Julian Zuckerbrot
Julian Zuckerbrot

Resisting and reporting: Myth-making in the hundred years of war against Israel

“In previous times whenever there’s been a war between Israel and Gaza… friction’s been these two groups, the militants in Gaza and the Government of Israel, the Army. In this case what precipitated it has been issues in Jerusalem, issues of land and people being kicked out and friction over the Al Aqsa mosque.” – Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Middle East reporter, 13 May 2021

In the year 1929, the Mufti of Jerusalem called on his followers to rally to the defence of the Haram al-Sharif – the Arabic name for the Temple Mount – from an attack by the city’s Jews. It is the place where, for centuries, the First and Second Temples stood, and so for Jews it the most sacred place on earth. It is also important to Christians as the setting for events described in the Bible. After the Islamic conquest of the region, it was where the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were built, and is considered one of the most holy of places to Muslims.

There was no threat to the site, on which many Jews will not set foot because of its sanctity, but the Mufti knew that that the Haram al-Sharif is such a powerful, unifying symbol that any perceived danger to it would rouse his followers to violence. Even then he had quite a bit of expertise in inciting anti-Jewish riots, having done so in 1920 and 1921. In 1929 the hoax achieved the desired effect and, after six days of rioting in several locations, many had been injured and 243 had died, including 100 Arabs.

So invoking the canard of a threat to the Haram al-Sharif proved to be an effective tactic in the 1920s and, as we’ve witnessed recently, it remains one in the 2020s. In 2021 it was the turn of Hamas, the terror regime that rules Gaza, to launch – literally, with thousands of rockets – the latest in an ongoing series of campaigns against Israel, using the pretext of protecting Jerusalem.

Having no rockets, the Palestinian Authority, which rules over the Arab population of the “West Bank,” confined itself to the traditional incitement of the masses. The PA’s chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, also chose to play the al-Aqsa card, as he had done in the past. “The Al-Aqsa is ours,” he proclaimed in 2015, after that year’s rioting. “They have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” He added that “Each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of Allah. Every martyr will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded, by Allah’s will.”

He also warned that the Jews are attempting to “Judaize” Jerusalem, but that warning came a bit late. The process of Judaization began when, we are told, King David bought the Temple Mount site from some Jesubites, and Jews have lived in the city ever since. In modern times, they have been the largest segment of the population since at least the mid-1800s. The place is of such significance that when Jews began organizing the modern movement of return to their homeland, they called it Zionism, Zion being a poetic name for Jerusalem. It was natural for King David’s capital to be chosen as the seat of government when, in 1948, the Jewish state was established – or rather re-established after two millennia.

The city had been neglected for centuries under the Ottoman Turks, and, after they surrendered their empire to the First World War allies, under the period of British administration that lasted until 1948. From that year until 1967 the Jordanians occupied part of Jerusalem, as well as the area they named the West Bank, the first time in hundreds of years that bit of real estate had been under Arab rule, but an arrangement recognized by only two other countries. During the 19 years of Jordanian control, the Old City of Jerusalem and surrounding neighbourhoods were, in fact, “de-Judaized”, their Jewish population exiled and ancient synagogues and cemeteries destroyed.

In 1967, with the city re-united, Jews began returning to the neighbourhoods from which they had been exiled by Jordan, restoring the city’s traditional ethnic balance. Since that time, with all of the city part of Israel, Jerusalem has in a way become less Judaized, as the percentage of Arabs living there has increased, from 26 to 38 percent.

In coming to terms with the root causes of any conflict, it is essential to have some kind historical perspective but, where Israel is concerned, that is something most of the media will not provide. They prefer to simply toe the official Palestinian line. They disregard the PA’s corruption and violence, and ignore the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood which exists only to destroy Israel, as described in its charter (easily found in English on line). And they rarely mention that the missiles in Gaza are provided by the equally anti-Israel Iranian regime, which controls how and when they are to be used.

All of those parties are pleased with this arrangement. “Iran supports everyone on the front line against the Zionist regime. Gaza and Lebanon are on this battle front, and all the missile might you see in Gaza and Lebanon was created with Iran’s support,” Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the (Iranian) IRGC Aerospace Force and Missile Unit, said in May. Thanking Iran, a spokesman for Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza said “it is they [Iran] who support us with weapons, money, and food.”

For Iran and the organizations it sponsors, convincing the world that Israel was to blame for starting the violence – or even that both sides are equally to blame – is important, but only from a public relations standpoint. They know better: that they’re not starting anything, merely picking up where they left off last time, and will resume hostilities whenever it suits them, regardless of what Israel does or doesn’t do. It is Israel’s existence that is the issue, and that is nothing new.

Back in 1929, Great Britain was governing a territory they called Palestine, putting back on the map a name from history, just as they then referred to Iraq as Mesopotamia. They were doing so, not as colonizers, but in order to carry out the will of the League of Nations –the body representing the world community in those days – that a Jewish state should arise there.
It was concept at first championed by Britain in its Balfour Declaration of 1917, but by 1929 London had shifted its position to what it considered even-handedness towards the Jewish and Arab communities. In practice that meant abandoning their responsibility to assist the Jews in nation-building, including by limiting Jewish (but not Arab) immigration. For the local British administration, even-handedness somehow meant actually encouraging the Arabs to commit anti-Jewish violence.

The League of Nations / United Nations Mandate ended in 1948 and, against all the odds, the State of Israel declared its independence, although it didn’t get control of the entire area set aside by the League until 1967. That was all long ago, but what goes on at the UN today – and among many of its members – nevertheless reveals a sense of being entitled to rule on Israel’s every action, to the point of determining the right of the country – and only that particular country – to exist.

Just as once the British saw themselves as even-handed referees, today there is a new fairness doctrine. Under its rules, Israel – an open, democratic, peace-loving nation – is no better than a totalitarian, death-worshipping regime; in defending itself it is no more in the right than the aggressors; and in endangering its own people to protect the enemy’s non-combatants, it is equivalent to those who intentionally kill and maim.

Israel’s enemies are never allowed to lose the wars they start. None of their territory is considered permanently forfeited, and all the damage they incur must be “proportional” to what they can inflict, with the bill for the repairs paid by someone else.

And if the media, most of which covered the recent round of fighting by adopting the narrative of Israel’s enemies – “Hamas’s truth,” if such an oxymoron is possible – it hasn’t much different over the decades. One foreign correspondent who was an exception to that pattern, who chose to sought out the facts and reported events truthfully, was the Dutch-born Canadian journalist Pierre Van Paassen.

Van Paassen was in Jerusalem in 1929, when the mob rampaged through the city, attacking any Jew they happened to encounter. He wrote that they screamed not only “Death to the Jews,” but also “The government is with us.” The British administration was indeed with the Arabs, refusing to allow the Jews to arm themselves until – because there was no else to stop the mob from attacking the government headquarters – they finally distributed guns to them. “A few shots fired into the air dispersed the bloodthirsty mob,” he wrote. “The Jews alone had saved British prestige in the Holy Land and in the entire Near East.”

When riots spread to other locations, van Paassen headed to Hebron, arriving soon after the violence had subsided. He discovered that doctored photos depicting the Haram al-Sharif apparently in ruins had been distributed in order to incite Friday worshippers, with labels falsely claiming the holy site had “been bombed by the Zionists.” For six days, with the police absent, mobs of Arabs had attacked their Jewish neighbours, killing 67 of them in what became known as the Hebron Massacre.

Van Paassen entered the house of a rabbi, where some of the Jews had sought protection. “We found the twelve-foot-high ceiling splashed with blood. The rooms looked like a slaughterhouse…The blood stood in a huge pool on the slightly sagging stone floor of the house.” Smashed personal possessions lay strewn about, along with severed body parts. Although the authorities prevented him from collecting the body parts as evidence, he was still able to provide the world with a first-hand description of what had happened.

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Survivors of the Hebron massacre leaving the city, circa 1930.

While in Jerusalem, Van Paassen managed to obtain an interview with the Mufti himself, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the chief instigator of the 1929 riots. The same man had been behind the riots of 1920 (with the encouragement of some British officers) and in 1921; he would go on to foment killing on an even greater scale, particularly during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39.

In 1920, the violence had been timed to take place just before the San Remo Conference, where the First World War allies would finalize the division of the territories surrendered by the Ottoman Turks. The allies, with the endorsement of the League of Nations, would create a series of “mandates,” new proto-nations that would take the place of the defunct 400-year-old empire.

Those mandates included Syria, Lebanon, Iraq – today failed states all. Another was Israel, which was to inherit “Palestine,” which originally accounted for four per cent of the Ottoman territories. After the British took the lion’s share of the Palestine Mandate to form what is now Jordan, the Jews were left with only one per cent – and they’re still fighting to hold on to that.

The Mufti was very clear with van Paassen that he would never tolerate any kind of Jewish state, no matter how small: “There will be no peace until they go,” Husseini told him, “The British will have to put a soldier with a bayonet in front of every Jewish home if they want peace without a wholesale exodus of Jews. Our people are at the end of their patience. They cannot bear the sight of the Jews any longer.” Taking the journalist to a window in his chambers, the Mufti indicated the Muslim holy places: “That is the sanctuary the Jews want to tear down. Here they plan to rebuild the Temple of Solomon.”

In his rejection of a Jewish state – indeed any Jewish presence – and in his combination of militant Islamism, antisemitism, and pan-Arabism, Husseini’s attitudes have persisted through the years, becoming the dominant position of the Muslim world, and of its sympathizers. On one point the Mufti’s followers have exceeded his extremism: He at least admitted that the Temples had once stood on that spot, while his successors now deny their existence, along with any ancient Jewish connection with the land.

While the Mufti might be considered the father of Palestinian nationalism, that came later. For Husseini in those years, Palestine was a wrong-headed Western notion, as was an independent Lebanon and Jordan. (“Palestinians” was a term then generally understood to refer to the Jewish inhabitants.) At the time of the interview, he had a grander vision, and was proposing that all those territories should instead comprise a Greater Syria.

Even in 1929, he displayed for van Paassen the high esteem in which he held himself, demanding to be referred to as “his eminence” and using the title “grand mufti.” A decade later he would fancy himself the leader of a jihad that would ride an anticipated Nazi wave of conquest into the Middle East. What is frightening about that notion is that it might actually have come to pass.

For most of the Second World War, Husseini was in Germany, where his rabid antisemitism put many a Nazi to shame. He had arrived there in 1941, after having participated in a pro-Axis coup in Iraq, supporters of which carried out the anti-Jewish riots known as the Farhud, which resulted hundreds dead, injured, or gang-raped.

In Berlin, the Nazis – who had put Husseini on their payroll in 1937 – regarded him as their most important Arab ally, and paid him well for making propaganda broadcasts and recruiting Muslims to the Axis cause. Some of them carried out acts of espionage and sabotage in the Middle East, while “his” SS units killed thousands of Yugoslavian Jews, Roma, and others the Nazis considered inferior. Husseini toured the death camps approvingly, reportedly in the company of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious high-ranking perpetrator of the Holocaust. He was granted audiences with Hitler, and even convinced the dictator to halt the emigration of Jews, thus sealing their doom.

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The former Jerusalem mufti visits Bosnian Muslim volunteers in the Waffen SS, German military units responsible for numerous war crimes against Jews and other groups.

The Nazi dictator planned to turn his attention to the Middle East after his anticipated conquest of the Soviet Union and promised to put Husseini in charge of an Arab-led Nazi army. So it was not unreasonable for the ex-Mufti to have pictured himself the head of a Greater Arab Empire associated with the Third Reich, perhaps even ascending the vacant throne of the caliph. Whether as an emperor or as something less, if the Germans had conquered the Middle East, he would have been their partner in bringing the Holocaust to the region, death camps and all.

Germany’s defeat thankfully eliminated that fate from coming to pass, but for Husseini it didn’t mean surrendering but only scaling back his plans. Landing on his feet once again, he escaped detention as a war criminal and made his way back to the Middle East. There he continued his struggle against the nascent State of Israel, using caches of Nazi arms and money, welcomed by a new generation of Arab leaders who themselves had been supporters of Germany during the War. Among them were future Egyptian presidents Nasser (whose brother had published Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Arabic) and Sadat. When Husseini died in 1974, Israel refused permission for his body to be interred on the Haram al-Sharif.

The Soviets would replace the Nazis as the great power supporting Arab extremism and the struggle against Israel. It was the Soviets who trained the Egyptian-born Yasser Arafat, who was anointed by the Mufti as his successor in 1968, and who would pursue the same policies and techniques until his own death in 2004. But, in 1929, when van Paassen interviewed him, Husseini was still in the early days of his career.

From Palestine, van Paassen travelled to Egypt, where he discovered that the pogroms in Jerusalem were being presented not as Arab attacks on Jews but as the opposite. There were “tens of thousands of forged photographs showing the Mosque of Omar (sic) in Jerusalem a pile of blackened ruins,” he later wrote. “The inscription on these pictures brazenly announced that the holiest shrine in Islam had been bombed to pieces by the Jews. Pamphlets also had been scattered setting forth in detail… (a) plan to rebuild the Hebrew Temple on the site.” There were photographs displaying an image from Hebron Massacre, the bodies of murdered rabbinical students lying in the foreground, but with a caption claiming they were slain Arabs.

While in Cairo, van Paassen managed to obtain an interview with the head of Al-Azhar University, the foremost place of learning in the Muslim world. He later recalled his thoughts as he anticipated the interview: “One would have expected Cairo, capital city of the most progressive Arab state, to be the logical fountainhead of Pan-Arabism.” Surely this eminent Sunni leader would believe the “official” version of the events in Jerusalem, in which his fellow Muslims were the victims and the Jews were intent on destroying the holy places. So Van Paassen must have been taken aback by what the “Sheik-President” of Al-Azhar said to him:

“We know perfectly well that the Jews have no designs on the mosque, but they have very different ambitions in Palestine. That is a legitimate aspiration. We, too, here in Egypt want to rebuild an Egyptian culture. We are Egyptians first. We have nothing in common with Pan-Arabism. Its aims are absolutely outside the sphere of our national interests.”

Van Paassen asked the Al-Azhar president – he is unnamed in the journalist’s account – what he thought of the Grand Mufti. The laughing reply was that “there were no ‘grand’ muftis or ‘eminences’ in Islam.” At one point, van Paassen recalled, “The Sheik jumped to his feet. His face…was now distorted with anger…’A mufti is a teacher in Islam. The man of whom you speak is not really a mufti…He is a politician’.”

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Pierre Van Paassen. Photo by Norman James, 1934.

If, in 1929, the journalist was nonplussed, what are we – with the knowledge of what was to come in the region – to make of his words? Unlike van Paassen, we are aware that, for almost a century, the leaders who would arise in the Arab and Islamic world would eschew moderation and would follow instead the Mufti’s a path of extremism, hatred and war. No sooner had Israel declared its independence than half a dozen armies invaded from all directions. The gaps between the periodic wars were taken up with terrorism, rocket attacks, and boycotts. The official policy of the Arab countries towards Israel would, for many years, be: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations. And the hoax of a threat to the Haram al-Sharif would be invoked again and again.

Could the moderate words that van Paassen heard in that interview have been sincere? There were none of the usual obeisances we’ve come to expect about the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, no protestations that territory, once conquered by Muslims, can never be surrendered to infidels.

But, in 1929, Muslim Brotherhood had only recently been established, and it would be some time before it was powerful enough to threaten any leader who expressed moderation. It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that the Nazis would spread their brand of antisemitism to the region, and the 1940s when they would pass that hateful mission on to the Soviets and their allies. It was only in the 1950s that the Jihadism of Sayyid Qutb and others would take hold, and not until the ‘60s that the notion of a Palestinian people and their right to a state of their own became an article of faith.

Thus it was possible in 1919 for the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, headed by Emir Feisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca, to support the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. And for Feisal’s brother, when he became King Abdullah I of Jordan, to hold discussions with the Zionist leadership. There were some among the leadership of Palestine’s Arabs who were more sympathetic towards the Zionists’ goals, but they had been sidelined by the Mufti’s faction. And there were always many ordinary people in the Arab community who opposed the use of violence against their Jewish neighbours, including at least 20 residents of Hebron, who, during the massacre, had bravely come to their defence.
But, for a very long time, fear of dissenting from hard-line anti-normalization was largely effective, and the world rarely heard voices of moderation from the leadership of the Arab world. King Abdullah I supported the 1947 General Assembly proposal for a Jewish state alongside an Arab one but, for that reason, was assassinated by one of Husseini’s men. President Sadat of Egypt signed a land-for-peace deal with Israel in 1979, but it remains an agreement of non-belligerence between governments rather than one of friendship between peoples. And, in 1981, Sadat was shot by a member of a group connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Egypt’s treaty with Israel, the one Jordan signed in 1994 delivered only a formal peace.

The previous year had witnessed the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat. Terrorism and a refusal to compromise had been the hallmark of the PLO since the 1960s but, by the 1990s, some among Israel’s leadership were willing to believe that the Mufti’s heir was ready to give up the armed struggle. They believed Arafat’s renunciation of terror and his promise to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

In exchange, under Oslo, the Palestinian Authority was set up to govern the Arabs in the territories and to build the institutions of self-government, in preparation for a final settlement with Israel.

Discussions culminated with a summit meeting at Camp David in July of 2000. President Clinton put forward “the parameters” for a settlement: there would be a “non-militarized” Palestinian state comprising almost all of the territories and two of the four quarters of Jerusalem’s old city, including the Temple Mount. That meant Israel had to drop a number of its key demands but, to achieve peace, Prime Minister Barak nevertheless agreed. But Arafat would not. In September of the same year he launched a terror campaign, sometimes called the al-Aqsa Intifada because it used the familiar canard of a threat to the holy places as a pretext.

No Israeli offer since that time has received a warmer response. There has been a reduction in terrorism, not because of any moderation on the part of the PA but rather due to Israel’s security barrier and excellent intelligence work. Hamas, which is more extreme than the PA – at least in their statements to the outside world – took over Gaza in 2007, throwing the PA out and throwing rival leaders off rooftops.

Having surrendered land (including a total withdrawal from Gaza) for the illusion of peace, but receiving only terror and rockets in return, Israelis have become far less willing to discuss making concessions to the Palestinians, despite pressure to do so. Hamas remains clear that it is not looking for compromises anyway, rather the complete destruction of Israel. The PA, when it deigns to negotiate, wants recognition of a Palestinian state, but not if it means accepting that Israel is a Jewish one – which doesn’t give its negotiating partner the sense that it really wants to end the conflict. That’s why the Palestinians have been trying to sidestep Israel, attempting to get statehood handed to them by the UN, its agencies and member states, so far without success.

The Israelis have been more successful in sidestepping the Palestinians, by focusing their peace-making efforts on the larger Israel-Arab conflict, where, unlike the stalemated Israel-Palestinian front, their negotiating partners want normal relations and are prepared to say so publicly. However the leaders of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia may feel about a Jewish country in their neighbourhood, and however much they would like the Palestine issue to be resolved, their biggest concern is the threat from Iran.

Israel shares that concern. When Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to joint sessions of the US Congress about the threat posed by Iran– as he did on three occasions – and at the UN, he could have be speaking for their countries as easily as his own. When Israel damages Iranian facilities in Syria and Iran, it is doing what those Arab states might wish to do but cannot.

The Abraham Accords – signed in 2020 by the leaders of Israel and the United Arab Emirates and extended to other countries in 2021 – aren’t the first peace treaties between Israel and her neighbours, but they are the first that amount to more than an absence of hostilities, calling for “friendly relations, co-operation and full normalization of ties between the nations and their peoples.” By invoking the name of “a common ancestor, Abraham,” the document treats the participating nations as family – traditionally the most important bond in that part of the world.

Just how deep and lasting the new alliance will be, only time will tell. It has already withstood changes of government in the US and Israel, and the recent hostilities between the Palestinians and Israel. If the intention of the fighting was to damage the Accords, the actual outcome may be the opposite: a strengthening rather than weakening of co-operation and normalization.

As for the Temple Mount, it has indeed been assaulted, and to a degree not seen since Roman times. When the Jordanians were ousted from Jerusalem in 1967, with the Temple Mount in Jewish hands after 2,000 years, Israel’s government decided to maintain the status quo, keeping the management of the site in the hands of the Islamic waqf, a religious committee. Jews were to be able to enter freely, although not for prayer.

Israel’s sacrifice of control over its most sacred place, made out of sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims, may not have been appreciated. It certainly was not reciprocated. In the late 1990s, the waqf took advantage its custodianship of the holy site to carry out large-scale construction work on the Mount to increase the Muslim presence there, building new mosques within ancient structures that had never been used for that purpose. They did the illegal work in breach of their understandings with Israel, and without any consultation with the antiquities authority or the government.

To carry out the work, the waqf brought bulldozers, tractors, and dump trucks onto a location that no archaeologist has ever dared to touch, yet they failed to observe even the most basic techniques used when excavating even far less important sites. Ancient relics were destroyed, thrown together, and treated as garbage. Hundreds of truckloads of material were taken away and just dumped. Prof. Gabriel Barkay, a noted archaeologist, accused the waqf of using bulldozers in “a place where even a toothbrush is too large a tool to carry out excavations.”
When news of this enormity became known, there were no riots of indignant Jews or Christians. No UN agency condemned the senseless assault on a place many consider the most precious on earth.

Wakf excavations on the Temple Mount, 1999. (Photo from a You Tube video featuring Prof. Gabriel Barkay.)

With his students, Prof. Barkay stepped in to extract some benefit from the vandalism he has termed “barbaric” and “an atrocity.” In 1999, under his direction, all the stone, mud and ash that could retrieved, along with any priceless relics the material held, was brought to a secure location. Since 2004, many thousands of volunteers from around the world have been slowly sifting through the material under the supervision of archaeologists. Thanks to their efforts, the piles of rubble have yielded up material from as far back as Temple times.

The finds are important, but the structures and artifacts that were destroyed can never be replaced, or even fully assessed. Nor is there any assurance that similar atrocities will not take place in the future, while the Temple Mount remains under control of the waqf. So, yes, the Temple Mount is threatened, but not quite in the way we’ve been led to believe.

About the Author
Julian Zuckerbrot is a Canadian writer and editor.
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