From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 20 August 1998
August 1948: The fighting between us and our enemies in Palestine has stopped in implementation of the truce. However, the reality is that not a day goes by without the outbreak of an armed clash somewhere along the front. The Egyptian forces had divided Palestine in two across a line extending from immediately south of Jerusalem to the coast north of Asdod. The Zionists were in a panic over the fate of over 30 Zionist settlements in the south of Palestine which had been completely cut off by Egyptian forces.
Jewish forces had tried to break through the Egyptian ring surrounding the settlements, but without success. They were forced to seek other means to send in provisions to the settlements. At times they dropped supplies from planes and, at others, they tried to smuggle through convoys at night. Many of these convoys were ambushed by Egyptian forces. I recall that, one night, a brave but silent young officer, with only a handful of soldiers, attacked a large convoy carrying water and food. As the convoy was passing near Al-Faluja, the courageous young man confiscated its contents. These provisions, particularly the dry biscuits, served to sustain Al-Faluja until the end of their blockade. This young but silent officer was Captain Hassan El-Tuhami.
The eastern sector from the south of Jerusalem to Bethlehem was occupied by the forces of the martyr Ahmed Abdel-Aziz. These forces, referred to at times as "light forces", and at others as "commandos", were made up mostly of volunteers. His sector witnessed continual skirmishes virtually throughout the truce. At one point, the barbed wire barriers put up by the two sides were almost on top of each other. In fact, I saw stretches where the barbed wire of both sides was attached to the same poles. This is why there was perpetual tension in this sector.
By the middle of August, under the supervision of the truce observers, we finished drawing up the demarcation lines for the truce and delineating the sectors along the front. But no sooner had we finished this task than the Jews mounted a series of attacks against the no-man's land. In Jerusalem, they occupied the Red Cross-controlled area and took down the international organisation's flags. They also occupied some buildings near this area. I cannot forget Colonel Ismail Sherin's tireless efforts in drawing up the truce lines in conjunction with the UN observers. He spent days walking dozens of miles with the observers in the Central Sector, which was inaccessible to light vehicles.
The Jewish assault had international repercussions. The subject was brought before the Security Council. Resolutions were passed, but these were no more effective than the paper they were written on. The Jews protested that the Egyptian forces, volunteers in particular, had occupied Jabal Al-Mukabbir, and refused to withdraw from the area they occupied unless the Egyptians withdrew from that strategically vital position. Their aim, of course, was to occupy Jabal Al-Mukabbir without having to give anything in exchange.
From that position, they would threaten the only line of communication between Egyptian forces, southern Jerusalem and the Jordanian forces in old Jerusalem. In the midst of the commotion, General Riley contacted the Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli governments, which agreed to convene a conference, chaired by him and attended by representatives from the military forces of these governments. Riley set the day of the meeting -- the day on which Abdel-Aziz was killed, and the place -- the no-man's land between the Jordanian and Jewish lines in Jerusalem. The meeting was to be held in the former British consulate building.
These instructions reached the Egyptian forces, which were in the field in Al-Majdal. The forces were under the general command of General El-Mawawi, whom I served as a chief of staff. The Commander-in-Chief summoned me, gave me the relevant papers for the conference and told me to represent him. His instructions to me were clear. Egyptian forces would not give up one inch of the land they had won through the sacrifice of many lives. The Commander-in-Chief also implied that Colonel Ahmed Abdel-Aziz would be attending the conference in his capacity as commander of the sector under dispute.
I got to work right away. I transmitted by code the Commander-in-Chief's instructions to Ahmed Abdel-Aziz. The night before the meeting, I took a jeep from Al-Majdal. Riding with me was Captain Mohamed El-Wardani, who had arrived in the field only a few hours before, and had expressed his desire to accompany me in order to get an idea of the front. I followed a roundabout route that took all night. I had wanted to pass by Bir Al-Sab', where I had some work to do, first. I arrived in Bethlehem in the morning, about half an hour late. I discovered that Ahmed Abdel-Aziz had already left for the conference in the company of Major Hassan Fahmi Abdel-Meguid. In Jerusalem, Abdel-Aziz met up with the delegation and General Riley, and together they crossed the truce lines on foot under UN flags. The Jewish delegation crossed at the same time. Both sides had agreed to a cease-fire while the delegations made their way to the meeting place.
When I learned of these arrangements, I was bewildered. How was I going to get to the meeting? I went from Bethlehem to old Jerusalem, where I sought out the Jordanian command. I asked them where the delegations had crossed, and they sent an armoured car along with me to show me the place.
My problems were only just beginning, however. How were El-Wardani and I supposed to cross the street separating the Jewish and Jordanian forces in order to get to the building where the conference was being held? Even if I could ascertain that I would not be hit by a Jordanian bullet, how could I guarantee that the Zionists would not shoot me? The distance we had to cross was no more than 50 yards. I contemplated running, knowing that "speed is the best armour against gunfire." However, I looked up at the many nooks and crannies in the buildings around us and realised that we did not stand a chance if we took the risk. At such close quarters, even a brick would do us in. Then too, our running would arouse suspicion.
Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration. I went over to General Riley's car, took off the UN flag and waved it over our heads as we very slowly and uncomfortably crossed the street. It took no more than half a minute to cover the distance, but it seemed like an entire lifetime.
The conference building was filled with journalists of all nationalities. In the assembly room, General Riley was sitting in the seat assigned to the chairman. Commander Abdallah Al-Tel was there, at the head of the Jordanian delegation. The Israeli delegation was headed by the deceitful Colonel Dayan. Originally Polish, Dayan had fought in World War II on the Russian front, where he lost an eye. He was wearing a black patch. Ahmed Abdel-Aziz was speaking furiously.
I took Major Abdel-Meguid aside and asked him what had happened. I learned that the Egyptian side was acting contrary to the instructions of the Commander-in-Chief with regard to some details in the talks, and that Abdel-Aziz had not yet been apprised of these details. I went up to Colonel Abdel-Aziz and whispered to him the Commander-in-Chief's instructions. Discussions in the room involved the creation of a neutral zone that might include Jabal Al-Mukabbir. This would mean that the volunteer forces under the courageous Senegalese commander Abdallah Al-Ifriqi would have to withdraw from that area. Al-Ifriqi was standing a short distance away, shouting that he would refuse to carry out any order to leave his position, even if it came from the Egyptian command.
As for Abdel-Aziz, he thought that this concession would be countered by a withdrawal of Jewish troops from an important site under their control. He may have been right. But my job was to implement El-Mawawi's instructions, in which I had faith. When I explained to Abdel-Aziz the point of view of the Commander-in-Chief, he too agreed and asked me to explain the instructions to those attending.
The meeting ended at about 3.00 in the afternoon. It had produced several resolutions. Jewish forces were to withdraw from the areas they had occupied within 24 hours. There would be an immediate cease-fire along the entire front. A third resolution called upon the concerned governments to consider the creation of a neutral zone and, as I recall, to give their responses within a week.
We returned to Bethlehem about half an hour before sunset. There we met Kamaleddin Hussein, who was known as Abu Kamal. We had not had a bite to eat all day. El-Wardani, the driver and I went to get the jeep. I asked for permission to leave. I wanted to get to the general command in Al-Majdal that night.
I tried to think of a way to force the Jews to respect the resolutions. Only force would be effective. I wanted to explain this to the Commander-in-Chief. But even if I was able to convince him, he would have to convince Cairo, and perhaps even the Palace, where the most minor official had more authority in running the campaign in Palestine than the Commander-in-Chief himself. Even if he convinced everyone, we would still need time to transport the necessary arms, particularly artillery, in order to back up any operation in that sector. But we only had 48 hours, of which three hours were taken up by the craggy road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Abdel-Aziz had asked me several times to spend the night in their camp. I explained to him why I felt I had to get back to command quickly. He insisted on accompanying me. That is when fate played one of its tricks. Abdel-Aziz's men, particularly Kamaleddin Hussein, were against his traveling that night. They feared the Zionists would mount a major assault. Still, he insisted on accompanying me. There was really no need for him to come with me. But I could sense what was on his mind. The relations between him and the Commander-in-Chief were a bit strained.
I took Abdel-Meguid aside and told him that I would only tell the Commander-in-Chief the final results of the conference. I had no intention of getting into matters that would only complicate relations between El-Mawawi and Abdel-Aziz.
Perhaps it was fate that caused Abdel-Aziz to sit next to me. I was driving, because I preferred to drive. El-Wardani had moved into the back seat with the driver. We took off into the night. As the darkness closed in around us, we felt we were entering an unfamiliar world. We were driving through an area fraught with tension because of the thirty colonies cordoned off by Egyptian forces. We had 150 miles to go. I knew that night's password -- "Gaza".
We managed to pass the danger zone between Hebron and Beit Jebrein. Soon we were in a sector controlled by Palestinian irregulars. We passed through one check point after another. As soon as they found out who we were, they let us pass, wishing us a safe journey.
All went smoothly until we approached a village called Iraq Al-Manshiya, located about two kilometres east of Al-Faluja. From about 600 yards off, I heard the sound of a gun fire and I saw the flash of the gun from the trenches around the village. At the same time I heard Ahmed Abdel-Aziz groan. Throughout the trip, Abdel-Aziz had been speaking to me in low tones, so that our comrades in the back seat could not overhear. I slammed on the brakes, bringing the jeep to a stop after a metre or two. I turned onto the shoulder of the road. We jumped out of the car and threw ourselves down on the ground. Abdel-Aziz was writhing in pain.
After a few moments, we heard the sound of small artillery fire from the village defense line. Fortunately, we were a good distance away. We stayed on the ground, protected by the irregularities of the landscape. The driver was lying next to the jeep, flashing the headlights on and off in order to signal the garrison that ours was not an enemy vehicle. At the same time, I tried to find out how badly Abdel-Aziz was injured. He was covered in blood. I told the driver to turn the jeep around in the direction of Beit Jebrein, which was about 20 kilometres away, even though I knew the village did not have a doctor.
The garrison began to fire flare-bombs, preparing to launch mortar bombs and, perhaps, artillery fire. The driver hesitated, but began to move when I repeated my harsh command. He jumped into the car. I heard the sound of the motor turning; then it stopped. He jumped out of the jeep and said that it was stalled. I felt that my head was about to explode. If all we had to do was save our lives, we could have walked to Beit Jebrein easily. But we could not leave behind that courageous commander, as he lay writhing in agony, exposed to such imminent danger. How could we carry him that distance? In addition, he was already beginning to lose consciousness.
The shooting had to stop. Then we would be able to take him to a place where he could be treated. We had to save his life, if his life was destined to be saved.
Our voices were not loud enough to be heard at the garrison. One of us would have to get close enough in order to shout out the password. I was the only one who could do that. El-Wardani had seen enough for his first day in the field. I crawled forward about 400 metres on my hands and knees. Then I shouted out the password, identified myself and shouted out the names of the soldiers' commanders. I heard a voice ordering me to stand up and raise my hands. I obeyed. The voice ordered me to approach. I did as ordered. It took some effort to put one foot in front of the other. At every moment, I expected a gun shot to end this ill-fated day. After the soldiers had convinced themselves of my identity, I took them back to where the wounded commander was lying. We put him in the jeep and pushed it all the way to the village. There we transferred him to another jeep and drove to Al-Faluja. The trip took a quarter of an hour. A doctor was waiting for us. Death had intervened before he could act, however.
The doctor told us that Abdel-Aziz would have died anyway, even if he had made it to the operating table. Later I learned that the reason the garrison had been so hasty in opening fire was that, only minutes before we arrived, they had had an encounter with a Jewish convoy seeking to break through the lines in order to reach the besieged settlements. The Egyptian forces had just repelled the convoy when our jeep arrived. As they had no idea we would be passing this way, they thought our jeep was an enemy vehicle and opened fire.
I called up the Commander-in-Chief from the office of the late El-Sayed Taha and told him what happened. He had told me not to complete the trip until morning. Needless to say, we did not sleep a wink that night.
Early the next morning, I reported to General Command. My nerves were frayed from having spent two days without sleep and having traveled more than 800 kilometres. El-Mawawi greeted me in a fury. "Why did he leave with you?" he shouted. "Why didn't you wait?" The only answer I could offer was: "Fate".
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.