Arab and Jewish contributions to WWII efforts in perspective
Arab and Jewish contributions to WWII efforts in perspective

Nine part must-read series that details the influence of the propaganda arena in the war between the Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.

For previous parts, click here

Part IV 

Mustafa Abbasi, a researcher in the Department of History and Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel, is an advocate for a more balanced assessment of the Palestinian Arab response to the Nazi regime and the British in Mandate Palestine. His recent article entitled “Palestinians fighting against Nazis: The story of Palestinian volunteers in the Second World War,” is an attempt to establish the “vital contribution” made by the 12,000 young Palestinian Arab volunteers serving in the British army during World War II. 

The Arabs served in practically all units and corps including the ordinance, medical, engineering and service corps in Palestine and in North Africa and Europe. At the same time, 30,000 Palestinian Jews volunteered for the British army.

Most volunteers were villagers who viewed their service as a means to enhance their economic situation, improve their social status and “demand recompense” at the end of the hostilities. Those in the city, who enjoyed better economic conditions and a higher standard of living, were less inclined to join the military and fight far from their homes. Still, there were hundreds of the urban lower class who did enlist.

Abbasi acknowledges this is a comparatively small number of soldiers compared to the other nationalities who volunteered to fight with the Allied forces. Nevertheless, he claims that relative to the Palestinian Arab population—approximately one and a quarter million people— this is a significant figure, especially given the division within the community about how to respond to the British. Some adopted a neutral stance, others chose an anti-British or a pro-British approach.

Historian Mustafa Kabha added that “Most of the Arabic newspapers…gambled on Britain and its all and hoped for their victory, despite the relationship between Haj Amin and the rulers of Rome and Berlin.”

The Great Arab Revolt that never wasn’t

Missing in Abbasis’ essay is any reference to the Arab Revolt, which provides a broader perspective of the Arab role. Historian C. Ernest Dawn wrote that while many Arabs fought with the Ottoman Empire against the British in World War I, Hussein Ibn Ali of the Hashemite family—the Sharif of Mecca—and the British agreed that he would lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in exchange for significant areas of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Relations between the Sharif, a descendant of Mohammed, and Istanbul had greatly deteriorated following government centralization and a Young Turk effort to depose him.

Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, began negotiations with the Sharif after Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, “begged” the British Foreign Office “to take immediate action and draw the Arabs out of the war”  explains historian Eli Kedourie. The British launched a naval assault in the Gallipoli Peninsula on February 19, 1915 to seize Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. After sustaining heavy losses, Hamilton sought the Foreign Office’s assistance.

McMahon was “a lackluster middle-aged civil servant of a legendary slowness of mind.”16 according to historians Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh. McMahon appreciated the decision was “a purely military” one, Kedourie said, but this brought him little comfort. He reported that a considerable number of Turkish forces at Gallipoli and practically all of the forces in Mesopotamia were Arabs. Substantial sums of money were being invested by the Germans to enlist the support of the remaining Arabs, and he questioned whether the British could provide some “guarantee of assistance in the future to justify their splitting with the Turks.” The British instructed him to begin negotiations “at once and in that way” McMahon saw himself as having “started the Arab movement.”

Reports poured in from British officials in Egypt and Sudan documenting increasing Muslim hostility towards the British following Ottoman-British battles Kedourie said. They recommended that a public agreement with the Sharif would do much to dispel the notion that the British were engaging in an anti-Muslim conflict.

The Ultimate Goal of the Accord

The ultimate goal of the British officials in Khartoum and Cairo, who aggressively pushed this accord, was explained in a letter of August 26, 1915 from Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor-General of the Sudan, to Lord Hardings, then viceroy of India. The Indian Office, the government of India and others had voiced their opposition to the Sharif Kedourie said. Because of their unique position within the Islamic world, Wingate argued, the Arabs could counter the fear of the British in the Ottoman Empire, which would intensify at the end of the war.

Wingate appreciated that creating a pan-Arab federation to counter this antagonistic pan-Islamism would not be simple, but envisaged that “a federation of semi-independent Arab states might exist under European guidance and supervision, linked together by racial and linguistic bonds, owing spiritual allegiance to a single Arab primate, and looking to Great Britain as its patron and protector.”

The underlying assumption was that the Arab movement would not be as much of a threat to British interests since it was “less religious than national.” The idea that nationalist movements are more benevolent and constructive than religious ones was a basic tenet of “Gladstonian Liberalism” espoused by William Ewart Gladstone, British Liberal Party statesman and Prime Minister (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1892).

Such a “beguiling contrast between ‘Moslem fanaticism’ and nationalism was wrong in theory as it was useless in practice” insisted Kedourie. It introduced a creed that “served, in an incalculable and far-reaching manner, to distort and falsify the calculations of policy.”

The British Foreign Office and the India Office opposed any pan-Arab proposal under British patronage, and viewed the Sharif’s movement as illusory. Such a scheme would be worthless, an albatross and prevent any agreement with France after the end of the war.