apply for jobs. Jordan went against the instruction and granted citizenship to Palestinians.
    • The Gaza strip became – about 17 square miles became densely populated as 190,000 refugees joined the original population of about 20,000 leading to overcrowding, sanitation problems, water shortages and the collapse of the local economy
    • The refugee camps became the breeding ground for paramilitary resistance groups known as the Fedayeen (‘those who sacrifice themselves’).

    For Israel

    • For Israel the consequences were quite different. 1948 was the year of liberation and increased Israeli land, making it easier to defend and gave it more fertile land and access to Jerusalem, which was proclaimed the capital of Israel.
    • David Ben Gurion was elected Prime Minister before the war ended and in 1950 the Knesset passed the Law of Return
    • Over the next 3 years the population almost doubled to 1.5 million by the arrival of large numbers of Jewish immigrants, many of them survivors of the Holocaust from camps in Germany and Eastern Europe.
    • Jews were expelled from other Middle Eastern states. In Operation Magic Carpet, 1949-50, US and British aircraft airlifted 47.000 Yemenite Jews to Israel following violent anti-Semitic riots in Yemen. In Iraq, where there had been an ancient Jewish population that whose origins went back to ancient biblical times, were sacked from jobs and became subject of assassination and terror attacks. The entire Jewish population – 120,000 – had to be airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1950-51.
    • 6000 Israelis had died fighting for Israeli independence. It made Israel a more militarised state, with conscription becoming a standard part of citizenship
    • From1949 every non-Arab 18 year old male had to serve in the IDF for 30 months whilst females served for 18. All ex-conscripts are expected to train a month every year until they reach the age of 55. 35% of Government expenditure in 1956 was on defence.
    • By 1950, about 200 Arabic place names had been changed
    • The Arab League boycotted all trade with Israel and with any foreign country trading with Israel. Egypt blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba towards Israel’s southern port of Eilat, through the Straits of Tiran and did nothing to stop the infiltration of Fedeyeen through the Gaza strip

    Explain two ways in which Jewish immigration into Israel in 1948-52 was different from jewish immigration into Palestine in 1920-39.

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