1948 Palestine War
Palestine was under rule of the British Mandate from 1917 to 1948. After 30 years of intercommunal conflict between Jewish and Arab Palestinians, the United Nations voted to partition it into a Jewish and an Arab state on 29 November 1947, with Lydda and Ramle to form part of the latter.
The proposal was welcomed by Palestine's Jewish community but rejected by the Arab leaders and civil war broke out between the communities. British authority broke down as the civil war spread, taking care only of the evacuation of their forces although they maintained an air and sea blockade. After first 4.5 months of fights, the Jewish militias had defeated Arab ones and conquered main mixed cities of the country, triggering 1948 Palestinian exodus. During that period between 300,000 and 350,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their lands.
The British Mandate expired on 14 May 1948, and the State of Israel declared its independence. Arab states intervened in sending expeditionnary forces from Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq that entered former Mandatory Palestine and engaged Jewish forces. 6 weeks of fights followed after which none of the belligerants had taken the advantage.
After 4 weeks of truce during which Israeli forces reinforced whereas Arab ones suffered of the embargo, the fights resumed. Lydda and Ramle events took place during that period.
Strategic importance of Lydda and Ramle
The city of Lydda in 1932
Lydda (Arabic: Al-Ludd اَلْلُدّْ) dates back to at least 5600–5250 BCE. Ramle (ar-Ramlah الرملة), three kilometers away, was founded in the 8th century CE. Both towns were strategically important because they sat at the intersection of Palestine's main north–south and east–west roads. Palestine's main railway junction and its airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) were in Lydda, and the main source of Jerusalem's water supply was 15 kilometers away. Jewish and Arab fighters had been attacking each other on roads near the towns since hostilities broke out in December 1947. Israeli geographer Arnon Golan writes that Palestinian Arabs had blocked Jewish transport to Jerusalem at Ramle, causing Jewish transportation to shift to a southern route. Israel had launched several ground or air attacks on Ramle and Latrun in May 1948, and Israel's prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, developed what Benny Morris calls an obsession with the towns; he wrote in his diary that they had to be destroyed, and on 16 June referred to them during an Israeli cabinet meeting as the "two thorns".
Lydda's local Arab authority, officially subordinated to the Arab Higher Committee, assumed local civic and military powers. The records of Lydda's military command discuss military training, constructing obstacles and trenches, requisitioning vehicles and assembling armored cars armed with machine-guns, and attempts at arms procurement. In April 1948, Lydda had become an arms supply center, and provided military training and security coordination for the neighboring villagers.
Israel subsequently launched Operation Danny to secure the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road and neutralize any threat to Tel Aviv from the Arab Legion, which was stationed in Ramallah and Latrun, with a number of men in Lydda. On 7 July the IDF appointed Yigal Allon to head the operation, and Yitzhak Rabin, who became Israel's prime minister in 1974, as his operations officer; both had served in the Palmach, an elite fighting force of the pre-Israel Jewish community in Palestine. The operation was carried out between 9 July 1948, the end of the first truce in the Arab-Israeli war, and 18 July, the start of the second truce, a period known in Israeli historiography as the Ten Days. Morris writes that the IDF assembled its largest force ever: the
Yiftach brigade; the Eighth Armored Brigade's 82nd and 89th Battalions; three battalions of Kiryati and Alexandroni infantry men; an estimated 6,000 men with around 30 artillery pieces.
Lydda in 1920 with St. George's Church in the background
In July 1948 Lydda and Ramle had a joint population of 50,000–70,000 Palestinian Arabs, 20,000 of them refugees from Jaffa and elsewhere. Several Palestinian Arab towns had already fallen to Jewish or Israeli advances since April, but Lydda and Ramle had held out. There are differing views as to how well-defended the towns were. In January 1948, John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of Transjordan's Arab Legion, had toured Palestinian Arab towns, including Lydda and Ramle, urging them to prepare to defend themselves. The Legion had distributed barbed wire and as many weapons as could be spared. Lydda had an outer line of defense and prepared positions, an antitank ditch and field artillery as well as a heavily fortified and armed line northeast of central Lydda.
Israeli historians Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela write that the Arab National Committee—a local emergency Arab authority that answered to the Arab Higher Committee run by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem—had assumed civic and military control of Lydda, and had acquired arms, conducted training, constructed trenches, requisitioned vehicles, and organized medical services. By the time of the Israeli attack, they say the militia in Lydda numbered 1,000 men equipped with rifles, submachine guns, 15 machine guns, five heavy machine guns, 25 anti-tank launchers, six or seven light field-guns, two or three heavy ones, and armored cars with machine guns. The IDF estimated that there was an Arab Legion force of around 200-300 men. Lydda contained several hundred Bedouin volunteers and a large-sized force of the Arab Legion. They argue that the deaths in Lydda occurred during a military battle for the town, not because of a massacre.
Against this view, Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi writes that just 125 Legionnaires from the Fifth Infantry Company were in Lydda—the Arab Legion numbered 6,000 in all—and that the rest of the town's defense consisted of civilian residents acting under the command of a retired Arab Legion sergeant. According to Morris, a number of Arab Legion soldiers, including 200–300 Bedouin volunteers, had arrived in Lydda and Ramle in April, and a company-sized force had set itself up in the old British police stations in Lydda and on the Lydda-Ramle road, with armored cars and other weapons. He writes that there were 150 Legionnaires in the town in June, though the Israelis believed there were up to 1,500. An Arab Legion officer was appointed military governor of both towns, signaling the desire of Abdullah I of Jordan to stake a claim in the parts of Palestine allotted by the UN to a Palestinian Arab state, but Glubb advised him that the Legion was overstretched and could not hold the towns. As a result, Abdullah ordered the Legion to assume a defensive position only, and most of the Legionnaires in Lydda withdrew during the night of 11–12 July.
Kadish and Sela write that the National Committee stopped women and children from leaving, because their departure had acted elsewhere as a catalyst for the men to leave too. They say it was common for Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes under threat of Israeli invasion, in part because they feared atrocities, particularly rape, and in part because of a reluctance to live under Jewish rule. In Lydda's case, they argue, the fears were more particular: a few days before the city fell, a Jew found in Lydda's train station had been publicly executed and his body mutilated by residents, who, according to Kadish and Sela, now feared Jewish reprisals.