First-Israeli-Palestinian War: Jerusalem (1947-49)

Figure 1.--This press photograph shows Palestinian Arab rioting and burning goods taken from Jewish homes and shops in Jerusalem on December 6, 1947. The organized disturbances broke out as the Arabs staged a 3-day strike protesting the United Nations Partition Plan. Jewish shops and homes in the quarter were attacked and some set on fire.

Jerusalem for both Arabs and Jews was the prize, largely for religious reasons. Jerusalem was thus a particularly difficult problem. It was the old Jewish capital and central in Jewish thinking for nearly three millenia. The city included both Arabs, Jews, and Christians and major religious shrines. Jerusalem's Old City with some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock explaining the importance of the fighting that occurred in Jerusalem. Thus the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan envisioned Jerusalem as an international city. It was not to be part of either the proposed Jewish or Arab state. The city, however, became a focal point of the violence which becan after the U.N. partition plan was announced. It also became a focal point of the actual fighting after the Arab states invaded Palestine. Jordan's Aran Legion was deployed in an effort to take the city. Some of the most intense fighting of the War occurred in and around Jerusalem.


Jerusalem was a particularly difficult problem. Jerusalen is a holy city in the three great Abrahamic religions. The Old City included both Arabs, Jews, and Christians and major religious shrines. It is the holiest city in Judaism. It was the ancient Jewish capital and temple--which survives as the Wailing Wall. It has been central in Jewish thinking for nearly three millenia. "Next year in Jerusalem" is said in Jewish homes every New Year sibce the Disapra. Jerusalem is also the third holiest city in Islam with the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Jerusalem is also central to Christinity as it was in Jerusalem that Jesus was judged and crucified. here are many important Chritin sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Thus it was inevitable that the city would play a central role in the struggles betweem Jews and Muslims.

U.N. Partition Plan (November 1947)

The United Nations General Assembly approved a Partition Plan to separate the feuding communities (November 1947). Palestine was divided into Jewish and Muslim territories. The geral outlibes of the modern division were in the Plan. Gaza and the West Bank went to the Arabs. Much of the coast and Negev went to the Jews. The north was divided. Jerusalem sent in the middle of th Arab West Bank with its mixed population was to be made an international city. It was a complicated division based on the local population. Jerusalem was not to be part of either the proposed Jewish or Arab state.

Focal Point of the Conflict

Jerusalem became a focal point of the violence which becan after the U.N. partition plan was announced. It also became a focal point of the actual fighting after the Arab states invaded Palestine. Jordan's Arab Legion was deployed in an effort to take the city. Some of the most intense fighting of the War would take place in and around Jerusalem.

Sectarian Violence (December 1947)

Violence was not new to Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini organized riots in Jerusalem attacking Jews in 1929 and 1933. There was further violenc during the Arab Revolt organized by the Mufti (1936-39). After the annoncement of the U.N. Partition Plan, Jerusalem again became a hot spot. Under the U.N. Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be an international city. That may have been something the Jews cold accept, but not have been happy with. It was totlly unacceptable to the Arans. The Mufti living in Egypt and a relative, Abdel Khader Al-Husseini. were particularly focused on Jerusalem. The Mufti through the Arab High Commnd helped organize a 3-day strike to protest the Partition Plan. The protest strike began (December 2). Even before, Arabs in Jerusalem began rioting and attacking Jews (November 30 and December 1). Arabs marching toward Zion Square were stopped by the British soldiers. The Arabs instead turned towards the commercial center of the City at Mamilla and Jaffa Road, burning many Jewish buildings and shops. The protest march quickly descened into riotong and attacks on Jewish homes and shops The violence continued for 2 more days, with Jewish neighborhoods being the focus of the Arab rioters. ["Jerusalem torn ...] The Jewish Haganah paramilitary organization decided to respond with force to 'stop future attacks on Jews'.[Milstein, pp. 131 ff.] The more violent underground Irgun organization conducted armed attacks aimed against population of nearby Arab villages and a bombing campaign against Arab civilians. The Irgun placed a bomb at the Damascus Gate that killed 20 people (December 12). [Milstein, p. 51.] Meanwhile the violence continued in Jerusalem (figure 1). Jews in the city were subjeced to attacks by Arab rioters and irregulars, including ambushes, constant shelling and sniper fire. This developed into a full blockade of the Jerusalem road. The Palestinian irregulars cut off the roads into the city, leaving the Jews there without adequate food, water, and fuel. This was the beginning of a protracted seige. Jews began to starve. Arab rioters killed over a thousand Jewish civilians in Jerusalem.

Arab Invasion

Israel's declaration of independence (May 14, 1948) resulted in the invasion of the regular armies of neighboring Arab states. While smaller than the Egyptian Army, Jordon's Arab Lefgion was the most professional of those forces. It was trained and armed by the British and equipped with both artillery and armored vehicles. The Arab Legion attacked into Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem

The Jewish Quarter in East Jerusalem had been under siege from Arab irregulars for many months and slowly being starbed out by the developing Palestinian blockade. The arrival of the Arab Legion created much greater difficulties (May 1948). The Jewish forces were poorly prepared to handle a modern, well equiped army. The Jews were able to hold out in West Jerusalem, but could not reach the Jews clinhing on in the Old City of East Jerusalem. Here a small Haganah force attempted to defend the 2,000 inhabitants of the Jewish quarter. Most were religious Jews and many non-Zionist. The Jewish population had been larger, about 5,000 people. Most of the Jews had been forced out by the anti-Jewish riots orcestrated by the Grand Mufti. These were Jews whose families had lived in Jerusalem for generations. The Jewish community there worshiped in 59 synagogues. The Haganah force in East Jerusalem was able to hold off Arab irregulars. They were no capable of resist the well-equipped Arab Legion and was forced to suurender (May 28, 1948). Abdullah Al-Tell, the commander of the Arab Legion, expelled the Jewish civilians to West Jerusalem. They lost their homes and possessions. He took the Haganah defenders prisoner.


Jerusalem after the 1948 War was left divided into two parts. Western Jerusalem populated mainly by Jews came under Israeli control. Eastern Jerusalem populated mainly by Arabs came under Jordanian rule. Arabs living in such western Jerusalem neighbourhoods (Katamon or Malha were forced out). Jews in Eastern Jerusalem (the Old City and the City of David). The only eastern area that the Israelis held was Mt. Scopus where the Hebrew University is located.

West Jerusalem

East Jerusalem

Jordon's Arab Legion captured East Jerusalem. The Jordanians immediately expelled the Jews from the Jewish Quarter. The Jordanians destroyed synagogues and bulldozed the Jewish Quarter. They also desecrated the ancient Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives. Jordon formally annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank (1950). This was not, however, generally recognized by the international community. Britain recognized Jordanian soverignity to the West Bank, but not East Jerusalem. Many West Jerusalem Arabs restablished themselves in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem declined under Jordanian rule. It was no longer the administrative capital of Palestine. It also suffered commercially as there was no connectioin with the sea because of continuing hostility with Israel. It retained its religious importance because of the revered religious shrines.


Milstein, Uri. History of Israel's War of Independence, Vol II, English Edition: (University Press of America: 1997).

"Jerusalem torn by rioting; Arabs use kbnivs, set fires; Jews reply, Haganah in open," New York Times (December 3, 1947). This was a three column headline on the front page. Subheadings included "14 Are Slain In Day" "8 Jews Reported Killed in Palestine Clashes--Mob Loots Shops."


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Created: 5:52 PM 4/5/2007
Last updated: 1:48 AM 4/6/2007