Modern History Notes

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Chapter 5:
The First Arab-Israeli War and the 1956 Suez Crisis

The war of 1947-49

Following Israel’s declaration of statehood the Arab armies attacked along all the borders of the Jewish state. Egyptian forces attacked from the south; Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked from the north and north-east. By 28 May 1948, the Jordanian Arab Legion had occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. After initial setbacks, however, the Israelis successful drove the Arab armies out of the north, regained the Negev from the Egyptians and secured a corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They were, however, unable to gain control of East Jerusalem. The UN secured a truce in January 1949, and by July, Israel and the neighbouring Arab states had signed separate armistices agreements. Yet, these left many issues unresolved: Israel refused to return to the borders laid out in the UN partition resolution, occupying 20% more of Palestine than the UN had agreed on. Israel would not permit Palestinian refugees (of which there were 725, 000) to return to their homes The Arab states and Palestinians refused diplomatic recognition to Israel and would not acknowledge the Jewish state’s right to exist.

How did Israel win the war?

1. One Zionist answer is the spirit and youthful determination of the Jews. According to Zionist historian A. L. Sachar, the Arabs “were almost listless by comparison, for they seemed to have little personal stake in the outcome of the war”. However, this is a very biased and simplistic analysis, and a closer look suggests a somewhat more complicated explanation. 2. Men and supply lines. The Israelis significantly outnumbered the Arabs (in December 1948, there were 95,000 Israeli troops, as opposed to 55,000 Arab troops). In addition, although the Israelis had few heavy weapons and no artillery or planes, they received a large shipment of weapons from Czechoslovakia at a crucial stage in the war. While the Arab states possessed armoured vehicles, they did not use them effectively, largely due to long lines of supply, eg. the Egyptians had a 400km supply line across the desert. As revisionist historian Avi Shlaim writes, “The Arab forces… mobilized to do battle against the emergent Jewish state were nowhere as powerful or united as they appeared to be in Arab and Jewish propaganda”. 3. Unified command. The Israelis had a strong unified command that the Arabs lacked. Traditional rivalries among Arab forces prevented the Arabs from having a coordinated campaign. The members of the British-trained Jordanian Arab Legion were the most effective fighters on the Arab side.

The effect of the creation of Israel on Jewish communities in Arab countries

The establishment of Israel had ramifications for Jews beyond Palestine and its borders: In Africa and the Middle East, Jews were expelled or left Muslim countries. By 1957, over half a million Jews had settled in Israel. Before 1948, almost 90% of Jews had arrived from Europe. The coming together in Israel of the Ashkenazim, or European, Jews (who had played such a central role in building up the national home) and the non-European Jews (who were so different in language and culture) created great problems for Israel. In 1948, European Jews represented 75% of Israel’s Jews; by 1961, they made up only 55%. There was a danger that two Israels would be created: one consisting of Ashkenazi leaders who held power, and the other consisting of unemployed, uneducated and underprivileged Sephardic and Oriental Jews.

There has been some historical debate over whether the Jews in Arab countries were expelled as a result of the creation of Israel or whether they left voluntarily. The traditional Zionist view sees the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. Zionists portray the lot of Oriental Jews in Arab countries as one of misery, fear and anti-Semitism. The anti-Zionist view highlights the positives of Arab-Jewish history, and their exodus is...
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