Sur Baher, occupied East Jerusalem – In the village he defended from Zionist militias 70 years ago, Muhammad Mahmoud Jadallah is celebrated as a “blessing”.
Born in 1921, the 97-year-old, known as Abu Nihad, witnessed the unfolding of what has been dubbed by some as “the world’s most intractable conflict”.
He is one of the few Palestinian men who fought against Zionist gangs in 1948 and is alive today to tell the tale.
Sitting on a sofa in his humble home in Sur Baher, a town on the southeastern edges of Jerusalem, Abu Nihad recounts his memories with impressive detail.
He takes pride in his recall, pausing in between sentences to say: “See how well I remember?”
Photographs from his time as a “freedom fighter” – as he describes himself – and of his father who was part of the resistance against British occupation, line his living room walls.
In the corner, a well-organised cabinet is filled with nearly a hundred years of photos, letters and documents bearing witness to his eventful past.
Abu Nihad was born at a critical time in Palestine’s history; three years after Britain occupied the country with a declared goal of creating a Jewish state there.
Zionist immigration from Europe to Palestine, facilitated by the British, was increasing dramatically, displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians from their lands.
“There was a lot of injustice against the Palestinians,” he says.
“The Palestinians were being attacked from two fronts; on the one hand the Jews were taking our lands, and on the other, the British were occupying us.”
As a young man, he worked in hospitality, becoming head waiter in some of the most prestigious hotels in Jerusalem.
At one point, Abu Nihad became the supervisor of the British officers’ club at the largest British military base in Sarafand in the heart of historic Palestine.
“I oversaw the serving of the meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – for the officers.”
By 1944, tensions were particularly high. The British tried on several occasions to curtail Zionist immigration, leading Jewish armed groups to launch large-scale attacks on British authorities.
“They [Zionists] attacked the ones who fostered them and brought them to Palestine in the first place. Many of them had served and worked with the British army particularly in World War II.
“Many women also used to undergo what they called ATS at the time – Auxiliary Territorial Service,” he says, referring to the women’s branch of the British army carrying out non-combat duties.
In the years leading up to 1948, two different forces were forming to fight against Zionist forces.
While the Arab League was scouting for volunteers from Arab countries to fight, a local and well-respected leader, Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, was building his own irregular Palestinian force, al-Jihad al-Muqadas.
Counting on the Arab League to provide his group with weapons, al-Husseini selected hundreds of young Palestinians to attend military training in Syria, including Abu Nihad.
“We left Jerusalem on a bus based on orders from the Arab Higher Committee,” Abu Nihad says, referring to the main Palestinian political organ prior to 1948.
From the town of Safad near the Syrian border, the men were led by Palestinian nationalist Subhi al-Khadra, who was known for his large citrus fruit groves on the Jordan River.
“When we got to the groves, there were Syrian officers on the other side of the river. They stretched a rope across to us, and we used it to cross the river,” says the former fighter, his eyes lighting up as he remembers the excitement of preparing to defend his homeland.
The men were taken to the Qatana military base near Damascus.
“We trained for three months. We’d go out and march up hills, practise using guns, throw grenades, all kinds of things.
“Every Thursday we would go to the baths, put on some formal clothes, and head to Damascus. We’d spend the night in the city, and return to the base the next morning to continue training.”
But by the time the group returned to Palestine, the Arab League had refused to supply them with weapons, claiming it didn’t have the arms. In fact, it simply didn’t have faith in al-Husseini’s guerrilla movement.
Al-Husseini, who was in Damascus asking for help, stormed out of a meeting with the Arab League shouting: “You’re all traitors, and history will record that you lost Palestine.”
“Abd al-Qader al-Husseini returned to Palestine heartbroken,” says Abu Nihad.
While the Zionist ethnic cleansing campaign of Palestine had started immediately after the United Nations recommended the partition plan in November 1947, the Arab-Israeli war began on May 15, 1948, shortly after Israel declared statehood and the British ended their mandate.
“When the war broke out, not one British soldier emerged from Sarafand armed. Zionist militias took complete control of the base, taking all the weapons.
“This gave the Jews an upper hand in the war against us. We made do with whatever we could. We had nothing. There were some weapons they [Palestinians] took from the British army – some people traded their belongings for weapons.”
When the UN recommended the partition of Palestine into “Arab” and “Jewish” states, the first phase of the Nakba was unleashed.
Although law and order was meant to be guaranteed under the British administration until their mandate ended on May 15, 1948, Zionist groups attacked and expelled some 440,000 Palestinians from 220 villages, before the British pulled out.
This well-planned, unexpected offensive was the Zionist forces’ key to success.
By March 1948, there were around 50,000 Zionist fighters against some 2,500 Palestinian fighters who were bolstered slightly by the arrival of 4,000 Arab volunteers who came to help liberate Palestine.
While Zionist forces had acquired armoured vehicles, tanks, aircraft and advanced artillery, Palestinians made do with small numbers of light arms and mortars.
On April 9, Zionist forces committed one of the worst massacres in Deir Yassin, executing about 110 civilians and raping several women.
The events of that day terrified Palestinians, and families fled the violence seeking a safe haven.
“They annihilated the entire village. The news spread over Palestine, and, immediately after that, many packed their bags and began leaving – which is what the Jews intended to happen.”
His village, Sur Baher, was near five Jewish colonies and therefore a strategic location for the remaining Palestinian forces; it was attacked at the end of May that year.
“We had to defend the whole area of southern Jerusalem,” Abu Nihad says.
There were about 100 fighters alongside him, including men from Egypt.
“We patrolled the area on a 24-hour basis and formed a strong defensive position.
“Every night, before the soldiers went to the front lines, our commander would give us a code word to be used for safe passage.
“He always chose a word that starts with the letter ‘haa’ (in Arabic) – like ‘hilou (nice)’, ‘haleeb’ (milk), ‘halawa’ (sweets).
“I asked him why he did that, he said: ‘because the Jews are immigrants, not one of them can pronounce the letter ‘haa’.”
Even though Abu Nihad had helped protect his village, the larger Zionist military operation that had begun in April 1948 proved to be the start of many losses.
When asked whether he foresaw the outcome of the war, Abu Nihad says it was inevitable.
“The Palestinian people were defenceless. Compared to the Jews, we had no weapons. We received very little help.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to be defeated.”
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