THE DIRTY WAR

1945–7

MENACHEM BEGIN: THE BLACK SABBATH

‘I fight; therefore I am,’ said Menachem Begin, adapting Descartes. Born in Brest-Litovsk, this child of the shtetl had joined Jabotinsky’s Betar movement in Poland, but he had clashed with his hero, throwing out his subtleties, to forge his own harsher ideology of military Zionism – a ‘war of liberation against those who hold the land of our fathers’, combining maximalist politics with emotional religion. After the Nazis and Soviets had carved up Poland at the start of the Second World War, Begin was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD and sentenced to the Gulag as a British spy: ‘What became of this British agent?’ he joked. ‘He soon had on his head the largest reward offered by the British police.’

Released after Stalin’s 1941 pact with the Polish leader General Sikorski, Begin joined the Polish Army which brought him via Persia to Palestine. Formed in the dark continent of Stalin’s meatgrinder and Hitler’s slaughterhouse – in which his parents and brother perished – he came from a harsher school than Weizmann or Ben-Gurion: ‘It’s not Masada,’ he said, ‘but Modin [where the Maccabees started their rebellion] that symbolizes the Hebrew revolt.’ Jabotinsky had died of a heart attack in 1940 and now in 1944, Begin was appointed commander of the Irgun with its 600 fighters. The older Zionists regarded Begin as ‘plebeian or provincial’. With his rimless glasses, ‘soft restless hands, thinning hair and wet lips’,* Begin looked more like a provincial Polish schoolmaster than a revolutionary mastermind. Yet he had ‘the patience of a hunter in ambush’.

Although the Irgun had joined the Allied war against the Nazis, some extremists, led by Abraham Stern, had split off. Stern was killed by the British in 1942. But his faction, the Lehi, Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, nicknamed the Stern Gang, now launched their own revolt against the British. As Allied victory became more likely, Begin started to test British resolve in Jerusalem: the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on The Day of Atonement, had been banned at the Wall since 1929. But Jabotinsky had annually challenged the rule. In October 1943, Begin ordered the blowing of the shofar: British police immediately attacked the praying Jews but in 1944, the British desisted. Begin took this as a sign of weakness.

This impresario of violence declared war on Britain and in September 1944, the Irgun attacked British police stations in Jerusalem and then assassinated a CID officer as he walked through the city. Begin, nicknamed the Old Man (the same nickname enjoyed by Ben-Gurion), even though he was about thirty, descended into the underground, constantly moving address and adopting the disguise of a bearded Talmudic scholar. The British placed a £10,000 bounty on his head, dead or alive.

The Jewish Agency condemned terrorism, but as the Allies launched the D-Day invasion of German-occupied Europe,* the Lehi twice tried to assassinate the high commissioner Harold MacMichael in the streets of Jerusalem. In Cairo that November, they killed Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne, Minister Resident in Egypt and friend of Churchill, who had tactlessly suggested to Ben-Gurion that the Allies should establish a Jewish state in East Prussia, instead of Zion. Churchill called the Zionist extremists the ‘vilest gangsters’. Ben-Gurion condemned the murders and, during 1944–5, helped the British hunt down the Jewish ‘dissident’ militias – 300 insurgents were arrested. The Zionists called this ‘la saison’, the hunting season.

On 8 May 1945, Victory in Europe Day, the new high commissioner, Field Marshal Viscount Gort, took the salute outside the King David Hotel and issued an amnesty for Jewish and Arab political prisoners while Jerusalemites partied. However, the reality of sectarian politics reared up again the next day: both Jews and Arabs demonstrated – and both were already effectively boycotting the city’s mayoralty.

In Britain, Churchill was defeated in the general election. The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, had adopted William Blake’s anthem as his Labour Party campaign song, promising his people a ‘New Jerusalem’ – though he proved quite incapable of governing the old one.

The British anxiously steeled themselves for the coming struggle. Should the city with 100,000 Jews, 34,000 Muslims and 30,000 Christians be a British-run State of Jerusalem, as suggested by MacMichael, or partitioned, with the holy sites run by the British, as proposed by Gort? Either way, the British were determined to stop Jewish immigration into Palestine – even though many of the immigrants were survivors of Hitler’s death-camps. Now confined in miserable Displaced Person camps across Europe, shiploads of desperate Jewish refugees were harassed and turned away by British forces. The Exodus was stormed by the British, who roughed up its refugees, many of them death-camp survivors (three of whom were killed), and then, with scarcely credible insensitivity, sent them back to camps in Germany. Even the moderate Jewish Agency found this morally repugnant.

Ben-Gurion, Begin and the Lehi therefore agreed to form a United Resistance Command to smuggle in Jewish immigrants from Europe and coordinate the struggle against the British, attacking trains, airfields, army bases and police stations across the country. But the two small factions paid only lip-service to the more moderate Haganah. The Russian Compound, its majestic hostels now converted into a police stronghold, was a favoured target of the Irgun. On 27 December, they destroyed the CID police headquarters, the former Nikolai pilgrims hostel. Begin travelled by bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to view his handiwork. In January 1946, the Irgun attacked the prison inside the Russian Compound which had once been the Marianskaya Hostel for female pilgrims.*

The British, battered by these attacks, drew America into their dilemmas. The American Jewish community was increasingly pro-Zionist but President Franklin D. Roosevelt had never publicly backed a Jewish state. At Yalta, Roosevelt and Stalin had discussed the Holocaust. ‘I’m a Zionist,’ said Roosevelt. ‘Me too, in principle,’ replied Stalin, who boasted that he had ‘tried to establish a national home for the Jews in Birobidzhan but they had stayed there two or three years and then scattered’. The Jews, added that visceral anti-Semite, were ‘middlemen, profiteers and parasites’ – but secretly he hoped that any Jewish state would be a Soviet satellite.

FDR died in April 1945. His successor, Harry S. Truman, wanted to settle Holocaust survivors in Palestine and asked the British to let them in. Truman, raised as a Baptist, a former farmer, bank-clerk, Kansas City haberdasher, was a mediocre Missouri senator with a sympathy for the Jews and a sense of history. When the new president toured the dynamited moonscape of Berlin in 1945, he ‘thought of Carthage, Baalbek, Jerusalem, Rome, Atlantis’. Now his longstanding friendship with his Jewish ex-haberdashery partner, Eddie Jacobson, and the influence of pro-Zionist aides, along with ‘his own reading of ancient history and the Bible, made him a supporter of a Jewish homeland’, recalled his adviser Clark Clifford. Yet Truman, facing the resistance of his own State Department, was frequently irritated by Zionist lobbying and was wary of any sign of the Jewish underdogs becoming the bullying overdogs: ‘Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was on earth,’ he snapped, ‘so how on earth could anyone expect that I would have any luck?’ But he agreed to create an Anglo-American commission of inquiry.

The commissioners stayed in the King David Hotel where one of them, Richard Crossman, a Labour MP, found ‘the atmosphere terrific, with private detectives, Zionist agents, Arab sheikhs, special correspondents, all sitting about discreetly overhearing each other’. At night, Arab grandees and British generals gathered at Katy Antonius’ villa. She was now alone. The Antoniuses’ decadent marriage had started to collapse at the same time as the Arab Revolt. During the war, Katy had divorced her ailing husband – who died unexpectedly just two weeks later. He was buried on Mount Zion: ‘Arise ye Arabs and awake’ was written on his headstone. But Katy’s soirées were still legendary. Cross-man, enjoying ‘the evening dress, Syrian food and drink, and dancing on the marble floor’, reported that the Arabs gave the best parties: ‘It’s easy to see why the British prefer the Arab upper class to the Jews. This Arab intelligentsia has a French culture, amusing, civilized, tragic and gay. Compared with them, the Jews seem tense, bourgeois, central European.’

Attlee had hoped that Truman would support his policies against Jewish immigration, but the Anglo-American Commission unhelpfully recommended that the British admit 100,000 refugees immediately: Truman publicly backed their recommendations. Attlee furiously rejected American interference. The Jewish Agency stepped up the secret immigration of refugees from the Holocaust, bringing in 70,000 in three years while its Palmach harassed the British, culminating in an explosive spectacular – the Night of the Bridges.

The British had crushed the Arabs; now they would crush the Jews. In June 1946, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, now field marshal and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, returned to Jerusalem, complaining that ‘British rule existed only in name; the true rulers seemed to me to be the Jews, whose unspoken slogan was –“You dare not touch us”.’ But Montgomery dared, sending in reinforcements.

On Saturday 29 June, his commander, General Evelyn ‘Bubbles’ Barker, launched Operation Agatha, an attack on the Zionist organizations. He arrested 3,000 Jews – though failed to pick up Ben-Gurion who happened to be in Paris. Barker fortified three ‘security zones’ in Jerusalem, turning the Russian Compound into a fortress that the Jews nicknamed Bevingrad, after the British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin. To the Jews the operation came to be known as Black Sabbath, and Barker was at once the hated symbol of British oppression. The general was a regular at Katy Antonius’ parties. Now the hostess became his mistress: his love letters were passionate, indiscreet and hate-filled, featuring British military secrets and foam-flecked rants against Jews: ‘Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them?’ Lehi attempted to assassinate Barker, using a bomb disguised as a baby in a pram. Menachem Begin of the Irgun, assisted by the Lehi, planned a response to Barker’s Black Sabbath to resound across the world. The Haganah, though not Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency, approved.

The King David Hotel was the secular temple of Mandate Jerusalem, and one wing had been requisitioned by the British administration and intelligence agencies. On 22 July 1946, the Irgun, disguised as Arabs and hotel staff in Nubian costumes, stowed milkchurns filled with 500 pounds of explosives in the basement.23

MONTGOMERY’S CRACKDOWN: THE CASE OF MAJOR FARRAN

The Irgun made anonymous calls to the hotel, to the Palestine Post and to the French Consulate, to warn of the imminent attack so that the King David could be evacuated. But the calls were ignored – and they were too late. It is unclear if the mishandling of these warnings was by accident or design. Begin waited nearby: ‘each minute seemed like a day. Twelve-thirty-one, thirty-two. Zero hour drew near. The half-hour was almost up. Twelve-thirty-seven. Suddenly the whole town seemed to shudder!’ The bombs shattered an entire wing of the King David, killing ninety-one, including Britons, Jews and Arabs.* Five MI5 operatives were among the dead, but the Secret Service ‘London Ladies’ survived, staggering from the wreckage, their hair white with plaster dust, ‘looking like the wrath of God’. Ben-Gurion denounced the bombing; he regarded Begin as a threat to the Jewish community, and the Jewish Agency quit the United Resistance Command.

The King David bombing intensified the severity of the British counter-attack – but it succeeded in accelerating London’s retreat from the Mandate. In Jerusalem, the mixing of Jews and Arabs ceased. ‘It felt’, sensed Amos Oz, ‘as though an invisible muscle was suddenly flexed. Everyone prophesied war. A curtain had begun to divide Jerusalem.’ The Jews were terrified by rumours of imminent massacre. British civilians were evacuated from Jerusalem.

In October, the Irgun blew up the British Embassy in Rome. In November, Montgomery flew back into Jerusalem. ‘I saw Monty at one of Katy Antonius’ parties,’ remembers Nassereddin Nashashibi. The field marshal planned a harsh response to the Irgun’s outrage. A new police chief, Colonel Nicol Gray, recruited hard men, ex-policemen and former members of the special forces, to join new counter-insurgency Special Squads. Major Roy Farran DSO, MC was a typical recruit, an Irish SAS commando whose record revealed a history of trigger-happy exploits.

On arrival in Jerusalem, Farran was driven to the Russian Compound for briefing followed by dinner at the King David Hotel. Farran and the Special Squads started to drive around Jerusalem, looking for suspects to interrogate, if not shoot on sight. These Special Squads had no experience in covert operations, no local languages or knowledge, so, unsurprisingly, Farran had been almost comically unsuccessful until, driving through Rehavia on the 6 May 1947, his team spotted an unarmed schoolboy, Alexander Rubowitz, pasting up Lehi posters. Farran kidnapped the boy but, in the scuffle, dropped his trilby, marked with his ill-spelt name ‘FARAN’. He hoped that the scared teenager would betray bigger Lehi fish. He drove Rubowitz out of Jerusalem, down the Jericho Road into the hills, tied him to a tree, roughed him up for an hour, then he went too far and smashed his skull with a rock. The body was stabbed and stripped and probably eaten by jackals.

While Jewish Jerusalem frantically searched for the missing boy, Major Farran confessed to his superior officer at the police mess in Katamon, then suddenly disappeared, fleeing Jerusalem. There was first a cover-up, then an outcry across the world. The Lehi started to kill random British soldiers, until Farran returned to Jerusalem and gave himself up at the Allenby Barracks. On 1 October, 1947, he was courtmartialled in a fortified court in Talbieh, but was acquitted for lack of admissible evidence. Rubowitz’s body was never found. Farran was bundled away by two officers in an armoured car and driven into the night towards Gaza. The Lehi was determined to kill him. In 1948, a parcel, addressed to ‘R. FARRAN’ but opened by his brother, who shared the same initial, exploded: the brother was killed.*

The case confirmed everything the Yishuv hated about the British. When the authorities condemned an Irgun man to death for terrorist offences, Begin bombed the British Officers Club in Goldsmid House, Jerusalem, killing fourteen, and pulled off a breakout from Acre Prison. When his men were flogged, he flogged British soldiers, and when his men were hanged at Acre Prison for terrorism, he hanged two random British soldiers for ‘anti-Hebrew activities’.

Churchill, now leader of the Opposition, denounced Attlee’s conduct of this ‘senseless squalid war with the Jews in order to give Palestine to the Arabs or God knows who’. Even during the war, Churchill had considered a crackdown on ‘anti-Semites and others in high places’ among his administrators in Palestine. Now a combination of outrage at the violence of Irgun and Lehi, traditional Arabism and anti-Semitism had turned the British firmly against the Jews. British deserters and sometimes serving troops aided Arab forces.

The new high commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, privately described Zionism as ‘nationalism accompanied by the psychology of the Jew which is something quite abnormal and unresponsive to rational treatment’. General Barker banned British troops from all Jewish restaurants, explaining that he would be ‘punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets’. Barker was reprimanded by the prime minister, but the hatred was now visceral. In Barker’s love letters to Katy Antonius, he said he hoped the Arabs would kill more ‘bloody Jews … loathsome people …. Katy, I love you so much.’

On 14 February 1947, Attlee, worn down by the bloodshed, agreed in Cabinet to get out of Palestine. On 2 April, he asked the newly formed United Nations to create a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to decide on its future. Four months later UNSCOP proposed the partition of Palestine into two states with Jerusalem as an international trusteeship under a UN governor. Ben-Gurion accepted the plan, despite its unworkable boundaries. He felt that Jerusalem was ‘the heart of the Jewish people’ but losing her was ‘the price paid for statehood’. The Arab Higher Committee, backed by Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, rejected partition, demanding ‘a unified independent Palestine’. On 29 November the UN voted on the proposal. After midnight, the Jerusalemites gathered around their radios to listen in nerve-jangling silence.24

ABD AL-KADIR HUSSEINI: THE JERUSALEM FRONT

Thirty-three countries voted in favour of Resolution 181, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, thirteen voted against, and ten, including Britain, abstained. ‘After a couple of minutes of shock, of lips parted as though in thirst and eyes wide open,’ recalled Amos Oz, ‘our faraway street on the edge of northern Jerusalem roared all at once, not a shout of joy, more like a scream of horror, a cataclysmic shout that could shift rocks.’ Then ‘roars of joy’ and ‘everyone was singing’. Jews even kissed ‘startled English policemen’.

The Arabs did not accept that the UN had authority to carve up the country. There were 1.2 million Palestinians who still owned 94 per cent of the land; there were 600,000 Jews. Both sides prepared to fight, while Jewish and Arab extremists competed in a flint-hearted tournament of mutual savagery. Jerusalem was ‘at war with itself’.

Arab mobs poured into the city centre, lynching Jews, firing into their suburbs, looting their shops, shrieking ‘Butcher the Jews!’ Anwar Nusseibeh, heir to orange groves and mansions, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, sadly watched this descent into ‘dust, noise and chaos’ as ‘professors, doctors and shopkeepers on both sides traded fire with people who, under different circumstances, would have been house guests’.

On 2 December, three Jews were shot in the Old City; on the 3rd, Arab gunmen attacked the Montefiore Quarter, then a week later the Jewish Quarter, where 1,500 Jews waited nervously, outnumbered within the walls by 22,000 Arabs. Jews and Arabs moved out of mixed areas. On 13 December, the Irgun tossed bombs into the bus station outside the Damascus Gate, killing five Arabs and wounding many more. Anwar Nusseibeh’s uncle just survived the Irgun attack, seeing a ‘torn human limb stuck to the city wall.’ Within two weeks, 74 Jews, 71 Arabs and 9 Britons had been killed.

When Ben-Gurion travelled down from Tel Aviv to meet the high commissioner on 7 December, his convoy was ambushed on the road. The Haganah called up all reservists between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five. The Arabs prepared for war. Irregulars volunteered to fight in the various militias: Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Bosnians, some were nationalist veterans of earlier struggles; others were Jihadi fundamentalists. The largest militia, the Arab Liberation Army, boasted about 5,000 fighters. On paper, the Arab forces, backed by the regular armies of seven Arab states, were overwhelming. General Barker, who had now left Palestine, gleefully predicted to Katy Antonius ‘as a soldier’ that ‘the Jews will be eradicated’. In fact, the Arab League, the organization of newly independent Arab states formed in 1945, was divided between the territorial ambitions and dynastic rivalries of its members. Abdullah, freshly minted Hashemite King of Jordan, still wanted Palestine within his kingdom; Damascus coveted a Greater Syria; King Farouk of Egypt regarded himself as the rightful leader of the Arab world and hated the Hashemites of both Jordan and Iraq, who in turn loathed King Ibn Saud who had ejected them from Arabia. All the Arab leaders distrusted the mufti who, returning to Egypt, was determined to place himself at the head of the Palestinian state.

Amid so much corruption, betrayal and incompetence, Jerusalem supplied the Arab heroes of the war. Anwar Nusseibeh, disgusted by the ‘sordid round of intrigues and debacles’, founded the Herod’s Gate Committee with other dynasts, the Khalidis and Dajanis, to buy arms. His cousin Abd al-Kadir Husseini, who had fought the British in Iraq in 1941, then had lain low during the war in Cairo, took command of the Arab headquarters called the Jerusalem Front.

Husseini emerged as the Arab hero personified, always dressed in keffiyeh, khaki tunic and crossed bandoliers, the revolutionary scion of Jerusalem’s aristocracy, son and grandson of mayors, descendant of the Prophet, a graduate in chemistry, amateur poet, newspaper editor and a warrior of proven courage. ‘As a child,’ says his cousin Said al-Husseini, ‘I remember seeing him arrive at a safe apartment in one of our houses and I can still remember his charisma and grace and that air of urgent heroic excitement that followed him everywhere. He was admired by everyone high and low.’ A teenage student from Gaza named Yasser Arafat, who was proud that his mother was related to the Husseinis, served on Abd al-Kadir’s staff.

Zionist gunmen in the Jewish Quarter fired over the Temple Mount; Arabs fired at Jewish civilians from Katamon. On 5 January, the Haganah attacked Katamon and destroyed the Semiramis Hotel, killing eleven innocent Christian Arabs. This outrage accelerated the Arab flight from the city. Ben-Gurion sacked the Haganah officer in charge. Two days later, the Irgun bombed an Arab outpost at the Jaffa Gate which was denying provisions to the Jewish Quarter. On 10 February, 150 of Husseini’s militiamen attacked the Montefiore Quarter; the Haganah fought back but came under fire from British snipers in the nearby King David Hotel, who killed a young Jewish fighter there. There was still four months left of British rule but Jerusalem was already mired in a full-scale if asymmetrical war. In the previous six weeks, 1,060 Arabs, 769 Jews and 123 Britons had been killed. Each atrocity had to be avenged twofold.

The Zionists were vulnerable in Jerusalem: the road from Tel Aviv passed through 30 miles of Arab territory and Abd al-Kadir Husseini, who commanded the 1,000-strong Jerusalem brigade of the mufti’s Holy War Army, attacked it constantly. ‘The Arab plan’, recalled Yitzhak Rabin, the Palmach officer born in the Holy City, ‘was to choke Jerusalem’s 90,000 Jews into submission’ – and it soon began to work.

On 1 February, Husseini’s militiamen, aided by two British deserters, blew up the offices of the Palestine Post; on the 10th, he attacked Montefiore again but was repelled by the Haganah after a six-hour gun battle. The British set up a command post below the Jaffa Gate to defend Montefiore. On 13 February, the British arrested four Haganah fighters and then released them unarmed to an Arab mob, who murdered them. On the 22nd, Husseini sent British deserters to blow up Ben Yehuda Street, an atrocity that killed fifty-two Jewish civilians. The Irgun shot ten British soldiers.

Trying to defend the Arab areas in Jerusalem, recalled Nusseibeh, ‘was like a worn-out water hose repaired in one place only to burst in two more.’ The Haganah blew up the old Nusseibeh castle. The former Arab mayor Hussein Khalidi complained, ‘Everyone’s leaving. I won’t be able to hold out much longer. Jerusalem is lost. No one is left in Katamon. Sheikh Jarrah has emptied. Everyone who has a cheque or a little money is off to Egypt, off to Lebanon, off to Damascus.’ Soon refugees were pouring out of the Arab suburbs. Katy Antonius left for Egypt; her mansion was blown up by the Haganah, but only after they had found her love-letters from General Barker. Nonetheless Abd al-Kadir Husseini had successfully cut off Jewish west Jerusalem from the coast.

Ironically the Jews, like the Arabs, felt they were losing Jerusalem. By early 1948, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City was under siege and defence was made more difficult by the number of non-combatant ultra-Orthodox Jews. ‘Well, what about Jerusalem?’ Ben-Gurion asked his generals on 28 March at his headquarters in Tel Aviv. ‘That’s the decisive battle. The fall of Jerusalem could be a deathblow to the Yishuv.’ The generals could spare only 500 men. The Jews had been on the defensive since the UN vote, but now Ben-Gurion ordered Operation Nachshon to clear the road to Jerusalem, the start of a wider offensive, Plan D, designed to secure the UN-assigned Jewish areas but also west Jerusalem. ‘The plan’, writes the historian Benny Morris, ‘explicitly called for the destruction of resisting Arab villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants’ but ‘nowhere does the document speak of a policy or desire to expel “the Arab inhabitants” of Palestine.’ In some places, the Palestinians remained in their homes; in some places they were expelled.

The village of Kastel controlled the road from the coast to Jerusalem. On the night of 2 April, the Haganah seized the stronghold, but Husseini massed his militiamen (including Iraqi irregulars) to retake it. He and Anwar Nusseibeh realized, however, that they needed reinforcements. The two of them hurried to Damascus to demand artillery only to be exasperated by the incompetence and intrigues of the Arab League generals. ‘Kastel has fallen,’ said the Iraqi commander-in-chief. ‘It’s your job to get it back, Abd al-Kadir.’

‘Give us the weapons I requested and we will recover it,’ answered Husseini furiously.

‘What’s this, Abd al-Kadir? No cannon?’ said the general, who offered nothing.

Husseini stormed out: ‘You traitors! History will record that you lost Palestine. I’ll take Kastel or die fighting with my mujahidin!’ That night he wrote a poem for his seven-year-old son Faisal who, decades later, would become Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian ‘minister’ for Jerusalem:

This land of the brave is the land of our forefathers

The Jews have no right to this land.

How can I sleep while the enemy rules it?

Something burns in my heart. My homeland beckons.

The commander reached Jerusalem next morning and mustered his fighters.

GUN SALUTES ON THE HARAM: ABD AL-KADIR HUSSEINI

On 7 April, Abd al-Kadir led 300 fighters and three British deserters up to Kastel. At 11 o’clock that night, they attacked the village but were repelled. At dawn the next day, Husseini moved forward to replace a wounded officer, but as he approached in the fog, unsure who held the actual village, a Haganah sentry, thinking the new arrivals were Jewish reinforcements, called in Arabic slang: ‘Up here, boys!’

‘Hello, boys,’ retorted Husseini in English. The Jews often used Arabic – but never English. The Haganah sentry sensed danger and let slip a volley that hit Husseini. His comrades fled, leaving him on the ground, moaning, ‘Water, water.’ Despite attention from a Jewish medic, he died. The gold watch and the ivory-handled pistol revealed that he was a leader, but who was he?

On the radio, the exhausted Haganah defenders eavesdropped on the anxious Arabic talk of regaining the body of the lost commander. His brother Khaled assumed the command. As word spread, Arab militiamen streamed into the area on buses, donkeys and trucks and retook the village, the Palmach troops dying in position. The Arabs killed their fifty Jewish prisoners and mutilated the bodies. The Arabs had retaken the key to Jerusalem – with Husseini’s body.

‘What a sad day! His martyrdom depressed everyone,’ recorded Wasif Jawhariyyeh. ‘A warrior of patriotism and Arab nobility!’ On Friday 9 April, ‘no one stayed in their house. Everyone walked in the procession. I was at the funeral,’ Wasif noted. Thirty thousand mourners – Arab fighters waving their rifles, Arab Legionaries from Jordan, peasants, the Families – attended as the fallen Husseini was buried on the Temple Mount next to his father and near King Hussein in Jerusalem’s Arab pantheon. There was an eleven-cannon salute; gunmen fired into the air and a witness claimed that more mourners were killed than had died in the storming of Kastel. ‘It sounded as if a major battle was in progress. Church bells rang, voices cried for revenge; everyone feared a Zionist attack,’ remembered Anwar Nusseibeh, who was ‘despondent’. But the Arab fighters were so keen to attend Husseini’s burial that they left no garrison in Kastel. The Palmach destroyed the stronghold.

As Husseini was being buried, 120 fighters of the Irgun and Lehi jointly attacked an Arab village just west of Jerusalem named Deir Yassin, where they committed the most shameful Jewish atrocity of the war. They were under specific orders not to harm women, children or prisoners. As they entered the village, they came under fire. Four Jewish fighters were killed and several dozen wounded. Once they were in Deir Yassin, the Jewish fighters tossed grenades into houses and slaughtered men, women and children. The number of victims is still debated, but between 100 and 254, including entire families, were murdered. The survivors were then paraded in trucks through Jerusalem until the Haganah released them. The Irgun and Lehi were undoubtedly aware that a spectacular massacre would terrify many Arab civilians and encourage flight. The Irgun commander, Begin, contrived to deny that the atrocity had taken place while boasting of its utility: ‘The legend [of Deir Yassin] was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel. Panic overwhelmed the Arabs.’ But Ben-Gurion apologized to King Abdullah, who rejected the apology.

Arab vengeance was swift. On 14 April, a convoy of ambulances and food trucks set off for the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Bertha Spafford watched as ‘a hundred and fifty insurgents, armed with weapons varying from blunderbusses and old flintlocks to modern Sten and Bren guns, took cover behind a cactus patch in the grounds of the American Colony. Their faces were distorted by hate and lust for revenge,’ she wrote. ‘I went out and faced them. I told them, “To fire from the shelter of the American Colony is the same as firing from a mosque,”’ but they ignored her rollcall of sixty years’ philanthropy and threatened to kill her if she did not withdraw. Seventy-seven Jews, mainly doctors and nurses, were killed and twenty wounded before the British intervened. ‘Had it not been for Army interference,’ declared the Arab Higher Committee, ‘not a single Jewish passenger would have remained alive.’ The gunmen mutilated the dead and photographed each other with the corpses splayed in macabre poses. The photographs were mass-produced and sold as postcards in Jerusalem.

Deir Yassin was one of the pivotal events of the war: it became the centrepiece of a bloodcurdling Arab media campaign that amplified Jewish atrocities. This was designed to fortify resistance, but instead it encouraged a psychosis of foreboding in a country already at war. By March, before Deir Yassin, 75,000 Arabs had left their homes. Two months later, 390,000 had gone. Wasif Jawhariyyeh, living with his wife and children in western Jerusalem, close to the King David Hotel, was probably typical – and he recorded his thoughts and actions in the diary that is a unique and under-used record.

‘I was in a very bad way,’ he writes after these events in mid-April, ‘depressed, physically and mentally’, so much so that he abandoned his job in the Mandate administration and ‘stayed at home trying to decide what to do’. Finally, the diarist records the ‘reasons that made me decide to leave my home’. First was the ‘dangerous position of our house’, where he was under fire from the Arabs at the Jaffa Gate, the Jews in Montefiore and the British Bevingrad security zone: ‘there was non-stop shooting day and night so it was hard even to reach the house. The fighting between Arabs and Jews, the blowing up of buildings, continued day and night around us.’ The British fired on Montefiore, blowing off the top of Sir Moses’ windmill, but to no avail. Wasif wrote that the the Jewish snipers in Montefiore, ‘shot at anyone walking in the streets and it was a miracle we survived.’ He considered how to save his collection of ceramics, diaries and his beloved oud. His health was deteriorating too: ‘My body became so weak I couldn’t handle the pressure and the doctor told me to leave.’ The family debated: ‘What will happen when the Mandate ends? Will we be under the Arabs or the Jews?’ Wasif’s neighbour, the French consul-general, promised to protect the house and the collection. ‘Even if we never come back,’ Wasif felt they should pack their bags ‘to save ourselves and our children’: ‘We thought we would not leave the house for more than two weeks because we knew how soon the seven [sic] Arab armies will enter the country not to occupy it but to free it and return it to its people and we are its people!’ He left in the last days of the Mandate, never to return. Wasif’s story is that of the Palestinians. Some were expelled by force, some departed to avoid the war, hoping to return later – and approximately half remained safely in their homes to become Israeli Arabs, non-Jewish citizens in the Zionist democracy. But altogether 600,000–750,000 Palestinians left – and lost – their homes. Their tragedy was the Nakhba – the Catastrophe.

Ben-Gurion summoned the chief of the Jerusalem Emergency Committee, Bernard Joseph, to Tel Aviv to decide how to supply the now starving Jerusalem. On 15 April the convoys broke through, and food trickled into the city. On the 20th, Ben-Gurion insisted on visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Passover with the troops: Rabin, commander of the Palmach’s Harel Brigade, protested at Ben-Gurion’s grandstanding. Soon after the convoy set off with Ben-Gurion in an armoured bus, the Arabs attacked. ‘I even ordered two stolen British armoured cars to be brought out of concealment and sent into action’, said Rabin. Twenty were killed – but the food and Ben-Gurion reached Jewish Jerusalem – which he described, with grim humour but acute observation, as ‘20 per cent normal people; 20 per cent privileged (university etc), 60 per cent weird (provincial, medieval etc)’ – by which he meant the Hasidim.

British rule was now in its last days. On 28 April, Rabin captured the Arab suburb Sheikh Jarrah, home of the Families, but the British forced him to relinquish it. As the British took the last salute, the Jews held the western part of the city, the Arabs the Old City and the east. At 8 a.m. on Friday 14 May, Cunningham, the last high commissioner, marched out of Government House in full uniform, reviewed a guard of honour, mounted his armoured Daimler and drove to inspect his troops at the King David Hotel.

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