Mahal and the Dispossession of the Palestinians

VOL. 40


No. 2
P. 43
Mahal and the Dispossession of the Palestinians


Mahal and the Dispossession of the Palestinians    

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By Dan Freeman-Maloy
The participation of thousands of overseas volunteers (the Mahal) in Zionist military operations conducted throughout the 1948 war has received insufficient critical attention. Mainly English-speaking World War II veterans recruited by the Zionist movement in the West for their expertise in such needed specializations as artillery, armored warfare, and aerial combat, the Mahal's importance to the military effort far exceeded their numbers. Situating their involvement within the broader historical context of Western support for the Zionist project, this article examines their role within the Haganah and Israel Defense Forces (particularly in aerial and armored units) in operations involving the violent depopulation of Palestinian communities.

IN 1948, thousands of overseas volunteers traveled to Palestine to take part in Zionist military operations. While various accounts of their participation are available, the record of those Zionist combatants formally designated as Mahal (from the Hebrew Mitnadvay Hutz La’aretz, “volunteers from abroad”) has been distorted in deference to conventional Zionist historiography. The Mahal recruits are generally depicted as “forgotten heroes,” as historian David Bercuson describes them in The Secret Army. Providing the foreword to a study published amidst Israel’s jubilee celebrations in 1998, Binyamin Netanyahu praises the “contribution to the struggle for liberation” made by Mahal fighters. “For them,” the authors of the study explain, “justice lay entirely on the side of the Jews”. The various memoirs written by volunteer combatants themselves likewise emphasize heroics in the service of a just cause. Yitzhak Rabin summarizes the standard narrative in his forward to one such volume: “The contribution of this small band of men and women is a glorious chapter in the story of Israel’s struggle for freedom.”

Estimates vary regarding the number of Mahal personnel interspersed throughout the Zionist forces. An initial Israeli census produced an estimate of 2,400, a figure now roundly considered low. Bercuson asserts that there were “more than 5,000 foreign volunteers who served with the Israeli forces”; Benny Morris cites an estimate of “more than 4,000.” A short study published by Israel’s Ministry of Education in 2007 puts the figure at approximately 3,500. In any event, with total Israeli troop levels nearing 100,000 by the end of 1948, the significance of Mahal combatants did not lie in their numbers. “Mahal’s special contribution,” in the words of David Ben-Gurion, “was qualitative.” Mostly English-speaking veterans of World War II, Mahal recruits devoted specialized skills to the Zionist military effort. Their expertise in modern military organization, artillery, armored warfare, naval, and aerial combat crucially facilitated the development (and early application) of Israeli military power.

This “glorious chapter,” as Rabin calls it, has gradually been written into the “heroic version” of Israel’s establishment. The role of foreign recruits in the political and demographic transformation of Palestine effected in 1948 merits a more critical recounting. What is recorded in the annals of Zionist historiography as Israel’s War of Independence was experienced by Palestinians, some 750,000 of whom were displaced from their homes in the process, as colonial conquest. Widespread ethnic cleansing was among its principal features—a painful reality made more so by the denials, disinformation, and even celebrations that have surrounded it since. The present article reexamines the record of Mahal recruits in this light.


From its establishment in 1897, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) pursued its ambitions concerning Palestine through organizational activity in Europe and North America and a strategic orientation toward the paramount imperial powers of the time. This approach succeeded in spectacular fashion during World War I when the Zionist movement secured British sponsorship for the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine—a sponsorship given force by Britain’s occupation of Palestine during the war and incorporated into its subsequent rule over Palestine under a Mandate approved by the League of Nations. With the growth of the prestate Jewish settlement (the Yishuv) during the period of British Mandatory rule (1922–1948), the center of Zionist decision making gradually shifted from Europe to Palestine. The WZO presidency of Chaim Weizmann, anchored in London, was overtaken by the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, based primarily “in the field.” But militarily as otherwise, the strength of the Yishuv remained heavily dependent upon international support.

Funds from Western affiliates of the WZO—notably, the United Palestine Appeal (UPA), which channeled North American funds to Palestine through the Keren Hayesod (Foundation Fund)—were allocated according to the priorities of the Zionist Executive, including building military capacity. In matters of formal politics and diplomacy, the WZO operated in post-World War I Palestine as the Jewish Agency, which enjoyed formal juridical standing within the British Mandatory regime. Its military arm, the Haganah, though formally illegal, in practice also received important (albeit uneven) support from British authorities. This was most significant during the Palestinian Arab rebellion of 1936–1939, when sections of the Haganah were equipped and trained by the British to help put down the uprising within the framework of “Special Night Squads” and the Supernumerary Police force. Their experience bolstered the Haganah’s capacities and contributed to shaping its military doctrine, particularly its preference for night-time assaults on Arab villages.

By the late 1930s, as Nur Masalha has shown, leading Zionist decision makers were engaged in frank internal discussions regarding the prospect of forcibly expelling (or “transferring”) Palestinians to clear the way for a Jewish state. The fate of statist Zionism and its quest for a Jewish demographic majority would thus rest on coercive power. In a June 1938 discussion of transfer with the Jewish Agency Executive, Ben-Gurion emphasized that although the Zionist movement should seek Arab acquiescence, it “must enforce order and security and it will do this not by moralizing and preaching ‘sermons on the mount’ but by machine guns, which we will need.” “For Ben-Gurion,” writes biographer Shabtai Teveth, “the Yishuv’s relationship with the Arabs of Palestine was now a military and not a political question.”

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DAN FREEMAN-MALOY is a doctoral student in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, affiliated with the university's European Centre for Palestine Studies.