By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
I don’t know with what was the imagination of my grandfather Sulaiman occupied, when he was returning to Palestine, exhausted from hunger and fatigue, worn out by years of fighting with the Ottoman army in Yemen, during World War I (WWI). He fought bravely for the State that he believed was his State. However, thoughts, perils, hopes and nightmares were crowding in his mind; for the rule of the Muslim State over his country for four consecutive centuries has come to an end, and his country is now under the British mandate. The hopes of some people were high with the establishment of an Arab State under the leadership of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, while others had fears that the British would go back on their word and implement the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which Palestine would be handed over to the Jews. This was his case, the case of tens of thousands who fought with the Ottomans, and the case of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were confounded by the scene, and were perplexed as to where their next steps should be?!!
Last month, France held an international ceremony celebrating the Centenary of the WWI Armistice (11/11/1918). At the same time, our memory goes back to the second half of September 1918, when the British finished occupying the north of Palestine and continued their occupation of Syria the following month.
Hundred years have passed since the Ottoman exited from al-Sham, Iraq and the Arab peninsula, and on this occasion, we have several thoughts regarding Palestine.
First: The people of Palestine (and in general the people of the Arab countries ruled by the Ottomans) who were under the Ottoman rule, as put by the Palestinian historian Aref al-Aref, had “feelings of fidelity toward the State and sultan, and were ready for war and struggle for the sake of Islam and the Muslims’ sultan.” They shared with the Turks all military and civil positions, and enjoyed all the rights enjoyed by the Turks, as mentioned by Amin al-Husseini, Palestine’s leader and mufti. For example, Musa Kazim al-Husseini, who became the leader of Palestine after the end of the Ottoman rule (1920–1934), served as the governor (mutasarrif) of ‘Asir 1892, Najd 1896, and al-Ahsa 1900. He was also the governor of Bitlis in eastern Anatolia, then al-Muntafiq in Iraq, and then Hawran in Syria. As for the two scholars Sheikh As‘ad al-Shuqairi and ‘Abdul Qadir al-Muzzaffar, they consecutively took the position of Mufti of the Fourth Ottoman Army.
Second: This allegiance unambiguously continued until the coup of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) against Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1908. The Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims were shocked when the State leadership took a nationalistic Turkish trend, adopting the Pan-Turkism policy, and a policy that alienated Arabs and other nationals. The Zionist Jews’ infiltration of CUP, the joy and happiness of Zionist Jews in Palestine after the success of the coup, and the increase in their activities aimed at implementing their project in Palestine, increased the Palestinians’ fear. When the new CUP government was formed in 1913, only one Arab, Suleyman al-Bustani Efendi participated in it, although the Arabs, at that time, constituted half of the Ottoman State population.
The CUP had significantly eased measures against the Jewish immigrations to Palestine, and relaxed the restrictions on the Jews on buying land in Palestine. However, in WWI, the Zionist movement position was against the Ottoman State, consequently CUP changed its position towards it.
Thus, the people of Palestine were shocked and apprehensive, when they saw the State in charge of them being dominated by a leadership that does not care about them or “conspires” against them. People were ambivalent about the State, being loyal to it, and at the same time, being angry and anxious about it.
Third: When Turkey formally entered WWI, Arab reform movements and societies halted all their activities and decided to support the Ottoman State in its war, hoping that their reform demands would be met. In Palestine, festivities were held in December 1914, to welcome the Ottoman army coming from al-Sham. Decorations and arches of victory were hung, and the people of Jerusalem went out with their families to welcome them. When the Ottomans scored a victory in the Battle of Gallipoli/ Çanakkale, 30 scholars from al-Sham, eight of them were from Palestine, went to Istanbul on 28/9/1915, to congratulate them on their victory over the allies. Loyalty to the Ottomans and the high aspirations remained strong until 1916.
Fourth: Arab leaders had a growing sense of conviction that those leading the Ottoman State would not comply with their reform promises, while the practices of Jamal Pasha, nicknamed al-Saffah (The Butcher), in al-Sham towards Arab reform leaders, led to feelings of aversion, frustration and hostility. At the same time, the British encouraged Sharif Hussein bin Ali to revolt against the Ottomans, and he contacted other leaders of Arab societies in al-Sham to participate with him in the revolt. Regardless of the details known to many, Britain aimed to weaken the Ottoman religious legitimacy, cancel the impact of the Jihad declaration of the Ottoman Sultan, deepen the rift between the Arabs and Turks, and weaken the Ottomans’ morale and will to fight. Concomitantly, Britain was covertly arranging the Sykes-Picot agreements with the French and the Russians, and negotiating the Balfour Declaration with the Zionists. As for Sharif Hussein bin Ali, he was dreaming of establishing an Arab “Caliphate” in the Arab Mashriq (Asian Arab countries).
Fifth: The scene became very confusing to the ordinary man after Sharif Hussein announced his revolution in June 1916. The revolt used, in addition to Arabism, religious Islamic rationale to justify itself. In one of the leaflets from Sharif Hussein, rained by British aircrafts on Arab troops serving in the Ottoman Army, he says, “Come and join us, we are the ones who are struggling for the sake of religion and the freedom of Arabs, until the Arab Kingdom reverts to the conditions of your ancestors era.”
In such conditions, people suffered an inner conflict of conscience. On one hand, they had hopes of restoring the glory of the “Caliphate” under the leadership of a man from Bani Hashem [a clan in the tribe of Prophet Muhammad PBUH], and in alliance with the British (no wonder, for the Turks had allied with the Germans), after the CUP took over the Ottoman caliphate, and emptied it of its contents and credibility. On the other hand, people wanted to stay with the Turks under the Ottoman flag, hoping for reform, and because they didn’t trust the potentials and capabilities of the revolt, furthermore the British cannot be trusted, and “rumors” spread that the region would be divided according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Palestine would be handed over to the Jews.
Sixth: Despite what was leaked about the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, the British continued with their deception and deceit until the end. For, in addition to their correspondence with Sharif Hussein that implied their support for the establishment of an Arab State under his leadership in the Arab Mashriq (Palestine included within its borders) …, in January 1918 Commander David George Hogarth personally issued assurances from the British Government to Sharif Hussein, the British Declaration to the Seven was issued in June 1918, and in November 1918 the Anglo-French Declaration was published. One would understand from all of these support for Arab independence and self-rule, and that the Jewish immigration to Palestine would not harm the Arab population. They thought that these declarations annul Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, because they were issued after them… More people supported the revolution, and the British continued to occupy Palestine and the rest of al-Sham, while avoiding clashing with huge sectors of people. The attacks of the revolt forces in the Hijaz and eastern Jordan caused great losses to the Ottoman army, weakening its morale, with numerous soldiers deserting the military, and consequently the right wing of the British army was protected. According to the historian George Antonius, due to this revolt, and until March 1918, the Ottomans suffered 4,800 killed, 16 thousand wounded and 8 thousand taken prisoners.
Seventh: Despite all of that, reasonable sectors remained loyal to the Ottomans until the end of the war, where many Arabs and Palestinians stayed in the Ottoman army. The replacement of Jamal Pasha by Mersinli Jamal Pasha (albeit late) had a positive impact, as his personality and competence earned the respect and appreciation of the people. Hence, the Ottomans regained some popularity and trust. British military intelligence reports from Palestine, until June 1918, admit that Sharif’s army recruitment efforts were not very successful, and that “a number of Muslims said that they were not convinced why should they fight to give Palestine to the Jews.” Even prior to the British occupation of the rest of Palestine in September 1918, there was still a show of support for the Ottomans, and this was admitted by the British military intelligence reports from various parts of Palestine. Concerns and distrust towards the British escalated, after they had occupied Jerusalem (9/12/1917), because they opened the door for the Zionist project.
Eighth: Despite the fall of the Ottoman State, and its withdrawal from Palestine (and the rest of al-Sham), some sectors kept believing that the demise of Ottoman influence dealt a blow to the Arabs and Muslims. Frustration increased due to what has become of the Sharif’s revolution, and the British broken promises. For example, after one year of British occupation, the Islamic Christian Society in Nablus issued a memorandum to Prince Faisal I bin Sharif Hussein and the representatives of Allied forces (Britain, France,….), stating that the people have become desperate that the oppressed peoples will be saved (as the Allies have put it). They reminisced about the Ottoman era, wishing its return.
Following the Turkish victory over the Greeks in Izmir in September 1922, Ataturk’s posters were hung over the streets of Jerusalem, euphoria spread throughout Palestine, considering Ataturk “Islam’s savior.” Celebrations were held in Nablus and Gaza, where Turkish flags were raised, prayers of thankfulness (Salat al-Shukr) were held at the mosques, including al-Aqsa Mosque, and donations were collected to help the affected Turks. In December 1922, 45 Palestinian figures sent a telegram to Ataturk, asking for the complete independence of Palestine under the Turkish mandate. However, Ataturk’s declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 had made him lose his popularity, led to the decline of nostalgia towards the days of Ottomans, ruling out the possibility of their return, as Turkey has moved on with its “secularism.”