History Crash Course #66: War

May 9, 2009

18 min read


Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been in a constant state of war, and yet has achieved great economic success.

"The Arab world is not in a compromising mood... Nations never concede; they fight. You won't get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by force of your arms... It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it's too late to talk of peaceful solutions." ― Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, Sept. 16 1947

On Erev Shabbat, 5th Iyar 5708, 14th day of May 1948, Israel became a state.

And immediately it was plunged into war as five of the neighboring Arab states attacked. These Arab states had previously voted against the UN partition of Palestine and now simply refused to recognize that historic and democratic vote. (See Part 65 for more on this subject.)

Little Israel, which had virtually no heavy artillery, no tanks, no airplanes, had to defend itself against Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq! That's 600,000 Jews against 45 million Arabs, while the United Nations did nothing.

And yet the Jews won. It was nothing short of a miracle.

But the victory was bittersweet. The Old City of Jerusalem ― including the Jewish Quarter and access to the Kotel, the Western (Wailing) Wall ― fell to the Jordanians. The Jews were driven out of the Old City, and their homes and synagogues looted and destroyed.

Even though the Jordanians signed an armistice agreement that would allow Jews access to the Western Wall and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, they barred Jewish access to these sites and desecrated thousands of tombs on the Mount Olives, and the world again did not lift a finger to protest that the religious rights of a people were being violated.

(For fascinating details about the War of Independence, see The Pledge by Leonard Slater.)

New Borders

The War of Independence had lasted 13 months. Some 6,000 Israelis died or a full 1% of the Jewish population at that time.

(If that had happened in America, proportionally, 3 million people would have died. As upset as America was about the Vietnam War, it lost 52,000 soldiers in that war.)

Mt. Herzl, the national cemetery, is full of graves without names. These are graves of Holocaust survivors who made it to Israel only to be handed a gun in order to fight for the survival of the Jewish nation. No one had time to get to know their names. They went down in history only as Yossi or Hershel or Moshe. It is a tragic thing to see all these graves marked "Plony" (which is the Israeli version of "John Doe.")

The War of Independence was Israel's costliest war.

The end of the war defined the borders of the new State of Israel in a radically new way. The borders were not the ones that the UN defined in their partition vote. In sum total, Israel got more land, though it lost the Old City of Jerusalem.

ISRAEL As per UN vote: After the 1948 war:
Narrow strip of land along Mediterranean
(Tel Aviv and Haifa)
Narrow strip of land along Mediterranean
(Tel Aviv and Haifa)
JEWISH CONTROL Land surrounding the Sea of Galilee
Negev Desert
Land surrounding the Sea of Galilee
Negev Desert
North and Western Galilee (Tzfat)
ARAB CONTROL Entire West Bank of the River Jordan
(Judea and Samaria)
Gaza Strip
North and Western Galilee (Tzfat)
Entire West Bank of the River Jordan
(Judea and Samaria)
Gaza Strip
Jerusalem Under international control In Jordanian hands


Already, at the time of the UN partition vote, Arab residents of Palestine began fleeing in anticipation of war. The first to go were the 30,000 of the wealthiest. By January 1948 the Palestine Arab Higher Committee asked other Arab countries to bar entry of refugees because the Arab exodus from Palestine was so alarming.

At the time of the declaration of the State of Israel, 500,000 Arabs fled as war broke out.(1)

At the same time, 820,000 Jews (out of total estimated population of more than 870,000) were forced to flee Arab lands such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt etc. Most of the property of these Jews, many of whom were wealthy people, was confiscated, never to be returned. (Of these Jews, about 580,000 settled in Israel.) (2)

Once the war was over, the population began to rise by leaps and bounds with Jewish immigrants coming not only from Arab countries, but also from other states and more recently from Ethiopia and Russia.

  • 1948: 600,000 Jews
  • 1956: 1.2 million Jews
  • 1973: 1.8 million Jews
  • 1999: 4.7 million Jews
  • 2007: 5.4 million Jews(3)

The population of Israel, since the founding of the state, has increased 900%! This increase had presented a special challenge, because of the huge economic burden of absorbing such a huge number of newcomers.

However, while it was a burden, the population growth has also been a big blessing. Immigration has done tremendous things for the country. The standard of living in Israel ― which in 1948 was forced to ration food ― has gone up tremendously in the last two decades.

Was this a miracle? Clearly. But it certainly sounds like a step toward the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy.

And the Lord, your God, shall return you from your captivity, and have compassion upon you. He shall return and gather you from amongst all the nations. And the Lord, your God will bring you back into the land your fathers inherited. He will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. (Deut. 30:3-5)
For thus says God, "Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations; proclaim your praise and say: 'O God, deliver your people, the remnant of Israel!' Behold, I will bring them back from northern lands, and gather them from the ends of the world..."(Jeremiah 31:6-7)

But Israel has not only been able to absorb huge masses of people, it has not only survived living in a constant state of war, it has grown economically. And this despite various trade boycotts instigated by Arab nations. (For example, Pepsi Cola didn't sell in Israel for years because of the boycott. For many years, Subaru was the only Japanese car manufacturer to sell here.) Keeping this in mind, it is absolutely miraculous what Israel has been able to do.

Not only did the "desert bloom," but in a relatively short time the once barren land was producing a surplus! This surplus was then exported to other, far more "lush" countries, like the U.S.

Another fulfillment of prophecy:

"As for you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is close at hand. For behold, I am with you and I shall turn to you; then you shall be tilled and sown. And I will multiply men upon you, the entire family of Israel." (Ezekiel 36:8-11)

In 1997 the International Monetary Fund took Israel off the list of developing countries, because it is now fully developed. It has the 19th highest standard of living in the world, just behind that of England.(4)

Six Day War

The Arab countries did not easily accept their defeat in 1948. All the while they were plotting a comeback.(5)

On May 22, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) declared the Strait of Tiran ― that is Israel's sea access to Eilat ― was closed to all Israeli ships and any other ships bound for Israel. This attempt at economic strangulation would have been an act of war to any other country, but initially Israel did not react, attempting to find a political solution.

Meanwhile, Nasser became more and more aggressive in his verbal attacks on Israel. On May 27, 1967, he declared: "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. On June 1, 1967, Iraq's president Abel Rahman Aref declared: "Our goal is clear ― to wipe Israel off the map."

Egypt and Syria already had an alliance combining their armies and now Egypt made a similar agreement with Jordan. It was clear that war was imminent.

On June 5, 1967, Israel, realizing that the entire Arab world is about to attack, launched a preemptive strike.

It was one of the most brilliant preemptive strikes in history. In one fell swoop, Israeli planes bombed the entire Egyptian Air Force still sitting on the ground, and a day later did the same thing to the entire Jordanian Air Force.

Why didn't the Jordanians react after the Egyptians were bombed? Because the Egyptians were broadcasting that they had achieved a tremendous victory (when they were completely crushed). Not knowing what was truly happening, the Jordanians believed the propaganda and thus were unprepared.

In just six days, Israel captured huge chunks of territory and won what is generally considered to be one of the greatest military victories in history:

  • In the south, the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt)
  • In the north, the Golan Heights (from Syria); note that Syria, initially part of the lands of the French Mandate after World War I, became part of the United Arab Republic (together with Egypt and Yemen) in 1958; in 1961 Syria withdrew from the union, creating its own borders which included the Golan Heights
  • In the east, the West Bank of the River Jordan, which Jordan annexed after 1948, though this land was never meant to be part of the country of Jordan
  • And most importantly, Israel re-captured the Old City of Jerusalem, which should have been "international" under the UN plan, but which Jordan unilaterally took over in 1948 barring all Jews

Reunited Jerusalem

For 19 years, Jews had not been able to enter the Old City or pray at their most holy of sites, the Temple Mount or the Kotel (the Western Wall) of the Temple Mount.

Many of the soldiers fighting the war had not been born yet when this site was lost to the Jewish people. They had only seen it in photographs.

Entering the Old City, they did not know where to go, and when they found it, they openly wept.

On the radio, the paratrooper, who was leading the Old City forces, announced: "Har HaBayit b'yadenu ― The Temple Mount is in our hands."

People were jubilant. They couldn't believe the miracle that had happened.

It must be stressed that the Jewish behavior in victory was in stark contrast to the Arab behavior after their victory over the Old City in 1948, when five dozen synagogues were looted and destroyed. Jewish soldiers did not dynamite the Dome of the Rock or any other mosque in the Old City and access to these sites for Arab has continued uninterrupted.


The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in January 1964 by Ahmed Shukeiry as a representative organization of the Arab refugees of the 1948 war. It was never a peaceful organization, however. In fact, Shukeiry once predicted an Arab victory over Israel, saying: "Those [Jews] who survive will remain in Palestine. I estimate that none of them will survive."

The first and consistent aim of the PLO was the elimination of the State of Israel and its replacement by the State of Palestine.

(It is important to note that a State of Palestine had never existed in history. The Arab people living in this land during the days of the Ottoman Empire were simply Arabs with no national identity. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, in the days of the British Mandate, both Jews and Arabs were considered "Palestinians" by the British.)

Egyptian-born Yassir Arafat (1929-) was the head of Fatah, the PLO's terrorist group, and after the Six Day War, he took over the entire organization.

One of the most infamous acts carried out under Arafat's direction in the early days was the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

It is important to remember that the world again stood silent. The Olympic Games went on, while the terrorists were holding the Jewish athletes. The Israelis wanted to intervene but the Germans refused their help. In the end, the Germans totally botched the rescue attempt which led to the deaths of all the athlete hostages. Israel later hunted down and killed many of the terrorists responsible for Munich.

Since that time the PLO has carried out literally countless numbers of terrorist attacks against Israelis. To list them all would take a book in itself.

Peace Process

Since the U.N. partition vote in November of 1947, Israel has consistently called on the surrounding Arab Nations live in Peace with the Jewish state but these offers have almost always been rejected. On May 14th 1948, the day the State of Israel was created, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion stated:

In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions... We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.

Azzam Pasha's, Secretary of the Arab League, statement the following day characterized the uncompromising Arab attitude toward the fledgling Jewish state:

This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.

It's important to note that immediately following Israel's victory in the Six Day War, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, excepted U.N. Resolution 242and offered to return the captured territories to the surrounding Arab countries in return for peace treaties with its Arab neighbors. In August 1967, the Arab League rejected the offer:

Kings and presidents have agreed to unified efforts international and diplomatic levels to eliminate the consequences of aggression and to assure the withdrawal of the aggressor forces of Israel from Arab lands, but within the limits to which Arab states are committed: NO Peace with Israel, NO Negotiations with Israel, NO Recognition of Israel.

In 1979, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, in a bold move that ultimately cost him his life (He was assassinated by radical Moslems in Cairo in 1981), broke from the traditional Arab rejectionist position and signed a peace treaty with Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin. In return Israel returned every square inch of territory it won in the 1967 war.

In 1994, King Hussein of Jordan signed the second peace treaty with the government of Yitzchak Rabin (Who was murdered in 1995).

Israel has proven time and time again that it desires peace above all else and has been willing to make serious territorial concessions for the sake of peace.

In 2,000 the Palestinian Authority, led by Yassar Arafat, rejected an incredible offer by Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, for complete Israeli withdrawal from all lands taken in '67 and for the creation of a Palestinian State on this territory.(6) Indeed, it is beyond the scope of this Crash Course in Jewish History to attempt to outline the turbulent history of the State of Israel in the last 35 years which includes at least two major wars ― 1973, the Yom Kippur War(7), the 1982, Lebanon War(8), as well as the attacks by Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the second Lebanon War in 2006.

Prime Minister Gold a Meir once remarked that: "We (Israel) will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."

Events of the past few years have unfortunately shown that the Arab world, for the most part, is not moving in the direction of Peace. The Moslem world, especially Iran, continues to demonize, de-legitimize and threaten to destroy Israel. Palestinian children are taught to hate Jews and Israel and to aspire to be martyrs and suicide bombers. Despite Israel 's painful withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 the situation there has further deteriorated with the Hamas take-over of Gaza in 2007 and the daily firing of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel. It is clear that the Hamas, the PLA and many other Islamic states have still not abandoned their dream of destroying Israel.

Yet despite all these obstacles, Israel continues to strive for peace; the economy continues to expand; the high-tech industry is booming and the population continues to grow as the Diaspora slowly "shuts down" and the Jewish people return home. Perhaps the Israel Ministry of Tourism said it best when they coined the slogan: "Israel, the miracle on the Mediterranean."

[1] Source: Martin Gilbert, The Arab-Israeli Conflict – Its History in Maps. (4th Edition).There is much debate about the exact number of refugees, both Jewish and Arab and the causes of the refugee problem. The vast majority of Jewish refugees from Arab lands were either expelled from these countries or chose to leave due to rising antisemtism caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict and various Arab governments anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric. The Arab refugees from Israel (both in 1948 and 1967) also left for a variety of reasons: Many heeded the "advice" of Arab leaders to get out of the war zone and to return after Israel was destroyed; others chose to flees from the fighting while some were also driven out by Israeli forces. What ever the causes, two points are clear: 1) Had the Arabs not attacked Israel there would have been no cause to flee and therefore no refugees. 2) While Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, the Arab world has deliberately refrained from doing the same with Arab refugees out of recognition that even 60 years later, these refugees remain a powerful tool in the propaganda war against Israel.

[2] Source: Martin Gilbert, The Arab-Israeli Conflict – Its History in Maps. (4th Edition). p. 48.

[3] As for 2007 Israel is now considered to the largest Jewish population in the world, surpassing that of the United States. More Jews now live in Israel than at any time since the destruction of the 1st Temple and the Babylonian Exile 2,500 years ago. Given current demographic trends it is now estimated that within a a few decades, maximum, the majority of the Jewish people will be back in the Land of Israel.

[4] All of this development accomplished in less than 40 years, in a constant state of War, terrorism and economic boycotts and in a country with no natural resources while having to absorb millions of immigrants, many of them destitute.

[5] In 1956, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nassar nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel, backed by England and France invaded the Sinai Peninsula and captured the Suez Canal. American pressure forced Israel to with draw.

[6] Arafat never actually rejected the offer. He walked out of the talks and initiated a five-year long terrorist war know as the second Intifada. If one studies the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it becomes clear that the issue has never really been about creating a Palestinian state. (Such a state could have been created numerous times in the past 60 years), but rather it has really been about destroying the Jewish State and the Arab world's inability to accept a Jewish state of any kind, no matter what the borders.

[7] The Yom Kippur War was fought from October 6-26, 1973 by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel. The war began with a surprise joint attack by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Egypt and Syria crossed the cease-fire lines in the Sinai and Golan Heights, respectively, which had been captured by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War. The Egyptians and Syrians advanced during the first 24-48 hours, after which momentum began to swing in Israel's favor. By the second week of the war, the Syrians had been pushed entirely out of the Golan Heights. In the Sinai to the south, the Israelis struck at the "seam" between two invading Egyptian armies, crossed the Suez Canal (where the old ceasefireline had been), and cut off the Egyptian Third Army just as a United Nations cease-fire came into effect. In the end, Israel had won a greater victory than in 1967 but at a much higher cost with 2,378 soldiers killed as opposed to 766 killed in 1967. (Total Arab casualties in both wars were never announced).

[8] The 1982 Lebanon War called by Israel the "Operation Peace of the Galilee" and later also known in Israel as the First Lebanon War (There was a second Lebanon War during July-August 2006), began June 6, 1982, when the Israel Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon-which had been largely taken over by the PLO and used as a staging area for attacks against Israel. The Government of Israel ordered the invasion as a response to the assassination attempt against Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov by the Abu Nidal Organization. After attacking PLO, Syrian and Muslim Lebanese forces, Israel occupied southern Lebanon. Surrounded in West Beirut, the PLO and the Syrian forces negotiated passage from Lebanon with the aid of international peacekeepers. Israeli forces (with their South Lebanese allies) maintained a security, buffer zone in south Lebanon until the IDF's withdrawal in 2000.

Next Steps