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The mighty march of progress: British war graves in Gaza

Nov. 9, 2010 7:29 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 18, 2010 3:14 P.M.)
By Jared Malsin

ZAWAYDA, Gaza (Ma’an) -- The Gaza War Cemetery is a slightly parched but still green oasis in an otherwise run-down neighborhood on the eastern edge of Gaza City.

Inside a leafy compound, underneath rows of white marble gravestones, lie more than 3,500 mainly British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in two world wars. Aside from the British there are Australians, Poles, Canadians, Greeks, two dozen Indian Muslim soldiers, and some 700 Turks.

Some anonymous headstones bear the inscription, “A soldier of the great war.”

As one of few green spaces in crowded, dusty Gaza, the cemetery is known locally as a destination for family picnics. The graveyard is cared for by a team of six Palestinians employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In addition to the thousands of headstones engraved with crosses, there are also a handful which are instead carved with the Star of David, marking the graves of Jewish soldiers in the British army.

One of these is the last resting place of Wilfred Gordon Aron Joseph, who, according to records kept by the Graves Commission, lived at 28 Heber Road, Cricklewood, London and was married to Winifred L. Joseph.

Second Lt. Joseph was 21 when he died in the Second Battle of Gaza, a vain and disastrous attempt by the British army to capture the enclave from Ottoman forces on 19 April 1917. Of the 800 men who set out on the attack that day, only 92 returned to British lines.

Joseph's tombstone reads: “In the mighty march of progress / He thought to do his best.”

Britain’s first and second attempts to conquer Gaza failed. It was not until November 1917 when British forces under General Edmund Allenby broke the Gaza-Beersheba Line and entered Palestine, beginning the British Mandate and paving the way for the creation of Israel, and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, three decades later.

The cemetery also contains the graves of Western soldiers killed during World War II, when Gaza was home to an Australian hospital base and a British airfield. There are Canadians who died while deployed as members of the UN Emergency Force tasked with ending the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The cemetery is now a strange artifact of imperial history, a reminder of the Western military interventions that shaped the modern Middle East.

The effects of these historical forces are still playing themselves out in Gaza, and the cemetery itself has not been safe from this. Instead of witnessing the “mighty march of progress,” the cemetery has been battered by yet another occupying army.

During Israel’s winter assault on Gaza, Israeli forces heavily shelled the area, destroying dozens of houses and killing many. The cemetery, including headstones and the surrounding wall, was badly damaged in the shelling which witnesses said included tank fire and white phosphorus fragments.

The War Graves Commission is seeking compensation from Israel for the cost of repairing or replacing the 363 headstones damaged or destroyed in the assault. Officials estimate the cost of the repairs at £84,000.

Spokesman Ranald Leask said in an email that the commission is “actively pursuing a financial compensation claim with the Israeli Government to make good the damage to the fabric of the Cemetery.”

Paul Price, an official with the War Graves Commission regional office in Ramleh, Israel, said the organization paid to import new laser-cut headstones from France. He said the commission was still waiting for Israeli authorities to conclude their investigation into the attack.

Israeli forces also damaged the cemetery in an attack in 2006. Israel agreed in April 2008 to pay £90,000 in compensation to the War Graves Commission for that damage.

Today, the new white headstones stand out among the graying older ones. A few are still cracked.

The War Graves Commission managed to transport the tombstones into Gaza in what appears to be an exception to Israel’s import restrictions, which until last June included a ban on all construction materials.

And while the dead buried here stand a chance of being compensated by Israel, the living have to make do on their own. Down the road from the cemetery, a merchant named Hamdi Hassan Jaru said that after his house was destroyed in the war, he had to borrow money from relatives in order to buy smuggled concrete which he used to build a four-room shelter for his family of seven.

Ibrahim Jeradeh, an elderly caretaker who has looked after the cemetery for 52 years, has handed over day-to-day management to his son, Issam.

Jaradeh said he began helping his father in 1973. He feels “very happy” to work at the cemetery. “I was born here. I belong to this place. If I wasn’t here, I would be a fish out of water,” he said.

He said that aside from Israeli shelling, the cemetery has faced few security problems. Any disturbance, he said, would be handled by the Palestinian police. Palestinians did, however, blow up a monument in a different British war cemetery in the town of Deir El-Balah in 2008.

Asked how he felt taking care of the graves of British soldiers who were, after all, a foreign occupying force, he said, “This is my job, and it [British rule] was a long time ago. These are just tombs now, and Islam tells us to do well in our jobs.”
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