THE MUFTI’S TERROR
One cool night in Jerusalem in early 1936, ‘scattered rifle shots rang out in the clear evening sky’ and Hazem Nusseibeh realized that ‘the armed rebellion had begun’. The revolt escalated slowly. In April that year, Arabs killed sixteen Jews in Jaffa. The Palestinian parties formed a Higher Arab Committee under the mufti and called a national strike that swiftly spun out of anyone’s control. The mufti declared this a sacred struggle and called his forces the Holy War Army as volunteers started to arrive to fight the British and Jews from Syria, Iraq and Transjordan.
On 14 May, two Jews were shot in the Jewish Quarter, and the mufti insisted, ‘The Jews are trying to expel us from the country, murdering our sons and burning our houses.’ Two days later, Arab gunmen killed three Jews in the Edison Cinema.
The Yishuv began to panic, but Ben-Gurion embraced a policy of self-restraint. Meanwhile British ministers now questioned the entire basis of the Mandate and commissioned Earl Peel, an ex-Cabinet minister, to report. The mufti called off the strike in October 1936, though he refused to recognize Peel. But Weizmann charmed the commissioners. On Amir Abdullah’s insistence the mufti testified that the Palestinians demanded independence, the annulment of the Balfour Declaration and, ominously, the removal of the Jews.
In July 1937, Peel proposed a two-state solution, the partition of Palestine into an Arab area (70 per cent of the country) joined to Amir Abdullah’s Transjordan and a Jewish area (20 per cent). In addition, he suggested a population transfer of the 300,000 Arabs in the Jewish area. Jerusalem would remain a special entity under British control. The Zionists accepted – they had realized they would never be given Jerusalem in a partition. Weizmann was not disappointed by the small size of the Jewish entity, musing that ‘King David’s [kingdom] was smaller.’
Peel complained that, in contrast to the Zionists, ‘not once since 1919 has any Arab leader said that cooperation with the Jews was even possible’. Only Abdullah of Transjordan enthusiastically supported Peel’s plan and, in retrospect, this would have prevented Israel in its present form but at the time, all Palestinians were inflamed by an English earl’s idea of creating a Jewish state: both the mufti and his rival Nashashibi rejected it.
The Revolt exploded again, but this time, the mufti embraced and organized the violence; he was seemingly more interested in murdering his Palestinian rivals than the British or Jews. ‘It seems’, writes the latest historian of the Husseinis, ‘he was personally responsible for establishing internecine terror as a means of control.’ Over his favourite meal of lentil soup, the mufti, always accompanied by his Sudanese bodyguards descended from the Haram’s traditional watchmen, behaved like a Mafia boss as he ordered assassinations that in two years of fratricide wiped out many of his most decent and moderate compatriots. Nine days after Peel, the mufti called on the German consul-general in Jerusalem to state his sympathy for Nazism and his wish to cooperate. The next day, the British tried to arrest him but he sought sanctuary in al-Aqsa.
The British did not dare storm the Sanctuary. Instead they besieged Husseini on the Temple Mount, denouncing him as the organizer of the Revolt. But not all the Arab gangs were under his control: the Jihadi followers of Qassam also enthusiastically killed any Arabs suspected of cooperating with the authorities. Nothing less than a brutal civil war broke out among the Arabs themselves. It was now that it was said that the mufti made many families weep.
After supporting the Revolt initially, Ragheb Nashashibi opposed the mufti both for his terror and his strategy. Nashashibi’s villa was raked with machinegun fire; a young cousin was killed watching a football game. When Fakhri Bey Nashashibi, his nephew, accused the mufti of destructive egotism, his death warrant was published in the newspapers: he was later assassinated in Baghdad. Nashashibi armed his retainers, known as ‘the Nashashibi units’ or ‘peacebands’, and they fought the mufti’s men. Arab headwear became the shibboleth of the Revolt: Husseini supporters wore the keffiyeh checked scarf; the Nashashibis, the tarboush of compromise. The mufti set up rebel courts to try traitors and issued rebel stamps.
In Jerusalem, the Revolt was commanded by Abd al-Kadir Husseini, thirty-year-old commander of the Holy War Army. He was the son of the late Musa Kazem Husseini (he used the nom de guerre Abu Musa), and received the best education at the Anglican Bishop Gobat’s school on Mount Zion. He had used his graduation at Cairo University to denounce British perfidy and Zionist conspiracy. After being expelled from Egypt, he organized the mufti’s Palestine Arab Party, edited its newspapers and founded, under cover of the boy scouts, his own Green Hand militia that became its military wing.
At home he was an elegant grandee with his pencil moustache and English suit but he was in his element on the run, in the field, riding shotgun, fighting. He often ‘humiliated the colonial forces around Jerusalem,’ noted Wasif Jawhariyyeh the oud-player. He was wounded in 1936 in a battle against British tanks near Hebron but after his wounds were treated in Germany, he returned to fight on from his base in John the Baptist’s village, Ein Kerem. In the city, he organized the assassination of a British police chief. Wounded again in RAF strafing, Husseini’s admirers regarded him as an Arab knight who eschewed luxury to fight amongst Arab peasants against infidel intruders – but his Palestinian enemies regarded him as one of the worst of the mufti’s warlords, whose henchmen terrorized villages that did not support the Husseinis.
On 26 September 1937, the British district commissioner in Galilee, Lewis Andrews, was assassinated. On the 12th, the mufti escaped from Jerusalem dressed as woman, an undignified exit that weakened his power in Palestine. In exile in Lebanon, he directed operations in a war that was still escalating. He mercilessly enforced obedience to himself personally and his rigidly intransigent policies.
The British were struggling to hold Palestine: Nablus, Hebron, swathes of Galilee were often out of control – and they even lost the Old City for short periods. The British recruited Jewish auxiliaries from the Haganah to join their so-called Jewish Settlement Police, but the latter could scarcely defend their far-flung villages. The Zionist nationalists were disgusted by Ben-Gurion’s policy of restraint. The Irgun Zvai Leumi, the National Military Organization, still only mustering about 1,500 men at the beginning of the Revolt, answered Arab attacks with atrocities against Arab civilians, tossing grenades into cafés in Jerusalem. On Black Sunday in November 1937, they launched coordinated bombings, much to the horror of Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, but recruits poured into the Irgun. Just as the Arab moderates were being annihilated by the mufti’s thugs, so the Revolt destroyed the credibility of conciliatory Jews such as Judah Magnes, the American president of the Hebrew University, who wanted a binational state with a bicameral congress of Jews and Arabs and no Jewish entity at all. Ben-Gurion’s self-restraint was soon exhausted and the British now took off their gloves to crush the Arabs by all and any means: they collectively punished villages and at one point destroyed a whole neighbourhood of Jaffa. In June 1937, they brought in the death penalty for anyone bearing arms. In October, Sir Charles Tegart, who had stringently policed Calcutta for thirty years, arrived in Jerusalem. He built fifty ‘Tegart forts’, erected security fences around the borders and took charge of counter-insurgency and intelligence, creating Arab Investigation Centres. Tegart ran a school in west Jerusalem to instruct his interrogators how to torture suspects – including the ‘water-can’ technique in which prisoners had water forced down their noses from coffeepots, a method now known as ‘water-boarding’ – until the city governor Keith-Roach demanded it be moved. An RAF officer, Arthur Harris – later famed as the ‘Bomber’ of Dresden – supervised air attacks on rebel villages. Yet as the crisis with Hitler developed in Europe, the British could not bring in enough troops to destroy the Revolt, so they needed more Jewish help.
A well-connected young counter-insurgency expert named Orde Wingate was posted to Jerusalem where he was invited to stay by High Commissioner Wauchope. Wingate observed that Wauchope ‘takes everyone’s advice and has lost all grasp of affairs’. His recommendation was to train Jewish fighters and take the insurgency to the insurgents. He would become the Zionist version of Lawrence – Weizmann called him ‘Lawrence of Judaea’. By chance, these two unconventional English Arabists were cousins.21
ORDE WINGATE AND MOSHE DAYAN: THE FALL OF THE OLD CITY
The son of a well-off colonial colonel with an evangelical mission to convert the Jews, raised on Bible and empire, Wingate was a fluent Arabic-speaker, and, like Lawrence, earned his spurs commanding Arab irregulars – a unit of the East Arab Corps in Sudan. ‘There was in him’, wrote Weizmann, ‘a fusion of the student and man of action that reminded me of Lawrence.’ But on arrival in Jerusalem he underwent an almost Damascene conversion, impressed by the energy of the Zionists, and repulsed by the mufti’s bullyboy tactics and the anti-Semitism of British officers: ‘Everyone’s against the Jews,’ he declared, ‘so I’m for them!’
Wingate inspected the beleaguered British troops and Jewish farms. In the depths of the night, they would receive visits from an ‘extra-ordinary figure’ wearing a Borsolino hat or a Wolseley topee, a battered Palm Beach suit and a Royal Artillery tie, who looked ‘like the kind of lowlife you saw hanging around dubious cafés in Tel Aviv’. Always armed to the teeth, the thirty-three-year-old Captain Wingate, who had ‘very piercing blue eyes, aquiline features and a faraway ascetic look with a scholarly air’, arrived in a Studebaker sedan ‘filled with weapons, maps, Lee Enfield rifles, Mills grenades – and a Bible’. Wingate decided that ‘the Jews will provide better soldiery than ours.’ In March 1938, the British commander, Sir Archibald Wavell, impressed by this ‘remarkable personality’, ordered Wingate to train Jewish special forces and deploy these so-called Special Night Squads against the rebels. Wavell did not know what he was dealing with: ‘I wasn’t then aware of the connection with T. E. Lawrence.’
Setting up headquarters in the Fast Hotel, near the Jaffa Gate, Wingate learned fluent Hebrew and was soon known as ‘the Friend’ by the Zionists – but he was regarded as an enemy by the Arabs and a reckless freak by many of his British brother-officers. Moving out of Government House, he set up home in Talpiot with his wife Lorna, who was ‘very young and very beautiful like a porcelain doll. People didn’t take their eyes off her’, recalled Ruth Dayan. Her husband Moshe Dayan, the twenty-two-year-old son of Russian immigrants, born in the first kibbutz, had (secretly) joined the Haganah and was (openly) serving in the Jewish Settlement Police, when ‘one evening, a Haganah man from Haifa turned up accompanied by a strange visitor. Wingate was a slender man, a heavy revolver at his side, carrying a small Bible. Before going on an action, he’d read the passage in the Bible relating to the place where we’d be operating.’ This military heir of the bibliolatrist evangelicals led his Night Squads against the Arab gunmen who were ‘forced to realize they could no longer find any path secure for them: they were likely to be caught in a surprise ambush anywhere.’ During the Revolt and later during the Second World War, the British trained 25,000 Jewish auxiliaries, including other commando units led by Yitzhak Sadeh, a Russian Red Army veteran who became Haganah’s chief of staff. ‘You are the sons of the Maccabees,’ Wingate told them, ‘You are the first soldiers of a Jewish army!’ Their expertise and spirit later formed the basis of the Israel Defence Forces.
In September 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement, which appeased Adolf Hitler’s aggression and allowed him to dismember Czechoslovakia, freed British troops: 25,000 reinforcements arrived in Palestine. Yet in Jerusalem, the rebels pulled off a daring coup de main: on 17 October, they seized the entire Old City, barricading the gates, driving out British troops and even issuing postage stamps marked al-Quds. Wasif Jawhariyyeh, who lived near the Jaffa Gate, proudly saw an Arab flag fluttering from the Tower of David. A beleaguered rabbi at the Western Wall was terrorized by Arab gunmen. But on 19 October, the British stormed the gates and retook the city, killing nineteen gunmen as Wasif watched from his home. ‘I can’t describe the night of the battle with the British army and the rebels. We saw the explosions and heard the incredible smashing of bombs and bullets.’
Though he was a hero to the Jews, Wingate’s operations were increasingly regarded as counter-productive by British officers, who heard that he opened his front door to guests stark naked, and was having an affair with a Jewish opera singer. Even Dayan had to admit: ‘Judged by ordinary standards he wouldn’t be regarded as normal. [After operations] he’d sit in the corner stark naked reading the Bible, and munching raw onions.’ Wingate’s divisional commander, Major-General Bernard Montgomery, disliked his military recklessness and Zionist partisanship. Wingate, Montgomery later told Dayan, ‘was mentally unstable’. He was ordered back to the British headquarters in Jerusalem. Now the British had the forces, they no longer needed Jewish commandos.
‘I don’t care whether you’re Jews or gentiles,’ Montgomery told representatives of both sides. ‘My duty is to maintain law and order. I intend to do so.’ Montgomery declared the Revolt ‘definitely, finally smashed’. Five hundred Jews had been killed and 150 Britons, but the Revolt had taken the most terrible toll on Palestinian society which has yet to recover: one-tenth of all males between 20 and 60 had been killed, wounded or exiled. One hundred and forty-six were sentenced to death, 50,000 arrested, and 5000 homes destroyed. Around 4,000 were killed, many of them by fellow Arabs. It was just in time, as British forces were soon likely to be needed in Europe. ‘I shall be sorry to leave Palestine in many ways,’ said Montgomery, ‘as I have enjoyed the war out here.’*
Neville Chamberlain, whose father had proposed a Jewish homeland in Uganda, decided to reverse the Balfour Declaration. If there was a war, the Jews had no choice but to back Britain against the Nazis. But the Arabs had a real choice. ‘If we must offend one side,’ said Chamberlain, ‘let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.’ He therefore invited both sides, and the Arab states, to a conference in London. The Arabs named the mufti as chief delegate, but since the British would not tolerate his presence, his cousin Jamal al-Husseini led one Arab delegation; Nashashibi led the moderates. The Husseinis stayed at the Dorchester, the Nashashibis at the Carlton. Weizmann and Ben-Gurion represented the Zionists. On 7 February 1939, Chamberlain had to open the conference in St James’s Palace twice, because Arabs and Zionists refused to negotiate directly.
Chamberlain hoped to persuade the Zionists to agree to a cessation in immigration, but to no avail. On 15 March, the hollowness of his appeasement of Hitler was exposed when the Führer invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. Two days later, Malcolm MacDonald, the colonial secretary, issued a White Paper that proposed limiting Jewish land purchases and restricting immigration to 15,000 people annually for five years, after which Arabs would have a veto, Palestinian independence within ten years and no Jewish state. This was the best offer the Palestinians were to receive from the British or anyone else during the entire twentieth century, but the mufti, displaying spectacular political incompetence and megalomaniacal intransigence, rejected it from his Lebanese exile.
Ben-Gurion prepared his Haganah militia for war against the British. Jews rioted in Jerusalem. On 2 June, the Irgun bombed the market outside the Jaffa Gate, killing nine Arabs. On the 8th, the last night of his stay in Jerusalem on an Eastern tour, a young American visitor, John F. Kennedy, son of the US ambassador to London, heard fourteen explosions ignited by the Irgun, knocking out electricity across the Holy City. Many now shared General Montgomery’s view that ‘The Jew murders the Arab and the Arabs murder the Jews and it will go on for the next 50 years in all probability’.22
THE MUFTI AND HITLER: WORLD WAR IN JERUSALEM
As Adolf Hitler seemed to carry all before him, the mufti of Jerusalem saw an opportunity to strike at their common enemies, the British and the Jews. France had collapsed, the Wehrmacht was advancing towards Moscow, and Hitler had started the killing of 6 million Jews in his Final Solution.* The mufti had moved to Iraq to direct anti-British intrigues but, after organizing yet more defeats, had to flee to Iran and then, pursued by British agents, he embarked on an adventurous voyage that finally brought him to Italy. On 27 October 1941, Benito Mussolini received him at the Palazzo Venetia in Rome, backing the creation of a Palestinian state: if the Jews wanted their own country, ‘they should establish Tel Aviv in America’, said Il Duce. ‘We have here in Italy 45,000 Jews and there will be no place for them in Europe.’ The mufti – ‘very satisfied by the meeting’ – flew to Berlin.
At 4.30 p.m. on 28 November, the mufti was received by a tense Adolf Hitler: the Soviets had halted the Germans on the outskirts of Moscow. The mufti’s interpreter suggested to the Führer that, by Arab tradition, coffee should be served. Hitler jumpily replied that he did not drink coffee. The mufti inquired if there was a problem. The interpreter soothed the mufti, but explained to the Führer that the guest still expected coffee. Hitler replied that even the High Command was not allowed to drink coffee in his presence: he then left the room, returning with an SS guard bearing lemonade.
Husseini asked Hitler to support the ‘independence and unity of Palestine, Syria and Iraq’ and the creation of an Arab Legion to fight with the Wehrmacht. The mufti, speaking to the apparent master of the world, was bidding not just for Palestine but for an Arab empire under his own rule.
Hitler was happy that he and the mufti shared the same enemies: ‘Germany was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with two citadels of Jewish power – Britain and the Soviet Union’ – and naturally there would be no Jewish state in Palestine. Indeed the Führer hinted at his Final Solution to the Jewish problem: ‘Germany was resolved, step by step, to ask one European nation after another to solve its Jewish problem.’ As soon as ‘German armies reached the southern exit of Caucasia’, Hitler said, ‘Germany’s objective would then solely be the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.’
However, until Russia and Britain were defeated, the mufti’s ambitious bid for the entire Middle East would have to wait. Hitler said he ‘had to think and speak coolly and deliberately as a rational man’, careful not to offend his Vichy French ally. ‘We were troubled about you,’ Hitler told Husseini. ‘I know your life story. I followed with interest your long and dangerous journey. I’m happy that you’re with us now.’ Afterwards, Hitler admired Husseini’s blue eyes and reddish hair, deciding he definitely had Aryan blood.
Yet the mufti shared with Hitler not just a strategic hostility to Britain but racial anti-Semitism at its most lethal – and even in memoirs written long afterwards, he remembered that Reichführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, whom he liked greatly, confided to him in the summer of 1943 that the Nazis had ‘already exterminated more than three million Jews.’ The mufti chillingly boasted that he supported the Nazis ‘because I was persuaded and still am that if Germany had carried the day, no trace of the Zionists would have remained in Palestine’.*
He had come a long way from multi-national Jerusalem where, unsurprisingly, Jews were disheartened by his presence in Berlin. The mufti’s views are indefensible – but it is wrong to use them to claim that Arab nationalists were Hitlerite anti-Semites. Wasif Jawhariyyeh, who, as we will see, was very sympathetic to the Jewish plight, was typical, writing in his diary that Arab Jerusalemites, loathing the British for ‘their injustice, dishonesty and the Balfour Declaration, hoped Germany would win the war. They used to sit, listening to the news, waiting for headlines of German victory, grieving over good news for England.’
‘Strange as it may sound’, recalled Hazem Nusseibeh, wartime ‘Jerusalem enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity’. The British clamped down on the Jewish militias: Moshe Dayan and his Haganah comrades were arrested and imprisoned in Acre Fortress. But in May 1941, as British Palestine was potentially pincered between the Axis forces in North Africa and Vichy French Syria, the British created the Palmach, a small Jewish commando force, out of Wingate’s and Sadeh’s fighters, ready to fight the Nazis.
Dayan, released from prison, was sent on raids to prepare for the British invasion of Vichy Syria and Lebanon. During a firefight in southern Lebanon, Dayan was checking on French positions through his binoculars ‘when a rifle bullet smashed into them splintering a lens and the metal casing which became embedded in the socket of my eye’. He hated the eyepatch he now had to wear, feeling like ‘a cripple. If only I could get rid of my black eyepatch. The attention it drew was intolerable to me. I preferred to shut myself up at home, rather than encounter the reactions of people wherever I went.’ Dayan and his young wife moved to Jerusalem so that he could receive treatment. He ‘loved to wander around the Old City, especially to walk the narrow path along the top of its encircling walls. The New City was somewhat strange to me. But the Old City was an enchantment.’ The Haganah, with British help, was preparing to go underground if the Germans took Palestine.
Jerusalem was a favourite refuge for exiled kings – George II of Greece, Peter of Yugoslavia and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie all stayed at the King David. The emperor walked barefoot through the streets and placed his crown at the foot of the altar in the Sepulchre. Indeed his prayers were answered: he was restored to his throne.*
Day and night, the corridors and bars of the King David were so crowded with Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian, Serbian, Greek and Ethiopian princelings, aristocrats, racketeers, courtiers, loafers, tycoons, pimps, gigolos, courtesans, film stars and Allied, Axis, Zionist and Arab spies, as well as officers and diplomats in French, British, Australian and American uniforms, that visitors had to fight their way through its corridors even to reach its bar and get the desired dry martini. In 1942, a new guest checked in who was one of the most renowned Arab stars of her time and personifies the decadence of Jerusalem as Levantine entrepot. She sung under the name Asmahan; everywhere she went, this dangerous but irresistible woman, who contrived to be, among other things, a Druze princess, Egyptian film star, Arabic popular singer, grande horizantale and spy for all sides, managed to create her own breed of gorgeous havoc and mystery.
The scion of a princely but impoverished family, who had fled in 1918 to Egypt, Amal al-Altrash, born a Druze in Syria, was discovered as a singer aged fourteen and made her first record at sixteen, achieving instant fame on the radio and then in movies, always recognizable by the beauty spot on her chin. In 1933 she married her cousin, the amir of Mount Druze in Syria, for the first time (she married and divorced him twice). She insisted on living as a liberated, Western woman, even in his mountain palace, though she spent much time at the King David. In May 1941, the princess – or amira – was recruited by British intelligence to return to Vichy Damascus to charm and bribe Syrian leaders into backing the Allied powers. When the Allies retook Syria and Lebanon, she was personally thanked by General Charles de Gaulle. With her singing, invincible chic and utterly uninhibited libido (with bisexual tastes), Asmahan soon beguiled the Free French and British generals in Beirut, playing them against each other and being paid by both as an agent of influence. Churchill’s envoy, General Louis Spears, was so smitten, he said ‘she was and will always be one the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Her eyes were immense, green as the sea you cross to paradise. She bowled over British officers with the speed and accuracy of a machine gun. Naturally enough she needed money.’ It was said that if you were her lover it was impossible to be lonely in her boudoir, where you were liable to find one general under the bed, one in the bed, and Spears dangling from the chandelier.
Furious at Allied betrayal of the promise to grant immediate Arab independence, the princess stole military secrets from a British lover and tried to offer them to the Germans; when she was stopped at the Turkish border, she bit the officer who arrested her. When the Free French broke off her salary, she moved to Jerusalem. Still only twenty-four, she became ‘the Lady of the Lobbies’ in the King David, staying up all night drinking her favourite whisky-champagne cocktail, seducing Palestinian grandees, more British officers (and their wives) and Prince Aly Khan. A French friend recalled: ‘she was all woman. Elle était diabolique avec les hommes.’ As her surname was Altrash, the English women called her Princess Trash, and she so shocked her Druze compatriots that they fired shots at the screen when her first film was shown in the cinema – she was years ahead of her time. She could be her own worst enemy: she tried to throw the Egyptian Queen Mother Nazli out of the best suite while starting an affair with the royal chamberlain. A competition with an Egyptian dancer for a man culminated in the ritual mutilation of each other’s dresses. She regarded Zionism as a fashion opportunity: ‘Thank God for these Viennese furriers – at least it means you can get a decent fur coat in Jerusalem.’ After over a year in the city, and marrying a third husband, an Egyptian playboy, in 1944 she went to Egypt to star in the movie Love and Vengeance, but before the film was finished she drowned in the Nile in a mysterious car crash arranged, it was said, by MI6, the Gestapo, King Farouk (whom she refused) or her rival, Umm Kulthum, the pre-eminent Egyptian singer. If her brother Farid was the Arab world’s Sinatra, she was its Monroe. Asmahan’s angelic singing, particularly in her hit song ‘Magical Nights in Vienna’, is still much loved.
The streets teemed crowded with American and Australian soldiers. The main challenge for the ‘Pasha of Jerusalem’, Governor Edward Keith-Roach, was to control the Australians, who were provided with a brothel under a Madame Zeinab in the old Hensmans Hotel in the centre of the New City. But the medical inspections completely failed to limit the spread of VD, so Keith-Roach sent ‘Zeinab and her motley crew out of my district’.
In 1942, the Germans pushed deep into the Caucasus, while General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps advanced on Egypt. The very existence of the Yishuv in Palestine was in jeopardy. Across the Mediterranean, in Greece, SS Einsatzkommando Afrika under SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff, had been assigned to exterminate the Jews of Africa and Palestine. ‘The faces of the Jews showed the grief, sadness and fear especially when the Germans reached Tobruk,’ recorded Wasif Jawhariyyeh. An Arab pedlar loudly hawking sand –ramel in Arabic sounds like Rommel – made Jews fear that the Germans were approaching. ‘They started crying and made efforts to flee’, recalled Wasif. As his doctor was Jewish, Wasif offered to hide him and his family if the Nazis arrived. But the doctor had taken his own precautions: he showed his patient two poison-filled syringes for himself and his wife.
In October 1942, General Montgomery smashed the Germans at El Alamein, a miracle which Weizmann compared to Sennacherib’s mysterious withdrawal from Jerusalem. But in November the first terrible news of the Holocaust reached Jerusalem: ‘Mass Butchery of Polish Jews!’ reported the Palestine Post. Jewish Jerusalem mourned for three days, culminating in a service at the Wall.
The British crackdown on Jewish immigration, announced in the 1939 White Paper, could not have been worse timed: while European Jewry was being slaughtered in Nazi Europe, British troops were turning back shiploads of desperate refugees. The Arab Revolt, Hitler’s Final Solution and the White Paper convinced many Zionists that violence was the only way to force Britain to grant the promised Jewish homeland.
The Jewish Agency controlled the largest militia, the Haganah, with its 2,000-strong special forces, the Palmach, and its 25,000 militiamen trained by the British. Ben-Gurion was now the unrivalled Zionist leader, ‘a short tubby man with a prophetic shock of silvery hair’ around his bald patch, in Amos Oz’s words, ‘thick bushy eyebrows, a wide coarse nose, the prominent defiant jaw of an ancient mariner’ and the laser-beam willpower of a ‘visionary peasant’. But it was the more belligerent Irgun, under an implacable new leader, that now waged war against the British.