by Martin Sieff
For the first quarter-century of its existence, the State of Israel was locked in a continual struggle for survival against its hostile Arab neighbors. In twenty-five years, Israel fought five major wars – and won al of them. How did the Israelis do it?
Israel, we’re often told, is either a puppet state – or the puppet master – of the United States, and demolished its Arab neighbors on the strength of an American-created military superiority.
You used to hear this only from Arabs, but the myth has now seeped into the writings of anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals and American left-wing polemicists. Any evidence – and there is a lot of it – that disproves their thesis is suppressed or simply ignored. The Israelis won their wars because they had to – and their military thinking and execution was of the highest caliber.
Death almost at birth
Israel’s first war was by far the worst. When the Israelis drove the British out in 1947, they foolishly thought their troubles were over. They were now an independent country. But the British had been their protectors as well as occupiers of Palestine. Happy to be rid of their troublesome United Nations mandate in Palestine, the British were confident that the Arab League of Transjordan – a force led, equipped, trained, and officered by the British – would destroy the Jewish state at birth. They also assumed that the remaining Jews would become dhimmis: a tolerated minority inferior in political, human, and religious rights to the Muslim majority. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the greatest British World War II general, was chief of the Imperial General Staff at the time, and this was his view.
It didn’t work out that way. The Arabs launched a multi-pronged attack on Israel. Most important, perhaps, was when the Arab Legion crossed the Jordan River. It was welcomed by rapturous crowds in the hill regions north and south of Jerusalem (now known as the West Bank). In Jerusalem, it was a different story. The Legion couldn’t make a direct move against the organized Jewish majority in West Jerusalem, but did receive support from the Arab majority into the ancient Old City, which is surrounded by a formidable, Turkish- built wall nearly four hundred years old. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City was besieged, and the Jewish para-military groups in West Jerusalem couldn’t break through to relieve them.
Elsewhere, the main threat to the Israelis came from Palestinian Arab irregulars led by Abd al-Qair al-Husseini, nephew of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the pro-Nazi mufti of the Palestinian Muslims. Like all great military leaders, Abd al-Qadir knew the strengths and weaknesses of the peasant irregulars he led. He knew that while brave, ferocious, and determined to fight for their homeland, they lacked military discipline and could not be organized to carry out ambitious, complex military operations. He knew that they also lacked the heavier weapons that Israeli forces had, thanks to the foresight of Israel’s David Ben-Gurion, who had stockpiled such weapons knowing that such a war was inevitable. Abd al-Qadir realized that his peasant irregulars were at their best in cutting off the land communications that were the Jews’ most vulnerable point.
The winding, twisting, scenic road up to Jerusalem soon became the strategic axis of the war. The Palestinians Arabs cut off the 100,00 Palestinian Jews in Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and farm settlements around the country, severing the supply line. The infant Jewish provisional government in Tel Aviv hastily organized makeshift armored convoys (riveting armor plates on trucks) to resupply Jerusalem.
But casualties were high. In a remarkable March 1994 speech given in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin vividly described the screams of his dying young Palmach friends – male and female soldiers burnt alive in the trucks that had been ambushed while crawling up to Jerusalem.
The tide turns
Eventually, Jewish commanders, including Yitzhak Rabin, denuded other fronts to bring a formidable force to clear the hills on either side of the road to Jerusalem. The fighting was ferocious. The key heights above Castel changed hands several times. But discipline and motivation were much higher among the Israeli soldiers than the Palestinian Arab ones. Many of the Arabs went home to their families without telling senior officers. An increasingly desperate Abd al-Qadir was killed at the front. His death was a devastating blow to the Palestinian Arabs, who have never had another leader to match him for military skill and charisma.
Meanwhile, Jewish settlements held off large numbers of Arab military forces, both conventional and irregular. Surprisingly, the Arab armies drafted from the Fertile cRescent and operating from Syria had a negligible impact on the war. In fact, the performance of the Iraqui, Syrian, and Egyptian armies, all of them conscripted peasant forces that had been miserably trained, equipped, and led, was very disappointing. Only the professional Arab Legion of Transjordan acquitted itself well. Not only did the Legion conquer and hold the West Bank (a walk-over) and Jerusalem (a considerable achievement in terms of the fierce fighting there), but it also held the key fortress of Latrun, a monestary looking ou over rolling wheat fields in the Judean hills. The Israeli forces fought and lost three battles trying to take Latrun. David Ben-Gurion and his far too influential American advisor, Mickey Marcus, were obsessed with it. Hundreds of young Israeli soldiers died there for no strategic purpose.
By the end of the war, large supplies of weapons primarily from an arms deal with Czechoslovakia were giving the Israeli forces superior firepower and mobility at long last. Yigael Allon, the outstanding Israeli combat general of the war, swept into Negev and secured Israel’s claim to it. He outmaneuvered and trapped a large Egyptian force and was in a position to conquer the Sinai Peninsula as well. The Arab states sued for armistice, and a lasting one was finally concluded on the Greek island of Rhoades in 1949.
The war ended in victory for the new state of Israel, but the cost was enormously high. Of the population of the infant state – 600,000 including men, women, and children – some 6,000 died in the war, a full 1 percent. In the twenty-first century United States, that would be the equivalent of a war in which three million people died.
Who’s a Palestinian?
If you asked anyone in Palestine – Arab or Jew – from 1920 to 1947, “Who are the Palestinians?” the answer would be unequivocal: Palestinians were Jews, not Arabs. The quickly growing Jewish community in Palestine during this time always described itself as Palestinian . This usage was still recognized in 1960 when the hit movie Exodus was made. Palestinian Arabs invariably referred to themselves as Arabs.
To be continued…