The Fall of Acre in the 1948 Palestine War
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The Fall of Acre in the 1948 Palestine War      

 
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By Mustafa Abbasi

In studies of the 1948 war, little attention has been paid to the swift fall of one of Palestine’s most storied cities, the walled and fortified seaport of Acre. This article, based on archival sources, focuses on the six months leading up to the city’s conquest on 17 May 1948. Describing in detail the preparations of the city’s defense, the various military and political forces involved, and the dissensions and rivalries among them, the article goes on to trace the tightening siege and mounting harassment of the city and the growing despair of its residents, the city’s place in Haganah strategy, and the actual battle. Of particular interest is the role of the Druze Regiment stationed nearby. Most important, the author provides a clear understanding of why events unfolded as they did.

ACRE IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS CITIES in the history of Palestine, its name associated with walls and fortifications that have withstood the attacks of powerful armies. In 1799, Napoleon and his army laid siege to the town but despite desperate attempts were forced to withdraw. In 1832, Ibrahim Pasha and the Egyptian army laid siege to Acre for a full six months before they could overcome the city’s fierce resistance. Yet on 17 May 1948, three days after the establishment of the State of Israel, this city of walls and fortifications fell to the Haganah forces in a military operation that met with relatively little resistance.

ACRE BEFORE THE WAR

After suffering decline and stagnation under Egyptian rule (1832–40), Acre began a new chapter with its return to Ottoman rule, entering a process of slow recovery that accelerated during the reforms of the late Ottoman period and continued under the British Mandate. This was reflected in the town’s demographic growth as recorded in the Mandate’s three censuses: from 6,420 in the 1922 census to 8,165 in the 1931 census. In the 1946 census, the population stood at 13,560, of which 10,930 were Muslim, 2,490 were Christian, 90 were from other denominations, and 50 were Jews.  In other words, Acre was almost totally Arab.

 
The city of Acre was the administrative, political, and economic center of a large district of the same name that contained 63 villages in 1922 and a total population of 55,970 in 1944.  The city was governed by families well known and established at least since late Ottoman times.  Prominent among these were the Abu al-Huda, Sa`di, Shuqayri, and Khalifa families. Tawfiq Bey Abu al-Huda, a well-known city leader who had once been Acre’s mayor, after 1948 became prime minister of Jordan.  Shaykh As`ad al-Shuqayri, a senior religious figure, was a prominent local and national leader  until his death in 1940.  Of the Sa`di family, the most noteworthy was `Abd al-Fatah al-Sa`di, a dignitary who served as Acre’s mayor until his death in 1927.  A prominent member of the Khalifa family was Husni Khalifa, Acre’s last Arab mayor and, as such, the one who had to cope with the catastrophe that befell the city in 1948.

 
When clashes began to break out in Palestine following the 29 November 1947 passage of the UN partition plan, which divided Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the fact that Acre was included in the Arab state gave its residents confidence during the following months. The hopes of the Galilee’s inhabitants also hung on the city, regarded as the region’s stronghold. The confidence that Acre would somehow be able to withstand the military forces of the Yishuv, a feeling that owed much to the town’s glorious past, was soon revealed to be ill-founded.

 
The conquest of Acre, which, after Jaffa, was the first major town outside the territory allotted to the Jewish state to fall to the Haganah forces, was an important event. Despite this, it has not yet been the subject of any in-depth or comprehensive research. Most sources—both Israeli  and Palestinian —deal with the subject at the macro level and in the wider context of the 1948 war. This study is based primarily on archival material from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Haganah, and State of Israel archives, which contain extensive Hebrew and Arabic material that can shed new light on the subject.

ORGANIZING FOR ACRE’S DEFENSE AND FAILED ATTEMPTS AT DIALOGUE

The vote on the UN partition plan had been awaited by the Palestinian Arabs with dread, as it was well known that if the resolution passed, the country would be plunged into a full-blown crisis. On 27 November 1947, therefore, two days before the vote, the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the highest political authority of the Arabs of Palestine, decreed the establishment of national committees in all the Arab cities and villages throughout the country. The AHC instructed the heads of public authorities to act immediately to establish these committees, even transmitting clear instructions regarding their composition, fields of operation, and functions.

 
In Acre, as in other Palestinian towns, the task of establishing national committees was complicated by local power struggles that often hinged on political alignments, notably in relation to Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem and head of the AHC, and persons or groups opposed to him. From the beginning of the Mandate, Acre’s leadership had been identified with the Palestinian opposition, and relations between the city’s leaders (particularly Shaykh As`ad al-Shuqayri) and Haj Amin were habitually tense.  The nearly month-long struggle over the composition of the Acre national committee between the oppositional camp led by the mayor, Husni Khalifa, and certain local and external forces aligned with Haj Amin  was a testament to these tense relations.

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Author biography: 

MUSTAFA ABBASI, lecturer at Tel Hai Academic College, Upper Galilee, Israel, is the author of Safad during the Mandate Period: A Social and Political Study (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2005, in Arabic).

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