Slinging out the David-Goliath myth

Mona Anis , Sunday 14 May 2023

A few resilient settlers heroically facing the massed forces of all the Arab countries that surrounded and threatened to swallow them. The official Israeli version of the 1948 War, carved, by now, on tablets of stone, could hardly be further from the truth. Fifty years to the day that the first UN sponsored cease-fire, mediated by Count Bernadotte -- a Swedish aristocrat subsequently assassinated by a Jewish gang -- came into effect, Mona Anis assesses the situation on the ground between the combatants after just 26 days of fighting. On paper, though, the Arab forces may well have appeared to have the upper hand. But they were overstretched. Their supplies of arms were exhausted, and they had no access to more. The Jewish forces, on the other hand, were determined and had the support to use the truce to reinforce their positions, to re-arm, recruit and train yet more soldiers for an arena in which they had never ceased to outnumber their Arab opponents by a ratio of two to one

The saving of the Old City in Jerusalem was a major achievement the Arabs attained during the war.
The saving of the Old City in Jerusalem was a major achievement the Arabs attained during the war



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 11 June 1998


In the official Israeli narrative the first Arab-Israeli war (15 May 1948-20 July 1949) is presented as a battle between David and Goliath. It is an image consolidated by pre-war Arab propaganda. On 21 May 1948, Yigael Yadin, the Israeli army's chief of operations, wrote: "The regular forces of the neighbouring countries -- with their equipment and their armaments -- enjoy superiority at this time. However, evaluation of the possibilities cannot be merely a military consideration of arms against arms and units against units, since we do not have those arms or that armoured force. The problem is to what extent our men will be able to overcome enemy forces by virtue of their fighting spirit, planning and tactics."

Yet this version of a war between the combined armed forces of the Arab world and a well organised but small and ill-armed number of Jewish men (and women?) is a gross falsification, though one that prevailed worldwide for almost two decades. It was not until the June 1967 War that Israel revealed to the world the strength of its military machine.

The truth is that Israel, even before its official creation, has constituted the most militarised community in the region. It has never been less than armed to the teeth.

According to Hitham Al-Kilani in a study published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, marking the 50 years that have passed since the 1948 war: "The American Intelligence Agency, in a report dated 27 July 1948, estimated the figures of the forces engaged in combat inside Palestine as follows -- 27,000 Arabs (with the ability to draw upon another 19,800 stationed near), while the Jewish forces engaged in combat were estimated at 97,800."

In another study, however, also published in Al-Hayat, Prof Walid Khalidi estimates the number of Arab troops during the first stage of the war (15 May-11 June) as 18,000 maximum. Add to this the fact that Jewish forces were well-equipped and trained and under united leadership, while the Arab forces were ill-equipped, ill-trained and without any convincing leadership, and the David and Goliath version of the conflict, that gained such hegemony, is revealed for what it is, nothing but a myth. Indeed, at no point throughout the entire war did Israeli combat forces outnumber their Arab counterparts by less than two to one.

Neither should we forget that before the Arab armies entered Palestine on 15 May the Jewish forces had already taken over not only many Arab villages in the area allotted to the Arab state in the UN partition plan, but also a number of major towns, including Tibireus, Haifa, Jaffa, Acre and Safed. In the process they expelled more than 400,000 Palestinians.

STAGES OF WAR: The war can be divided, however roughly, into four stages, including cease-fire periods. (It is, after all, important to remember that most of the territorial gains made by the newly established state of Israel were acquired during periods of cease-fire):

Period one includes the first round of battles (15 May-10 June 1948); period two the first truce (11 June-8 July); period three the second round of battles (9-17 July); and period four, extending between the second indefinite truce imposed on 18 July 1948, until the signing of the four cease-fire agreements with Egypt (24 February 1949), Lebanon (23 March 1949), Jordan (3 April 1949) and Syria (20 July 1949).

In his study Khalidi says that the first meeting to take place between the commanders of the Arab armies before the war was held on 30 April in Amman. At that meeting the military commanders agreed that to ensure victory over the Jewish forces they must have under their command "no less than six completely organised divisions and six squadrons (72 aeroplanes) of bomber fighters."

The politicians assembled to listen to the opinions of the military at the meeting decided that their demands were more than they could afford. The Arab armies, they decreed, should enter Palestine with whatever could be made available, and that the force could be gradually increased during the course of the war.

So what were the forces available on the eve of the war? Prof. Khalidi details them as follows:

EGYPTIAN TROOPS, according to a secret report of the Egyptian army, comprised two forces: the main group lead by Major General Ahmed Ali Al-Mawawi, and a lighter, mobile force lead by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz. The first force comprised the 1st Infantry Battalion (numbering 700-750), the 6th Infantry Battalion (700-750), the 9th Infantry Battalion (700-750), an armoured reconnaissance battalion (35 armoured vehicles), a light tank battalion (seven tanks), three 25 pound cannon batteries (24 cannons), one 18 pound cannon battery (eight cannons) and one six pound anti-tank cannon battery (eight cannons).

The light mobile, essentially commando force, commanded by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, comprised four officers and 124 soldiers armed with personal guns, eight Bren machine-guns, four light cannons (3.7 inch) and four two pound anti-tank cannons.

The Egyptian air force was divided across two fronts. The front-line force in Arish included six fighter bombers (Spitfires) and two reconnaissance planes. The second force, based in Cairo, comprised six Spitfires, five Dakota transport planes and one reconnaissance plane.

THE IRAQI TROOPS, according to the memoirs of General Saleh Sa'eb Jabouri, chief-commander of the Iraqi army, comprised a mechanised and infantry force. The first included three battalions and two engineering and intelligence units (106 officers, 1,837 soldiers, 47 tanks and 18 cannons). The second comprised 3 battalions and three small medical, engineering and intelligent units (97 officers, 2,257 soldiers). Iraqi troops, then, numbered 4,200.

The Iraqi air force comprised 12 Anson light transport planes, three gladiator transport planes and ten Fury fighters. However, in a secret report cited by Khalidi, it is stated that "the Fury fighters were unable to participate in the battles because of lack of ammunition... other Fury fighters purchased never reached us... 18 planes were held in India and all efforts to get them failed."

SYRIAN & LEBANESE TROOPS: The Syrian troops comprised one brigade of 1,876 officers and soldiers with personal arms, six tanks, 32 armoured vehicles and 12 75mm cannons. Estimates of the size of the Syrian air force range from between four to ten Harvard training aeroplanes.

The Lebanese troops were minuscule and adopted defensive tactics. In his memoirs, Jabouri mentions that the commander of the Lebanese army, Major General Fouad Shehab, informed the commanders of the Arab armies in their 30 April Amman meeting that Lebanon, owing to a lack of ammunition, would participate with only one battalion. During the war, though, two battalions were actively engaged in retaking Malkiya on the Lebanese borders on 4 June 1948. The Lebanese force comprised the 3rd Snipers Battalion (436 officers and soldiers), supported by an armoured battalion of four armoured cars and six tanks.

TRANSJORDAN'S ARAB LEGION was the best equipped and trained of the Arab forces. According to the memoir's of Abdullah Al-Tal, commander of the 6th Battalion of the Arab Legion in 1948, Transjordan's forces numbered 7,850. However, General Sir John Glubb (Glubb Pasha), commander-in-chief of the Arab Legion in 1948, gives a lower estimate in his memoirs, insisting that there were 6,000 men, though only 4,500 of them were ready for combat. Glubb adds that the Arab Legion, which depended on Britain for supplies of ammunition, had no reserves and was effectively paralysed following the UN embargo on arms sales. According to Glubb the army possessed ammunition "enough in theory for one battle only". Soon exhausted, Transjordan's forces had to wait for 16 months, until September 1949, before it could replenish supplies.

In conclusion, the Arab armies lacked the freedom of action and the organisational skills required to confront the Zionist aggressors. The top brass of the army of Transjordan consisted of British officers, while the movements of both the Egyptian and the Iraqi armies were restricted by the defence agreements they had signed with the British government. And both the Syrian and Lebanese armies, they were reeling from years of being under French mandate.

Some Arab countries, such as Iraq and Syria, did make attempts to acquire up-to-date arms but their endeavours failed and the war ended before they could achieve such a goal.

ARAB PLAN OF WAR: The Arab armies' plan was not finally approved until 10 May, when the political committee of the Arab League met in Damascus with the military commanders and approved their plans after lengthy deliberations. The plan stipulated that: the Lebanese army should proceed along the coast in the direction of the Israeli settlement Nahariya, and to Acre (occupied by the Haganah on 16 May); the Syrian army should proceed from Lebanese territory to Safed (occupied by the Haganah on the day of the meeting) and Nazareth; the Iraqi army should proceed across the River Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee, and then advance in the direction of the Jewish town of Afula; part of the Arab Legion was to cross the River Jordan 15km south of the Iraqi army, and converge with the Iraqis at Afula, while the larger part of the Arab Legion headed north to Afula from Jenin. Meanwhile the Egyptian army was to proceed from Sinai along the coast to Tel Aviv.

The plans, based upon massive underestimates of the size and strength of the Jewish forces as well as exaggerated assumptions about the capabilities of the Arab armies, assumed that the Egyptian forces would be able to threaten Tel Aviv and thus draw all the Jewish forces in that direction, leaving Afula vulnerable to Arab takeover. It was also assumed that there was no danger involved in exclusively focusing on Tel Aviv and Afula. Jerusalem, indeed the whole of middle Palestine, it was naively thought, were in no danger.

On 14 May, King Abdullah, general commander of all Arab armies, changed the plan. Now Syrian troops were to proceed from Lebanese territory and retake the Arab town of Samekh, south of the Sea of Galilee, and establish a bridge-head for crossing the River Jordan. Jordanian forces were also diverted from Afula, and were now expected to head towards Nablus, Ramallah and Khan Al-Ahmar, east Jerusalem. The remaining Arab forces were to keep to the original plan. These changes, as Khalidi points out, were responsible for the exaggerated belief among many Arabs that the Arab defeat was based solely on Abdullah's treason and last minute change of plan. "There is no doubt," Khalidi writes, "that these changes were politically motivated [the Jordanian-British secret agreement]... but it also had some military logic..."

ACTION IN THE BATTLEFIELD: On the Northern front, the Israeli and Lebanese armies took turns in invading Al-Malkiya village. Then the Lebanese and Syrian armies coordinated in recapturing it. On 18 May, the Syrian troops retook the Palestinian town of Samakh, south of Lake Tiberias, and captured the Jewish settlements of Shaar Hagolan and Masada, establishing a bridgehead across River Jordan.

On the central front, the Iraqi army, having reached Netanya, withdrew to Nablus. Jenin, which had been captured by the Israeli army, was liberated by the Iraqis. Meanwhile, Transjordan's Arab Legion reached Latrun on 18 May, attacked two settlements, and besieged Jerusalem. On May 19 the Haganah broke into the Old City of Jerusalem, but the Arab Legion came to the rescue of the Old City, and broke into the Jewish quarter. Although the Arab Legion failed to recapture any part of the areas of West Jerusalem, which had fallen into the hands of the Zionist gangs earlier, the saving of the Old City was the major achievement the Arab attained at that stage--and possibly through the whole war.

On the southern front, the Egyptian army, with some Saudi units, entered Palestine along two fronts. The first convoy proceeded along the coast, the second inland. The first convoy attacked Nirim and Kafar Daroum settlements, and then entered Gaza. Meanwhile, the Egyptian air force effected some air raids on Tel Aviv. Subsequently the Egyptian forces intensified their attack on the Deir Sneid settlement, finally capturing it on 24 May. They then proceeded north to assist the Arab Legion under heavy fire in Latrun and reached Asdod on 29 May, 17km north of Majdal, site of the Egyptian command.

The Egyptian forces occupying positions in and near Asdod comprised two battalions supported by anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, two batteries of cannons and four light tanks. All in all the force numbered some 2,000 men. On 30 May, and for two consecutive days, Jewish forces waged a major counter-offensive against these troops but failed to retake the position. On 7 June the Egyptians took over the Jewish settlement, Nitsanim, which occupied a strategic location on the road from Majdal to Asdod. On 8 June Jewish forces launched a counter offensive to retake the settlement and failed. On 10 June the Israelis occupied a hill overlooking the settlement. The following day Egyptian forces succeeded to capture the hill, just as the first truce was imposed on 11 June.

Meanwhile, on 2-3 June, Egyptian forces took the fateful decision to proceed eastward from Majdal via Iraq Sweidan and Faluja to Bet Jebrin and Hebron. In doing so they extended the battle lines horizontally, isolating 25 Jewish settlements from the main body of the Jewish state designated in the UN partition plan as they extended the line to cut separate the Negev desert (which comprised one third of the Jewish state allotted in the UN plan) from Northern Palestine.

THE FIRST TRUCE: Fighting stopped for four weeks (11 June-8 July) in compliance with Security Council resolutions. After 26 days of fighting, the Arab forces remained in control of the greater part of Palestine. The Arab League Arab Liberation Army was stationed south of Nazareth. The Syrian army controlled an area extending from Hebron to the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee, except for a few settlements in eastern Galilee. The Iraqi army controlled central Palestine and were stretched along a front extending west to Tolkarem and Qalqilya, 12km from the coast. The Jordanian army was in control of the southern portion of the Jordan Valley, the area around Jerusalem, the Old City, Ramallah, Lod and Ramla. The southern part of Negev and the Gulf of Aqaba were under the control of the Egyptian army.

However, and as Khalidi notes, "what matters in war is not the occupation of large tracts of land -- Germany swept the Soviet Union during the Second World War without being able to defeat it -- but the ability to break the military capabilities and the will to fight of the enemy." By the end of the first round of the war the Arab forces were far from achieving this.

It is important to remember that Israel, at this stage, far from standing alone, had the support of both the US, the Soviet Union and the UN. As Khalidi rightly notes, these three forces "were Israel's midwife", the friends on whom Israel relied for arms and men.

The Arab armies, on the other hand, were stretched as far as possible. And increasingly they were subject to pressures, political and military.

The UN Security Council appointed a UN envoy, Count Folk Bernadott, to negotiate the terms of cease-fire, and imposed an embargo on the sale of arms. The Jewish forces used the period of the cease-fire to re-organise themselves, strengthening their numbers and resources. Israel managed to recruit pilots from all over the world and to purchase 40 bombers from Czechoslovakia and three from the US. The Arab countries adhered to the UN imposed truce, lacking the power or backing to enable them to violate anything. Attempts to purchase arms proved unsuccessful. The US insisted on implementing the UN arms embargo when it came to the Arabs, and even those arms purchased from Britain prior to the war never arrived, despite the joint military agreements binding the Arab countries to Britain.



15 May: President Truman recognises State of Israel. First Egyptian troops cross border into Palestine and attack colonies of Kfar Darom and Nirim in Negev. Three Transjordanian Arab Legion brigades cross Jordan River into Palestine. Lebanese troops retake Lebanese villages of Malkiya and Qadas (on Lebanese border), attacked and captured earlier by Haganah.

17 May: Haganah captures Acre.

18 May: Syrian troops retake Palestinian town of Samakh, south of Lake Tiberias, and capture Zionist colonies of Shaar Hagolan and Masada. Arab Legion units reach Latrun and consolidate blockade of coastal road to Jewish quarters in Jerusalem.

19 May: Haganah breaks into Old City of Jerusalem. Arab Legion comes to the rescue of Old City.

20 May: UN Security Council appoints Count Folke Bernadotte as its mediator in Palestine.

22 May: Security Council resolution calls for cease-fire.

11 June - 8 July: First truce.

28-29 June: Count Bernadotte suggests economic, military and political union of Transjordan and Palestine containing Arab and Jewish states: Negev and central Palestine to go to Arabs, Western Galilee to Jews, Jerusalem to be part of Arab state with administrative autonomy to Jews, Haifa and Jaffa to be free ports and Lydda free airport. Rejected by both sides.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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