1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An in-depth, detailed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. Starting with the historical background of the Zionist movement and immigration into the area, Morris then moves to the UN and the steps taken towards partition. The conflict is broken into two main parts. First what Morris calls the civil war. This is the small-scale battles and skirmishes between the Yishuv (the Jewish community) and the Arab community in Palestine/Israel-to-be. The Yishuv was relatively well-organized and prepared, while the Arabs were divided, unprepared, and lacking any kind of strategy or direction. The leadership was divided and various quarters squabbled with each other for control. As a result, this part of the war was decisively won by the Yishuv and the Palestinian Arab society more or less collapsed and many, with the means, left the country at this point. The state of Israel was declared and the Yishuv institutions transitioned into state agencies.
The second part of the conflict begins with the invasion by Arab armies from without: mainly Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Through his analysis, Morris shows that, at first, the Israeli goal was purely defensive: to hold the land it controlled and prevent the Arab armies from penetrating. As the Israeli forces proved effective and the Arab armies less so, Israel shifted towards a more offensive mindset and looked to gain strategic ground around Jerusalem and in the north.
For their part, the Arab armies were shockingly incompetent. Except for the Jordanian Arab Legion (which was trained and armed by the British), the armies lacked resources, training, and direction. The various countries, while sharing similar rhetoric about “saving Palestine,” all had their own divergent agendas. There was little cooperation or coordination between the invading armies. The soldiers were not training or prepared. There was a view that the fight would be quick and easy. Instead, they faced fierce resistance from a well-trained, highly motivated opponent who was fighting for its very existence.
The UN repeatedly tried to step into to stop the fighting and seek some kind of settlement. The main result, according to Morris, of this seemed to be avoiding a total rout of the Arab armies, in particular Egypt. Whether a more total and decisive victory by the Israelis would have avoided future wars and the refugee problem is impossible to say, but Morris doesn’t think it would have. There was far too much animosity towards the Jewish state. The so-called Arab Street would likely have continued the pressure to attack Israel.
Most of this was not new to me. But there were several interesting parts of the book that were new.
First, the insight that Morris gives into the mindset of the British and Arab leaders was fascinating. I didn’t realize the extent to which the Arab leaders (especially Jordan’s King) understood their weakness relative to Israel and that the war was unlikely to yield the stated public aims. And yet all felt the pressure of the street and felt compelled by this to move forward. I also didn’t realize the extent to which the British were more or less active against Israel—even threatening to attack at certain points.
Second, Morris disabused me of the idea of Israeli “purity of arms.” The Israel army at times acted like every army ever has in the field of battle. There were killings of civilians and POWS, rapes, and other abuses. This was hard to swallow, but also not surprising that such things happen in war. It is tragic, awful, unnecessary, but such is the awfulness of war. This doesn’t excuse or justify, but it does contextualize it. Nevertheless, Morris is quick to point out that these sorts of horrors occurred less than in other wars in the 20th century. Both sides were relatively constrained in terms of such atrocities.
Related to this second point, is the extent to which Israel took active measures to push out the local Arab populations. While I understood that some of this happened, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which there were direct expulsions made by the Israeli army. Still, contrary to the harsh critics of Israel, Morris explains that this was not a concerted effort at mass population movement, but as the facts on the ground shifted, the Israel army and command were more than willing to help things along. Militarily it makes sense: leaving a hostile population behind your lines is a bad idea. And as the Israelis pushed forward to push back the invading armies, they felt compelled to expel local populations that were hostile. For the most part, Morris showed that when villages quickly surrendered and didn’t have a history of attacking nearby Jewish communities or convoys, these were not expelled. Such people become the Israeli-Arabs of today. Still it happened more than I realized, and that too is an unpleasant truth to process.
I found the book strongest when getting into the discussion of strategies, policies, and ideas. His evaluation and digestion of the evidence was clear and carefully presented. Where I found myself drifting away was the detailed descriptions of battles. There was a lot of taking this hill or attacking that hill; this division moved here and there. It was hard to keep track of and to follow; or to see how meaningful that level of detail was to the overall through line of the work. The best I can say about it was that it did allow you to experience the war at a bit more of a fine-grained perspective, than the grand sweep that one might otherwise get.
If one is interested in military history or the history of the Arab-Israeli, I think this is an important work to read. Still, it can be a bit of slog at times, but only because of how in-depth it is.
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