Bonfire of the vanities

Amira Howeidy , Sunday 14 May 2023

Despite immense sacrifices, and extraordinary cases of heroism, all the efforts of Palestinians and the Arab armies were in vain. But why? Kamal Al-Sherif, speaking to Amira Howeidy, recounts his experiences in 1948, his feelings on the ground, as an active participant in the struggle, and in retrospect, as a supporter of ongoing Palestinian resistance

Kamal Al-Sherif
Kamal Al-Sherif


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 4 June 1998


Kamel Al-Sherif is secretary-general of the International Council for Islamic Call and Aid. He has held several important posts in the Jordanian government, serving as both a cabinet minister and as Jordan's' ambassador to several countries. He was one of the leaders of the Egyptian volunteers in the 1948 War, fighting with Iraqi and Syrian volunteers in Jaffa, the Tolkaram-Nablus-Jenen Triangle and Jerusalem and later held a leading post with the Egyptian and Palestnian volunteers in the Negev. During that period, Al-Sherif was in direct contact with key players in events, including Abdel-Rahman Azzam, the first secretary-general of the Arab League, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, the Palestinian mufti and head of the Arab Higher Committee, and veteran military commanders such as Maj.Gen. Al-Mawawai, Maj.Gen. Fouad Sadeq, Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini, Hassan Salama, Abdallah Al-Tal, Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, and many others. Al-Sherif's dramatic experience in the war was published in 1949 in The Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestine War.


As a fighter in the 1948 War, how do you see the situation 50 years later?

Right from the start the 1948 War was an unequal battle. The Jews had worked and planned for years, perhaps even centuries, to place themselves on the map of the world and to secure positions of power, financially, politically and in the media, so they might influence the policies of the super powers. At the same time the Arabs were under British occupation, an occupation that deprived them from everything.

Within the Palestinian arena the situation was as follows: the Jews, who had planned well in advance for war, were exceptionally well prepared. Settlers had been brought from all over the world, secured settlements had been constructed in strategic areas, forces such as the [Zionist militias] Haganah and Palmach had been trained and organised. And the Jewish gangs had no hesitation in committing the most heinous crimes.

Furthermore the British mandate assisted them in achieving their aims as the British relied heavily on the Balfour Declaration to facilitate the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

The Palestinian leadership comprised the mufti, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, and other exiled leaders of the Arab Higher Committee. On the ground the Palestinian leadership was dispersed, often in conflict, and lacked any coherent military direction. Training was unprofessional, arms were in short supply and when they were available, were hopelessly expensive. Military operations tended to assume the character of a tribal conflict rather than modern, technological warfare.

This is not to denigrate the courage of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab armies and volunteers who helped them. They made immense sacrifices and there were many cases of extraordinary heroism. But all these efforts, all these sacrifices, all the bloodshed was in vain. Everything was negated due to the lack of preparation and planning. The presence of the Arab armies also gave rise to a number of specific problems, since they arrived in Palestine as vehicles for their political leaders' ambitions, leaders who had placed their bets on maintaining military security in return for temporary regional gains.

Why did you call for guerrilla warfare after the war was over? And if that had happened, would the situation have been different?

I called for guerrilla tactics when the war was already in progress, a call that implied arming and training young people under a single, unified plan. Their remit would be to operate behind enemy lines, destroying roads and bridges and hampering the movement of vehicles. My colleagues and I actively worked on such projects in Jaffa, in the Tolkaram-Nablus-Jenein triangle and in the Negev. Such activities, however, could not replace the role of regular armies that occupy and defend the land and support the building of national institutions. Within such a context one should perhaps point out that in certain situations, as was the case with the communists in China and Vietnam, guerrilla units developed over a period into fully fledged armies.

I underlined the necessity of training groups to undertake guerrilla actions during the war, alongside the Arab armies. But I also called for the pursuit of guerrilla tactics against Israel after the war was over and continued with this policy in the Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem with the aim of keeping the issue alive so that the enemy would not enjoy the fruits of security or peace. I also waited for the resistance to transform itself into an army, or else for the armies to upgrade themselves into forces capable of successfully engaging in battles. It was our efforts in this respect that later developed and affected the course of the Palestinian resistance.

Where did the Arabs go wrong in 1948? To what degree could the Arab armies have performed better, given that Palestine was under British mandate?

At the time, there was a trend that supported a political solution that would avert the necessity of going to war. King Abdullah of Jordan, Nori Al-Said in Iraq and Ismail Sidki in Egypt were the main propagators of this view, a view based on the notion that the Arabs could not defeat the Jews militarily if only because of logistic inequalities. Such a view was reinforced by the support of the super powers for the Jews.

Their suggested alternative was to accept pre-war British projects in return for stopping Jewish immigration and establishing a unified state with a Jewish minority. When the UN resolved on partition, they agreed. Yet such a position was out of step with Arab public opinion which believed that the Jews had no legitimate claim to an inch of Palestine, and that any part they occupied would have been wrested from its rightful, Arab inhabitants.

Such opinions could hardly be argued against since they remain beyond dispute. To say, now, then, that we should have accepted the logic of those who were antagonistic to the war is to over-simplify the situation.

In retrospect, too, it is clear that the Jews were prepared to violate any agreement and would not have hesitated to expand the Jewish area. Any agreement, after all, needs at least the threat of force if it is to be implemented, and saved from violation. The Arabs lacked the force necessary to ensure that Israel hold to any agreement -- something which, incidentally, they still do. I can only say that from my experience fate and history made combat between us and the Jews inevitable.

Was there any real coordination between the different Arab armies?

There was no co-ordination between the Arab armies. In fact, sometimes they clashed with each other, as was the case with the Egyptian and Jordanian armies in Hebron and Bethlehem. There was a "unified" Arab leadership, but this was in reality a false image of a leadership that had absolutely no control on the course of the war itself.

I think that one of the reasons there was so much chaos is that the Arabs underestimated the power of the enemy, believing that it would surrender quickly, making it possible for the Arabs to expand their influence in Palestine. And on the ground we suffered greatly because of these conflicts. For example, the Egyptian army, in a very theatrical move, permitted the proceeding of some light troops lead by Egyptian officers to Birshiba, Hebron and Bethlehem, without dealing with a considerable number of Jewish settlements on the way, something which they paid for dearly later. They were interested in extending the battlefield lines and making their presence felt in as many places as they could without securing themselves, which was a major mistake. And they were far from being the only ones to make such mistakes.

How was the British mandate or UN support of the Jews implemented on ground?

The British mandate facilitated the establishment of a national home for the Jews. In this respect, Herbert Samuel, a staunch Zionist, was appointed British high commissioner to Palestine, while Norman Bentwich, another Zionist, became the chairman of the governmental authority in charge of property, and was thus able to issue laws that allow immigration and give the Jewish Agency large areas of land to build settlements and for agricultural expansion.

Operationally, the Jewish legion was well trained. It had fought with the allies in the Second World War and arrived in Palestine fully equipped. And yet more weapons were shipped to the Jews through ports controlled by the British forces. In contrast, should an Arab be found in possession of even an old rifle he could be subjected to imprisonment or a large fine.

Britain decided to leave Palestine and end the mandate only after it was sure the Jews were powerful enough to defend what they had built up under the noses of the British. Of course Britain did not want to give all of Palestine to the Jews. They wanted to give the Arabs something. But because the Arabs believed that they were the legal owners of the land and refused to give anything to the Jews, the Arabs, in the eyes of the British, were stubborn. It is this that lies at the root of the crisis that pushed some Arab leaders to negotiate with the British on what should be given to the Arabs.

The UN officials' concern was to supervise the partition and prevent any attempt to change its borders by force. This, in itself, represented a victory for the Jews since it preserved as the status quo something that was in essence unfair. Moreover, many UN soldiers were Jews of various European nationalities, and they got on much better with the Jews than with the Arabs. This does not negate the fact that the stand adopted by the UN tilted towards the Arabs later on. Yet this tilting occurred after the establishment of the Jewish state. Some Israeli politicians, I recall, said that they needed the UN in the establishment stage, but now the situation has changed.


To what degree were Britain and the US responsible for arms supplies to Zionist gangs during the war?

The Israelis had various sources of supply. Besides the US and Britain, there was France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. And in addition to these countries, there were Zionist agencies specialised in purchasing weapons and shipping them to Palestine. We shouldn't forget too that the Jews owned light arms and artillery manufacturing factories in the larger settlements which the British knew about but chose to turn a blind eye to. Mortar guns, mines and various ammunition were manufactured in the settlements together with armour for vehicles.


These might seem primitive arms now but 50 years ago they made a decisive difference, particularly given that the Arabs had no such weapons. And at the beginning of the conflict the Jews did not reveal everything they possessed. They did this only when it was necessary. Their advanced weapons appeared all at once, and only after the Arab armies had arrived in Palestine. Later on, we saw how air and naval lifts continued to support Israel in all its wars. Why the West supports Israel to this extent needs a much lengthier analysis than is possible here, one that would include the interface between religions, a historical hostility towards the Arabs and Islam, the guilt complex left by Jews in the Christian conscience and the pressure exercised by the Zionist lobby on Western politics.


How would you describe the general mood concerning the Palestinian question in the Arab world in 1948? Has this changed during the past 50 years?

Public opinion in Egypt, Syria, Iraq -- indeed in all the Arab countries -- was spurred by the idea of war and this greatly mitigated against any political solution. However, it did not change the fact that some Arab countries were still under the British mandate while others were under foreign occupation or ruled by weak regimes. The experience of Arab armies, if it existed at all, was limited to training and very primitive manoeuvres. Because there was no confidence between the governments and the people, the former continued to place obstacles before the volunteers, fearing that they might come, eventually, to constitute an internal threat.

Yet thinking of the state of enthusiasm that then existed, it appears in retrospective extraordinarily positive compared to the situation today. Interest in Palestine weakens daily, as people turn their backs on a history of recurrent defeats, or else are seduced by their governments' attempts to force them to accept feckless solutions. This situation holds dangers for the future, since I believe the aims of Zionism have remained unchanged.

The Zionist strategy is to move stage by stage, adopting whatever tools and methods suit the particular phase we are in. But the aim is constant -- to establish a greater Israel exercising control over the entire Arab region.

Although I believe that we should play the political game properly, I still think it necessary to prepare as if for a war that will take place in the near future. And one of the most important aspects of such preparation is for the Arab people to continue to carry out the duties and sacrifices this entails. Zionism must be viewed always as an alien force that usurped an Arab land and ousted an Arab people from their homes. We must remember that this is an unfair reality, one that has to be reversed no matter how long it takes.

What about the role of the Palestinians, both then and now?

Palestinians were living under harsh conditions, imposed on them by a mandate intended to establish the Jewish state. Despite the fact that the Balfour Declaration said that the establishment of a national home for the Jews should not harm the interests of the non-Jewish people, the Zionist project contrived to ignore the existence of the Palestinian people, as exemplified in Weizman's dictum that "Palestine is a land without people, for a people without land." Golda Meier similarly denied the existence of Palestinians. "This word, Palestinian, means nothing more than a passport, and by this definition, I am a Palestinian of course."

Continuing Palestinian resistance and sacrifice changed this concept gradually. But the Zionist scheme did not attempt to satisfy the Palestinian people or give them rights. On the contrary, it continued to attempt to destroy them, either by winning the acceptance of leaders for the Jewish project, by purchasing land, by liquidating "obstacles"... to cut the story short, to deal with the problem as cowboys dealt with the Indians. This approach is exemplified in Ben-Gurion's posthumously published Me, the Palestinians and the Arabs.

Palestinian resistance, though, continued on several fronts. They resisted Israeli settlement and rejected the process of selling land to the Jews. The amount of Palestinian land purchased by the Jews before 1948 did not exceed 3 per cent, most of which was sold by Arab investors from neighbouring countries, and not Palestinians. The rest of the land was seized by armed force.

One of the most successful strategies exercised by the Jews against the Palestinian people was to plant the suspicion that they were actually working as spies, in cahoots with their oppressors. So successful was this tactic that the Arab armies effectively excluded the Palestinians from the war. In so doing, the armed struggle lost an important pillar of potential support, alienating the only Arabs who were actually familiar with the lay of the land. This lead to major strategic mistakes and the loss of huge areas of land without fighting.

After the war, the Arab countries tried to rectify that mistake but committed yet others. They handed the Palestinian issue back to the Palestinians, but only after Palestine had been completely lost and its people made refugees.

It is my belief that the aim of some Arab leaders is to evade any responsibility for the consequences of the defeat and instead place it on the shoulders of the Palestinians. Indeed, one can argue that Arab countries played a role in pressuring the Palestinians to accept defeatist solutions. It is important to remember, in this context, that the Palestinians assumed responsibility for their cause only after that cause had been destroyed. What was supposed to happen in 1948 happened in the 70s and 80s and now, as a consequence, any Arab leader can say "we accept what the Palestinians accept," or can blame the Palestinian leadership and criticise it whenever this seems necessary to placate public opinion.

I think this is a wrong, indeed a dangerous, situation. The case must revert to its original terms, terms which state that Palestine belongs to its Arab people, Muslim and Christian, and that they have the right to a state on its land. The responsibility for liberating it from the Zionist occupation falls on the shoulders of the Arabs and Muslims.

Israel represents a major threat to the region, and Palestine is but the first stage in an ongoing scheme. Put out the fire in the neighbour's house before it grows and reaches you. And besides all this, there are religious, historical and sacred rights in Palestine which belong to the Arab Islamic nation, rights that it is forbidden to lose.


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.

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