Victoria Brittain, launching the sixth annual Palestine Book Awards ceremony in London on the wintry evening of 24 November, observed that the venture was a collaboration of academics-cum-activists and small publishers, for whom “books and education are Resistance”. A fitting winner in the academic category was Laila Parson’s biography of Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, “the man who helped direct the Arab Revolt in Palestine”. The biography draws on her doctoral research while at St Antony’s College, Oxford, much guided by another distinguished guest at the Awards evening, Professor Avi Shlaim.
Fawzi (1890-1977) began his career as an officer in the Ottoman army specialising in reconnaissance missions, and in 1917 was posted to Southern Palestine, on a front that determined the fate of Jerusalem. General Allenby’s celebrated entry into the city was far from an unimpeded march of well-ordered platoons to ‘liberate’ its inhabitants. Laila Parsons conveys the atmosphere of combat and struggle:
In late October 1917 the British-Australian assault on the Gaza-Bir Sab’a line hit the Ottoman Army hard and pushed Qawuqji and his unit north toward Jerusalem and Ramallah . . . the small village of Nabi Samuel was regarded by the Ottoman general staff as the key to Jerusalem’s defence: whosoever had control of Nabi Samuel commanded an important road into Jerusalem and a strategic high point overlooking the city. Nabi Samuel changed hands many times over the course of the battle for Jerusalem and eventually ended up under British control . . . That particular autumn the Judean Hills were treacherous terrain. Torrents of rain had made the rock-strewn ground slippery, and there were few paths between the small villages. Horses could not be ridden but had to be led in single file, so that to reach Nabi Samuel, most of the men in Qawuqji’s unit, some with no shoes or just cloth tied to their feet, had to walk over miles of rough wet ground. The German unit that was attached to Qawuqji’s led the attack . . . the commander of the German unit decided that the wisest course was to withdraw that night under cover of darkness. But Qawuqji had fought hard to take the parts of the town that they held and he persuaded the German commander to let him take some men and advance on the British positions . . . We threw all the hand grenades that we had so that the sound of them tore the silence. Then we struck like lightening at the British lines, and the voices of the German soldiers were raised in a loud “Hurrah.” The bayonets did their work and it was not long before the British troops left alive were defeated and withdrew from this area . . .
In the course of such fighting, Jerusalem eventually ended up under British control. Laila Parson’s book follows this battle-hardened soldier’s subsequent career, who in December 1947 was appointed commander in chief of Jaysh al-Inqadh (Arab Liberation Army) and central in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The author refers to Qawuqji’s memoirs to describe some of the debacles in April 1948, with accounts too of the Haganah’s destruction of Palestinian villages that lay close to the kibbutz and the expulsion of inhabitants:
At five o’clock in the evening on Friday, April 9, 1948, around one thousand Jews attacked the village of Abu Shusha al-‘Arabiyya, which was located about fifty metres from the Jewish settlement of Mishmar Haemek. After a fierce battle they took over a section of the village. On Saturday, April 10, they were joined by reinforcements, and we couldn’t hold them back when no reinforcements came to our aid, given that we did not have enough ammunition. They took the rest of the village. After that they burned and destroyed everything in the village while our dead and wounded were still in the battlefield. They did the same in . . .
Parsons notes that Qawuqji tried to exonerate himself for responsibility of the loss, but documents “provide evidence that Mishmar Haemek was a disaster for the Arab side”. She quotes Yosef Weitz, the director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Department, who wrote in his diary in triumphant vein on April 21, 1948:
Our army is steadily conquering Arab villages, and their inhabitants are afraid and fleeing like mice . . . Villages are steadily emptying . . .
In her assessment, Qawuqji underestimated the Haganah’s capacity and his own troops lacked enough ammunition, but “this misjudgement reflected the general attitude of the Arab League’s Military Committee.”
Qawuqji was to witness three further Arab-Israeli wars (1956, 1967, 1973) but from the sidelines. According to his wife, “right before he died, she heard Qawuqji speaking Turkish, as if he were back in the Ottoman Army talking to his fellow officers”.
In a recent book review, Professor Nubulsi finds this work “an essential corrective, offering the first accessible anglophone biography of a leading military/political figure who belonged to that forgotten generation seeking Arab independence and unity in the early part of the twentieth century.”
The author is daughter of the distinguished diplomat Sir Antony Parsons, who served as ambassador in many parts of the Middle East as well as Iran, and was the United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1979 and 1982. It is said of Sir Antony that “if he had one enduring regret it was that as an Englishman and a diplomat with long experience in the field of international affairs, he had not been able to correct the injustices to which, in part through the mistakes of British governments, the Palestinian people had been subjected and are still being subjected today. This was something he felt deeply and which was close to his heart throughout his long involvement with the politics of the Middle East”, [Michael Adams and Tam Dalyell’s obituary in The Independent, 13 August 1996]. Laila Parsons has done her family legacy proud in bringing to public attention the travels and travails of a little-known Palestinian leader. She is currently Associate Professor of History and Islamic Studies at McGill University, Montreal.
This was first published on Salaam, 27 November 2017