The War of Independence officially began a few hours after Israel became independent of the British Empire. British colonial rule over Israel terminated at midnight on Friday night, 14th/15th May 1948. Several hours earlier, on the Friday afternoon, David Ben Gurion had declared independence, a declaration that came into effect at midnight.
The Arab assault began in the early morning of Saturday 15th May, when the combined armies of the seven independent Arab states of the time – Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen – invaded the several-hours-old Jewish State, their stated war-aim being to exterminate Israel and all the Jews therein.
But that wasn’t the beginning of the conflict: it had already been raging for months, if not years, if not decades, if not centuries.
Four months earlier, on 9th January, the Arab Liberation Army had crossed the border from Syria and attacked Kfar Szold. The British administration could not accept this blatant violation of a territory of the British Empire, so His Majesty’s forces collaborated with the Haganah in repelling this invasion. That battle was definitely a component of what was to develop into Israel’s War of Independence.
But that was hardly the first Arab aggression against the Jewish community in Israel: attacks by Arab irregulars had intensified immediately after the UN General Assembly had adopted Resolution 181, partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on 29th November 1947.
And those attacks didn’t spring out of a vacuum: there had been Arab riots against the Jews going back to the summer of 1920. And even those were the continuation of centuries of hostility.
So it is impossible to define a specific moment at which Israel’s War of Independence began.
And it is equally impossible to define a specific moment at which Israel’s War of Independence ended.
It was clear that the borders between Israel and whichever Arab entities surrounded it would be determined by the physical presence of Jews and Arabs, armies and civilian settlements alike. Hence the final campaigns of the War of Independence: Operation Horev (22nd December 1948-8th January 1949), fought against the Egyptian Army, in which Israel captured the north-western sector of the Negev Desert, and Operation Uvda (“Fact”, because its purpose was to create facts on the ground), 6th-10th March 1949, against the Arab Legion (the Jordanian Army), reinforced with some Iraqi units, in which Israel captured the rest of the Negev Desert down to Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba.
From then on, though there were a few sporadic exchanges of fire, the fighting was essentially over.
The first was Egypt, on 24th February. The Egyptian Fourth Brigade, commanded by Gamal Abd el-Nasser (who would later lead the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952, and become Egyptian President two years later), comprising some 4,000 troops, which had been besieged in the Faluja Pocket since October 1948, marched out with full military honours.
The excitement in Israel was palpable: the most powerful Arab country thereby implicitly recognised Israel’s existence, and hopes flew high in Israel that this would swiftly bring true peace. Alas, those bright hopes were dashed by the reality of relentless Arab hostility.
The second country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel was Lebanon, on 23rd March, under the terms of which Israel withdrew from the small areas she had held in Lebanon.
The third country was Transjordan, on 3rd April. This was the name that Britain had given when they unilaterally gave 77% of the Palestine mandate to the Arabs. Transjordan, short for Transjordanian Palestine, indicating the region of Palestine east of the River Jordan. The front lines of the Transjordanian and Israeli Armies as they were at the moment the fighting ended became the de facto armistice line between the two countries
Subsequently King Abdullah annexed every inch of territory that his forces had succeeded in getting their hands on, including west of the River Jordan, and he therefore dropped the “Trans” from his country’s name, and “Transjordan” subsequently became “Jordan”.
The fourth and last country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel was Syria, exactly 70 years ago this last Shabbat, on 20th July, under the terms of which Syria withdrew from the bridgehead of Mishmar Ha-Yarden, which was to remain demilitarised. Again, the front lines of the Syrian and Israeli Armies as they were at the moment the fighting ended became the de facto armistice line between the two countries
Israel’s War of Independence was at last over.
…or was it?
Three of the countries which had attacked Israel – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen – signed no cease-fire agreements, and therefore never formally ended their state of conflict with Israel. They simply quietly withdrew their troops, nursing their hatred and waiting for their next opportunity to exterminate Israel and all the Jews therein.
An opportunity which seemed to come 18 years later, in the summer of 1967. On that occasion, those original seven Arab countries were joined by an additional five which had become independent in the meantime: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, which had become independent of the French Empire; Sudan, which had become independent of the British Empire; and Kuwait, which was no longer a British Protectorate. And also Pakistan entered the fray; so in 1967, the Arab and Moslem world were united as never before, a grand military coalition of 13 states conjoined to make yet another attempt to exterminate Israel and all the Jews therein.
Except that this was not exactly another attempt at exterminating Israel; it was, rather, a continuation of the attempt which had begun back in 1948.
That attempt at genocide turned into a stunning Israeli victory, now universally known as the Six Day War.
And five-and-a-half years later the Arab world mobilised for yet another round in the same ceaseless conflict, in what is now known as the Yom Kippur War (October 1973).
And since then, the terror war against Israel has never ceased.
In fact, the ink was hardly dry on those armistice agreements 70 years ago when the Arab countries, having been resoundingly defeated on the battle-fields, shifted their aggression from conventional warfare to terrorism. Hence the rise of the Fedayeen, the terrorists of the 1950’s and 1960’s – the “Redeemers”, those who would “redeem” lost Islamic land in often-suicidal missions.
Those Fedayeen terrorists infiltrated Israel from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, murdering well over a thousand Israelis by October 1956, when Israel launched the Kadesh Campaign (the Sinai War, or Suez War), to put an end to those terrorist raids.
It worked, but only very partially and very briefly.
In fact, Israel made a terrible mistake 70 years ago by agreeing to armistice agreements with the aggressor Arab nations, instead of insisting on unconditional surrender. It is of course easy to talk with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight; and it is highly debatable if Israel had the required military might, back in 1949, to force the Arab countries (at least the four bordering countries) into unconditional surrender.
The lesson of two World Wars is clear:
In 1918, the Allies, having defeated Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) in the First World War, agreed to an armistice: a cease-fire, without absolute victory. The consequence was that the wounds of defeat were not deep enough to heal, and those Axis nations bounced back twenty years later, determined to regain their lost honour.
The result was the Second World War, with all its attendant horrors.
In 1945, the Allies avoided that mistake, and insisted on unconditional surrender. The aggressor nations, Germany and Japan, were threatened with total destruction. With Allied troops in near-complete control of their entire countries, both capitulated. The consequences of unconditional surrender were that these nations became thoroughly non-militaristic, put their aggression firmly behind them, directed their energies into productive labour, and became among the most prosperous and peaceful countries on earth.
For two generations, neither Germany nor Japan have posed any military threat whatsoever to any other country, their populations have genuinely eschewed militarism and aggression, and they have become beacons of democracy.
Maybe Israel did not have the political and military wherewithal to force unconditional surrender upon the Arab aggressor nations in 1949. She certainly did in 1967 – but missed the opportunity, and once again agreed to an armistice: a cease-fire, without absolute victory. The consequence is that the wounds of defeat were not deep enough to heal, and those Arab nations are still determined to regain their lost honour.
This is why Israel’s War of Independence didn’t really conclude on that summer’s day 70 years ago this Shabbat. The issues over which the war was fought – Israel’s basic right to exist, her borders, her relationship with her neighbours – have yet to be resolved.
So although the history books may record 70 years since the War of Independence ended, the 20th of July is really 70 years since the War of Independence didn’t end.
It merely entered a new phase.