By Gary D. Keenan
Born in 1922, in Jaffa, Palestine, the late Issa Elias Fahel was one of Canada's most well known, dedicated, and effective champions of the Palestinian/Arab cause. Setting an example for all, especially Arab immigrants, he was selfless, courageous, relentless and never hesitant, regardless of the consequences, to do his utmost to make Canadians aware of the terrible injustices inflicted upon Palestinians and other Arabs - Muslims, Christians, Druzes and Jews - as a result of the Zionists' violent creation of an exclusivist "Jewish State" in Palestine. It is important to note, however, that Issa always differentiated between Zionism and Judaism and never spoke disparagingly of Jews as Jews.
The following account provides a glimpse of Issa's extraordinary life and events that shaped it:The first child of Elias and Anna Fahel, Issa was born just after the Leagueof Nations installed the British Mandate in Palestine against the wishes of its native people. It was a tumultuous and anxiety-ridden time for Palestinians and all Arabs. As well as trying to cope with the ravages inflicted upon their country by British and Turkish forces during World War I, Palestinians were extremely alarmed at the increasing number of European Jewish immigrants. It was no secret that the great majority were Zionists who viewed the Balfour Declaration (incorporated into the terms of the Mandate) as license to seize the entire country.
In 1925, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist zealot from Poland, founded the fascistic Betar or Brown Shirts along with the Revisionist Party (origin of today's Likud.) He and his followers publicly declared their intention to take over Transjordan as well as Palestine. Such Jewish extremism, along with the racist rants of Rabbi Kook and threats against the Dome of the Rock led to the terrible and bloody riots of 1929.
Indeed, all people in the region were frustrated and embittered. Although repeatedly promised their independence by Britain in exchange for helping to defeat the Ottomans, they were betrayed by Prime Minister Lloyd George at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Near powerless, the Arabs could do nothing to prevent the launching of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine and the division of most of their lands as spoils of war between Britain and France.
The Fahel family was one of the most eminent and respected in Jaffa. As well as being a very successful businessman and orchard owner, Issa's father was also Palestine's most renowned mural and fresco artist. Consequently, Issa and his siblings were able to acquire excellent educations, including fluency in English.
Despite increasing tension and violence between European Jewish immigrants and native Palestinians, Issa's childhood in Jaffa was in many respects near idyllic. Among his school mates and close friends was George Habash, future leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whom he would always remember fondly.
Throughout his life Issa was immensely thankful that during his formative years he had had the good fortune to enjoy Palestine's last days before it was torn apart by Zionism.
Issa was only fourteen when Palestinians reached the breaking point brought on by wave after wave of British sanctioned Jewish immigration. In 1936, and again in 1937, they rose up in what is known as the Great Rebellion which was mercilessly crushed in 1939 by 20,000 British troops stationed in the country. The authorities then confiscated the Palestinians' meagre and obsolete supply of arms but did little to prevent the Jewish immigrant population from smuggling modern weaponry into the country.
5,000 Palestinians were killed and 15,000 wounded during the Great Rebellion. This event, along with the outrageous and short-lived pro-Zionist partition plan proposed in the Peel Report of 1937; the Jewish Agency's rejection of Britain's 1939 White Paper (which abandoned any form of partition and called for a sharp drop in Jewish immigration) and the outbreak of World War II in Europe set the course for Palestine and Issa.
Seeing Hitler and his Nazi thugs for what they were, Issa and 12,000-15,000 of his fellow Palestinians joined the British Army in 1939. They also knew a showdown with the Zionists was inevitable and fighting against the Nazis would give them an opportunity to become seasoned soldiers and learn military tactics. About 25,000 Jews living in Palestine also enlisted.
Determined to learn everything he could, Issa worked hard and soon rose to the rank of sergeant. Encouraged by his superiors, he attended the Officers Training School in Palestine and graduated in 1941, at the age of 19, with a King's Commission of second lieutenant in the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as "the Buffs."
Throughout the war Issa saw a great deal of action. As well as serving as a platoon commander at the age of nineteen under Field Marshal Montgomery during the decisive battle against Rommel at El Alamein, he also fought the Italians in Abyssinia and helped rid Lebanon of its Vichy French occupiers. Honourably discharged in 1945, Issa returned to his family in Jaffa and found employment with British Overseas Airways at the nearby Lydda airport.
Cast adrift by Britain's 1939 White Paper, Zionist leaders set about convincing the United States to become their new protector. In 1942, they held what became known as the Biltmore Conference in New York City. During its proceedings, delegates publicly proclaimed that their ultimate objective was to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Wielding their political and financial might, they forged an alliance with Washington politicians - both Democrats and Republicans - as well as America's Evangelical Dispensationalist Christian fundamentalists.
In 1945, Harry Truman became U.S. president following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Shortly thereafter, and eager to capture the so-called "Jewish vote," he repudiated his predecessor's pledge to Saudi Arabia's King Ibn Saud and other Arab leaders that the U.S. "would take no action.which might prove hostile to the Arab peoples."
The die was now cast: Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency in Palestine had Washington in their corner. Truman called for increased Jewish immigration to Palestine and the report issued by the 1946 Anglo-American Committee on Palestine concurred. Much to the delight of the Zionist leadership, the Western world was preoccupied with the Jewish Holocaust and was not concerned with the horrors about to befall Palestinians.
Violence and chaos broke out in Palestine following the end of the war in Europe. Illegal Jewish immigration - comprised mostly of destitute traumatized refugees who did not want to go to Palestine, but were forced to do so by Zionist agents who infiltrated the refugee camps - increased dramatically and the Irgun intensified its attacks on the then 80,000 British troops in Palestine to force them to leave. Palestinians were also targeted. Jewish terror against the British climaxed on 22 July 1946, when the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, headquarters of the Mandate Secretariat, and murdered 91 people. This unprecedented heinous act together with more attacks by Jews set in motion Britain's eventual withdrawal and abandonment of its mandatory responsibilities towards Palestinians.
Due to U.S. coercion against member states and the Soviet Union's support, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, recommending the illegal, and for Palestinians, utterly unjust partition of Palestine. The Palestinian leadership called for a general strike. The Jewish Agency responded by instituting full-mobilization requiring all men from 17-25 to register for military service.
With Britain's announcement on December 8 that it would end the Mandate and withdraw from Palestine on May 15, 1948, Jewish forces began intensifying their attacks against Palestinians. Along with the cities of Jerusalem and Haifa, also in their sights was Jaffa, Palestine's major port and centre of the country's predominantly Arab owned and very lucrative citrus growing industry which the 1947 Partition Plan had included in the proposed Arab state.
Even though they were poorly armed, Issa knew Jaffa's citizens had to organize in order to defend themselves. With this in mind, he set about instructing many of the city's young men in guerrilla tactics, weaponry and general resistance. When the British Criminal Investigation Department heard of Issa's activities he was arrested for promoting unrest and sentenced to one month in a detention camp near Latrun.
While imprisoned, Issa befriended many of Palestine's most fervent nationalists who had also been arrested. Amongst them were Dr.Yousef Haikal, mayor of Jaffa; Dr. Tahar, head of the Jaffa Arab Committee and members of the esteemed Al Bitar family. They met regularly and made plans for the defence of Jaffa and Palestine.
Upon their release, Issa and his associates returned to Jaffa and began to prepare for the inevitable Zionist onslaught. Concerned only with getting out of Palestine in May, the British turned a blind eye as Issa continued training young men in the basics of resistance and urban warfare. A committee was formed to handle intelligence, communications, city security and dispute arbitration. By this time there were a number of Arab Liberation Army (ALA) soldiers in Jaffa.
The ALA, headquarted in Damascus and led by General Fawzi al-Qawukji, was a poorly armed, inadequately trained and loosely organized voluntary army comprised of men mainly from Arab countries whose objective was to maintain the territorial integrity of Palestine and defend its native population. By March 1948, there were about 2,000 ALA troops in Palestine, of whom about 1,000 were Palestinians. The ALA's commanding officer in Jaffa convinced Issa to travel to Damascus and join up.
Issa was made a captain in the ALA and assigned to Katana (an old French army base near Damascus) as a weapons and combat instructor. In March, he was ordered to join the then 350 ALA troops in what was then Haganah/Irgun besieged Jaffa. Managing to avoid the enemy, Issa made his way into the city where he was appointed the ALA's Intelligence Officer for Jaffa District. In addition to gathering information on enemy movements and defending Jaffa, his duties also included public relations with the civilian population.
At this time the Irgun was launching continuous assaults on Jaffa's Manshiya Quarter from neighbouring Tel Aviv. Always in the thick of battle, Issa led his troops as they and other members of the ALA along with civilian volunteers, managed, despite few and inferior weapons, to fend off the attacks. In spite of their valiant effort, Jaffa was nearly surrounded by the end of March.
To make matters worse, word was received in early April that all manner of modern weapons purchased by the Jewish Agency (led by Ben-Gurion) and its supporters abroad were pouring into Palestine mainly from the Soviet Union (Czechoslovakia), as well as from the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. In addition, the Jewish Agency was manufacturing weapons inside the country, including flame-throwers, barrel bombs, and the deadly Davidka heavy mortars.
On April 3, 1948 Ben-Gurion ordered the implementation of Plan Dalet - a carefully prepared military operation to drive Arabs out of that portion of Palestine the Partition Plan had proposed as a Jewish state, and to also conquer and "cleanse" as much as possible of the proposed Arab state and Jerusalem, which along with Bethlehem, the Partition Plan had recommended be constituted an international city.
Along with 32,000 in the Home Guard and 15,000 in the Settlement Police, Jewish forces consisted of 27,000 well armed and well trained regular troops in the Haganah along with 5,000 in the Irgun and 200 in the Stern Gang. Against them stood a mere 3500 ALA volunteers and a handful of Palestinian irregulars. (Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, Washington Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987, pp. 858-71)
There was no contest. Palestinian towns and cities fell quickly to Jewish forces. During the next few months there were more than 30 massacres of Palestinians. It is important to note that the Irgun's well known slaughter of at least 150 unarmed Palestinians at Deir Yassin on April 8 was not the worst such incident.
On April 21, the coastal city of Haifa was attacked and after two days of massive mortar barrages, 67,000 of its essentially defenceless Palestinian Muslim and Christian inhabitants - other than a small number who were forced to run the city's oil refinery to provide Jewish forces with petrol - were expelled. Most made their way to Lebanon where those still alive and their descendants remain to this day.
With only 350 ALA troops and 250 civilian volunteers to protect it, Jaffa was in dire straits and the British did virtually nothing to protect its inhabitants. On April 25, the Irgun began a relentless mortar bombardment that went on steadily for four days. The city's defenders managed to repel attacks from Tel Aviv, but it was becoming increasingly difficult as they had no long-range weapons and only deteriorated British ammunition previously brought in by boat from Egypt. Six out of ten rounds were duds. In their desperation they even tried to utilize the old Turkish ceremonial Ramadan cannon.
Unhappy with the Irgun's lack of progress, the Haganah entered the battle on April 27 and the mortar fire intensified dramatically. The next day Manshya fell and the looting began. As had happened in Haifa, many of Jaffa's civilians - men, women and children -were cut down by Irgun sniper fire as they gathered on the docks trying to flee the shelling and the many fires it caused. Jewish forces had control of the city's power supply and cut off the electricity. With no portable generators and only candle light, many of the wounded died in hospitals.
By April 29, Jaffa was completely cut off from the rest of Palestine. The British forced the Haganah to open the highway to Jerusalem and the civilian exodus began. Within a short period more than 70,000 fled for their lives mainly to the West Bank, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, never to return.
For ALA forces and the 5000 civilians still in Jaffa the situation soon became hopeless. Apart from no electricity, nearly all the meat and rice had been consumed. By May 3, the ALA was out of ammunition and gasoline. At the request of the ALA commander, the British District Commissioner met with the Haganah and negotiated the ALA's withdrawal. Although declared an "open city" and not to be attacked, Jaffa was now in the hands of Jewish forces along with its vast acreage of thriving orchards.
Disguised as civilians to evade arrest by the Haganah, Issa and most of the ALA left Jaffa on May 5 en route to Damascus. Issa would never again set foot in the city of his birth.
With the Haganah and Irgun systematically looting Jaffa and its homes of everything of value and plundering bank accounts and breaking into safety deposit boxes, Issa's parents were forced to flee to Nablus in the West Bank with only what they could carry. After being stripped of its contents, their beautiful classic Mediterranean stone villa was confiscated by the Jewish Agency and eventually given to Romanian Jews. As had occurred in Haifa, the citizens of Jaffa were robbed of $billions in assets and possessions, including their homes, businesses, orchards, vehicles, jewellery, works of art, carpets, furniture, safety deposit box contents, currency, etc. Arab citizens of other towns, villages and cities such as Acre, Lydda and Ramleh were also robbed of all they left behind and even personal possessions at gun point as they fled to safety.
A key factor in its imminent victory over the Arabs, the Haganah also seized vast stores of modern weaponry, ammunition and assorted military supplies abandoned throughout the country by the British in their haste to leave.
By early May, Jewish forces were heavily armed. Supplementing other foreign sources, the Haganah had concluded an agreement with Czechoslovakia the previous 14 January for a huge purchase of arms totalling $12,280,000. Included in the deal were "24,500 rifles, 5,000 light machine guns, 200 medium machine guns, 54 million rounds of ammunition, and 25 Messerschmitts. Before [the] end of the Mandate, at least 10,740 rifles, 1,200 machine guns, 26 field guns, and 11 million rounds of ammunition [had arrived] in Palestine. [The] balance of the arms, including the 25 Messerschmitts, arrived by the end of May." (Walid Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington, D.C., 1991, p. 316)
As of 15 May 1948, when the British Mandate ended and the "Jewish State" of Israel was declared - and immediately recognized by the United States (de facto) and the Soviet Union (de jure), despite the fact that at the behest of President Truman the U.N. was in the process of shelving the Partition Plan because of its obvious impracticability and resulting violence - about 350,000 Palestinians had already been expelled.
Although greatly outnumbered with a total of only 17,706 troops (including by then, 3,830 ALA volunteers) versus nearly 80,000 Jewish soldiers and other combatants, and desperately outgunned, Arab state armies reluctantly intervened with the hope of stemming the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. (Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, pp. 858-71)
During the ensuing war which was inevitably lost by the Arabs (due in part to Jordanian King Abdullah's collusion with the Jewish Agency and his refusal to commit Jordan's highly trained Arab Legion to the conflict), 78 per cent of Palestine was conquered by Jewish forces. An additional 400,000-450,000 Palestinians were driven out and more than 400 of their villages destroyed. (Apart from ejecting another 30,000 Palestinians between 1949 and 1956, Israel seized the rest of Palestine, including East Jerusalem, along with Egypt's Sinai and Syria's Golan Heights and created an additional well over 400,000 Palestinian, Egyptian and Syrian refugees during and after the war it launched on 5 June 1967.)
Upon returning to Damascus, Issa was put in command of an ALA battalion and ordered to enter Palestine's Northern Galilee where he and his troops engaged and held back Jewish forces that were repeatedly breaking a U.N cease-fire implemented on June 11. On July 18, he and other ALA commanders were ordered to advance south and liberate Nazareth. The next day, however, the U.N. declared a general cease-fire, which despite repeated violations by Jewish forces, the ALA general command and the Arab League insisted must be obeyed.
Issa and 17 of his fellow battalion commanders were enraged at the fact they could do nothing while Jewish forces continued to grab land, expel Palestinians and destroy their villages. When ALA Commander in Chief Al-Qawukji heard that these "dissidents" were calling for counter attacks, he ordered them arrested and imprisoned in Damascus' Maza prison where they spent the next eight months.
Issa was released on March 29, 1949 and the next day a revolution took place in Syria. To escape the chaos, he made his way to Beirut and soon got a job working in Qatar for Emile Bustani, the much revered Lebanese contractor and humanitarian. Issa remained in Qatar for six months.
After visiting his family in Nablus, Issa took an administrative position with UNRWA in Jordan. Within days, without warning, he was arrested by King Abdullah's secret police and falsely accused of being a spy for Syria. Thankfully, Glubb Pasha, British commander of the Jordanian army, knew of Issa's role in resisting Zionist forces in Palestine and intervened on his behalf. Issa was promptly released. For the next five years Issa continued working for the U.N. in Jordan overseeing aid to refugees.
In 1951, Jordan's King Abdullah was assassinated and succeeded by his son Talal whom Issa came to know and admire. Because of his kindness, humanity, and unpretentiousness, King Talal was loved by his people and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan whom he visited regularly and did everything possible to help. However, Talal soon fell out of favour with the British because being a dedicated Arab nationalist, he wanted them to leave his country. In 1952, they had him declared mentally ill, committed to a mental institution in Istanbul (where he died twenty years later), and put his teenage son Hussein on the throne. Issa was heartbroken over what happened to Talal.
In 1954, Issa married Milahdi Safadi who was also from Jaffa and worked for the U.N. in Jordan. Shortly thereafter, they immigrated to Canada.
Soon after arriving in Halifax, Issa was immersed in the public debate regarding the Arab-Israel conflict. First noticed because of his articulate and well-argued letters published in the Halifax Herald, he was sought out by the local media - newspapers, radio and television - for his views and to participate in debates with supporters of Israel at many venues, including Dalhousie University.
Issa and his family moved to London, Ontario where he again became the leading spokesperson for Palestinians and Arabs. In response to the 1956 Anglo/French/Israel invasion of Egypt he organized a charity drive within Ontario's large Arab community which resulted in a great deal of money being sent to President Nasser for wounded soldiers and civilians.
Issa formed an organization known as Canadian Friends of the Middle East which soon had well over 2000 active members. Its purpose was to counter pro-Israel bias in the media and take advantage of every opportunity to present the Palestinian/Arab case. Among their many activities, members picketed the showing of the pro-Zionist propaganda movie Exodus; demonstrated against President Charles de Gaulle because of France's occupation of Algeria and protested Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's state visit to Ottawa. The organization also brought the twentieth century's most esteemed historian, Professor Arnold Toynbee to speak at Western University in London where he delivered a famous and often quoted speech in which he described Zionism as a racist ideology.
Issa became such a well known figure in Ottawa's diplomatic circles that he was invited to meet with President Nasser at the U.N. While attending a function in New York, the Egyptian leader took Issa to a private gathering and introduced him to Cuban President Fidel Castro, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, and India's Prime Minister Nehru. They had a free wheeling discussion about the situation in the Middle East and Issa was encouraged to continue his efforts in Canada.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Issa's drive and determination more than what occurred during a mayoralty election in London, Ontario. Upon hearing that the incumbent, whom he supported, was being challenged by a militant supporter of Israel and Arab basher named Cohen, Issa decided that an Arab should also enter the race. He participated in a televised debate along with his opponents and quickly demolished Mr. Cohen who then chose to withdraw. Not really wanting to be mayor, Issa also withdrew and the incumbent went on to win by acclamation.
Issa paid a personal price for his outspokenness on behalf of Arabs, including being harassed on the street and threatened by letters and telephone calls. It also cost him an excellent and highly paid position with Eaton's Department Store in London. When as a result of pressure from a national Zionist organization his employer demanded he cease his political activities or be dismissed, Issa chose the latter.
In the early 1960's, Issa visited Egypt where much to his surprise, he was welcomed at the airport as a VIP by government representatives. He was taken on tours of the country, appeared on television and radio, gave numerous speeches and became well acquainted with Canada's ambassador. He also had a lengthy private audience with President Nasser.
Issa went on to Jordan and Lebanon where he was again feted and congratulated for his work in Canada. In Beirut, he had a meeting with the much maligned Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and renowned Palestinian nationalist, Hajj Muhammed Amin al Husseini, who referred to him as "his son." Some years later when Issa's then elderly parents were living in Beirut, al Husseini visited them frequently and made sure they were comfortable. The two men kept in close contact until the Mufti's death in 1974.
Back in Canada, Issa continued his work. In 1964, he was invited to a celebration at the Jordanian Embassy in Washington. During the event he met briefly with President Johnson and urged him to help the Palestinian refugees. Needless to say, Johnson had already been bought and paid for by the pro-Israel lobby.
Issa also had a lengthy discussion with King Hussein which resulted in him being offered the position of Jordanian Consul in Ottawa. Issa turned it down as he wanted to pursue the struggle for his people free of political encumbrances. When it came to the Arab/Israel conflict, personal gain never entered his mind.
In 1966, as requested by the Arab Higher Committee, Issa became a member of the first Palestinian delegation to the U.N. He worked on its behalf for about six months presenting the Palestinian case to members of the General Assembly and Security Council. All of the delegation's participants did their best, but not a great deal was accomplished as it was a time when Palestinians were seen only as refugees and given short shrift.
Just before the 1967 war, Issa began importing carpets from the Middle East and soon had a thriving cross-Canada wholesale business. Now with five children, he and Milahdi moved to Vancouver, B.C where he set up a retail store on Granville St. Again, Issa became known throughout the local media as the man to interview and seek out for debates on the Arab-Israel conflict.
Although considerably disheartened by the consequences of the war Israel launched in 1967; the limited success Arabs achieved during the 1973; Israel's invasions and occupations of Lebanon; the 1991 war on Iraq and the horrors perpetrated against its people by the subsequent embargo; the collapse of the Oslo accords; Palestinians' increased suffering in the occupied territories, and 9/11's negative effects on Arabs and Muslims, Issa never quit fighting.
Issa passed away due to natural causes on 13 January 2003 at the age of 81. Always optimistic, in his final years he was encouraged by the shift in public opinion precipitated to a great extent by the efforts of young Arabs and righteous Jews living in North America who are not afraid to speak up and use every tool democracy provides to end the agony that has engulfed Palestine for so long.
Gary Keenan lives in Vancouver, B.C. Gary is currently writing a book entitled "My Home, My Land, My Country - A Palestinian Remembers" based on Issa's Fahel's life and the documented history of Palestine.