The Jihad That Wasn't

Reviewed by Yoav Gelber

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2008, 523 pages.

The lion’s share of 1948, however, is dedicated to the military aspects of the war. This section is decidedly impressive, though it is not without its shortcomings—some of them significant. The devil in such analyses is always in the details, and Morris’s presentation of them is sometimes erroneous. There are several points, moreover, at which he simply misinterprets the actions and intentions of the Arab armies in the field. This problem tends to arise when Morris does not base himself on primary sources but relies on previous studies that have proved to be problematic, such as Carta’s Atlas, Amitzur Ilan’s book The Origin of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race: Arms Embargo, Military Power, and Decision in the 1948 Palestine War (1996), the work of Ilan Pappe, and even David Ben-Gurion’s The Renewed State of Israel (1969).
These problems are particularly apparent in Morris’s discussion of the balance of power between the Arab and Israeli sides. For instance, Morris compares the manpower capacity of the Hagana to that of the Palestinians during the early stages of the war, and afterward makes a similar comparison between the IDF and the Arab armies after the invasion. The picture that results is essentially correct, though somewhat exaggerated. Morris gives the size of the Israeli military as 117,500 men for the entire war, but the maximum number of those who were actually in active service at the same time never rose above 90,000. In addition, Morris’s figures take into account every Israeli soldier down to the last clerk on the general staff, as well as those recruited for part-time service in order to hold the ceasefire lines during the truces. This is somewhat misleading as a figure for comparison, because the Arab armies were expeditionary forces, and their manpower statistics include combatants and combat support troops only. Their training camps, logistical infrastructure, general staffs, corps HQs, second echelon, and main air and naval bases remained behind in the home countries.
In order to make a fair comparison between forces, therefore, one should consider only the numbers of combat and combat-support troops. If we include the few thousand Palestinians who aided in the fighting—whose numbers fluctuated according to the availability of funds to pay their salaries and other factors such as disease, desertion, and similar problems—we find that the Israeli and Arab forces were roughly equal in size, with perhaps a small numerical advantage to the latter.
Chronology must also be taken into account on this point. As Morris correctly emphasizes, during the most critical month of the war—from the start of the invasion on May 15 to the first truce on June 11—the Arab armies enjoyed superiority in both manpower and heavy weapons. In addition to this quantitative advantage, the Arab troops were all fresh and their stocks of ammunition were full, although some of them had no spares or ammunition in reserve. The Jewish forces, in contrast, were exhausted after six months of combat and the six weeks of intense fighting against the Palestinians and the ALA occasioned by the British withdrawal. All of its units suffered losses and lack of equipment. During the truce and afterward, the IDF was successful in reconstituting itself and eventually turned the balance of power in its favor, but this shift began to take full effect only in the fall of 1948, during the final stages of the war.
Another point on which Morris arrives at wrong conclusions concerns the Arabs’ intentions and plans for their invasion. He relates to a plan that was drafted in January 1948 for the ALA as a blueprint for the Arab invasion the following May—a mistake also made by Hagana intelligence at the time. Morris claims that the plan was approved by the Arab chiefs of staff and endorsed by the Arab League’s political committee in Damascus. This is inaccurate. There were, in fact, two separate plans, and the one Morris cites as approved by the chiefs of staff was no more than a Syrian pipe dream. In my view, the testimony of British officer and commander of the Arab Legion John Bagot Glubb (also known as Glubb Pasha) that there was no mutual planning or strategy behind the Arab invasion is far more reliable.
The paucity of available source material from the Arab side leaves the historian of the 1948 war with very few options. In the absence of contemporary and authentic Arab documentation on the invasion, and in light of the ulterior motives behind the memoirs written by those who took part in the events, as well as the meaningless public statements made by Arab politicians and generals—mainly intended to justify their decision to invade Palestine against their own better judgment—the only way to reconstruct the aims of the invasion is to examine the actions that the Arab armies took in the field.
These actions imply that the aims of the Arab invasion were decidedly limited and focused mainly on saving Arab Palestine from total Jewish domination. On the eve of the invasion, the Syrian strategy was to break through to the Galilee by way of southern Lebanon at Malikiyya in order to save the town of Safed (which fell to the Hagana on May 10). The Syrians were afraid of leaving both their flanks exposed, and thus were shocked when they learned that the Lebanese army would not take part in the war. To compensate, they changed plans at the last moment. They headed through al-Hamma, southeast of the Sea of Galilee—the worst route leading from Syria to Palestine—and invaded the Jordan Valley, apparently with the goal of occupying Tiberias. After their defeat at Kibbutz Degania, the Syrians took a bold step: They retreated to the Golan Heights, replaced their minister of defense and chief of staff, reorganized their defeated army, and launched a series of small-scale attacks, probing for the most vulnerable point in the Israeli line. Discovering a weak spot at Mishmar Hayarden, they instigated a second attack, this time achieving partial success.
The Iraqi expeditionary force tried to cross the Jordan at the Naharaim bridge near Kibbutz Gesher. The attempt failed, and Iraqi soldiers who had crossed the river south of the bridge were repelled at Kaukab al-Hawa. Because the Iraqis were repulsed at such an early stage, it is impossible to know what their true objectives were. The logical targets were Tiberias or Bisan (now Beit She’an). Afula is unlikely.
The objective of Transjordan’s Arab Legion was the hilly, Arab-populated part of the country—Judea and Samaria—and its outposts at Lydda and Ramle (now Lod and Ramla). This strategy was not, as Morris implies, a last-minute caprice on the part of Abdullah. It had been the king’s objective since the outbreak of the war. From the beginning, Transjordan had no intention of occupying Jerusalem, because it was assumed that the city would be under some form of international control. The route the Legion chose for its invasion appears to lend support to this conclusion. Inevitably, however, the Legion became involved in the battle for Jerusalem on May 19, forcing Abdullah to hand Judea and Samaria over to Iraqi and Egyptian control, respectively. As a result, the king’s direct rule was effectively restricted to the Jerusalem-Ramallah-Latrun triangle.
For its part, the Egyptian army advanced from the south to Majdal (now Ashkelon), while the “light forces” and Muslim Brotherhood volunteers incorporated into the expeditionary force advanced from Auja to Beersheva, Hebron, Bethlehem, and southern Jerusalem, where they stormed Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. This advance was intended to obstruct Abdullah—not the Jews—and deny him control of Mount Hebron. From Majdal, the Egyptian army did not intend to turn north toward Tel Aviv, as Morris claims, but east, in order to link up with its forces at Hebron. Kibbutz Negba threatened this advance eastward and thus became a target of relentless Egyptian attacks.
As for the ALA, Morris maintains that it was withdrawn from the country because Abdullah did not want it there. This is mistaken. The real reason for the retreat was the concerns of Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli, the ALA’s patron, who feared that the Arab Legion would take control of it. The ALA was exhausted after six weeks of intensive fighting in April-May and needed reorganization and rest. It did not have much time, because the Lebanese army did not join the military coalition and the Syrians were forced to change their plan of invasion. Since Arab Galilee remained exposed to attack, the Arab League’s military committee decided early in June to dispatch the ALA through Lebanon to the Galilee in order to fill the vacuum.
Morris speculates that “had his army been larger and Zionist resistance weaker,” Abdullah would have ordered the Arab legion to attack Tel Aviv and Haifa. Hypothetically, this is possible, but there is no factual basis for such a claim. The same is true for Morris’s speculation about Egyptian war aims, which, as stated above, is contradicted by events on the ground. History, unfortunately, deals with what happened—not with what could, might, or should have happened.
All of this makes it difficult to accept Morris’s categorical statement that Arab war aims were “at a minimum, to abort the emergence of a Jewish state or to destroy it at inception.” It is true that, from a political perspective, this was the Arabs’ hope. From a military perspective, however, the Arab expeditionary forces were simply incapable of accomplishing such an ambitious task. Nor do their actions in the field lend any credence to Morris’s claim. Despite the militant rhetoric they employed in radio broadcasts and newspaper interviews, Arab military leaders and their political masters were well aware of their own weakness and did not truly believe that they could destroy the Zionist entity.
The reservations I have raised here are substantial, and yet I warmly recommend Morris’s book. Some of the claims he makes are perhaps lacking in substantiation, and others rely on flawed or problematic data. In general, however, 1948 is a praiseworthy achievement of research and analysis, the work of a historian unwilling to rest on his already considerable laurels. Like Morris’s other books on the War of Independence and its consequences, it will no doubt arouse an energetic debate both inside and outside of academia—which can only be to the good. Not long ago, the State of Israel celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, but the echoes of the war which gave birth to it continue to resonate to this day. The 1948 war remains the most formative event in the history of our young country. Anyone who wants to learn more about it would do well to add 1948 to his bookshelf.

Yoav Gelber
is director of the Herzl Institute for the Research and Study of Zionism at the University of Haifa.

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