'Our conscience is clear'
Diary of Sir Henry Gurney, the chief secretary of the Palestine administration, was published in Hebrew a few months ago. It is a captivating journal that documents in minute detail everyday life in the final two months of British rule.
It snowed in Jerusalem on March 15, 1948. "On this wet and dismal day - all is quiet," Sir Henry Gurney, the chief secretary of the Palestine administration, wrote in his diary, adding, "In this weather, both sides prefer to remain at home." Gurney goes on to explain how the Jerusalem sky at night is a crisscross of tracer bullets - yellow from the Arabs, red from the Jews. It is nearly impossible to shut your eyes. "And then you recall that ever since the days of Peter, the cocks of Jerusalem have begun to crow at 10:30."
The position of the "chief secretary" was similar to that of a director-general, second only to the high commissioner. Gurney spent two and half years in Jerusalem, and his diary documents the twilight and sunset of a historic period that began in lofty hope, but ended in blood-drenched disappointment.
Gurney's diary was published in Hebrew a few months ago, in a translation by Smadar Milo, as part of "The British Mandate for Palestine, 1948: War and Evacuation" by Motti Golani (published by the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History). It is a captivating journal that documents in minute detail everyday life in the final two months of British rule. Like numerous other Mandatory officials, Gurney was neither for or against the Jews, neither for or against the Arabs. He was saddened by the fact that they were killing one another.
One event that he describes is the massacre at Deir Yassin, outside Jerusalem. Few people know that the members of Etzel and Lehi (two pre-state Jewish underground militias) who carried out the killing and the expulsion of residents remained in the village, or that Mandatory authorities planned to bomb it from the air. On April 13, 1948, Gurney writes that the Tempests had arrived that day from Iraq, following decisions reached the previous night, but were too late, as "the Irgun (Etzel) and Stern (Lehi) have already evacuated Deir Yassin, and the Haganah is now occupying it. Thus, by means of an action by dissidents that it itself condemned, the Haganah has taken control of an Arab village."
By May 13, everything was packed. The high commissioner, Alan Gordon Cunningham, and his remaining aides were ready to depart. Gurney writes that the police had locked up their warehouses, the contents of which were worth over a million pounds sterling, and brought the keys to UN representatives, who refused to accept them. "It was up to me," he wrote, "to inform them that within a few hours, the UN would be responsible for the administration of Palestine [on the basis of the November 29, 1947 resolution] and that we would be placing the keys on their doorstep, whether they wanted them or not. And that is what we did."
On the final night, the gunfire continued "in the usual foolish manner," and Gurney wrote that he could not sleep. The following day he summed up the 30 years of the Mandate in these words: "Our conscience is clear." The British Empire had lost most of its colonial assets, including India, but Gurney was subsequently dispatched to represent His Majesty as the high commissioner in Malaya, which would in time become part of Malaysia. On October 6, 1951, underground fighters there opened fire on his car; his wife was with him. Henry Gurney was killed, she was not hit.