One cannot understand the military struggle for Jerusalem without analyzing the underlying political moves. The debate about Jerusalem began not in1947, but ten years previously. In 1936 the British Government appointed a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, to investigate the Palestine problem and recommend ways of solving it. After the Commission had listened to numerous testimonies in Palestine and Great Britain, it submitted its recommendations to the Cabinet on July 7, 1937. It advocated the partition of Palestine into two states: Jewish and Arab, with Jerusalem remaining under British Mandatory rule. The Zionist leadership, headed by David Ben-Gurion (then Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem) and Moshe Sharett (Shertok, Head of the Political Department), basically accepted the Peel Commission's partition plan. As regards Jerusalem, a plan was devised, whereby the city will be divided and only western Jerusalem would be part of the future Jewish state. In 1938, a map was specifying the borders of western and eastern Jerusalem.
Ten years later, in 1947, a UN Commission (UNSCOP) visited Jerusalem to assess the country's problems at first hand. The Jewish Agency Executive adhered to its policy for the partition of Jerusalem but, in order to avoid rousing a storm of protest in the Zionist camp, tried to mask this fact, and met with members of the Commission away from the official sessions.
In his testimony before the Commission, Ben-Gurion explained that the issue of the Holy Places was inapplicable to West Jerusalem, and hence international rule should be imposed only on East Jerusalem, which contained sites holy to all three western religions. The Commission did not concur with his argument and recommended, in addition to the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, the establishment of international rule in greater Jerusalem under UN supervision.
At the same time the UN Assembly was debating the Commission's recommendations, Moshe Sharett was trying once more to explain the difference between the New Jerusalem and the Old City, reiterating the Jewish Agency's proposals with regard to the partition of Jerusalem. According to these, West Jerusalem would be incorporated into the Jewish state, while East Jerusalem would come under international rule, or alternatively would be part of the Arab state.
The UN Assembly rejected this proposal and at its historic meeting of November 29, 1947, decided that Greater Jerusalem would come under international rule under UN protection. Ben-Gurion was of the opinion that this resolution should be accepted per se, since he regarded it as an organic whole, and thought that rejection of the internationalization of Jerusalem might jeopardize the establishment of the Jewish state. He believed that Jerusalem would, in fact, come under international rule, and planned all military action in the city accordingly.
In November 1947, Golda Meir )Meyerson), then acting head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, met with King Abdullah. The secret meeting was held at Naharayim, at the home of Avraham Rotenberg. After a long and friendly discussion, they agreed that Abdullah would invade Palestine and take control of the Arab part of the country. In exchange, Abdullah promised not to attack the State of Israel.
In February 1948, a meeting took place between Eliyahu Sasson of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency and Omar Dajani, a Palestinian Arab who served as King Abdullah's personal representative at the United Nations. At that meeting, Dajani told Sasson that the King was uneasy about the UN resolution imposing international rule on Jerusalem. Abdullah, he said, would prefer a partition of the city, according to which West Jerusalem would become part of the Jewish state, and East Jerusalem part of the Kingdom of Jordan. Although this plan was entirely in line with Ben-Gurion way of thinking, Sasson replied that this was not the suitable time to breach UN resolutions.
In the first few months of the war, the Arabs held the initiative. Jerusalem was under siege, and the city leaders issued a desperate appeal for aid. At the end of March, the Jewish Agency proposed that the UN deploy the Scandinavian force to police Jerusalem, but the proposal was rejected. It should be recalled that the Cold War was just starting between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its satellites, situation which preclude agreement between the Great Powers on the despatch of a military force to Jerusalem.
At the beginning of April 1948, Ben-Gurion realized that the United Nations was incapable of enforcing its decision to impose international rule, and reverted to his old plan, namely the partition of the city. He gave orders for the siege of Jerusalem to be broken and the military initiative seized. April 6 marked the beginning of Operation Nachshon, during the course of which the siege of Jerusalem was broken and convoys of arms and ammunition, food and supplies entered the city. On April 9, Irgun and Lehi forces captured the Arab village of Deir Yassin, an event which had a considerable impact on the course of the war. Elsewhere in the country, Haganah forces captured the town of Tiberias and liberated Haifa. On April 25, Irgun forces attacked the Arab town of Jaffa. After several days of fighting, the Manshiye quarter was occupied, and as a result the entire town capitulated.
The Jewish onslaught led to the mass flight of Arabs, who believed that the Jews would ultimately suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the armies and that they would then be able to return to their homes.
On May 2 an extraordinary meeting was held at Naharayim between the British officers of the Arab Legion and senior Haganah officers. It took place on the initiative of the British and was attended by Colonel Desmond Goldie and Major Charles Cocker of the Arab Legion 1. The Haganah was represented by Shlomo Shamir (Rabinovitch), member of the general staff, and Nahum Spiegel, operations officer of the Golani Brigade. The following are excerpts from the minutes of the meeting.2
Colonel Goldie started by saying that they represented Glubb Pasha, Commanding Officer of the Arab Legion, and wished to establish direct contact with the Jews.
Goldie: We want contact with you in order to prevent a clash with you. Is that possible?
Shlomo (Shamir): If the Legion does not fight against us... and is where it is supposed to be, I see no reason for a clash.
Goldie: We are concerned about the situation in Jerusalem. How can we prevent a clash there?
Shlomo: Our views on the subject are known. To the extent that Jewish Jerusalem is secure, the road to the city is open and the Jewish settlements around it are secure, I believe there is no pretext for a clash. (Italics mine.Y.L.)
Cocker: Is your occupation of Jaffa an indication of your plans for expansion?
Shlomo: No. The Jaffa story is well known. As you know, Jaffa severely harassed Tel Aviv, and that was unendurable.
Shlomo Shamir summed up his impressions of the meeting, which lasted an hour and a quarter:
a. The British officers want direct contact with us, particularly with regard to future operations.
b. They want to feel out our plans for the entire country, and to know what our response would be if the Arab Legion defended the area allotted for an Arab state.
c. The Jerusalem issue worries them, and they are wondering whether it is possible to arrive at some kind of settlement.
At the Naharayim meeting, both parties reiterated what had been agreed in the past: that the Arab Legion would take over the area assigned to the Arab state and refrain from clashing with the Jews. The statements by the British officers confirmed Ben-Gurion's own feeling that, despite Abdullah's threats, he had not broken faith with the principles to which he had agreed in the past. The innovation in the Naharayim meeting was that, for the first time in discussions of Jerusalem, it had been stated that both the Legion and the Jews wanted to prevent hostilities in the city. Moreover, it was the first time that it had been said explicitly that the Jews were interested in the Jewish section of Jerusalem. Shamir's reply "To the extent that Jewish Jerusalem is secure... I think that there is no need for hostilities" was made on the instructions of Ben-Gurion, and it contained a clear message to the British and Abdullah that the Jewish Agency (which now felt that the plan for internationalization was non-implementable) was reverting to the Jerusalem partition plan: West Jerusalem for the Jews, and East Jerusalem (including the Old City) for the Arabs.
A report on the Naharayim meeting can be found in a cable sent by Kirkbride from Amman to the Foreign Office in London. It stated that negotiations had recently been held between British officers in the Arab Legion and the Haganah. In these secret negotiations, the aim was to define the areas, which would be under the rule of both sides.
Concomitantly, Moshe Sharett met with the U.S Secretary of State in Washington. Sharett told the Secretary that the British Colonial Secretary had recently informed him that Abdullah intended to invade Palestine, but would content himself with occupying the area assigned to the Arab state. He added that, in light of the recent military successes of the Jews and the behind the scenes agreement with Abdullah, he estimated that it would be possible to establish the Jewish state on schedule, without additional postponements. 3
(Italics mine. Y.L.)
Throughout the last days of April and the beginning of May, the British High Commissioner made every effort to achieve a ceasefire in Jerusalem. He thus wanted to postpone the hostilities between the Jews and the Arabs until after the completion of the evacuation of British forces from Jerusalem.
The High Commissioner met with a deputation from the Jewish Agency, which included Golda Meir (Meyerson) and Eliezer Kaplan, later Israel's Finance Minister. In a discussion concerning the armistice in Old and New Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency representatives stipulated several conditions, such as free access to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Holy Places, the opening up of the road to Jerusalem etc. These conditions were not acceptable to the Arabs and hence were not applicable.
On May 7, the High Commissioner met with the Secretary of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, and they agreed on a ceasefire in the Jerusalem area, without accepting the conditions stipulated by the Jewish Agency representatives. On the following day, the British Mandatory government announced that a ceasefire in Jerusalem would come into effect at noon on the same day. The announcement was made without prior consultations with the Jewish Agency representatives, but was approved retrospectively, and the Haganah command instructed all its units in Jerusalem to cease-fire at the time specified. The ceasefire in Jerusalem lasted from that day until the British evacuation of the city.
On the same day, Colonel Norman (British Intelligence officer) revealed that Abdullah was ready to meet with a representative of the Jews. Ben-Gurion decided to despatch Golda Meir to meet with the King, who asked that the meeting be held this time at his palace in Amman.
After meeting with Ben-Gurion, Golda traveled to Naharayim together with Ezra Danin, who served as interpreter. At Naharayim, she stayed in the home of Avraham Daskal; at nightfall Muhammad Zubati, Abdullah's personal secretary and confidant, arrived. The group crossed the Jordan River in Zubati's car, Golda disguised as an Arab woman to allay the suspicions of the Arab Legion guards.
Abdullah received the guests in his Amman palace. The conversation was friendly and towards midnight Zubati drove his guests back to Naharayim. Golda returned immediately to Tel Aviv to report to Ben-Gurion.
When she reached Tel Aviv, she discovered that Ben-Gurion was briefing members of the Mapai Central Committee on the security situation. 4
"In the middle of the meeting," Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary, "Golda arrived from the meeting with Abdullah, and in reply to my question, gave me a note, which read as follows:' We met in a friendly spirit. He is very worried and looks bad. Did not deny that there had been discussions and an understanding between us on a desirable settlement, that is to say that he would take the Arab section, but now he is only one amongst five. This is the plan he proposes - a single state with autonomy for the Jewish sections, and a year later one country under his rule.
I immediately summoned Yigael Yadin, Yohanan Ratner and Yisrael Galili. I demanded that they make our forces mobile, expedite the capture of the road to Jerusalem and the Arab enclaves among the settlements - and plan a campaign against the general Arab invasion.
Yigael Yadin raised certain questions: would we fight Abdullah immediately after he crossed the Mandatory border - or the border of the Jewish state? I replied that only the 13 (members of the provisional government) could decide that.
David Shaltiel arrived from Jerusalem - he wants to launch an attack in Jerusalem after the mandate ends. This too is a political question. It is clear that we must attack along the front at the zero hour - but Jerusalem is different. This could anger the Christian world. (italic mine, Y.L.)
Despite Abdullah's volte-face, Ben-Gurion still hoped that it would be possible to prevent a clash with the Jordanian army.
As regards Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion weighed his moves very cautiously. He wanted to forestall widespread hostilities there, so as not to disrupt his partition plan.
At a meeting of the Minhelet ha-Am (the provisional government) held on May 12, Golda Meir gave a detailed report on her meeting with King Abdullah. She related that: 5
The King greeted us cordially, but this was a different man, very depressed, troubled, and nervous. She went on to describe the King's proposal to establish one state in which the Jews would be granted autonomy for one year, and subsequently the country would be annexed to Transjordan.
Golda concluded by saying that she felt the King did not want this war, but seemed afraid of his partners.
In response Golda said to him: but we had an oral agreement. We relied on that agreement, on this friendship... we proposed returning to the plan, which already existed, and on which there was mutual understanding and agreement.
The King did not deny that this had been his wish, but time had brought change in the country.
After Golda's report to the Minhelet ha-Am, a general debate was held on policy regarding Jerusalem. As noted, a ceasefire had been declared in Jerusalem on May 8, and the question was whether to continue it after the British evacuation of the city, or to deploy forces so as to expand Jewish jurisdiction in Jerusalem. It should be recalled that a UN proposal for a general armistice, which would undoubtedly apply to Jerusalem as well, was then in the offing.
Excerpts from the minutes of that meeting vividly convey the prevailing atmosphere. Ben-Gurion opened the debate thus:
I see no advantage to an armistice (throughout the country). On the other hand, I do see the advantage of a ceasefire in Jerusalem, because it is convenient for us. If Sheikh Jarrah is not occupied by Arab forces and if Katamon is in our hands and we have access to Mekor Hayim - then we can accept the fact that Talpiot has not yet been annexed and I do not care if the commercial center is not yet in our hands. Since, in practice, the whole of Jerusalem is in our hands... (Italics mine, Y.L.)
This was the first time that Ben-Gurion had presented to the government the plan for the partition of Jerusalem. For him, the fact that Jewish Jerusalem was in our hands meant that "in practice, the whole of Jerusalem is in our hands. Henceforth, whenever Ben-Gurion spoke of Jerusalem, he was referring to the western part of the city, deliberately ignoring the Old City. Golda Meir was the only person who objected to Ben-Gurion's policy. She favored continuing the armistice in Jerusalem, but on certain clear conditions, and for the first time she refers to the situation in the Jewish quarter of the Old City:
I say that an armistice can prevail on condition that there is free access to the Old City; that the route is secure, at least, for food, water, unarmed travelers, medical supplies; that the entrances to Jerusalem are guarded...
David Remez, later Minister of Transport, was pessimistic about our ability to withstand an Arab attack, and was therefore ready to grant far-reaching concessions.
In my view, Golda is too inflexible about the conditions. If she wants an armistice, she should forgo the condition, which states that we will not restore the Arab quarters to the Arabs. The Arabs lived in Katamon. How can we refuse to allow them to return there? Will those houses become Jewish property? I cannot envisage that. I think it is an unfeasible condition...
In his reply, Ben-Gurion tried to sum up the points of agreement.
Golda wants an armistice in Jerusalem and wants the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to be safeguarded and routes going through Arab territory to be safeguarded and no movements of armed forces there. This cannot be done by words alone. It can be done only by wielding physical force. If we do not use force to guard the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - It will not be open...
Several weeks later, Moshe Sharett wrote to Nachum Goldmann in London describing Christian world's demand for the internationalization of Jerusalem as morally invalid, since it had not succeeded in preventing warfare in the city and had abandoned the Jews. Hence, there was only one option, namely - the partition of Jerusalem. According to Sharett, this idea would also be acceptable to the Arabs, including Abdullah. 6 (Italics mine, Y.L.)
If we want a situation where there is no shooting in Jerusalem on the basis of the status quo - we will agree to that... even if we do not open up the way to the Western Wall... and I say that it will not be such a terrible thing if we cannot go to the Wall for three months. We are not in control of all of Jerusalem, but our situation is good... (Italics mine. Y.L.)
This marked the end of the heroic struggle of the defenders of the Jewish Quarter.
1. For Arab Legion, see THE ARAB LEGION ATTACKS JERUSALEM
2. State of ISRAEL Archive, 130.11/2513/2
3. Foreign Relations of the United States, vol V, Part 2, p.973
4. Ben-Gurion Diary, The War of Independence, p. 409
5. Protocol of the meeting of Minhelet ha-Am from May 12, 1948. State of ISRAEL Archive.
6. Political and Diplomatic Documents, vol I, p.163