JEWISH INDEPENDENCE, ARAB CATASTROPHE

1948–51

THE BRITISH DEPART; BEN-GURION: WE DID IT!

General Cunningham headed out of Jerusalem through streets deserted except for a few Arab children. British troops manned machine-gun posts on street corners. As the Daimler sped past, the young onlookers ‘clapped childishly and one saluted. The salute was returned.’ From Kalandia airport, the high commissioner flew out of Jerusalem to Haifa whence, at midnight, he sailed for England.

British troops evacuated their Bevingrad fortress in the Russian Compound: 250 trucks and tanks rumbled out along King George V Avenue, watched by silent Jewish crowds. The race to control the Russian Compound started instantly. The Irgun stormed the Nikolai Hostel. Gunfire ricocheted across the town. Nusseibeh rushed to Amman to beg King Abdullah to save the city, ‘once sacked in the Crusades’ and about to be sacked again. The king promised.

At 4.00 p.m. on 14 May 1948, just outside Jerusalem, Rabin and his Palmach soldiers, exhausted by their fight to keep the road open, were listening to a radio announcement from David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency. Standing beneath a portrait of Herzl, before an audience of 250 in the Tel Aviv Museum, Ben-Gurion proclaimed, ‘I shall read from the scroll of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of …’ He and his aides had debated what the name of the state should be. Some had suggested Judaea or Zion – but these names were associated with Jerusalem and the Zionists were struggling to hold even part of the city. Others had proposed Ivriya or Herzliya, but Ben-Gurion had argued for Israel and that was agreed: ‘The Land of Israel’, he read out, ‘was the birthplace of the Jewish people.’ They sang the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope):

Our hope is not lost

The hope of two thousand years;

To be a free people in our land,

The land of Zion and Jerusalem!

Ben-Gurion beamed at the journalists. ‘We did it!’ he said, but he eschewed jubilation. He had repeatedly accepted two-state partition, but now the Jews had to resist an invasion by the regular Arab armies with the openly stated object of annihilation. The very survival of the State of Israel was in jeopardy. On the other hand, his views had evolved since he had hoped in the 1920s and early 1930s for a shared socialist Palestine or a federated state. Now, faced with total war, everything was up for grabs.

At the Jerusalem front, Rabin’s soldiers of the Harel Brigade were too weary to listen to Ben-Gurion on the radio. ‘Hey men, turn it off,’ pleaded one of them. ‘I’m dying for some sleep. Fine words tomorrow!’

‘Someone got up and turned the knob, leaving a leaden silence,’ recalled Rabin. ‘I was mute, stifling my own mixture of emotions.’ Most people did not hear the Declaration anyway, because Arab forces had cut off the electricity.

Eleven minutes later, President Truman announced de facto recognition of Israel. Encouraged by Eddie Jacobson, Truman had secretly reassured Weizmann that he backed partition. Yet he had almost lost control of the administration when his UN diplomats tried to suspend partition. His secretary of state, George Marshall, wartime chief of staff and doyen of American public service, outspokenly opposed recognition. But Truman backed the new state while Stalin was the first to recognize Israel officially.

In New York, Weizmann, now almost blind, waited in his room at the Waldorf Astoria, delighted by independence yet feeling abandoned and forgotten, until Ben-Gurion and his colleagues asked him to be the first president. Truman invited Weizmann to make his first formal visit to the White House. When the US president was later praised by Eddie Jacobson for having ‘helped create Israel’, he retorted: ‘What do you mean “helped create”?’ I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!’ When the chief rabbi of Israel thanked him, Truman wept.

President Weizmann travelled to Israel, while he feared ‘the Jewish shrines in Jerusalem, which had survived the attacks of barbarians in medieval times, were now being laid waste.’ In Jerusalem, Anwar Nusseibeh and a few irregulars, mainly ex-policemen, did their best to defend the Old City until the real armies arrived. Nusseibeh was shot in the thigh, and had to have his leg amputated. But the irregular war was over.

The real war was now starting and Israel’s position was dire. The armies of the Arab League states, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, invaded Israel with the specific mission of liquidating the Jews. ‘This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre,’ announced Azzam Pasha, secretary of the League, ‘which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.’ Their commanders were overconfident. The Jews had been inferior subjects of Islamic empires, sometimes tolerated, often persecuted, but always submissive, for over a thousand years. ‘The Arabs believed themselves to be a great military people and regarded the Jews as a nation of shopkeepers’, recalled General Sir John Glubb, the English commander of King Abdullah’s Arab Legion. ‘The Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis assumed they’d have no difficulty defeating the Jews.’ Secular nationalism merged with the fervour of holy war: it was unthinkable that Jews could defeat Islamic armies, and many of the Jihadist factions that fought beside the regular armies had long since embraced a fanatical anti-Semitism. Half the Egyptian forces were mujahidin of the Muslim Brotherhood, among them young Yasser Arafat.

Yet the intervention with its blood-curdling hopes and political cynicism would be a disaster for the Palestinians and help forge a much larger and stronger Israel than would otherwise have emerged. On paper there were 165,000 troops in the Arab armies but such was the disorganization that, during May, they fielded about 28,000 – roughly the same as the Israelis. Since Abdullah’s 9,000-strong British-trained Arab Legion were the best of them, he was officially appointed Supreme Commander of Arab League forces.

King Abdullah stood on the Allenby Bridge and, drawing his pistol, fired into the air. ‘Forward!’ he shouted.25

ABDULLAH THE HASTY

The king, recalled his grandson Hussein, ‘was a full-blooded extrovert’. When we last saw Abdullah, he was in Jerusalem receiving his desert kingdom from Winston Churchill. Lawrence had described him as ‘short, thick-built, strong as a horse, with merry, dark brown eyes, a smooth round face, full but short lips, straight nose’ – and he had led an adventurous life, shocking Lawrence with his raffish exploits: ‘once Abdullah shot a coffee-pot off his court-fool’s head thrice from twenty yards’. As a Sherifian, thirty-seventh in line from the Prophet, he could tease the ulema. ‘Is it wrong to look at a pretty woman?’ he asked a mufti. ‘A sin, Your Majesty.’ ‘But the Holy Koran says “If you see a woman, avert your eyes” but you can’t avert the gaze unless you’ve been looking!’ He was both a proud Bedouin and a child of the Ottoman sultanate, he had commanded armies as a teenager and been ‘the brains’ of the Great Arab Revolt. His ambitions were as boundless as they were urgent, hence his nickname ‘the Hasty’. Yet he had waited a long time for this chance to conquer Jerusalem.

‘He was more than a soldier and diplomat but also a classical scholar’, remembered Sir Ronald Storrs, who was impressed when ‘he intoned for me the Seven Suspended Odes of Pre-Islamic Poetry’. The British ambassador in Amman, Sir Alec Kirkbridge, always called him ‘the king with a twinkle in his eye’. As a diplomat Abdullah was witty. Asked when he would ever receive a diplomat he disliked, he answered, ‘When my mule foals.’

Now that his mule was foaling, he was realistic about the Zionists, citing the Turkish proverb: ‘If you meet a bear crossing a rotten bridge, call her “Dear Auntie”.’ Over the years, he often talked to Weizmann and Jewish businessmen, offering the Jews a homeland if they would accept him as king of Palestine. He had often visited Jerusalem, meeting up with his ally Ragheb Nashashibi, but he detested the mufti, believing that Zionism flourished all the more thanks to ‘those partisans of the Arabs who’ll accept no solution’.

The king had secretly negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Zionists: he would occupy the parts of the West Bank assigned to the Arabs in return for not opposing the UN borders of the Jewish state: and the British had agreed to his annexation. ‘I don’t want to create a new Arab state that will allow the Arabs to ride on me’, he explained to the Zionist envoy Golda Myerson (later Meir). ‘I want to be the rider not the horse.’ But the horse had now bolted: the war, particularly, the Deir Yassin massacre, obliged him to fight the Jews. Besides, the other Arab states were as determined to limit Abdullah’s ambitions as they were to rescue Palestine, and the Egyptians and Syrians planned to annex their own conquests. Abdullah’s commander Glubb Pasha, who had devoted his life to providing the Hashemites with a decent army, was now loath to risk it.

His Arab Legion advanced cautiously through the Judaean hills towards Jerusalem, where the irregular Arab Liberation Army attacked the Jewish suburbs. By nightfall on 16 May, the Haganah had captured the Mea Shearim police station and Sheikh Jarrah to the north and all the New City south of the walls as well as the former British strongholds in the centre, the Russian Compound and the YMCA. ‘We have conquered almost all of Jerusalem, apart from the Augusta Victoria and the Old City,’ claimed an overwhelmed Ben-Gurion.

‘SOS! The Jews are near the walls!’ Anwar Nusseibeh rushed back to the king to beg for his intervention. Abdullah never forgot his place in history: ‘By God I am a Muslim ruler, a Hashemite king, and my father was king of all the Arabs.’ Now he wrote to his English commander: ‘My dear Glubb Pasha, the importance of Jerusalem in the eyes of the Arabs and the Muslims and Arab Christians is well known. Any disaster suffered by the people of the city at the hands of the Jews would have far-reaching consequences for us. Everything we hold today must be preserved – the Old City and the road to Jericho. I ask you to execute this as quickly as possible my dear.’

ABDULLAH: THE BATTLE OF JERUSALEM

The king’s ‘troops were in jubilation, many of the vehicles decorated with green branches or bunches of pink oleander flowers’. The procession of the Arab Legion towards Jerusalem ‘seemed more like a carnival than an army going to war’, observed Glubb. On 18 May, the first Legionaries took up positions around the walls of the Old City whence, he wrote, ‘nearly 1900 years ago the Jews themselves had cast their darts at the advancing legions of Titus’. But the king was ‘haggard with anxiety lest the Jews enter the Old City and the Temple where his father the late King Hussein of the Hejaz was buried.’ Glubb’s forces smashed through the Israeli-held Sheikh Jarrah to the Damascus Gate.

Within the Old City, first irregulars and then Arab Legionaries surrounded the Jewish Quarter, home of some of the oldest Jewish families in Palestine, many of them aged Hasidic scholars, and all defended by just 190 Haganah and Irgun fighters. Rabin was furious to learn that only meagre forces could be spared to rescue the Old City. Was this, he shouted at the commander of Jerusalem, David Shaltiel, ‘the only force the Jewish people can muster for the liberation of its capital?’

Rabin tried unsuccessfully to storm the Jaffa Gate, but simultaneously other troops broke through the Zion Gate into the Old City. Eighty Palmachniks joined the defenders before losing the Zion Gate. But now, the Arab Legion arrived in force. The battle for the Old City would be desperate; the fighting, noted Glubb, was ‘room to room, down dark passages, up and down tiny staircases cut into courtyards and down in cellars’ through the ‘teeming rabbit-warren of the Jewish Quarter on top of the spoils and rubble of millennia.’ Glubb now ordered the systematic reduction of the Jewish Quarter. Its rabbis appealed for help. Ben-Gurion became frantic: ‘Jerusalem can fall at any minute! Attack whatever the cost!’

On 26 May, the Legionaries took the Hurva Square, and dynamited its magnificent synagogues. Two days later, ‘two old rabbis, their backs bent with age, came forward down a narrow lane carrying a white flag’, observed Glubb. Across the lines, and just a few hundred feet away in this tiny theatre of war, Rabin watched the same ‘shattering scene’ from Mount Zion: ‘I was horrified.’ Thirty-nine of the 213 defenders were dead, 134 wounded. ‘So the City of David fell to the enemy,’ wrote Begin. ‘Mourning descended over us.’ Glubb was elated: ‘I’ve an intense love of Jerusalem. The Bible lives before our eyes.’ Yet he allowed the ransacking of the Jewish Quarter: twenty-two of the twenty-seven synagogues were demolished. For the first time since the Muslim reconquest in 1187, the Jews lost access to the Western Wall.

Glubb used the Latrun Fortress to close the road to west Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion repeatedly ordered the taking of Latrun, at a punishing cost in Israeli lives, but the attacks failed. Jewish Jerusalemites, already living in their cellars, began to starve until the Israelis created a new route for provisions, the so-called Burma Road south of Latrun.

On 11 June, the UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, grandson of a Swedish king who had negotiated with Himmler to rescue Jews in the last months of the war, successfully mediated a truce and proposed a new version of the partition giving all of Jerusalem to King Abdullah. Israel rejected Bernadotte’s plans. Meanwhile Ben-Gurion defeated a near-mutiny when Menachem Begin, having already agreed to merge his Irgun forces with those of the State, attempted to land his own shipment of arms: the Israeli Army sank the ship. Instead of starting a civil war, Begin retired from the underground to enter regular politics.

When Bernadotte’s truce ended; war resumed. The next day an Egyptian Spitfire bombed western Jerusalem. The excited Legionaries attacked the New City through the Zion Gate and then advanced towards Notre Dame: ‘By turning their heads, they could see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa,’ wrote Glubb. ‘They were fighting in the path of God’, as the Israelis again tried to capture the Old City.

‘Can we hold Jerusalem?’ Abdullah asked Glubb.

‘They’ll never take it, sir!’

‘If you ever think the Jews will take Jerusalem, you tell me,’ said the king. ‘I’ll go there and die on the walls of the city.’ The Israeli counterattack failed. But Israel’s military strength was increasing: the new State was now fielding 88,000 troops in all, against the Arabs’ 68,000. In the ten days before a second truce, the Israelis took Lydda and Ramla.

Such was the Zionist fury at Bernadotte’s proposal that the Swede now suggested that Jerusalem should be internationalized. On 17 September, the Swedish count flew into the Holy City. But the Lehi extremists, led by Yitzhak Shamir (a future Israeli prime minister), decided to annihilate both the man and his plans. As Bernadotte drove from his headquarters in Government House through Katamon to meet the Israeli governor Dov Joseph in Rehavia, his jeep was waved to a halt at a checkpoint. Three men dismounted from another jeep brandishing Stens; two shot out the tyres; the third machine-gunned Bernadotte in the chest before they sped off. The count died in Hadassah Hospital. Ben-Gurion suppressed and dismantled the Lehi, but the killers were never caught.

Abdullah had secured the Old City. On the West Bank, the king held the south, the Iraqis held the north. South of Jerusalem, the Egyptian vanguard could see the Old City and was pounding the southern suburbs. In mid-September, the Arab League recognized a Gaza-based Palestinian ‘government’ that was dominated by the mufti and the Jerusalemite Families.* But when the fighting resumed, the Israelis defeated and encircled the Egyptians, conquering the Negev desert. Humiliated, the Egyptians sent the mufti back to Cairo, his political career finally discredited. At the end of November, 1948, Lieutenant-Colonel Moshe Dayan, now military commander of Jerusalem, agreed a cease fire with the Jordanians. During the first half of 1949, Israel signed armistices with all five of the Arab states, and in February 1949, the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, met in the Jewish Agency building on Jerusalem’s George V Avenue to elect Weizmann formally to the largely ceremonial post of president. Weizmann, aged seventy-five, found himself ignored by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and was frustrated by his non-executive role. ‘Why do I have to be a Swiss president?’ Weizmann asked. ‘Why not an American president?’ He jokingly called himself ‘the Prisoner of Rehovoth’ – referring to the town where he had set up the Weizmann Institute of Science. Even though he had his official residence in Jerusalem, ‘I remained prejudiced against the city and even now I feel ill at ease in it.’ He died in 1952.

The Armistice, signed in April 1949 and supervised by the UN, who were based in the British Government House, divided Jerusalem: Israel received the west with an island of territory on Mount Scopus, while Abdullah kept the Old City, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. The agreement promised the Jews access to the Wall, the Mount of Olives cemetery and the Kidron Valley tombs but this was never honoured. Jews were not allowed to pray at the Wall for the next nineteen years,* and the tombstones in their cemeteries were vandalized.

The Israelis and Abdullah both feared losing their halves of Jerusalem. The UN persisted in debating the internationalization of the city, so both sides occupied Jerusalem illegally and only two countries recognized Abdullah’s hold on the Old City. Weizmann’s chief of staff, George Weidenfeld, a young Viennese who had recently founded his own publishing house in London, launched a campaign to convince the world that Israel should keep west Jerusalem. On 11 December, Jerusalem was declared the capital of Israel.

The Arab victor was Abdullah the Hasty, who, thirty-two years after the Arab Revolt, had finally won Jerusalem: ‘Nobody’, he said, ‘will take over Jerusalem from me unless I’m killed.’

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