COMMENT:

In December 1918, New Zealand soldiers were involved in a massacre of Palestinian Arabs. The "impressive record" of our troops in the Sinai/Palestine theatre in World War I was marred by an incident in which soldiers attacked and killed 40 Arabs and burned down their village and a nearby Bedouin camp.

What makes the Surafend massacre ironic is that Arab and Bedouins fought alongside allied forces in their motivation to gain independence from the Ottoman Turks, particularly at Homs and Aleppo in 1917.

However, despite Kiwi and Arabs fighting together there was evidence of "inherent racism towards Arabs" by New Zealand soldiers during the campaign and this attitude has been linked to the massacre in 1918. After alleged thefts by Arabs and abusive and drunken behaviour by Kiwi and Aussie soldiers, events boiled over when a New Zealand soldier was killed by an Arab male. Increasing tension between locals and allied soldiers was not helped by a general feeling of apathy towards the local people and possible antagonism towards the occupying force from the Arab population.

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With little sign that the the military authorities were about to address the killing of a New Zealand soldier, members of the NZ Mounted Rifles, and some Australian and Scottish supporters decided to breach all rules of military conduct and take the law into their own hands.

After locating the village of the alleged murderer, the soldiers separated the elderly, women and children from the men and beat and killed 40 Arab men. These killings were followed by the burning of houses.

From a historical perspective, while the killed Kiwi soldier is named in most of the accounts of the Surafend massacre, none of the sources referred to list the names of the Palestinian Arabs murdered.

There is no doubt Kiwi soldiers instigated and were responsible for this massacre. However, despite several courts of inquiry, no one was ever tried for the crimes committed the night of December 11, 1918.

General Edmund Allenby, commander of allied forces in Palestine, paraded the Anzac Mounted division. Ignoring the salute of Commanding Officer Chaytor, he gave the New Zealand troops a dressing down, stating; "I was proud to command you, but now I'll have no more to do with you. You are cowards and murderers".

Some New Zealanders felt that this action was unfair as it addressed and criticised the whole division for the actions of a few, but there are some who feel that to stand by while others commit atrocities can imply complicity.

One historian has stated Surafend "cannot be explained away as an over-reaction by stressed combatants caught up in the heat of battle". The raid was carefully planned and ruthlessly carried out by men who knew the war was over, and the victims posed no threat.

The historian argued that the only conclusion possible was that the purpose "was to kill as many Arab men as possible".

Any attack on civilians is unacceptable. The British Army rebuilt the village of Surafend and billed both the New Zealand and Australian governments.

Despite these later moves to address the destruction of Surafend, tensions between Kiwi soldiers and Palestinian Arabs meant New Zealand soldiers remained armed after the armistice of 1918 for fear of reprisals. There was, however, no aggression reported against Kiwi soldiers.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI would have lasting implications for the region in general and Palestinians in particular, with Israel's eventual establishment.

Dr Carl Bradley is a lecturer in criminology in Melbourne and belongs to Wellington Palestine, an organisation working for the rights of the Palestinian people.