Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Your Terrorist Is His Freedom Fighter?

At the beginning of this month, there was a story involving Jewish "terror".  Remember?  No?  Here:

Elyahu Bet-Zuri suggested sending agents of the Stern Gang, a terrorist group dedicated to forcing the British out of Palestine, to London to kill the prime minister.  MI5 was concerned that Jewish extremists might try to assassinate other leading British politicians, in particular the post-war foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, files released to the National Archives reveal.  Major James Robertson, from the agency's Middle East section, said threats made by Bet-Zuri in November 1944 were disclosed by another member of the Stern Gang who was arrested in April 1945.

The suspect revealed: "As soon as he [Bet-Zuri] returned to Stern Group headquarters he proposed to suggest a plan for the assassination of highly placed British political personalities, including Mr Churchill, for which purpose emissaries should be sent to London."   But Maj Robertson noted: "The above information does not, as you will see, amount to very much...


So. were these Arabs "terrorists"?   These:

At midday on Friday, 12 June 1936 by Lions’ Gate just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, two armed Palestinians, Bahjat Abu Gharbiyah and Sami al-Ansari, both teachers aged respectively twenty and eighteen, ambushed a car containing British acting Assistant Superintendent Alan Sigrist and his guard, British Constable Edmund Doxat. The assailants’ primary target was the senior officer, Sigrist, not Doxat. This was after almost two months into the Arab revolt in Palestine during which Palestinian and Arab rebels targeted British officials, in protest against Britain’s policy of supporting Jewish immigration and settlement to the country. Sigrist was on his regular tour of the British police guarding the gates of the Old City but as it was also the day for Friday prayers, British security was tighter than usual. As a young a cousin of al-Ansari, Serene Husseini, recalled: “as the time for noon prayers drew closer. The streets were heavy with anger. As men and women entered the gates of the al Aqsa Mosque their faces betrayed worry and sadness.”1

Sigrist was driving a left-hand drive car on the right side of the road as cars had been introduced to Palestine in the Ottoman era, before the British – who drive on the left – arrived in 1917.2 Doxat sat to Sigrist’s right in the passenger seat armed with a British Army-issue Lee-Enfield rifle as well as a Service revolver pistol. As the two men drove away from St. Stephen’s Gate following Sigrist’s visit to the police picket there, the assassins, who had been tracking Sigrist’s daily schedule, struck on the Jericho road just outside, shooting Sigrist as he was returning to Herod’s Gate on the incline by the Muslim cemetery a few meters before the turn at the northeast corner of the Old City walls. Sigrist being on the road-side of the car meant that the two assassins had to step into the middle of the road to shoot him, and as both men aimed at Sigrist this left Doxat temporarily free to return fire. The assassins had chosen this spot as Sigrist’s car slowed on the incline before the turning; Abu Gharbiyah’s memory is that both men were “calm and in full control of the situation” when they launched their attack.3

In June 2009, Abu Gharbiyah, now ninety-three, consented to an interview with this author at his home in Amman, Jordan.4 His recollections supplemented by contemporary records provide a useful counter-narrative to the traditional British account of undiluted rebel terrorism, and one that this essay will go on to describe in an attempt to explore the contested terrain of who used violence in Palestine at this time and for what purpose. Using the shooting of Sigrist as a case study opens up wider debates on official and unofficial aggression, complementing recent academic studies on Britain’s use of force in Palestine at this time, and giving voice to what Edward Said has described as the “invisible and inaudible” Palestinians who fought the British in the late 1930s.5 That said, oral history and memory have their pitfalls. Thus, a British Palestine police contemporary of Sigrist (and present at his funeral some twenty years ago) read this author’s account of Sigrist’s activities in Jerusalem and remembered Sigrist as a “pleasant chap and a bit of a scholar,” a description that jars with the account that follows of Sigrist’s violence directed at Palestinians, as readers will discover.6

The shooting of Sigrist gets little mention in the literature, not surprising considering the large number of attacks on British officials during the revolt in Palestine. In Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete (2000), the outrage is recorded simply as, “a young Arab [al-Ansari] opened fire on the car of a Jerusalem police officer, wounding him. A British soldier returned fire; the Arab was hit and later died.”7 The Palestine Post reported that the two assassins had hidden below the side of the Jericho road before the attack, a claim refuted by Abu Gharbiyah who later wrote that they were both walking openly in the street; other accounts have the men jumping on and, in one case, into the car.8 Abu Gharbiyah hid his weapon under his tarbush while al-Ansari’s was in his pocket – both men had automatic pistols, Abu Gharbiyah an Italian Beretta and al-Ansari a French Lafayette.9 Abu Gharbiyah and al-Ansari fired together from about a meter away at Sigrist who was inside the car, shooting him twice in the chest and shoulder (or, more likely, one round caused both wounds), the latter a serious wound. The secondary target, Doxat, sat alongside his superior officer struggling with his rifle inside the confined space of the car. Abu Gharbiyah and al-Ansari had agreed to fire slowly but Doxat managed to return fire with his pistol that he had previously drawn on seeing the two men loitering in the area, so al-Ansari shouted at Abu Gharbiyah to shoot more rapidly.10 Doxat was quick to react as he was returning fire at the same time or even before the two assassins opened up with their weapons on Sigrist, shooting at first to his left across his comrade and through his open window, a decisive reaction that would surely have deafened Sigrist.11 Doxat and the assassins also exchanged bullets through the shattered windscreen. In the mêlée, al-Ansari emptied his pistol and ran off, wounded, shot by Doxat in the fire-fight. His direction of flight is uncertain, either to the south and east towards Gethsemane and the Kidron valley, or to the north towards Wadi el-Joz, according to Abu Gharbiyah.12 Abu Gharbiyah fired off his last rounds at Doxat, some or all of the bullets deflected by the car’s (reinforced) glass or bodywork, aware that by chance an Army-escorted Jewish Potash Company convoy was approaching from the southeast. Sigrist had slumped back when shot, releasing his feet from the car’s pedals, so Doxat had shot al-Ansari while inside a vehicle rolling backwards, under fire, pulling on the hand-brake, and alongside his badly wounded superior officer – no mean feat...

...during the revolt Palestinians attacked British police officers, soldiers and officials, including high-profile victims such as British police Inspector-General R. G. B. Spicer who in 1937 had a narrow escape when a would-be assassin emptied his pistol into his car at point-blank range as he was being driven through the gates of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem.26 On 28 May 1936, inside Jerusalem’s Old City, rebels killed British Constable Robert (or Ronald) Bird with three shots from the window of a building, one of which went through his heart.27 At the same time as the Sigrist shooting, rebels tried to kill J. A. M. Faraday, Deputy Superintendent in Nazareth.28 Certainly, being a British official made someone a target but the rebels also discriminated, picking on particularly hated authority figures such as the pro-Zionist Assistant District Commissioner in Galilee, Lewis Andrews, who was shot dead leaving church in Nazareth on 26 September 1937. In Jenin on 24 August 1938, an assassin shot nine times and killed acting Assistant District Commissioner W. S. S. Moffat, “known for his bad behaviour,” a man who, Abu Gharbiyah claims, lined up Palestinian villagers during the revolt and shot every fifth man when hidden rifles were not produced for the authorities.29 In Moffat’s case, the British quickly apprehended the assassin after the murder – he was, apparently, a blond hunchback and so rather visible – after which in the tradition of al-Ansari he died in custody, trying to escape, despite his disability and being surrounded by fit, young British soldiers.30 “Shot trying to escape” is a recurring phrase in British files. Then again, the Arabs nicknamed Moffat’s assassin, “Mohammed,” “gazelle” because he was so swift.31 (Jewish files in the Haganah archive tell the remarkable tale that Moffat’s assassin, ‘Ali Muhammad el-Mahmoud, dressed up as a hunchback, leaving Jenin’s genuine hunchback to face the music. British soldiers shot the innocent “real” hunchback.)32

Similarly, in Abu Gharbiyah’s memoirs, he recalled how some forty days after the attempt on Sigrist he attacked two Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen, near the same spot as the 12 June assault, shooting them with a pistol hidden inside his tarbush.33 This is a reference to the shooting by an “unknown assailant” of Aircraftsman C. D. White and a colleague on the Jericho road near Gethsemane on 10 August 1936.34 White died; the other man was wounded. Significantly, Abu Gharbiyah claimed that he had picked the two men because of the RAF’s aerial bombing of rebels in the countryside of Palestine. Indeed, before attacking them, he had considered targeting a Jewish carpentry shop in the Old City, near al-Ansari’s house, but had subsequently changed his mind, “since the English were the main enemies.”35 “

There's more there.

What say you?


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