1948 Arab-Israeli War

On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate over Palestine officially ended. That same day, in a modest ceremony in Tel Aviv, came the establishment of the State of Israel.

The following morning, war broke out. The new nation came under attack.

Background

The idea of reestablishing a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel had been a recurring theme in Jewish literature, prayers, and tradition throughout history. However, the political Zionist movement began in the late 19th century with Theodor Herzl. His leadership brought vision and a plan and came in a time of much anti-semitism. He rallied support and initiated more migration to the region.

At the time, the region was primarily populated by Arabs, who for generations, lived in the territory of Palestine under the Ottoman Empire’s rule. As Jewish people began moving in higher numbers, purchasing land from absentee landlords, local Palestinian Arabs, and Ottoman authorities, tensions arose, and some violence occurred.

Then came the Balfour Declaration in 1917. It stated,

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

Vague and unclear in actual outcome, it did call for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the region. Jewish people celebrated, but the Arab population felt betrayed. They, too, had been promised a homeland in a series of letters written mostly in 1915 and 1916 between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Tensions rose more, and the upcoming years saw periods of violence and riots.

After the end of World War I, the territory of Palestine became Mandatory Palestine under British rule. Governing the region proved difficult for the British. And in 1937, there was an attempt to partition the land to create two countries. The British offered the Zionist leaders about 20% of Mandatory Palestine and the rest to the Palestinian Arab leaders. Zionist leaders accepted the offer, Palestinian leaders did not.

Jewish migration into the region continued to grow, though not nearly as much as Jewish leaders wanted during the Holocaust years, with strict quotas put in place. But after the end of the war and the Holocaust horrors now understood, momentum for a state increased. And in 1947, the British handed over the region to the newly formed United Nations to decide on partition.

War

The UN partition plan called for what had been the British colony of Mandatory Palestine to split into two nations – Israel and Palestine. Israel would receive about 55% of the territory, Palestine would receive about 45%, and Jerusalem was designated as an international city under UN administration. The rationale used in partitioning the land included the demographic distribution of Jewish and Arab populations, historical connections to specific regions, and the economic viability of the proposed states.

Map of UN partition plan dividing Mandatory Palestine into two nations, Israel and Palestine
UN Partition Plan

Israeli leaders accepted the plan. Palestinian leadership rejected it. And then a Civil war began. The fighting continued between the two groups until May 15, 1948.

At midnight on May 14, 1948, the British mandate officially ended, and they began departing from the region. Later in the day, Israel declared independence. The Israeli leadership extended an offer of peace. While the Declaration of Independence emphasized the Jewish connection to the country, it also included language with aspirations for peace and the invitation for Arabs and any other groups to remain and be a part of the State with full civil rights. The Declaration included,

WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

Palestinian leadership and leaders of neighboring Arab countries rejected the offer for peace. And the following morning, a regional war began. The armies of Egypt, TransJordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq launched a coordinated invasion of Israel.

The war, in ways, was unbalanced. Israel’s population in 1948 was approximately 800,000, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, while the attacking Arab countries boasted a combined population of over 30 million. Israel lacked heavy weaponry and a standing army. Its armed forces, primarily the Haganah, were composed of regular soldiers and civilian volunteers. They had to make do with limited arms, often repurposing or refurbishing World War II surplus equipment. The Arab states, on the other hand, possessed well-equipped regular armies with tanks, artillery, and air support.

Yet, despite their numerical and resource advantages, the Arab states were divided by political rivalries and internal disputes. Each country had its own interest. This fragmentation hindered their ability to mount a coordinated offensive. In contrast, Israeli leadership, driven by a shared vision of statehood and survival, demonstrated unity.

Armistice Agreements

After many battles and in the face of mounting casualties and economic strain, a series of armistice agreements were negotiated and signed between Israel and the Arab states. These agreements aimed to establish temporary ceasefires, delineate demarcation lines, and create conditions for stability, and took place over months throughout 1949.

As part of the agreements, the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian administration, while the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was annexed by Jordan. Israel expanded its territory to now control about 78% of what had been Mandatory Palestine.

One of the most significant and enduring consequences of the war was that many Palestinians left their homes. Some did so by choice, either following the direction of Palestinian leaders who encouraged them to move or because they did not want to or were worried about living in Israel, and some were expelled by Israel. In total, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 left or became refugees. At the same time, a similar number of Jewish people either left or were expelled from multiple Arab nations as a result of Israel’s newfound statehood. Many of them moved to Israel.


Notes

Click here to read our snapshot biography of Theodor Herzl.

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“1948 Arab-Israeli War” Sources