A Sobering View of a War

  1948, A Soldier's Tale   by Uri Avnery

xvi + 398 pp by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK 2008  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

    When was the state of Israel founded? History books point point to 29 November 1947 as the day when UN endorsed the partition of the British "Mandate of Palestine" into a Jewish state and an Arab one. However, the UN provided Jews with no more than a fighting chance, and the vicious fighting which erupted in 1948 claimed casualties on both sides. It ended in a tense cease-fire, following the defeat of the armies of five Arab nations: Israel wound up with most of the land, while the Kingdom of Jordan held the rest. The real losers (apart from the many dead) were hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees driven away by war. Their descendants by the million live in Gaza, in the Palestinian West Bank, in the Kingdom of Jordan itself (where they may constitute a majority) and in countries around the globe, including the USA.

    In 1948 Uri Avnery, author of "1948, A Soldier's Tale," was 23 or 24 years old, editor of a small political newspaper. Like many others, Avnery volunteered to defend Israel from the Arabs who rejected partition and who fought against any Jewish state. At first the odds seemed uneven: the Jews relied mainly on small arms collected clandestinely during the British rule, while their foes were supported by bordering Arab states; the armies of those states joined the war on May 15 1948, when the last British soldiers left. Or even before: the army of Jordan, the "Arab Legion," was deployed in Palestine months earlier, and was besieging Jewish parts of Jerusalem well before May 15.

    Jewish resistance started gradually, though it was well organized. It included veterans of WW-II, and memories of the Nazi Holocaust gave them a powerful motivation. Jerusalem was sporadically relieved by convoys of trucks shielded by boilerplate armor, and small units fought with mixed success to secure its road connection. Avnery tells about his trip as guard in such a convoy, and how he later participated in the failed attack on Latrun, ending in retreat under fire.

    Ultimately the siege was broken by a bypass dirt road south of the main highway, the "Burma Road" so named after a road between India and China in WW II. But then came May 15, when the largest of the Arab armies, namely Egypt's, rolled northward to within 15-20 miles of Tel Aviv. Opposing it were (at first) about 1500 defenders (the number soon grew), among them Avnery. Fortified kibbutz-villages and a blown bridge slowed down the invasion, but what ultimately stopped it were desperate attacks, night and day, by fast moving platoons and companies. New recruits and arms from Europe gradually changed the odds, but at the beginning it was a close thing.

    "1948, A Soldier's Tale" actually contains translations of two Hebrew books, "In the Fields of Philistia" (1949) and "The Other Side of the Coin" (1950). The first started with reports in the press submitted by Avnery during the fighting, and "Philistia" was the plain south of Tel Aviv, next to the ocean (the area of 5 biblical Philistine cities). It is a raw, emotional story of pitched battles, at places where survival depended mostly on luck. Avnery's feisty army ultimately drove back the Egyptian one and even surrounded some of it, including a young officer named Abdul Nasser, later ruler of Egypt. Avnery ends with an account of being hit in the belly by machine gun fire and of recovery in a military hospital. The book was an instant hit in Israel and quickly went through 12 printings.

    That same fighting, however, also uprooted thousands of leaderless peasants, expelled by Israel fearful that their villages might again become enemy strongholds. (In the Galilee however Archbishop George Hakeem interceded and most inhabitants ended up as citizens of Israel). Avnery witnessed such expulsions, also the murder of Arab peasants caught in the war, and while he repeatedly risked his life defending Israel, he was also turned off by the excesses he saw. It made him a militant peace-lover, associating with Palestinians and often swimming against Israeli opinions. After the war he was quite vocal as owner and editor of the country's leading weekly newsmagazine.

    "In the Fields of Philistia" seemed to reflect the "David vs. Goliath" struggle of Israel against the largest of Arab armies and was widely praised. It did not glorify war, but drew attention to the way it was won, by squads in armed jeeps darting across fields and dirt roads. Although many passages in it also described the other face of war, its reception seemed one-sided to Avnery. He therefore wrote "The Other Side of the Coin" (Hebrew equivalent to "on the other hand"), illuminating seamier sides of the same war.

    Cast as the recollections of a wounded soldier in a military hospital (of which Avnery had his own memories), "The Other Side" tells of the rejected surrender of a village, of peasants coming under fire while sneaking at night to gather their abandoned crops, of an Arab youth employed in an army kitchen taking food to an old man hiding in an abandoned village, and more. Avnery knew that a factual account would be banned by the military censor and therefore cast it as a work of fiction, replacing given names with nicknames and deliberately fragmenting the story through hospital interludes. It reads well, but when it appeared it sold poorly, because it aired views of the war which Israel preferred to forget.

    This translation deserves credit for including it. Its front carries a picture of young Avnery, a stubble-faced youth in uniform. It ends with a picture of white-haired Avnery in his 80s, a strident advocate of Jewish-Arab peace. After 60-odd years it still remains timely.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 11 April 2011