Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Could the 1948 war have been avoided?

May 4, 2016 | Matthias Küntzel

Essay: Could the 1948 war have been avoided?

World War II and the Middle East

Matthias Küntzel


On 29 November 1947 over two-thirds of the United Nations membership voted in favour of General Assembly Resolution 181 proposing a partition of Palestine: 56% of the mandate territory was assigned to a Jewish state and 43% to an Arab state, with Jerusalem under international administration. The Jews in Palestine danced for joy in the streets all night. The following day, eight Jews were murdered in three Palestinian Arab attacks. The Arab war to prevent the implementation of the UN resolution had begun.

The struggle lasted an entire year. The first phase of the war was conducted by irregular Arab guerrilla groups and units. The second phase began on 14 May 1948. During the afternoon of that day, David Ben Gurion announced the birth of the State of Israel. Around midnight the country was invaded from the north by Syrian and Lebanese units, from the east by Jordanian troops and from the south by the Egyptian army. Some 6,000 Jews and an unknown number of Arabs lost their lives before the first ceasefire agreements were signed at the beginning of 1949.

While this war has been the subject of a vast literature, scholars have not devoted sufficient attention to the reasons why the Arabs chose war. This issue requires renewed examination in the light of the disclosure of important new evidence. In recent years our understanding of the scale and significance of Nazi antisemitic propaganda directed at the Arab world has been enriched by several major new studies. Furthermore, there has been important new research on the role of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a consequence, the assertion by Jamal el-Husseini, a cousin of the Mufti, that “the Arabs are not antisemitic, but anti-Zionist” is no longer a convincing argument.

The above raises the following questions: Are there elements of continuity between the Nazi war of 1939-45 and the subsequent Arab war against Israel?


Who Wanted War in 1947?

The Arab world was unanimous in its public rejection of the UN Partition Plan. According to the Middle East Journal, early in 1948, “even those Arabs who sincerely hoped for an eventual understanding with the Jews of Palestine could see no reasonable basis for acquiescence in the partition scheme.” After the First World War, many Arabs considered that they had been betrayed by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 by which Britain and France had designated their respective spheres of influence, disregarding the prospect of independence that London had been holding out to the Arabs. Following the Second World War, according to the Middle East Journal, “Palestine had become the test of the Arabs’ independence; to surrender would mean a repetition of the defeat which had come upon them after World War I.”

More controversial, however, was the question of whether military force should be used to thwart a two-state solution. In 1947 most Arabs in Mandatory Palestine were opposed to war. Tens of thousands of them had found work in Jewish-dominated economic sectors such as citrus fruit production. Moreover, they were aware of the Zionists’ military strength. As Ben-Gurion noted in February 1948, “most of the Palestinian Arabs refused, and still refuse, to be drawn into fighting.” In his groundbreaking study of Palestinian collaborators, Hillel Cohen [Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948, 2008] introduces many examples of stubborn resistance on the part of Palestinian Arabs to their leaders’ calls to arms, of non-aggression pacts with nearby Jewish communities and of denial of assistance to the Mufti’s forces.

There was a similar absence of war-like intentions in the Arab League states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In August 1946, the Jewish Agency reported that “the Egyptians agree that there is no other acceptable solution to the Palestine question except partition.”
Such views were no longer openly expressed after the UN partition resolution. However, in December 1947, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia flatly rejected the possibility of military intervention. The Arab League repeated that position as well. Although it was agreed that recruitment centres for guerrilla volunteers should be established in Palestine, no further measures were taken. Indeed, in February 1948, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, Secretary-General of the Arab League, defined “the conflict in Palestine as a civil war into which they would send their regular troops only if foreign armies were to get involved and implement the partition by force.”

In private, some Arab leaders were not as unhappy with the partition plan as their public statements suggested. As Transjordan’s ruler King Abdullah stated: “The partition of Palestine was the only viable solution to the conflict.” Secretary-General Abd al-Rahman Azzam, expressed a similar view. According to a Jewish Agency report of August 1946, “there was only one solution, in his view, and that was partition… But as Secretary of the Arab League he could not appear before the Arabs as the initiator of such a proposal.” In conclusion, while the Arab world unanimously rejected partition in public, it was divided regarding embarking upon a regular war. Why then did this war – so costly for both sides – take place?


Preparing for War

On 28 November 1941, Adolf Hitler assured his guest, the Mufti of Jerusalem, that as soon as the Wehrmacht reached the southern gates of the Caucasus, “Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.” Three years later, with defeat looming, the Nazis started looking toward the post-war period. The following excerpt from the Mufti’s memoirs is revealing:

In 1944, “Germany agreed to supply us with arms for the approaching tasks, and to this end created a large store with light arms suitable for guerrilla action… In addition, the authorities put at our disposal four light, four-engine airplanes for the transportation of war materiel to Palestine, to be stored in secret shelters, for the training of Palestinian fighters and for their preparation for the battles to follow.” The material included “tens of thousands of rifles, machine guns and light weapons and great quantities of equipment and ammunition.”

As part of this effort, in October 1944, five parachutists in German uniforms landed in the Jordan Valley on a mission to hide boxes of weapons previously dropped by the Luftwaffe. While these may have been isolated events, they do indicate that there was a direct link between the Nazi war effort and the subsequent struggle for Palestine regarding the supply of weapons.

Similarly, continuity with the Nazis existed on an individual level. One of the October 1944 parachutists was Ali Salameh, who served as a major in the Wehrmacht at the time. During the 1947/48 war, he was a commander in the Mufti’s jihad army (al-jihad al-muqaddas) where he chose another German Wehrmacht officer as his adviser. The jihad army’s most famous commander and its leader in Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir el-Husseini, had also been a Nazi collaborator who had participated in the defence of the pro-Nazi regime in Baghdad.

The second volunteer force, the Arab League-sponsored Arab Liberation Army, was led by another former Wehrmacht officer, Fawzi el-Kawkji. According to Der Spiegel, “important positions in Fawzi’s headquarters are occupied by members of the old German Wehrmacht… No one,” the report continues, “is troubled by the fact that the German volunteers, as in the old days, have adopted ‘Die Fahne Hoch’ [the Horst Wessel Song] as their marching song.”

However, the true embodiment of the continuity between the two wars was the Mufti himself. His antisemitism, which had cost the lives of thousands of Jews in 1944, was redirected against Israel in 1948. “Our battle with World Jewry … is a question of life and death,” Al-Husseini wrote after his return to Cairo. It is “a battle between two conflicting faiths, each of which can exist only on the ruins of the other.” The Arabs must “together attack the Jews and destroy them as soon as the British forces have withdrawn.”

Prior to the end of the war on 8 May 1945, the Mufti had, “with astute foresight,” according to Joseph Schechtman, moved a “large proportion of his Nazi financial backing” from Germany to Switzerland and Iraq.

At the end of May 1946, when the Mufti arrived in Cairo, he had to remain in hiding for weeks, as he faced charges as a war criminal by Britain, the United States and Yugoslavia. Therefore, we must ask how he resumed his position as the leader of the Palestinian Arabs despite his commitment to the Nazi cause, the side that had suffered such a bitter defeat.


The Victory of the Mufti

In 1937, the British had dissolved the Arab Higher Committee that was led by the Mufti. Henceforth, the Palestinian Arabs were leaderless. Moreover, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 exacerbated the division of the Palestinian Arabs into the radical wing led by the Husseinis and the more moderate wing led by the Nashashibis. Nevertheless, the Arab League maintained that Palestine must be represented. In November 1945, it established a new Arab Higher Committee, comprised of twelve members: five from the Husseini faction and five from the opposition parties, with the remaining two claiming to be independent.

In February 1946, the Mufti’s cousin and loyal ally, Jamal el-Husseini returned to Palestine from an internment camp in Rhodesia. He expanded the Committee in order to ensure the dominance of the Husseinis. The other parties reacted indignantly by setting up their own organisation, the “Arab Supreme Front” at the end of May.

At the same time, Amin al-Husseini arrived in Cairo. The Mufti had been detained in France, but successfully persuaded the French government that he would advance their interests in the region. In the end, the French authorities facilitated his escape. At the same time, the Arab League was meeting in the Syrian town of Bludan, where it arrived at a far-reaching decision: both the Committee and the Front were summarily dissolved and replaced by a new Arab Higher Committee under the leadership of Amin el-Husseini in which the Mufti’s opponents were denied any role. According to Joseph Schechtman, “the Bludan ‘Diktat’ was a complete victory for the Mufti.”

Although, at the time, Amin el-Husseini was not allowed to set foot in Palestine, the Arab League now enthroned him as the new leader of the Palestinian Arabs.

As a result, from 1946-1948, the Arabs of Palestine were destined to repeat the painful experiences of 1936-39: “The Mufti and his associates tolerated neither criticism nor opposition – even in non-political contexts – and did not hesitate to use pressure, violence and even murder to crush any reserve or disapproval. Anyone who broke the consensus of non-recognition of Jewish rights (or was even suspected of doing so) exposed himself to threats.” [Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, p. 267.]

One victim was Fawzi Darwish Husseini, a cousin of the Mufti and a respected figure who had worked with Jews to advocate a bi-national state. In November 1946, he was murdered by the Mufti’s thugs. “My cousin stumbled and received his proper punishment,” remarked Jamal al-Husseini. Another was Sami Taha, a leading trade unionist from Haifa who wanted to grant Jews certain rights and therefore was murdered in September 1947. In 1947, when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) attempted to gather information, the Arab Higher Committee threatened anyone who talked to the UN body with death.

In addition to the many Palestinians who disliked the Mufti, leaders of the Arab League disliked him as well. Secretary-General Azzam considered his extremism “at least, if not more, harmful to the Arabs than to the Jews.” Egyptian Prime Minister Isma’il Sidqi described him as “a schemer seeking his own personal interest [who] couldn’t care less if the entire Arab world were destroyed so long as he achieved his own goals.” King Abdullah of Transjordan blamed him for the “misery” in Palestine, while Ibn Saud declared that the Mufti would not be allowed to enter his country. Why then did the Arab League appoint the most virulent Jew-hater among the Palestinian Arabs to be their leader?


The Intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood

The pressure of the Arab street determined the outcome. Many Arabs regarded the Mufti as a charismatic leader who had defied not only the British arrest warrant of 1937 but also the demands for his extradition by the British, Yugoslav and American governments in 1945.

Moreover, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood encouraged popular support for the Mufti. In the 1930s the Brotherhood had received financial aid from Nazi Germany because of its antisemitic orientation. This was expressed, for example, in September 1944, when the head of the Brotherhood’s branch in Tanta described the Jews as “the parasites of the universe” and “an impudent people who used Muslim and Christian blood for their holy services in Passover.”

Since the Mufti’s detention in May 1945, the Brotherhood had tirelessly defended and extolled him and issued threats against his enemies. Thus, in April 1946, they warned the United States that they were “ready to sacrifice [themselves], whenever necessary” in order to rescue him. Responding to the rumour that the Zionists had sentenced the Mufti to death, they stated that, “Should one hair of the Mufti’s be touched, every Jew in the world would be killed without mercy.”

Such threats had an impact. At the war’s end the Muslim Brotherhood was still the largest and strongest political organisation in Egypt with 1,500 branches and 500,000 members. By 1948, these figures had doubled or even tripled.

The Mufti’s return to Egypt represented a major success for the Brotherhood’s campaign of threats. The movement exuberantly celebrated by cheering him on with these words: “Oh Amin! What a great, stubborn, terrific, wonderful man you are… March on! God is with you! We are behind you! We are willing to sacrifice our necks for the cause! To death!” The pro-Mufti campaigns and the potential for disorder and riots on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood played a crucial role in the decision of the Egypt-dominated Arab League to appoint the Mufti as the Palestinian leader.


The Drive toward War

Pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood also contributed to the dispatch of regular Egyptian troops against the newly founded State of Israel. First, the Brotherhood established an organisational network in Palestine, comprising over 25 branches and 20,000 members. Subsequently, they exerted pressure on the Arab League and offered to enlist 10,000 fighters for Palestine.

Furthermore, when the League met in Cairo in December 1947, the Brotherhood brought 100,000 demonstrators into the streets. According to a contemporary account, on the terrace of the Savoy Hotel where the meeting of the League took place, “the Prime Ministers of the Arab states stood with worthy and grave expressions acknowledging, fez in hand, the salutes of the passing parade of believers.” The Arab League’s response to this demonstration was that, for the first time, it expressed its consent to train volunteers for jihad in Palestine. The training was organised partly by Egyptian officers and partly by Brotherhood members such as Mahmud Labid.

While the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine] had to defend itself against guerrilla attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood spread rumours of horrific Zionist atrocities against Arabs in Palestine. Thus, they “created an atmosphere in which war seemed the only logical and natural process,” writes Thomas Mayer. “…The [Brotherhood] Society succeeded in drawing Egypt into a full-scale military initiative in Palestine.” The American embassy in Damascus confirmed this assessment. Without referring to the Brotherhood by name, it identified “the combined momentum of their own rhetoric and pressure from below” as the cause of the Egyptian invasion of Israel.


The Antisemitism Factor

The 1946 Report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry investigating the problem of European Jewry and Palestine noted that “the Nazi occupation has left behind it a legacy of anti-Semitism.” The same finding applied to the Arab countries that had not been occupied by the Nazis. From April 1939 to April 1945, daily Arabic language radio broadcasts from Berlin constantly urged their listeners to prevent the birth of a Jewish state and exterminate the Jews living in Palestine. The echoes of this propaganda, which fell on receptive ears, continued to reverberate even after the defeat of Nazi Germany. While the view of the British Foreign Office, which in 1946, “spoke of Arab hatred of the Jews being greater than that of the Nazis” may be exaggerated, it is clear that wartime Nazi propaganda contributed to increased hostility toward the Jews in Arab countries. According to Thomas Meyer, pan-Islamic organisations exploited such sentiments that derived “to some extent from sympathy with the Palestinian Arabs, but also from the belief that the Jews were responsible for the shortage of food and high prices of essential products.” Indeed, in 1946, even Ali Mahir, former Prime Minister of Egypt, thought that “Arab opposition to Zionism was the product of both Nazi propaganda in the Arab East and Britain’s confusing politics.”

To be sure, there were other possible reasons for rejecting partition than antisemitic hatred. In 1937, the Arab world had opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as envisaged by the Peel Commission. At that time, however, the Mufti and the Muslim Brotherhood were almost alone in their use of antisemitism. Ten years later, antisemitism was part of the public discourse even among those who previously had been regarded as moderates. For example, the statement by Jordanian Prime Minister Samir Rifa’i that “the Jews … were responsible for starting the two world wars” had not been heard in 1937. Such accusations were constantly reiterated in the Nazis’ Arabic-language broadcasts, as Jeffrey Herf has shown in his groundbreaking study, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.

Broadcasts from Berlin also emphasised the claim that Zionism was inherently expansionist. For example, on 8 September 1943, Radio Berlin asserted that the Jews would not be satisfied until they had made “every territory between the Tigris and the Nile Jewish.” If they succeeded, “there will remain not a single Arab Moslem or Christian in the Arab world.”

With the impending defeat of Germany, there were increasingly dire warnings about the consequences for Palestine should “World Jewry” take advantage of its opportunity. The constant repetition led to a further demonisation of Zionism among Arabs. Thus, two years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Ibn Saud described the Jews as an “aggressive people” whose ambitions “extend to all the Arab states where holy places are to be found.” Lebanese Foreign Minister, Hamid Frangieh, regarded “the expansionist efforts of Zionism” as “a serious threat to peace.” Iraqi Crown Prince Abd al-Ilah considered Zionism “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.”

It is no wonder, therefore, that an assembly of Arab kings and princes convened by Egypt’s King Farouk in May 1946 struck the same note. Their resolution states as follows: “We have decided that Zionism poses a danger not only to Palestine but also to all other Arab countries and to all nations of Islam.” The paranoid delusion that a few thousand Zionists in Britain and the US together with the Yishuv in Palestine constituted a dangerous global power that threatened the whole Islamic world had nothing to do with reality but much to do with the cumulative impact of the years of relentless Nazi propaganda.

The League was not content with such statements. In December 1945, it banned Palestinian Jews from entering Arab countries and announced a total boycott of trade with Jews. The Muslim Brotherhood, which just recently had collaborated with the Nazis, went even further. On November 2, 1945, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Brotherhood organised a demonstration in Cairo during which a mob broke into Cairo’s Jewish quarter, attacked Jewish shops and desecrated synagogues. The riots, which also spread to Alexandria, lasted two days. When they ended, police counted six dead, five of whom were Jews, and 670 injured.


General Amnesty for Antisemitism

After the defeat of the Arabs in December 1948, Jordan’s King Abdullah removed Amin al-Husseini from his position as Mufti. Thereafter, the latter’s Arab Higher Committee existed only on paper. At the same time, the Egyptian government dissolved the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine and banned the organisation in Egypt. Had Egyptian authorities done so after the anti-Jewish riots of November 1945, the history of the Middle East might have been very different.

Let us consider this hypothetical proposition. Had the Government of Egypt banned the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of 1945, its pro-Mufti campaign would not have taken place and there would have been far less pressure on the Egyptian authorities to install the Mufti as leader of the Palestinian Arabs. Neither the Brotherhood nor the Mufti would have been in a position to whip up war fever through the use of anti-Jewish attacks in Palestine. Egypt would have held fast to its original rejection of war. The outcome would have been different, and partition might have been implemented.

This article has shown that the impact of antisemitism and the role of al-Husseini linked the Nazi war against the Jews with that of 1947/48. Therefore, Hillel Cohen is correct in claiming that “there can be little doubt that the Mufti’s inflexible position and refusal to accept any partition proposal were the major reasons for the outbreak of war in 1948.” However, the Mufti might have ended his career in 1945, had the Western powers not allowed him to escape justice. The cowardice of important figures paved the way for one of the most fateful turning points in twentieth-century history: the war of the Arab armies against the fledgling state of Israel.

This war was not inevitable. It happened because Nazi antisemitic anti-Zionist propaganda continued to dominate the political culture of the Arab world after the defeat of Germany, thus preventing any viable challenge to the antisemitic policies of the Mufti and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr. Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist in Hamburg, Germany, is a member of the Advisory Board of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) in New York, and of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Until 2015, he was a research associate of the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His published works in English include Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism, and the Roots of 9/11 (Telos Press, 2007). © Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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