Al-Ahram WeeklySpecial pages commemorating
50 years of Arab dispossession
since the creation of the
State of Israel
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

50 Years


The Arabs divided

When the League of Arab States came into existence on 22 March, 1945, there were only seven independent nations to join: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. All the Arab League state members, however, had for decades been languishing under British and French colonialism, accorded a degree of autonomy inadequate to allow them to function as modern states.

In 1948, Egypt and Iraq were still actively negotiating the evacuation of British troops stationed in military bases on their national territories; the army of Transjordan was under direct British command; Syria and Lebanon had just emerged from under French mandate and British occupation and their minuscule armies were ill-equipped. The only two totally independent Arab armies were those of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, though they were such primitive forces that it is debatable whether one should use the term army in the modern sense of the word.

A meeting of the Arab League

A meeting of the Arab League with Nouri El-Said Pasha (far right), Prince Faisal, and Lebanon's prime minister Riad El-Solh

Kings and Princess Fawzia

King Abdullah of Jrodan flanked by King Farouk and his sister princess Fawzia dressed in military uniform

  The combined Arab armies were outnumbered on the battlefield. As Mohamed Hassanein Heikal writes in Secret Channels: "If this now seems difficult to believe it is because of the success of the Zionists in presenting a David and Goliath version of the first Arab-Israeli war."

Nothing could be further from the truth than the official Israeli version. On 15 May the total Jewish fighting force comprised 64,000 men armed with the modern and sophisticated weapons which the Arabs lacked. By October 1948 the Jewish fighting force had increased to 80,000, while the Arab armies were in a state of disarray.

"The fighting took place in four phases, interspersed with ceasefires between May 1948 and January 1949. The struggle was intense at first, but dwindled as the hopelessness of the odds against them became clearer to the Arab forces. The combined Arab armies, outnumbered approximately two to one by Israel's better trained and -equipped troops, were unable to prevent expansion of the Zionist state," writes Heikal.

King Farouk

King Farouk in Air Force uniform

The leaders of the Arab world on the eve of the war were wracked with divisions and greatly suspicious of each other's ambitions and intentions. Egypt and Iraq were competing for supremacy; the Saudis and the Hashemites were enemies. Meanwhile the Palestinian leaders, headed by Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, were at loggerheads with King Abdullah, suspecting that if his forces entered Palestine they would never leave.

And yet it was King Abdullah who was chosen, a few days before the war, as the commander-in-chief of all Arab armies. It later transpired that the king had been holding secret meeting with Jewish leaders since 1946. In November 1947 he met Golda Meir, then acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department, and told her the he agreed to the establishment of Israel in the parts of Palestine already occupied by Jews on condition that Jordan would annex the rest. In March Abdullah's prime minister, Tawfiq Abu Al-Huda, secretly met the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, and they agreed that Transjordanian forces would enter Palestine at the end of the British Mandate, restricting themselves to the area of the Arab state outlined in the UN partition plan.

Abdullah's secret agreements, unknown to the other Arab parties at the time, contributed to the general state of disarray of the Arab armies. He delayed the passage of Iraqi troops across Jordanian territories insuring, in the process, that those military missions assigned to Baghdad were doomed to failure. His troops evacuated Lydda and Ramleh without consulting the other Arab armies, thus exposing the Egyptian army's flank in the Negev. This allowed the Israelis to launch a major offensive against the Egyptian army on 15 October, successfully splintering the Egyptian forces into three disconnected groups. Israeli forces were then able to break through Egyptian lines in the south, surround the Egyptian army at El-Arish in the Sinai and encircle an Egyptian brigade at Falluga and hold it under siege for four months. Gamal Abdel-Nasser was one of the besieged Egyptian officers at Falluga.

Iraqi royalties

King Faisal II of Iraq (right) and his uncle, Abdel Ilah, the Prince Regent

  The humiliating Arab defeat and Israel's victory in the 1948 war led to a state of turmoil, bitterness and recrimination throughout the Arab world. The Egyptian prime minister, Mahmoud Fahmi Al-Noqrashi, was assassinated in Cairo before the war ended; a year later the prime minister of Lebanon, Riad Al-Solh, was assassinated, and in 1951 King Abdullah was assassinated while entering Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City, annexed to Jordan by that time. In 1952 Nasser led the revolution which toppled the monarchy in Egypt, and in 1958 another officer, Abdel-Karim Qassim, humiliated by the defeat he witnessed in Palestine, led a revolution in Iraq in which the Iraqi monarch, the Prince Regent, Abdel Ilah and Nouri Pasha Al-Said were all killed on the streets of Baghdad.

Heikal, covering the 1948 war, travelled on the eve of the war in King Abdullah's cavalcade to attend a military parade of Arab troops outside the West Bank town of Jericho. In Secret Channels he tells an amusing story that eloquently sums up the whole situation: "Abdullah made a speech from a podium exhorting the troops to battle, and then called for a certain blind Palestinian Sheikh to give a sermon... The king, who had turned away to talk to the officers, suddenly heard the Sheikh's words coming over the loudspeakers: 'Oh Army--' a long pause; 'Oh Army, I wish you were ours.' ... 'Get him out,' the king shouted. 'he deserves his blindness.' The blind man, who could see too much, was hurried away."

Saud and Abdulla

King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (right) with King Abdullah

Fawzi Al- Qawuqji and Taha Al-Hashmi Pasha

In December 1947 the Arab League declared the partition of Palestine illegal and resolved to send to Palestine 10,000 rifles and 3,000 volunteers. Taha Al-Hashmi Pasha (right) was appointed General inspector of the Arab League organised army of volunteers, while Fawzi Al- Qawuqji (left) was to train the volunteers in a camp near Damascus

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