Haidar Abdel-Shafi: More than a thousand citrus trees

Mona Anis , Sunday 14 May 2023

Land or an education: this choice was at the beginning of it all. Then the Zionists moved in on Palestine, and the war was on: a war in which the scales were tipped from the start. On one side, a powerful, organised and well-equipped colonial army. On the other, uneducated peasants, a corrupt king, and a divided leadership. Haidar Abdel-Shafi talks to Mona Anis about guerrilla warfare, the rabbi's daughter and the orders that never came

Haidar Abdel-Shafi
Haidar Abdel-Shafi


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

Issue: 28 May 1998



FORMATIVE YEARS: "I was born in Gaza, just at the end of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine, in 1919. My father, who had graduated from Al-Azhar, was a high-ranking official in the Higher Islamic Council, the authority which administered the affairs of the Muslims in Palestine. Palestine at that time was a society of peasants and landowners who cherished the value of land above everything else. In Gaza, the social prestige of a person was measured by the number of the citrus trees they owned and the size f their plantations.

“My father had no land, and when people asked him why he did not buy a plantation he would answer: I have six children, and I want to give all of them a higher education. That is a more worthwhile investment for the money I have than buying land. He was a eloquent orator in the traditional Arabic way, and he liked playing with words. 

“When there was an attempt on the life of the British High Commissioner in Palestine by the Zionist gangs in 1947, my father sent him a telegram congratulating him on his safety. The message read: "Thank God you escaped this evil, the source of which is none other than a British favour," in reference to the sentence in the Balfour Declaration stating that "His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." My father was a great believer in the value of education, and education was not as universally accessible as it is today.

"In the whole of the southern sector of Palestine, there was not a single school that offered a full secondary education. The secondary school in Gaza offered only the first and second years. There were three primary schools in Bersheeba, Al-Majdal and Khan Younis. The two best students in these three schools could come to Gaza to continue their education at the secondary school there. 

“The two best students from the Gaza secondary school could go to Jerusalem to continue their secondary education at the Arab College in Jerusalem, which was the only school offering a complete secondary education in Palestine at the time. I am speaking, of course, of government schools, not foreign missionary schools, which also existed in Palestine.

"When I completed my second year of secondary school in Gaza, I went to Jerusalem and entered the Arab College there as a boarder for another three years. I received my certificate in 1936. After that I left to Beirut, to study medicine at the American University (AUB).The Arab College in Jerusalem was a very good school. 

“Discipline was extremely rigorous. All our teachers were highly qualified, with university degrees. The majority were Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese, though of course we had British teachers to teach us English. The director of the school was Ahmed Sameh Khalidi, the father of Walid Khalidi, the historian. He was a great man and he continued to serve as director of the school until 1948. During the war, the Jews occupied the school, although it was officially in an area designated as no-man's land. Khalidi senior was pained beyond words by the loss of the school. He left, to Lebanon, and died soon after."

AN OFFICER IN THE ARAB LEGION: "I started my practice as a medical doctor immediately after my graduation from AUB in 1943. I returned to Palestine and worked in a government hospital -- the British mandate government, that is -- in Jaffa. The hospital was called Mustashfa Al-Baladiya (the Municipal Hospital). I worked there for a couple of years, until a friend who worked as a doctor in the Transjordan army came to visit me in Jaffa and told me that they were recruiting doctors for a new division in the army. 

“At that time, the Jordanian army was divided into two sections: the regular troops in the cities and towns and what they called Jaysh Al-Badiah (the desert army). They were establishing a mechanised force within that second section, and they needed well-trained doctors for the officers, most of whom were British. My friend, who was originally from Jerusalem, persuaded me to join, saying that he was having an exciting time. It seemed an opportunity full of adventures and the whole thing had a romantic appeal that tempted me greatly. We were young, then, and such things as military uniform and action had their appeal. So when I signed in and put on my military uniform, I was very excited.

"That was during World War II, and at the time the British were training the division in which I worked in the Arab Legion, along with other divisions, to be part of what was then called the Ninth army. It was supposed to open a second front in the Balkans. So they moved us from Al-Azraq, where we were stationed, to Ashona, on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan. 

“Then they moved us again, to Jericho and from there to Gaza. In Gaza, Glubb Pasha, commander-in-chief of the Arab Legion, came to inspect te preparations and informed us that we would be heading to Port Said, and from there to Greece, where the second front were to be opened. It was beginning to look serious, and I started to have second thoughts about the army. A week later, however, the idea of opening a second front was cancelled. The Russians were advancing in the Balkans, and it was decided that the Allied forces should concentrate on the Western front in France. Thus we were sent back to Al-Azraq in Jordan. I felt I had had enough of the army, so I resigned and went back to Gaza in mid-1945. There I opened a private practice."

RETURNING TO GAZA: "In those days, there could not have been more than ten doctors practicing in the whole southern sector of Palestine. There were three or four doctors in Gaza, and an equal number in an area extending from the Egyptian border at Rafah to Yibna in the north and Bersheeba in the east. But we founded a branch of the Palestine Medical Society in the southern sector and participated in the first Palestine Medical Congress in 1946. 

“There were five branches of the Society all in all, in Jaffa, ablus, Jerusalem, Haifa and Galilee. It was from within the Society that we started to organise our efforts as medical doctors to participate with our people in their legitimate struggle. As the clashes between the Jewish settlers and forces and the Arabs intensified following the UN partition resolution in 1947, we became actively engaged in the military resistance waged by the guerrillas. 

“Those doctors whose age permitted it used to accompany the fighters to provide medical aid in case of casualties. I prsonally remember accompanying a group of guerrilla fighters to the Kfar Darom settlement in Deir Al-Balah. I had my first-aid equipment with me and they arranged for me to stay in a small mud hut near the main road. Among the group of fida'iyin who went to attack Deir Al-Balah were several Egyptian Muslim Brothers. A large number of Muslim Brothers had come from Egypt to participate in the guerrilla warfare against the Zionists, and they were based at Nseirat. They participated with the Palestinians in tht attack, which took place sometime during March of 1948. As a matter of fact, the Muslim Brothers were at the forefront of the attack. 

“They were very brave and took matters seriously. Unfortunately, though, bravery alone is not sufficient in a war like that which was being waged in Palestine. The Jews were organised and most up-to-date in their military tactics. The colony was surrounded by circles and circles of barbed wire, and in between these circles the land was mined. The mines exploded, killing and maiming many of the Muslim Brothers who led the attack. Twelve of them were killed that night. The attack lasted from nightfall till daybreak, making them an easy target for the Jewish snipers, stationed high in observations towers inside the settlement.

"All this was taking place under the nose of the British, who were until then the rulers. They did not interfere, however, at least in Gaza. An elderly doctor I knew was called from Bersheeba to accompany the British soldiers into the settlement and collect the dead. He told me he found there Jews, who spoke Arabic like we did and treated him very rudely. They said to him, "Tell your people, 'Illi bidaqq 'al-bab biyalqa al-jawab' (he who knocks on our door will find the answer ready). Those were very sad days. Particularly so since we had grown up with Arab Jews, who were our friends and playmates. 

"In the 1920s, when I was still a child, my father worked for few years in Hebron. As I mentioned earlier he was a a member of the Higher Islamic Council, an Islamic religious leader. But we used to exchange family visits with the rabbi of Hebron. He had a very pretty daughter, with whom I used to play. I liked her very much. I will never forget how sad I felt when, after our departure from the city, I heard that the rabbi had been killed when the Buraq (the wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque where the Prophet Mohamed's horse is said to have rested) was attacked by the Jews in 1929. But then everything changed over the next decade or two, and the polarisation between Jews and non-Jews deprived us all of the close affinities we had felt towards each other.

"Of course, by the beginning of 1948 the antagonism had reached its climax and we were enemies. From January 1948 onward, refugees from all over the southern sector began to flood into Gaza. We thought that, as doctors, we had to do something. It was then that we established a medical clearing station in Gaza to handle the seriously wounded and to ease the pressure on the one hospital we had. The station remained in operation until the Egyptians arrived to take over the administration of the Gaza Strip. At that point, they started running the station." 

THE QUAKERS: "By the end of 1948, the Quakers came. They were the first to arrive in Gaza on a humanitarian relief mission. They were there when the Israelis violated the UN resolution and occupied Bersheeba. They stayed all through 1949, and until the UNRWA was established in 1951. I worked with them. They were such a wonderful group of people. They were of different nationalities: Americans, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, even Japanese. The head of their medical team was an African-American doctor, a highly competent and dedicated man. 

“The Quakers kept organising reunions until recently. When I was in Washington in 1993, they organised one there and invited me to attend. We were all very old, but it was a very endearing meeting, one at which we shared many fond memories. I am still in contact with one Dutch nurse from that time, and when I visited Holland last year I called on her and we talked a lot about those days.

"To go back to 1948: you cannot imagine how thing were then. In the course of three or four months, between the beginning of the year and the month of May, refugees poured into Gaza. They were twice as numerous as the inhabitants of the strip. The people of Gaza received them with open arms, providing them with shelter in any place they could make available, their homes, mosques, schools... All the doctors were working for free at the time. As people started to realise what was really happening, a general mood of aggravation settled."

PALESTINE LOST: "No one, with the possible exception of a very few, knew then the size of the catastrophe we were facing. Our people had emerged, just a few decades before, from centuries of Ottoman rule. They were simple peasants, on the whole, incapable of fully comprehending the challenge such a modern and organised force as the Zionist movement posed. The traditional leadership of the Palestinian people under British mandate were incapable of raising the consciousness of the simple masses as to what the Zionist threat really meant. Actually, they helped in deluding the people regarding the threat. At the time there was much talk of the 'cowardly Zionists who would not be able to stand up to the Arabs once the battle began'.


"There was a marked difference between the sophisticated Jewish leadership, which knew how to organise and mobilise all its forces, and the Arab leaders, who knew nothing of the sort. The Arabs declared that the question of Palestine was a national issue which concerned all the Arabs; these were fine words, but nobody knew how to implement them, or make them deeds. The Palestinian leadership should have played a role in mobilising the Arab world behind the cause of Palestine, insisting that these words be translated into concrete commitments, but they were as weak and divided as the Arab leaders in general. 


"So there was King Abdullah, appointed General Commander of the Arab armies, and we all know by now of the secret deals Abdullah had made with the Jewish Agency and with the British. The Jews were able to take an extra 22 per cent of Palestinian land that was not allotted to them in the UN partition plan, thanks to King Abdullah's collaboration. Of course, all the Palestinian inhabitants of those lands were expelled. 

If there was no unified leadership or aim, how, then, can we speak of a combined attack by all the Arab armies? The Egyptians were suspicious, quite rightly, about the Jordanians. The Jordanian army double-crossed everybody else, and the Iraqis, who had reached Tulkarem and were only 12km away from the coast, did not know what to do. Mako awamir (we have no orders): these were the Iraqi army's famous words, repeated by generations of Arabs. 

“How could there be orders, when it was the British who were supposed to issue them? Add to this the poor preparation of the Arab regular armies, who knew very little about the force of the enemy, had done no intelligence work before the battle, and were completely taken by surprise when they found the Jewish forces achieving victory in the battlefield, and you realise what a farce the 1948 War was."


Interview by Mona Anis


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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