12,000 Arab Palestinians volunteered to serve with the British military during WWII in a largely forgotten chapter of history
Jerusalem Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini’s infamous ties with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy are well-documented, as are as his efforts to block Jewish refugees from reaching British Mandatory Palestine during the Second World War.
Less known, however, is the story of the thousands of Palestinian Arabs who disregarded the mufti’s pro-Axis policies and instead opted to fight against Adolf Hitler’s henchmen.
Prof. Mustafa Abbasi, a historian at Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel, has found that some 12,000 Arab Palestinians volunteered to serve in the British army during the Second World War in North Africa and Europe, often fighting side by side with Jews. Abbasi’s findings were published in a recent issue of the Cathedra periodical titled “Palestinians Fighting the Nazis: The Story of Palestinian Volunteers in World War II.”
“Many of the [Arab Palestinians] lost their lives, others were wounded and many are still missing,” Abbasi’s research reads. “It appears that an important and central portion of the Palestinian public believed that it was necessary to stand on the British side, to postpone nationalist demands, to fight as one against the Germans and their allies, and to demand recompense at the end of the war.”
Significant scholarly attention has been devoted to the Jewish volunteers who served in the British army and later formed what was known as the Jewish Brigade from 1944 to 1946, where historians estimate that 30,000 Palestinian Jews served. But there is scant reference to the thousands of Arab Palestinians who did the same.
“They didn’t accept the mufti’s policies, who met with Hitler and tried to get some kind of promise [of a state],” Abbasi told The Media Line. “The Arabs and the Jews were in mixed units and fought together.”
Abbasi’s research is based on primary and secondary sources from the British National Archives, Hagana Archives, Central Zionist Archives and local Arab newspapers from the time.
According to him, the mufti lost much of his support among the Palestinian Arab population after 1937. That year, the British police issued a warrant for his arrest owing to his role in the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. To evade arrest, Husseini fled the country and took refuge in French Mandatory Lebanon, the Kingdom of Iraq and later fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Abbasi decided to research the matter of Palestinian volunteers after discovering that his own maternal grandfather had volunteered in the British army during the war. He believes this chapter of history has mostly been overlooked due to Palestinian historiography focusing on the opposition to Zionism and the struggle with British rule.
“We’re talking about a very painful subject matter for many families who lost sons and nobody mentions them,” Abbasi emphasized. “A large part didn’t want to say that their sons were in fact on the British side [during World War II].”
The Arab Palestinian Response to Nazism
While some Arab Palestinian volunteers were motivated to fight against Nazism for ideological reasons, Abbasi notes that economic motives were the deciding factor for the majority. In fact, many of those who applied to recruitment offices were poor villagers or city dwellers. The British army provided benefits to those who served, including low-priced food, clothing and medical care.
Dr. Esther Webman, a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, relates that many Arabs at the time had mixed feelings toward Nazi Germany but that a minority were indeed fascinated by Hitler’s ideology.
“[The Arabs] thought that Germany was a kind of tool that could bring them independence, since Britain and France weren’t really showing any signs that they intended to evacuate the region at the time,” Webman told The Media Line.
She added that the Germans were viewed by some as the “savior of the Palestinians” following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government expressed support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The mufti was among those who held this view, Webman continued, and he attempted to pose as the leader of the Palestinians, Muslims and the Arab world.
“[Husseini] was recognized by Arab leaders,” she elaborated. “He attended conferences and meetings and so on and so forth, but he really didn’t have the power and after the war, in retrospect, he was seen by many Palestinian intellectuals and others as a person who harmed the Palestinian cause rather than helped it.”
Nevertheless, even though he lost some of his influence after 1937, Webman asserts that Husseini continued to have a following and “encouraged violence.” His followers, she says, “would terrorize other Palestinians with different views.”
Unlike the mufti, his political adversaries in Palestine – such as the influential Nashashibi clan – were prepared to compromise with the British and allow for the land to be divided into two areas, one Jewish and one Arab.
“There were a whole range of attitudes toward Nazi Germany,” Webman continued. “Unfortunately, the image of the mufti and his collaboration with the Nazis kind of paints everything else, which is really unrepresentative of the situation.”
‘Many Questions Remain to Be Answered’
So why is the story of Arab Palestinian soldiers fighting the Nazis not more widely known?
“The whole topic [in academia] of Nazi Germany and the Middle East or Arab responses to Nazi Germany and to Nazism and fascism started really only in the late 1990s,” Webman said. “It’s not that it was excluded intentionally, but now it is really part of a growing area of research and many questions remain to be answered.”
Dr. David Motadel, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), discusses the Palestinian soldiers in his book “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” (Harvard University Press, 2014).
“It is correct that there has never been a major public debate about these soldiers,” Motadel affirmed to The Media Line. “The same is true for other volunteers from the imperial world who fought in the Second World War. The contribution of colonial soldiers to the war effort has been marginalized in our popular narratives of the Second World War.”
He described the number of Palestinian soldiers in the British army as “relatively small” compared to the numbers of volunteers from other parts of the empire.
“The British Indian Army, for example, grew to more than two million men during the war,” Motadel explained. “Still, Arabs played a major role in the Allied war effort. We should not forget the legendary Arab Legion of Transjordan, which fought under British command in different parts of the Middle East.”
From French North Africa, he stated, 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans and 26,000 Tunisians helped the Allied forces liberate Europe.
Like Webman, Motadel argues that the Arab reaction to Nazism “is difficult to assess” due to the diverse range of opinions and the absence of a dominant narrative.
“In Mandate Palestine, parts of the Arab population sided with Nazi Germany – the enemy of their imperial oppressor,” he clarified. “We should not underestimate, as in other parts of the imperial world, anti-British resentments. Yet, on the other side… there was also much criticism of Europe’s authoritarian regimes and sympathy for the Allied cause.”
One of the main divisions that emerged at the time was between the influential Husseini family, which supported the Axis efforts, and its rivals, the Nashashibi clan, which supported the Allied powers.
For Abbasi, one of the goals of his research is to shed light on a lesser-known chapter of 20th century history and expose how Arab Palestinians and Jews once worked together.
“In the history of two peoples in this land, there are positive periods filled with cooperation,” Abbasi said. “If we did this in the past, it’s possible that we can do the same in the future. It all depends on us.”