Duke will tiptoe to his mother's grave: Prince Philip sidesteps a 46-year ban on royal visits to make a private trip to Jerusalem's Mount of Olives

From Sarah Helm
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:32

IN A SMALL crypt on the Mount of Olives, the body of a princess, a woman of exceptional valour, lies at rest. 'Alice. Princess Andrew of Greece. Princess of Battenberg,' states the inscription above the tomb under the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene.

The evening sun warms the flagstones. The incantations of Russian nuns mingle with the siren signalling the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Nearby, Palestinian children scatter as an Israeli Jeep speeds through the graffiti-laden streets.

Here the Duke of Edinburgh will arrive in a few weeks' time to pay tribute to his mother, Princess Alice, sister of Lord Mountbatten and a Greek orthodox nun, who risked her life in Nazi-occupied Athens to save the lives of Jews. But his visit is causing controversy.

The Duke is coming to Arab East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967, as a guest of Israel - and is therefore breaking a long-standing ban on visits by the Royal family to the Jewish state, dating back to the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, and the creation of Israel in 1948.

The Royal Family's past coolness towards Israel has been interpreted by many Jews as an anti-Israeli snub. Whatever the private views of the Royals may have been, the ban was instituted on the advice of the Foreign Office, which saw it as a way of registering disapproval of Israel's policies.

The Foreign Office feared that to allow a member of the Royal Family to set foot in East Jerusalem would be seen as condoning the occupation of the Arab sector, which Britain deems to be illegal.

So Princess Alice is continuing to give British diplomats a headache, even from the grave. When she was reinterred in 1988, the Foreign Office advised Prince Philip not attend, which he found distressing.

After the princess died in 1969, her remains lay at first in St George's Chapel, Windsor. But her final wish had been to be buried at the White Russian convent on the Mount of Olives, near her Aunt Elizabeth, cousin of the last Tsar of imperial Russia. Grand Duchess Elizabeth was murdered by the Bolsheviks and declared a Russian Orthodox saint.

The Jerusalem burial was finally arranged after an extraordinary diplomatic and religious dance, involving a deal between the Russian and Greek orthodox churches to share the ceremonies, and agreement that Israel handle security.

At the time, the Palestinian intifada was at its height, and the Mount of Olives was a stronghold of militancy. The princess's remains were transported by a British Airways jet from London, and, under the eyes of Israeli agents, were carried into the church by Jewish pallbearers wearing skullcaps.

Two factors have brought about the change in British policy that will enable the Duke to make his visit on 30 October. First, although Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem continues, the limited autonomy offered to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has resulted in a softer approach by the Foreign office.

The Duke, who cares deeply about family piety, would like the visit to symbolise reconciliation. Officials emphasise that it is a 'private one' and will last only 24 hours. Britain, nevertheless, is anxious about criticism by Yasser Arafat.

The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, ensconced in his Gaza enclave, is highly sensitive about sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and would prefer to receive the Duke in the future 'capital of Palestine' himself. As a gesture to Mr Arafat, British diplomats hope to arrange a clandestine meeting between the Duke and 'some Palestinians'. This will anger Israel, which says it 'knows nothing' of such plans.

Such a meeting can hardly take place at the King David Hotel in Jewish West Jerusalem, where the Duke is expected to stay: it was once the headquarters of the British Mandate authority, and was blown up by Jewish militants in 1946.

British officials are nervous that the Hebrew press may scour Royal history for instances of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Duke may be courting trouble by bringing with him his sister, Princess George, who was married to a Luftwaffe pilot.

The second factor that has brought about the visit relates to Princess Alice herself: new revelations of her past self-sacrifice have led Israel to honour her as a 'righteous gentile' - one of 12,000 non-Jews judged to have displayed bravery in helping to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In 1943 Princess Alice, estranged from her husband, Prince Andrew of Greece, was living alone in Nazi-occupied Athens, working with the poor. She opened her house to three Jewish friends and protected them for a year. Her bravery, however, did not come to light until recently.

Princess Alice courted no publicity. 'It was just a Christian thing to do,' says Mother Anna, Abbess of St Mary Magdalene Convent. It was only when a relative of the Jews she protected, suggested that a street in Jerusalem be named after Princess Alice, that the story of her bravery emerged.

(Photograph omitted)

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