Australian graves in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, 2007. (Dr. Richard Middleton)
“ANZACS BACK AGAIN” was the front-page headline of Jerusalem’s Palestine Post on 13 February 1940. The ANZAC reputation for courage and daring was legendary after their victory at Beersheba in 1917. That was the Palestine Campaign that saw the celebrated charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade on the unsuspecting Turks. It was a battle that turned the tide of that campaign and led to the subsequent end of Ottoman rule in Palestine.
During World War II, Palestine was under a British Mandate and Australian and New Zealand soldiers were back helping the British army to stop the Germans from capturing Egypt and the Suez Canal. They fought alongside several Palestinian brigades enlisted into the British Army under The Palestine Regiment. That decisive offensive took place in 1942 at al-Alamein, Egypt, the first allied land victory of the war.
Tragically, more than 2,000 ANZACS from both campaigns would never see Australia or New Zealand again. Over 600 lie in unknown graves with Muslim and Christian Arabs and Jews who also died trying to defeat the German army. Other ANZACS are buried in war cemeteries throughout Palestine, two of which can be found in Gaza — one beautifully cared for in the Palestinian town of Deir al-Balah, and the other in Gaza City. The Beersheba Commonwealth War Cemetery has graves of some 175 Australian soldiers and lies on the edge of today’s sprawling commercial city that Israel has renamed Be’er Sheva. Our soldiers knew it as Beersheba with a largely Palestinian population.
The New York Times of 1 November 1917 described Beersheba as an “ancient Palestine city, having much strategic value,” and during the British Mandate, it remained an administrative center providing work and services for some 4,000 Palestinians who lived in the area. The next time Beersheba became a battleground was in 1948, when the army of the newly-created Israel captured the city and terrorized its Palestinian inhabitants into fleeing. It was never intended to become part of Israel under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, but like in other parts of Palestine, the Palestinians were never allowed to return to their homes.
In an effort to conflate Australia’s Palestine Campaign with Israel, the Pratt Foundation in Australia, which contributes heavily towards Israeli causes, commissioned a statue for the new theme park that it has set up in memory of the Australian soldiers in Beersheba. That was almost a year ago. A statement made last month by Australian Veteran Affairs Minister Alan Griffin, said that the Park of the Australian Soldier was a gift to the people of Be’er Sheva, but for years the Israelis living there were ignorant of the site’s significance and willfully neglectful of its heritage. Earlier this year, the Australian government was forced to order an investigation after the precious water wells, which the Australian soldiers had so bravely fought to secure, were found to be in a shocking state of disrepair and a virtual rubbish tip.
Since then, the embarrassment for Israeli officials over the neglect of this historic site has passed. The statue was unveiled in Beersheba on 28 April to commemorate what many regard as the most significant victory of Australian military history and Australia’s Governor-General was in Israel — a first for our head of state — along with other international dignitaries for the ceremony. In contrast, Australia’s first Jewish Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs vigorously questioned the legitimacy of Zionism (the founding ideology of Israel), describing it as “a monstrous historical crime and curse.” He did not live to see the state of Israel, but it is unlikely that he would have associated himself with it, particularly in light of its nefarious deeds over the last 60 years.
Gaza has particularly suffered because of Israel. Subjected for two years to an increasingly punitive siege, 1.5 million starving Palestinians are barely 50 kilometers away from the commemorations in Beersheba. Their extreme humanitarian need cries out for attention. They should not be ignored and neither should their history. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in Gaza during the Palestine Campaign when ANZACS and Palestinian soldiers fought the Turks to free Palestine from Ottoman rule. Now, the Palestinians are prisoners of Israel — not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The Governor-General ought to have paid his respects to the ANZACS resting in Gazan graves, but it is unlikely that Israel would have given him a permit for free passage in any case.
The much-publicized ANZAC-Israel connection would appear then to be more about fudging history than honoring it. While most Australians would see the statue and park for the fallen ANZACS as a tribute to their soldiers fighting and dying for King and Country, editor Dan Goldberg of Rhapsody, a bi-monthly insert in The Australian Jewish News, sees it as “a permanent memorial to those who died in battle for the Jewish state.” This is a disturbing and historically incorrect remark, since the battle for Beersheba occurred 31 years before the state of Israel even came into being or was created in Palestine for that matter.
In fact, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which sought British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was still being debated by the British War Cabinet when Beersheba was captured. In the following decades, the British denied that a Jewish state had been intended — only a “national home” — and insisted that a clause be inserted stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” which in itself was insulting to the Palestinians who made up 92 percent of the population.
It was not until 1947 that the United Nations member countries, amongst them Australia, unequally divided Palestine with the stroke of a pen and created Israel without consulting the Palestinians who had lived rich and productive lives in the cities, towns and villages under the Ottomans and later the British. Last month, Palestinians could only watch in despair as the remembrances took place and the historical connection between Australia and Palestine was usurped by a state that did not exist when Australian soldiers fought there for the British Empire.
War memorials everywhere show Palestine etched in stone. Graves in Gaza honor our soldiers. But even more telling, are the four million Palestinians who live in that land under Israel’s brutal occupation and siege and the 7.2 million refugees who are waiting to return home. They will not forget. It will take more than Governor-Generals and statues to expunge the history and memories of the ANZAC-Palestine connection, try as Israel might.
Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine and one of the founders and co-conveners of Australians for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.