Experts Battle Over Whether Jaffa's Mass Graves Stem From World War I or 1948

War of Independence historians reject numbers given by Islamic Movement. Skeletons might be those of Egyptian soldiers who fought with the British in WWI.

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Last week's news that the Islamic Movement had uncovered six mass graves in Jaffa's Kazkhana Cemetery has sparked rival theories over whether the dead are Arabs killed during the War of Independence, or not.

Historians of the War of Independence don't rule out that the remains are of people who died in 1948, but they reject the numbers given by the Islamic Movement. And there's another possibility - that the skeletons are of Egyptian soldiers who fought with the British and died 30 years earlier during World War I.

On the eve of the War of Independence, Jaffa had 70,000 residents. Arab Jaffa surrendered two days before the Declaration of Independence. By the summer of 1948, only 5,000 residents were left in the city.

The archives don't contain proof of mass graves in Jaffa during the war, but there are oral testimonies. Historian Adel Manna says a telegram was sent by Jaffa's military commander on May 3 to the Arab Liberation Army. "We cannot bury the bodies," he wrote.

Jaffa resident Atar Zanib, 80, has told Agence France Presse: "I carried 60 bodies to the cemetery over a period of three or four months .... We would find the people in the street."

Mahmoud Obeid, an Islamic Movement member, interviewed elderly Jaffa residents who had similar stories. Obeid brought some of them to the cemetery and asked them to point out the location of the mass graves. "They immediately pointed to the spot," he says.

A talk with a British policeman

Israeli author and journalist Yosef Shavit says that in 1987 in Melbourne he met a British man who said he was a duty officer at the Jaffa police station just before the British pulled out.

Shavit says the man told him that "after the Irgun [prestate underground militia] attacked Jaffa, several respectable-looking older Arabs arrived at the station and said Irgun soldiers had brought Arab prisoners with them to dig large pits. At night they threw several dozen Arab bodies into them and covered them over hurriedly. I asked him what he did with this information. He said that amid the chaos there was no one to talk to. He did report it to the supervising officer, but he didn't bother to listen to him. A bit later, all the British policemen left Jaffa and the matter was forgotten."

Prof. Adel Manna is about to publish a book on the Israeli Arabs between 1948 and 1956. He says that on the evening after the British had left "the Jews started to raid [the neighborhood] Manshiyeh with revenge attacks and looting. On Saturday morning thousands came from Tel Aviv, and those who tried to protect their property were shot .... In such a situation I assume bodies were left over from the fighting and new ones piled up .... This is all speculation but it could explain the mass graves."

The Islamic Movement has been restoring the graves at the Kazkhana Cemetery over the last two months. Old tombstones have been replaced with new ones made of concrete.

The cemetery was established during the Ottoman era and the symbols over the graves hint at the occupations of the dead; for example, a tarboosh hat for a high official. A tall monument stands in the cemetery's western part; it offers another theory on the mass graves. Experts say it's very possible the mass grave that was discovered last week dates to 30 years before the War of Independence.

The role of the Egyptian Labor Corps

The monument's inscription is hard to decipher, but thanks to its general appearance - and similar ones around the country - it's clear it was built by the British to mark the resting places of members of the Egyptian Labor Corps who accompanied the British during World War I. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served in the Labor Corps were recruited from villages along the Nile Delta. Many thousands of them died during the war and were buried in mass graves.

Avi Navon is chairman of the Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel. He knows of seven similar monuments in places such as Haifa, Nahal Shorek, Latrun and Ramle. Nearly all are recognizable - they're a kind of obelisk or pyramid and have inscriptions in both Arabic and English.

In most places the number of those buried is stated. Although the full inscription cannot be read, the last sentence in English appears to read: "near this spot are buried .... " That means those interred here aren't necessarily buried under the monument but in the cemetery. So it's possible the mass graves 30 meters away contain the remains of members of the Egyptian Labor Corps, not those killed during the War of Independence.

Mickey Gottschalk is a one-man institution for finding and commemorating the graves of British soldiers in Israel. "I've been working in the field for 25 years now and I've seen everything," he says. "I'm convinced that this mass grave is that of Egyptian soldiers. It's possible that after the War of Independence they added bodies to the existing graves, but not hundreds of them."

Last week, the Islamic Movement received an Islamic permit to examine the graves with expert assistance. The movement promises answers over the next few months.

"The skeletons that were just discovered will help us shed light on many skeletons that exist underground and aboveground .... Those are the skeletons the state doesn't want to be talked about," Manna says.

The mass grave site in the Jaffa Muslim Cemetery.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Human skeletons in the mass grave uncovered in Jaffa, May 31, 2013.Credit: AFP

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