Archive for September, 2011

The Israeli War of Independence… (Part 1)

Posted in Middle East on September 18, 2011 by maccaulay

…it’s an odd topic, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. One approaches it at one’s own risk. I myself am only interested in the Middle Eastern wars as much as they apply in a military historical context, and not in a political context, but the wars in the Middle East show how much that can be intertwined.

When looking at the Israeli War of Independence, one must go back to the late 1920s and the Arab Revolt. One can’t look at the 1948 War as the first of a series of conflicts: it was only the latest and happened to be the first between the Arabs and the Jews exclusively.

The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 was sparked mainly because of Arab concerns over Jewish immigration to Palestine. I don’t need to go into detail about the history of the Zionist movement here, I would assume that  most people reading this blog are well aware of it. But the immigrating Jews were by and large of a different stripe than the Arabs whose lands they were beginning to move into.

Jews came from, amongst other places, Western Europe and North America. This meant that many were possessed of an ability to work a trade. Machinists, factory workers, and (by the standards of the time) modern farmers. In many ways what the immigrating Jews represented wasn’t so much Jewish culture, as Western culture. And it was this resultant culture clash which caused so much blood.

The Arabs (read: Palestinians) of the time were largely pastoral, and with good reason: what reason did they have to mechanize? The Ottomans and (after WWI) the British provided the governing mechanisms of daily life, and all that was required of most Middle Easterners was to go about their daily routine without thought to larger questions, would that they even think about them.

Enter the Zionist movement, a movement of a completely different stripe than the Arab culture it was looking to usurp/co-exist with. The Zionist movement, anchored by it’s Western industrial base, was largely progressive where as the Arab culture made it’s living by being mostly conservative and stationary.

The Zionists also seemed to have no illusions about the land they were coming to. When a Zionist advance party reported to the Zionist Congress about the state of lands in the Middle East, the paper read: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” They knew what they were getting into: the Arabs didn’t know what was coming.

At the outbreak of WWII, however, both sides made decisions that would fundamentally make or break their positions for the rest of their days. The Jews had been fighting the White Paper, a British-supplied document almost explicitly siding with the Palestinians over the Jews in Palestine, while the Palestinians had been fighting against further Jewish immigration to their country.

But WWII saw both sides side differently, and in a way which foreshadowed the futures of their respective societies: the Jews chose pragmatically, siding with the British although they didn’t support their colonial Middle Eastern policy. In doing so, the Jews made the far reaching decision to get as many members of their underground army (the Haganah) into the British Army as possible to fight the Nazis and thus gain valuable military experience later.

The Arabs, on the other hand, chose the more emotionally fulfilling answer; siding with the Nazis and even attempting an uprising in Iraq. This itself required the introduction of Jordan’s armed forces, which showed an amazing degree of pragmatism: Jordan took Israel’s approach, using the war as an opportunity to take advantage of Allied (British) profligacy in aid provisions. This resulted (in the 1920s) in the formation of the Arab Legion, a British-led and Jordanian-manned division sized force which would be outfitted and armed to assist in the subjugation of the Arab Revolt both in the late 30s and in Iraq in 1941.

It was telling that when the time came to fight Israel in 1948, Jordan had the army that was the most ready and also the most loathe to go to war.

In the next post, I’ll cover the war itself, and how the Arab and Israeli armies dealt with the problems that confronted them.