Raphael Israeli on Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-1948, by Hillel Cohen

, December 17, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


Collaboration in the Crosshairs of History

Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-1948, by Hillel Cohen, UC Press, 2008, 268 pp + notes, bibliography and index

Reviewed by Raphael Israeli


This timely study helps to fill in the substantial gaps in our knowledge of an otherwise unpleasant and embarrassing issue, Palestinian “collaboration with the Zionist enemy.” The subject is sensitive, because any turncoat, whatever his loyalties, leaves us with a sense of contempt and suspicion, no matter how great his service to our cause. There is a certain anxiety that those who betrayed their own people are more likely to betray others when their perceived interest in doing so prevails.

To be sure, the deeds of the collaborators in our favor greatly mitigate some aspects of their otherwise disagreeable acts, and it is easy to be tempted by the illusion that such individuals recognized the justice of our cause, but in fact a whole range of considerations may have come into play, such as jealousy, political rivalry, family feuds and personal vendettas, in addition to the prospect of economic gain and favor-seeking from the enemy, a sense of adventure, and the tribal loyalty which has always been superior to national commitment in Arab society.

The picture which Cohen deftly paints is nuanced, composite and balanced. Although there were large numbers of Palestinians ready to sell their land to the Jews, and to inform on Arab militants, and sometimes even fight their fellow Arabs who were locked into a life or death battle with the Jews, there were other Palestinian Arabs who were willing to condemn and actively scuttle land sales and cooperation with the Jews, kill Jews and their Arab collaborators.

Can we label all these “profiteers” as collaborators and all their opponents “patriots”? Hardly, since often the land sales or the trading of information with Zionists, far from being motivated by the ideological commitment which would characterize collaboration, emanated solely from personal interest or rivalry. Conversely, those who adamantly opposed what they perceived as national treason were often motivated by personal jealousies or ongoing quarrels with the “collaborators”, and their “patriotic” rhetoric was intended only to justify their blood-letting vendettas.

Occasionally, the very same people, simultaneously or within a short span of years, played the double role of hotly denouncing Zionism and secretly helping the Zionists. What are we to make of these contradictions? Cohen’s meticulous and detailed study of the issue of collaboration throughout all regions of Palestine during the Mandate period leaves little doubt that that there is a need to consider this subject differently from similar activities in other parts of the world, such as pro-Nazi collaboration in wartime Europe. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the newly emancipated Arabs who had divided their local and universal loyalties between their village and the Empire found themselves without a Sultan or his Pashas to whom they paid homage, and they gave their allegiance with their tribes.

This accounts for the very loose definitions of patriotism and its corollary, treason. When the overarching imperial-Islamic identity of Istanbul faltered, all the alternative local loyalties which began to emerge, including the local Arab national-patriotic movements (wataniya) by definition competed, thus leaving a great deal of latitude to individuals, families, clans, villages and tribes to take a stand, place their own interests over the “national” which had not yet come into being, and refute accusations that they were “traitors” to a hypothetical “national” cause.

Moreover, Hillel Cohen considers the era of the British Mandate over Palestine, where the Mandatory Power was the sovereign, and therefore there was no clear violation of any national Arab sovereignty. The Arabs, though much more numerous than the Jews, were only one of the communities, admittedly the prevalent one, which sought to strengthen its position in the country without necessarily submitting to Husseini’s definition of loyalty and treason. The continuation of Arab collaboration with Israel after 1948 (which is beyond the purview of this excellent book) may be explained partially by the lack of a Palestinian independent entity.

Only after the Oslo Accords of 1993, when such a sovereign Palestinian entity began to materialize, did the line between patriotism and collaboration become clearer. Punishments meted out to the “traitors” become more acceptable among the Palestinian public, and presumably the volume of collaboration shrunk considerably, though it could not be totally eliminated, as the examples of unfortunate Palestinian (and Lebanese) collaborators indicate.

The persistence of collaboration today also begs another question: why is it essentially unilateral? True, there are isolated cases of Jews who crossed to the Palestinian or Arab side, mainly for ideological reasons and usually with no material gain involved. But the relatively massive, recurrent collaboration of Arabs with Israel (not necessarily with Zionism), whatever the ongoing events, seems to defy the expectation that the rise of Palestinian nationalism should reduce collaboration. Is it because one seeks to collaborate with the strong rather than the weak, with the winner rather than the loser? Is this trend among Arabs related to secular loyalties, such as tribe and family, which tend to be unaffected by nationalism since they have different notions of what constitutes loyalty and treason? Lastly, collaboration may be more restricted among religiously committed factions such as Hizbullah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Questions in this vein, prompted from each page of this fascinating book, emerge from the depiction of an otherwise tranquil and serene rural setting, far from the violence of the cities where all the major riots were fomented (1921, 1936 etc.). The accusations of “treason” against one’s own people and collaboration are essentially described as human stories with which we cannot help but identify. These narratives of behind the scenes “treason” become a sub-text in the official history of conflict, violence, killings, competition, uprooting and uncompromising struggle.

For instance, it is otherwise hard to explain how, in the midst of a bitter combat that started in the Arab Maliha village in Jerusalem against Jewish positions (2), our protagonist Sheikh Sa’id Musa Darwish not only sold land to Jews but also prevented other Arabs from attacking Jewish positions. A Jewish counter-attack forced the Sudanese forces which supposedly defended the village to flee together with the defenseless villagers, who were replaced by Jewish new immigrants. A sprawling upper-class Jewish neighborhood was built after 1967 on this highly disputed land. Indeed, this is the story of hundreds of other places throughout the country.

All this rich texture of events and sub-events, many of which are undocumented in history books, both conventional and revisionist, shows us that most of what happened underground had a real, lasting, but unseen  effect on events and developments. We owe Hillel Cohen a great debt for his extraordinary study of this micro-history and for placing this subject in its larger context. For example, we learn from Cohen that the struggle did not superficially consist of two parties, one Jewish and one Arab.

Just as there were considerable differences of opinion between revisionist-nationalistic circles which occasioned, for example, the Altalena mishap, so were there deep rifts not only between various Arab parties who meddled in Palestine, but also among the Palestinians like Darwish who sought a close relationship to the Jews, believing that an understanding with them could bring prosperity and peace to all. Darwish rejected those who followed the totally negative and rejectionist approach of the Mufti and his followers which in the end brought misery to the Jews and disaster to the Palestinians.

In this light, or rather obscurity, who is then the “traitor” to the Palestinian cause? Or were the “collaborators” with the Zionists the true seekers of peace and accommodation for their people, who could have prevented the war altogether or ended it faster and more favorably for their people than what the so-called naqba produced in its wake? During the war, this line of thought generated local understandings and agreements between reluctant villages which sought to protect themselves by not joining the Kaukji Army in the general onslaught against the Jews, despite of the fact that they were more numerous than the Jews and could have tipped the balance had they followed the aggressive pattern which they judged was not in their interest.

Therefore, in the balance of power relationships which decided the outcome of 1948, and possibly the results of subsequent wars between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, one needs to take a hard look at the contribution of “collaborators” on the Arab side, when weighing all the components of these wars. Simply put, the nationalist grip that Husseini exercised over the Palestinians during the initial stages of the 1947-9 armed conflict was by no means the only tendency among the Palestinians, because many did not consider the national issue as preponderant, and therefore saw no reason to fight the Jews to the finish. This led them to express reservations regarding the Mufti.

In the past, there were Palestinian moderates and pragmatists who realized that collaboration (not individual but institutional) of the Palestinians with Zionism and later Israel held much more promise than the senseless road of murder and terror which Hamas, the heir of the Mufti still pursues today, with a combination of hard politics, religious fanaticism and murderous rage. The most moving document in this book is the memorandum in which Hasan Shukri, the legendary Mayor of the mixed city of Haifa, courageously opposed the Palestinian demand that the British abrogate the Balfour Declaration, which would have annulled the Jewish claim to a national home in Palestine (15). He understood that wherever Jews settled, progress and development accrued for the Arabs as well. This was the case in the West Bank before Oslo and the Disengagement of August 2005, which resulted in the eviction of Jews from Gaza. The fact that Zionist financing helped persuade these Arabs to endorse collaboration with the Jews does not automatically turn them into “traitors.”

The urban-rural dichotomy in the growth of Palestinian nationalism and its resulting impact on collaboration with Zionism and Israel is best seen in aid to the Muslim National Associations in the rural areas, which was designed to reduce the influence of the nationalistic hotbeds of Jerusalem and Nablus. During the 1980s, under the stewardship of Ariel Sharon who served as Minister of Defense in the Begin administration, the very same idea was revived as Village Leagues, which were intended to provide an alternative to the PLO leadership in the West Bank cities that was sparking unrest against the Israeli military control.

For a while the move seemed productive, as rural leaders showed greater openness toward cooperation with the Israelis. But the Lebanon War and the departure of Sharon in disgrace ended that attempt. However the lesson was not lost on the Arabs or the Israelis. In both instances it was not a sudden Zionist surge which prompted the Arab villagers to respond, but the perceived self-interest of shrewd villagers who calculated the advantages they could obtain from the uneasy situation resulting from a fairly lengthy military governance.

This volume is divided into three parts. Firstly, it defines allegiance and treason through the prism of various interests in Arab politics in Palestine, essentially prior to the watershed events of 1936-9 (1-94); secondly, it analyzes the riots of 1936-9 which brought about major changes in the definitions of patriotism and treason, now that the uprising was directed against the British mandatory power. This era also marked the rise of the Muslim radical Izz a-Din Al-Qassam, who was killed while fighting the British in Samaria in 1935 (95-170). Thirdly, it explores the shift in Palestinian and world politics after the Peel Commission, the impact of WWII, the Mufti’s collaboration (yet another variety) with the Nazis in a genocidal venture that he hoped would settle the Palestinian problem definitively(171- 268). Beyond its conclusion with the 1948 War, much of the material in the book points to a multi-layered explanation for the conduct of the Palestinians in their wars with Israel thereafter.

If only for this reason, the modern history of the Palestinian people cannot be reduced to the history of their nationalism since the late 1920s, nor can their pantheon of national leaders include only Husseini, Arafat  and their successors. These leaders have a proven record of failure in which almost a century after their nationalism emerged and sixty years after their Zionist rival marked stunning achievements of statehood, three generations of their adherents still live in refugee camps depending on the largesse of UNRWA.

No other institution has caused these people more damage by educating them to expect charity instead of rolling up their sleeves, settling their refugees as did the Jews and embarking on the path of peaceful development. The early “collaborators” who counseled this vision were shunned, demonized, silenced and physically eliminated. One wishes that a new generation of constructive visionaries of this type would chart the new itinerary, of whish the Palestinians are so much in need.

This seminal book, like many others which meet the highest standards of scholarship, has several inaccuracies. For example, when the Jews are said to have bought only 7% of the land in Palestine (4), the uninitiated reader mighty conclude that the rest of the 93% was Arab owned. The Western reader does not always understand all the patterns of land ownership in the Middle East, and this lack of precision could lead many to draw hasty conclusions about the ratio of ownership between Arabs and Jews.[*]

Or, when Cohen  claims (9) that Arab nationalists in Palestine had to educate a new generation  to dismiss the old notion of protected Jews as dhimmis so as to make them targets for persecution, one gets the false impression that dhimmitude offered a real guarantee of security for Jews under Islam. The reality was that under harsh or fanatic governments such as the Muwahhidun in North Africa or the Mamluks in Egypt, widespread pogroms against Jews decimated many thousands of them, though their security under Islam was far better than under Christendom. The example of the Hebron massacre of 1929 offered proof that dhimmitude did not afford real protection to the Jewish minorities living among a Muslim majority.

But these oversights, though important in their own right, or typographical errors such as summud (instead of sumud with one m, 10) do not detract from this excellent book which is certain to become and remain a classic. This young and promising scholar should be encouraged and congratulated for his outstanding achievement.

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[*] Editor’s note: Under the former Turkish Empire, the Sultan was the greatest landowner.  With the fall of the Turkish Empire, these possessions became state lands in Mandatory Palestine and, ultimately, under the State of Israel. This fact is significant, because the amount of land available for private ownership was not large, and this legacy did not belong to the Arabs.

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RAPHAEL ISRAELI is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern, and Chinese Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Raphael Israeli

Raphael Israeli is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in History and Arabic Literature, he received his PhD in Chinese and Islamic History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1974. Israeli has written 30 books and some 100 scholarly articles in the fields of Islamic radicalism, Islamic terrorism, the Modern Middle East, Islam in China and Asia and the Opening of China by the French. His books include The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue and Living with Islam: The Sources of Fundamentalist Islam. His most recent book (2012) is The Oslo Process: The Euphoria of Failure