Dad’s Letters from Palestine – May to August 1947

 

 

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Dad’s caption: “At ease men! A Group of the boys taking it easy near the tent. Left to right – myself, Mick, Bert, Wilkie, Curly, Charlie and Steve – Camp 21 Palestine, April 1947”

It has been a long time since I posted about my father’s time in Palestine after WW2. Here is the link to the tab above where the latest letters are copied.

A lot has happened both for me and in the Middle East generally since I last posted.  The spawning of an Islamic caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq has held the world’s attention more through its barbarism than through the idea of a modern caliphate. What is abundantly clear, at least to me, is this new arrangement has little to do with Islam and a lot to do with power and politics. It is Sunni against Shia, essentially, using Western hostages and an intolerant theocracy as a way of calling out supporters.   It’s the age old ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ argument that admits of no neutrality. After all if you are devout how can you be neutral?

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Dad’s caption: “Some of the boys with an Arab mule in the camp. Jimmy, one of the gang, is on the mule holding some sort of flag. I’m standing just on right of the mule – Camp 21 Palestine April 1946”

How often is that argument made? It is as simplistic and frankly stupid as the Blair/Bush ‘end justifies the means’ argument that they used when WMDs never appeared in Iraq but still they had toppled Saddam so that’s alright then, isn’t it? No. And again NO. Not in my name it isn’t. I’ve always believed that we in the West have more to offer the world, through our iffy democracy, our put upon rule of law, our (generally) unarmed police and, above all, our wobbly and at times hard to see tolerance of differences. We hold ourselves, I hope to a higher test than our forebears and we will increasingly raise the bar in what is and isn’t acceptable.

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On fatigues – dad is far left

Back when Dad was in Palestine in 1946 the British were under pressure from all sides: Jews who wanted their promised homeland, Arabs who wanted independence, America wanted an end to Imperial power and colonialism in all its forms and any number of nations generally antipathetic to Britain were happy to see the British suffer. Most sides criticised the British behaviour but my sense is, by the standards of the time, we did a decent job of trying to plot a path. We were held to a higher test than was achievable then and rightly so because we must never accept we have it right and cannot improve; we need to keep looking at the bar and push it higher.

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Dad’s caption: “Some of the lads with a ‘Wog’ and his mule. I’m standing next to Bert whose hair appears to have gone astray!” Camp 21 Palestine April 1946

Perhaps that explains why I sometimes despair of the Israeli behaviour. It is not that I equate what they do in Gaza or by bombing the homes of Palestinians where there is a family member who may be involved in terrorism (dreadful though those actions are) with the behaviour of IS. Of course not. One is understandable (not justified, I don’t mean that) when you consider a mentality that for 70 years has been utterly certain, with reason, that its neighbours are either indifferent to its longevity or would actively want to push all Jews back into the Med. The other is disgusting barbarism dressed up to have a religious basis but is merely a expedient land grab.

But the Israel I hear about wants to be one of the Western community of nations that believes in the rule of law, democracy, basic and inalienable human rights and as such must be held to the highest test applicable today in its behaviour. Of course I expect, no I demand the same is done for and of Britain and we fail mightily and constantly. But we learn and we try and improve and I want that of and from Israel and by any reasonable standards it fails miserably. I want it too of and for the whole of the Middle East but sadly I think some elements have much farther to travel. And we in the West do not help progress, frankly, by our fawning and Quisling support for misogynistic, autocratic, bizarrely theocratic monarchies such as Saudi.

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on the troop ship.

So what about your average dusty booted, isolated, stir crazy 19 year old with little real grasp of world politics stuck in a tent in 100 degrees of heat with sand flies for company and a girl friend who is 1000 miles away? This is what Dad wrote in May 1947, about the UN rejection to the Arabs plans for the future of Palestine.

‘They don’t want trouble, these much maligned Arabs, but that doesn’t mean  they are unable to start it. If they ever do decide to fight for their rights it would be pretty rough going in Palestine for some time. Both the Jews and the British Government are just plain b….. fools if they do not realize that they are playing with fire when they double-cross the Arabs.’

They were broadly ignored on partition on 1948, when Israel fought to change the borders immediately after and at all times since when Israel has sought to redraw its borders. And so they fight back. Why wouldn’t they? Dad at 19 saw it clearly in 1947; why should we be surprised by Hamas now?

Dad never grasped why the British were called ‘Gestapo’ by the Jews when trying to hold onto a modicum of peace between both sides. In the absence of someone to blame, sitting in the middle, we can today see the outcome. Why, he asked himself did the very people he and his friends had fought so hard to free from Nazism (and some of whom had died in the process) hate him so much that they wanted to bomb him and shoot him? Freedom to rule yourself, that’s why. It’s the same mind set that fought the Battle of Britain and spurs on the oppressed today.

He was beginning to like the Middle East despite the determination of the Irgum Zwei Leumi to kill him and the local Arab population to despise him. At one point he had to round up everyone to be interrogated about a prison breakout at Acre Prison. He describes one incident thus:

‘We found one old chap wearing a green turban of the Mecca Pilgrimage and this a ‘Haj’ – an important man – who was, to say the least, scornful. He slowly rose to his feet, looked at us as though we were something unpleasant, snapped a few orders to his wives who promptly disappeared, and with a positively regal gesture, swept his robe about him and motioned to us to lead the way. We all admired him because although he was an old man he had the pride and demeanour of a king.’

By this time in his tour of duty, he was better at taking in the surroundings. He spends sometime describing Acre prison where he had a long and tedious guard duty after the breakout and, especially after some prisoners were recaptured and the ring leaders threatened with hanging (to which the terrorist groups threatened reprisals).

‘It is a castle, really – Acre Castle – and was first built or partly built by the Crusaders in the First Crusade. … I would say that was around 1150 – 1200. It was later modified and extended by the Turks under Ibrahim Pasha – at a guess I would put that at 1400 – 1500 – and that is what stands today. Modern amenities, electricity and so forth have been added and repairs have been made, but, for the greater part, the original castle remains complete with moat (dry) battlements and arrow slits. There is a story, I am told, that when old Ibrahim captured it he told the original inmates that they would have to rebuild the walls. Most of them foolishly objected and old Ibrahim, slightly annoyed by the lack of mucking-in spirit, had them all built into the walls – alive. This story is almost certainly true because during recent years when the walls have been undergoing repairs, the workmen have uncovered quite a number of bodies. Even after all these years they were not completely decomposed.’

He could understand why some didn’t enjoy sentry duty out on the walls.

‘It’s quite an eerie sensation being on guard at night. The sea, a few hundred yards away maintains its eternal roar and crash, the jackals nightly howl their praises to the moon from just outside the town, the sea breeze whispers strange tales of violence and death, and it is not very difficult to imagine the ghost of some long dead Crusader pacing the walls with you.’

He went on,

‘Nevertheless even in these days of scienticfic discovery and enlightenment, there is still an aura  of romance, mystery and ancient wisdom which pervades the atmosphere in the lonely mountain and desert regions and in the old Arab towns – Lydda, Ramleh, Acre and Jaffa. … One day I will return, as a civvy of course, and rediscover the country…’

He did, eventually visit Egypt, though not Palestine and loved it. He would have been saddened to think of the destruction and death that still haunts this region.

In a later letter he talks about the press coverage of supposed vice, gangsterism and prostitution in English cities. He says,

‘I think their [I.e. the press] idea – a true one – is that sordid stories help to increase their paper’s circulation’….. No doubt there is a lot of crime and perversion in England now – it is the chaotic aftermath of war and is the same in most counties – but I can’t bring myself to believe that, in the words of one headline – thirsty scribe “the rate of prostitution other immorality in London is higher than it as in Chicago or New York in 1930-35.’

Now they were dens of iniquity!

By this time, entering July 1947, a lot was riding on the UN and its decisions on the future of the British Protectorate. Dad recognises that a lot of terrorist activity has died away, while the politicians tried to come up it a solution. he even took part in three parachute jumps, his first for 18 months and it is easy to hear the delight as he writes about them.

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There was a bit of illness about. Dad had a recurrence of sand fly fever in May 1947 and bubonic plague broke out in Haifa in July though not somewhere close to Dad. The sand fly fever recurred on his return. Even  in 1953 he was still suffering (compare these two photos below with the healthy looking picture above when he jumped).

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And then Dad starts talking about coming home; to start it is always at least 4 to 6 weeks away with ‘schemes’ i.e. exercises in Transjordan being suggested in the interim, or dock guard duty in Haifa ‘if they get the plague under control’. Then, suddenly in August the letters stop and the envelope for the 4th August is ‘At Sea’. He’s safe and he’s going home!

Then right at the end, Dad describes the murder of two sergeants in Natanya. That happened all the time sadly; the difference here was that the bodies were strung up and booby trapped so when the troops came to cut them down one exploded.

Dad came back and waited out his tenure until demob (that will be the next set of letters). But he left a country in turmoil, a region in turmoil and little has happened since to stabilise it.

I profoundly hope for some peace, some stability for the peoples of the Levant; it is an ancient cradle of humanity and its inhabitants deserve the same futures as we have in Europe. But Britain, and to a lesser extent, the other western nations played with the pieces of the chess board back in the first half of the twentieth Century, with little thought for the consequences and we, as well as the rest of the world are reaping what our forefathers (and it certainly wasn’t our foremothers) sowed in the 1920s and 30s. Until there is peace there, we in Britain cannot completely escape some residual responsibility for what goes on. Dad understood that.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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13 Responses to Dad’s Letters from Palestine – May to August 1947

  1. willowdot21 says:

    This is both deeply interesting and deeply saddening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Charli Mills says:

    I have eagerly awaited your next installment. I postponed the enjoyment until I had time to pop popcorn and savor this intriguing history and your reflection on the modern situation.

    I agree that with every lesson learned we are called to a higher level. Though perhaps politics never bypasses the first lesson. Have you seen the movie, “Green Zone” with Matt Damon? It’s about the search for WMD and a soldier who is frustrated by bad intelligence and comes to believe that they never existed and politicians already knew that before going to war. Oil is the suggested reason as the movie ends. It’s worth seeing.

    These letters are a treasure not just to your family, but for anyone trying to make sense of world concerns. Love the candid photos! Sorry about your Dad’s long bout with illness though, at such a young age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Thank you Charli for taking such time to comment. I did see the film and you are right it is very compelling. Politically Dad and I were poles apart but we agreed on a few things one of which is Tony Blair is a war criminal and should be tried. Never will be of course and to see the smarmy git poncing around as Middle East envoy is beyond a joke. I wrote and rewrote the post because it is a terribly difficult situation to get the balance right. I wonder, reading the letters what Dad would have thought if he had re read his 19 year old thoughts during the Iraq farrago. How prescient probably.
      And his illness. I knew of it but it is only now I have had a chance to look at the photos of the healthy man in 1946, to the ill one during mot of the 1950s and back to health again by the end of the 60s. Did any of that debilitating illness weaken him and mean when he died at 78 he’d lost a few years because of the earlier damage? His death annoyed me at the time as being utterly unnecessary but now I wonder if in fact he couldn’t really have done much to stop it one way or another.
      Sorry, I’m coming across as Angry of Dulwich and don’t mean to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Well, not only are these hot subjects, but to balance family reflections and world history then and now, is no easy task. I can understand it fanning the flames of anger from many smoldering sources, including grief. We are fortunate to be writers and have the capacity to express and explore. And if that war crimes trial ever materializes, “W” and his axis of evil (Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney) need to be held accountable in chains, too!

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        I didn’t think it right to charge into domestic US politics but I love your axis of evil and yes the chains can be spread around! I read a post by a memoirist talking about writing the difficult stuff down that, if others read it might cause upset in the family. Very good post too. like writing sex scenes: I cringe. I admire Lori’s ability to deal with it with such sang froid. But it is important we put ourselves on the spot and do try and write something that makes us curl our toes a little – and having written that I can just see it as one of you wretched prompts!! With me attached as the cause!!!

        Like

  3. Dani says:

    So much heart and soul content here, Geoff. I’m not quite sure where to begin or end, so I will just say that I was touched by your sharing, your father’s words, and your call for compassion and mutual responsibility.

    With thanksgiving,
    Dani

    Liked by 1 person

  4. trifflepudling says:

    I’ve found all this about Palestine fascinating, and the letters in relation to your mother lovely – thanks. This particular post reminded me that there had been a tv series called “The Promise” a few years ago which was set at this time and place. It conveyed all the ins and outs which you describe, and as far as I remember the poor chaps who are hanged are comrades of the main protagonist. The series approached the “then and now” aspect by merging the two and having the chap’s grand-daughter in the almost present-day in one strand, and events of 47/48 in the other, showing the stealthy weavings in and out that and repercussions that you can’t avoid. It led me on to a bit of Googling and finding a letter from Arthur Koestler about the Palestine issue at this time which ends “If you refuse [to let the Jews settle in Israel], you will have to take the consequences, which may be more serious than you think. For you should understand that there is more at stake here than meets the eye. A great Empire which rules the seven seas can afford to flaunt the world’s opinion. But you are no longer that; you cannot afford to put might before right; and you have already antagonised on this issue public opinion in just the two countries you need most: the U.S.A. and France. The future of a country which is on the downward grade in terms of power depends more than on anything else on its moral integrity. Palestine is a test for your integrity; and in more than one sense your fate is linked with hers.”
    http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2007/01/palestine-british-jews-jewish
    which to me resonated with your father’s words “… [the British] are fools if they do not realize that they are playing with fire when they double-cross the Arabs”.
    There’s also a strand in Marina Lewycka’s “We are all made of Glue” which covers Mr Ali’s origins in Lydda (now Lod in Israel), what happened there, and how he comes to be living in Britain now.
    I think peace will be a long time coming. How does one approach residual responsibility?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. TanGental says:

    Thank you for reading Gilly. It has been a fascinating process, reading through their story and gaining an insight into them as young people. As for the politics, yes, I like that question ‘how does one approach residual responsibility?’ I want to disown it, but you can’t, as a nation because so much on which we stand today is built on the rubble of our forefathers actions. I think there is a diminishing of that responsibility over time but is there ever a cut off? Are we still responsible in any way for the scars of slavery for instance? What about drawing the straight lines on the African map, disregarding the tribal and human costs involved? Something to debate sometime!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      I was intrigued by you dialog with Gilly, and what you say is so relevant to what is happening here in the US following Charleston. Retailers are dropping the sale of Confederate flags and, as you can imagine, those who already own them are raising the flags in protest. I actually saw a call in Minnesota today to ban the name Calhoun in that state because several buildings, streets, and even Lake Calhoun bear the name of a former slave-owner! I feel unsteady even comprehending these retaliatory reactions toward culture. We can’t change history and as you put it, “so much on which we stand today is built on the rubble of our forefathers actions.” Our actions need to extend beyond discrediting our forefathers. Our actions need to progress and build up with compassion but also a measure of common sense and common good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        I understand your feelings. We cannot ignore the past, good or bad. Learning from it is what is important. Sometimes symbolism is a crucial part and a flag is very emotive. It’s that bit about being seen to be just or fair and not just being just and fair, isn’t it? In Northern Ireland one of the biggest barriers to the peace in the late 1990s was the name of the police service. It had changed by 1997, no longer so discriminatory as it had been but Royal Ulster Constabulary connoted that discrimination. Until it became the Police a Service of Northern Ireland it was distrusted.

        Liked by 1 person

    • trifflepudling says:

      Indeed, shall scrub my brain cells in preparation!
      Re. Charli’s reply, one of the things which occurred to me when thinking about it yesterday is that when the US Government makes reparations to families of former slaves, surely the money comes from all US taxpayers, Black people included. It makes a bit of a nonsense of it!
      You can’t change history, this has always been so, and there comes a point when you have to move on and be pragmatic, because eventually empathy stops being helpful and becomes more of a barrier. The situation with these poor Black guys and the Police in the States makes me goggle with disbelief, however. How is this still going on?!
      Your dad would be amused to have started such a dialogue, perhaps! Maybe he’d tell us to stop being so earnest for a bit…

      Liked by 1 person

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