Axis and Allied Strategic Posturing in Palestine: Hidden Lessons from World War II

by Air Force 1LT Basil H. Aboul-Enein and Navy Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein

The dilemma over Palestine has been a multifaceted conundrum with three rival elements: (1) Zionism, (2) Arab nationalism and (3) competition among European powers. Before the creation of Israel in 1948, the four great powers – Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany – intervened directly and indirectly in Palestine.

In the geostrategic machinations between Axis and Allies, Palestine seemed to have occupied a unique role in Nazi Germany’s foreign-policy thinking as well as in the anti-Allied activities planned by the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence) in the Middle East. The Germans were no strangers to understanding the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and in particular the following treaties that stoked Arab anti-British sentiment:

  • The implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence;
  • The Balfour Declaration that acknowledged the need for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but not at the expense of the local population; and, finally,
  • The proposed Peel Commission Plan that recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections in 1937.
Nazis cultivate Arab enthusiasm and support

Owing to economic resources, the success of the German Afrika Korps in North Africa and undermining Allied control of vital communication links in the Middle East, the Third Reich had a strategic interest in the Near East. In addition, developments in Palestine led the Germans to adopt a political position on Arab affairs with the objective of agitating Arabs and Muslims against the British.1 This would open multiple fronts for the British, drawing forces to suppress dissent in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan.

After decades of frustration, hostilities towards the British Mandate of Palestine were always present under the surface in the 1930s. Arabs in Palestine and in the Near East greeted the emerging Nazi regime in Germany with enthusiasm. Arab-nationalist intellectuals viewed the Nazis as liberators coming to rescue the region from decades of British rule, an image cultivated by German intelligence operatives in Egypt, Iraq, the Levant and Palestine.

Unlike Britain, the Germans were not viewed with suspicion and mistrust in the Middle East during the period between World Wars I and II. Arab-nationalist organizations and societies began to identify with elements of National Socialism and viewed it as a means of countering Zionism and European imperialism. The inequities of the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany held considerable appeal for Arab leaders, who considered the Mandate of Palestine and the Balfour Declaration part of the injustice that Arabs would share with the Germans. This sentiment was encouraged and exploited by the Nazis in shaping a favorable atmosphere for Arab uprisings in Palestine.2

Palestinian Arab leaders wasted no time in making known their positive assessment of events in Germany in 1933. The German consul-general in Palestine, Heinrich Wolff, maintained a consistent dialog with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The mufti informed Wolff that Arabs in Palestine were ripe for revolt against the British, and the Nazis keenly looked to the future of the spread of fascism throughout the Near East.

The German consulate in Beirut and the German embassy in Baghdad received letters from Syrian and Iraqi citizens expressing their admiration for Hitler as well as proposals for closer ties between the Arab world and Germany. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, received reports from sources in the Near East on the extent of pro-German feelings. Many Arabs hoped to pursue the aims of Arab nationalism in Palestine by creating a movement based on the National Socialist model and experiences.3

Arab Revolt of 1936

The revolt of 1936 had these major events: first, the incitement made by Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam; second, the establishment of the Arab Higher Committee chaired by al-Husseini ; third, the Peel Commission interlude; and fourth, the recommencement of the revolt.

Riots began initially in Jaffa April 19, 1936, by the followers of al-Qassam, the spiritual leader and founder of Al-Kaff Al-Aswad (Black Hand), an anti-Zionist, anti-British underground Islamist militant organization classified as a terrorist group by the Mandate authorities. Al-Qassam arranged cells and enlisted men, who conducted a widespread campaign attacking Jewish communities and British installations, and destroying rail lines. He often cooperated with al-Husseini, who extended financial assistance to al-Qassam.

In November 1935, al-Qassam, fearing British reprisals, moved his base in the hills between Jenin and Nablus. The British police launched a manhunt and surrounded his safehouse. Al-Qassam died in the consequent gun battle, his death becoming an inspiration for militant organizations in subsequent years. The militant wing of Hamas, dubbed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, used explosives called “Qassam rockets.”4

With al-Qassam’s death, his devout followers referred to themselves as Qassamiyun. They staged a general strike in Jaffa and Nablus, and launched attacks on Jewish and British quarters. The strikes were prompted by the Arab Higher Committee and chaired by al-Husseini. The mufti also formed a paramilitary youth organization, al-Futuwwah, which took its role from the Hitler Youth. The Arab Higher Committee stated that the strike would continue until the British administration agreed to halt Jewish immigration. Rebels targeted a major oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa.5

Dr. Fritz Grobba, German ambassador to Iraq, received requests from Arab sources during the early months of the revolt for weapons and other supplies for Arab insurgents in Palestine. (One such request came from Fauzi Kaoukji, a former officer in the Iraqi army, who commanded Arab units in Palestine during the revolt. He requested large amounts of German weapons, to be purchased on credit and paid for by the mufti’s Higher Committee.) After expressing sympathy for Arab self-determination in Palestine, Grobba said Germany wished to maintain friendly relations with Britain and that any material assistance to the Arab rebellion would have a grave impact on Anglo-German relations.

Tracing the origin of the weapons had been difficult to ascertain for Britain. Sources included neighboring Arab states and even potentially Soviet involvement. A report by Walter Hans Dohle, the German consul general in Jerusalem, referred to the mufti and his organization, and provided the following unsubstantiated information: “The elite units of the Arab terror organization are moving more and more under Russian influence. With Russian help, Arab guerrillas have to possess good, modern weapons after a recent visit of a Soviet Russian trade representative in Jaffa.”

According to a British colonial officer report in July 1936, the British government had reason to suspect that potential Italian consular authorities in Palestine and elsewhere in the Near East were providing money and arms to the Arab rebels in Palestine, which was denied by Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano.6

The strike and violence ceased in October 1936. The Peel Commission Committee arrived in Palestine Nov. 11, 1936; led by Lord William Wellesley Peel, its purpose was to investigate the reasons behind the uprising and propose a solution. The committee made its report July 7, 1937, and proposed terminating the British Mandate, dividing Palestine into two parts: one part a Jewish state comprised of about one-fifth of the area, and the other part an Arab state composed of the rest, including Transjordan. A corridor covering Bethlehem and Jerusalem would be Mandate territory. The report also recommended the compulsory transfer of Arab Palestinians from territories allocated for the Jewish state.

Photo: Lord William Wellesley Peel and the rest of the Peel Commission arrive in Palestine. (From Wikipedia, accessed June 15, 2008)

Map: Peel Commission Plan of 1937. (From Wikipedia, accessed June 15, 2008)

The Arab leadership rejected the plan, and the revolt resumed in Autumn 1937. When British District Commissioner Lewis Yelland Andrews was assassinated, Britain declared martial law and clamped down on Arab dissidents. They outlawed the Arab Higher Committee organization and issued an arrest warrant for al-Husseini.

Photo: British Soldiers subdue angry Palestinian Arabs. (From Al-Jazeera, accessed June 23, 2008)

Although the revolt’s goal was futile, it signified the birth of national Arab Palestinian identity.7

Jewish emigration and economic interests in Palestine

In Germany, the Arab revolt was greeted with almost total indifference and without much support of the Arab cause. Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg wrote an article criticizing Britain’s one-sided support of the Zionist cause and their neglect of legitimate Arab demands. He argued that Britain could be more sensitive to Arab wishes yet remain loyal to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration. His argument served as the basis of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine and not the pretext for transforming Palestine into an exclusively Jewish state.

Interestingly, most Arabs never realized the Nazis considered them racially inferior. Like many around the world, the Arabs did not closely examine Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf. More so, Arabs made no connection that the Nazis they revered were directly responsible for the dramatic increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine after 1933 due to the Third Reich’s newly passed anti-Semitic laws. In 1930, 4,944 Jews immigrated to Palestine, followed by 4,075 in 1931. The figure rose to 9,553 in 1932 and to 30,327 in 1933. By 1934, it rose to 42,356 and again to 61,458 by 1935.

An accord between the Reich authorities and the Jewish Agency for Palestine was the Haavara Agreement (Hebrew for transfer). Arabs were oblivious of this Nazi program, which allowed German Jews to take out part of their property in the form of goods produced in Germany. The Trust and Transfer Office of Haavara Ltd., established in 1935 as the result of the agreement, received virtual monopoly on the import of German goods into Palestine. Some 50,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine under this arrangement.8 This was before the Nazi leadership resorted to the heinous program of mass extermination called the Final Solution.

German exports to Palestine increased from 11.4 million Reichsmark in 1932 to 16.7 million in 1933 and 32.4 million in 1937. One report made by the Berlin publication Industrie und Handel noted, “Palestine was in a state of intensive development and was considered an island in the ocean of the world economic depression.” Though this agreement was highly criticized within German governmental circles, it was necessary to hasten Jewish emigration. The transfer of Jewish property within the framework of Haavara resulted in most Jewish property falling into Nazi hands.

It is not clear to what extent the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish policy and increased emigration to Palestine contributed to the Arab uprising of 1936. However, Haavara betrayed not only German Jews but also Palestinian Arabs, very similar to the British partition plan being unsatisfactory to both Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

On one side, the persecution and anti-Semitism in Germany compelled Jews to demand Palestinian visas and stimulated the efforts of the Zionist aims. On the other hand, Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda coincided with the designs of the Arab nationalists regarding the alleged control by “International Jewry” over world finances and politics, and about the British-Jewish conspiracy to take Palestine from its inhabitants.9 Axis diplomats and intelligence operatives in the Middle East would exacerbate these themes and conspiracies in general and British-Mandate Palestine specifically. Such anti-Semitic propaganda still survives today in the form of militant Islamists and other radicals in the region reading Arabic versions of Mein Kampf and the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Nazi ‘fifth column’ in Palestine

One key important tool of the Third Reich was the pro-fascist German immigrant in Palestine. In 1937, according to Dohle, about 2,500 Germans lived in Palestine, mainly in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, as well as in the rural areas of Sarona and Bethlehem. The Palastinadeutsche, an organization of German residents of Palestine, was completely under the influence of local Nazi leaders, who treated the German settlements in Palestine as advance posts of the Third Reich.10

A Nazi workers’ party cell was established in Palestine in 1932 with six members; by mid-1937, membership increased to about 300 – consisting of local branches at Sarona and Jaffa with 108 members, Haifa with 90 members, Jerusalem with 66 members and Bethlehem with 19 members. The workers’ party headquarters in Berlin and leadership in Palestine pursued the active process of Gleichschaltung (synchronization). This strengthened links between Germany and the Nazi party organization in Palestine.

The Nazi party in Palestine undertook an information campaign that included courses, literature and organized excursions to Germany for conferences and rallies. Radio and German news services were on display. Some communal German-language libraries removed inappropriate German authors and replaced them with Nazi literature. The Auslandsorganization (Foreign Organization of the Nazi Party) in Berlin gained control over the education of German overseas schools by requiring teachers to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler in 1935 and pressing them into the Nationalsozialistsches Lehrerbund (National Socialist Teachers’ Alliance) by early 1938. The Hitler Youth established camps and enlisted most German children in Palestine.

Relations with Palestinian Jews, once good before the advent of Hitler, of course worsened with the passage of time. Arabs in Palestine became inclined to view the Germans as potential allies in a common struggle against Zionism and the British Mandate, while some British officials suspected a potential Nazi fifth column among the German residents of Palestine.11

Radical change of German policy

With the news of the 1937 Peel Commission Plan partitioning Palestine and creating a Jewish state, German foreign policy re-examined its position toward the Palestine question. Konstantin von Neurath, Germany’s minister of foreign affairs, sent instructions June 1, 1937, to the German embassy in London as well as to Dohle and Grobba. The German foreign ministry also sent a letter June 22 to all German outposts and embassies overseas. Both documents dealt specifically with the Palestine question.12

These documents declared that Germany’s relation to Palestinian affairs mostly revolved around an internal political premise of undermining the British in the Arab world. One stated: “Heretofore it was the primary goal of Germany’s Jewish policy to promote the emigration of Jews from Germany as much as possible. The formation of a Jewish state or a Jewish-led political structure under British Mandate is not in Germany’s interest, since a Palestinian state would not absorb world Jewry but would create an additional position of powers under international law for international Jewry, somewhat like the Vatican state for political Catholicism or Moscow for the Comintern.”

The German foreign ministry also stated, “In reality, it is of greater interest to Germany to keep Jewry dispersed. … Rather, the developments of recent years [are the] ideological and therefore political enemy of National Socialist Germany. The Jewish question is therefore at the same time one of the most important problems of German foreign policy. Germany has an interest in strengthening the Arab world as a counterweight against such a possible increase in power for world Jewry.”

Grobba received a directive from Berlin to the effect that “German understanding of Arab national aspirations should be expressed more clearly than before, but without making definite promises.”13

The Nazis began agitating the British over the Peel Commission Plan. Von Neurath raised the question Oct. 26, 1937, with British authorities regarding guarantees to the German colonies in Palestine in the proposed partition. Dohle in Jerusalem demanded a radical change in policy. He pointed out that because of the existing policy of Jewish emigration, the Arabs might respond disapprovingly to Germany.

Advocates of von Neurath’s thesis – that a more important task than emigrating Jews out of Germany was to maintain their state of dispersal – thought a Jewish state was forming because of Germany’s existing policy of Jewish emigration to Palestine (with the help of German money and the knowledge and skills Jews had acquired in Germany.)14 This view was advanced by prohibiting emigration, but, on the other hand, the Third Reich maintained its anti-Jewish policy. It did not know in general what to do with Jews, whom they were turning into second-class citizens and a burden on the Nazi government.

By 1938, the discussion of Jewish emigration was devoid of substance, for the British authorities had dropped the proposed Peel Commission Report and dramatically limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Two considerations of Nazi anti-Semitism were reflected. One was the tendency to drive the Jews out of Germany, and the other was to capitalize on the Jewish question in political scheming within the Third Reich. This stemmed the seed of the eventual “Final Solution” of the Jewish question.15

Why does this matter today and conclusion

The United States is an integral part of Middle East history, and American forces are likely to be involved in the region for the near future. While America’s war colleges rightly study major aspects of World War II strategy, some amount of classroom time must be spent studying obscure Allied and Axis political-military policies toward Egypt, Iraq, the Levant and Palestine. Little-known aspects of World War II have affected the climate of conspiracy theories. However, they explain why the Arab world views the West with such distrust, leading to cultivating not true allies but more friends of convenience. Also, al-Qaeda strategists such as Abu Musab al-Suri have sought to redefine and rewrite history, and therefore the involvement of the British, and now the United States, in the region.

We cannot afford not to explore with a scholarly eye the agreements, operations and plans conducted in World War II to set the record straight. We cannot abdicate history to pseudo-intellectuals like Ayman al-Zawhairi and al-Suri. Militant Islamist leaders and ideologues are proficient at rewriting the historical narrative and presenting conspiracies as fact in their drive to polarize the region and advance their agenda.

The struggle in the Near East transcends its local nature because of its global implications for world peace. From a political perspective, it has reflected that many trends and pressures bear on the vital oil-production center of the world. One of the most highly charged and misrepresented facets of Middle East history is the Palestinian question, and we would do well to examine the political-military history of this troubled region carefully. No student of political science or military history can afford to overlook this confrontation.


1LT Basil Aboul-Enein is an Air Force biomedical-science officer assigned to 14th Medical Squadron, Columbus Air Force Base, MS. CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, a naval Medical Services Corps officer, is currently a Defense Department counter-terrorism analyst who served as Middle East country director and adviser at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy in 2002-2006. Both brothers debate and have a passion for Middle East political-military history and counter-terrorism.


1 Hirszowicz, Lukasz, The Third Reich and the Arab East, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

2 Nicosia, Francis R., The Third Reich and the Palestine Question, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2000.

3 Ibid.

4 Segev, Tom, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

5 Al-Jazeera Broadcast Network, “The History of Palestinian Revolts,”, accessed June 23, 2008.

6 Nicosia.

7 Al-Jazeera Broadcast Network, “The History of Palestinian Revolts.”

8 Hirszowicz.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

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