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Out of Eden

Palestine veterans parade at Eden Camp in Yorkshire

In the car park old men and women of the Palestine Veterans Association and Palestine Police Old Comrades Association grunt as they struggle out of family saloons and into the unexpected October sunshine. The men pull berets down on their heads and dust dandruff from blazers bearing regimental crests; the women unscrew flasks of tea that steam in the sharp air and unwrap silver foil sandwich packs as they prepare to fuel up for the long morning ahead.

It is a normal enough scene at the beginning of Britain’s annual remembrance season but the conflict that these men and women have gathered here to remember is not on the roll call of the World War II battles – although many involved in it also fought in the allied armies that forced Nazism from Europe. Between 1945 and 1948 784 Britons – servicemen and civilians, men and women – were killed in a terrorist campaign by Zionists attempting to impose a Jewish state in British-controlled Palestine, a territory then contiguous with present-day Israel and the Palestinian Territories. They died in a conflict that has, until recently, been forgotten or deliberately ignored. It is a lacuna in the national memory due perhaps to the fact that almost immediately following Britain’s departure and the establishment of Israel on much of Palestine, Britain’s tormentors became its strategic allies. Accordingly there is a particular poignancy attached to the word ‘remembrance’ for the 138 Palestine veterans and 120 family members that are gathering today.

The venue that greets them is not a cemetery or cenotaph. Beyond the car park the loamy fields of the Vale of Pickering lead away to the hunched shoulder of the North York Moors, but the high fence that surrounds it is punctuated by guard towers – this is a World War II prisoner of war camp. Eden Camp was first opened in 1942 to house Italians captured in North Africa. These prisoners built the barracks huts that still stand, but, following the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe in 1944, were replaced by Germans. The last prisoner left  in 1949 and for the following four decades the site was used variously as a holiday camp and agricultural store. Throughout this period 35 of the 45 original barracks huts remained intact, but in 1985 the site, bang in the middle of potato country, was purchased by Stan Johnson, a Yorkshire entrepreneur who planned to demolish it and build a crisp factory.

Happily Johnson changed his mind when he found three Italian ex-POWs wandering awestruck and emotional around the virtually intact site. Rather than flattening Eden Camp, Johnson spent £750,000 preserving the site and it opened as a museum in 1987. This rare low-lying patch of North Yorkshire has a history of unlikely attractions. As well as the North’s largest bacon factory it is home to Flamingo Land, a theme park that began life in 1959 as the Yorkshire Zoological Park, an attraction that featured, along with lemurs and goats, Wild West gun fights, a functioning Mississippi steamer and a captive whale. Over a quarter of a century Eden Camp has emerged from the slight air of unreality that hangs over the vale, outgrown its original ambitions and developed into a quasi-official site of remembrance. Which is why from across the country – and as far away as Canada – Britain’s forgotten Palestinian veterans are gathering here today.

With no official body to represent the different arms that served there – the Palestine Police, army and RAF as well as naval and marine units – it was not until 1998 that an ex-Royal Engineer, Gerry Burr, who served in Palestine from1946 to 1948, organised a ceremony at Bath Cathedral, coming to Eden Camp the following year and forming the association in 2000. The man who makes all this possible, 43-year-old Nick Hill, is the director of Eden Camp and the main organiser of the association, a task he took on when the Palestinian veterans first arrived in 1999. “Somewhat naively I said I’d organise for them – I didn’t realise that 80 to 90,000 British people served in Palestine. Now there are 1,200 members, although they lose 30 to 40 each year, and there are plenty more out there. They are very unassuming, they simply want recognition for their mates that were left behind. They came back from Palestine and found they were swept under the carpet, forgotten about.”

The camp no longer carries the socks-and-sweat smell of confined men, but there is still a frisson of captivity inside the huts which now hold displays in which mannequins recreate scenes of RAF bomb disposal teams gathered round unexploded devices and POWs tunnelling from German camps.

In a corner of hut 13 I find an old man standing before a display case that contains faded newspaper reports, identity papers and photographs. He is with a much younger female companion, his granddaughter perhaps. He points at a yellowing map cut from a newspaper 70 years ago and says, “You see, the same then as now. The Jews want the land the Arabs have, the Arabs don’t want them to have it.”

The British Mandate 

After they move on I take their place and see they have been looking at a 70-year-old map of British Mandate Palestine showing a proposed partition of the country between Arabs and Jews. The Mandate, which ran from 1923 to 1948, was awarded by the League of Nations as part of the carve-up of the Near East between Britain and France that followed World War I: the post-Ottoman settlement drew borders across greater Syria which are still causing problems nearly a century later. Within the provisions of the Mandate and following the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration of 1917 was the obligation to build a national home for the Jews in Palestine. As Palestine already had an indigenous population this led to quarter of a century of dispute and violence, which culminated in a bombing campaign by the Irgun Zevai Leumi (Etzel/IZL) and Lehi (Stern Gang) Zionist paramilitary groups immediately after World War II. The campaign was a mixture of the merciless and the humiliating and targeted British troops who had, in many cases, only just finished defeating Nazism. On 1st March 1947, 14 people, nine of them civilians, died in an attack on a British officers’ club in Jerusalem. On 29th February 1948, 28 British soldiers were killed and 35 wounded when Lehi blew up an express train bound for Haifa outside Rehevoth. In spring 1948 two British sergeants were publicly whipped in a Tel Aviv park.

The fate of two other British sergeants was far crueller. Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice were kidnapped by the Irgun in July 1947. The Irgun declared that they would kill the sergeants if the planned execution of convicted Irgun gunman Dov Gruner went ahead. After days of prevarication by the British authorities Gruner was executed and the British sergeants were taken out of the pit in which they had been confined in darkness for 17 days and clumsily hanged. Their bodies were then strung up in an orange grove and booby-trapped. It was a national humiliation which, added to the July 1946 bombing of the British secretariat in the King David hotel that killed 91 people including 17 Palestinian Jews, broke Britain’s will to stay in Palestine. (Book into the King David today and you will find on the television in your room rather cheery interviews with several of the Irgun men who planned and planted the bombs – surely a unique occurrence in any world hotel.)

The forgotten war

Outside the Eden Camp cafeteria where, in a small irony, Jaffa Cakes are selling well, I find Gordon, now 84. Gordon was on the Haifa express train when it was blown up. He was knocked unconscious by the explosion and, unscathed but dazed, staggered out and wandered through a gruesome tableau of the dead, the dying and assorted body parts. He talks quietly as if still aghast at what was done and his voice is drowned out as the York Concert Band strikes up the first of the day’s regimental marches.

Gordon joins his comrades to form up behind flag bearers and moves off. Some shuffle, others march with ramrod backs. It is a short journey; they snake round the cafeteria corner and come to a raggedy halt in front of a memorial and a lectern where Hill invites anyone who is feeling tired to sit down. No one does. The service is led by a clergyman, who is himself a veteran. A woman called Hilda delivers this poem by Gerry Burr.

 

When I was a lad, late in my teens

I was called to join the line

Of those in khaki or KD

In a land called Palestine

 

I’d heard about this Promised Land

Through Bible class at school

I knew not now who had the job

This Holy Land to rule

 

Quite soon I learned of Joseph Stern

And a group called IZL

Whose actions based on selfish greed

Turned Holiness to Hell

 

I lost good friends, too many

And still recall their names

Among them Darkie Batsman

And Bombardier Horace James

 

They were not lost in battle

There was no chance to fight

Our mates were murdered in a gang

Who claimed they had a right

Home we came and waited

To hear our story told

Fifty years and nothing said

And we are growing old

 

Now here today we gather

Comrades as we were then

Sharing thoughts and mem’ries

Of the fallen girls and men

The world still doesn’t want to know

Of those friends, yours and mine

But we know, and we honour

Those who lie in Palestine

The last post is played with duly off-key poignancy on the cornet. A moment’s silence for fallen comrades is broken by the screams of playing children, great-grandchildren perhaps, who have never heard of Palestine but know that the sun is out and it is Saturday. When the band starts again the air of unreality is added to by the appearance of crop-duster plane that buzzes past and threatens to strafe the parade, the whine of its engines overcoming the efforts of the York Concert Band. It is both an annoying and inexplicable presence above these men and women, the youngest of whom is 80, the oldest 94. Is the pilot curious, incompetent or an ageing Irgunist with a score to settle? Then, on a day that is already bathed in irony, the men and women who once attempted to build England’s green and pleasant land in Palestine sing Jerusalem.

The wreckage of a bombed Haifa express train outside Rehevoth 

Members of Irgun Zevai Leumi take position on the rooftop of a house in Jaffa in December 1947

In the bar afterwards, over dark pints of Yorkshire bitter and bags of crisps, the anger is still palpable in some of the veterans. After bombing Britain out of Palestine the Zionists suddenly became the country’s strategic allies and the men and women who had fought them in Britain’s name became an embarrassment. One lady from West Yorkshire sees the hand of Jewish newspaper owners in the whitewashing of her comrades’ sacrifice. “Why else this silence about what happened to us?” she asks.

But some veterans are at ease, mellowing into their pints and their not-always unhappy memories. Ted, aged 86, shows me his Palestine photos at the bar. He ran the transport pool at the giant British base by the Arab town of Sarafand. British armoured divisions were regularly attacked by Zionists and all his mechanics were Palestinian Arabs. “Bloody brilliant mechanics,” he recalls. “I trusted them with my life, wonderful men. But when we left they were all pushed out or killed. I only know of one that survived the Nakba [an Arabic term for the creation of the state of Israel]”. In one picture a young, brilliantined Ted is surrounded by his proud, almost haughty group of Palestinian mechanics, all of just a few months away from disaster when much of Arab Palestine would be destroyed during the violent creation of Israel.

In another picture Ted is joking with two attractive Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officers. It is one of those soldier’s  “golden moment” pics – you haven’t been blown up or shot this week, you’ve got two days’ leave, you’re with pretty girls and the beer is ice-cold. I ask where it was taken and he tells me it was the terrace of the Everest Hotel, an Arab establishment on a mountain above Beit Jala. “It was great place to take a girl. The view was fantastic.” I have visited the Everest Hotel before. Today the Israeli “security” barrier runs directly through the grounds. You can still get a cold beer but the view, unless you like walls, is not so fantastic anymore.

The bar begins to empty and the men and women, some with a long drive to the West Country or London ahead, start to troop away. Apart from some half-ruined Taggart forts – the security outposts the British dotted about Palestine in the 1930s – and the Mandate’s official coat of arms, which now rests in a side chapel of St George’s Anglican cathedral in east Jerusalem, these pensioners are all that remain of the British control in Palestine – an era that began with the humility of a victorious General Allenby entering Jerusalem not as a conqueror on horseback but as a pilgrim on foot in 1917 and ended in the ignominy of flight in 1948.

A forgotten programme laying in a puddle of beer on the table is open to reveal a quote from Winston Churchill: “One ought never turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce that danger by half.” But Britain did run away. Not the people here today but an exhausted and near-penniless Labour government that could not pay the price in money and British lives required to do a job that was, in essence, impossible. “In Palestine they were never off duty. Even if they went out in civvies they didn’t know who was an enemy,” Hill tells me. “Someone who had been a friend the week before could pull a gun on them or throw a hand grenade. It had a great effect on them. The seasoned troops had been through Europe, some had even liberated Belsen. But the recruits were wet behind the ears and had no idea. All they knew about Palestine, as Gerry’s poem says, was ‘learned about through Bible class’. Many of their comrades were not killed in battle, but blown up or shot in the back. It
was not a nice place if you believed in a fair fight.”

Return to Jaffa

A few days after the parade at Eden Camp I am on assignment in what used to be British Palestine. At the Etzel House, on the shore between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, a museum run by the Israeli defence ministry pays tribute to the part played by the Irgun in chasing the British and then many Palestinians from what was then Palestine. While not as incongruous as a Wild West show in North Yorkshire, the stone building still feels out of place, as it sits on the edge of one of the Mediterranean’s most renowned pleasure beaches. Seventy years ago it was the front line, the starting point for the Irgun’s attack on Palestinian Jaffa. Outside, a plaque commemorates this as the springboard for “the liberation of Jaffa.”

After I photograph the museum’s exterior I am pulled by Israeli military security. What am I doing here? What do I want? Where is my passport? After they have made several phone calls I am cleared and allowed to enter. Inside Etzel House the displays talk of a liberation war against British ‘occupiers’. By coincidence, a conference room at the back of the museum is being used for a meeting of veterans from the Israeli side. Tanned and dressed in pastel slacks and short-sleeved shirts, the surviving Irgunists look old but after 65 years in the sun they also seem healthy and happy. As they should I suppose – they won.

On the way out the man that pulled me, friendly now, says: “I’m coming to England soon. What should I see?” Just for a moment, I consider saying “Eden Camp”.

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