In human terms, the War of Independence was Israel’s costliest war, with over 6,000 Israelis were killed and 15,000 wounded. The war consisted of 39 separate operations, fought from the borders of Lebanon to the Sinai Peninsula and Eilat.​​

 Israel's War of Independence (1947-1949)


Israeli soldiers view Syrian tank destroyed at Kibbutz Degania (Photo: GPO)

In December 1946 – at the first post-war Zionist Congress in Basle – David Ben Gurion assumed the defense portfolio, including responsibility for the Haganah, which at the time concentrated on the struggle against the British.

Although British restrictions, searches and detentions made the building of a clandestine force – with armor and artillery, air and sea power – well-nigh impossible, Ben-Gurion decided early on that this was the decisive task: to build up a force in preparation for an assault by the regular armies of the Arab countries, which the yishuv would have to face alone, without outside help.

He found the Haganah woefully ill prepared for such an eventuality and set about energetically to rectify this. Since import and deployment of heavy weapons were not practicable as long as the British held sway over Palestine, it was decided that manpower should be readied in the country and equipment purchased abroad – to be "married" in time to throw back an Arab assault, if not to prevent it; in time for 15 May 1948, the day envisaged for the termination of the British Mandate and the day after Israel would declare its independence.

The War of Independence (1947-49)

The war was fought along the entire, long border of the country: against Lebanon and Syria in the north; Iraq and Transjordan – renamed Jordan during the war – in the east; Egypt, assisted by contingents from the Sudan – in the south; and Palestinians and volunteers from Arab countries in the interior of the country.

It was the bloodiest of Israel’s wars. It cost 6,373 killed in action (from pre-state days until 20 July 1949) almost 1% of the yishuv (the Jewish community) – although that figure includes quite a number of new immigrants and some foreign volunteers.

In the First Phase (29 November 1947 – 1 April 1948), it was the Palestinian Arabs who took the offensive, with the help of volunteers from neighboring countries; the yishuv had little success in limiting the war – it suffered severe casualties and disruption of passage along most of the major highways.

In the Second Phase (1 April – 15 May) the Haganah took the initiative, and in six weeks was able to turn the tables – capturing, inter alia, the Arab sections of Tiberias, Haifa and later also Safed and Acre, temporarily opening the road to Jerusalem and gaining control of much of the territory alotted to the Jewish State under the UN Resolution.

The Third Phase (15 May – 19 July), considered the critical one, opened with the simultaneous, coordinated assault on the fledgling state by five regular Arab armies from neighboring countries, with an overwhelming superiority of heavy equipment – armor, artillery and airforce.
On 31 May the Haganah was renamed the "Israel Defence Forces". The IDF suffered initial setbacks, including the loss of the Etzion Bloc in Judea, the area of Mishmar Hayarden in the north and Yad Mordehai in the south, but after three weeks was able to halt the offensive, to stabilize the front and even initiate some local offensive operations.

The Fourth Phase (19 July 1948 – 20 July, 1949) was characterized by Israeli initiatives: Operation Yoav, in October, cleared the road to the Negev, culminating in the capture of Be’er Sheva; Operation Hiram, at the end of October, resulted in the capture of the Upper Galilee; Operation Horev in December 1948 and Operation Uvda in March 1949, completed the capture of the Negev, which had been alotted to the Jewish State by the United Nations.

Simultaneously, the Arab countries signed Armistice Agreements: first came Egypt – 24 February 1949; followed by Lebanon – 23 March; Jordan – 3 April; and Syria – 20 July. Only Iraq did not sign an armistice agreement with Israel. It preferred to withdraw its troops and hand over its sector to the Arab Legion of Jordan.

In the end Israel not only ejected the invading Arab forces – it also captured and held some 5,000 km2 over and above the areas allocated to it by the United Nations.

In the middle of the War of Independence, the IDF was born, not on 15 May, but two weeks later; for two more weeks Ben-Gurion negotiated with the "dissident" armed organizations, the Etzel and Lehi, convincing them to disband voluntarily before he disbanded them in the Order of the Establishment of the IDF on 31 May 1948. That order provided for only one armed force, subordinate to the constitutional government. There was complete continuity between the Haganah and the IDF: Ya’acov Dori, the Chief of Staff; the members of the General Staff; the commanders from brigade-level downwards – all were automatically confirmed in their appointments.

At the end of the war the IDF had over 100,000 full-time men and women in uniform, as compared to the mere handful of full-time soldiers at its beginning. In addition to 12 brigades, mostly infantry, it had several regiments of artillery. The first armored regiments were equipped with light armored vehicles, some captured, some "requisitioned" from the departing British troops; and a few tanks – two Cromwells "bought" from the withdrawing British and some reconstituted from American scrap.
The Navy consisted at first of reconverted illegal immigrant vessels. There were the elements of an Air Force – Spitfires and Messerschmidts, acquired mainly in Czechoslovakia, in addition to the light civilian planes which the Haganah had used for reconnaissance and communications purposes. Some World War II US war surplus bombers were bought as scrap. These carried out their first "strategic attack" on Cairo, en route to Israel, even before reaching their homebase. Armed with a Baedeker tourist guide, one of them bombed and strafed Abdeen Palace: rudimentary, to be sure, but entirely unexpected and, therefore, psychologically effective.

As soon as the armistice agreements were signed and the immediate danger had passed, the IDF – except for a small nucleus – was not only demobilized, but effectively disbanded. The new state had urgent tasks which required all its resources, above all that of absorbing the flood of new immigrants, who at last were able to come "home". An attempt to keep the demobilized soldiers in some sort of reserve framework failed. However, for the time being there was little inclination on the Arab side to renew full-scale fighting. Not that they had come to face reality and recognized Israel – far from it; but they did realize that to fight against Israel required thorough preparation.

In the meantime they found what was considered a perfect tool to show their own people that the war was not over yet and at the same time both to harrass Israel and embarrass her. Palestinian fedayun (suicide troops) infiltrated across the long and ill-protected border – and it should be recalled that no place in Israel was far from the border: infiltrations for the purpose of stealing farm equipment were followed by the laying of mines, the killing of individuals, and wholesale massacres. The fedayun were trained, equipped and paid for by Egyptian Intelligence, although they operated mainly from bases in Jordan, so that Jordan would bear the brunt of Israel’s retaliation, which inevitably followed. And each time Israel retaliated, the Security Council condemned it; condemnation of an Arab government had long since become an impossibility, because of the Soviet veto.

The infiltrations – however painful, militarily and diplomatically – were no more than a diversion from the main concern of the IDF: preparations for the second round.

Yigael Yadin, who had taken over from Ya’akov Dori as Chief of the General Staff, devoted his energy to organizing the reserves and streamlining the command structure – elements of which remain in effect to this day. At the same time, particular attention was paid to the development of armor. Israel’s numerical inferiority to its neighbors and potential enemies; its realization that because of the lack of strategic depth it was bound to transfer fighting as soon as possible to enemy territory and its proven advantage at swift, often improvised manoeuvers – all pointed to the need for armor. The newly found alliance with France at the time of the Suez crisis provided the unique opportunity to equip a major part of the IDF with French-made tanks. This "miracle" occurred at a moment of desperation, when no other country, East or West, was willing to supply Israel with arms, whereas countries from both East and West rushed to offer their wares to the Arabs. Particularly worrisome was the Czech- Egyptian arms deal, which threatened Israel with a whole range of state-of-the-art Russian hardware.

From "The Arab-Israeli Wars" by Netanel Lorch