No one remembers the Palestine Regiment. Even this morning, on the actual day of remembrance, few will recall that Arab and Jew once fought together under the British flag against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Even fewer will know the extraordinary story of an Arab and a Jew who fought side by side against Hitler, and then twice fought each other as enemy combatants – in 1948 and 1967 – and of how, in their declining years, they became friends. But in a Middle East in which “hawks” and “doves” and “terrorists” and “security forces” battle to the death, their story provides an extraordinary – and shaming – indictment of both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat.
Hazim Khalidi was at the London School of Economics when the Second World War broke out. He volunteered to join the British Army, but was attached to the Indian army’s “Palestine Battalion”. “They weren’t going to have an Arab as a British officer – things were somewhat racist then,” Khalidi’s son Sa’ad says today. “But he was attached to the East Kent Regiment, the ‘Buffs’, and posted to Syria, where he worked with the British brigadier-general Sir Edward Spears, and General Charles de Gaulle.”
Khalidi also became a good friend of a young British intelligence officer in Beirut, Quintin Hogg – later Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone – before the battalion was turned into the Palestine Regiment with 14 companies. Among its soldiers was a young Jewish Palestinian, Uzi Narkiss. Both men were posted to support the Poles and the Eighth Army in Libya, and in their battle with the Afrika Korps in 1942.
Arab and Jewish dead lie today in the El Alamein war cemetery. But within months the Haganah, which was to form part of a future Israeli army, infiltrated the regiment and persuaded its Jewish servicemen – angry that they had not seen more action against the Germans – to replace the Union Jack over their camp with the Star of David. The British called it the “Flag Mutiny” and disbanded the Palestine Regiment. Most of the Arabs drifted back to Palestine. The Jewish part of the regiment became the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and fought in Italy.
“My father was one of the few Palestinians who stayed on,” Sa’ad says. “He was flown to the UK, retrained at the staff college at Camberley and finished the war as an officer in the Welsh Guards under Lord Mountbatten.”
Within three years, however, Khalidi was fighting to prevent Jerusalem falling to the soldiers of the new Israeli state, one of whom was Uzi Narkiss. He prevented Narkiss’s unit from reaching the Old City. But when the Six Day War broke out 19 years later, the two men were fighting each other again. This time Narkiss was commanding two Israeli brigades against Khalidi’s six Jordanian army platoons who had been abandoned by King Hussain. Almost all of Khalidi’s men fought to the death on Ammunition Hill, earning the admiration of Narkiss and his Israeli soldiers. Khalidi’s platoons were armed only with old British Lee Enfield rifles and the 25-pounder guns they had used at El Alamein. Khalidi, who was also deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was one of the two Palestinian Arabs who formally surrendered Jerusalem to Narkiss.
“When Narkiss found out what had happened in the battle, he and [Moshe] Dayan insisted on erecting a memorial with full military honours on Ammunition Hill to the brave Jordanian platoons who died there – despite [Prime Minister] Golda Meir’s protests,” Sa’ad Khalidi says.
His father was to die in 1979 after becoming the first Palestinian leader in the West Bank; the late Feisel Husseini would take over his job. Narkiss died only three years ago. Yet in his last years Khalidi was among the first Palestinians to hold face-to-face talks with the Israelis, and his friendship with Narkiss lasted until his death.
Another Israeli friend was Adin Talbar, who fought alongside Khalidi and Narkiss in 1942 and who was in the Israeli Foreign Ministry during Meir’s premiership. He kept contact with Sa’ad after his father’s death.
“My father had to keep much of this secret,” Sa’ad says. “He was worried about being accused of being a ‘quisling’ to the Israelis, a collaborator. But he tried to create a peace process between Palestinian and Israeli. The very latest attempt to create a plan in opposition to the American `road-map’ echoes some of his realism. Before his death he made a BBC programme with the Israeli writer Amos Oz – and Oz is now seeking to champion the new alternative peace ‘plan’.”
Of course, the names of both Khalidi and Narkiss are no longer mentioned in the cruel conflict that consumes Israel and Palestine. Neither is the Palestine Regiment, whose 61st anniversary fell this year. Nor were the dead of the Palestine Regiment – Arab and Jew – commemorated by the Queen at the Cenotaph on Sunday.
Courtesy Josh Kirby