It’s been a few weeks since I posted the last selection of my father’s letters from Palestine. Here are the latest set. Since then some sort of peace has broken out in Gaza between Hamas and Israel and the more vituperative commentators have turned their attentions elsewhere. And there is a lot of news elsewhere what with the problems over Ukraine causing increasing tensions between the NATO powers and Russia in a standoff redolent of Cold War politics. Of course the biggest story has to be the rise of ISIS or the Islamic State, with its Caliphate and policies that to us in the West are more Game of Thrones than twenty-first century good governance. This urge to chop off parts of the anatomy as punishment up to and including the head is horribly barbaric by the standard of the last two hundred years but, in historical terms, it isn’t that long since the guillotine. By contrast the relatively moral approach of the parties in Palestine during the last months of the British Mandate is to be applauded in retrospect though from the commentators of the day it was not always seen that way.
For an explanation of the current dilemma confronting the world as a result of the turmoil in the Middle East, I commend the attached article in the Wall Street Journal taken from Henry Kissinger’s soon to be published book. It was in the Sunday Times this week as well.
I thought, before moving onto to the letters themselves I would comment on the Mandate under which Britain ran Palestine from 1919 to 1948. What was it, why did it come about and how did it work?
A number of people mistakenly think of Palestine as a British colony and certainly in the period of British control it was run as such but in fact the legal basis for the British management of Palestine was significantly different to that of the other territories it ha conquered and/or annexed.
Going into the First World War Turkey was an ally of Germany and the controller of the Ottoman empire. Defeat of Turkey was essential and was part of the Allies’ strategy so, come 1918, the Allies were in a position to dismantle the Ottoman empire. For some countries this meant independence; for others the idea of a Mandate was devised – a temporary trust under the supervision of the newly formed League of Nations. Iraq became semi independent under the supervision of the British Mandate; Syria and Lebanon each became a French Mandate. Independence would be achieved once the Mandate committee were satisfied that each nation could run itself (and usually after it had signed favourable treaties with the mandated power). Palestine, which included the area across the River Jordan (Transjordan) became a British Mandate but the question of its independence was further away tan the other countries.
As this was a trust, conditions were attached – in 1922. The official terms mentioned the 1917 Balfour declaration and ‘the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine’. It required Britain to recognise as a public body an ‘appropriate Jewish agency’ to ‘advise the Administration in general economic and social matters’ and in ‘close settlement by Jews on the land’. One article, article 6 was one of those that, in retrospect is impossible to see how it could ever have worked:
‘The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions…’
At that time the ‘other sections’ had to be the Arabs who made up nearly 90 percent of the population, yet they are not mentioned by name – as if they were of little import! This is typical of the time and fuelled a lot of resentment.
Given the tone, it is hardly surprising that the Jews, desperate for their homeland as envisaged by the Balfour declaration, saw this as the green light to move rapidly towards their own state. Indeed it must have suited the British view at that point; what could be better than a highly educated, sympathetic Jewish state within close proximity to the Suez canal? Far better than the historically untrustworthy Arab nations.
Thus was the biggest disagreement between the three sides set. The Jews saw this as the legal basis on which the Jewish State would be created and to achieve that to be permitted as much immigration as the land could sustain; the Arabs didn’t necessarily object to some immigration – after all the Jews had brought benefits – but wanted it curtailed to ensure the Arab population was always in the majority so that, on eventual independence, its government would be in control; and the British vacillated between the two sides depending on both its on internal pressures and, more particularly the constraints imposed by the developing and ever changing international climate. What were ‘suitable conditions’? No one ever agreed; no one was ever likely to.
British policy changed as I have discussed before from pro Jew, pro Zionist in 1917-25 to pro Arab in the subsequent period of its mandate. Once the change in policy was complete, Britain’s policy was to try and maintain the status quo. That was anathema to the Jews for whom the plan was immigration and lots of it. As the dispute turned violent and became increasingly a British-Jewish one, Britain began to regret it had taken on the Mandate. Had this been a colony with a similarly obstreperous part of the population Britain would have known what to do as it had done many times before. This was still a time when rights of conquest were understood and accepted. But here, pardon the pun, it didn’t have the mandate so to act; in the end its abdication of control to the United Nations before the hated idea of partition was implemented can be seen as inevitable.
It is in this period, with Britain agonising about what it should do – increase the severity of the controls it imposed or back out completely that we return to Private Le Pard, recently returned from some R&R in Netanya. And as we will see, he reflects the impotence of the larger British position that is, in effect, driving it out of Palestine and giving succour to those others around the globe who believed that it no longer had either the strength nor the moral entitlement to run its empire. The defeat that it suffered was a small event in many ways when looked at purely in it regional context but the impact both at home in Britain and around the world was profound
In the early letters Dad talks of the FFI – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – and the posters threatening dire consequences for any British solider caught carrying arms. As is by now familiar he longs to meet one such and show him who is boss. More bravado. He is now in Lydda and the facilities are better it appears. The terrorists meanwhile are increasing their pressure – in November a railway station at Petah Yicqua is blown up while Dad is a few hundred yards away. He jokes about it but I can well imagine how anxious Mum must have been by these tales.
Is that worse, I wonder, than his tales of Sister Street in Alexandria while on leave, recounting how he lost his wallet? How innocent was he, visiting these brothels, Mum must have wondered, despite his protestations.
Dad refers to tensions building up between Jewish groups which are reflected at the highest levels. Some amongst the more radical groups (the Lehi and the Irgun) felt that any action was justified and beneficial; others feared it might hurt the diplomatic approaches and pressure that was beginning to have an effect on the British resolve. The truth is, like with the IRA and other similar independence campaigns with both a terrorist and political component, the one wouldn’t have been effective without the other. Apparently 388 British citizens, mostly army and police personnel were killed in this period – a relatively small number but since the deaths tended to be individual the impact was far greater than some of the bigger catastrophes of the recently ended World War.
Inevitably this pressure was telling on Dad. On 20th November he says ‘I wish, Barbs, that some of the people in England who are apt to condone the terrorist activities as patriotic sabotage could spend a few months, or even weeks, in this country; they would realise what a whining, miserable mob are ‘The Children of Israel”. You might read this as anti-Semitic but in truth what he is complaining about is the lack of political support to back up his efforts. No one wanted him to be there; he certainly didn’t. But if he had to be then let him do the job of stopping the terrorists. What this shows, more than anything, is the Jewish forces were winning the most important battle; that of undermining the British resolve.
Dad mentions he was on ‘picquet’ duty as well as guarding and patrolling. Apparently this describes a soldier in a forward position ostensibly to discourage the enemy pressing forward. Sounds rather dangerous to me.
There is some excitement in late November when Bernard Montgomery appeared at Lydda airport, not that Dad saw him. At this time, Monty was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and wanted extra strong measures applied to the terrorists – the enforcement of the death penalty, for instance, which the local Administrators were strongly advising against. This morale boosting mission, as one can tell from the tone of the letters, singularly failed in its aims.
And then, in December it rains. And rains. Dad’s 3 tonne truck gets bogged down and their radio fails. After a fruitless attempt to dig the truck out he and some others hike by compass for the main road, find their way back to camp and set off the rescue the others and the truck. Nothing untoward happened but more by luck than judgement. Dad reports how his comrades are a good bunch, but again, the sense is growing of a group with a siege mentality.
Then it is Christmas; Dad goes with his close friends Bert and Johnny to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, pausing in Jerusalem en route. How did he get there? He doesn’t explain. Dad found himself with two ATS ‘girls’ drinking cognac and then singing Carols at the Field of the Shepherds in Bethlehem with thousands of others from all over the Middle East. He describes it beautifully and it must have been something special after so much frustration and fear.
Then post Christmas he moves to Acre for a guard duty that he fails to understand. That is the lot of the private. He talks about yet another attack on friends, one who has a bullet go through him (he survives) and another who loses a leg to a IED. It is grim. I never knew. He never ever talked about the actual horrors.
One comment is worth noting; a reference to a flogging handed out to three sergeants and a major by the terrorists. As written it sounds a rather pathetic and small minded action on their part, but the background is more complex. Part of the harsher approach Montgomery sought (mentioned above) was to treat the terrorists as gangsters rather than fighting men. Some terrorists were flogged, deliberately to humiliate them. The Jews were furious – many years later Menachim Begin still complained bitterly about this change of approach – he was part of an army fighting a war and should have been respected as such. This action was a deliberate reprisal. Did Dad know? Would it have changed his tone if he had? He says in his letter of 8th January that he is ‘more grown up’ and his views have changed and ‘broadened’. I wonder.
By the end of the month, he’s bemoaning the loss of trucks and enthusing about the possibility of martial law, though the embedded cynicism makes him doubt the Government will have ‘the guts’ to carry it out for fear of ‘offending the Yanks’. One can only begin to imagine the real state of mind of the ordinary soldiery. They would be sent off on patrol, never sure if they might be kidnapped, bombed or shot. It is just the same anywhere, of course, but it is fascinating to read the detachment with which he writes when inside it must have been eating away at him. Increasingly he mentions 28 days home leave in March (there’s detail of how the leave will be allocated) but even he, well outside the decision making loop, can see the chance of it happening is remote.
By the end of January he is talking of going to Tiberius for training in the hills between Palestine, Jordan and Syria. The Golan Heights perhaps? His last letter has him ready to move, bemoaning missing out if martial law is imposed (which means a shoot on sight policy) in retribution for the kidnap of a judge and British intelligence agent. This was retaliation for a death sentence passed on a terrorist leader but as ever, the mood of isolation makes him so one-eyed. This is so unlike the man I knew many years later and I can only conclude that war does strange things to you. In that febrile and enervating atmosphere he did change but not for the better.