The Mufti: his wartime antisemitism was redirected against Israel
Even though the Arab world rejected the Partition Plan, there was at the same time a general reluctance to go to war, not only among the Arabs in Palestine but also among the governments of major Arab League states such as Egypt. It was the mobilization of the Muslim Brotherhood that caused the Arab League to embrace the Mufti, a Nazi-collaborator and war criminal, as leader of the Palestinian Arabs. By staging destabilizing mass demonstrations and a murderous campaign of intimidation, Hajj Amin el-Husseini and the Muslim Brotherhood dragged Egypt and other Arab states into a full-scale war against the Jews of Mandatory Palestine. The inability of key Arab actors to stand their ground, combined with the cowardice of the Western powers who tacitly anticipated a Jewish defeat, paved the way for one of the most fateful turning points in twentieth-century history, one that has shaped the Middle East conflict to the present.
The Setting: On 29 November 1947 over two-thirds of the United Nations membership voted in favor of General Assembly Resolution 181 proposing a partition of Palestine: 56% of the mandate territory was assigned to a Jewish state and 43% to an Arab state, with Jerusalem under international administration.1 The Jews in Palestine danced for joy in the streets all night. The following day, eight Jews were murdered in three Palestinian Arab attacks. The Arab war to prevent the implementation of the UN resolution had begun.The struggle lasted an entire year. The first phase of the war was conducted by irregular Arab guerrilla groups and units. The second phase began on 14 May 1948. During the afternoon of that day, David Ben Gurion announced the birth of the State of Israel. Around midnight the country was invaded from the north by Syrian and Lebanese units, from the east by Jordanian troops and from the south by the Egyptian army.2 As the British Mandate had ended on the same day, there was no one to stop them. Some 6,000 Jews and an unknown number of Arabs lost their lives before the first ceasefire agreements were signed at the beginning of 1949.3
While this war has been the subject of a vast literature, scholars have not devoted sufficient attention to the reasons why the Arabs chose war. This issue requires renewed examination in the light of the disclosure of important new evidence. In recent years our understanding of the scale and significance of Nazi antisemitic propaganda directed at the Arab world has been enriched by several major new studies.4 Furthermore, there has been important new research on the role of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and of the Muslim Brotherhood.5 As a consequence, the assertion by Jamal el-Husseini, a cousin of the Mufti, that “the Arabs are not antisemitic, but anti-Zionist” is no longer a convincing argument.6 We now understand that there has been and there still exists an anti-Zionist antisemitism in which everything that antisemites traditionally attribute to “World Jewry” is projected onto the Jewish State of Israel.7
The above raises the following questions: Are there elements of continuity between the Nazi war of 1939-45 and the subsequent Arab war against Israel? If so, what do they reveal about the history of the era? I hope that this paper will stimulate further research into these questions.
Who Wanted War in 1947? The Arab world was unanimous in its public rejection of the UN Partition Plan. According to the Middle East Journal, early in 1948, “even those Arabs who sincerely hoped for an eventual understanding with the Jews of Palestine could see no reasonable basis for acquiescence in the partition scheme.”8 After the First World War, many Arabs considered that they had been betrayed by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 by which Britain and France had designated their respective spheres of influence, disregarding the prospect of independence that London had been holding out to the Arabs. Following the Second World War, according to the Middle East Journal, “Palestine had become the test of the Arabs‘ independence; to surrender would mean a repetition of the defeat which had come upon them after World War I.”9More controversial, however, was the question of whether military force should be used to thwart a two-state solution. In 1947 most Arabs in Mandatory Palestine were opposed to war. Tens of thousands of them had found work in Jewish-dominated economic sectors such as citrus fruit production. Moreover, they were aware of the Zionists’ military strength. As Ben Gurion noted in February 1948, “most of the Palestinian Arabs refused, and still refuse, to be drawn into fighting.”10 In his groundbreaking study of Palestinian collaborators, Hillel Cohen introduces many examples of stubborn resistance on the part of Palestinian Arabs to their leaders’ calls to arms, of non-aggression pacts with nearby Jewish communities and of denial of assistance to the Mufti’s forces.
There were even cases where Arabs actively supported Jewish fighters.11 There was a similar absence of war-like intentions in the Arab League states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In August 1946, the Jewish Agency reported that “the Egyptians agree that there is no other acceptable solution to the Palestine question except partition.” 12
Such views were no longer openly expressed after the UN partition resolution. However, in December 1947 both Egypt and Saudi Arabia flatly rejected the possibility of military intervention.13 The Arab League repeated that position as well. Although it was agreed that recruitment centers for guerrilla volunteers should be established in Palestine, no further measures were taken. Indeed, in February 1948, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, Secretary-General of the Arab League, defined “the conflict in Palestine as a civil war into which they would send their regular troops only if foreign armies were to get involved and implement the partition by force.”14 In light of the international support for partition, such caution was understandable. “It would be a dangerous and tragic precedent if a General Assembly resolution were to be thwarted by force,” the UN Palestine Commission asserted in February 1948.15 At the same time, the United States designated any attempt to change the decision by force as an “act of aggression.”16
Foreign policy considerations, however, were not the only reason for the Arab League’s cautious stance. In private, some Arab leaders were not as unhappy with the partition plan as their public statements suggested. As Transjordan’s ruler King Abdullah stated: “The partition of Palestine was the only viable solution to the conflict.”17 The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, expressed a similar view. According to a Jewish Agency report of August 1946, “there was only one solution, in his view, and that was partition… But as Secretary of the Arab League he could not appear before the Arabs as the initiator of such a proposal.”18 Therefore, “before the Arabs” Azzam placed exactly the opposite position on the agenda. In conclusion, while the Arab world unanimously rejected partition in public, it was divided regarding embarking upon a regular war. Why then did this war – so costly for both sides – take place? Why, out of a range of possible responses to the partition, did the most extreme, that of Hajj Amin el-Husseini, prevail? We must now look at his activities prior to the outbreak of the war.
Preparing for War: On 28 November 1941, Adolf Hitler assured his guest, the Mufti of Jerusalem, that as soon as the Wehrmacht reached the southern gates of the Caucasus, “Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.”19 Three years later, with defeat looming, the Nazis started looking toward the post-war period. Europe may have been in ruins, but there was still a will to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state even after the defeat of Germany. The following excerpt from the Mufti’s memoirs is revealing:In 1944, “Germany agreed to supply us with arms for the approaching tasks, and to this end created a large store with light arms suitable for guerrilla action… In addition, the authorities put at our disposal four light, four-engine airplanes for the transportation of war materiel to Palestine, to be stored in secret shelters, for the training of Palestinian fighters and for their preparation for the battles to follow.” The material included “tens of thousands of rifles, machine guns and light weapons and great quantities of equipment and ammunition.”20 As part of this effort, in October 1944, five parachutists in German uniforms landed in the Jordan Valley on a mission to hide boxes of weapons previously dropped by the Luftwaffe. While these may have been isolated events, they do indicate that there was a direct link between the Nazi war effort and the subsequent struggle for Palestine regarding the supply of weapons.
Similarly, continuity with the Nazis existed on an individual level. One of the October 1944 parachutists was Ali Salameh, who served as a major in the Wehrmacht at the time. During the 1947/48 war, he was a commander in the Mufti’s jihad army (al-jihad al-muqaddas) where he chose another German Wehrmacht officer as his adviser.21 The jihad army’s most famous commander and its leader in Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir el-Husseini, had also been a Nazi collaborator who had participated in the defense of the pro-Nazi regime in Baghdad.
The second volunteer force, the Arab League-sponsored Arab Liberation Army, was led by another former Wehrmacht officer, Fawzi el-Kawkji. According to Der Spiegel, “important positions in Fawzi’s headquarters are occupied by members of the old German Wehrmacht… They are mainly former soldiers in Rommel’s Africa Corps, escapees from Egyptian POW camps or Muslim Yugoslavs and Albanians who Jerusalem’s ex-Mufti had previously recruited to a pro-German Mufti Brigade.” “No one,” the report continues, “is troubled by the fact that the German volunteers, as in the old days, have adopted “Die Fahne Hoch” [the Horst Wessel Song] as their marching song.”22
This report was later confirmed by researchers who found that at least 520 Bosnians, 67 Albanians and 111 Croatians came to Syria or Beirut in order to fight in Palestine. For example, on 14 March 1945, “a party of 67 Albanians, 20 Yugoslavs, and 21 Croats, led by an Albanian named Derwish Bashaco, arrived by boat in Beirut from Italy. A Haganah report mentions that there was a German officer among them. They were hosted by the Palestine Arab Bureau and made their way to Damascus to join the ALA, &ndash the Arab Liberation Army.23 These former Wehrmacht soldiers did not play a significant military role, but their presence had a political importance. They embodied the continuity of the anti-Jewish war of extermination initiated by the Nazis. The Jews regarded their presence as proof that what was at stake in the 1947/48 war was nothing less than a repetition or continuation of the Holocaust.
However, the true embodiment of the continuity between the two wars was the Mufti himself. His antisemitism, which had cost the lives of thousands of Jews in 1944, was redirected against Israel in 1948. “Our battle with World Jewry … is a question of life and death,” Al-Husseini wrote after his return to Cairo. It is “a battle between two conflicting faiths, each of which can exist only on the ruins of the other.”24 The Arabs must “together attack the Jews and destroy them as soon as the British forces have withdrawn.”25
Prior to the end of the war on 8 May 1945, the Mufti had, “with astute foresight,” according to Joseph Schechtman, moved a “large proportion of his Nazi financial backing” from Germany to Switzerland and Iraq.26 Moreover, officials in Berlin also entered the post-war period. Why else would the Foreign Office have signed a contract to continue subsidizing the Mufti with some 12,000 marks per month after 1 April 1945? The ongoing contractual relationship indicates “that Nazi officials … hoped to continue their joint or complementary political-ideological campaign in the post-war period.”27
At the end of May 1946, when the Mufti arrived in Cairo, he had to remain in hiding for weeks, as he faced charges as a war criminal by Britain, the United States and Yugoslavia. Therefore, we must ask how he resumed his position as the leader of the Palestinian Arabs despite his commitment to the Nazi cause and to the side that had suffered such a bitter defeat.
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