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Bombs in Palestine, then and now

ShootingsArmed ConflictsWest BankReligious ConflictsQuakerismIsrael

Bombs falling on Arab neighborhoods ... Homes demolished ... Civilians killed or wounded ... Soldiers shooting at anything that moves.

That may sound like a description of the past week's violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. But in fact, it comes from the letters and diary of a Baltimore teacher who volunteered to spend a year at a Quaker school in British-ruled Palestine in 1938-1939, only to find herself in the middle of a war between Arab terrorists and the British army.

When Nancy Parker McDowell's "Notes from Ramallah" was published 10 years ago by a small Quaker press in Indiana, it attracted little attention. But her eyewitness account of life in a Mideast war zone deserves a long second look now, especially following British Foreign Secretary William Hague's statement urging Israel to restrain its actions against Hamas. It turns out that when it was the British who had to face Arab terrorists, they were far from restrained.

At age 22, Ms. McDowell agreed to spend a year teaching at the Friends Girls School, a Quaker institution in Ramallah, one of the largest Arab cities in the territory today known as the West Bank. But as the Goucher College alumna discovered soon after her arrival in September 1938, Ramallah was "a rebel town." Palestinian Arab terrorists were waging war against the British authorities and Palestine's Jewish community. Clashes between the British and the Arab forces turned the city into a veritable battlefield.

Soon after her arrival, Ms. McDowell became aware of the tense situation in the country, but it took a little while before it really hit home. "To have rebels charging across your yard is exciting for a while," she wrote, "but the sound of machine guns close by becomes annoying."

And much worse than annoying. In an early diary entry, Ms. McDowell described the shock of walking to her classroom one morning and encountering a group of Arabs, with guns, crouching inside the school gate and taking aim at British soldiers on a hill nearby. She and her friend Gertrude McCoy, a fellow teacher from Ohio, lay on a floor in fear until the shooting subsided. But then the bombing began — British planes strafed the city, killing terrorists as well as "some innocent people who were only running home from their vineyards ... About 80 Arabs were killed."

Sometimes there would be a lull in the local fighting for days or even weeks, but soon the calm would be shattered again. "Last Tuesday we teachers were reading aloud, as we often do in the evenings, and feeling so peaceful, when Bang-Bang-Bang! Rebel guns right outside the building," she reported. "The British machine guns started up soon. They were shooting across the school grounds, British on one side of the school, rebels on the other." Ms. McDowell and Ms. McCoy hurried the girls into a teacher's room and had them sit on the floor so they would be less exposed to gunfire. "I sang the 'Arkansas Traveler' with my teeth chattering, while the kids had to strain their ears to hear me above the guns." (One version of that 19th-century folk song, with its lyrics about "bringing home a baby bumble bee," is a popular children's song to this day.)

A common refrain in Ms. McDowell's diary and letters is the strong determination of the British to root out the terrorists, despite possible civilian casualties or international criticism. "The British usually bomb towns where a British is killed," she noted, referring to the policy of bombing an entire area if a government official or soldier was attacked in the vicinity.

Mass detentions and forced labor were also used. "The British frequently detain Arab citizens, keeping them in a concentration camp for several days, hoping they may find the leader ... In the daytime we could see a long line of them working for the British, tearing down the stone walls their ancestors had built between fields."

Collective punishment was not uncommon. "In the village of Nablus there was a bank robbery last week," Ms. McDowell recalled in one letter. "So the British herded all the inhabitants out to a field, where they had to stand in the hot sun all day while soldiers searched their houses. They rip up furniture, dumped out the food supplies and take all the money and valuable things they can find. One of our students from Nablus was unable to come back to school, because her father's jewelry shop was wiped out."

The British also imposed a strict nighttime curfew throughout the city. "Anyone breaking the evening curfew is shot without question ... They are doing too much damage, making holes in people's houses, shooting cats and donkeys or anything they see moving at night." Ms. McDowell loved to stargaze, but she knew — as she wrote to her parents — "that if I walked out on the balcony far enough to cast a shadow in the moonlight, all Ramallah might soon be torn awake by the sound of the hidden machine guns shooting at a curfew breaker."

Eventually, the year of bombs, battles and "sandbags in our windows to keep out stray bullets" came to an end, and Ms. McDowell returned to the calm of life in small town America. She married and raised a family in Indiana, where she remained for the rest of her life, passing away earlier this year at the age of 95.

Although she never returned to Israel, Ms. McDowell left behind a document that today's Israelis may find instructive. They are receiving a lot of unsolicited advice these days from those, like William Hague, who are pressing Israel not to go all-out against Hamas. But as the diary of Nancy Parker McDowell suggests, those who find themselves face to face with terrorists often have a clearer understanding of how best to combat them.

Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Professor Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book "Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the 'Jewish Vote' and Bipartisan Support for Israel."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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