Why the Arabs were defeated

Historians argue the reasons behind Arab losses against Israel in 1948.

Arab unity episode 4

The Palestine Post, later renamed the Jerusalem Post, announcing the birth of Israel on May 14, 1948. One of the main stories is of an Egyptian air attack on Tel Aviv  [GETTY]

Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1933 and 1939 resulted in widespread domestic unrest that culminated in a number of violent incidents involving Jews and Arabs.

The situation was further exacerbated when despite Arab rejection, the United Nations approved a plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states on November 29, 1947.

While preparing for their withdrawal, the British paid little attention to the turmoil to which Palestine had fallen prey.

On May 14, 1948, General Alan Cunningham, the last British high commissioner, left what was known then as the mandate of Palestine.

John Marlowe wrote of the last few minutes of British rule in the book, The Seat of Pilate: “The Union Jack was lowered 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.”

On the same day, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, announced the independence of the state of Israel, established on the land granted to the Jews by the Partition Plan.

Mobilised for defeat



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Within a day, forces from the armies of several Arab countries, including Egypt and Transjordan, attacked the new state of Israel.

Underestimating the power of the fledgling state, Arab rulers thought they were heading towards an easy victory that would quiet post-World War II domestic unrest and – perhaps – gain them more territory.

“The advisors to President Quwatli and King Farouq, for example, were telling them that this will be a piece of cake for the Syrians and Egyptians [respectively],” Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst and author of Shukri al-Qawatli’s biography, The George Washington of Syria, said.

The scenario of defeating defenceless Israel turned out to be a far-fetched one.

The forces of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israeli military which was a combination of Jewish militias, such as the right-wing Irgun Tzvei Le’umi and the more extreme Stern Gang.

The reasons behind the crushing defeat are still the subjects of many heated debates.

Radwan al-Sayyid, a Lebanese political thinker, told Al Jazeera that there was not enough awareness among Arabs that an ill-timed and poorly-executed military campaign could end up totally losing Palestine.

“The Jews, who constituted only around 20-25 per cent of the population, were not perceived as a serious threat by most of the Arabs,” he said.

Disunited, Arabs fall

Another factor that contributed to the 1948 defeat was inter-Arab political rivalries.


Jewish settlers and members of the
pre-state Haganah in 1938 [GETTY]

While Arab leaders claimed to be fighting for Palestine, they were also engaged in a war of interests in which the warring parties had different agendas and often conflicting goals.


Arthur Goldschmidt Jr, a professor emeritus of Middle East history at Pennsylvania State University, says these rivalries altered the course of the war.

“Notably the rivalry between the Jordanians, with their British-officered Arab Legion and King Abdullah’s ambitions for a Greater Syria, and the Egyptians, with King Farouk’s ambition to lead the Arab World, backed to some degree by the League of Arab States and by the former mufti of Jerusalem,” he said.

Goldschmidt, who is co-author of A Concise History of the Middle East, said Iraq tended to support Transjordan while Saudi Arabia sided with Egypt, pointing out that “[it] is not clear who really looked out for the Palestinian Arabs”.

Some historical reports even mention a secret deal between Transjordan’s King Abdullah and the Jews in which he was offered the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem.

Al-Sayyid said: “During the course of the war, the Arab Legion did not advance beyond the regions the Israelis had given Abdullah under the deal.”

Not collective defeat

Moubayed, however, argues that the war should not be seen as a single collective defeat.

“Speaking from a Syrian perspective, the Syrian Army was not defeated. They performed with flying colours during the early stages of the war,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Also in the initial stages, the Egyptians took Gaza and raised their flag over Khan Yunis.”

But soon enough, instead of fighting against the Jewish state, Arab leaders fought against each other for land and glory.

“The rivalries were a major problem because they resulted in poor command, lack of transparency, and ultimately, failure,” Moubayed said.

He considers the first armistice, which gave the Israelis time to re-organise themselves, and the secret deal between King Abdullah and Golda Meir, the iconic Israeli prime minister, as major setbacks that turned the course of events in favour of Israel.

Negligence, corruption, scandal

But the Arabs also exhibited negligent underestimation of the abilities of the Jewish militias in in Palestine.

 Members of Hashomer, a Jewish militia, 
in1907 in the Upper Galilee [GETTY]

Perhaps, the military campaigns were never taken seriously enough by Arab leaders and as a result, a small number of poorly-equipped Arab forces were sent to the battlefield.

“The Jews were superior in numbers and equipment,” Al-Sayyid said.

The Egyptian military also alleged that they were supplied with deficient weapons by their own government.

But, Moubayed argues that “it was actually the souls that were corrupted, more so than the weapons”.

Unlike the Arabs, the Israelis were well-prepared and well-organised and had many experienced fighters who had served in units of the British Army during World War II.

“Some [Israelis], like Moshe Dayan, had seen service on behalf of Britain in World War II. There were also volunteers, mostly Jewish, but some Gentiles also, who came to Israel’s aid and had gained training and experience in the Allied forces during World War II,” Goldschmidt said.


The Israeli victory in 1948 can also be attributed to the international support Israel received, notably the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British promised to support the Zionist cause of establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

The UN Partition Plan, which passed in the General Assembly, was approved by both the US and the USSR.

“The 1948 war occurred before the start of the Cold War, and world powers together with other small countries were for the establishment of a Jewish state,” Al-Sayyid said, mentioning the example of the USSR pressuring Czechoslovakia to send weapons to the Israelis during the war.

Moubayed also expressed a similar viewpoint, citing Harry Truman’s alleged response when he was asked about the reason behind his support for Israel: “Because there is no Arab constituency in Washington.”

The Nakba

But some historians say the importance of international support has been overstated.

Khalid Al-Dekhil, a Saudi analyst and political science professor, said: “This factor [international intervention] is always there. Israelis were smart enough to make use of it. Why did not Arabs do the same?” 

In his book Ma’na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Catastrophe), Constantine Zurayq, a prominent thinker, considered the Arab battlefield losses and their political impotence to be signs of a “civilisational defeat”.

Al-Dekhil believes that the 1948 defeat was truly a civilisational defeat because military weakness was only a reflection of an overall state of decay.

Al Sayyid, however, argues against Zurayq’s analysis, attributing the defeat only to the lack of preparation, organisation and coordination between the handful of independent Arab states. 

Regardless of the accuracy of Zurayq’s analysis, the name he gave to the 1948 defeat – al-Nakba – is still used today to refer to the humiliating defeat that shaped the Middle East forever.

Source: Al Jazeera