During the first three years of WWII thousands of Arabs and Jews from Mandate Palestine had fought side by side against the Nazi scourge.
One day, completely by chance, Professor Mustafa Abbasi from the village Jish in the upper Galilee, uncovered a family secret. Abbasi had wondered aloud how there could be a five-year difference between his mother’s date of birth and that of her younger sister. He then heard for the first time that his grandfather, Said Abbasi, had spent five long years away from home, volunteering with the British Army in World War II, battling the Nazis alongside Jewish volunteers.
Only later, after he had become a researcher and delved into the subject, did Abbasi learn how widespread a phenomenon that had been: thousands of Arabs and Jews from Mandate Palestine had fought side by side against the Nazi scourge.
As a historian and as a professor of the history at Tel-Hai Academic College, Abbasi has personally interviewed or secured testimonies from dozens of Palestinians who served in the British army in World War II and fought alongside Jews.
Radwan Said of Kafr Kana told Abbasi that he had served as a sniper and killed three Nazi soldiers in battles in Italy.
Abbasi spoke to the elders in his home village of Jish. One, Zaki Jubran, fought the Nazis along with his brother.
Abbasi would eventually discover lists of more and more Arabs who volunteered for the British army and served alongside Jews – from Jaffa, Jerusalem, Safed, Jenin, and Nablus. Tiberias alone, a city in which Jews and Arabs coexisted peacefully for many years, supplied hundreds of Arab volunteers. Hundreds of Arab fighters lost their lives. Others were taken prisoner. Yet more are still missing in action, over 70 years later.
This is a historical episode that is rarely discussed. It does not align with the various narratives about the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict prior to or after the war years. Abbasi’s research reveals that this was certainly no passing “phenomenon.” He writes about the joint Jewish-Arab war service in an in-depth article published in the last issue of Katedra, the oldest academic journal on Land of Israel studies, published by the Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi. He might turn it into a book.
Some 12,000 Arabs from Mandate Palestine volunteered for the British army during World War II.
All in all, some 12,000 Arabs from Mandate Palestine volunteered for the British army during World War II, approximately half the number of Jewish volunteers who joined up. Hundreds of Palestinian fighters were captured. Approximately 300 died in battle. Relations between the Jewish and Arab volunteers were mostly good. The leaders of the Jewish Yishuv, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, eventually had the Jewish volunteers removed from the mixed unit to establish the famous Jewish Brigade, which would go on to provide a crucial military basis for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence. The leaders had never liked the idea of Jews and Arabs from Mandate Palestine serving together, and there were also plenty on the Arab side who were against it.
At the time, the Arab population in pre-state Israel was split between the Husseinis, under Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini – a Nazi partner – and the Nashashibi clan, who openly supported the British and usually maintained good ties with the Jewish population. The years of the Arab revolt (1936-1939), which al-Husseini led against the British only a few years before World War II, did not make it easy for Arabs to volunteer for the British army. Abbasi believes the Arab enlistment was no surprise.
“About 60% [of the Arabs] supported the British and opposed the Husseinis. A large part was pro-Jew and pro-British and was even willing to compromise and accept the Partition Plan. In contrast to what we were erroneously taught in school, not all of them worshiped the Mufi Husseini. It was actually the Jewish side that tried and eventually succeeded in breaking up the partnership because the Zionist movement had a stronger national agenda. Ben-Gurion and his friends demanded a Jewish force that would fight under a Jewish symbol and a Jewish flag, and not in mixed units, and they eventually got it,” Abbasi says.
The Middle East Commando
Abbasi’s work demonstrates that many volunteers were motivated by financial need. In the first half of 1940, the auxiliary unit known as the “diggers force” was established. The diggers worked mostly in construction under the command of Maj. Henry Cater. The platoons included both Arabs and Jews. The commanders were British. A British propaganda campaign that aimed to increase the number of Arab volunteers featured heads of Arab towns and village leaders. Rallies were held in Abu Dis, Hebron, Jenin, Kafr Qaddum, and Jerusalem. Well-known Egyptian writer Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad said on a Radio Palestine broadcast that “The war is between humane, lofty values that England represents and the forces of darkness represented by the Nazis.”
On April 2, 1941, 6,000 people convened in the Hula Valley. The conference was organized by valley leader Kamal Hussein al-Youssef and attended by the mayor of Safed Zaki Kaddoura. After a feast, the Hula Valley dignitaries agreed to allow young Arabs to enlist in the British army and applauded King George VI.
In the first few months of 1942, as the Allies’ situation on the North African front grew worse, the British authorities began appealing to Arab women, as well. In May 1942, another large conference was held, this time in Tulkarem, and the mayor reminded those present about how brutally the Italians – who were allied with the Nazis – were treating the Libyans.
Abbasi has found that most of the Arab volunteers were village youth. Residents of cities, who enjoyed a higher quality of life, were less enthusiastic about military service in a distant country. Nevertheless, some “city boys” did enlist. These included hundreds of dock workers from Jaffa who lost their jobs when trade at the port tapered off during the Arab Revolt.
The lists of missing and dead Abbasi has found include the names of many prominent urban Arab families. Although many volunteers were motivated by money, there were those who signed up because of ideology, because they opposed the Nazi ideal of a master race and believed in the British and their values.
“Mostly upper-class urban [youth] and educated people who had been influenced by British education and culture [joined]. … When the Italians bombed Tel Aviv and Jaffa and Haifa, hundreds were killed, both Jews and Arabs,” Abbasi notes.
Abbasi has also discovered that several dozen Jews and Arabs fought together alongside thousands of British and Egyptian troops at the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. The British Eighth Army managed to check the advance of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s forces and cause them heavy casualties. A few of the volunteers also took part in the Allied invasion at Normandy in the summer of 1944.
Jews and Arabs from Mandate Palestine fought together against the Nazis in Italy and Greece. They served in the transport, logistics, medical, and engineering positions. On Aug. 6, British War Secretary Anthony Eden informed Parliament that the British army would be establishing an Arab Brigade and then a Jewish Brigade within the infantry.
As January 1942 approached, the infantry corps included 18 platoons, seven Arab (one from Transjordan) and 11 Jewish ones. There were a total of 4,041 Arab volunteers and 10,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestina in the British infantry. Members of the 401st platoon who took part in fortification work and laying down railway tracks in France helped stall the Germany forces. That platoon included 250 Arabs and 450 Jews. When they returned to Palestina, they were welcomed as heroes by the High Commissioner.
Jews and Arabs also served together in the Middle East Commando unit, which included 240 Jews and 120 Arabs, under a team of British commanders. The volunteers with the unit underwent exhausting physical training and long marches in difficult conditions. At the end of 1940, some members of the unit took part in the first British attack in the Western Desert and burst through Italian lines at Bardia, on the Egyptian-Libyan border. In the winter of 1941, the unit fought fierce battles against the Italians.
One of the female Arab volunteers is pictured in the Falastin newspaper | Photo: Falastin (archive)
Nearly 200 Arab women from Palestina served in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps and in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The person responsible for assigning Jewish and Arab women jobs was Audrey Cheety, who was warned that she was taking on a dangerous job. A total of 60 women went through basic training. Only four were Arab, but Cheety managed to get them into officers training after she scolded Palestinian women’s organizations into helping the war effort.
The newspaper “Falastin” also threw itself into the war effort and published articles and pictures of female volunteers in uniform, such as Rahel Shaherazade from Jerusalem. Most of the female Arab volunteers were from cities.
One of the notable female volunteers was Anastasia (Asia) Halabi, who served as a driver and then became an officer. She was the sister of Jerusalem artist Sophie Halabi. The sisters’ mother was Russian, and their father was Arab. After 1948, Asia Halabi went on to serve as a liaison officer between the Jordanian army and the UN in Jerusalem.
Arabs and Jews serving closely together led to one ironic mistake that was reported in Haaretz a few years ago. Shahab Hajaj, an Arab who joined the British army, was captured by the Germans and died in 1943. To this day, Hajaj is commemorated as a fallen Israeli soldier on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Someone assumed he was Jewish.
“I believe that history can bring people closer, seek out common chapters, events that connect us. There are those, too.”
When asked if it’s possible that after the war, the same Jews and Arabs who had fought with the British as comrades wound up fighting each other in the 1948 War of Independence, Abbasi says “it’s definitely possible.”
“A lot of the Arab volunteers later joined the Jordanian Legion. The Jordanian Legion, as we know, fought against the Jews in 1948,” he says.
However, Abbasi stresses that he has not found proof that this actually happened, apart from stories he has heard, not first-hand.
Another historian, Prof. Mustafa Kabha, quotes research by Lebanese historian Bian Nowihad al-Hut in his book “The Palestinians – a People Dispersed.” Al-Hut based her research on research conducted by the Palestine Liberation Organization. She counted three Arab commando units and one commando unit comprised of Jews and Arabs that fought with the Allied forces in France.
Abbasi says that although he is aware of the personal side of the topic, it is not why he chose to research it.
“This is a widespread phenomenon in which Jews and Arabs found themselves on the same side. In our country, people are always looking for reasons to separate and stir up conflict between Jews and Arabs. I believe that history can bring people closer, seek out common chapters, events that connect us. There are those, too.
“There aren’t many, unfortunately. But they exist, and I thought that nothing could be more connecting than this partnership and comrade’s bond. This chapter of history has a mission – to open hearts, and not just seek out fights and enmity. With all due respect to the national narratives, people are more important,” says Abbasi.
“We meet at this historical point. In the first three years of World War II, Jews and Arabs fought, ate, trained, were taken prisoner, and killed together. That gives us a sliver of hope for the future. There are episodes of good neighborly relations, joint business ventures, mixed cities, and as a historian, a Muslim, and an Arab citizen of the state of Israel, I’m happy that I’ve had the privilege of revealing one of these times. Of course, it demands more, in-depth research.”
Indeed, the wealth of research into the time of the British Mandate, the thousands of volunteers from Palestina – Jews and Arabs, serving in mixed units and separate ones – have been almost totally forgotten. In his work, Abbasi quotes from the diaries of journalist and educator Taher al-Fatiani and Jerusalem writer Subhi Gusha, who recorded the sentiments of Arab society and the disputes that raged within it over the issue of volunteering for the British army and fighting alongside Jews.
Prof. Yoav Gelber has noted that after Crete and Greece fell in April 1941, 1,600 soldiers from Palestina were captured, including about 400 Arabs. Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, a leader of the Labor movement at the time, was one. Later, Ben-Aharon would go on to tell the story of how the Jews and Arabs joined forces in the prisoners’ camp. Yosef Almogi, a former cabinet minister, describes in his memoirs the unusual “togetherness” forced between the prisoners.
Abbasi’s research ends on a less positive note. The positive atmosphere, he says, “and the temporary closeness between [both] the British and the Arabs and the Arabs and the Jews came to an end. The difficult times that began immediately after the war have caused this special chapter in the history of the country to be forgotten.”
[In top photo: Arab residents of Jerusalem gather for an enlistment rally outside the Old City | Photo: Library of Congress]