The Situation in Jerusalem and Palestine, 1948

Memorandum from Yitzhak Ben Tzvi to the Jewish Agency

 April, 1948

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Historians debate the relative strengths of the Jewish community and the Arabs of Palestine at the start of the Israeli War of Independence. Revisionist historians insist that the Jewish victory was a foregone conclusion. This was not, in fact, either a reflection of the actual military situation or the assessments of contemporary experts. The CIA had estimated that the Jewish side would lose the war, even without taking into account the participation of the Arab states, and even thought they vastly overrated the Jewish forces. In May of 1948, US Secretary of State George Marshall had told Jewish Agency foreign Minister Moshe Sharett,

"You are sitting there in the coastal planes of Palestine while the Arabs hold the ridges. I know you have some arms and your Haganah, but the Arabs have regular armies. They are well trained and they have heavy arms. How can you hope to hold out?

A secret Haganah intelligence report of March, 1948 assessed that the situation was critical, especially in the Jerusalem area. At the end of March, bad got worse. In the space of a few days, the coast road to the Negev settlements was cut and two convoys were ambushed and lost, with considerable loss of life as well as arms: the  Nebi Daniel Convoy sent to relieve the Etzion Bloc, and the Yehiam Convoy. The Nebi Daniel convoy ambush on March 27 was a particularly acute disaster because it represented the loss of the entire "heavy" arms supply of the defenders of Jerusalem including armored vehicles, machine guns, mortars and a quantity of vehicles that had gotten to Jerusalem in a last convoy from Tel Aviv.

On March 28, the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem sent a cable to the Department Head, Moshe Sharett (Shertok), who was then in New York. The cable included this message: 1

We feel that it is our duty to tell you the truth about the current situation in Jerusalem. The conditions vis a vis supplies and equipment are close to catastrophic. After the Etzion Bloc tragedy, we lost all the city's armored vehicles. Contact with Atarot, Hadassah and even Talpiot is problematic...There are long lines for bread. Morale of the population is very low and the dissidents [i.e. Irgun and Lehi] are benefiting from the situation...The Jewish Agency has almost totally forfeited its authority. We urge you to do whatever you can to expedite the negotiations for a truce in order to avert the severe threat to Jerusalem.

A day later,  Golda Meir, not known to be faint of heart, sent a message from Jerusalem to David Ben-Gurion who was then in Tel Aviv:2

The situation in Jerusalem is very grave. The debacle on the Etzion road has undermined public morale...the worry because of the shortage of food supplies and petrol has caused panic. As milk has vanished and bread begun to disappear... some people are saying that it is essential to ask the English to stay in Jerusalem or to seek a way of arriving at a settlement with the Arabs.

The longer report below was filed by Izhak Ben Tzvi, future president of Israel, at the beginning of April. 3

There is also no doubt that the British believed in Arab victory as late as the end of May 1948, as they blocked a US attempt to obtain a UN imposed cease fire.


1. History Book of the Haganah, volume 3, p.1403
2. Political And Diplomatic Documents, December 1947 - May 1948, p.559 , ISRAEL State Archives
3.
Political And Diplomatic Documents, December 1947 - May 1948, p.491, ISRAEL State Archive

source: daat.ac.il/daat///english/history/lapidot/23.htm


Copyright

The introduction above is copyright 2007 - 2008 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain.  Please cite the sources.


Memorandum to the Jewish Agency from Yitzhak Ben Tzvi

 

[...] Since I have neither the practical opportunity nor the emotional ability to leave the besieged and isolated city of Jerusalem and to come to the Executive meeting, I have decided to express my views in writing...

I will not conceal my opinion: I view our situation with dread. One of the reasons may be that I am not in Tel Aviv, in the territory of the sovereign state, but in the besieged city of Jerusalem, and that I am familiar with the situation at first-hand and not through rumors. Every hour of the day and night I live under siege together with the one hundred thousand Jews of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is cut off from the outside world and split from within.

There has been neither access to nor exit from Jerusalem for the past ten days, except on the wings of eagles [reference to light aircraft operating between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem]. We do not see the Tel Aviv newspapers. There are no convoys, no regular food supply, no regular mail, almost no telephone connection with the outside world, and though important steps have been taken to safeguard the road to Jerusalem, there are no immediate prospects that the situation will improve. On the contrary, it may be assumed that it will worsen considerably.

And inside the city?

The city is divided. For the past four months the Old City has been under enemy rule, and the entrances are occupied by armed Arabs. Nobody enters or leaves. The Jewish inhabitants are surviving on the meager rations brought by tortuous routes with the help of the [British] army, and its defenders are courageously trying to maintain the status quo.

The northern and southern quarters are also cut off from the city.

To the north: Hadassah and the University are within range of enemy gunfire, which threatens to burn them down, and the route to the Mount of Olives cemetery is blocked. To the south - Mekor Hayim and Talpiot, Ramat Rahel and the Training Farm, are cut off and the defenders are maintaining contact with those parts of the city with great difficulty.

The entire city is cut off. We feel the shortage of supplies, and hunger has begun to make itself felt. The whole of Jerusalem is in the same situation as the Old City.

And what is more: the danger to Jerusalem is two-fold: external and internal. Let us not forget that half of the population is from the Eastern communities, among whom the 'dissidents' [i.e. Irgun and Lehi] have long since found a haven. And as for the Ashkenazi community - half follow the Agudah [Agudat Israel which was opposed to Zionism]. Among all these elements national discipline is lax, and demoralization is setting in - and cannot be ignored. Violent incitement against the national institutions has begun, and there have been threats of establishing separate institutions, and even attempts to go out with white flags to appeal to the Governor and the Arabs.

It is true that great efforts have been made by the authorities in the past few days to rally forces, to organize the population into a national framework and to impose Zionist discipline, both economically and organisationally. But we cannot ignore the internal danger, and there is no guarantee that when the situation worsens, we will be able to hold fast on this front.

We need a ceasefire, first of all in order to save Jerusalem (Italics in original).

We are anxious for food, ammunition and people. We urgently need fortifications. We must remember that the Arabs have free access to the villages. Food, weapons and people are available to them freely, without impediments.

Without reinforcements of manpower, food supplies and arms we cannot hold on and we will be faced with a decision which will be fatal for Jerusalem, a decision which augers ruin and destruction of the Jewish community in Jerusalem...

To sum up: we are interested in an armistice, first and foremost in order to save Jerusalem. The Arabs are not interested, but the British have an interest in an armistice: they will lose nothing thereby but at the same time it is not a question of life and death for them

This document is at Zionism and Israel Information Center - Historical Documents and References

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