The Screw-up That Led to Joseph Trumpeldor's Death

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Tel Hai in the north, back in the day.Credit: Tel Hai Museum

Kamal Hussein al-Yusuf, also known as Kamal al-Hussein, is inscribed in the annals of Zionist history as the man who led the 1920 attack on Tel Hai. During that raid on the tiny Jewish settlement in the north, Joseph Trumpeldor and five co-defenders were killed. But new research suggests that Hussein wasn't targeting the Jews.

“He was accused of killing one of the symbols of the Zionist movement, but immediately afterward he became a very close friend of the Jewish settlement institutions in the Hula Valley, of Jewish National Fund officials and even of Hashomer members,” says Dr. Mustafa Abbasi of Tel Hai Academic College, referring to an early Zionist defense group.

“This duality — from enemy to friend — is the topic we’re examining,” says Abbasi, who conducted his research with Dr. Amir Goldstein. They presented their research at a conference at Tel Hai Academic College marking 110 years since the release of Trumpeldor from Japanese captivity — Trumpeldor had served in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

Hussein was born around 1900 and grew up in a well-to-do family. He belonged to one of the biggest Arab tribes in the north, and his forefathers controlled the Hula Valley from the 17th century.

He studied briefly at a Haifa high school, but after a member of another tribe murdered his father, he was called back to Khalisa — where the Israeli city Kiryat Shmona now stands — to lead the tribe as the oldest son.

The region was very unstable in the years immediately after World War I. “Most residents of South Lebanon and the Hula Valley wanted to be part of Syria under the rule of Emir Faisal, and they opposed the French mandate in the region,” Abbasi says.

“From here came the confrontation between Kamal Hussein and the French, who shelled his village and others in the north of the valley. The Tel Hai incident happened during this storm, but Kamal and his comrades were searching for Frenchmen, not Jews.”

Kamal al-Hussein, top right. (Courtesy)

According to Abbasi and Goldstein, the battle of Tel Hai was unplanned. They base this on testimony on Hussein’s efforts to maintain friendly relations with the Jewish community well before the incident, and on his declaration that “their fate is our fate.”

Hussein even lobbied the Jews to evacuate their settlements until any violence subsided. He would watch over them, the researchers say. But the local Jews, headed by Trumpledor, rejected his offers.

Even Ben-Gurion liked him

Abbasi says that after the six Tel Hai defenders were killed, the Hashomer defense group did not seek Hussein's head in revenge. Even then it was clear there was no intention to murder the people of Tel Hai, Abbasi says.

“The people of Kfar Giladi banned him and prevented him from entering the kibbutz, but the other Jewish institutions, the settlement institutions, were in constant contact with him,” Abbasi says.

“Moshe Shertok and David Ben-Gurion even supported arranging a sulha between him and Kfar Giladi and Hashomer people,” he adds, referring to the traditional Arab reconciliation ceremony. Moshe Shertok would become Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister after Ben-Gurion.

Dafna Harpaz is a granddaughter of Kalman Cohen, the leader of Tel Hai, and Yehudit Cohen, who lived there from 1918 to 1926, as did Hashomer member Alexander Zaid, his wife Zipporah and their children. Harpaz recalls that her grandmother Zipporah and her children would remain alone while Zaid and Cohen went out to recruit people to join the settlement.

“There was no food. They were very afraid of harassment,” she says. “But the Arabs were not one mass,” notes Harpaz, who says the women of Khalisa were particularly helpful, teaching the Jewish women to prepare purslane salad, local-style dumplings and traditional medicine. “From the tone of my grandmother, I think she was very grateful to these women.”

According to her version, if Hussein and his people had arrived on another day, the incident of March 1, 1920, could have been avoided. Her grandfather didn’t trust Hussein’s people and called them gangs.

As Harpaz puts it, when they would come to the courtyard to search for Frenchmen, “My grandfather would go out to them alone and lock the gate. He’d stand across from them and speak to them in Arabic. They had a kind of ceremony to show that they were disarming their weapons. Kamal Hussein and another person would enter with him, look for Frenchmen, leave and my father would lock the gate.”

One big blunder

On the day of the battle, Harpaz says, her grandfather Kalman Cohen wasn’t there.

“My grandfather told me that Pinhas Schneerson, a member of Kfar Giladi, went down to Tel Hai on Friday evening. Kamal Hussein and his people arrived, and he simply opened the gate for them, and then the whole shabab [gang] entered the courtyard,” she says.

“There was a great commotion and a lot of fear, and Devorah Dreschler standing next to the window got startled and fired a shot, and then the mess began. People were killed one after another.”

Joseph Trumpeldor. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harpaz says that in her childhood, every time Schneerson visited her grandparents’ home in Be’er Tuvia in the south, her grandfather would shout at him in Yiddish, “Why did you open the gates?”

She says “the whole story of the Tel Hai myth is based on a fashla” — Arabic slang for a screw-up.

Hussein’s outlook went through stages. From 1923 to 1937 he was a part of the emerging Palestinian national movement. He drew closer to Safed dignitaries and married the daughter of a Circassian landowner from Safed. During the 1929 riots, he marched at the head of his people in solidarity with the Arabs of Safed.

He also helped launch an association of Arab youths that stressed education and sports. But the group was also political, prompting the British to order him to leave Safed and return to Khalisa. The association also tried to prevent Jewish immigration via Syria and Lebanon, as well as the sale of land to the Israel Land Development Company.

According to Abbasi and Goldstein, the British were leery about Hussein. He was viewed as a hedonist who abused his power to extort money. The researchers say the British and Israeli narratives of Hussein’s character were well-founded, but there was a healthy dose of Orientalism and efforts to tarnish his reputation.

A court temporarily banished him from the area in 1936 for anti-British agitation after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, but in the second half of 1937, he stopped collaborating with the Arab rebels and Safed leaders. He allied himself with the British Mandate authorities and Zionist leaders.

According to the researchers, toward the end of the Mandate period, the good relations between Khalisa residents and the nearby Jewish community bore fruit: Hussein refused demands by the Arab army to help Palestinians operate in the Hula Valley because he did not want to draw the ire of his Jewish neighbors.

In 1948, he offered to surrender to Haganah forces, but was rejected. Instead, the pre-Independence army demanded that he expel the people from their village.

The village was conquered without a battle, and Hussein and his fellow tribesmen fled to Lebanon. Afterward, he visited Israel several times and met with his Jewish friends and acquaintances.

These included Meno Friedman, the military governor of the Safed region, and Yosef Nahmani, a member of both the Tiberias city council and the Jewish National Fund. He urged them to let him and his tribesmen return to Israel.

At one point he even received a loan from the JNF’s northern district. It seems his visits to Israel aroused the suspicion of Syrian intelligence. Hussein was murdered in Lebanon in May 1949.

According to Abbasi, Hussein clearly contributed to the establishment of Jewish settlements in the Hula Valley by helping them buy land, maintain peace and security, and keep away violent Arabs, particularly during the 1936-9 revolt. He also joined the British during World War II to help defeat the Vichy regime in Syria.

None of that helped. The Tel Hai affair cast a pall over him until the end of his days.

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