A Fight to the Death, and Betrayal by the Arab World: The Most Disastrous 24 Hours in Palestinian History

The losing of the battle for Al-Qastel, led by the legendary Arab commander and terrorist Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini, marked the launch of the Nakba in '48

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Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini and his men study a map.
Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini and his men study a map.Credit: Israel Netach, Palmach Archive
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

April 8, 1948, was the most disastrous day in the history of Arab Jerusalem and of the Palestinian people in the modern era.

The events began at 2 A.M., when Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini, leader of the Arab military force in the Jerusalem area, left a quarry outside the city, where he had situated his headquarters in an attempt to recapture the small village of Al-Qastel. A few hours later, at dawn, he was killed. It was a Thursday. On Friday morning, he was buried on the Temple Mount, known to the Arabs as Haram al-Sharif, following a mass funeral – one of the largest the city had seen.

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While the funeral was under way, refugees from the village of Deir Yassin, on Jerusalem’s western outskirts, arrived and told the story of the village’s conquest that same day and of the massacre perpetrated there by members of the Irgun underground organization. The tens of thousands who attended the funeral from every Jerusalem neighborhood and every adjacent village spread the news amid exaggerated descriptions of the brutal events in Deir Yassin. During those same hours, Qastel fell again to the Haganah, the pre-state underground army of Palestine’s Jews. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, the Arab Army of Salvation failed in its attempt to capture Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek. And villagers around Jerusalem and in Galilee started to leave their homes. The Nakba – the period when more than 700,000 Arabs eventually fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence – had begun in earnest.

That dramatic 24-hour period of April 8-9 is the subject of a new book by Danny Rubinstein, a veteran Israeli journalist and student of Palestinian society. The book (in Hebrew), titled “The Battle on the Qastel: 24 Hours that Changed the Course of the 1948 War between Palestinians and Israelis,” describes events as they unfolded by way of the extraordinary figure of Husseini, a gifted military commander, leader and terrorist. Over and above being a riveting account of a group of leaders and fighters – this is also a Greek tragedy, in which the hero knows the fate that awaits him and goes to meet it open-eyed.

Arab commander Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini.Credit: Haganah Historical Archives

Husseini’s death on the Qastel hill and, no less than this, the days leading up his death, offer a fascinating microcosm not only of the Nakba but also of the calamitous triangle – from the Palestinian viewpoint – that exists to this very day between the Palestinians, Israelis and the Arab world. It’s the Palestinian tragedy in miniature.

The book’s Hebrew title,”It’s Us or Them, Qastel and Jerusalem, April 1948,” is taken from something Husseini said on the eve of the war: “It is inconceivable that Palestine will be for the Arabs and the Zionists together – it’s us or them. This is a war for life or death: Either we come out of the war victorious, or we all die.”

When I met with him in Jerusalem last month, Rubinstein told me that he once asked a Palestinian acquaintance, “Of all those who have conquered you – Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks – who was the best and who was the worst?” The reply: “I don’t know who the best was, but you're the worst,” meaning the Israelis. “‘How can that be?” Rubinstein asked him. “After all, you got a master’s degree here, you get a pension, you have a good life.” To which the Palestinian said, “True, but all the others came to enslave us, and you came to supplant us.”

“My approach,” Rubinstein went on, “is us and them, not us or them. I once said to Ehud Barak, ‘We are here and they are here, and nothing will change that. They aren’t disappearing, they didn’t disappear after the Balfour Declaration, not in the Arab Revolt [of 1936-39], not in 1948, not in 1967, and they aren’t disappearing today. Therefore, it’s your obligation to be a decent human being and get along with them.’ That’s what I believe in, contrary to the message in the book’s title.”

‘What are you?’

Few Israelis know East Jerusalem as well as Rubinstein, who turned 80 last month. He acquired fluency in Arabic as a boy in Jerusalem’s Nahalat Ahim neighborhood, not far from the Mahane Yehuda market.

“In the neighborhood I grew up in,” he says, “there were Urfan, Cermik and Diyarbakir Jews, all of them Arabic-speaking Kurds [from Turkey]. The spoken language there was Arabic. Next to the neighborhood there were Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] families, which in Arabic are called shikanz – Ashkenazim. One day, my brother and I came home and my mother saw that my brother had been hurt. She asked him what happened and he said, ‘We threw stones at the Ashkenazim.’ To which my mother asked, ‘And what are you?’ We didn’t know we were Ashkenazim. My brother said he wouldn’t go outside anymore.”

Before the 1967 Six-Day War, Rubinstein was employed in the Prime Minister’s Office, in the bureau of Minister Without Portfolio Israel Galili. During the war he served in the Jerusalem Reconnaissance unit of the Jerusalem Brigade, which fought in one of earliest battles in the city, resulting in the capture of the area around Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Afterward, he was a journalist with Davar, the daily paper of the Histadrut labor federation, for 21 years, then he wrote for Haaretz for 19 years, and for the past 10 years he has been writing about the Palestinian economy in the business paper Calcalist. Until recently, Rubinstein would walk every morning from his home in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood on Jerusalem’s western side, through the Haredi sections, to the eastern part of the city. He would start the day with a “briefing” from the newspaper vendor Amir Daana (also known as Abu Salem) at the Old City’s Damascus Gate. There he would get the latest news and hear about the mood among the Palestinians. In recent months, he’s been recovering from cancer.

Rubinstein’s close ties with Palestinian society gave him access to sources of information that were not available to most Israeli researchers. “The first factor that interferes with historical research from the Palestinian point of view is the absence of Arab sources – it’s not as though you can walk into an archive in Damascus and get the file on [Army of Salvation leader Fawzi] al-Qawuqji,” he explains.

“Everyone goes to the foreign sources that reported about the Arabs, for example, what the Egyptian consul wrote, or the British official or Haganah intelligence. I saw that it was hard to get to primary sources, but thanks to my wanderings, I had access to all kinds of [other] sources – memorial pamphlets for those killed, websites, family stories, court documents – it’s very easy to do in Arab society. I have yet to encounter a village resident or a hamula [clan] member who didn’t know something about a somewhat famous family member.

Journalist Danny Rubinstein.Credit: Emil Salman

“You’re looking for information about a fighter named Abed Khalim Julani, who was in Husseini’s unit? Go to the Julani furniture store in Beit Hanina [a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem] and he’ll tell you straight off, ‘He’s my grandfather’s cousin, you’ll find his family either here or there.’”

Rubinstein thus utilized the clan structure to get to oral sources. For example, all the Qastel refugees and their descendants lived in one lane in the town of al-Eizariya, adjacent to Jerusalem. Rubinstein went from person to person, assembling a chain of narratives and information, in order to gather the details of the story of Abdel-Kader al-Husseini.

Brave, wild, revered

Husseini was from an aristocratic Jerusalem family. His father, Musa Kazim al-Husseini, was mayor of Jerusalem and a leader of the Arab public in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. His uncle was the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Abdel-Kader was born in the Old City in 1910. “He was very brave and very wild, he was expelled from four, five schools in Jerusalem,” Rubinstein relates. “But he completed a degree in chemistry at a Cairo university, he had a good command of English, and he was admired by the people around him.”

Husseini first achieved renown during the Arab Revolt of 1936 in Palestine, when he established the Holy Jihad group, consisting of young Arabs from villages in the Jerusalem area. They waged a number of battles against both the British Mandatory forces and members of the Palestinian opposition, who identified with the Nashashibi family, which was opposed to the revolt.

In September 1938, the insurgents held a large gathering in the town of Deir Assana, near Ramallah. “There were 1,500 people there, the heads of all the rebel groups, each with his hundreds of men, virtually all of them well-known figures whose photographs appeared on [British] lists of wanted individuals,” Rubinstein writes. But when Husseini arrived, according to British intelligence reports, “All of them, led by the different commanders, stood to attention in his honor.” The Royal Air Force bombed the gathering, but Husseini managed to escape.

A month later, the mukhtar – headman – of the village of Bani Naim, in the Hebron hills, invited Husseini and his aides for lunch, to discuss issues that the local villages had with the leaders of the revolt. But it was a trap. The mukhtar was allied with the British and the Nashashibis, and the meal was deliberately delayed to give the British time to surround the group of rebels. A battle erupted outside Bani Naim, in which Husseini suffered a lung wound from shrapnel. Nevertheless, he got away and reached Jordan.

Yasser Arafat, circa 1990.Credit: AP

Unlike his uncle, the mufti of Jerusalem, who spent much of World War II in Europe under the protection of the Nazi regime, Husseini remained in the Middle East, moving from one Arab country to another. In some of them he was imprisoned on suspicion of being involved in the murder of a member of the Nashashibi family. In November 1947, when the United Nations approved the Palestine partition plan, Husseini, the mufti and a large number of Palestinian leaders were in Cairo. During this period, young Palestinians and other Arabs gathered around him and formed the core of the Holy Jihad army, which he now reestablished ahead of the looming war. One of the young people who was present in the courtyard of Husseini’s house in Cairo was Yasser Arafat, who later noted that he had played with Husseini’s 6-year-old son, Faisal, who later became Arafat’s colleague (and later rival) in the Palestinian leadership.

Three weeks after the passage of the UN partition resolution on November 29, 1947, Husseini returned to Palestine. Positioning himself in the village of Tsurif, south of Jerusalem, he fought quite effectively during the first weeks of what would be Israel’s War of Independence. After his forces failed in their attempt to conquer the Jewish Etzion Bloc settlements near Bethlehem, he improved his methods of attacking Jewish supply convoys and cutting off Jewish communities.

Rubinstein: “After the debacle in the Etzion Bloc, he realized that he had no chance of capturing the Jewish communities, which were surrounded by fences and trenches, but that his advantage lay in his ability to attack transportation.”

That understanding led to some of the Haganah’s most serious defeats in the Jerusalem region during the war. The most grievous of all was the annihilation of a unit of 35 Jewish soldiers (famously referred to in Hebrew as the “Lamed Heh”), who left from the Elah Valley to reinforce the Etzion Bloc, but were discovered on the way, near Tsurif, and killed. Even though they were an elite fighting group and were well armed, they suffered a total defeat. Far fewer were killed on the Arab side – between four, according to Palestinian sources, and 17, according to Israeli sources.

Husseini’s success is attributed to the effective management of the battle by one of his talented officers, Ibrahim Abu Diya, but also to the Jewish fighters’ bad luck, since Husseini’s forces were based in Tsurif.

“The fate of the 35 can be likened to what would befall a group of armed Arabs who mistakenly entered a Haganah training camp or officers course,” Rubinstein writes in his book.

In the fateful battle, a tactic that came to be identified with Husseini was employed: mustering irregulars from nearby villages quickly in order to mount a concentrated attack. Hundreds or thousands of villagers arrived at the scene with arms and other equipment that they stored at home, and were organized according to families. The faz’ah (“panic,” in Arabic), as the method was known, had many advantages in terms of the ability to disrupt Haganah convoys or attacks. But the absence of proper organization and the villagers’ lack of commitment would soon prove disastrous for the Palestinians.

Husseini also chalked up successes in the realm of terrorism. Under his command, some of the most brutal acts of terror in the history of Jerusalem were perpetrated. The largest of them was the car-bomb explosion on Ben Yehuda Street, downtown, in February 1948, carried out with the aid of deserters from the British Army. Fifty people were killed in the blast. Three weeks later, Husseini’s forces succeeded in getting an explosives-filled car into the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building, not far from the Ben Yehuda incident. Twelve people were killed when the vehicle blew up, and morale in the Jewish community plummeted.

Husseini declared that he had adopted this method because the Israeli side, too, did not balk at the use of terrorism in this period. “We were compelled to carry out this sabotage because of the provocative behavior of the Jews, who think that only they have the right to use such methods,” Rubinstein quotes Husseini as saying after the Ben Yehuda incident. He was referring to the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood (then inhabited by Palestinians) and to the many attacks on civilians perpetrated by the Irgun and the Lehi, another pre-state underground militia, led by Yitzhak Shamir.

The successes of Husseini and the Holy Jihad troops continued into March 1948. Time and again they surprised the Haganah with their ability to recruit a large, deadly force with great speed. An additional success was their blockage of the Nebi Daniel convoy, which had brought supplies to the Etzion Bloc but was attacked on the way back to Jerusalem on March 27. Fifteen Jewish fighters were killed in the battle, and Hussein’s forces seized Haganah armored vehicles and a large quantity of arms.

At the end of March, borne on the waves of his triumphs, Husseini arrived in Damascus for talks with the Arab League’s military committee. It was there, in Damascus, and not in Jerusalem, that the drama involving Husseini reached its tragic peak.

‘History will judge you’

While Husseini was in Syria, the Haganah launched Operation Nahshon, the first military move of its kind in the war, aimed at reopening the blocked road to Jerusalem. During the operation, the Palmach attacked the village of Qastel. For the first time in the war, the Jews seized an Arab village without intending to withdraw from it. “Husseini was the first to understand that this time it was not a regular battle, with exchanges of fire without the capture of an inhabited area,” Rubinstein explains. “This time the Jews planned to stay and hold the village indefinitely, something they hadn’t done before.”

Husseini realized that Qastel’s capture by the Jewish forces was liable to unravel his primary strategy: tightening the siege of Jewish Jerusalem until surrendered. He drew on reports from the city’s Jewish neighborhoods about a serious shortage of food and water, and believed that the capitulation of their residents was close at hand – a development that would affect the course of the military campaign throughout the country. Yet, everything could go wrong because of the conquest of a small village.

According to the testimonies cited by Rubinstein, Hussein was convinced that Qastel was the linchpin on which Palestine would rise or fall. He appealed to the representatives of the Arab governments, alternately with importuning and with rage. “My plan is succeeding,” he told them, according to Rubinstein. “We have reached a point where the Jews in Jerusalem are now asking for a hudna [truce], and we can bring about revisions in the partition plan. But you know that I will not be able to attack Jerusalem and hold Qastel with the Italian rifles I have and the antique ammunition that we brought from the Egyptian desert [referring to World War II-vintage weapons collected in Egypt]. Give me artillery and I will be able to force the Jews in Jerusalem to surrender.”

Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini and his men.Credit: Israel Netach, Palmach Archive

But the Arab representatives in Damascus rejected his request with a mixture of disdain for his military ability and the belief that in any event, the regular Arab armies that would intervene in the next stage of the war would succeed in recouping everything that was now falling to the Haganah.

The bad news from Qastel compounded Husseini’s glum feeling that he was an unwanted guest in Damascus. The representatives of the Arab states were contemptuous of him and refused to supply him with ammunition or funding. The knowledge that the Arab League had amassed weapons for the war effort but was refusing to provide them to Husseini’s forces, preferring instead to keep them for the Army of Salvation or for regular Arab armies, drove Husseini almost out of his mind.

As Rubinstein told me, “Husseini and his people were caught between the Palestinian ethos and the Arab ethos. He understood that if the Arab forces were to come [to Palestine], their governance would also come. King Abdullah [of Jordan] would rule here, and the Egyptians would rule in Gaza. They want help from Arabs but without paying the price. Give us money, but we will make the decisions – and to that the Arab countries did not agree.”

In his book, Rubinstein describes the sarcasm of the Arab interlocutors: “‘Anyone would think Jerusalem is an important seaport,’ Taha al-Hashemi, a senior Iraqi officer in the Army of Salvation, said. And, on another occasion, ‘If we send Abdel-Kader artillery, what will happen is that the Jews will overcome the mujahideen [guerrilla fighters] and seize the cannons. Enough, enough, makho [“no way,” in Iraqi Arabic] artillery, makho money, makho weapons.’”

Rubinstein describes how the tense discussion concluded with a dramatic statement by Husseini: “History will judge you for abandoning Palestine, you and those who are behind you I hold you responsible. I will capture Qastel and die, I and all my fighters, and history will record that you – criminals and traitors – abandoned the land.” After the meeting, Husseini told his friends, who were waiting outside, “We can go and have a good time in Iraq, or we can go back to Palestine and die for it – we will go back to Palestine.”

The real question at that point, Rubinstein tells me, was: “How do they dare? A weak group like this trying to rebel against the British Empire and afterward against the Arab world. In this connection, Musa al-Alami [a Palestinian leader in the British Mandate period], wrote: ‘If we had sat quietly and allowed the Zionist land settlement to spread, we would have died little by little. We decided that it was better for us to die with honor, in an uprising, and not to die in stages.’”

Husseini left Damascus on April 6, 1948. According to Rubinstein, he and the mufti had by then grasped the scale of the Arab countries’ treachery in regard to Palestine. Some of them apparently accepted the UN partition plan, others wanted to take part of Palestine for themselves – no one, however, thought it necessary to take the Palestinians themselves into account. Three days earlier, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Army of Salvation, had met with a Haganah intelligence officer. The Jewish force wanted to be sure that he would not intervene on Husseini’s side in the battles in the Jerusalem area. “Udrubuhu [smash him],” Qawuqji replied.

Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini and his wife on their wedding day.

There are many testimonies from those days describing Husseini’s anger, sense of affront and feeling of betrayal, though some of them, Rubinstein points out, were written after his death and may have been influenced by the later events. But the note that Husseini left the Arab League secretariat is authentic: “I hold you responsible for leaving my soldiers in the field at the height of their victory without support or arms.” To his wife, Wajiha, who was in Cairo, he wrote, “Tell the children that if they do well in school I will buy them real rifles and pistols so they can fight the Jews.”

In Rubinstein’s view, the drama in Damascus reflects relations between the Palestinians and the Arab world to this day. “I once asked Arafat how the Palestinian problem had come into being. ‘The Arabs betrayed us,’ he said. The Palestinians can’t understand how 20 countries and hundreds of millions of people aren’t able to restore their rights. It gives them no rest.”

Hopeless battle

On the way to Jerusalem, Husseini met a Syrian officer, and told him and his men, “We are giving our blood and our soul to Palestine, we will not spare anything and we will not scrimp. I prefer to die rather than see the Jews conquer Palestine, and I am determined to take Qastel, after I saw how the heads of the Arab League betrayed Palestine. The members of the [military] committee enjoy the money and the weapons, while our destiny is to die.”

Did Husseini wish to die?

“At this stage he was desperate, but I don’t know if he sought death,” Rubinstein says. “What he felt was the betrayal of the Arabs.”

While Husseini’s small convoy made its way back to Jerusalem, the Haganah succeeded, for the first time in many weeks, in getting a large supply convoy into the city. The siege was lifted. In Jerusalem, Hussein quickly convened all his available men for a major attack on Qastel. Rubinstein paints a picture of an individual who was tired after a long journey and from the failure in Damascus, who embarks on an almost hopeless battle.

In the first stage of the fighting, Husseini stayed in his command post in the quarry below the hill. But when his troops’ assault was repulsed he left the post and joined his fighters in the village, accompanied by his bodyguard, Awad Turmussawi. Husseini ordered Turmuwassi to help attach explosives to the house of the mukhtar, where a Haganah force was entrenched. Turmussawi hesitated about leaving Husseini completely alone, but finally obeyed.

Husseini remained with two teenage boys. In the faint light of dawn he spotted two fighters in one of the positions. “Hello, boys,” he called to them in English. To which they replied with the same greeting, in Arabic, “Marhaba ya jama’ah.” But the two were not his men. They were Haganah fighters named Meir Karmiyol and Yaakov Silman. The use of Arabic was commonplace in the Haganah at the time, but why Husseini addressed them in English has never been explained – perhaps he thought they were British deserters who served under him. In any event, the fact that Husseini spoke in English became the basis for numerous conspiracy theories over the years.

Silman was the first to sense that something was amiss. “Meir, those are Arabs,” he exclaimed. Whereupon Karmiyol let loose a burst of gunfire that struck Husseini, wounding him badly. The two youths fled and were apparently afraid to relate what had happened. As a result, several more hours passed before both sides, the Jews and the Arabs, realized who the officer was who’d been shot. When the Arabs discovered that Husseini was missing, they organized a huge faz’ah operation, encompassing the whole Jerusalem region. Thousands charged up the Qastel hill and captured the village. Karmiyol was among those killed.

Husseini’s body was taken to Jerusalem and his fighters in Qastel abandoned their positions to attend his funeral, that next day. The weakness of the Palestinian military force became abundantly clear.

Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini's funeral.

“They were people who were summoned from the villages; they fought, and at the end of the day they went home,” he says. “It wasn’t a problem of lack of organization, it was a struggle waged by a tribal society, rural and undeveloped, and in the final analysis they didn’t stand a chance. The whole Husseini army numbered a thousand people, while the Palmach alone had 5,000 soldiers. While the Palmach’s units were highly mobile – a young Jew from Galilee might be called upon to defend Jerusalem – the Arabs were incapable of transferring forces.”

At the funeral, Anwar Nusseibeh, a close aide of Husseini’s (and later Jordan’s defense minister), noticed the commander of the force that was supposed to defend Qastel. “Who replaced your men?” Nusseibeh asked him. “The Jews,” the commander replied. At that moment, according to Rubinstein, Nusseibeh grasped that Husseini’s death had been in vain. And just then, smoke began to rise over Deir Yassin.

The first Palestinian parachutist

The Holy Jihad forces never recovered from the blow of their revered commander’s death. One of the reasons for this was the speedy removal of Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini’s close aide, Thulkifi Abdul Latif, who had been appointed to replace him. He was deposed after six days by young people from the Husseini family, who demanded that someone from their family succeed Abd al-Qadir. “A Husseini has died, a Husseini will come,” they insisted. The mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, finally gave in to the pressure, even though the family’s candidate lacked military experience.

In the book, Rubinstein relates a little-known story about Abdul Latif’s past, dating to World War II – a kind of mirror image of the story of Hannah Szenes and the other Jewish paratroopers who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary. Abdul Latif, a Palestinian from Jerusalem and veteran of battles against the British from the period of the Arab Revolt, became the first Palestinian parachutist. During the war, he found himself in Berlin, and with the aid of the mufti was seconded to German commando trainees. The Reich’s Arab office intended for him to parachute into Palestine in order to stir up a revolt against the British ahead of Germany’s conquest of the country. He and another Palestinian, Hassam Salameh, along with three German soldiers, all from the Templer sect’s colonies in the country, parachuted in October 1944 into the northern Dead Sea region.

Rubinstein quotes from Abdul Latif’s memoir: “We arrived above Wadi Kelt, between Deir Hajleh [Monastery of St. Gerasimus] and Jericho and the Dead Sea. It was one o’clock in the morning and we flew over a farming area; visibility was poor, we were told that the area was open, with no vegetation and no orchards, but there was a mistake in navigation. We parachuted into an area with vegetation and banana groves. We couldn’t see one another because of the vegetation or the equipment that was parachuted with us.”

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Abdul Latif succeeded in getting in touch with his contact person and with one of the German soldiers. But the next day they were caught by English soldiers. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” the officer who interrogated them asked. “I am Thulkifi from Jerusalem. I was in Germany to help my people against the crimes of the Zionists,” Abdul Latif replied. The detainees were incarcerated first in Alexandria, Egypt, and then sent back to detention in Jerusalem and Acre. Abdul Latif escaped from prison in December 1947, after pretending he was a cholera patient and escaping while being transferred to a hospital.

Rubinstein wonders in the book why the Germans mounted an operation of this kind at such a late stage in the war, many months after their defeat in the Middle East at El Alamein in 1942. “It was probably a reward and assistance to the mufti for his activity on behalf of the Third Reich,” he writes, “and not a military action related to the course of the war.”

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