War of Independence
Although the fighting between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine had escalated after the adoption of the partition plan, full-scale war followed Israel’s declaration of independence. This war is known in Israel as the War of Independence, while the Arab world has referred to it as al-Nakba (the disaster or catastrophe).
For Israel, the war affirmed its independence as a Jewish state in the Middle East, but it did not alleviate Arab opposition, nor did it guarantee Israel’s existence. The Arab world refused to accept Israel’s presence and instead focused on the destruction and removal of the Jewish state and the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state in all of Palestine west of the Jordan River.
Armies of the Arab states entered Palestine and engaged in open warfare with the defense forces of the new state, with the stated goals of preventing the establishment of a Jewish state and of assuring that all of Palestine would be in Arab hands. This first Arab-Israeli war involved troops from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, with assistance from other Arab quarters, against Israel. The war was long and costly: Israel lost some 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians—about 1 percent of the Jewish population.
The War of Independence had a substantial effect on the future state as well as on its neighbors and was formally ended by a cease-fire followed by a series of armistice agreements. overall, Israel was victorious in that first major war with the Arabs. It survived the substantial Arab forces arrayed against it and added to its territory through a defeat of Arab armies and irregular forces.
The armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt (February 24, 1949), Israel and Lebanon (March 23, 1949), Israel and Jordan (April 3, 1949), and Israel and Syria (July 20, 1949) established lines that incorporated thousands of square miles that had been allocated to the Arab state of Palestine by the partition plan. Territories that were now, for the first time, called the Gaza Strip and the West Bank came under Egyptian and Jordanian control.
During the armistice talks between Israel and Egypt, which began on January 13, 1949, on the island of Rhodes, the United Nations mediator and his staff occupied one wing of the hotel, the Israeli delegation occupied a floor in the opposite wing, and the Egyptian delegation resided in the floor above the Israeli delegation. Because of the presence of the UN mediator, the Egyptians considered the talks “not direct.” The Israelis, however, claimed them “direct” because the parties were under one roof and at times spoke directly, despite the presence of a mediator.
The daily activities were kept secret, which enhanced the success of the process. The Rhodes precedent of indirect negotiations between Israel and the Arab states was insisted upon by the Arab states as the prototype for later discussions.Iraq, although a participant in the conflict, refused to negotiate an armistice. The agreements were to end the hostilities and pave the way for peace negotiations to lead to peace treaties that would replace the armistice agreements, but the latter did not occur.
Each of the armistice agreements was based on several principles: no military or political advantage should be gained under the truce, no changes in military positions should be made by either side after the armistice, and the provisions of the armistices were a consequence of purely military considerations and temporary, pending the negotiation of more binding arrangements. Each agreement set up a mixed armistice commission to observe and maintain the cease-fire.
As a consequence of the War of Independence, Israel encompassed more territory than that allocated to it by the UN partition plan. At the same time, portions of the territory allocated to the Palestinian Arab state came under Egyptian control (the Gaza Strip), and Jordan annexed the area that came to be known as the West Bank. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan.
The 1949 armistice agreements between Israel and the neighboring Arab states also created four demilitarized zones (DMZs)—one on the border with Syria, a second at al-Auja on the border with Egypt, and two in the Jerusalem area including the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital and near the high commissioner’s palace. A large number of Arabs fled the area of hostilities for more secure areas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and in neighboring Arab states.
By the end of hostilities, the number of refugees reached into the hundreds of thousands (variously estimated between 200,000 and 700,000). of the original Arab population in Palestine, estimated at 600,000 in 1914, only some 160,000 remained in the territory that was now Israel. A United Nations relief and Works Agency (UNrWA) was created to help care for the Palestinian refugees, whose status remains a major element of controversy.
on independence and while fighting the war, Israel began to focus on the need to develop its polity. Social, economic, political and administrative needs had to be met and a new state had to be developed. The outline of Israel’s system, contained in the declaration of independence, had to be converted into reality. Several issues were crucial and required immediate action: What was to be done about the remnants of European Jewry and the Jews in Arab countries who fled from there to Israel? What should be done about a constitution for the state, and what type and form of political system should be created?
A provisional government formed upon declaring independence was responsible for the administration of the new state. This provisional government was in fact new only in title and name. It had actually begun functioning after the adoption of the UN partition plan and was based on the institutions created by the Yishuv to administer the affairs of the Jewish community under the British mandate and drew on that experience. As early as March 1948, a temporary State council, chosen from the National council and the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, had assumed control in many areas. on May 14, this government officially repealed the British mandatory restrictions on immigration and the sale of land.
The provisional government was made up of three elements: the State council of 38 members, which acted as parliament; a cabinet of 13 ministers, elected by the State council from among its members; and a president elected by the State council. Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency and leader of the dominant political party, Mapai (Israel Workers Party), was elected prime minister (the leader of the new government) and minister of defense; Weizmann was elected president (head of state and essentially a figurehead). The National council of the mandate period formed the basis of the State council; the executive committee of the National council became the cabinet; the presidency was entirely new.
Among the initial actions was to convert the Haganah into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After the Arab invasion, Israel’s provisional government issued an order that established the IDF (Zvah Hagana Leyisrael) and outlawed all other military forces in the country. The Irgun and the Stern Gang were reluctant to disband and merge into the IDF, but soon afterward Irgun members were successfully incorporated.
The Altalena incident (see sidebar, pages 36–37) made it clear that the government would not tolerate challenges to its authority or the existence of armed forces competing with the IDF. It also contributed to the personal animosity between Menachem Begin, leader of the revisionist Zionists and of the Irgun, and Ben-Gurion, the new prime minister, that characterized Israeli politics in subsequent decades.
The provisional government directed the war with the Arab states, levied taxes, established administrative agencies, and conducted essential public services. It functioned from May 14, 1948 until early 1949. At its last session prior to the national elections of January 25, 1949, the State council adopted a transition ordinance transferring its authority to a constituent Assembly and extending its own life until that body was convened. The functions of the provisional State council ceased when the constituent Assembly convened on February 14, 1949.
This assembly, which later declared itself the first Knesset, was a unicameral parliament composed of 120 members representing 12 of the 24 parties that contested the January 1949 elections. Nearly 85 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the election.The institutions of the new state and the individuals who ran them were charged with a series of responsibilities whose cumulative effect was to create a functioning Jewish state in the territory allocated by the United Nations. Israel became the 59th member of the United Nations on May 11, 1949.