The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

Millions of soldiers from European colonies in Africa, India, and Asia participated in the Allied cause during World War II. They often served far from home for less pay—and ultimately far less acknowledgment—than white European and American soldiers. Among these were thousands of Palestinian Arabs who volunteered to serve with the British military, serving alongside Jewish volunteers from Mandate Palestine. They served in France, North Africa, Greece, and elsewhere in both combat and non-combat roles in the war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

Historian Mustafa Abbasi explores this little known story, writing that researchers seldom “reference…the thousands of Palestinian volunteers, some of whom fell in battle, while others are still listed as missing, and no commemoration of the fallen can be found anywhere.” Perhaps not surprisingly,

the emphasis in Israeli historiography was given to the Jewish volunteers and their active roles in the various military forces. In contrast to this, emphasis in Palestinian historiography was given to the struggle with British rule and opposition to Zionism.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are pushed to the margins in such narratives.

Abbasi identities three Palestinian Arab takes at the start of World War II in 1939: neutral, pro-British, and anti-British. One of the most eminent figures in Mandate Palestine, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, allied himself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but Nazi recruitment of Muslims in the Middle East was “not especially successful.”

“It appears that an important and central portion of the Palestinian public believed that it was necessary to stand on the British side,” Abbasi writes, “to postpone nationalist demands, to fight as one man against the Germans and their allies, and to demand recompense at the end of the war.”

Abbasi details British recruitment efforts, launched in the Arabic language press in October 1939. The initial plan was to recruit some 2,000 volunteers for “engineering, transport, medical, and armament corps.” In August 1940, mixed Palestinian Arab and Jewish companies were organized as infantry corps of the East Kent Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers. Ultimately, “volunteering was opened for recruitment in the Air and Navy forces as well as in the women’s corps.”

The “destruction of archives and records” in the Nakba and the “fact that no organization was established to commemorate the volunteers and their deeds” are among the reasons for the lack of a definitive figure for the number of volunteers. Scholars site numbers from 9,000 to 17,000. Abbasi takes the figure of 12,000 as the most realistic, based on work of historian Ashley Jackson in The British Empire and the Second World War.

Volunteers represented a “broad and inclusive” sampling of the Palestinian population, Abbasi writes. Urban volunteers were more likely to be ideological, that is, opposed to the Nazis and the Italians, who were reviled for their treatment of Libyans. Rural volunteers were more likely to join up “for the sake of the benefits they received.”

Abbassi details the trajectory of Platoon 401. The unit served in France from March 1940 to the defeat of the Allied expeditionary forces in June 1940. Evacuated to England, 401 was stationed in fortifications around London. During the Battle of Britain, the unit helped evacuate and rescue casualties in London. From Glasgow, they were shipped back to the Middle East the long way, around the Horn of Africa. Their reception back home was “festive.”

Closer to home, Command Unit 51 ran guerrilla operations in North Africa, fighting under the command of an Indian division. The “Allies” were an expansive group: British Empire and Commonwealth forces in that campaign (1940–1943) included Australians, Indians, Libyans, Newfoundlanders (not part of Canada until 1949), New Zealanders, and Transjordanians, as well as Brits. Cumulatively, British Empire/Commonwealth forces in North Africa suffered some 220,000 casualties, including more than 35,000 deaths. (The North African campaign, the first major Allied victory in the war, also included Free French, Polish, Greek, Czechoslovakian, and US forces.)

The state of Israel would lionize the Jewish Brigade (organized in July 1944) as part of its founding mythology but pay little attention to the earlier mixed units of volunteers from Palestine. There was to be no state to memorialize the Palestinian Arabs who also fought against fascism.

Editor’s Note: This story was edited to correct a typographical error in the final sentence.

Support JSTOR Daily! Join our membership program on Patreon today.


JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

War in History, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April 2019), pp. 227–249
Sage Publications, Ltd.