In the hills of Palestine: echoes from the First World War

By - Thursday 19th April, 2018

One hundred years on, battles from Croydon’s past overshadow Palestine’s future

Horace J. Aldous, 2/4 Queen’s RWS Regiment, from Croydon, died in Palestine on 26th April 1918, aged twenty-one. He was buried at Jerusalem War Cemetery.
Photo by Museum of Croydon, used with permission.

Having captured Gaza, Beersheba and Jerusalem in 1917, by the spring of 1918 British forces fighting in the First World War Sinai & Palestine campaign had occupied southern Palestine and were ready to push up towards the Ottoman provinces of Syria, Lebanon and, also, into what is present-day Jordan. Amongst the West Indians, Indians, Jews, Arabs, New Zealanders, Australians and others from across the Empire who made up the British force were Croydon men, particularly concentrated in the 2/4 Queen’s, a Territorial battalion deployed in the Judaean Hills north of Jerusalem. The actions in that region have echoes today, particularly in the occupied hill village of Nabi Saleh.

The 2/4 Queen’s had suffered significant losses as part of the British force securing Jerusalem, which was surrendered by the Ottomans on 9th December 1917. They were at the forefront of fighting to displace Ottoman forces that had retreated to hills surrounding the city and lost many men in resisting a counter-attack that followed the British capture of Jerusalem.

In January 1918, the battalion moved north of Jerusalem into the hills surrounding the city of Ramallah – today the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority. This central area of Palestine, in the Judaean Hills, was significant as a strategic foothold on the road to the northern city of Nablus, held by the Ottomans, and also providing routes east to the coast and west, to the Jordan Valley, where the left and right flanks of the British force were established respectively.

The 2/4 Queen’s were involved in battles to secure a number of hills in the region

Following a cold and wet winter, the 2/4 Queen’s, part of the 53rd Division, was involved in the Battle of Tell ‘Asur to capture the highest hill in the region, between 8th and 12th March 1918. The British action also involved securing a number of hills on either side of the Jerusalem-Nablus road, including the village of Nabi Saleh: “During the day of [10th] March violent fighting took place, and in certain sectors fighting has not yet ceased, especially in the Nabi Saleh sector… We took many prisoners. Several strong attacks launched at night by the enemy against the sector east of Nabi Saleh were repulsed”, a British Army communiqué stated.

One hundred years later, the region is again the focus of military activity, particularly the 550-person village of Nabi Saleh, home to the Tamimi clan. The village has gained international attention through the arrest of the then-sixteen-year-old, Ahed Tamimi, and her mother, Nariman Tamimi, for their involvement in attempting to drive away two soldiers from their home in December 2017. In the now-viral film, Ahed Tamimi is seen using intermittent kicks, slaps and punches against two soldiers who brush her off and finally withdraw. The incident occurred within an hour after a fifteen-year-old cousin of Ahed Tamimi, Mohammad, was shot in the face with a rubber-coated bullet by an Israeli soldier, shattering his skull and requiring him to be placed in a medically induced coma. That day, 15th December 2017, the villagers had been protesting Donald Trump’s US administration’s decision to recognise disputed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Arrested four days later, Ahed Tamimi faced a possible ten-year prison sentence. After three months of detention, she accepted a plea deal in an Israeli military court of a sentence of eight months in prison, a 5,000 NIS (£994) fine and a three-year suspended sentence. Her mother, Nariman, was arrested on arrival at the detention centre where she had sought to visit her daughter. She too was accused of assault, as well as “incitement” for filming the incident. She also faces eight months in prison, a fine and a suspended sentence. Also arrested and detained for the incident was Ahed’s twenty-one-year-old cousin, Nour, who has subsequently been released on bail. Fifteen-year-old Mohammad, who required cranial reconstruction surgery after being shot in the face, was later arrested during a night raid with ten other villagers, mostly children, but he was soon released after an outcry from NGOs and some in the media.

The territory is as significant today as it was in 1918

Nabi Saleh and neighbouring villages’ hillside locations close to roads that connect the territory make the area significant to the occupying Israeli military, just as they did for the competing British and Ottoman forces in 1918. Also of significance is the location of a series of natural springs, including the Ein Al-Qaws freshwater spring, in the valley below Nabi Saleh, located on land owned by a villager from neighbouring Deir Nidham. However, most pressing for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is the persistent protest movement in the region.

In 2008, Jewish settlers from the nearby Halamish settlement began to take control of the spring and started restricting Palestinians from accessing it, including using it for irrigating crops. It was then designated a protected archaeological site by the military-run Civil Administration. Palestinians were effectively barred, but settlers continued to have free access to renovate the area as a tourist site which they renamed Meir’s Spring. In response, in December 2009, Nabi Saleh commenced weekly Friday protest marches. Though the site is designated a closed military zone on Fridays by the IDF, villagers make non-violent attempts to reach the spring and are fended off by soldiers with tear gas, skunk-water cannons, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live bullets, as well as arrests and detentions.

The Nabi Saleh recent protests, based on a long history of anti-occupation protests dating back to 1967, include demonstrations, blocking roads and boycotting work in Jewish settlements and have drawn international attention, but they have also been costly for the villagers. The IDF has declared the village of Nabi Saleh a closed military zone, shutting off all entrances and exits, and erecting a military checkpoint. Many villagers have been arrested and some killed – most recently a seventeen year old from neighbouring Deir Nidham on 3rd January 2018. Bassem Tamimi, father of Ahed Tamimi, has spent around four years in prison in total following numerous arrests, including under administrative detention without trial. He was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2012. He was in prison when his brother-in-law, Rushdi, was shot and killed at a protest in November 2012. A cousin, Mustafa, died after being hit directly by a gas canister in 2011. Bassem Tamimi’s wife, Nariman, has also been arrested a number of times and shot in the leg in 2014.

The protests made by many of the villagers is non-violent

Nabi Saleh’s villagers have acts of violence linked to their history, with a cousin of Bassem Tamimi killing a settler in 1993. Another villager, Ahlam Tamimi, participated in a bombing that killed fifteen people, including eight children, in Jerusalem in 2001. However, the villagers’ protest movement is non-violent, with women playing a prominent role at the head of marches. Stone throwing by some youths breaks out when the Israeli army attack with what Amnesty International describes as “excessive force” against protesters and bystanders. Since the protests began eight years ago, over 200 villagers have been arrested or detained, including over one hundred children.

Those locals and activist allies detained by the security forces are sometimes taken initially to an old British Tegart police fort besides the Halamish settlement, which is now used as an IDF base. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to military law, whereas settlers are subject to civil law. Tegart forts were built throughout Palestine during the British Mandatory period during the Arab uprising between 1936 and 1939. It had been left abandoned by the British following their withdrawal in 1948 until forty Jewish settler families moved in, in October 1977. The Israeli army later used a military order to seize neighbouring land and awarded it to the settlers.

During the First World War, food and land was requisitioned by the Ottoman Army in Palestine and the wider Levant. The demands on the local population contributed to a severe famine which was exacerbated by trade disruption, conscription, a naval blockade imposed by Britain and France and a severe locust attack on crops. Five hundred thousand civilians are thought to have died in the region of starvation or related disease between 1915 and 1918.

The men of the 2/4 Queen’s battalion remained in Palestine until June 1918

In Europe, in 1918, the German Spring Offensive precipitated the transfer of British forces in Palestine to the more pressing Western Front, to be replaced by Indian troops. The men of 2/4 Queen’s battalion would remain in the central hills of Palestine until June 1918, except for a deployment to fight in Jericho in the Jordan Valley. On 26th April 1918, back in the central hills where Nabi Saleh can be found, eighteen men from the 2/4 Queen’s battalion died in battle. One of these men was Horace J. Aldous, a former Archbishop Tenison’s School student and employee of Croydon Gas Company. Aldous is the last Croydon man listed on the Roll of Honour to have died in Palestine during the First World War. Some from the battalion who had survived both the Gallipoli Campaign and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, such as Stuart Nightingale from Thornton Heath – a junior assistant librarian with Croydon Public Libraries – would finally succumb on the Western Front in 1918, just months before the Armistice.

Decisive battles were fought in September 1918 to effectively end Ottoman resistance in present-day Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, paving the way for the creation of the British Mandate in Palestine. Britain’s connection with Palestine is not merely historic – it remains a major seller of arms to Israel – but reflections on this history will bring us greater understanding of the events taking place there today.

Samuel Ali

Samuel Ali

Samuel recently worked as a Heritage Trainee with the Museum of Croydon, in conjunction with arts and heritage charity, Culture&. He is interested in opening archives and museum collections to engage diverse and under-represented audiences. All views are his own. Contact: sam491812 (at) protonmail (dot) com or @museumpoetry

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