Sixty Years After the 1948 War

05/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On May 15, 1948, the day after David Ben-Gurion declared the "self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation," Egyptian ground forces advanced toward Tel Aviv. Syrian and Iraqi soldiers approached from the north and east, and the troops of King Abdullah's Arab Legion marched west across the Jordan River, toward Jerusalem.1 It was hardly a fair fight, Ben-Gurion wrote in his War Diaries: "700,000 Jews pitted against 27 million Arabs - one against 40."2

Ben-Gurion's chilling ratio was useful in casting Israel as a fragile island in a sea of well-armed Arabs, but it didn't describe the actual fighting conditions on the ground. In fact, in 1948, Israel had more soldiers than all of the invading Arab armies combined. In Clash of Destinies, Israeli historians Jon and David Kimche estimated that the total number of Arab soldiers fighting within Israel's borders in 1948 was 24,000, compared to 35,000 for the Haganah, as Israeli forces were known at the time. The Arabs, the Kimche brothers wrote, initially possessed "greater firepower," but Israel, after breaking a UN arms embargo with shipments of rifles, armored cars, Messerschmitt planes, and millions of rounds of ammunition from Czechoslovakia, had the upper hand. The Jewish State won the war of 1948 above all because it had more and stronger forces.3

Yet Ben-Gurion's David and Goliath narrative would prove enduring, to be echoed by generations of supporters of Israel's cause. "Could a half million ill-armed people hold back a flood of fifty million hate-crazed Arabs?" asked Leon Uris in Exodus, increasing the ratio to 100:1. His best-selling 1958 novel, and the subsequent film starring Paul Newman, would help shape the perceptions of generations of Americans. In Exodus, the story of 1948 is exclusively about the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Arabs are alternately portrayed as malicious or pathetic.

To be sure, Israelis had every reason to fear that their new state would be stillborn; their experience, borne above all from the Holocaust and its vow of "never again," helped fuel a will to fight that informs Israeli policy today. Yet with Exodus as the über narrative, we can scarcely grasp the roots of the conflict, much less how they reach into the present.

Obscured by Exodus and its many descendant narratives is a Palestinian view of history. To Palestinians, 1948 was not about the "War of Independence," as Israelis call it, but the "Nakba," or Catastrophe. Here the story is not survival and re-birth, but dispossession and loss: more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes during the fighting in 1948, including thousands of families forced by Israeli commanders to march in near-100-degree heat from the Arab towns of Ramle and Lydda (today the Israeli cities Ramla and Lod), on the coastal plain, toward exile in Ramallah and Jordan.4 They and their descendants now live in Middle East refugee camps, and in a global diaspora stretching from Dubai to London to San Francisco.

The Nakba remains little known in the West, despite the rivers of ink and forests of newsprint that have chronicled the last six decades of struggle between the two peoples. Yet it is as central to Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to the identity of Israel.

Seen through a Palestinian lens, the creation of Israel, sanctioned by the United Nations vote, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two states - one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews - was not "western civilization's gesture of repentance for the Holocaust," as the historian Michael J. Cohen has written.5 Rather, Palestinians saw themselves as "the indigenous majority on its ancestral soil," as the Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi has noted, and therefore "failed understand why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust."6 Neither did they grasp why the Jewish side, with one third the population, should be awarded 54 percent of Palestine and more than 80 percent of its cultivated citrus and grain plantations.7 This helps explain why the Arabs of Palestine, in peace talks five and six decades later, would fail to see Israeli concessions as "generous": From their perspective, they lost 78 percent of their land to Israel in the 1948 war, and are ill-inclined to make further compromise on the 22 percent that remains.8

For the Palestinians, the Arab armies on the move on May 15, 1948 were therefore not invaders, but defenders; conversely, the fracturing and demise of those forces - for example, the retreat of the Arab Legion from Ramle and Lydda in July 1948, which left the defense of the towns in the hands of raggedy bands of local fighters9 - gave the lie to the notion of a monolithic Arab juggernaut poised to destroy Israel. (For Palestinians, this illusion was repeated 19 years later, in the Six Day War, when devastated Arab forces again made a quick retreat, confirming U.S. intelligence estimates that Israel, in the words of former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, "could mop up the Arabs in no time at all."10

Sixty years after the 1948 war, we are intimate with the tragic history of one side, while the traumatic roots of the other remain largely obscured. But the Exodus narrative, with its unitary focus on one side's truth, has done little to resolve what is still considered among the most intractable conflicts in the world. Ignoring fundamental truths about the Nakba, and how they play out today, fuels ignorance and scorn, while doing little to advance the mutual regard essential for a genuine and durable peace. Perhaps an acknowledgment by each side of the trauma of the other - beginning with mutual witness of the war of 1948 - could help bring about a truth and reconciliation so elusive in the last 60 years.

Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. He is a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.


1 Jon and David Kimche, Clash of Destinies (1960), p. 155. (Jon Kimche was an Israeli journalist, Zionist historian, and correspondent for the London Evening Standard; his younger brother David was a member of Israel's foreign intelligence service, and later director-general of Israel's foreign ministry.) See also Michael J. Cohen, The Rise of Israel: Volume 38, pp. 164-165; Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, pp. 218-235; Walid Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora, pp. 310-313; and the Source Notes section in The Lemon Tree, p. 302.

2 From The Lemon Tree Source Notes, p. 303:

David Ben-Gurion described the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as "700,000 Jews pitted against 27 million Arabs--one against 40" (War Diaries, p. 524, quoted in Flapan's The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities). Chaim Herzog, in a letter to President Truman, said the Israelis were outnumbered "20 to 1." Israeli commander and president Chaim Herzog, in his Arab-Israeli Wars, described the conflict as "a Jewish population of some 650,000 ranged against a Palestinian Arab population of approximately 1.1 million, supported by seven Arab armies from across the borders" (p. 11). These kinds of comparisons were often based on Arab population or troop strength of the entire armed forces of the Arab states that entered Palestine/Israel in May 1948, but do not reflect that numbers of the Arab forces actually engaged in battle in 1948.

3 From The Lemon Tree source notes, p. 303:

In Clash of Destinies, the Kimche brothers estimate that total strength of the invading Arab armies was twenty-four thousand, compared with thirty-five thousand for the Haganah, with the Arab armies initially possessing "greater firepower." Benny Morris, in 1948 and After, pp. 14-15, adds:

The atlas map showing a minuscule Israel and a giant surrounding Arab sea did not, and, indeed, for the time being, still does not, accurately reflect the true balance of military power in the region ... Jewish organization, command, and control ... were clearly superior to those of the uncoordinated armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

4 The account of the expulsions from Ramle is described in detail in The Lemon Tree, pp. 62-69. Additional documentation, from the book's Source Notes, pp. 306-309, includes:

The heat of mid-July 1948 in the central plain of Israel/Palestine is mentioned by Glubb on p. 162 of A Soldier with the Arabs and by Busailah in his Arab Studies Quarterly report, p. 142. Evidence that thousands had already left al-Ramla and Lydda by July 14 comes from numerous interviews with eyewitnesses, including Mohammad Taji, Firdaws Taji, Abu Mohammad Saleh Tartir in the Amari refugee camp, 1998 interviews with the Reverend Audeh Rantisi, and Busailah, p. 140.

The account of the Taji and Khairi families' flight and the landscape they crossed comes from Firdaws Taji and is echoed by numerous other interviews, including those with Mohammad Taji, Abu Mohammad Saleh Tartir, and Rantisi. A similar account is given by Busailah, p. 141.

The figure of thirty thousand refugees and the terrain they crossed come from estimates by Glubb (A Soldier with the Arabs, p. 162) and from Ben-Gurion's diary of July 15, 1948 (quoted in Segev's 1949, p. 27). Morris (Middle East Journal, p. 83) and Kadish (interview with me, June 2004) estimate that there were between fifty thousand and sixty thousand Arabs in the two towns of Lydda and Ramla in July 1948, including refugees who had arrived from Jaffa and nearby villages. ("Maybe thirty-four thousand [in Ramla and Lydda combined] without refugees," Kadish told me. "So you're talking about fifty-five to sixty thousand people.") PostwarIsraeli figures for the Arab populations of both towns are fewer than five thousand; hence it appears Ben-Gurion and Glubb's figure of thirty thousand refugees is reasonable, if not conservative.

5 Michael J. Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers, p. 292.

6 Walid Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora, pp. 305-306.

7 Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora, p. 305; John Chappple, Jewish Land Settlement in Palestine, cited in Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, p. 843.

8 See, for example, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in The New York Review of Books, June 27, 2002, and Malley in The New York Times, July 8, 2001.

9 See The Lemon Tree, pp. 59 and 62-64, and the source notes, pp. 305-308, including:

The condition of the towns of Ramla and Lydda were described by Firdaws Taji and in interviews with current and former Arab citizens of Lydda (now the Israeli city of Lod), including Adla Salim Rehan at the Amari refugee camp in Ramallah and Mohammad Saleh Tartir of the Lydda Society at Amari. Khanom Khairi described Sheikh Mustafa's emergency trip to secure bullets in Transjordan.

The state of the defenders of Ramla is described by Taji and Reja'e Busailah (Arab Studies Quarterly 3, 1981, pp. 127-35). Writing more broadly about the Palestinian Arabs during 1948, the Kimche brothers stated:

The local Arabs, who had only the haziest of notions concerning the strength of the Jews, knew even less about the nature of their own forces. ... No one told the Palestinian Arabs in their villages--until it was too late--that the Arab countries were not fulfilling all they had promised and that many of the weapons they had sent were old, decrepit and useless. (Jon and David Kimche, Clash of Destinies, pp. 81-82)

10 Nicholas Katzenbach's comment comes from an "Oral History Interview" (interview number 3, December 11, 1968), in the LBJ Presidential Library, and is part of a larger discussion, in The Lemon Tree, about U.S. and British intelligence assessments of the strategic threat posed by Egypt to Israel in the spring of 1967. Regarding this, President Johnson famously told Israel's foreign minister, Abba Eban, that the Egyptians would not attack, and that if they did, "you will whip the hell out of them." (The Lemon Tree, p. 131, and the Source Notes section, pp. 328-330.)