The Nakba, part 2/3: The militias’ war, November 1947 – May 1948
Ibrahim Moiz, copyright
30 May 2018
In one sense the 1947-48 Palestinian war was one of the earliest examples of the pattern of warfare that has been common across the world since the Second World War. In contrast to most conflicts of the previous century, it did not involve entrenched world powers deploying massive armies against each other; instead, the tumult resulted from the duels between rather small, localized militia units. What helped the Zionist side was their effective unification of such localized fronts into a sizeable, cohesive force of some sixty thousand fighters, the Haganah, and the resultant strategy they were able to plan and coordinate. By contrast, for both political and incidental reasons, the Palestinian fronts whom the Haganah routed were largely fragmented, scattered, and uncoordinated. The largest Palestinian fronts, such as that in Jerusalem during spring 1948, numbered just over a thousand; most were only a few hundred strong, with numbers fluctuating regularly because most fighters were part-timers from the Palestinian countryside. The arrival of the Arab states’ expeditionary forces raised the number to respectable levels, but even so the largest state forces – those from Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan – numbered just a division apiece, with no effective coordination and particularly ineffective resource management. It was, in the manner typical of post-World War conflicts, a war carried out between forces of decidedly modest size, but no less devastating for that.
The remainder of the article shall proceed in two parts: first we examine the conflict in the final six months of the British mandate, when the Haganah and other Zionist militias faced off against Inqadh, Jihad Muqaddas, and other Palestinian levies (to whom I shall refer, without controversy it is to be hoped, as mujahidin), and next we shall turn to the war between the fledgling states, which lasted roughly another six months before the Arab rout. Eventually this conflict saw Israel establish control over the entirety of Palestine, except for the Jordan river’s West Bank and the southern Ghazza strip, which would only be conquered two decades later.
Though there had been some violence before autumn 1947, the United Nations’ decision during partition Palestine, celebrated by the Zionists and bemoaned by their opponents, marked the start of major conflict. In a pattern familiar to those who study modern militia warfare, the fighting was overwhelmingly localizd, yet the Haganah was able at length to coordinate its fronts and thereby expand its activity by spring 1947, when a devastating campaign overran the coast and the Galilee, just prior to the British evacuation.
The geographic distribution of the protagonists contributed to the early localization. The Jewish population was most heavily concentrated on the coast around Tel Aviv; there were also significant Jewish centres in the Galilee and in western Jerusalem. Jerusalem was swiftly divided into its Arab-majority and Jewish-majority districts, the former comprising most of the city’s east, south, and centre. Similarly, mixed towns such as Haifa and Safad were barricaded between their Arab and Jewish quarters. In the countryside, the Arabs generally enjoyed a numerical advantage, but rural Jewish settlers had, partly for economic ease and partly in shrewd preparation, built fortified kibbutzes at strategic points and routes, such as the Jinin-Haifa road and the Baysan route overlooking the route from Jordan to the Galilee. These fortified farm blocks would, together with forts such as the Qastal ruins outside Jerusalem and the soon-to-be abandoned British police outposts, assume outsize importance.
Officially, the British government, led by Alan Cunningham, wanted to preserve order until their departure in May 1948. In practice, however, British patrols would intercept and force back mujahidin assaults on many occasions, an inhibition rarely practiced on the Zionists. By the time the mandate ended, Zionist forces had already conquered Safad, Baysan, Tiberias, Haifa, Acre, and Yaffa, as well as much of the surrounding countryside; the only British reaction was to shuttle out Arab refugees, with the occasional muted protest. Quite simply, the Zionist movement understood – and implemented – the concept of a fait accompli far more skilfully and ruthlessly than their Arab opponents could, would, or did; once the Haganah and related militias called the British bluff and attacked, the British garrison could, would, and did do little about it.
British obstructionism towards the mujahidin was also motivated by their approach to the Arab states. Most mujahidin forces attached themselves to either the Jihad Muqaddas Army, loosely directed by the British bane Jerusalem mufti Amin Hussaini, or to the Arab Inqadh Army commanded by Fawzi Qawuqji. Both factions, particularly the former, were viewed with intense suspicion by the premier British client, Transjordanian ruler Abdullah I bin Hussein. Abdullah’s well-known ambition to annex Palestine to his small, impoverished realm was in direct opposition to the mufti’s aims. He wanted to achieve this with his relatively efficient army, the Arab Legion. This would not be permitted by Abdullah’s British patrons while the mandate remained, but that fact did not stop him from trying to impede the mujahidin, particularly the Jihad Army. Though Jordanian officers did covertly train and arm Arab militias, this seems to have been done largely on their own initiative. Muhammad Hunaidi, who tried to organize the Haifa garrison, had resigned from his military post in the Legion first.
In the Arab camp, Abdullah was backed by his Hashimi cousins in Iraq, who also commanded an efficient army with relatively promising prospects and shared his British tutelage and enmity with the mufti. They did enjoy the support of several Palestinian council leaders, if only if mutual opposition to the mufti as a competitor in the Palestinian upper class; as we shall see, several Palestinian council leaders tried to inhibit militant activity in the hope that the more promising Arab Legion would take over. Meanwhile Transjordan’s competitors in the Arab League, Masr and Syria, offered assistance to, respectively, the Jihad and Inqadh factions without ever exercising real control over them.
The Jihad and Inqadh forces swung into action over winter 1947-48. During December 1947, Amin’s nephew Abdul-Qadir Hussaini laid siege to Jewish western Jerusalem by cutting off the road to Tel Aviv and mounting attacks from the western half’s only Arab neighbourhood. In contrast with other towns, mujahidin cooperation at Jerusalem was usually strong: Anwar Nusaiba, the city’s council leader, was a Hashimi sympathizer, but coordinated nonetheless with Abdul-Qadir and his kinsman, Khaled Hussaini, who commanded Jihad forces in the city proper. The fact that the charismatic Jihad commander, a veteran of former anti-British revolts, was seen as sincere and indifferent to partisanship, and that the mufti’s more pragmatic prime minister Ahmed Abdul-Baqi was at hand to observe local events, contributed.
The leading Jihad commander to the north, Hasan Salameh, was also an anti-British veteran but never managed to circumvent politics in the same way. This was evident at Yaffa, an Arab-majority coastal enclave surrounded by Jewish settlements and just a stone’s throw from the Jewish stronghold Tel Aviv. In Yaffa city itself, Nimr Hawwari, a lawyer who had long competed with the mufti for control in the anti-British resistance, had taken over as commander. He was approved by mayor Yusuf Haikal, who though an independent member of the mufti’s shadow cabinet gravitated towards minimizing violence until the mandate’s end; doubtless Yaffa’s vulnerable position as well as their political inclinations influenced their considerations. When Hawwari negotiated a local ceasefire with a Zionist militia, however, mufti Amin portrayed this as treason and demanded Hawwari’s ouster. However, his own favoured lieutenant, Salameh, could hardly take over, since he was based further inland around Ramla and Lydda. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Salah Nazir, acceptable to both factions, served as Salameh’s lieutenant in Yaffa. But this could not paper over the garrison’s deep divisions. In this factionalism, the Inqadh Army’s recently deployed unit, largely comprising Iraqi soldiers, could have potentially helped whip the garrison into shape. But the first Inqadh commandant, Abdul-Wahhab Shaikh-Ali, soon quit in frustration over the factionalism and his replacement, Adil Najamuddin, only fuelled factionalism by attempting to replace the local garrison entirely with his troops, who meanwhile earned an unsavoury reputation. At Yaffa, the Iraqi soldiers’ patronizing attitude and, worse, abuses soon gave them a uniquely hated reputation.
Apart from sending largely uncoordinated contingents to bolster such towns as Yaffa, the Inqadh Army had also entered Palestine from two directions: the north, via Lebanon and Syria, and the east, via Transjordan – in spite of some consternation in Amman, where the already uneasy government was further pressured by indignant appeals from the British Palestine governor, Alan Cunningham, to bar off mujahidin passage. The strategy, it appears, involved these two prongs fighting their way to a convergence the Galilee, and then proceeding southwards through the West Bank towards Jerusalem. The plan never came close to fruition for both political and military reasons. The northern commander, Adib Shishakli, first unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the kibbutz at the Naharia border with Lebanon and was, moreover, prevented by the local British garrison from mounting any offensives in the main Galilee region around Safad; the most he could do was send troops to reinforce the local militias. In the east, Fawzi Qawuqji dispatched another Syrian officer, Muhammad Safa, to attack the kibbutz near Baysan that abutted the Jordanian route into the Galilee. During the subsequent assault, mangled communications between Qawuqji and Safa descended to farce; the attackers’ already unpromising prospects faded when a heavily armed British patrol arrived and ordered Safa’s dispersal. From that point, Qawuqji would relocate further south in the West Bank heartland and attempt to reach the coast from there, leaving Shishakli to operate autonomously in the Galilee.
A critical window
Though violence did not abate, the “frontlines”, such that they were, remained largely static until April 1948. This period saw continuing discord amid the mujahidin, while the Haganah subtly strengthened its positions. They steadily eliminated Arab militia leaders with diverse methods: at Jerusalem, several Jihad officers – including Mahmoud Jamil, son of the shadow cabinet’s influential member Jamal Hussaini, and district commandant Subhi Barakat – were killed in battle. Haifa’s respected Jordanian commandant Muhammad Hunaidi fell to a bomb attack while Shakib Wahab, the autonomous Inqadh vassal in the northwest hinterland, was assiduously wooed and persuaded that a fragmented, mostly Sunni Muslim cause was not worth the blood of his minority Druze constitutents. Wahab’s betrayal demonstrated to the Zionists the value of wedging between the Sunni majority in the Levant and assorted disgruntled minorities, a policy that continued and perhaps most destructively manifested itself through Israel’s role in the Lebanese civil war thirty years later.
At any rate, the Arabs were doing a fair job at internal combustion without Haganah infiltration. As we have noted, urban notables largely comprising the enemies of mufti Amin Hussaini sought to maintain the status quo until the British withdrawal; militants – largely rural peasants whipped up by preachers or by career officers – chafed at this apparent defeatism, especially as violence continued from the Zionist side largely unchecked by the same British mandate that regularly disarmed mujahidin forces. The “conciliatory” camp argued that inferior firepower – for the Damascus-based military council was unable, perhaps under political pressure from the anti-mufti bloc, to deliver arms consistently – required conservation. Yet the Hussainis’ bloc, drawing on its fundraising links with such groups as the Arab League, Muslim Brethren, and anti-Hashimi governments, and its strong roots in the countryside where the mufti retained considerable popularity, armed its fronts much more assiduously, drawing into its camp both autonomous militias and Inqadh officers who were frustrated with Inqadh inefficiency.
The split in Inqadh was evidenced at several fronts. Qawuqji had dispatched as Jerusalem Inqadh commandant Iraqi officer Abdul-Hameed Rawi to reinforce the small Inqadh force there. Abdul-Hameed came into conflict with, and was eventually forced to stand down in favour of, that small Inqadh force’s commandant Fadil Rasheed, another Iraqi officer. This was because of Rasheed’s strong local links: he was close to the Hussainis, having participated with them in the 1941 campaign against Britain at Iraq. Most Jerusalem mujahidin – the Hussainis, Abu-Gharbias, Uraiqats, and Barakats – were veteran comrades-in-arms from anti-British insurgencies, and this helps explain the superior coordination in the city.
Safad, whose first commandant, Syrian officer Ihsan Kamulmaz, veered towards the mufti’s camp and had a reputation for bold action. For unknown reasons, he was replaced with a Jordanian officer, Sari Funaish, who adopted a far more defensive approach, arguing that the garrison needed to conserve its ammunition; his conciliatory stance may be explained by his sympathy with Amman, where his second-in-command Amil Jumaeen would later become a key aide to the government. Funaish accused as an adventurist Kamulmaz, who in turn accused him – with some local approval – as a traitor. Funaish’s disappearance during Safad’s final conquest only strengthened this impression; he was briefly imprisoned in Syria after the war, but accused the regional field commander Shishakli as having deprived him of ammunition. Shishakli, who had first promoted Funaish and also vocally accused the Syrian government as failing to sufficiently arm the fronts, would echo Kamulmaz’s accusations towards Funaish. Whatever actually transpired, the blunt fact is that Safad’s garrison was bitterly divided and would give away easily.
At times the conciliatory camp’s attitude bordered on outright complacency. This was certainly the case in Tiberias, the Galilee town whose two-fifths Arab minority was led by the eponymous Tabari family – comprising mufti Tahir with his kinsmen Sidqi, Nayef, and commandant Kamel – who dominated the council. They had contributed to Tiberias’ unusual avoidance of bloodshed, a situation they vainly hoped could persist. This illusion snapped in April 1948 when Zionist commandant, Zelig Optik took the murder of a Jewish citizen – whose culpability was never investigated – as an opportunity to declare war. Even as Tiberias was being overrun, its notables remained mired in denialism; when a peasant militia, hastily assembled by Mustafa Abu-Dis, tried to relieve them, Sidqi Tabari pled that they withdraw so that he could negotiate a ceasefire that never came. Well-meaning but naïve, the genteel Tabaris – as with most Palestinian notables of their generation – were simply unprepared for the style of total warfare that the Zionists, hardened and embittered after the traumatic Holocaust, had introduced for the first time in generations. It was ironic that Tiberias, prized for its traditional coexistence, was the first Palestinian town whose Arab population was systemically purged.
While the expulsion of Palestinians is not the main focus here, it should be noted that, in the worst traditions of total warfare, the Zionists were willing to resort to whatever means were necessary to maximize their conquests. To this extent, they were perfectly willing to employ massacres – most infamously but by no means exclusively at Dair Yasin, a village outside Jerusalem that had strenuously but vainly sought to avoid conflict – that would intimidate the broader population into flight. The geographic dispersal and scope of these massacres suggests, contrary to what was until recently the standard Israeli position, a broader strategy by the Haganah and other Zionist militias. To be sure, some Arab citizens, particularly those who could afford to such as the Haifan upper classes, had been trickling from the Palestinian tinderbox for some months. Others in the rural areas may indeed have fled before the expected Arab governmental offensive, while word-of-mouth, sometimes ironically stirred by Zionist agents, may have prompted other flights. But these explanations, which have been conventionally employed by Israeli propagandists and many pro-Israel historians to explain the mass exodus, were not unique to the 1948 war and do not explain the mass flight adequately. It is apparent from a vast but often studiously ignored microhistorical record that the Zionist offensives of spring and summer 1948 involved, to a far greater extent than any Arab provocation, mass slaughter and calculated expulsion, on a scale regionally unmatched until the current Syrian war.
Conquest and calamity in the mandate’s dying days
A major Jerusalem offensive began when the Haganah force in its besieged western district attempted to break out towards the Jihad Army strongpoint at the hilltop Qastal castle. It was during this campaign that Zionist militias had butchered the population of Dair Yasin; days later, an Arab militia in northwest Jerusalem, captained by Adil Najjar, slaughtered a Jewish medical convoy approaching the northern city, an atrocity that significantly embarrassed the Arabs and – notably in this polarized atmosphere – led to profound apologies from various Arab officials and civilians alike. But it was southwest Jerusalem where battle was joined. With ammunition running low – for the Hussainis’ pockets were not bottomless – Abdul-Qadir had already travelled to Damascus to obtain more. The military council , chaired by Ismail Safwat, was theoretically meant to liaison between the Arab governments and mujahidin; however, whether because of Abdul-Qadir’s links to the mufti or simply their inability to channel resources, they failed to do so. The Jihad commander, suspecting the former motive, exploded: accusing the council as traitors and announcing his intentions to attain martyrdom at the frontline, he stalked back to Jerusalem. Here he found the frontline in turmoil, as the Haganah had broken through to Qastal; Abdul-Qadir lost his life in the bold but unsuccessful counterattack on the fort, and the size of his funeral attested to his unique popularity and respect in the region.
The Jihad Army’s front, now shared between Abdul-Qadir’s loyal lieutenants Kamel Uraiqat at the western road and Ibrahim Abu-Dayyah at the southern district, survived a little longer, its dwindling ammunition stocks briefly refurbished by Uraiqat’s blistering assault on a Haganah convoy from Tel Aviv. But that could not last long; eventually a ferocious Haganah assault overran the southern district. The themes familiar from this conflict came into play here: Abu-Dayyah, then returning for an ammunition resupply, was captured by the British garrison before he could return to the frontline. The district included several Arab consulates, and its conquest prompted consternation by the Arab governments, even Amman. But it was not till the Haganah had conquered the district that the British garrison forced a ceasefire. Haganah commander David Shaltiel, in desperate straits only weeks earlier, could view the results with satisfaction, and turn his attention to the remaining portions of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, from the West Bank Fawzi Qawuqji had made a number of vain assaults on the kibbutz overlooking the road to the Haifa port. Qawuqji’s concern was not baseless. For such an important city, the wealthy port Haifa was chronically undermanned; the fact that its citizens could afford to sail away and avoid the war contributed to a slow trickle even before the Haganah assault. Rural mujahidin militias captained by Abu Mahmoud Safouri and Taufiq Ibrahim had arrived to bolster the garrison, but they were partly barred off by the British commander, Hugh Stockwell, and at any length the garrison still numbered less than a thousand fighters. The Arab council was split and indecisive, its veteran leader Rasheed Ibrahim having set sail after disputes with his peers, and the Inqadh commandant – a Lebanese officer called Amin Izzaddin – unable to assert control. Compounding this was the suspect attitude of Hugh Stockwell, who removed his buffer forces in apparent coordination with the Haganah. Haganah commander Moshe Carmel then mounted a brutal assault, which the Arabs were in no way prepared to face. The most Stockwell would do was to urge the Arabs to accept a ceasefire. But there was nobody both willing and able to accept such a ceasefire. The trickle from Haifa had become a flood; escapees by boat included the magistrate Ahmed Khalil, Izzaddin himself, and a day later his replacement Yunis Nafaa. In their wake, Carmel’s fighters let loose on the populace to accelerate the flight, pillaging and killing on sight; by the end, only some four thousand Arabs remained in what had once been the stronghold of the Palestinian merchant class.
Izzaddin and Nafaa did not abscond immediately; their next stop, as with the Haganah force bearing northwards, was the historic port Acre. The sudden influx of refugees, and the tales they brought of the pursuing Zionists, had already prompted the town’s rapid disintegration. By the time Izzaddin and Nafaa arrived, they inherited a garrison that numbered only a few score. Needless to say, resistance was negligible; within a blink Carmel had conquered Acre, Izzaddin and Nafaa making their final northward voyage into Lebanon. Further inland, the Inqadh fronts in the Galilee were also collapsing. Spying the incoming Israeli assault, Adib Shishakli tried to divert it by dispatching his brother Salah on raids against kibbutzes near the border. Ignoring this – for the kibbutzes were never in serious danger – the Haganah commander Yigael Alon bulldozed through the Galilee. The mujahidin’s morale completely collapsed with Safad’s conquest; with its commandant Sari Funaish missing, his second-in-command Amil Jumaeen announced the surrender. Further east, Haganah forces – interestingly, supported in part by airstrikes – also overran the besieged village Baysan, where, reflecting a common pattern, the Inqadh commandant Ahmed Jayousi had struggled to contain divisions in a small, under-equipped garrison.
Apart from the northern coast and the Galilee, there was one other major stronghold captured by the Zionists before the British withdrawal. Yaffa had been perched uncomfortably in an overwhelmingly Jewish neighbourhood outside Tel Aviv. Morale remained low, not simply because of Jewish encirclement, but the conduct of the Iraqi Inqadh forces captained by Adil Najamuddin. This reached such a point where Fawzi Qawuqji had to replace Najamuddin with a locally born Lebanese officer, Michel Issa. Najamuddin, refusing to obey a former subordinate, sailed off in indignation with his entire contingent. This took place just before the Zionist assault. The Haganah had not, apparently, originally intended to attack Yaffa just yet; they were drawn into it when the more extreme Irgun militia initiated the charge. The battle outside the city was remarkably fierce, with hundreds killed as the garrison, reinforced in the hinterland by Hasan Salameh commanding the peasants, put up a fierce fight. But it was a lost cause; Jaffa was largely cut off, and though the garrison appealed to the Arab governments none could come to the rescue in such an isolated area. British mediation tried to staunch the wound with a ceasefire, but fearing accusations of treason none of Yaffa’s notables, except Issa, signed it. Issa was eventually last to leave the city; only Salameh’s local lieutenant, Nazir, remained in a rapidly shrunken Arab contingent from a population whose disappearance testified to the costs of endemic factionalism.
With the mujahidin position at Jerusalem in peril, meanwhile, the Arab Legion at long last moved. The Legion had based itself in the West Bank under British approval, preparing for an imminent offensive on Jerusalem; an appeal from Hebron’s militia leader and shaikh, Muhammad Jabri, prompted another unit’s dispatch to the city. In contrast to most Legion units, these forces – at Ramullah and Hebron respectively – were captained by native officers, Sidqi Jundi and Abdullah Tal. The Arab position in Jerusalem was increasingly shaky; Fadil Rasheed, backed up by the Syrian Muslim Brethren leader Mustafa Sibai, ordered the forces to concentrate in the southeast Old City where they would hold out against the advancing Haganah. Jihad leader Khaled Hussaini put his forces under Rasheed’s direction and slipped south to meet Tal. The British force had not quite left yet, but the Legion’s officers – particularly Tal, who had a deserved reputation for independence and initiative – were now chomping at the bit. The Legion force first attacked a kibbutz bestriding the road from Hebron to Jerusalem, which had stubbornly withstood mujahidin harassment for months but now found itself outgunned, and abandoned by the Haganah, which preferred to focus on Jerusalem itself in preparation for the coming battle. The kibbutz’s defenders, rejecting Khaled’s offer to negotiate their exit, instead surrendered to Tal – but were slaughtered en masse shortly thereafter.
The next day, governor Cunningham left Haifa and the thirty-year British occupation of Palestine came to an end with an air of almost embarrassed inconspicuousness. “The Union Jack was lowered,” wrote Jack Marlowe, “and with the speed of an execution and the silence of a ship that passes in the night British rule in Palestine came to an end.” It was an ignominious end to a troubled, divisive tenure. Britain left as its legacy a trail of impending slaughter.