A Book Review
by Norman Berdichevsky (Feb. 2009)
ARMY OF SHADOWS
Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948
by Hillel Cohen
(translated into English by Haim Watzman University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008)
‘Army of Shadows’ is a remarkable book that adds new and significant insight to what is, without a doubt, the most exhausted topic in the modern political lexicon of nationalist disputes. Drawing on original sources in both Arabic documents of the “Arab Executive Committee” (the leading political body of the Palestinian-Arab Nationalist movement), Supreme Muslim Council and the Arab press as well as numerous memoirs, and Hebrew (Central Zionist Archives, Haganah Archives, Hebrew press and personal memoirs), Hillel Cohen traces the heretofore largely unreported history of Palestinian/Arab collaboration with the Zionist movement during the period of the British Mandate. The collaboration took the form of facilitating the sale of land to Jewish settlers, the provision of vital security intelligence, political propaganda and even military assistance.
It is no exaggeration, in the light of these many revelations, to assert that without the invaluable cooperation with dissident Arab elements opposed to the mainstream Arab Executive Committee, the Zionist movement would not have been able to achieve the goal of a Jewish state. Such a claim undoubtedly both surprises and shocks those who take an interest in the Middle East and claim to be familiar with the conflict, a struggle that has generated an ocean of ink but left untouched the subject of Cohen’s research. What is even more amazing is that Palestinian Arab cooperation came almost entirely from conservative and traditional rural Muslim circles.
Cohen makes clear why both the official Palestinian nationalist and Zionist sides have kept this information confidential and have been reluctant to see it exposed. History is always written by the victors. In this particular case, the official Arab side led by the Grand Mufti, Haj-Amin al Husseini, presented their case to world opinion as an entirely unified opposition by their community to Zionism, Jewish immigration, and the British Mandate authorities. Likewise, the Jewish Zionist narrative has preferred to exclude most references to that part of the Arab community willing to cooperate in the spirit of compromise. The Hebrew slogan “Eyn Breyrah” (there is no alternative), was used effectively to rally support for the Zionist goal of a Jewish state as a life or death issue, portraying the Arab side as a united front of total rejection to any compromise.
This book is a “MUST READ” not only for the general public but most of all for the thousands of reporters, commentators and "pundits" teeming over Israel, the disputed territories and the entire Middle East with absolutely no knowledge of the original languages, documents, first hand accounts and archives that tell the full story of the conflict. The book is meticulously footnoted to original sources, the authenticity of which are not in doubt. Often, the purveyors of popular images only promote and enhance stereotyped and endlessly repeated hackneyed banalities that dominate the media. Practically every page of this book contains information that will shock, confuse and challenge their basic assumptions.
Those who are familiar with other historical conflicts should know better than to accept versions of the past from the vantage point of hindsight. All Americans have heard of Benedict Arnold, but most prefer to avoid any in-depth analysis of the extent to which American opinion on the eve of the Revolution was divided. Most historians today agree that roughly one third of the American population favored independence, another third was steadfastly loyal to the crown and in between were those hoping to maintain neutrality and avoid any decision until the outcome was determined.
Cohen deals with this relative view of history in a chapter entitled “Who is a Traitor?”. The change in core identity from religion to the European idea of a nation, posed anomalies, contradictions and conflicts that were deepened in Palestinian Arab society by the growing confrontation with the dynamic Zionist movement. A minority of mostly well-to-do rural and traditional Muslims were challenged by new choices that could not be papered over by the Arab Higher Committee that delegitimized any opposition to their leadership. For this minority, the Jews appeared less threatening than local Christian Arabs who, in the past, had relied on the European Christian powers and their churches to help secure material benefits and advantages. The idea of a “Palestinian Nation” as expressed by the Palestinian Nationalist Movement under the Mufti uniting Christians and Muslims appeared strange and unnatural to many Arabs who were pressured to mouth the platitudes expressed by their leaders but retained their own parochial loyalties and interests.
Another important element of cooperation between Palestinian Arabs in urban areas, especially Haifa was the Histadrut – The Jewish Federation of Labor that won the sympathy of Arab workers in the affiliate organization, The Palestine Labor League. Arab workers benefited from the higher wages that prevailed in the labor market due to continued Jewish immigration. The Histadrut maintained close relations with Arab workers through its newspaper in Arabic, Haqiqat al-Amr.
During the Mandate, the clear preponderance of hooligan and criminal elements operating as “nationalists” ready to commit mayhem utilized by the Mufti, created enormous resentment among the more educated and upper class Muslims and Christians as well, who feared that these elements so easily mobilized by the Mufti in the struggle against the Jews could be turned against them. The same fears persist today both in the “West Bank” and even in Gaza and refugee camps in Lebanon among a silent moderate element of the Arab population unable to openly challenge the violent militias of Hamas and Hezbollah. The high quality and quantity and intelligence gathered by Israel’s security agencies have allowed pinpoint accuracy of many strikes against high ranking terrorist operatives and are due, in considerable measure, to Arab collaborationists.
What makes the split within Palestinian society qualitatively different from the divisions among Americans at the time of the Revolution is the enormous gap between words and deeds. Although almost always strenuously denied, Arabs agreeing to cooperate with the Zionist program made rational decisions based on inter-clan rivalries, the prospect of increased economic wellbeing and deeply valued motives of revenge and pride. The frequent official denunciations against ‘traitors’ was a central and persistent feature of the Palestinian Arab press and public meetings where frequent use of extremist religious rhetoric damned all those cooperating with the Jews. Violence, blackmail and threats of beatings, deportation, the denial of religious burial in Muslim cemeteries and even calls for wives to abandon their husbands were all used with only mixed results.
Nevertheless, prominent Arab personalities with little sense of a nationalist identity saw in the growing strength of the Zionist movement, a potential ally, the traditional recourse to the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This was proven time and time again even during the major riots of 1929 and the general Arab uprising of 1936-1939, as well as in Israel’s war of Independence and the two intifadas that have captured world headlines. It is true today, in the continued inter-Arab violence and competition for power between the Fatah and Hamas movements. In all of these struggles, the number of Arabs killed and wounded by other Arabs, exceeds the count of Jewish victims.
From the very beginning of the Mandate, the Zionist movement sought out Arab leaders willing to cooperate. The policy was initiated by Chaim Kalvarisky who attempted to convince the Zionist leadership that it was possible to offer a variety of rewards that would tempt collaborationists, running the gambit from bribery, raising the general standard of living, manipulating inter-clan rivalries and providing convincing arguments that Zionism could not be extirpated and that an accommodation would be a much more farsighted policy than the eternal confrontation offered by the Mufti.
By the late 1920s, David Ben Gurion and Moshe Shertok (later known as Moshe Sharret who later became Israel's second Prime Minister) rejected Kalvarisky’s approach. They believed that however real the material benefits enjoyed by the Arab population as a result of Zionist activity, a policy of cooperation would inevitably be doomed to failure. No moderate Arab segment of public opinion could openly confront the extremists for whom terror, blackmail and threats rather than elections or policy debates were the established way of dealing with an opposition. The only hope lay rather in convincing extreme Arab nationalist currents that confrontation would ultimately lead to an Arab defeat. Among those Arabs who did openly express opposition to the Mufti, many eventually had to flee the country and felt abandoned by their Jewish allies.
They had cooperated due to a variety of motives. Many were land owners who cared for their tenants (fellahin) and made decisions to sell mostly marginal and poorly drained uncultivated land in areas with a scant and dispersed population. Some were speculators who acted solely in their own selfish interests while others truly tried to derive maximum benefit for their loyal followers. The income from these sales enabled prominent rural families to live a more comfortable and secure existence in sharp contrast to the past and to cement the loyalty of their followers and tenants in clan rivalries. A few had married Jewish women and were regarded with suspicion by both sides, others had welcome the medical, agricultural and economic benefits provided for their villages due to close proximity and cooperation with Zionist settlements while there were others who had been attracted to the social and intellectual horizons offered by the new metropolis of Tel Aviv.
The legacy of almost thirty years of coexistence within the British Mandate left many ties between the two communities in areas that brought tangible benefits to many Arabs in technical and agricultural assistance, trade union activity, transportation, medical treatment and employment. These were not simply jettisoned to satisfy the demands of the power hungry and corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Nationalist movement
As early as July, 1921, no less an authoritative Arab political figure than the mayor of Haifa and head of the traditional Muslim National Association, Hasan Shukri sent the following telegram to the British government as a reaction to a Palestinian delegation setting out for London to protest the implementation of the Balfour Declaration:
“We strongly protest against the attitude of the said delegation concerning the Zionist question. We do not consider the Jewish people as an enemy whose wish is to crush us. On the contrary, we consider the Jews as a brotherly people sharing our joys and troubles and helping us in the construction of our common country, We are certain that without Jewish immigration and financial assistance there will be no future development in our country as may be judged from the fact that the town inhabited in part by Jews such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Tiberias are making steady progress while Nablus, Acre and Nazareth, where no Jews reside, are steadily declining.”
Shukri’s fate was sealed from that moment and although he enjoyed immense local prestige and authority among the Arab population of Haifa, he was the target of a failed assassination attempt in May 1936 just weeks after a successful one ended the life of his brother-in-law and former mayor of Haifa Ibraham Bey Khalil, a member of one of the richest families in the city. These distinguished leaders were part of the major opposition element among Palestinian notables who feared the Grand Mufti, al-Husseini. They were labeled as the “Nashashibi opposition” whether or not they were actually members of that clan.
The Nashashibis had, like the Husseinis, taken part in the Arab nationalist movement from its inception even while under Ottoman rule. From the time in 1920 when the British deposed the Husseini mayor of Jerusalem and installed a member of the Nashashibi clan, the Husseinis consistently used the charge that their rivals were secretly collaborating with the Zionists but the issues immediately at stake were patronage, status, jobs, money and prestige.
When the British instituted their infamous “White Paper” in May, 1939 in an attempt to placate Arab opposition to Zionism and bring an end to the Arab uprising with the promise of virtually closing Palestine entirely to Jewish immigration, the Nashashibis and other moderates hailed this as a great achievement while the Mufti at the head of the Arab Executive Committee rejected it as insufficient.
This inter-Arab rivalry took on larger proportions as a result of the 1936-39 uprising against the British instigated by the Grand Mufti and his supporters. A large part of the Arab public was appalled by the vicious terrorist tactics and wholesale purges carried out by the rebels to force them into cooperation. Many supplied information against the terrorists to the British authorities and Jewish settlements. The most fascinating segment of the book deals with the smuggling of arms by Arabs to the Jewish underground forces including the Irgun and the "Stern Gang" (also called the FFI - Fighters for the Freedom of Israel or by the acronym in Hebrew as "Lehi").
Moderate local Arab leaders were often the target of extremist attacks during the 1936-39 Arab rebellion, and later had no sympathy with the prospect of a Nazi victory that they believed would aid their rivals - the Mufti, the Arab Higher Committee and their followers. Leaders such as Fakhri Nashashibi in Jerusalem, the mayors of Jaffa, Nablus, Bedouin chieftains in the Hula Valley, many village sheikhs (or mukhtars) in the vicinity of Haifa, Tulkarem, Jenin and other areas concluded a pact with the Jewish Agency during World War II when prosperity and calm prevailed in Palestine. They promised armed assistance to Jewish settlements should they be attacked.
The participation of a few Arabs in the Jewish underground movements as "brothers in arms" in attacks against the British authorities on the eve of partition is fact and not fantasy no matter how strange it appears today. During Israel's War of Independence, many Bedouin and the entire Druze community switched sides to join the Jews in opposing the invasion by the regular Arab armies. The war also conclusively demonstrated the considerable apathy or outright refusal of a large part of the Palestinian Arab population to take up arms and fight the Jews for control of the country. The invading Arab armies took the major brunt of the fighting and were often looked on with mistrust by the Palestinian civilian population.
The leader of the most prominent Palestinian fighting force, Abdel Qader Husseini, district commander of Jerusalem and the Mufti’s close relative, found most of the population indifferent, if not hostile, to his repeated call to arms much as many French peasants avoided conscription into Napoleon’s Grand Army. He was unable to recruit volunteers for the salaried force he tried to raise in Hebron, Nablus, Tulkarm, and Qalqiliya, all towns reputed to be hotbeds of radical Muslim sentiment and Palestinian opposition to Zionism. In Beit Safafa, his forces were driven out by angry residents protesting the misuse of their homes for anti-Jewish attacks.
What is the significance of this historical research for today? Is it of more than purely academic interest? First of all, the total disinterest of the media in presenting an accurate account of inter-Arab rivalry and the multiple motivations for cooperation by Arabs with Jews and the Zionist movement in Palestine only serves to expand the already grossly distorted picture created by many Left Wing "activists" of good guys vs. bad guys that comes across on television screens (where pictures are supposed to be worth 10,000 words) showing the Palestinian civilians as humble underdogs and the outmatched victims of a super aggressive arrogant Israeli military machine.
Secondly, ignorance of past Arab collaboration exacerbates contemporary problems of coexistence within Israel between Arabs and Jews. Just as the Christian Arab minority was afraid to appear less intransigent than the dominant Muslim community in regarding any compromise with the Zionists during the Mandate, Israel’s Arab citizens have maintained a separate and largely hostile attitude toward the state to prove their “Arab credentials” to the wider Arab and Muslim world in spite of their actual considerable achievements as individuals and communities in the fields of education and improvements in the standard of living.
Their potential as constructive citizens continues to be held hostage by the radicalization of the neighboring Arab regimes and the strategy of the Palestinian “Resistance” organizations.
These same organizations whether the official PLO, Hamas or Hezbollah follow in the footsteps of the Mufti and the Husseinis and continue to demand an “all or nothing strategy”. They deny the legitimacy of any minority role for Arabs within a Jewish state, no matter what the cost. The Arab parties represented in the 120-member Knesset amounting to 10 seats are largely unable to work on practical issues of economic and social well being, based on civic responsibility due to their long range political image as “nationalists” yet here too the reality of a “rejectionist” image belies the many inroads of living in Israel and in close contact with Jewish society and its values.
Several recent polls have demonstrated that the prospect of any border change that would involve the loss of their Israeli citizenship in favor of a new one as a result of a territorial exchange with The Palestinian Authority is adamantly rejected by a large majority of Arabs living in border areas.
Finally, whereas there existed real moderates on the Arab side during the mandate who actively promoted collaboration that envisioned a future coexistence, the much misnamed “moderate” Palestinian leader Abbas, the darling of today’s international media and European “statesmen” is a transparent sham whose record of Holocaust denial would have embarrassed any Western head of state immediately after World War II no less than the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader, the Grand Mufti.
Contemporary events thus bear out the central thesis of Cohen’s research and it is this: The version of Palestinian Arab Nationalism as envisioned first by the Mufti during the Mandate and today by the PLO (Yasser Arafat and currently Mahmud Abbas) or the extremist religious organizations of Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah (whose support is drawn in large part from Palestinian refugees in that country), all have expected their followers to unconditionally submerge their personal, regional, religious identity within the concept of THE NATION, a view they hold as indistinguishable from their leadership. Any other loyalty that challenges total subordination is regarded as intolerable and is the equivalent of treason; thus, the spectacle of Hamas “warriors” throwing PLO supporters off the roofs of some of the tallest buildings in Gaza and recent confirmed reports of the "round up and punishment of collaborators", by Hamas. It is no wonder that now as well as then (period of the Mandate and Israel’s War of Independence), Jewish forces could count on an “Army of Shadows”.
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and informative book reviews such as this one, please click here.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by Norman Berdichevsky, click here.