In May 1948, Israel became an independent state after Israel was recognised by the United Nations as a country in its own right within the Middle East. If relations in pre-war Palestine had been fraught with difficulties, these difficulties paled into insignificance after Israel became a state in its own right. Immediately on being granted its independence, Israel was attacked by a number of Arab nations. If Israel had faltered at this first hurdle, she would have ceased to exist as a state regardless of what the United Nations had decreed.
Before World War Two, Haganah had been, from the British viewpoint, a terrorist organisation that used violence to defend the Jewish Agency. Haganah attacked Palestinian Arabs and aspects of British rule in Palestine. By the time Israel had gained its independence, Haganah was effectively the army for Israel. Many members of Haganah had gained military experience during World War Two – ironically fighting for the same British military that they had been attacking before the war.
Israel was attacked on the same day it gained its independence – May 14th. The armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel. With such a combined force attacking Israel, few would have given the new country any chance of survival.
In fact, Israel had internal problems regardless of what was happening on its borders. The regular army had to be used to disband Irgun and the Stern Gang. Both of these had been classed as terrorist organisations by the British in pre-war Palestine. David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister and Defence Minister wanted the Israeli army to remain non-political and using a combination of diplomacy and force, he removed both groups as a threat. The leaders of both groups were arrested but members of them did join the army. At the height of the 1948 War, Israel’s army numbered 100,000.
Though the attack on Israel was a surprise one, Israel was surprisingly well equipped at a military level. The country had a navy and many in her army were experienced in combat as a result of World War Two. Israel had also bought three B-17 bombers in America on the black market. In July 1948, these were used to bomb the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
The Arab nations that attacked Israel faced one major problem. There was nothing to co-ordinate their attacks. Each essentially attacked as a separate unit rather than as a combined force. However, the Israeli Army was under one single command structure and this proved to be very important. Israeli victories came on all the war fronts.
The Arab nations involved negotiated their own peace talks – a further sign that they were only united by their desire to attack Israel. Egypt signed a peace settlement in February 1949, and over the next few months Lebanon, Jordan and Syria did the same culminating in peace in July 1949. Iraq simply withdrew her forces but did not sign any peace settlement.
As a result of their military victory, Israel was able to expand the territory given to the state by the United Nations. However, this could only be at the expense of the Arab population that lived in these areas.
In the summer of 1949 there was no obvious leader in the Arab world who could head a campaign by the Arabs. Egypt seemed the most likely leader if only because of her size. However, the Egyptian Royal Family was far from popular and it was in this setting that Nasser rose to power. The scene was set for almost perpetual conflict between the Arab nations and Israel that culminated in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars.
The 1948 war, which the Israelis referred to as the "War of Independence", claimed 6,000 Israeli lives – but this was only 1% of the nation’s population. The boost the victory gave to the Israelis was huge and put into perspective the 6,000 lives lost. Ironically, those nations that had attacked Israel in May 1948, only lost slightly more men – 7,000. However, the damage to their morale was considerable.