In part five of his series on Zionism, imperialism and the Palestinians Neil Rogall looks at the lead up to the Nakba and how the west used the establishment of the state of Israel to absolve themselves of Nazi crimes.
The defeat of the 1936-39 uprising left the Palestinians exhausted and leaderless. Recovery would take decades. They were totally unprepared for the crisis that followed the war. The Zionists were well armed, had a centralised leadership, and a clear strategy (expelling as many Arabs as possible from their new ‘homeland’). The Palestinians had none of these things. Isolated and abandoned, they were driven from their homes – village-by-village, town-by-town in 1948.
The blowing up of the King David Hotel
The Nakba itself will be the topic of my next article. In this one I look first at how the Zionists used the war to strengthen their hand. The second section deals with the collaboration of the Grand Mufti, Amin al-Husseini with the Nazis. We still get this thrown at us today by Zionists so it is worth dealing with. Finally I look at the events leading up to the United Nations vote to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
Zionist settlers in World War Two – Callous to the plight of European Jewry
Palestine in World War Two was an enormous British military camp, but it was never a war zone. The Zionists took full advantage of this. They had gained tremendously from the defeat of the Palestinian uprising but they were unhappy at the curbing of Jewish immigration following the British White Paper of 1939. They knew what a Nazi victory would mean for the Jewish settlers in Palestine. So their leadership offered military support to the British without reversing their opposition to imperial policy in Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the leader of the settler colony and the future prime minister of Israel put it clearly:
“We shall fight alongside the British army against the Germans as if the anti-Zionist white paper of 1939 did not exist, and fight against the white paper as if the war with Germany did not exist”.
Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers received military training from the British army. In 1944, the Haganah, the main Zionist militia, had 36,000 fighters in its ranks. They managed to steal and stockpile large quantities of British arms.
The Zionist’s main concern was immigration. They were deeply worried that the supply of new Jewish immigrants would dry up. Without new settlers, how would they get their state? This was much more important to them than any concern about the fate of the Jews in Europe who faced extermination. After the state directed pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938 Ben Gurion had stated: “If I knew it was possible to save all the Jewish children of Germany by their transfer to England, and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) I would choose the latter”. The same callousness was expressed in December 1942 when he wrote, “The catastrophe of European Jewry is not, in a direct manner, my business”. This was at the height of the Holocaust.
The settlers were desperate to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine. In November 1940, a crowded ship, the SS Patria, with around 1700 illegal Jewish immigrants was held by the British in Haifa harbour. The Mandate authorities were planning to deport the refugees to Mauritius. The Haganah blew up the ship killing some 250 refugees. The bomber, Munya Mardor, claimed this was a miscalculation, that the Haganah just wanted to prevent the ship being sent to Mauritius. There are doubts about this explanation.
Were the Zionists trying to push Britain to reverse its policy by cynically killing their own people and blaming it on the authorities? Either way the level of brutality shown by the Zionists here to fellow Jews is breath-taking. The Israelis today accuse Hamas of using human shields and planting their missiles in civilian areas. Yet here we have the Haganah murdering Jews.
But what were the Zionists intentions? Once the threat of a Nazi invasion of Palestine was removed, the only obstacle to the settlers seizing the country was Britain. The Palestinians were no threat. The British had destroyed their leadership and any capacity for resistance they had by the end of 1939 (See http://rs21.org.uk/2014/09/12/the-birth-of-palestinian-resistance-and-the-1936-uprising/).
At the May 1942 Zionist conference in New York at the Biltmore Hotel, Ben Gurion demanded a Jewish state in the whole of mandate Palestine. This conference discussed expelling half a million Palestinians to make room for Jewish immigrants. This was nothing new. Yosef Weitz an important director of the Zionist’s Land Settlement Department wrote in his diary in June 1941:
“The land of Israel is not small at all, if only the Arabs were removed, and its frontiers enlarged a little, to the north up to the Litani, and to the east including the Golan Heights…with the Arabs transferred to northern Syria and Iraq”.
Weitz was to play a decisive role in expelling Palestinians in the Nakba.
By 1945 the US government fully supported the Zionists. They knew how important oil had been in war and were keen to have reliable allies in the Middle East. The news of the death camps in Germany led to worldwide sympathy for the Jews. The Zionists used this to bolster their demands. President Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman put pressure on the British to allow all Jewish holocaust survivors to be sent to Palestine. The British refused. This wasn’t sympathy on Truman’s part. Most camp survivors wanted to go to the USA. But Truman was an openly racist and anti-Semitic politician who had only been chosen as Roosevelt’s running mate to placate southern ‘Dixiecrats ’.Truman was opposed to letting Jewish refugees into the US. However, in 1947, the Zionists won a key propaganda battle. The Exodus, a packed refugee ship was sent back from Palestine to Germany. Much western opinion saw this as an inhuman act.
Amin al-Husseini, the Nazis and the Palestinians
The defeat of the 1936-39 uprising left the Palestinians weak and divided. The community now had two rival leaderships, each backed by a dominant notable family. The Arab Higher Committee was headed by the Husseinis. Their rivals, the Nashashibis dominated the ‘National Authority’ backed by Transjordan. Neither offered a way forward.
Amin al-Husseini, the exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was still the head of the banned Arab Higher Committee. He now moved from Arab capital to capital, eventually ending up in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Zionist propaganda still recycles the tale of the Mufti and Nazi Germany in order to discredit the Palestinian National Movement. They did this during the Nuremburg Trials and the Nakba. In the midst of one of the London Gaza protests this year, I had a Zionist shouting at me about the ‘Grand Mufti’. The message is always the same: ‘Palestinian hostility to Israel is the same as Nazi hostility to the Jews’.
At the Holocaust Centre, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there is an entire wall devoted to the former Grand Mufti. In the 4 volume Israeli Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust twice as much space is devoted to him as to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. In fact only Adolf Hitler gets more space than Amin al-Husseini.
The Arabs and the Holocaust
So what should we say about Amin al-Husseini? Are the accusations correct? What is the evidence? The best discussion is in Gilbert Achar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust from which much of the following argument derives.
Certainly al-Husseini made radio broadcasts from the fascist capitals. He attempted to create military units in support of the Axis war effort from Arab prisoners of war in Germany and Italy. He did this because he believed, as many did until 1942, that the fascists were going to win the war. Of course he was aware of Nazi racism but he had experience of British and French racism too. On top of this, both Italy and Nazi Germany promised the Arabs independence.
His attempt to create an Arab legion was a dismal failure. Berlin transferred to him 250 prisoners, but only 18 agreed to serve in the Legion and only 8 remained by the end. His exhortations to the prisoners to rally to the fascist struggle against the ‘English and the Jews’ had little traction. Tragically many Arab prisoners of war died at the hands of the Nazis
Looking at the wider issue of Arab military support for the Nazis, Antonio Munoz, a US military historian has shown that 6,300 soldiers from Arab nations served in the German army, the Wehrmacht. 1300 of these came from Palestine, Iraq and Syria. But many more Arabs fought for the British including 9,000 Palestinians.
He was apparently more successful in organising Waffen SS Bosnian regiments which contained many Muslims. A photograph of the Grand Mufti with these troops is often brandished by the Zionists. Yet the reality is that these troops played no role in rounding up Jews. When they were sent to fight in France they mutinied and tried to join the anti-fascist resistance. When they returned home in 1944 large numbers joined the Yugoslav partisans fighting the foreign invader.
Amin al-Husseini believed a Nazi victory would save Palestine from Zionism. In this he was no different from other opponents of British Imperialism such as the Indian nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose who also spent time in the fascist states on the run from a British jail. But Bose never bought into Nazism and spent some of his time in Berlin trying to protect resident Indians from the overwhelming racism they faced.
Unlike Bose, the Mufti clearly made the jump from anti-Zionism to full blown anti-Semitism. According to the Mufti’s memoirs written in the late 1960’s, Himmler, the head of the SS informed him of the on going extermination of the Jews in the summer of 1943. Amin al-Husseini gloats that the Jews paid a much higher price than the Germans during the war. To his dying day he believed that the Holocaust was justified.
It is worth comparing his appalling position with the words of the founder and leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna in September 1945 to an assembly of senior members. “There can be no doubt about the fact that we feel great sympathy for the suffering Jews, but this does not mean that they should obtain justice by committing an injustice against the Arabs”
By the time of the Nakba, al-Husseini’s reputation in the wider Arab world was very low. He did still have an influence with some Palestinians simply because the Zionists demonised him to justify their own crimes. The tragedy was that the Palestinian community had no one to replace him.
In the late 1960s the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the wings of the resistance, issued a statement summing up his disastrous legacy:
“The orientation to Nazi Germany diminished the prestige of the Palestinian struggle in the international arena…
(His) relationship to Nazi Germany thus helped to cast the Palestinian struggle as one that:
- is convergent with Nazism and fascism
- lends support to the anti Semitic movement that was led by Hitler.
This ‘tactical’ collaboration reflected utter ignorance of the racist, colonialist nature of the Nazi movement’.
Appallingly the Mufti left foreign governments thinking the Palestinians supported the Nazis. In Britain, pro-Palestinian government officials were marginalised leaving a widespread hostility to Arabs at the summit of imperial power.
Absolving imperialist guilt
As soon as it became clear that the Third Reich was doomed, the Zionists took up arms. The Irgun militia in February 1944, led by the future Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, targeted government buildings and assassinated British officials. The pro Nazi Lehi, (the Stern Gang) killed Lord Moyne, the British minister resident in the Middle East. By the end of 1945 all the Zionist military organisations were sabotaging railways, blowing up bridges and bringing in illegal Jewish immigrants.
The British now tried to offload their problems in Palestine on to the USA by setting up an ‘Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry’.
This committee travelled across Poland and Cyprus talking to Jewish refugees. It visited Palestinian villages. It consulted the Zionist organisations. The Committee were deeply prejudiced against the Arabs. The poverty of the Palestinian villages appalled them. They distrusted the Arab leaders who they viewed as ‘feudal’ relics.
In contrast the Zionists emphasised how they had brought progress and civilisation to Palestine. In the end the Committee recommended issuing 100,000 visas to Jewish refugees, and creating a binational state.
By February 1947 however the British had had enough. In July 1946, the Irgun blew up the British Administrative Headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel killing 91 people. Successful terrorist attacks against British servicemen continued the following year. The British now had 100,000 troops stationed in Palestine. They had more troops there than in India, about to face a bloody partition crisis of its own.
But Zionist terrorism wasn’t the only influence on British policy. The previous year Winston Churchill spoke at Fulton, Missouri about the ‘Iron Curtain’ descending over Europe. This was an appeal to the US government for Anglo-American unity against the ‘communist threat’. At the same time the UK was massively in debt to the USA as a result of the war, and the Americans wanted their money back. Britain could no longer afford the cost of Palestine, or to oppose American policy. Britain was also about to leave India, driven out by a successful anti-colonial movement. Protecting at all cost the sea route to south Asia was no longer paramount in Imperial calculations.
Bombing of the King David hotel
On 14 February 1947, the British government announced it was handing the mandate to a new international body, the United Nations. The British foreign minister, the right wing Labourite Ernie Bevin announced to the House of Commons: “we are unable to accept the scheme put forward by the Arabs or the Jews, or to impose a solution of our own”. The British were washing their hands of a disaster they had created.
A month later, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was formed. Its brief was to tour Palestine, to consult the various players and to make recommendations for the future of the territory. None of the UNSCOP members knew much about Palestine or for that matter had any experience in handling conflicts. The Zionists welcomed UNSCOP with open arms. In all their dealings with the committee they emphasised their ‘Europeaness’, their modernity, the dynamism of the settler community.
The Palestinians, in contrast, boycotted UNSCOP. For once what remained of the Palestinian leadership was in tune with popular feeling. “What right had these diplomats to determine what should happen in our homeland?”
UNSCOP’s visit to Palestine coincided with the ‘Exodus affair’ discussed earlier. In fact some representatives were in Haifa when the ship was sent back to Germany. The result was that UNSCOP put the needs of the Holocaust survivors over the demographic reality of Palestine. This is just like today when all the ‘peace plans’ are cooked up by the US government and Israel and allies.
UNSCOP’s proposal was to partition Palestine into 3. The Jewish state was to be given 55% of Palestine. This area contained 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. The Palestinians were to get 43% of the territory. The ‘Arab’ state had a Jewish population of 10,000 compared to a Palestinian population of 725,000. The remaining area, consisting of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was to be an international zone administered by the UN.
In the weeks before the vote, Zionist lobbying and US pressure set to work. At least three countries heavily dependent on the USA were threatened with the suspension of aid or economic sanctions: Haiti, The Philippines and Liberia. France was threatened with the loss of Marshall Aid.
The UN general assembly voted on November 29th. The UN today has 193 member states. But in 1947 it had only 57. Most of Africa and Asia were still colonies of the European empires. The partition vote needed a two-thirds majority of those voting yes or no. Thirty-three members supported partition. The US, Western Europe (bar Greece and the UK) the whole Soviet bloc and much of Latin America voted yes. Israel had two parents – The USA and the USSR. The Muslim countries plus India, Cuba and Greece voted against: thirteen in total. There were ten abstentions including China, and the UK.
The partition resolution meant that the Palestinians were scapegoats for Nazi war crimes. The Imperialist powers were absolving their guilt for the holocaust by creating a new set of victims. The Jewish population owned less than 6% of the land and comprised a third of the population but they were to be given more than half the country. The Arab delegates stormed out declaring the resolution invalid. But that was mostly bluster. We now know thanks to Avi Shlaim’s ‘Collusion Across The Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine’ that the Hashemite monarchy in Transjordan had secretly negotiated a deal with the Zionists to divide Palestine between them.
The Zionists were ecstatic that the UN had voted for a Jewish state, yet they didn’t support the plan. Ben Gurion’s view was that the Jewish state’s borders “ will be determined by force and not the partition resolution…there are no territorial boundaries for the future Jewish state.” That was written on 7 October 1947 , some 7 weeks before the UN vote. Israel to this day has not declared its borders.
In Palestine any semblance of law and order disintegrated and the mood in the towns was deeply anxious. The Zionists were preparing to unleash mayhem on the Palestinian people. Israel was to be born in blood and ethnic cleansing. My next article will look at the horror of the Nakba and its consequences.
Neil’s previous pieces can be found here:
Part one of Neil’s series, The Origins of the Zionism, is here.
Part two, Palestine, the Great War and imperialism, is here.
Part three, The origins of the Iron Wall: Zionist settlers during the mandate is here.
Part four, The Birth of Palestinian Resistance and the 1936 uprising is here.