By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
Sixty years ago this month, Abdel-Qader al-Husseini (1908-1948), a charismatic Palestinian military leader, was killed in the battle for al-Kastal, an Arab village west of Jerusalem. To honor his and his comrades’ memories, let us solemnly and respectfully recall how he fought and died defending villages from being ethnically cleansed, and ask if the Palestinians have learnt any lesson from his ultimate sacrifice.
The Palestinians Arab Higher Committee (AHC) under the leadership of Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was residing in Cairo and Beirut during the 1948 war, never established institutions that could have linked the Palestinian population in different regions to each other, nor succeeded in unifying the leadership of the prominent families who dominated Palestinian politics since the nineteenth century. Haj Amin himself was a party in the traditional family feuds, score settling and disputes over the Palestinian leadership. The factional divisions among the leading families made it difficult to sustain an organized movement. As a result, following the termination of the British Mandate, there was no coordination or planning on defending Arab communities against the Jewish militias and armed gangs, no regular recruitment or mobilization and no weapon acquisition and logistics for defense similar to those achieved by the Zionists. The fighting Palestinians were scattered disorganized groups of poorly armed inexperienced young men tied to their local rather than national leaders who had been at odds with each other.
The AHC succeeded in recruiting a small group of volunteer irregulars to defend Arab villages and towns. They were known as the Holy Army (al-Jihad al-Mukaddas), led by Abdel-Qader al-Husseini and Hasan Salami. Abdel-Qader was the son of the late Musa Kazim al-Husseini, one of the early Palestinian nationalists. The Holy Army was no match for the much larger and well organized Jewish military. Salami directed operations in the coastal area and Abdel-Qader commanded defenders in Jerusalem and Hebron mountains. Abdel-Qader unit controlled the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for a while using small arms and displaying heroism before the Haganah went on the offensive and used its superior military hardware. Abdel-Qader al-Husseini, the most charismatic Palestinian military leader, was killed in the battle for defending al-Kastal village in April 1948.
His death marked the end of the major Palestinian military encounters with the Jewish fighters and the beginning of the Arab regular armies conventional warfare. The absence of Palestinian leadership and national institutions created a vacuum that was filled by non-Palestinian Arab League leaders who had their own agendas. The Arab League was divided on the question of Palestine between the pro-King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan and the anti-Abdullah camps. Iraq was in favor of annexing the Arab Palestine to Trans-Jordan, but Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Syria were against such a proposition.
The intervention in Palestine by the regular armies of five Arab states was decided in the April 29, 1948 Arab summit in Amman. They agreed to invade on May 15 after the termination of the British mandate. Each state was assigned its own zone in Palestine and had its own independent command. Their conflicting interests and the distrust of each other intentions made it easy for the Zionists to defeat them one at a time.
Early in 1948 and before the British withdrawal, the Arab League dispatched a 4000 man volunteer force called the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) to protect the Palestinians from the Haganah attacks. The ALA was under the command of Fawzi al-Qa’uqji, a controversial Syrian nationalist and a soldier of fortune. He was more of a political figure than a military leader appointed by Arab pro-King Abdullah politicians as a counter-weight to Haj Amin. Haj Amin opposed his appointment accusing him of being an agent for the British and King Abdullah. The selection of al-Qa’uqji to lead the ALA despite the objection of Haj Amin relegated the Palestinian nationalists to insignificant minor players rather than partners in the 1948 war. Al-Qa’uqji excluded Palestinian volunteers from his army because, according to one of his officers, “they [the Palestinians] simply get in the way”. According to Benny Morris, there were rivalries and frictions between al-Husseini Palestinian fighters and the ALA Instead of cooperation.
The betrayal of al-Qa’uqji to his Palestinian comrades-in-arms was demonstrated in his refusal to support Abdel-Qader in al-Kastal and Hasan Salami in Ramle battles. The historian Avi Shlaim wrote that a tacit understanding was reached between al-Qa’uqji and the Haganah intelligence officer, Josh Palmon, for the ALA to refrain from supporting the Palestinian fighters if the Jewish military decided to go on the offensive in the Jerusalem front. The meeting between the two supposed adversaries took place in al-Qa’uqji’s headquarters in Nur-Shams on April 1st, 1948. Al-Qa’uqji kept his promise to Palmon when the Haganah launched its offensive campaign against the Palestinian Holy Army to open the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road on April 4, 1948. The ALA military contingent did not interfere to help Abdel-Qader fighters to defend the strategic road. When Abdel-Qader irregulars ran out of ammunition, Al-Qa’uqji refused to help. Ironically, after the collapse of the Holy Army, the ALA was the next to suffer humiliating defeats in the battles for the control of Tirat Zvi and Mishmar-Haemek small settlements, at the hands of the Haganah defenders. On July 18, the Israelis were on the offensive, capturing the ALA headquarters in Nazareth. The ALA was not prepared to fight anyway. Al-Qa’uaqji himself wrote in his 1948 memoirs that “[his] officers and men lack the military competence…Some of the men could not even load a rifle properly. [Also] among the officers there were some elements so corrupt that I did not know how the Inspector-General could have agreed to their being attached to the units”.
Sixty years after Abdel-Qader was laid to rest, many things happened. Israel controls all historical Palestine; it barred the return of the Arab refugees to their homes, destroyed their villages and took over their land and other property making room for millions of Jews from all over the world. And the Palestinians are refugees, or fighting each other under occupation or third class citizens in Israel. The PLO recognized Israel on behalf of the Palestinians and signed the Oslo agreements; Egypt and Jordan signed separate peace treaties with Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict became a Palestinian-Israeli issue. Israel emerged as the super-power in the region and since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 by the US, Arab governments and Pan-Arab system have collapsed and majority of Arab regimes have been perceived as docile American protégés and irrelevant in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The rivalry within the Palestinian leadership under the British Mandate divided the people and caused a lasting split that was among the factors which contributed to the failure of the 1936 rebellion and the defeat in 1948 war. And the present internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah under the Israeli occupation while the Palestinians bury their fallen martyrs on a daily basis may kill the last hope of establishing an independent state. The French maxim describes how little the Palestinians have changed since the fall of Abdel-Qader al-Husseini, gun in hand, “the more things change the more they stay the same”.
-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.