New Zealand's Collective Punishers: “I was proud of you as brave soldiers but now I am ashamed of you as cold-blooded murderers.” - Major-General Sir Edmund Allenby addressing New Zealand and Australian troops after the Surafend Massacre, December 1918.
I DON’T KNOW which is more embarrassing: to have a lawyer called Trotter defending a woman who prostituted her own daughter; or a PhD history candidate called Trotter “Exploring the Kiwi connection as Israel turns70”.
On balance, I’d have to say that the PhD history candidate is the more embarrassing of the two. That our justice system goes out of its way to ensure that every accused person is provided with effective legal representation is something of which we should all be proud. So, I doff my hat to Karl Trotter for his defence of the indefensible. To Sheree Trotter, however, I have only questions to offer – not the least of which is: How could a PhD history candidate’s description of Israel’s “Kiwi connection” not include the moving ceremony at Rishon LeZion and the brutal massacre at Surafend?
Rishon LeZion (The First of Zion) was one of those settlements involved in what was, rather quaintly, referred to as, “the upbuilding of Palestine”. On 4 November 1917, New Zealand troops had participated in the Battle of Ayun Kara, located very close to Rishon LeZion. Twelve months later, the leader of the Zionist settlement invited the New Zealanders (who were still encamped close by) to a commemorative ceremony.
The small Jewish community had erected an obelisk in memory of the New Zealanders who fell at Ayun Kara, and its Mayor had prepared a speech:
“These dead have not only fought for their country, they have planted the flag of justice and lit the torch of liberty. Its light will never be extinguished. You have placed marking stones along the route to the future. These markers, formed by your tombs, will cause those who come after to meditate: ‘It is just about a thousand years’ they will say, ‘since, on this very soil, Western lords came with the sacred flame of religion and in the name of the Cross to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel. And now, after long delay, these same children of the West have come again in their thousands, glowing with ardour, animated by the thirst for liberty, justice, and fraternity, to liberate the same country from the yoke it has borne for nearly five centuries.”
Stirring words – and they clearly left a deep impression on the Kiwis. Because, just over a month after the ceremony at Rishon LeZion, on 10 December 1918, animated no doubt by their thirst for “liberty, justice and fraternity” troopers of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, backed by their comrades in the Australian Light Horse, inflicted a gruesome collective punishment upon the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Surafend.
The night before, in the course of a botched robbery, a Palestinian Arab had shot and killed a New Zealand soldier, Trooper Leslie Lowry. The offender had been tracked back to Surafend and the Kiwis ordered the villagers to hand him over for punishment. When the villagers refused, the Kiwis and their Aussie mates, some 200 men altogether, marched the women and children out of the village and then proceeded to attack the men and boys who remained.
Their weapons of choice were pick-axe handles and the heavy, canvass-sheathed chains used to haul supply wagons and field guns. They swung these with deadly effect against the Arab defenders. By the time the Kiwi and Aussie troopers marched out of Surafend, by now a smoking ruin, more than 40 Palestinian Arabs had been killed or wounded.
The massacre had taken place in defiance of the Brigade’s commanders and with the connivance of more than a few junior officers. The Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force – the occupier of Palestine following the cessation of hostilities – Major-General Edmund Allenby, was furious. Forming the ANZAC’s into a hollow square he unleashed a tongue-lashing the like of which no British or Empire troops had heard for many, many years:
“I was proud of you as brave soldiers but now I am ashamed of you as cold-blooded murderers.”
This outburst aroused such mutinous resentment among the New Zealand and Australian troops that Allenby was soon forced to retract his words. In the weeks ahead, as the British tightened their grip on the former Ottoman possessions in the Middle East, they would have need of that ANZAC muscle. When the New Zealand and Australian troopers were ordered into action against protesting Arab nationalists, the dreadful reputation they had fashioned for themselves at Surafend rode ahead of them.
Thus, was the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews a national home in Palestine, given effect. Such, was the Kiwi connection with one of the earliest Zionist communities in Palestine. That sorrow-filled stretch of earth which would, forty years later, become the State of Israel.
The lesson imparted by those murderous Kiwi and Australian soldiers on the night of 10 December 1918 – that Palestinian Arabs could be collectively punished with impunity – was one the Zionists never forgot.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 24 April 2018.