The present day territories of Israel and Palestine have been the epicentre of religious conflict for centuries. Down the ages the desire to possess this sliver of land, a Holy Land, had led the followers of a dozen gods and their countless aspects to slaughter each other. Locations central to the lore of all three Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, lie in this territory - and for the believers no price seems too high to pay for possessing it. Within these religions themselves numerous denominations jostle for control over shrines and sites of significance, each convinced that their way is the truth. The lives of billions are tied to contentious debates over who owns what in the Holy Land. The holy city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of this conflict.
A watershed event occurred exactly a hundred years ago during World War I, when Ottoman Jerusalem ignobly surrendered to General Allenby. Seven centuries after recapturing it from the Crusader Christians, Muslims had once again lost Jerusalem. The third holiest city in Islam, Jerusalem’s takeover by the kufr, infidel, is perceived as a great transgression by many Muslims. The inflection point of the West Asian conflict may be traced to this event and the events surrounding it. The waves of Jewish immigrations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the formation of Israel, and the current situation in West Asia are a result of this British campaign. The road to the British capture of Jerusalem was quite eventful and has lasting ramifications—and Indians played a part in it.
The Ottoman problem and the Great War
The Holy Lands had been held by the Ottoman Turks since the early 16th century. The possession of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem enabled the Ottoman Emperor to title himself “Caliph of all Muslims”. In World War I (1914-18), Ottoman Turkey aligned with Germany against Britain and her allies. By early 1917 the British were in trouble: in the early phase of the war the Turks had mauled them in Europe and Iraq. Also, the Ottoman Emperor in his capacity as Caliph called on Muslims under the British imperial yoke to rise against their overlords. Though Indian Muslims, especially the thousands serving in the army, did not take up the call to Global Jihad en masse, a few mutinies and insurrections did break out. Many Indian revolutionaries and Pan-Islamist movements latched on to this and launched numerous operations such as the Ghadar Mutiny, Christmas Day Plot and the Kabul Mission.
The British, in response, utilized the talents of Lawrence of Arabia to aid the Arab rebels against their Turk overlords. British aid to the erstwhile ill-equipped but fanatical tribes of Arabia invigorated the Arab Revolt. By the end of 1916 major cities such as Mecca, Aqaba and Aden had fallen and the Ottoman hold on the Arabian Peninsula was weakening. In January 1917, the British attacked Gaza and Palestine from Egypt, a British protectorate since 1882. For six months the Ottomans and their German allies managed defence, but then the capable General Allenby took charge.
Allenby’s brilliance and Lawrence’s success in Arabia had tipped the scales. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF – “E”) now smashed into the Holy Land. This force was nearly one fifth Indian, many of them Muslims. At this point the well-reported “Jerusalem Syndrome” set into many Christian soldiers. The men could identify each city, town and geographical feature as these names were part and parcel of their religious life. The feeling that they now walk on lands where Jesus and other Biblical figures walked was overwhelming. This instilled religious fervor and even hysteria in many soldiers and officers. Purely military objectives started to get tainted with other considerations. Ever since the Allenby campaign began, the Western press had also contributed by drawing real and imagined parallels from the Bible, and falling back on apocalyptical millenarian themes. Soon the feeling that this campaign was a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims took root. Ministers, top bureaucrats and generals were not immune to this emerging zeitgeist. Moreover, the situation in France was bleak: the victories in the Holy Land seemed portentous and were a welcome respite.
A home for the Jews in the Holy Land
In this environment, Zionists such as Herbert Samuel, the Rothschilds, and Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first President of Israel) were able to influence politicians and swing support for a Jewish home in the Holy Land. Zionism, the movement which sought the return of Jews to Palestine had gained steam in the late 19th century with the worldwide rise of Jews in science, arts and business. Zionism also had the support of powerful Christian denominations which believed that a Jewish state in the Holy Land was a precondition for the fulfilment of Biblical prophecies. The slaughter of tens of thousands in The Great War also fed apocalyptical millenarian views among Christians and Jews—this also hastened the development of the project. American president Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister Lloyd George supported the Zionist cause. In fact, seven out of nine British cabinet ministers were evangelicals who supported Zionism. Efforts of Zionists also created a Jewish Legion in the British Army, veterans of which would later ascend to great heights in the nation of Israel.
Weizmann in particular was very important to the war effort due to his inventions in armament production. His friendship with Lloyd George and the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour led to the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917, which promised a home for all Jews in the Holy Land – albeit in joint ownership with Palestinian Arabs. The declaration was also timed in response to the ongoing October Revolution in Russia which threatened Russian participation in the War. The declaration, it was hoped, would gather the support of influential Russian Jews and perhaps break the revolution.
The Balfour declaration caused widespread condemnation from Muslims worldwide, including leading Indian clerics and politicians. Lord Curzon and Montagu, who had experience governing millions of Indian Muslims remarked that they expected much bloodshed in future in the Holy Land. Deeper intrigue was afoot, as the British, the Russians and the French had secretly decided a year earlier, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to partition West Asia between themselves. The Jews could surely be accommodated in the Holy Land under this top-secret arrangement. This agreement also negated all assurances the British and the French made to the Arabs. The Balfour declaration was anyway momentous—the Jews who were exiled by the Roman Empire in 70 AD could now return to the Holy Land under the aegis of another empire.
The battle for Jerusalem
On 17 November, the British struck at Jerusalem, and Indian units fought admirably in these operations. The defence crumbled quickly and Ottoman and German forces fled. Jerusalem at the time was governed by a highly decadent and corrupt regime. When the soldiers retreated the leadership sought to surrender as fast as possible, leading to farcical situations. Moreover, the leadership feared for the security of the shrines if the attack continued. The first desperate offer for surrender was presented to two British cooks foraging in a deserted farm just outside the city gates. To avoid the parallels to conquerors entering Jerusalem, or Christ riding into Jerusalem, Allenby was ordered to walk into the city to accept the surrender. Jerusalem and adjoining areas now fell under British control. In the coming years the Empire managed to get a mandate to govern the Holy Land – which they did for 30 years with much trouble.
Meanwhile the communists and their allies captured power in Russia. One of their first acts was to expose the Sykes-Picot agreement, on 23 November. Reactions to this revelation from all Arabs and non-Arab Muslims were severe, but the ongoing world war prevented serious opposition. The mood in Jerusalem was charged as news of British-French perfidy spread. Also, many could not accept the loss of the holy city to infidels—or the greater freedoms that Jews and Christians minorities now enjoyed.
Amidst such tension the British were holding on gingerly. Due to the large Muslim population and their Arab allies in the peninsula, the British had to safeguard the Islamic shrines. Moreover, the Ottomans and the Germans were regrouping to the North. The British also had to guard Christian and Jewish shrines and sites from Muslim zealots (and also zealots of opposing denominations within these two faiths). Diplomatic gaffes, triumphalism and religious exhortations could set off the tinderbox at any moment. An avalanche of protocols and regulations flowed from London to avoid this. In fact, the surrender ceremony itself ended in a bad note when Allenby himself declared that “The Crusades have now ended”, to which the Arab dignitaries stormed off from the ceremony.
Indian troops were used for important guard duties: The Muslims would guard the Islamic shrines and Hindu/Sikh units would keep the peace on the streets and hold key points. Contemporary reports point out to the professionalism of Indian troops in such a charged environment. It was also to their credit that they were not swayed by religious fervor and propaganda in the heart of the Holy Land. Indian troops guarded sites such as the all-important Al Aqsa mosque, Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. The reaction of Indian Muslims to the fall of Jerusalem was quite muted, despite the decades-long support for Ottoman-sponsored Pan-Islamism by many Indian leaders. However, the embers of this loss were slow to quench. Emotions would flare up as the Khilafat Movement when the British and their allies attempted to annex the remaining Turkish lands and abolish the Caliphate in 1921.
Jews around the world saw a chance now that Jerusalem was in British hands: over 500,000 would trickle into Palestine over the next 21 years in five waves of emigration called Aliyahs. Once the civil administration was set up in early 1918, the British embarked on further campaigns. The Indian component of the British force was increased in strength and it would take part in major operations till the end of the war. In total, over 100,000 Indians served in this theater and from these nearly 12,000 fell. Thousands more were maimed or wounded.
Involvements of Indians did not end with the war. In the late ‘30s to early ‘40s the vociferous demands and threats of Indian Muslim League and leading clerics were one reason the British withdrew support for Zionism. Jinnah reminded senior British officials that “one in three soldiers who won the Holy Land for the Empire were Indians, and many of them were Muslims”. He warned that continuing support for the Jews and the influx of Jewish immigrants would antagonize Muslims worldwide - including the millions in British India.
The British did pull support for the Jewish home in the ‘40s. However, by then a 600,000-plus strong highly organized and militarized Jewish community was well-established. World War 2 and the Jewish Holocaust followed: in its wake the British relinquished its mandate (after facing a bloody Jewish insurgency), sparking off the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The rest is history.
The bloodletting continues in these lands as a result of these events during World War I. Other conflicts across the globe, even in faraway places such as the Americas and Philippines, also stem from the British actions in the Holy Land. In fact, ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi specifically referred to the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement in one of his videotaped messages. India’s national security is also indirectly tied to the situation in West Asia. It is strange to note that though we did not start the fire, Indian blood helped prime the West Asian conflict a hundred years ago.
• Jenkins, Philip. (2014). The Great and Holy War. HarperCollins.
• Monetfiore, Simon-Sebag. (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. Orion Books.
• Grainger, John D. (2006). The Battle for Palestine. Boydell Press.
• Fromkin, David. (2010). A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Holt Paperbacks.
• Woodward, David R. (2006). Hell in the Holy Land. University Press of Kentucky.
Ananth Karthikeyan is an IIM Ahmedabad alumnus working in the energy sector. He has a keen interest in history, politics and strategic affairs.
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