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


On the eve of war

In the first of a series of interviews with senior politicians and political analysts who lived through the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who covered the war from the battlefield, talks to Amira Howeidy and Omayma Abdel-Latif about the genesis and development of a struggle that still rages 50 years later
"Until 1 May 1948, Egypt remained equivocal about placing its regular troops on the front line in Palestine. There were two general trends in Egypt regarding this matter: the first exemplified by Egypt's then prime minister, Mahmoud Fahmi Al-Noqrashi Pasha, who was opposed to such a move; the second being the pan-Arab trend advocated by people like Abdel-Rahman Azam Pasha, then secretary-general of the Arab League, and Mohamed Ali Alouba Pasha, who advocated Egypt's active participation in the war.

"The roots of these two trends date back to the turn of the century when Egypt was at a crossroads as far as its identity was concerned: should it embrace Arabism or, because of the Suez Canal, adopt a neutral Swiss model, or ally itself to Europe, signing mutual defence agreements with major Western powers and becoming, to all intents and purposes, a kind of poor European dependent. There were, too, other options: there was the pan-Islamic trend, which at this point always appeared a little far fetched.

"Participation in the Second World War, however, boosted the notion of Egypt being an integral part of the Arab world. Following the war, the issue of Syrian and Lebanese independence was raised, and Egypt came out firmly in favour. Egypt's bonds with the Arab world were becoming stronger, a movement exemplified by the signing of the Arab League charter in 1945. During the second half of the 1930s, with the escalation in Jewish immigration to Palestine and the publication of the white paper on Palestine (1939), the Palestinian question began to impose itself as a litmus test for Arab countries. Like other persistent issues, such as Arab-related unity and independence, it became an integral part of the national debates raging at the time in the Arab world. When the war ended, and in 1947 the UN partition plan became a fact of life, the Arabs were faced with a situation where they could neither accept partition nor remain silent.

"It was at this point that King Abdullah of Transjordan decided to enter the war with his army, the Arab Legion, to take over the Arab parts designated in the UN partition plan. He could see that a Jewish state would be established in Palestine, and all he wanted was to annex the remaining parts to his Jordanian kingdom. This move placed great pressure on many Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Syria. Iraq, though, wavered: on the one hand it did not object to an expanded Hashemite kingdom, while on the other it worried about what such a plan entailed for Syria. Also, Iraq was suspicious of Egypt's role and intentions. Egypt, for its part, felt uncomfortable with the idea of King Abdullah expanding his kingdom and thus pursuing his ambitions of ruling over a "Greater Syria" .

"The internal pressures created then pushed the Arab world, particularly Egypt, into taking military action. But in Egypt there were two conflicting opinions. King Farouk entertained dreams of entering Palestine and facing down the Hashemite monarch, ambitions encouraged by King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, who resented Hashemite expansionism. The Egyptian monarch feared, though, that if he were to send in the Egyptian army the British authorities would be unlikely to allow them to proceed beyond Rafah, or even the Suez Canal.

"The Egyptian prime minister, Noqrashi Pasha, was opposed to Egyptian participation in the war, whatever the circumstances. His opinion was shared, though for a different reason, by some members of the Senate, especially Ismail Sidki Pasha. Sidki, who maintained good relations with Egypt's Jewish community, argued that Egypt had no interests at stake in such conflict. Noqrashi's rationale for opposing Egyptian military intervention, on the other hand, centred on his belief that such a course of action would compromise Egypt's bid for independence -- he was, at the time, involved in strenuous talks with the British over evacuation. He feared that if the Egyptian army entered Palestine and put on a poor show, this would furnish the British with a pretext not to evacuate, claiming that such a course of action would leave a vacuum around the Suez Canal."

M.H.Heikal 'We were in Haifa when it fell to Jewish forces, and we visited a Jewish settlement called Khodirah. There they were armouring vehicles in preparation for the war, and we took pictures of the vehicles being armoured and filed a story for Akhbar El-Youm. When I returned to Egypt for a brief period, I was summoned to the office of the prime minister, Noqrashi Pasha. The moment he saw me he launched an attack on me. He said that I had exaggerated the figures that I published...He had no practical understanding of the size and nature of the Jewish forces, conceived of as merely gangs'


"Several important points must be made here. In my book, Malafat El Sues (The Suez Files) there are documents indicating Britain's seeming desire to push us to war. I believe that the decision to go to war was right; the timing, however, and how we prepared for the war, is the problem. We had no idea, no concept of what this war was. Everything, from training, preparation, tactics, to our ability to handle weapons points in this direction.

"At some time King Farouk had made a deal of sorts with the British military to supply weapons from their military base in the Suez Canal Zone. So we were getting weapons. Yet you would find very strange statements about the amount of weapons that came out of the British base in the Suez Canal. These included armoured vehicles, which clearly could not have left the base unnoticed, or without permission.

"It was King Farouk who made the decision: he wanted to take part in the war for the reasons stated above. As far as the shortage of weapons, which had been a problem, was concerned, Farouk could now assure the prime minister that supplies had been insured. The minister of war, Heidar Pasha, went to the Ministerial Council and told them that the Egyptian army had arms and ammunition sufficient for three months. At that time, three months seemed like a long time. All this is stated in the minutes of the Ministerial Council.

"So, during the early stages, we relied on the weapons provided to us by the British army. And even if we could say that when Ahmed Abdel-Aziz's forces went to Palestine via Arish they sneaked in despite the fact that the British had bases in both Rafah and the Suez, the same cannot be said about the three battalions that later joined Major-General Ahmed Mohamed El-Mawawi, commander of the Egyptian forces. Upon entering Rafah, Mawawi himself was kept waiting for 30 minutes at the British check point and then issued with a permit. What is noteworthy is that the British did not interfere; armed units passed through Arish, then Rafah and the British army did not move."


"I had known in Cairo that the Egyptian volunteer force, led by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, which went to Palestine at the beginning of 1948, as part of the Arab League organised army of irregulars, was preparing to advance on Hebron. So, in April, we set off, myself and photographer Hamas, with the intention of joining them and covering the action from the battlefield.

"During this time one prevalent view in the Arab world, espoused in Egypt by Dr Waheed Raafat, royal counsellor at the foreign ministry, believed that, similar to Spain in the civil war, the regular armies must be kept from engaging in battle. This mission was to be left to irregular forces of volunteers while the job of the armies would be to encircle the battlefield. It was within this framework that some Egyptian officers, led by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, who belonged to the cavalier division, and including Kamal El-Din Hussein, Hassan Fahmi Abdel-Maguid and Mustafa Kamel Sidiki, resigned from the Egyptian army and left Egypt to lead guerrilla warfare in Palestine. They were joined by others, such as the Muslim Brothers.

"I knew that these forces were there. So I went with Mohamed Youssef, first to Amman, then to Jerusalem in a car. Once we arrived we realised that there was no longer any means of transportation. Everything was in chaos. The British would leave their camps and the Jews would immediately occupy them. It was a state of total loss. No one knew who was leading the war. No one knew the aim of the war. No one knew anything.

"We were in Haifa when it fell to Jewish forces (22 April), and we visited a Jewish settlement called Khodirah. There they were armouring vehicles in preparation for the war, and we took pictures of the vehicles being armoured and filed a story for Akhbar El-Youm. When I returned to Egypt for a brief period, I was summoned to the office of Noqrashi Pasha. The moment he saw me he launched an attack on me. He said that I had exaggerated the figures that I published, and even said that our photos were faked. Only when we showed him the negatives did he believe us.

"I told him in detail about the situation and he listened attentively. Initially I thought this was because I had taken the trouble to organise my thoughts but later I realised he had absolutely no idea about what was going on. He had no practical understanding of the size and nature of the Jewish forces, conceived of as merely gangs. He did not know that when they started their offensive the Jewish forces had three times the manpower of the so-called Arab armies."


"Other than the Egyptian volunteer force, there were two groups of irregulars in Palestine in the days preceding 15 May: the Holy Jihad, affiliated to the Arab Higher Committee, led by Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, and the Salvation Army of Fawzi El-Qauoqji. The second, I believe, was almost totally ineffective. The Jewish forces, on the other hand, were a real military force, prepared much earlier and for a specific aim.

"When we talk about the Haganah especially, we are talking here about a military force formed very early, in 1918 or 1919, even before the Balfour Declaration. It quickly established connections with the Jewish community in Palestine and became part of it, ultimately increasing in number and arms. When the Second World War began, this force became the Jewish legion and fought in the war. It was, then, an army that had had experience of combat, experience the importance of which should not be understated. There is a difference between having a vague idea about war and a firm idea about winning.

"No one can imagine how we fought. I was near El-Qastel when it fell. I was in Jerusalem, with our Consul General, Kamal El-Din Salah, when we received the news about the death of Abdel-Qader El-Husseini. El-Husseini was a hero, I agree, but the truth is not even El-Husseini was equipped to fight a battle such as this. It was not his fault, but simply a result of the absence of any concept of modern warfare. War is not the same as scrapping. War requires strategy. Without strategy you are talking about nothing more than brawling, which has nothing to do with making war. The resistance forces were not well trained, had very little idea about strategy, had not even grasped the concept of war, and none of this was their fault.

"Seeing people with good intentions ready to die led to the most ghastly feelings of impotence. And perhaps, really, it is not dying that is important but knowing how to die. The catastrophe was that no one had taught us how to die. Death has to be learned. To die cheaply is a nonsense.

M.H.Heikal and Ahmed Abdel Aziz Heikal (left) with Ahmed Abdel Aziz, commander of the volunteer force in Palestine in April 1948


"The Arab armies, when they entered the war on 15 May, also had very little idea about the war and its aims. Letters such as those sent by the two consecutive commanders-in-chief of the Egyptian army in Palestine (Major General Mawawi, then Major General Fouad Sadeq) to Egypt, asking "what is the target we want to achieve?" say it all. I don't know what the Syrian or Iraqi commanders were asking their governments.

"The only country whose army knew what it was doing was Jordan. King Abdullah, who was appointed Supreme Commander of the Arab Armies days before the war, had a political plan. And Glubb Pasha, the British commander of Jordan's Arab Legion, was on the battle-ground, and had a military plan. To cut the story short, neither the Arab governments, their armies or politicians knew what they were doing. They did not have a single practical idea on how to stop the implementation of the partition plan. In short, Jordan was the only country with clear political and military objectives.

"We must remember, however, when we speak about King Abdullah as the Supreme Commander of the Arab Armies, that there is a difference between being the Supreme Commander on paper and leading national local forces in practice. King Abdullah was not Eisenhower leading the allied forces in the war. And in practice there was no such thing as an effective Supreme Commander. King Abdullah did not have the means to order any army whatsoever. He was interested only in keeping the cadres of the Arab armies inert, which is exactly what happened.

"The Syrian army entered the battle but got stuck in Sabkh. The Lebanese made no progress. The Iraqi army entered the Nablus-Tulkarem-Jenin triangle, engaged in military battles, but did not know what to do next. And all the time Abdullah was making deals. The Jews, on the other hand, feeling that they had nothing to fear, continued to violate the borders imposed by the partition with impunity. In 1948, 67 per cent of Palestine was gone.

"Egypt's was the only army for which the Jews showed any concern. The Egyptians were, compared to the others, more organised, and thus were able to achieve something at the beginning. The volunteer force, for example, crossed Bethlehem, went to Hebron and converged there, but again they got stuck. The Egyptian volunteer force comprised some 3,200 to 4,000 men. They were far from homogenous, containing Egyptian, Sudanese and some Libyan volunteers. Most of the volunteers, perhaps three-quarters of them, were from the Muslim Brotherhood, and they created real problems later on, especially when Al-Noqrashi Pasha dissolved their organisation.

"As for the Egyptian army which entered the war on 15 May, it also suffered problems, the most basic arising from the lack of clear cut objectives. I remember, for example, that when, later during the war, we managed -- myself and Mohamed Youssef -- with the help of a lieutenant from the Ahmed Abdel-Aziz volunteer battalion, to get to the headquarters of the Egyptian Commander-in-Chief, Major General Mawawi, in Al-Majdal, we were asked whether we had permits from the ministry of defence to meet the commander. When we said we had nothing he at first refused to meet us. Then he felt sorry for us because we had taken so much trouble to get there and permitted us to take a few photos. Then he called the Ministry of Defence in Cairo to tell them of our presence and he was immediately ordered to deport us. Luckily, on our way back my leg was injured by a stray bullet, so they had to take me to hospital for treatment. By the time I got well they had forgotten about the deportation.

"You can gather from this story the degree of concern then experienced: the simple fact of my presence [writing about what was happening] was considered so troublesome because they used to send exaggerated reports to Cairo about what was happening, and they did not want anyone on the ground. And still they did not know how to react."


"To answer such a question we must ask ourselves first: were the Palestinians capable of or did they have the power to perform better than the Arab armies even in a guerrilla warfare, which still needs professionals?

"Back in 1948 the Palestinians were divided, tribally and politically. Also there were many elements in favour of King Abdullah which allowed him to overshadow the Palestinians. First, the British worked actively in suppressing Palestinian resistance. Second, the main force within the resistance, Hajj Amin El-Husseini, was also far from the scene. It is not that he stayed away for a day or two, but he had been away since the suppression of the Palestinian 1936 revolution. And during this period, he consistently placed his bets on the wrong horses. I have great respect for him, and believe that he was a noble mujahed, but he was a throwback to another age. Don't tell me that a Sheikh with a religious background can lead a modern armed struggle. He can lead a guerrilla warfare, but only on the condition that he is actually present on the ground. Or he could lead an organisation, though the situation in Palestine did not permit this.

"There were three major players in Palestine: the Jewish forces, the British army and King Abdullah, who was in Palestine precisely because the Jordanian army was considered a part of the British army. And between them it was impossible for the Palestinians to effectively rescue their country, I saw that for myself. This was not their fault. They were unprepared, and faced the existing powers on the ground. So it was inevitable that the Palestinians could do very little for reasons that had nothing to do with Jihad or the eagerness to sacrifice.

"True, during the month of April the holy Jihad, under the leadership of Abdel-Qadir Al-Husseini, led some successful operations against the Jewish forces, but those operations were not going to be effective once a full-scale war erupted. If we are talking about underground resistance, then yes, but even on that level, the Palestinians had very little idea about what guerrilla warfare might be.

"If the Palestinians say they were denied arms to defend their homeland, part of this is said in retrospect to answer the accusations that they were unable to defend themselves. I don't think that the Palestinians need to answer such nonsensical accusations. Like everybody else, they were effectively taken by surprise by a situation that was more than they could handle. Think about the volume of land sold since the 1920s by feudal families that were not even Palestinian, without any seeming awareness ofthe results. We were all overwhelmed by a Zionist project that belonged to the 20th century, while we were still living in the 18th. Anyone who tells me the Palestinians should have lead a guerrilla warfare say so only because they are wise after the event. The failure of the Arab armies was not, after all, evident at the time. And think, if the Arab armies were in such disarray, what would be the condition of any possible Palestinian resistance? The reality was of a nation overwhelmed by a settler colonial project for which it was disastrously unprepared.


"Let us not confuse what I say in 1998 about the danger of mixing religion with politics with what you say about the important role Islam played in mobilising against Jewish settlers during the 1930s and 1940s. To do so leads to a confusion of the past with the present. I accept what you say about religion, at certain times, being the main frame of reference within which people are mobilised, and I accept that religion can be an important mobilising force. The relevant question though, is just how far can religion go in winning wars. Religion might raise a force, but can it give you victory?

I would like to take what you say about Hamas as a case in point, since it emerged at a time when the Arabs had won a semi-military battle [1973]. Yet if anyone thinks that Palestine will be liberated by suicide operations he is wrong. Religion can be a major mobilising force but we are far from the dawn of Islam.

"To return back to 1948, yes Hajj Amin El-Husseini mobilised from within the framework of Islam. All the Arab countries were mobilised in the same way, but mobilisation is one thing and winning a war is an all together different matter. Could religion alone successfully direct the course of a war. In the case of the 1948 war, it was a regressive mobilisation that ultimately destroyed itself.

"Even today, with all the experience the Islamic resistance movements have, the role played by Hamas and even by Hizbullah in Lebanon is to create obstacles and inflict financial damage. What we are talking about, then, is a resistence that constitutes a thorn in the Israelis' side but which is not in a position, indeed, lacks any workable strategy, to secure the liberation of Palestine."


"The Arab World could have accepted neither the Peel Plan nor the UN partition plan at the time. We should not judge with hindsight, and we are in no position to say that the Arabs should have accepted partition. Even when the Arabs decided to fight -- reading between the lines -- they maintained recognition of the partition plan. The first communiqué issued by the Arab league stated that "the Arabs are dispatching their armies to protect the 400,000 Arabs who live in areas given to the Jews according the partition plan." So here we find a tacit recognition of partition. These 400,000 Arabs outnumbered the Jews living in the same areas. So I ask you, is it possible that we could have accepted partition when the number of Jews in Palestine, until the war broke out, numbered no more than 500,000?

"The Israelis had always wanted all of Palestine and I believe that the only thing left now is for Yasser Arafat to sign the final status agreement so that what remains of Palestine is handed over to the Israelis. This will not terminate the Arab-Israeli conflict though. Israel is an imperial project: were it not to take over all of Palestine then its theoterical underpinnings will have failed. The very concept of Israel requires its taking control of the whole of Palestine, ghettoising the Arabs a la South Africa.

"Yet this aim is difficult to achieve. People refuse to leave their land and continue to multiply. Four million Palestinians will not disappear overnight, nor will the other four million in the Diaspora. There are approximately eight million Palestinians, almost half of them live in Palestine. The Palestinian people will not disappear and so need to be dealt with. This seems to be a complicated issue for an Israel in thrall to the religious fanaticism and racist extremism reflected in its right-wing government. And on this point, I don't think there is much of a difference between Netanyahu and Peres.

"Israel's main obssession is with its security, a concept of security determined by the army and its related think tanks. These are the centres which define Israel's security interests. Israeli politicians may fiddle with the equation, but its components remain the same.

"Today we don't talk about the holocaust or refugees; rather we discuss US links with the Zionist scheme and its biblical call; Israel's claim to all of the land. There is no talk of Palestinian people, because if they accept the presence of Palesinians in their midst then Israel will be just like any other country in the region, something that Israel does not want to be. Israel would live within the imperial Zionist dream and for that to happen the conflict must go on."


"There is a huge difference between the London conference held in 1929 and the one this month, so much so as to invalidate any comparison. Now we are talking about two parties: one claims all the territory and has conducted every immigration wave it could possibly wish, the other is seeking a slither of land.

What we are witnessing now has no relation whatsoever with what was happening then. Now they are discussing what has already been decided, which is what made the London conference so humiliating. Rather than discuss the rights of people, the language has been eroded into that of a bank manager -- should the Palestinians receive nine per cent, or 11 or 13. People's rights have been converted into percentages. Time after time a false target is given, which people clutch, only to find it rejected and replaced by another, smaller equally false target.

"The Palestinians are to be driven into signing the final status agreements and even then they will receive nothing. Israel will not give in on Jerusalem and will not cease settlement activities. I will tell you a shocking fact. The area of land handed to the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo accords amounts to 150,000 feddans, exactly the amount of land Israel has managed to confiscate in the West Bank over the same period. The danger, then, is that Netanyahu will accept the 13 per cent figure mooted and that Arafat, thinking of this as some kind of achievement, will sign a whole lot of new agreements. And then we will face a new disaster."

During the interview

Heikal with Editor-in-Chief and staff of Al-Ahram Weekly

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