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Why I sympathize with the Palestinians

By Alick Cameron


These are the observations and analyses of a British doctor who was serving in Palestine as the 'nakba' (catastrophe) emerged. Dr Alick Cameron MB ChB MD DO MRCGP DHMSA qualified from Edinburgh University in 1946 and spent most of his medical life as a general practitioner in Britain. ~ David Halpin.

On occasions lately I have been challenged on my support for the Palestinian cause. In order to clarify my position I decided to put it down in writing. This piece has no literary pretensions, nor is it, except in a limited and personal way, any sort of history of the conflict.

In 1947, as a recently qualified doctor, I was called up to do my two years National Service, being posted to Palestine.

I had little idea what to expect, apart from what I read in the papers, supplemented by books. I was already familiar with the T.E.Lawrence genre, and the excellent Orientations, by Ronald Storrs. Britain was responsible for administering the country under an international mandate, set up in 1920; the country was occupied mainly by Arabs, but there was a powerful movement of Jews wishing to take over the country, mainly from Europe, who sought to bypass the quotas for immigration laid down by the administration, causing a flood of "illegal" immigrants.

Many of these were the poor and oppressed remnants of the Nazi death camps. I had been horrified by the holocaust, who had not? In fact as a senior medical student I had volunteered to go to Belsen and been accepted, only to be thwarted at the last moment because some colleagues ahead of me had contracted typhus. The papers contained frequent reports too about terrorist atrocities against British soldiers, something I later experienced at first hand when a Red Cross vehicle in which I was traveling was blown up by a terrorist operating a roadside bomb.

Jewish terrorism was naturally much on our minds. Among the many peaceful would- be settlers were some violent people, grouped in such organizations as the Stern gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, whose chief, Menachem Begin, was later to be prime minister of Israel. They were prepared to stop at nothing, firstly to kill British soldiers, and ultimately, it turned out, to evict the indigenous Palestinians from their homeland.

I think I was not prepared for the magnitude of the operation. 100,000 troops, in tented camps, surrounded by barbed wire, were required – this at a time when Britain was severely impoverished by the war in Europe. It seems as if the King David Hotel Massacre, at the centre of British Administration in July 1946, when 91 people were killed, had been the turning point when the problem was handed over to the UN. The UN response was to recommend partition of the country, but the terms proposed had been manifestly so unfair to the Arabs that the British declined to have anything to do with it.

I arrived in Palestine in early 1947, via a troopship to Port Said. Once ashore and deposited in Palestine we were, even as medics, required to carry revolvers and never allowed to venture out unaccompanied. All during that year there was endless discussion over the mechanics of partition and many of us spectators looked on in amazement as this supposedly neutral body proceeded in a grossly unfair way to favour one side against the other. Despite large-scale immigration the Jews still formed less than a third of Palestine in 1947 – even in the proposed Jewish state there were more Arabs than Jews. The Arabs, 70% of the total population, and owning 92% of the land, were allocated 47% of their country, while the Jews, 30% of the population, received 53%. In the Beersheba area an Arab population of 103,820 was supposed to submit to 1,020 Jews. Not surprisingly, the Arabs, owners of the land for generations, rejected it out of hand. On 29 November the General Assembly of the UN, with heavy lobbying from the US, voted in favour of the partition proposals. American influence was blatant and the trickle of arms (including tanks and aircraft) for the Israelis became a flood.

The British set 15th May 1948 for the end of the mandate, and sporadic fighting broke out between the two sides following the UN vote in early 1948. Jewish terror tactics, previously directed at the British, were now targeted on Arab villages, a notorious example being the village of Deir Yassin when Irgun terrorists slew 254 civilians on 9th April. Attacks followed on other villages, many being purposefully destroyed. Palestine was painfully dismembered and Deir Yassin appeared as a cynical act of intimidation to trigger the mass exodus of refugees.

My connection with Palestine was now temporarily suspended, being sent home to do a parachuting course. I was by now too involved with the unfolding of events there not to continue to follow them at a distance. On the day Israel declared its independence on 14th May there were already 300,000 Palestinian refugees, and Zionist forces had already occupied large chunks of territory designated for the proposed Arab state. By the winter of 1948 about 800,000 Palestinians had become homeless. I quietly simmered with the injustice of it and the irony that Jews were now indulging in the sort of persecution of which they had complained – with justification – for centuries. I was uncomfortable too with the part Britain had played in all this, from the peace settlement after the Great War, the Balfour Declaration, and much since. The empty rhetoric of neighbouring Arab states on the Palestinians’ behalf did not cut much ice.

My military service ended in March 1949. After considering my position, I volunteered to go to Jordan to which huge numbers of Palestinians had fled, and where there was a British Red Cross commission. The large, tented camp to which I was sent numbered 17000 people. The young newly qualified Jordanian doctor there was about to go to the US for postgraduate study. Nursing and ‘welfare’ staff, truly remarkable ladies, all British, were already well-installed. Of locally employed staff there was a midwife and a pharmacist, and a number of willing helpers among the refugees, to whom we were able to pay a small wage. Among these was Mohammed Issa Shorbaji, who became my righthand man, and whose qualities and intelligence shone like a beacon and on whom I came to depend completely. He kept all the records in the clinic, though he had no medical experience, acted as interpreter and my tutor in Arabic.

I was immediately won over by the inmates themselves, enduring the discomfort of canvas tents, knowing that their own homes were occupied by strangers, from which they had been hounded with great brutality; existing now on only basic rations, with limited opportunity for employment and no visible future, they were patient and uncomplaining, seeming to show no bitterness, only a philosophical acceptance of their lot. If I visited a sick person in their tent, I could not escape without being offered a glass of tea, nor in the whole time that I was there was anything stolen, though all my belongings were permanently unlocked and accessible.

The day’s routine started at 7 a.m., broke off at 12.30, resumed at 5pm, until 7 or 8. Consultations (about 3000 per month) and minor surgery (about 50 per month) were done in the tented clinic; when I was single handed the anaesthetic was given by a nurse. Major surgery went to the Red Cross hospital at Salt, about 2 hrs by road to the South and West. Of necessity, my medical education developed fast.

The camp was situated alongside the pretty little village of Sukneh, about ten miles north of Amman, the capital. In November it was decided to move the whole camp to the Jordan valley, to land presented by King Abdullah where there were three wells with mechanical pumps. This exercise presented considerable logistical difficulties. We had sent on advance parties to prepare the site, dig latrines, etc. The actual journey lasted a week and was more or less completed by mid-December, all families traveling by lorry, together with baggage, goats, chickens, etc. One advantage was that we were able to construct more substantial medical and administrative buildings, made with home made bricks of clay and straw (in biblical style) in place of the former tents.

The name of the new camp was Al Karameh, it was situated on the East bank of the Jordan river, about three miles from Jericho.

During 1950 the Red Cross operation in Jordan was wound up, and succeeded by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). I was offered a job by WHO in the Gaza strip, but declined, partly on the grounds of health (I had been off-colour for some time) and partly because I wanted to return home to do some postgraduate study.

My friend Mohammed Issa (Abu Hassan) Shorbaji stayed on in the camp with his large family. He did not at that stage have much option. He had been a gardener on an RAF station at Aqir and succeeded in starting a very successful market garden at Karameh, creating an intensive irrigation system from the wells. Truck loads of vegetables went each week to Jerusalem, and his several brothers and other relatives were employed in the business. He prospered and in 1967 he moved to Tabouk in northern Saudi Arabia, where he became farm manager to a judge. We continued to correspond to the end of his life. He came in 1979, with his wife, to visit me when I was living in Kent, asking me to arrange a visit to a dairy farm, which I was happy to do. Out of curiosity in 1958, I asked him to put down in writing how he came to leave his village in Palestine, when he would have been about 25. He replied:-

‘I was driven out of Zarnouka village, near Rehovoth, on May 15 (the day the British mandate was over). Our village was attacked by the Jews at 3 o’clock in the morning. At that time I got up and heard the people of our village in great disorder. I went directly to the mosque and called the people to prayer (which we call ‘Adan’). As we began to pray the Jewish army attacked the mosque. They began to shoot and throw hand bombs, but we continued our prayer. My house was about 200 metres from the mosque; my mother hearing the bombs thought that I must have been killed, so she ran quickly to the mosque among the heavy shots. The enemy threw a hand bomb and my mother fell on it to save me…and that was the end of her life. At sunrise they entered the mosque and shot many of us and took the rest captive. As for me, I was left beside my mother that lay dead in the mosque, guarded by two soldiers. One of these guards searched me and took my watch, a gold ring and £50…’ My friend spoke Hebrew fluently and he heard them discussing whether or not they should kill him. There was a good deal more in the same vein.

He was then imprisoned throughout the following year, under very harsh conditions. Mohammed Issa was a devout Muslim, but my own religion was never a problem for him. He remembered that I had visited the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem at Christmas 1949. When he visited me in Kent he requested that I would take him to a church, which I did; he asked me then if it would cause any offence if he said a prayer, and I assured him that it would not, so he knelt in front of the altar and prayed in the Muslim fashion.

A few months later I had a telephone call from Saudi Arabia. It was his eldest son calling to tell me that his father had died suddenly from a heart attack.

After more than half a century the Palestinians are still the same people, but the world has not listened to their cries; inevitably their attitudes have hardened, as more and more Israelis settle on their land, as their olive groves and orange trees are bulldozed, as their children are slaughtered, their houses bombed and reduced to rubble. Separated by razor wire and a monstrous wall from their land, humiliated constantly by officious guards at check points: suicide bombs would not be our way, nor would it have been the way of the gentle people I knew in Karameh in 1949, but regrettably a few have taken this route through desperation, through despair, through the constant threat of genocide.

Alick Cameron