The liberation of Jerusalem

God’s purpose is worked out in ways beyond the intention or comprehension of many …

Advance into Judea as of 16 November 1917 (Source: Wikipedia)

On August 1, 1917, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, declared that Mesopotamia was not a side-show, “because as long as we keep up a good show there India and Persia will be more or less all right”. It was to take pressure off that area that he favoured an attack on the Gaza-Beersheba line in Palestine. The Turks had previously thrown back two attacks on Gaza, but this time there was a campaign of deception to convince them that the main target would be that city, whereas, in fact, it was Beersheba.

Beersheba was captured on October 31 and Gaza shortly afterwards. Among the British troops entering the shattered city were specially recruited Jewish soldiers of the Royal Fusiliers. The way to Jerusalem was now open, although the military cemeteries at Gaza and Beersheba, which contain about 5,000 burials of British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, West Indian and Indian troops and two nurses, illustrate that this was not a bloodless victory. There were some Jewish soldiers among those casualties.

Allenby enters Jerusalem

On the morning of Sunday, December 9, the main British force was positioned three miles from Jerusalem, preparing to capture it. Two British privates were out early searching for eggs, perhaps on an abandoned farm or perhaps from some of the locals. Whether or not they found any eggs, they did find a group of people, some in Turkish uniform, some in civilian clothing, carrying a white flag. In fact, this group included the Mayor, priests, rabbis and imams and they were looking for someone to surrender to.

They were taken back to a sergeant and eventually passed on to a general to whom they could hand over the keys to the city. The Turks, including German and Austrian officers, had retreated north to Nablus and east toward the Jordan. The British could walk in unopposed. Lloyd George’s call to take Jerusalem by Christmas had been achieved.

The reaction to news of this victory in Britain was most enthusiastic, coming as it did on the heels of the appalling losses on the Ypres salient and the loss of Russian allies following the Bolshevik Revolution. Allenby, commander of the British troops, entered Jerusalem on December 11. The Times commented:

“General Allenby’s entry into the city means that the yoke of the Turk is broken for ever. The Sultan will dominate the Holy Places no more; the scattered Jews will have a prospect of returning as a free people to their national home, and a new order will be established, founded upon the ideals of righteousness and justice.”

The same writer added:

“The British Commander made his entry accompanied by the Commanders of the French and Italian detachments and the military attachés of France, Italy and the United States. Unlike the bombastic and spectacular entry of the German Emperor – who, though in reality a Cook’s tourist, rode into the city in the theatrical guise of a conqueror, and proceeded to preach a political sermon in a German church – General Allenby and his companions were on foot, and made no effort to impress the imagination of the spectators. No effort was needed. The measures taken spoke and will speak for themselves.”

In the early months of 1918, the pages of The Christadelphian also contained much comment on these events alongside repetition of what had been said elsewhere.

Chaim Weizmann.
Chaim Weizmann. – Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

“‘“The capture of Jerusalem by British troops marks a turning point of the war in the East, and without exaggeration, a new era in the history of mankind”, said Dr Weizmann, head of the English Zionist Federation, to a Daily News representative last night. “The British flag flies on the hills of Judea, and that means liberty, justice, and civilisation where before reigned destruction, strife and barbarism”’ … The Chief Rabbi, Dr. Hertz, made the following statement:

‘Jerusalem, which for ages has been the magnetic pole of the love and reverence of the world, is now in British hands, and this soul-thrilling news reaches us on the day that the Jews are celebrating the Maccabean festival [Hanukkah]. On this very day 2,070 years ago the Maccabees freed the Holy City from the heathen oppressor and thereby changed the spiritual future of humanity. Who knows that today’s victory may form as glorious a landmark in the history of mankind?’ … The Jewish Chronicle devotes seventeen columns to a report of the great meeting held in the Opera House, London, to thank the Government for its declaration on behalf of the Jews. There was an immense audience … Lord Rothschild presided and there were many famous speakers, including Lord Robert Cecil, the Chief Rabbi, Mr Herbert Samuel, Col. Sir Mark Sykes, Mr. Zangwill, and M. Sokolow. There were also Arab and Armenian speakers. Lord Robert Cecil said he believed that the British support of Zionism would have a far-reaching influence on the history of the world, and consequences which none can foresee on the future history of the human race (Loud cheers). Mr. Herbert Samuel, who spoke brilliantly, said that it was now possible to say, not as a pious and distant wish, but as a near and confident hope – ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ The Chief Rabbi recalled the decree of Cyrus and quoted Psalm 126. Mr. Zangwill painted a lurid picture of the state of the world and quoted the prophecy of ‘our own Isaiah’, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares’. He spoke of Palestine as a land ‘ruined not by German war, but Turkish peace’. Capt. Ormsby Gore M.P., said he felt that, ‘Behind it all was the finger of Almighty God.’” [1]

Nonetheless, the political and military realities of the day soon became apparent. Allenby declared martial law in the city and had to be aware of the sensitivities of all elements of its population.

Allenby’s proclamation

“To the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the blessed, and the people dwelling in its vicinity: The defeat inflicted upon the Turks by the troops under my command has resulted in the occupation of your city by my forces. I therefore here and now proclaim it to be under martial law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make it necessary.

“However, lest any of you should be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person should pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption.

“Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind, and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of three religions for many centuries, therefore do I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.”

Allenby also stated:

“Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive Moslem control”.

“The hereditary custodians of the Wakf [2] at the gates of the Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed duty in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar, who protected that church.”

Future difficulties are clearly hinted at in this declaration and the war itself was not yet over.

A difficult road ahead

March and April 1918 brought significant German success on the Western Front before the tide was turned decisively. It should also not be forgotten that, while faith was expressed in the future intentions of the British Government in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, that same government was also paying the Arabs a monthly subsidy of £200,000 (subsequently increased to £500,000) in gold to support their revolt against the Turks and had made them promises of independence, too. Even when the war had ended there was limited progress in replacing Turkish control with a new order and, consequently, there was mounting frustration.

Brother Ladson commented in The Christadelphian in September, 1919:

“The delay in the settlement of the Palestinian question is unfortunate, but apparently unavoidable. The unsettled condition is keeping back many useful projects and is not conducive to peace and security in the Land.”

He added that Allenby had recently reported –

“The task of maintaining order in Palestine and Syria has been a delicate one … all along the eastern borders are large numbers of Bedouin, supplied with arms and ammunition in greater quantities than ever before, who have never been subject to any but the most nominal control. They, too, are waiting to take advantage of any internal disorder as an opportunity for raids and plunder.”

The mandate over Palestine

International meeting of the post-World War I Allied Supreme Council outside Villa Devachan in Sanremo, Italy, from 19 to 26 April 1920, from left to right: Matsui, Lloyd George, Curzon, Berthelot, Millerand, Scialoja, Nitti

It was 1920 before Britain was given the mandate over Palestine following the San Remo Conference, with Sir Herbert Samuel appointed as High Commissioner. This was formalised in July, 1922 and came into full effect in 1923. There was an obligation for the mandatory power that it would “encourage local autonomy” (Article 3) and, “while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage … close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes” (Article 6).

In fact, of course, Arab opposition escalated and the Supreme Muslim Council, established by the British, became a platform for anti-Jewish sentiment.

The optimism that had accompanied the liberation of Jerusalem in December, 1917 dissipated during the 1920s and 1930s. British mandatory rule proved ineffective and an independent state of Israel appeared unrealistic until the events of World War Two brought a new impetus. Nonetheless, as Captain Gore had recognised, Almighty God was directing affairs according to His purpose and the aims and ambitions of secular powers are insignificant in comparison.

Les Shears – The liberation of Jerusalem  – The Christadelphian

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