On October 11, 1947 the weekly Egyptian newspaper “al-Akbar al-Yaum” (News of the Day) published an interview with Azzam Pasha, the secretary general of the Arab League. In that interview, Azzam uttered a warning that gave voice to a perception of many Jews in Palestine regarding their future if they failed to defend themselves against Arab Forces determined to prevent the creation of an independent Jewish State. Azzam’s words ran as follows:
“I personally wish that the Jews do not drive us to war as this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre that will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusaders.”
Azzam also stated that Arab armies would “sweep them (the Jews) into the sea.”
Just over seven months later Israel’s independence was declared on 14 May 1948, and the war began.
The Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq had every reason to believe that they would be in Tel Aviv in less than two weeks as several of their generals had predicted. Their populations were 40 times that of Israel. More importantly, their militaries were far more significant than those of Israel, outfitted with far more aircraft, tanks and artillery pieces than that of Israel. They also simply had far more soldiers to commit to any battle.
Perhaps above all they were warriors with a history of military prowess. And what a history.
Shortly after the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD his successors implemented a series of increasingly large raids directed to the east, west and north. They chased the Byzantines out of the Middle East and annihilated the Persian Sassanian Empire, grinding it to dust. Their increasingly large armies continued their marches, capturing all of North Africa to the Atlantic coast while also ranging further and further into South and Central Asia. By the year 680 A.D. their empire stretched across a swath of land nearly 4000 miles from east to west. Only Alexander the Great and the Mongols of the 13th century ever came close to such an astonishing achievement. Perhaps the best modern account of this undertaking is the book by Sir John Bagot Glubb, the Great Arab Conquests, in which he details this amazing venture.
And what were the Jews? Potters. Tinsmiths. Farmers. Shepherds. They had no significant military history. Moreover, since the inception of Islam in 610 AD Jews and Christians within the Muslim world were regarded as second-class citizens formally designated as Dhimmis, “clients of the Muslim community”. They could practice their faith but had to pay a substantial poll tax, the jizya, as a means of ensuring their livelihood and traditions. In every way legally, socially and culturally Jews and Christians were the permanent underclass within the “ummah Islamiyah”, the Muslim community. In a conflict between the Arab warriors and the newly minted Israeli farmers there was no doubt who would be the victor.
Convinced of their greatness the Arab military commitment was small, around 25,000 men. Astonishingly, the Israeli forces were slightly larger, an edge they maintained through what ended up being a conflict lasting around 10 months. Arab leaders and generals had no interest in working together as Egypt, Syria and Jordan launched piecemeal attacks against the Israelis. Confidence notwithstanding Arab leaders had forgotten or ignored two important elements. Arab Muslims had not engaged in a major military campaign since 1258 when around 20,000 Muslims fought and failed and in a desperate effort to stop the Mongols camped outside Baghdad. Secondly, Arab leaders did not appreciate or ignored the fact that the Israelis were far more motivated, whatever their shortcomings in military material. For them, it was literally fight or die, only the sea would accept them.
And fight they did, benefiting from the lack of Arab unity and the fact that the Israeli Defense Forces had a central command that was skillful. If the Arab Forces ever had a chance for success it was in their initial attacks on Israel. Most of the battles were small scale but the Israelis prevailed time and again often against substantially larger and better equipped forces. Hubris and contempt for the Israelis simply drained the Arab armies of their morale as they failed time and time again.
While Arab leaders made serious efforts to increase the level of military forces aimed at Israel they never matched the Israeli success at fielding larger numbers of men and women. By the time the war was finally over in early March 1949 Israeli troops were almost double the number of the Arab troops facing them. Indeed around 10% of Israel’s population was active in the defense of their new state. A comparable effort on the Arab side would have yielded an unstoppable force of some 3 million troops. Their forces never exceeded 60,000.
Enter the Nakba.
For Arab leaders and their populations something literally impossible had happened. Despite overwhelming (on paper) advantages in men, tanks, artillery, aircraft etc. the Arabs had lost this initial encounter with Israel, quite rightly calling it the “Nakba”, the catastrophe. Hubris, contempt and a lack of cooperation had made this all possible. After all the Jews were potters, tinsmiths and cowards… And yet they won.
It was not simply a defeat. It was utter humiliation. And the entire world had seen it. That was the real “Nakba”.