Opinion

In Palestine, World War I Has Never Really Ended

Widely seen as a European war, WWI's impact on the Middle East was both devastating and transformative. But there's been no armistice: A century later, Arabs and Jews still fight over the land liberated from the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman soldiers use a field telephone in the desert at the front in Palestine 1917 during World War I (1915-1918)
© Berliner Verlag/Archiv/dpa/Co

This month marks 100 years since the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. In the Middle East, the centennial anniversary of the war has passed in near silence. This is ironic, for while the Great War is widely seen as a European war, its impact on the region was far greater and more transformative. 

Viewed in hindsight a century later, not only did the war shape the modern Middle East as we know it, but in some places, like Palestine, it has never actually ended. Indeed, nowhere was the war’s unfolding tragedy and lasting aftershock more acutely felt than in Palestine. A soldier’s story captures this grim reality in shocking detail. 

>>The WWI Conspiracy Still Damning the Jews, 100 Years On

Ihsan Turjman was a young Arab recruit in the Ottoman army stationed in Jerusalem. He was perhaps the first ordinary recruit to recount the Great War from an Arab Palestinian standpoint. His story offers a curious tale of euphoria and disenchantment, hope and despair, victory and defeat, a saga whose unfolding drama was set in wartime Palestine. Turjman did not survive the war, but his war diaries draw a vivid picture of daily life in his besieged city, Jerusalem, its deserted alleys and obliterated neighborhoods, breathing life into the voices from the streets that often get lost in the cacophony of battle. 

The Great War was utterly devastating to Palestine and its people, Arabs and Jews. By some accounts, Greater Syria, which included Palestine, suffered one of the highest loss of population of any war theater, taking a toll of one-sixth of the total population.

The victims, both civilians and combatants, perished from war, hunger, famine and plagues. "God protect us from the three plagues: war, locusts, and disease, for they are spreading through the country," Turjman lamented. Many died as a result of the British naval blockades, which blocked the flow of food supplies into the ports of Jaffa and Beirut. Others perished from the sequestration of crops by the Ottoman army in the country. 

The destruction of the urban and rural landscape was biblical. Locusts invaded the country and consumed all the crops and tree leaves. English airplanes raided and bombarded on a daily basis. Villages depleted by the military draft, devastated by cholera, typhus and severe fever. The Turkish army cut down thousands of trees for fuel. In Turjman’s words, "Nothing was spared."

Jerusalem was among the cities that suffered most. As Turjman vividly recounted:

"Jerusalem has not seen worst days. Bread and flour supplies have almost totally dried up. Every day I pass the bakeries on my way to work, and I see a large number of women going home empty-handed. For several days the municipality distributed some kind of black bread to the poor, the likes of which I have never seen. People used to fight over the limited supplies, sometimes waiting in line until midnight. Now, even that bread is no longer available."

Turjman belonged to a generation of Arab youth whose Ottoman loyalty was tested by the war. He had witnessed firsthand Ottoman cruelty towards their Palestinian subjects, which he saw as a harbinger of the defeat that was to come: Arab soldiers were tortured and executed in public over alleged treason. Many civilians, Muslims and Christians and Jews, were languishing in labor camps in Syria. Many others fled the country to escape forced labor and war taxation. 

P.S. Rogers

Turjman foresaw the imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire by the end of the war. "Our conversation revolved around this miserable war and how long it is likely to continue, as well as the fate of this Ottoman state. We more or less agreed that the days of the state are numbered and that its dismemberment is imminent." More prescient still, in an entry dated April 1915, he predicted that, “this war will last 40 months at the very least."

And since the fate of the Ottoman empire was inseparably linked to that of Palestine, Turjman could hardly escape the more fateful question: "But what will be the fate of Palestine?" 

There were no answers, only clues, wrapped in a series of secret plots unfolding behind the scenes. As it happened, Turjman was writing two years short of the startling revelation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which, in hindsight, sealed the fate of Palestine.

His hopes in Ottoman victory shattered, Turjman would set his eyes on the Great Arab Revolt, led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, an event which set in motion a series of dramatic events that hastened the collapse of Ottoman rule in the Arab provinces. The Arabs rebels were fighting against the Ottomans on a promise of British support for Arab interdependence after the war, as envisioned in the famous Hussein-McMahon Correspondence of 1915–16.

The British were indeed keen to fulfill their promises - but not to the Arabs. As it turned out, during their negotiations with Sharif Hussein, the British were also negotiating with Zionist leaders like Chaim Weizmann the prospect of creating a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, a promise that, time would tell, was self-fulfilling. 

Like many of his generation, Turjman was growing disillusioned with the Ottomans. The seeds of his national Arab awakening were sown in the heat of war, as fellow Arab soldiers were deserting their Ottoman ranks and embracing the Arab revolt. Turjman, again prophetically, was too suspicious of the British to desert his Ottoman masters, but in his heart, he had already made the tortuous journey from Ottoman to Arab patriotism.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, with his son Crown Prince Hussein, during celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, in Amman, Jordan, June 2, 2016.
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Indeed, his diaries teem with poignant reflections on the futility of war, and of fighting alongside the Ottomans when Arabism was boiling in the Hejaz. In a moment of deep disenchantment, he wrote: 

"I cannot imagine myself fighting in the desert front. And why should I go? To fight for my country? I am Ottoman by name only, for my country is the whole of humanity. Even if I am told that by going to fight, I will refuse to go.

"Our leaders promised us and other fellow Arabs that we would be partners in this government and that they seek to advance the interests and conditions of the Arab nation. But what have we actually seen from these promises?

"Had they treated us as equals, I would not hesitate to give my blood and my life - but as things stand, I hold a drop of my blood to be more precious than the entire Turkish state."

Nothing pained the young soldier more than the tragic spectacle of Arabs fighting other Arabs. Yet he clung stubbornly to his hope for peace. "We need peace badly," he would cry out. "The economic crisis is deepening, and it will not allow us to pursue this war further. Not much is left."

A strange amalgam of desperation and hope creeps into his narrative as he remembers his beloved. In one tragically telling entry, he writes: 

"I have seriously considered committing suicide as a way out of this trap, but I have changed my mind for one important reason. I do not want to make those who love me unhappy. Sooner or later this war will come to an end.

"After the end of the war, I will go to college for two years, study agriculture, and travel in Europe. If that does not work, I will study commerce and get married to my beloved. That is all I ask for. I want to live by the sweat of my brow. If God chooses to bless me, I would like to have one or two children, to whom I will devote myself."

Eric Matson / Government Press Office

Sadly, Turjman did not live to see that day. He was killed by an Ottoman officer on the eve of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem in the winter of 1917 because he rebuffed the officer’s amorous advances. Turjman had reported him to his commanding officer, who in turn demoted the officer, who then shot Ihsan in a rage just as the Ottoman army was withdrawing from Jerusalem.

Turjman’s sole consolation was being spared the spectacle of seeing his beloved city falling to the British.

Nor did he live to see the day when, three decades later, British forces withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared independence shortly after, triggering a civil war and heralding the Israeli-Arab conflict, rendering the prospect of an independent Arab Palestine a distant mirage. Or when, a century later, Arabs and Jews continued to fight over the land liberated from the Ottoman Empire, as if the war had indeed never ended. 

In hindsight, "the war to end all wars" started all wars in Palestine.

Seraj Assi is the author of "The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine" (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018). Twitter: @Serajeas