By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
As December 9th marks the anniversary of the first Intifadah (1987), it marks also the anniversary of the British occupation of Jerusalem in 1917. On that day, the British ended seven centuries of continuous Islamic rule of Jerusalem after its liberation from the Crusaders. On 31/10/1914, the Ottoman State declared war on Britain and four years later, they signed an armistice agreement that came into force on 31/10/1918. However, it came after Britain had completed its occupation of Palestine, the rest of al-Sham and Iraq, while the withdrawal of the Ottomans from the rest of Yemen and Hijaz was being arranged.
In this article, we continue with thoughts regarding the fall of Jerusalem, as we started in a previous article with ones concerning the end of the Ottoman rule in Palestine.
First: Despite the weakness and exhaustion of the Ottoman State, the British occupation of Palestine was not as easy as some believe. For in the first two years of war, the British lived under difficult conditions at the Palestine front, where the Ottomans were the side with the initiative and power. They carried out two major attacks on British troops in Egypt, and kept the control of parts of Sinai during the 1915–1916 period. The British troops couldn’t regain control of Sinai except by the end of 1916, when they controlled al-Arish on 21/12/1916 and the Egyptian Rafah on 8–9/1/1917.
Second: The British started their attempt to occupy Palestine in the Spring of 1917, when they had their backs covered at the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, a supporting Arab belt formed from the Red Sea to the Arab Gulf, Baghdad fell to them on 11/3/1917, and al-Sham’s support for the revolt of Sharif Hussein strengthened, which practically meant support of the British, in addition to the trouble caused by the revolt against the Ottomans.
As for the first British assault on Palestine, known as the First Battle of Gaza, on 25–27/3/1917, it suffered a drastic defeat, despite the fact that the British forces were five-fold the Ottoman’s and were better trained and equipped. According to General Sir Archibald Murray, the British lost 4,450 killed and wounded. Also, the second British assault in the Second Battle of Gaza suffered another drastic defeat, where six thousand British soldiers were either killed, injured or imprisoned, while the Ottomans suffered 1,670 killed, injured or missing. After these two failures, the British War Office replaced on 28/6/1917 Murray with General Edmund Allenby as commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary force,.
Third: On 27/10/1917, the British launched their invasion, which continued for six weeks and ended with the occupation of southern Palestine reaching the Jerusalem-Jaffa line. Allenby had re-prepared the British army for the attack by about one hundred thousand soldiers (excluding reinforcements and remounts) facing 20 thousand Ottoman soldiers. The former was fully provided with clothes, food, shelter and health care, whereas the latter faced great difficulties in leadership, armament, capabilities and supply. The Ottoman soldier was, as described in the memoirs of Khalil Sakakini on 21/11/1917, “hungry, with ragged clothes and ripped shoes, nothing protects him from rain and hail, standing behind his cannon muttering about the cold, famished, finding nothing but dried crumbs of bread”!!
The British occupied Beersheba on 31/10/1917, and Gaza a week later. Lod and Ramleh were occupied on November 15th, and Jaffa on the next day. The Arab attacks contributed in cutting off the Ottoman troops in Ma‘an, Tabuk and Hijaz, where 23 thousand soldiers were cut off.
Fourth: On December 8th, Ottoman troops suffered dire conditions in Jerusalem, and Ali Fuat Cebesoy, the commander of the XX Corps, knew that defending the city is impossible, so he decided to evacuate the holy city to save it from annihilation. In the afternoon, Jerusalem’s Mayor Hussein al-Husseini delivered the city’s surrender note to the British commander of the 10th Battalion, and the British army entered the city from three sides. As for Allenby’s formal entry into Jerusalem, it occurred on 11/12/1917, along with the French and Italian commanders of the Allied detachments, and there wasn’t any Arab Revolt representation. In his memoirs, Emile al-Ghouri mentioned that at the end of Allenby’s speech to the city’s leaders and dignitaries he said, “only now have the crusades ended”.. provoking resentment among the audience and prompting the Mufti of Jerusalem, Kamel al-Husseini, to leave the ceremony in protest, and was followed with others.
The losses of the British forces in the battles to occupy Palestine including Jerusalem (31/10–11/12/1917), and despite their overwhelming military superiority, prove that they faced fierce resistance. For the British (according to their documents) have suffered 19 thousand casualties, and they estimated the Ottoman losses at 15 thousand killed and 12 thousand prisoners.
Fifth: The British waited more than nine months to occupy the rest of Palestine. They tried to attack East Jordan and the north of Palestine on 22/3–3/4/1918, but failed. However, on 19/9/1918, when they launched their main attack, their army—led by Allenby—numbered 468 thousand, among which 100 thousand were combatants. Notably, the Indians in this “British” army outnumbered the British (51,400 Indian vs 48,400 British), and in the reinforcements and remounts there were 112 thousand Indians and 227 thousand British. In addition, 129 thousand Egyptians were in the Labour Corps, of whom none were combatants. Here, it is noted that the British colonialism took advantage of its colonies in India and Egypt and used the colonized as “fuel” for its wars and serving its interests.
As for the Ottoman army, it numbered 104 thousand, among which 29 thousand were combatants. The Seventh Army commanded by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) in Nablus and the Eighth Army commanded by Cevat Pasha in Tulkarm were in charge of protecting the north of Palestine, while the Fourth Army commander was Jamal Pasha in Amman.
It took the British around one week to finish occupying the rest of Palestine, and they occupied the rest of al-Sham during October 1918. The Secretary of State of War Sir Laming Worthington-Evans admitted later (in the House of Commons session, on 19/6/1922) that “the numbers killed, including [those who] died of wounds or disease, were 16,366 in Egypt and Palestine..[and] the number wounded were 38,090.” It is noteworthy that these numbers exceed the losses the Israelis admitted having over the past seventy years, from the 1948 war and till now.
Sixth: Undoubtedly, and as we pointed out earlier, the impact of the Arab Revolt headed by Sharif Hussein was huge. It broke the morale of the Ottoman army, and military desertion was in high numbers. People increasingly believed that as war ended, the promised Arab state would be established, and huge sections considered the British allies rather than enemies, which facilitated to the British the implementation of their plans. On 5/10/1917 (three weeks before the attack), Allenby sent a letter to the Commander-in-Chief indicating that his calculations concerning the occupation of southern Palestine are based on that the Arabs’ conditions will remain satisfactory and that the men of Sharif Hussein will cover his wing and communication in the East. He confirmed that the continuation of their support depends on their continued belief that the British will honor their commitments. This infers that the British needed to continue their “deception” of their Arab allies against the Ottomans.
Despite all of that, a reasonable number of Palestinians (and the rest of the countries under Ottoman rule) remained loyal to the Ottomans, for they didn’t trust the British, and may be they doubted the usefulness of the Revolt of Sharif Hussein. According to the renowned historian Ihsan al-Nimr, who lived during that period, when Ottoman army deserters learned of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, many of them re-enlisted in it. He also mentioned that there was no trace of the Arab Revolt in Nablus. In addition, British reports indicated that even after the British occupation of southern Palestine and before the occupation of its northern part, several areas and tribes remained loyal to the Ottomans.
Seventh: The Palestinian Consensus didn’t budge in their refusal of the Zionist project, and the anti-British sentiments rapidly intensified when their deceit was revealed, when they did not honor their commitments and when they practically adopted the Zionist project. Soon afterwards, during the first few months of the continuation of the British occupation of Palestine, secret paramilitary societies began to form, so that in case of a revolution they would militarily interfere. Thus, in 1919, a fedayeen (freedom fighters) society was founded, and it was headquartered in Jaffa with branches in Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Tulkarm, Ramleh and Gaza. On 4/11/1919, a British Marine Corps intelligence report stated that the pro-Turkish sentiments were rising in Muslim societies, with low and middle classes supporting the Turks. Papers advocating Islamic thought were being distributed, while enmity towards Zionism was increasing in all segments of society, and the movement has taken a very hostile stance towards the British.
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Matters didn’t take long before the Palestinian National Movement regained the initiation capability, with Arab and Islamic support. It unified its ranks in demanding the end of British occupation and abolishing the Zionist project. Soon after, in April 1920, the first uprising of the Palestinian people erupted.