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Prince William in Israel: Why won't he honour British military dead?

The King David Hotel bombing is a bitterly contested event - and Prince William should commemorate the dead when he stays there

It remains one of the biggest ever terrorist attacks on British forces. On the morning of Monday 22 July 1946, Jewish militants disguised as waiters planted a massive bomb in the basement of the King David Hotel in west Jerusalem.

The resulting explosion caused the collapse of much of the southern wing, from where British officials and military officers had administered British Mandatory Palestine.

Ninety-two people were killed, including one of the terrorists. Forty-one of the victims were Arabs, 17 were Jews and a handful were foreign visitors. But 28 Britons were also killed: they included 11 government officials, two policemen and 13 soldiers.

Rsecuers search through the rubble of the King David Hotel after it was attacked in 1946 (Reuters)
This Monday Prince William, second in line to the British throne, will arrive in the city, accompanied by the Duchess of Cambridge, to stay for three nights at the King David Hotel as part of his tour of Jordan, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The royal couple will join scores of foreign dignitaries and noted figures who have previously stayed there during the decades. Among them are several US presidents, including Donald Trump; British prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair; and celebrities, including Madonna, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

For king and country

But Prince William falls into a unique category. The soldiers and officials who were killed in that attack 72 years ago were – to use an old-fashioned but still very meaningful term – “serving king and country”. They died when King George VI, Prince William’s great-grandfather, was on the throne.

Many of them were young men who must have come to Palestine after five years fighting against Nazi fascism.

Today their sacrifice has been almost forgotten by history. But around 800 British soldiers died during the Jewish insurgency against British rule in Mandatory Palestine between 1945 and 1948. More than 100 more policemen lost their lives. Some died from disease or accident, but many died at the hands of militant groups.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir in May 1986 at the King David Hotel (AFP)
The fact that the numbers are so hazy – and have been put together by independent volunteers – shows how these brave men have been forgotten.

During Operation Agatha - which provoked the King David Hotel attack - the British killed several dozen Jewish fighters and civilians, arrested an estimated 2,700 Jews and confiscated weapons and documents.

Arab militants murdered Jews. During the Arab revolt of 1936-39 they also killed several hundred British, who retaliated by killing thousands of Arabs.

We should not forget the violence of the Jewish terror groups including Irgun, the Stern Gang and Haganah

But that does not mean we should forget the violence of the Jewish terror groups including Irgun, the Stern Gang and Haganah.

Irgun twice blew up British officers clubs in Jerusalem, killing 37 military personnel. They attacked police stations and rail networks. They killed 28 soldiers on a train north of the city of Rehovot in 1948. 

The Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang, shocked the world in Cairo in November 1944 when it assassinated Lord Moyne, the British minister for the Middle East.

In a 2012 interview, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir said that the killing was because "Lord Moyne was the highest British official in the Middle East …. and because we fought against the British in this area, we took him for a target. This was the main reason for his assassination".

The precedent for remembering

The biggest question facing Prince William as he embarks on the first official royal visit to Israel and Palestine is how he will acknowledge the blood sacrifice of those who served under George VI in the killing fields of British-administered Palestine.

In normal circumstances, British royalty naturally pay tribute to British soldiers who lay down their lives in war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission told me that the Royal Family has likely made hundreds of visits to its graves over the years.

The itinerary says that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit the grave of William’s great-grandmother. But there is no mention of any trip to the cemeteries where Britain’s war dead lie buried

The royal family has also acknowledged victims of British atrocities. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to those killed and injured by British security forces at Croke Park stadium in Dublin in 1920.

In 1997 Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the Indian city of Amritsar to lay a wreath at a memorial to the hundreds of unarmed Indians killed in 1919 after British troops were ordered to open fire.

Will Prince William acknowledge the British troops who died during the British Mandate of Palestine during this trip?

Amazingly, it’s not clear.

The lengthy official itinerary published ahead of his trip states that he will stay at the King David Hotel, but there is no mention of the atrocity that took place there.

The itinerary says that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit the grave of Princess Alice of Battenberg, Prince Philip’s mother (and William’s great-grandmother), who is buried at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

But there is no mention of any trip to the cemeteries where Britain’s war dead lie buried.

Bitterness still lingers

It’s all too easy to see why not. The King David Hotel bombing is a bitterly contested event, even in Israel. The British remember it as an act of terrorism. But for many Israelis, it’s part of the war of liberation that led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

The tensions around this issue came to the surface in 2006, when the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, named after the former leader of the Irgun who approved the King David Hotel bombing and later became prime minister, held an event to commemorate the attack.

Former members of Irgun, as well as current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, watched as a plaque was unveiled at the King David Hotel. It read:

“The hotel housed the Mandate Secretariat as well as the Army Headquarters. On July 22, 1946, Irgun fighters at the order of the Hebrew Resistance Movement planted explosives in the basement. Warning phone calls had been made urging the hotel's occupants to leave immediately. For reasons known only to the British, the hotel was not evacuated and after 25 minutes the bombs exploded, and to the Irgun's regret and dismay 91 persons were killed.”

Outraged, Simon McDonald, the British ambassador in Tel Aviv at the time, and John Jenkins, the consul-general in Jerusalem, demanded the plaque be removed, telling the mayor of Jerusalem that “We do not think that it is right for an act of terrorism, which led to the loss of many lives, to be commemorated.”

They also said that there was “no credible evidence” that a warning reached the British authorities, and that even had one done so, it would “not absolve those who planted the bomb”. The criticism was supported by British MPs from all parties in London.

As the Jerusalem Post newspaper explained at the time: “To prevent a diplomatic incident, and over the objections of MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud), who brought the matter up in the Knesset, the text was changed - especially in the English version. In English, the text now reads:

‘Warning phone calls has [sic] been made to the hotel's despatch, The Palestine Post and the French Consulate, urging the hotel's occupants to leave immediately. The hotel was not evacuated and after 25 minutes the bombs exploded. The entire western wing was destroyed and to the Irgun's regret 92 persons were killed.’

It also reported that the count of 92 includes Avraham Abramovitz, the Irgun fighter who was killed inside the hotel, but that only the Hebrew version of the plaque made that clear.

The Jerusalem Post also published a comment from a former Irgun fighter who said: “I don't care about the English. I only care about the Hebrew, because that's our language. And the Hebrew tells the truth.”

The lack of commemoration

When I visited the King David Hotel last week, I enquired as to whether there was still a memorial on the hotel walls. The hotel told me that none existed.

I stayed in a comfortable room in the south-western wing of the hotel, which I calculated was close to where the explosion would have occurred. A member of the hotel staff informed me that “an explosion during the war of liberation” had taken place in the southern part of the hotel.

But when I explored the hotel, I could not find any sign of a plaque. I did, however, find on the walls of the hotel old photographs which recalled Palestine during the era of British rule. One of the photographs was a sobering picture of the southern wing of the hotel just after the atrocity took place.

Jerusalem’s King David Hotel as it is now (Danny Lyulev/Wiki)
In 2017, Jeremy Sheldon, guest relations manager at the King David, told MEE that it did not hide the history of the bombing but also did not go out of its way to talk about it. "There are photos of it, we have a historical wall on the lower lobby level of the hotel, we also have historical pictures throughout the hotel."

Will Prince William present a wreath at the scene of the bombing which claimed so many British lives as well as those of other nationalities? Will he visit the war graves where those killed now lie?

I took myself to the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion, where several of the victims of the King David hotel bombing are buried. The graves were mainly poorly tended, and some had fallen into complete disrepair.

Officials at Kensington Palace refused to confirm or deny and simply redirected me back to the itinerary

Search as I might, I could not find the grave of Brigadier Peter Smith-Dorrien, the most senior official killed in the bombing. (One database of graves says it is unmarked.)

I said a prayer for the souls of those who died for their country so long ago. And I believe that Prince William ought to visit the graveyard and do the same.

On my return to London I rang Kensington Palace, Prince William’s official London residence, to ask if he will remember the dead. Officials there refused to confirm or deny and simply redirected me back to the itinerary.

Never forget debt of gratitude to the dead

Prince William should understand that it would be a terrible dereliction of duty if he does not pay tribute to the British personnel’s sacrifice during his visit.

In years to come, he will become king. It is all too likely that young British soldiers will go out and wage war in his name, just as the victims of the King David Hotel atrocity died fighting in the name of his great-grandfather.

George VI’s troops were told that they were keeping the peace and allowing time for a just solution to a disputed territory. Neither they nor their government wanted to remain in Palestine. They were alone in the world, with no international support for their impossible mission.

In years to come, Prince William will become king. It is all too likely that young British soldiers will go out and wage war in his name

Britain values its friendship with Israel. After Brexit, it is more determined than ever to build its trading relationships with our Middle Eastern ally.

But surely that does not mean forgetting the unrepayable debt of gratitude and honour owed to those who died for their country in now largely forgotten foreign conflicts.

- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Prince William (right) attends the the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in London in November 2017 (Reuters)

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