Flirting with the enemy

When is it acceptable to take tea with a `war criminal'? Newly uncovered secret documents reveal that in 1949 the British government was prepared to break any moral barrier to save its retreating army in Palestine. Here was a ghostly prelude to 50 years of Arab/Israeli conflict...
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After the Second World War, Palestine was crumbling. A "hell-disaster", Churchill called it. Menachem Begin's Irgun had blown up British headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the British were executing Jewish "terrorists", and the Jews had hanged two kidnapped British Army sergeants. The Arabs were determined to destroy the future Jewish state of Israel. The old imperial mandate was in a state of incipient civil war. You have only to open Colonial Office file 537/2643 to understand why, in their moment of agony, the British toyed with the idea of negotiating with an Arab cleric whom they had, only two years earlier, tried to extradite as a war criminal.

Indeed, in 1941 Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had been chatting to Hitler in Berlin, urging the Reich to prevent the departure of European Jews to Palestine; and two years later he had been helping to raise a Muslim SS battalion in Sarajevo to fight on the Russian front. Later on, claiming ignorance of the Jewish Holocaust, he told the German foreign minister Ribbentrop in 1944 that if Jews were to be "removed" from Germany, "it would be infinitely preferable to send them to other countries where they would find themselves under active control [sic], as for example, Poland..."

When he attempted to flee Germany in 1945, the French captured the Grand Mufti, but allowed him to escape to Egypt. In 1947 he turned up in Lebanon as leader of the Palestinian Arabs, a powerful and influential voice that could pacify - or provoke - an Arab uprising against Britain in its last days of rule in Palestine.

No wonder, then, that the old Colonial Office file was not released under the usual 30-year rule, but kept secret for half a century. Its contents - astonishingly, they were overlooked by historians on their release last month - speak not only of hidden contacts between the Grand Mufti and British diplomats in Cairo, but also of imperial despair in Palestine and, most dramatically, of outrage at Jewish "reprisals" against Arab civilians which constituted, according to the British High Commissioner, "an offence to civilisation". Indignation and fury permeate the file. So does defeat.

On 15 December 1947, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham sent a top secret memorandum to the British colonial secretary Arthur Creech-Jones, outlining the civil war in Palestine in fearful detail. "Situation now is deteriorating," he wrote, "into a series of reprisals and counter-reprisals between Jews and Arabs, in which many innocent lives are being lost, the tempo of which may accelerate... I have been considering what steps could be taken to mitigate this dangerous situation. As far as the Arabs are concerned it is undoubtedly a fact that word from the Mufti in the right quarter is probably now the only chance of inducing them to hold their hand until we have gone."

Haj Amin had arrived in newly independent Lebanon in early October 1947, and the British Legation in Beirut immediately set out to discover how much freedom he would be given. The Grand Mufti's sudden appearance, the legation noted, had not surprised the Lebanese prime minister, Riad Solh, but the Lebanese insisted that "a member of the Surete" was in constant attendance on Haj Amin, that his activities would be "controlled and restricted" by the Lebanese and that he "would not be allowed to indulge in any activities directed against British interests". As our diplomats in Beirut were well aware, however, the British Middle East Office in Cairo had already made contact with the man whom Britain and the Allied Forces Command in Europe regarded as a war criminal.

On 29 September, our man in Cairo had sent a secret note to the Foreign Office enclosing the report of an interview with the Mufti from "an unimpeachable source". The carefully typed notes - presumably from a British intelligence officer - portray a man who realised that disaster faced the Arabs of Palestine. The Mufti refused to contemplate the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. "He was not bargaining with the Zionists about a possession in dispute," says the report. "Palestine, including Jaffa and the Negev, belonged to the Arabs, and he did not recognise the right of anyone to `offer' them what was theirs as a condition of consent to partition. It was like a robber trying to make conditions on which he would return stolen property." Besides, Haj Amin said, "no form of partition... would finally satisfy the Zionists. Whatever they got would merely be a springboard from which to leap on more."

The Grand Mufti, who had supported the Arab revolt against British rule in the Thirties and had subsequently sought refuge in Iraq after a pro- German coup, then lectured his interviewee in words that must have taken the Briton's breath away. "Put yourselves in the Arabs' place," Haj Amin advised. "Remember yourselves in 1940. Did you ever think of offering the Germans part of Britain on condition that they let you alone in the rest? Of course not, and you never would." The answer to partition or a federal Palestine was "NO, categorically NO." Jews would have the same rights as Arabs in a Palestinian nation "but the Arabs would never agree to any bestowal on the Zionists of political power or privilege that put them above... the Palestinian state government".

There was no reason why Arabs and the British should not co-operate, Haj Amin said. But common interests "should not deceive the British into thinking that any Arab leader would weaken where Palestine was concerned... Palestinian Arab enmity towards the British was purely political - they hated the policy that had founded... the Zionist national home." If Britain did not support Zionist claims to Palestine, and rejected partition, "she would gain Arab friendship in a moment". But if the British continued their support, "they could never hope for Arab co-operation, for the Arabs would then be co-operating in bringing about their own destruction".

Then, in words which have an ironic historical resonance, the Grand Mufti talked of the future. "He did not fear the Jews, their Stern, Irgun, Haganah [gangs]. The Arabs might lose at first, they would have many losses, but in the end they must win." The Zionists "will eventually crumble into nothing, and he did not fear the result, unless of course Britain or America... intervened, and even then the Arabs would fight and the Arab world would be perpetually hostile."

When his British visitor suggested that the Arabs might do better to accept part of Palestine rather than risk losing all, Haj Amin replied: "Who are we? A handful of exiles. Nothing. But we shall never give in or surrender our principles no matter what bribe is offered."

Should the British talk directly to Haj Amin? As fighting continued in Palestine, the British Legation in Beirut reported to the Foreign Office on 27 November that Haj Amin "no longer regards us as Arab Public Enemy No 1". But "if a decision unfavourable to the Arabs is reached at the United Nations... it is probable that the ex-Mufti [sic] will be exposed to pressure from his extremist followers...

Contact even of a most informal sort with British officials might serve as a safety valve." The British memorandum, marked "Secret", adds that although Haj Amin's "dubious past renders the prospect of even unofficial contact with him distasteful", it could not be denied "that he enjoys very considerable prestige and influence and he may still play a part in the future government of Palestine". The Mufti had "learnt a lesson through backing the wrong side in the last war", and "advantage might be taken of his anti-Communist leanings".

Riad Solh, the Lebanese prime minister, had already offered to arrange a meeting between the Mufti and a Beirut-based British diplomat called Evans, over cups of tea - Evans had been "non-committal" to the idea - but "I think it would be all to the good for a member of my staff to see him occasionally," the Legation head wrote. It would now pay the British "hand over fist" to exert any influence to avoid a wholesale clash with Palestinian Arabs. Meeting the Mufti as "an individual" would not mean "that His Majesty's Government had abandoned their principles or condoned the Mufti's misguided [sic] past... if... he has had a change of heart, mild and discreet contacts with the British might give him a chance to prove it. If the leopard is still the same we shall soon find the spots under his henna."

Beneath this eloquent letter, the British diplomat had added in his own hand the damning remark that the US assistant military attache in Lebanon had already paid a visit to the Mufti. By mid-December, General Cunningham was pleading from Jerusalem for pressure on Haj Amin "to get him to dissuade local Arabs from further violence... while we are still here". But, the High Commissioner noted, "it is clear that we cannot approach the Arabs without taking parallel action against the Jews. We are, of course, doing all we can to point out to Jews the unmitigated folly of their actions which can only end in future bitterness which may well in the end mean disaster for their new State." Jewish claims that their actions were carried out by "dissident groups" had proved to be untrue and "it can be seen that the Jews have inflicted many more casualties on the Arabs than the reverse. Practically all [Jewish] attacks have been against buses or in civilian centres."

And, in a remarkable moment of anger, Cunningham concluded that "we have never at any time on the slightest excuse escaped vociferous and hysterical accusations by Jews that we were a people who were prone to brutal reprisals. Now they [the Jews] have themselves come out with reprisals of a kind which would not have crossed the mind of any soldier here, and which are an offence to civilisation."

Cunningham's plea for discussions with the Mufti was forwarded to the Foreign Office. Within days, however, the Legation in Beirut was ordered to make no contact with Haj Amin. British MPs had long demanded his trial for war crimes and our ally King Abdullah of Jordan - the late King Hussein's grandfather - hated the Mufti. The British departed from Palestine in disgrace, leaving Arab and Jew to fight for the land. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. The Arabs did not eventually win, as Haj Amin had predicted, and the 51-year old Israeli state did not end in disaster as Cunningham had suggested it might. Israeli spokesmen regularly condemn the Mufti for his flirtation with Nazism, and have sought to demonise the Palestinians with his name. But recent research suggests that he was an Arab nationalist rather than a national socialist - his fairest biographer is a former Israeli military governor of the occupied West Bank.

The Mufti died in Beirut in 1974, ignored and largely forgotten even in Lebanon. Among the mourners at his funeral was Yasser Arafat.