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Independence and “Catastrophe”: The Deadly Founding of Israel, May 14, 1948

On May 15, 1948, the UK withdrew from Palestine. (It had been given a mandate over the territories after it defeated the Ottomans in World War I.) The evening before, David Ben-Gurion, President of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared Israel’s statehood and independence. This prompted the Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Saudi Arabian armies to invade Israel. Thus began the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Israelis beat back all of their attackers and established Israel as a state. To this day the war is known as the War of Independence in Hebrew and The Catastrophe in Arabic.

President Truman notably recognized the State of Israel eleven minutes after its founding, making the United States the first country to do so. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred in Jerusalem, and several American diplomats witnessed it firsthand.  Ultimately, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, while some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled and became  refugees. Wells Stabler, at the time a vice consul and later an ambassador, had a few close calls with the violence that broke out and tragically watched several of his colleagues die, including Consul General Tom Wasson. In these excerpts, he tells of his experiences in Jerusalem at the beginning of the conflict. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1991. Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty.

The UK pulls out…

STABLER: Obviously everybody recognized there would be utter chaos and almost anarchy once the British left.… One can sympathize with the British because this had become an enormous burden to bear, extremely expensive in terms of money and lives with no returns, which they had been carrying on for a great many years. There was no way that they were going to be persuaded to stay on…. They may have considered it for a while, but by that time the Labour Government had come in and I think that they finally just realized that there was no way they could do it or really wanted to do it.

We all knew that Partition wasn’t going to be viable because everybody was against it. It was a big unknown that we were embarking on the day that the British pulled out. But the political situation had reached the point where there was no alternative. They wouldn’t stay and the UN had no ability or capacity to put a force in there. It was just one of these machines that gathered speed and there was no stopping it. The United States had no power to stop it either, because we were behind the partitioning. We certainly weren’t going to take over from the British. Domestically it was quite clear that this was what the Jews wanted, because this was the creation by partition of the homeland. As it turned out they got the whole thing.

We knew in the Consulate General that there was the Hagganah, the Jewish army. It was illegal, but the British didn’t do much about it. They knew it was there and had some utility in the defense of kibbutzims and things of that sort. They got their arms helter-skelter by stealing from British ammunition depots and things of that sort. That was sort of the unofficial army…. But as you added up the Arab manpower for the Arab armies, it was hard, frankly, to see how in the final analysis the Jews would be able to withstand this onslaught. Added to this, of course, was the view in all the Arab capitals. American representatives in all the Arab capitals were reporting that this better not happen, because the Jews would be pushed into the sea. At times the war between our representative, James McDonald, in Tel Aviv and our representatives in the Arab countries was worse than the fighting, because those in Arab countries took one side and McDonald the other…. 

…And public order collapses

May 15, 1948 I was at the Consulate General. The staff there by that time had been reduced by many. Those of us who were there were all bachelors, including the Consul General, Tom Wasson…. In any event, early on the morning of May 15, Major Andronovich — Nick Andronovich — who by then was the CIA representative in Jerusalem, and I drove out in my personal car. The Consulate General by that time had no car because it had been blown up…. We drove out to a little airstrip called Kalondia between Jerusalem and Ramallah and found there a small plane and British troops drawn up in battle array with a battery of field artillery with guns aiming in the direction of Jerusalem. In due course the High Commissioner arrived, Sir Alan Cunningham, who was a friend. He was received with full honors at the little airstrip. After saying goodbye to me and Andronovich and to his staff, he took off in his little plane headed for Haifa. The guns were hitched up and bit by bit the British forces also departed.

In a very short period of time Andronovich and I were left standing on an extremely empty airfield feeling really quite lonely, because with the departure of the British forces all public security in Jerusalem had come to an end. There was no neutral police force, no security provided by a third element, that is to say, Jews, Arab and the British…. A group of members of the [consulate] staff, including civilian guards who had recently come in,… had been shot at. The British had gone, and public order had completely collapsed. They went back to the Consulate General and asked to borrow a car, which was refused them. They didn’t want to risk walking up there again and being shot at.

I said, “Look here, I have my car with a couple of flags on it. Hop in the car and I will drive you up there.” This was around noontime on the 15th. In they got, along with me and my little dachshund. We drove up the street around the corner from the Consulate General and almost in no time we started getting shot at. I drove the car right up on the sidewalk and let the people in the car get out. They almost fell into the hotel.

As soon as they had gotten out I started driving up the street towards the YMCA. At this point I was taken under machine-gun fire, on one side by

the Jews and the other side by the Arabs. I decided it was a no-win situation and backed my car down again on the sidewalk and came really within a hairbreadth of having a bullet right through my head. It was scary. I was able to get out and fall into this hotel, literally.

There we were stuck for over 24 hours. That night there was virtually no food in the hotel, there were no lights and we were concerned that during the night either a Jewish or Arab patrol might come in to this hotel and shoot first and ask questions later. Things were very tense at that time and the Jews and the Arabs were really after each other.

President Truman’s announces de facto recognition

It was while we were all sitting in that hotel — we did have a battery radio or some sort of communication — that we learned that Mr. Truman had announced the de facto recognition of Israel, which made us all even more nervous, because this was the area where there were quite a few Arabs around and we didn’t think that decision would be very popular.

In any event while we were there one, possibly two, of the men who were with us there, part of the consulate staff, got rather antsy about being cooped up and without my knowledge or permission — I was the senior officer there — went out onto the street and were promptly shot. Fortunately, neither of them were killed and were picked up by Red Crescent ambulances (very brave ambulance people indeed) and taken off to hospitals. One of them was a civilian guard who was well into his sixties by this time.

This was the sort of harebrained scheme they thought up in Washington. Ages went all the way from the sixties down to the early twenties. This gentleman was in his sixties. Anyway, he was taken away and, of course, we had no idea where. At that point we didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. I think there may have been two, certainly there was one.

In any event, in due course, the people at the Consulate General were able to arrange with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had people in Jerusalem at that time trying to help in keeping some semblance of humanity in all of this — they were able to arrange with them to come down to the hotel from the YMCA and under the protection of a Red Cross flag — I think these were mostly Swiss and extremely brave men, because this was a wide open street absolutely visible from any sort of sniper’s post. They came down by small groups and began removing the people in this hotel. Being senior officer I was the last to leave. Just before I left they started mowing the streets with bullets of one sort or another so we had to hold up a while.

We all got out and went back via the YMCA to the Consulate General. Those were the events of May 15.

Jerusalem Under Siege – “The Consul General has been shot”

There then began a period of one month in which really we were under siege — the whole of Jerusalem really. The Arab Legion had occupied the

Old City and were lobbing mortar shells into the New City. We lived there at the Consulate General with our own generator. We had a naval communications unit, which was just across an alley way in a convent. We had this sort of guard force that would shoot street lights out and do all sorts of things.

During that period we had a number of casualties. One of the naval communicators at one point was walking behind the Consulate General, I don’t know why he was there after dark, and, of course, ran across a patrol, we don’t know whether it was Jews or Arabs, and was shot. He eventually died. Two of the guards, two young men, heard screams and went out behind the Consulate into this no-man’s land and brought Walker, I think that was his name, back into the Consulate. We had a U.S. Public Health doctor, Jeff Freyman, assigned to the Consulate General at that time. He was able to give first aid and got him into a hospital. Eventually, I am sorry to say, Walker died.

The Consul General, Tom Wasson, was a member of the Security Council Truce Commission which was composed of the United States, France, and Belgium, as I remember, and was supposed to keep in touch with the Jewish and Arab communities, with the idea of somehow getting a truce from the fighting that was going on, which was very widespread. The Egyptians had come into Gaza, the Iraqis had marched a division into Palestine, the Syrians had fiddled about a little bit up in the north, the Arab Legion had occupied the West Bank and the Old City. The Truce Commission met in the French Consulate, which was just under the Walls of the Old City. We had asked the Department to send an armored vehicle and it chose not to. So Wasson was obliged to walk this distance, which was relatively far and fairly open between the Consulate General and the French Consulate. On his way back from one of these meetings as he was crossing a street just behind the Consulate — and the irony of it all was that he was wearing a

bulletproof vest — a sniper, and to this day no one really knows whether it was Jewish or Arab, shot him in the arm which was the one area that was not protected by the vest. We got him to the hospital, but he died very shortly thereafter.

At the time Wasson was hit I was in the Consulate General, the only officer there at the moment. We had a number of communications facilities at that point. We had the Navy and a special CIA/OSS operator who had a post on the roof of the building. Incidentally, he was also later wounded in a mortar attack. I had to decide who was going to be the acting Consul General…. I sent the message informing the Department that Consul General Wasson had been shot and seriously injured and that “I have assumed charge,” signing it “Burdett.” So Bill Burdett indeed was acting Consul General for several months until a replacement came.

“I lived in the Consulate General and slept with a telephone and Tommy Gun by my bed”

So, during that period we were pretty much holed up. You could get around and some people lived outside the Consulate General. I lived in the Consulate General and slept with a telephone and Tommy Gun [Thompson sub-machine gun] by my bed. We ate “Ten-in-One” rations that had been brought in before.

Q: Ten-in-One rations being a military combat type of ration.

STABLER: Yes, enough food for one man for ten days or for ten men for one day, something of that sort. The U.S. Air Force had flown in a supply from Germany, I recall, some days before the British left.

Q: I might add, not the greatest food in the world.

STABLER: Not the greatest, but it was the only food we had, because all the markets were closed.

Finally in mid-June 1948 the UN was able to arrange a 30-day ceasefire and Count Bernadotte, the UN Mediator, came to Jerusalem. The guns were silenced and people began to go out in the streets.

Arab refugees
Arab refugees