In Israel and Palestinian Territories, British Still Tend Memory of 16,000 War Dead
A tour of the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals oases of calm—but few living visitors
In 2004, Palestinian vandals knocked over a number of tombstones to protest the American treatment of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. Two years later, half a dozen headstones were damaged by IDF bulldozers during Operation Summer Rains and nearly 300 more during Operation Cast Lead in late 2009 and early 2010. (Jerusalem ultimately paid £20,600, or $33,000, to cover repairs for the first incident and another £40,000, or $64,000, for the second, though it contended most of the damage came from Hamas rockets and vandals rather than IDF shelling.)
In 2008 suspected Islamists also attacked Deir el-Balah War Cemetery, in the central Gaza Strip, severely damaging its sizable Cross of Sacrifice. The burial ground is the resting place of more than 700 Commonwealth soldiers—seven of them Jews, including Pvt. Solomon Rosenberg of the Royal Fusiliers, killed in October 1918. CWGC records show Rosenberg, the 38-year-old married son of Polish-born Aaron and Malka, lived at 17-18 Carburton Street in London’s West End.
A hundred kilometers up the coast in Haifa are two CWGC cemeteries: a testament to the city’s key logistical role in the Allied war effort, particularly in WWII. Haifa offered a deep-water harbor and airfield and was the terminus of the rail line from Egypt and, most important, the oil pipeline from Iraq. Downtown, the older, smaller Haifa War Cemetery holds around 300 WWI burials and a few dozen from the Second.
A larger graveyard down the shore at Khayat Beach is unique among the country’s CWGC cemeteries in that most of its nearly 700 dead are from WWII. These include the merchant mariners of the SS Zealand, torpedoed off the Mediterranean coast in June 1942, and dozens of Palestine Police officers killed during Jewish violence against the British preceding the end of mandatory rule in 1948. Alongside lie the remains of dozens of Jews from Palestine who were killed serving in various posts in the British Armed Forces.
Like all CWGC cemeteries I visited, the Haifa War Cemetery was empty of visitors. There was, however, one living soul with whom to speak: Jeris “Jerry” Abboud, who has spent half of his 61 years tending the grounds of both Haifa cemeteries, 17 of them as head gardener. Like all 27 of the CWGC’s grounds staff, Abboud is Arab; many are second- and third-generation employees, and some can trace their family’s service to the Commission back to WWI.
A Christian from Haifa, Abboud said some members of his community are wary when they hear he works at a cemetery. “They think I’m a gravedigger, and there’s a stigma there,” he said. “Once they realize I’m a gardener, they relax.” Working for British bosses, he added, is nice work if you can get it: “The English appreciate hard work. I used to work at a locksmith’s in Haifa and never once heard a ‘thank you.’ ”
To him, the cemeteries’ commingling of Christian, Muslim, and Jew is a blessing. “In death, there’s no difference,” he said. “We’re all equal.”
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