the 1948 palestine war -- 5/31/22

Today's selection -- from Modern Egypt: The Formation of a Nation-state by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. The 1948 Palestine War:

"Egypt was a troubled country between 1945 and 1952. King Faruq mortified his subjects by his womanizing, gambling, and gluttony. The Wafd Party lost credibility as the standard-bearer of Egyptian national­ism when it agreed to form a government backed by British tanks in 1942, and Makram Ubayd's Black Book, published the following year, discredited Mustafa al-Nahhas as its leader. The Egyptian people -- or, rather, the 90 percent whom history ignored -- suffered from falling liv­ing standards, illiteracy, numerous endemic diseases, and most of all from a sense of hopelessness. Revolution takes place when the ruling elite is losing its ability to govern and when other leaders try to take over its power. Although bad economic and social conditions may anger the mob and light the revolutionary fires, the root cause is usu­ally disillusionment with the old regime or the embracing of the ideas of the new leaders who try to replace it -- or both.

"King Faruq was a tragic figure. His father died before the young prince had finished his schooling. He lacked both the emotional matu­rity and the political judgment to rule Egypt. There were many courtiers and politicians who exploited his inexperience to weaken their rivals or to enrich themselves. He was further weakened by his hostile relation­ship with Britain's ambassador, Lord Killearn (Sir Miles Lampson), who tried to depose him before and during World War II. Although Faruq rejoiced when the British Labor government replaced Killearn in Febru­ary 1946, in that same month his wisest counselor, Ahmad Hasanayn, was killed in a car crash. Faruq's own accident in 1943 had left him with a glandular disturbance, which some Egyptians thought had been deliber­ately maltreated in a British military hospital. After that, he became more and more obese. His reputation as a woman-chaser and pornogra­phy collector hardly disguised his sexual impotence. He suffered the fail­ure of his marriage to Farida, beloved by the Egyptians, and began spending his nights in cabarets or in the boudoirs of various other women (often already married to officials or officers) whom he desired. He often stole property of other people as well.

Faruq I with his wife Narriman and their son Fuad II in exile in Capri, Italy (1953)

"Faruq's political activities were usually directed against the Wafd, espe­cially Nahhas. Most of the cabinets formed during his reign were led by rivals who lacked any popular constituency and had to govern by force. Unrigged parliamentary elections still produced large Wafdist majorities, and Nahhas remained Egypt's most popular politician, but even the Wafd resorted to corrupt methods to assure itself both public employment and peasant support. The king and his advisers sought ways to maneuver the Wafd out of power and to appoint politicians whom they could control.

"One possible strategy would have been to implement a program of economic and social reforms that would address Egypt's real ills: poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Americans (of whom Faruq seems to have been genuinely fond) often urged the king to launch an Egyptian New Deal from Abdin Palace. Aside from Faruq's lack of political acu­men and stamina, another reason this policy was never adopted is that the royal family owned one-tenth of Egypt's arable land, the major source of wealth and power in an agrarian society. Even if Faruq had agreed to give up his land and real estate holdings, he could not have persuaded the other heirs of Mehmet Ali and Isma'il to follow his exam­ple. Egypt had growing numbers of doctors, lawyers, economists, teach­ers, and other educated people. Nearly all agreed that the gap between the richest and the poorest Egyptians would have to be narrowed, but the landowning politicians in government posts, in the judiciary, among the ulama, and in the clergy -- and of course those in parliament -- all stood to suffer from any redistribution of Egypt's lands. Faruq believed that he could do nothing. He often quipped: 'Soon the world will have only five kings: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs, and England.'

"If the people's material needs could not be met, the smartest strategy was to distract them with foreign adventures. The fateful decision to commit the Egyptian army to fight in the 1948 Palestine War was made not by the Sa'dist cabinet of the time but by Faruq himself, having fallen under the influence of a wily Lebanese journalist, Karim Thabit, The prime minister, his cabinet, and indeed the Egyptian general staff be­lieved that the army was not ready to fight. But many politically articu­late Egyptians favored intervention. The UN decision of November 1947 to partition Palestine (thereby legitimizing the creation of the Jew­ish state of Israel) affronted Muslim and Arab opinion everywhere. The Muslim Brothers started recruiting volunteers even before Britain's withdrawal from Palestine and Israel's declaration of independence pre­cipitated the war in May 1948. The Arab League, led by Egypt's Abd al­-Rahman Azzarn, had resolved to go to war against Israel. Moreover, the exiled 'grand mufti' of Jerusalem, former leader of the Palestinian Arabs' resistance to Zionism, had taken refuge in Egypt after World War II. But Faruq's main motive for sending Egypt to war was to pre­vent his (and the mufti's) archrival, Amir Abdallah of Transjordan, from taking control of Palestine if the Arabs won.

"The Egyptian army's performance in the Palestine War was humiliat­ing. So ill-prepared was Egypt's general staff that it needed to borrow road maps of Palestine from Cairo's Buick dealer. Muhammad Nagib re­membered hiring twenty-one trucks from Palestinians to move his troops from the Sinai to Gaza. Faruq insisted on making strategic decisions, pointedly ignoring the repeated warnings that his current mistress, Lili­anne Cohen (the young film star 'Camelia'), was passing his orders along to Israeli spies. Only two brigades of Egyptians and Sudanese infantry, fewer than 3,000 men, made up the first force sent into Palestine. Al­though they advanced on Tel Aviv in the early days of the war, they did not score the victories that Karim Thabit boasted about in his press re­leases and that were broadcast over Egyptian state radio. In the war mem­oirs that he published after he seized power, Gamal Abd al-Nasir alleged that the Egyptian general staff had made no plans for feeding the troops, caring for the wounded, reconnoitering enemy positions before battle, drawing up a strategy for the Egyptian soldiers' advance, or preparing fallback positions in case of a retreat. It was, for them, a political war.

"During the first cease-fire, ordered by the United Nations, both sides combed Europe's used-weapons markets, but Israel replenished its arms more effectively with the timely aid of Czechoslovakia. Once the fighting resumed, the Israelis pushed back its enemies on all fronts. The various Arab armies, far from coordinating their plans, often fired on one another."



Arthur Goldschmidt Jr.


Modern Egypt: The Formation of a Nation-state


Westview Press


Copyright 2004 by Westview Press, a member of Perseus Books Group


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