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palestine 5 – the turbulent thirties and forties, towards the Nakba

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The 1930s saw a growing animosity among the native, mostly Sunni Moslem population towards Zionist claims to and appropriation of Palestinian lands. Sentiments about the future of the region were diverse, animated and increasingly dogmatic. There are no clearly ‘representative’ figures, but the career of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948, illustrates some of the complexities of Arab-Zionist-European relations in the period that includes WW2.

Husseini was born to a prominent Palestinian family in Jerusalem (his father and his half-brother also served as the city’s mufti). At the outset of WW1 he joined the Ottoman army, but switched his allegiance to the British after their forces captured Jerusalem, seeking their support for Arab independence against the Ottoman Turks. After the war he became a prominent writer and activist, and a supporter of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria. Later, after securing the position of mufti (and exalting the title to Grand Mufti), he sought to limit or stop Jewish-Zionist immigration to Palestine, in direct opposition to the Balfour Declaration and the British position on the region. Interestingly, it was only through British string-pulling that he was able to secure the job of mufti, a lifelong sinecure. For more than a decade Husseini was seen as a British ally in the region, in spite of his increasing interest in Arab-Palestinian nationalism and his antagonism towards Zionism, but the Arab Revolt (1936-39) obliged him to take sides against Britain. Evading an arrest warrant, he fled Palestine and finally took refuge in fascist Italy and Germany, where he sought Nazi support for Arab independence in the Levant. As a propagandist for the Nazis he was implicated in war crimes. He found refuge in Egypt after the war, but was still active in political life, expressing opposition to the 1947 UN partition plan, and helping to organise an All-Palestine government in Egypt-controlled Gaza. Though supported by many Arab states, it was limited in effect and was superseded by the PLO in the sixties. Husseini died, a controversial and complex figure, in Lebanon in 1974. His connection with Nazism and with the anti-semitism that has since been such a feature of Arab nationalism appears to have been his major legacy.

Husseini’s increasing anti-Semitism mirrored to some extent the Arab nationalist movement as a whole, at a time when post-war Europe and the USA were moving in the opposite direction after the revelations of the Holocaust. These shifts have been momentous in terms of international attitudes to the Arab world and the foundation of the nation of Israel.

Against this backdrop, and after a spike in Jewish immigration to the region, a nationalist revolt against the British mandate in Palestine, which began as a general strike organised by Husseini in 1936 and was at first confined to political action, became increasingly bloody and widespread in response to repressive British measures. According to the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi – whose figures are probably more reliable than those of the British – ‘over ten percent of the adult male Palestinian Arab population between 20 and 60 was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled’, while Jewish casualties were relatively small.

The Arab Revolt (1936-39) was an almost inevitable response to increased Jewish immigration and aggressive land acquisition, leading to an increasingly impoverished and desperate Palestinian Arab peasantry. It failed, of course, against the superior military forces of the British and their European allies, but it led to a more organised Arab resistance movement in the region, though this was countered by increased British support for Zionist militias such as the Haganah – the precursor of the notorious Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

British attempts during its mandate to limit Zionist appropriation of Arab lands were half-hearted and easily circumvented, with the result that the native population suffered the usual consequences of colonisation – marginalisation, impoverishment and disconnection from traditional custom and culture. This also led to an Arab nationalist movement that became increasingly conservative, harking back to a supposed pre-colonial utopia.

Unrest leading up to the revolt caused the British to set up a Royal Commission, which recommended partition of the region into Jewish and Palestinian sectors. The Jewish sector, though smaller, comprised the land already appropriated, which was of course the best agricultural land. The Commission also put forward a more radical proposal, of transfer of Palestinian Arabs from the region to Transjordan – east of the Jordan River. This strongly appealed to Jewish leaders of the period, such as David Ben-Gurion, who favoured Zionist monoculturalism. The commission’s proposals were rejected outright by Arab leaders, and with war in Europe looming, the Brits were anxious to avoid creating enemies in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world. Finally the idea of partition was rejected, or temporarily shelved.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate acts of violence and terror on both sides were stepped up throughout 1937 and 1938. Concentration camps were constructed to accommodate both victims and perpetrators, and collective fines added to the burdens of impoverished Palestinians. The Zionists were uncompromising in their ambitions for the region and this created an us-and-themism in the Palestinians which hadn’t existed before, at least not to such an extent. Elsewhere, as the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe was becoming known, Jews were offered the chance to emigrate to the US, Canada and Australia, but Zionists opposed these offers, as Morris Ernst, international envoy for refugees under Roosevelt, describes:

active Jewish leaders decried, sneered and then attacked me as if I were a traitor. At one dinner party I was openly accused of freer immigration (into the US) in order to undermine political Zionism.

The crushing of the Arab Revolt by the British military was somewhat softened by an attempt to curb Jewish immigration. The Brits declared that it was ‘not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state, that 75,000 Jewish immigrants should be admitted over the next five years, but no more after that without the approval of the Arabs’. This declaration was followed until the end of WW2, after which the revelations of the Holocaust weakened British resolve and essentially sealed the fate of Arab opposition to the creation of the state of Israel. Some idea of what the Palestinians were up against is given in these lines from Paul Heywood-Smith, a Queen’s Counsel and Chairperson of the Australian Friends of Palestine Association:

The Jews not only intended to introduce an alien culture, they planned to make it the only one in the country: culturally, politically, economically and demographically. They insisted on Hebrew, separate schools and hospitals, self-segregation and the exclusion of Arabs from every institution they established.

Combine these drastic and uncompromising intentions with increasing support from the powerful nations of Europe and later the USA, and it becomes clear that the native non-Jewish inhabitants had far less than a fighting chance of having their voices listened to and their rights upheld.

By the end of WW2, Zionists were openly hostile to British attempts to contain the situation in Palestine. Jews were being smuggled into the region at increasing rates, many of them of course in traumatised condition. Non-Jews still outnumbered Jews by a substantial proportion, but organisations such as the Irgun, a well-organised paramilitary organisation which was as violently anti-British as it was anti-Arab, made this disproportion largely irrelevant. Terrorism sometimes does work.

On November 27 1947, the newly formed UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan for Palestine (Resolution 181 II), terminating the British Mandate for the region. There wasn’t much in the way of consultation with the native Palestinians, who rejected the proposal out of hand, along with every other Arab state. The Zionists were willing to agree to it, no doubt as a stop-gap measure, but in any case nothing came of it, because civil war broke out immediately after the plan’s adoption. The British were by this time primarily interested in removing themselves from the region with a minimum of casualties. Their Mandate expired on May 14 1948, and on the same day David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first Prime Minister, declared Israel an independent state. The civil war, however, was still ongoing. This war and its aftermath, known in Arabic as the Nakba, (catastrophe in English) is probably the most important event in this several-part narrative, so I’ll save it for my next post. 

I’ll end this post by looking again at the UN situation. In 1947 the UN voted 33 to 13 for partition of Palestine, with 10 abstentions. The people of Palestine had no vote in the matter. It was convenient for powerful western nations (whose doors were largely closed to Jewish refugees) to support a solution which gave 54% of Palestinian land to the Jewish minority. At the time, many Afro-Asian nations, who would certainly have taken a more dispassionate view of the issue, weren’t part of the General Assembly. Heywood-Smith adds some interesting colour to the vote – revealing much of the bullying shenanigans that have hampered UN votes right up to the present:

… of the 33 who voted in favour many went against their better judgment but were overborne by diplomatic violence and arm-twisting by the Truman White House. A war-devastated France was told it would lose US aid if it voted against partition. Liberia, an impoverished African state, was told that American investment in the country would not proceed unless it voted yes. Latin American delegates were told that the proposed Pan-American highway would be more likely if they voted yes. The Philippines changed its vote after intense pressure and after its delegate initially spoke against the plan.

In any case, partition didn’t occur, and after the civil war, many hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forcibly removed from their homes and out of the new nation of Israel, to which they have never been allowed to return.

References

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, 2014

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/story/14310/guerrilla-warfare-and-mass-strike-1936-revolt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936–1939_Arab_revolt_in_Palestine

https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nov-29-1947-united-nations-partitions-palestine-allowing-for-creation-of-israel/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amin_al-Husseini

Written by stewart henderson

March 10, 2019 at 10:33 am

palestine 4 – the inter-war years 1919-1935

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Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner to Palestine, enters Jaffa in 1921

Jacinta: So with our tendency to think of the present as eternal, we imagine that countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have always been with us. When and how were these countries, as well as Israel, created, and what was the purpose of their boundaries? Did they more or less capture particular ethnicities, or try to?

Canto: That’s a very big question, but an important one – we’ll try to give some semblance of an answer as we go along. It’s certainly the case that these terms are ancient and referred to indistinctly defined regions under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which had a loose structure of provinces or ‘eyalets’ over many centuries, their boundaries and titles changing as power ebbed and flowed in different sectors. After WWI the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, first planned years before, began. It was a four-year process.

Jacinta: The Sykes-Picot agreement really kicked off the planning, and it represented the first major incursion or interference of the modern ‘west’ in middle-eastern or Arab affairs. The partitioning was decided upon in a series of treaties presided over by the new League of Nations, which created temporary mandates over former Ottoman territories which the west clearly considered incapable, at least at the time, of governing themselves. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

their peoples were not considered “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. The article [Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations] called for such people’s tutelage to be “entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility”.

Canto: I suppose it’s easy to be cynical about this, but there was clearly a view that modern, western-style nationhood was the only way to go, that There Was No Alternative. It was a matter of shape up or be steamrolled. So, after Versailles, the middle-eastern lands were divvied up by decisions of the victorious Central Powers in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the San Remo Conference (1920) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The United Kingdom was given a mandate over the Emirate of Transjordan (roughly corresponding to modern Jordan) from April 1921, and Palestine (roughly corresponding to modern Israel) from September 1923. France was given control of ‘Syria’, which included Lebanon, also from September 1923. The Palestine mandate was to uphold the 1917 Balfour Declaration for a Jewish homeland in the region.

Jacinta: Which brings us to the situation on the ground there. The phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ had become something of a catch-cry among Restorationists, the mostly Christian forerunners of Zionists, and it was used to play down the numbers and significance of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine at that time. For example, as far back as 1901, Israel Zangwill, an associate of Herzl, gave a speech using the phrase. Here’s how he described the region:

Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin [farmers or farm workers] and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes… Restore the country without a people to the people without a country. For we have something to give as well as to get. We can sweep away the blackmailer—be he Pasha or Bedouin—we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.

But interestingly, Zangwill disavowed this speech a few years later as he came to realise the density of the Arab population there, though he still used the sort of arguments that colonists have used everywhere to justify their incursions, claiming that the Arabs there weren’t really ‘fused’ with the land, and only used it ‘as a sort of encampment’. But the fact was that, in spite of the National Jewish Fund mentioned in the last post, the population of Palestine in 1922 was 75% Muslim, 13% Jewish and 11% Christian, and nobody seemed game to inquire of the majority population whether they would allow the Zionists to create a homeland – basically a nation-state – there. Unsurprisingly.

Canto: Yes, they didn’t inquire because they had a good idea of what the answer would be. Even before the mandate, the Brits and the French occupied the Levant and the Mesopotamian region due to their victories in 1918, so they were increasingly aware of the rise of Arab nationalism, which was a concomitant of the rise of Zionism. We wrote of the Arab Revolt and the McMahon Agreement last time, in which the British promised assistance in creating an Arab Kingdom in return for Arab assistance against the Ottoman Turks. This resulted in the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz in the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, recognised in the Arab world as the first modern Arab state. Later, in 1920, the Arab Kingdom of Syria was self-proclaimed, but was opposed by the occupying British and French. It only lasted a few months before surrendering to French forces.

Jacinta: Yes the politics of all this is complex and murky. It seems many of the Arabs themselves weren’t particularly supportive of the Hashemite Kingdoms (Hejaz and Syria) because they saw them as British proxies. Many were more than happy with life under the Ottoman Sultanate. So there was tension among Arabs as well as tension between the British and the French, and between each colonial power and the Arabs, and then there were the Jews, who felt they weren’t being fully supported in their claims.

Canto: But though these first Hashemite Kingdoms weren’t well supported at the time, in later years their failure came to be, from the Arab perspective, symbolic of western interference and duplicity. As did western support for the Zionist cause. It’s interesting to note that at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 there was intense argy-bargying between the Brits and the French about control of Arab lands, especially in the Levant region, but it was the Americans who came up with the novel suggestion that perhaps the local inhabitants might be consulted. At first the Brits and the French agreed but then, presumably recognising what they might lose, they backed out. The Americans, though, went ahead with the consultation process and found that the Arabs were strongly in favour of an independent Arab state in the region. The results of the survey, though, weren’t published until 1922, after the League of Nations mandates were agreed upon.

Jacinta: And of course Arab-Zionists tensions were rising. Despite Zionist efforts, the Arab population in the early thirties still vastly outnumbered that of the Jews, but of course the Zionists had powerful interests on their side. Meanwhile many surrounding countries were attaining full independence – Egypt in 1922, Saudi Arabia in 1926, and Iraq in 1931. The French, in their way, were reluctant to grant independence, but did so partially to Syria and Lebanon in 1936. They took full independence during WW2. The region known as Transjordan, bordering Palestine, was nominally under the control of the British, but they showed little interest, and handed effective control to local authorities under a 1928 agreement. Full independence was granted in 1946. All of this added strength to a growing pan-Arabic movement.

Canto: Of course the British had put themselves into a tight spot, with promises to the Arabs and the Zionists, who grew increasingly hostile to each other. An anti-western Muslim movement, Salafism, became popular in Egypt and spread to regions of conflict – Palestine in particular. The movement was personified by, among others, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Muslim scholar and preacher who landed up in Palestine after 1920. A militant opponent of Zionism, he was incensed by the treatment of Palestinian Arabs, especially the working poor, and embarked on a guerilla campaign against the British and the Jews. His death at the hands of British police was a major contributor to the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, of which more later.

Jacinta: Yes and at the same time, Arab pressure on the British brought about a reduction in Zionist immigration, which led to British-Zionist conflict. It was all about land of course, and neither the Arabs nor the Zionists were willing to give an inch on the topic. There were various more or less failed attempts by the British to placate both sides, including the Churchill White Paper of 1922, which, while emphasising the import of the Balfour Declaration, argued that this was not an imposition of a Zionist state upon the Palestinian population. It also called for a reduction of immigration to “the economic capacity of the country to absorb new arrivals”. But it seems that all attempts at compromise only increased militancy on both sides. And then of course there was the rise of Nazism in Germany – although this didn’t really come to affect the Palestinian situation until the 1940s.

Canto: So next time we’ll look at the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and also at the impact of WW2 and the post-war creation of the United Nations, and how they influenced the increasingly fraught situation on the ground in Palestine.

“A daily scene in Jerusalem under British administration during the 1930s. Friday prayer mob clashes with British Police in front of Hebron Gate in Jerusalem.”
This is from the great collection of Palestinian journalist Mohamed Ali Eltaher (1896-1974), a fearless critic of the Zionist movement, and of the Arab response to it

Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2019 at 3:57 pm

Palestine 3 – the early 20th century, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of Arab nationalism

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the very brief ‘Balfour Declaration’, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild – note the reference to the rights of existing non-Jewish communities

Canto: Before we go on, I should point out that we’re using the term “Palestine” fairly loosely, much as we might use the term Canaan of old. The misadventures we’re talking about have taken place not just in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the whole of what is now Israel, and surrounding regions covered nowadays by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. 

Jacinta: So now we’re going to jump from the diaspora under the Romans, and the wandering, persecuted Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages, to the late 19th century and the rise of the Zionist movement. Modern Zionism is most commonly associated with the writings of Theodor Herzl, particularly his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, though the term ‘zionism’ was first coined by Nathan Birnbaum a few years earlier. Birnbaum was prominent in the first Zionist Congress of 1897, but became an anti-zionist activist in later life. 

Canto: Just an indication that there were, and are, plenty of Jews who had no interest in the movement, and some who actively opposed it.

Jacinta: Of course Jews are a heterogenous group, and we should at least differentiate between secular and religious Jews, who would have had different reasons for supporting or opposing Zionism. But the events of the Second World War clearly boosted the Zionist cause. 

Canto: The Palestinian region was under the faltering control of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, when Herzl’s political version of Zionism was becoming popular (Herzl’s preference for Argentina over Palestine for the new Jewish state is indicative of his lack of religion). The Jews of Europe at this time were no doubt seeking a permanent solution to the latest anti-semitic flare-ups, such as the Dreyfuss affair in France and the Russian Pale of Settlement and the pogroms there in the 1880s. 

Jacinta: And notwithstanding Herzl’s preference for Argentina, he recognised that Palestine was the favoured option of most Zionists, and came to favour it himself before he died. And his diary writings reveal – what is clearly the fatal flaw of the whole Zionist Palestinian project – that, to quote Paul Heywood-Smith, ‘it was to be at the expense of the whole native population who were to be spirited out of the country and their land expropriated’.

Canto: Yes, and Herzl died in 1904, so it’s clear that this ethnic cleansing idea – which surely wasn’t confined to the thinking of Herzl – was a feature of Zionism from early on.

Jacinta: Though surely there was some opposition to this? I mean among the Zionists themselves – what were they thinking?

Canto: Well, we’ll get to that, but interestingly, the modern Israeli historian Benny Morris, a Zionist, supports the expelling of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948, the beginning of an act of ethnic cleansing that is yet unfinished. We’ll come to all that later. Morris’ only complaint is that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s ‘founding father’, failed to finish the job, because, according to Morris the stark choice was between ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs and the genocide of the Jewish population. But that modern view, I suspect, is due to the many decades of animosity created between the two sides before and after 1948. But let’s go back to the turn of the century.

Jacinta: Yes let’s, because Simon Montefiore in his book Jerusalem paints a picture of that city in the late nineteenth century which contrasts sharply with the Zionist monocultural dream:

During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from the haj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews … Ironically the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Quoted in The Case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith.

Canto: Yes, I don’t know if that paints too rosy a picture of Arab-Jewish relations at that time, but subsequent events in the early twentieth century hardly helped to strengthen those relations.

Jacinta: Yes, and we should note that not all Jews who moved into the region in the early twentieth century were Zionist monoculturalists. However…

Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s most influential early promoter

Canto: The Zionist movement began to buy up land in Palestine. Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1898 and in 1903 sought the support of Pope Pius X for their Jewish homeland, but this was rejected as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ (the acceptance of which would’ve turned them all into Christians presumably). Tsarist persecution brought a wave of Russian Jews into Palestine in the early 1900s. And more land was claimed. An organisation called the National Jewish Fund was established in 1901, and it claimed, presumably without any legal authority at the time, that all acquired land would thenceforth, in perpetuity, be inalienable Jewish property – and if farmland, worked only by Jews as well. This land claim has been treated as law ever since.

Jacinta: And meanwhile, Britain was becoming another place of refuge for persecuted Jews, which led, in turn, to them being persecuted in that country, with riots and abuse and the like. The country’s leaders, seeking a solution, were naturally inclined to listen to Zionist overtures. Chaim Weizmann, a brilliant biochemist and later to become the president of the World Zionist Organisation, and later still Israel’s first president, is credited with persuading the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to lend support in an official capacity to the recognition of Palestine as the homeland of a future Jewish nation.

Canto: So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 needs to be understood in terms of the complex Euro politics of the time. Not only was there a humanistic desire to find a solution for a persecuted people, but there were also the sorts of colonialist ambitions and jockeying that caused the Great Stupid War of 14-18 in the first place. The Palestine region was under the putative control of the fading Ottoman Empire, which was unlikely to survive the war, and the region was of strategic interest to Britain, particularly as a staging post to its prize possessions of India-Pakistan, but for many other reasons.

Jacinta: Yes, and Britain was also double dealing, because it had occupied Egypt from the beginning of the war in 1914 and had sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks by signing the McMahon Agreement in November 1915, which guaranteed or at least supported Arab independence in the Arabian Peninsula, including Palestine.

Canto: Well this is controversial. Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. His agreement was with Sharif Hussein of Arabia, and because it contradicted the later Balfour Declaration, there have been attempts to argue that it didn’t include Palestine, based on different translations. However, it’s generally agreed that these arguments are very strained. And these contradictory agreements with the Arabs and then the Jews weren’t the only headaches for the Brits. In between the McMahon Agreement with the Arabs in late 1915 and the Balfour Declaration for the Jews in 1917 was the notorious secret Sykes-Picot agreement involving Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Russia. It was made public by the Russians after their October Revolution of 1917, much to Britain’s embarrassment. Basically this was an agreement to carve up the Levant region, southern Turkey and Mesopotamia between Britain and France – as protectorates, of course.

Jacinta: Yes it all sounds very high-handed, but to be fair, many of these negotiations, which went back to near the beginning of the war, did involve examining the situation on the ground, and the local sensitivities there. And there may have been a more or less benign paternalism at play – ‘we’ll take responsibility for this region until the locals grow up and become civilised like us’. Though it’s notable that all the squabbles were over the most productive and strategic regions. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was of no interest whatever to western powers before the discovery of oil there.

these Arabs are revolting (against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18) in the Hejaz of western Arabia

Canto: So while the western powers were negotiating and wrangling over the projected spoils after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt of 1916 broke out, initiated by Sharif Hussein and his sons. Its aim was to overthrow the Ottomans and to create a pan-Arabic state, and it represented and furthered a rise of Arab nationalism which had barely existed before. It was only partially successful, but in contributing to Arab identity it helped to provide a lens through which they would observe western interventions in what they considered to be Arab lands.

Jacinta: Yes, notably the Arabs refused to allow the Europeans to assist them in their revolt beyond material and logistic support – they rightly feared a European takeover. And Palestine certainly was a focus of global affairs, with zionists in the USA pushing for intervention in the war in exchange for backing the Brits in their promise for a Jewish settlement there.

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm