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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

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The tombstone of Sgt. Sara Rachela Shoshana Blank, killed in December 1944 while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service; Ramle War Cemetery, Tel Aviv. (Oren Kessler)
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William Shakespeare rests in Jerusalem, Harry Potter in Ramle, and Frederick Cohen in Gaza—three of the roughly 16,000 servicemen and -women buried in British Commonwealth war cemeteries in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Their graves are still scrupulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a century-old body that cares for resting places of 1.7 million war dead in 153 countries—among the largest ongoing memorial operations in the world.

In Israel, the commission maintains six cemeteries; there are another two in Gaza, and one in the West Bank, just across the Green Line in Tul Karm. The graves are a reminder of WWI’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign—a blood-drenched, nearly four-year affair that cost half a million lives on the Allied side alone but helped topple the Ottoman Empire and ultimately paved the way for Israel’s creation.

Shuttling between the cemeteries is an experience both gripping and grim and a reminder of the motley crew of fighters the wars brought together in life and death. The remains of Britons, Indians, and Anzacs lie beside those of Egyptians, Turks, and Jews from Jerusalem and London. Most of the graves date from WWI; there was no fighting in Mandatory Palestine during WWII, so graves from that era belong chiefly to soldiers who fought in neighboring countries—Egypt, Lebanon, Syria—and were killed or brought injured to British army hospitals in Palestine.

Some graveyards hold remains without names: In the Tul Karm War Cemetery lie 80 members of the Egyptian Labour Corps, seven Turks, three Indians and a German, all killed during the Great War. Only two—Punjabi sepoys, both named Khan but apparently unrelated—are identified. The Jerusalem Indian War Cemetery in the southern suburb of Talpiot lists the names of 78 Indians laid to rest there in a common grave. Of the 290 Turkish prisoners of war entombed there, however, just 50 are identified.

Others hold names without remains: Jerusalem War Cemetery is home to the Jerusalem Memorial, a monumental edifice inscribed with the names of 3,300 Commonwealth servicemen who fell in Egypt and Palestine between 1914 and 1918 but have no known graves.

The Jerusalem cemetery—on Churchill Boulevard at the entrance to Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus—also houses more than 2,400 marked graves, all from WWI. One marks the remains of the modern William Shakespeare, a driver killed on May 23, 1918. The CWGC’s meticulous records show the 41-year-old was the son of William Sr. and Fanny and lived at 3 Crewe Terrace in the Midlands city of Nottingham.

Nearly 80 percent of the CWGC’s annual $100 million budget is furnished by the United Kingdom, with other Commonwealth countries—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India—covering the rest. For the last five years, its regional supervisor for Israel and the Palestinian territories has been Paul Price, a congenial 48-year-old Welshman who has overseen Commonwealth war cemeteries around the world. He has made his home in Israel and now lives in Herzliya with his Israeli girlfriend. “It’s like living in France or anywhere else,” Price said. “You get used to living away from friends and family.”

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The largest war cemetery in Israel and the Palestinian territories is in Ramle, near Tel Aviv. Founded in the 8th century by Palestine’s newly arrived Arab armies, Ramle for centuries remained a small Arab city. Today it is a working-class town—its inhabitants three-quarters Jewish, one-quarter Arab—known primarily for its organized-crime families and for its prison, where Adolf Eichmann was held during trial and finally hanged. The few visitors to the city tend to be Israelis looking for cheap fresh produce at its century-old Ottoman market; though the entrance to the cemetery is open 24 hours a day, those who make the short trip from the city center are almost certain to find themselves alone.

Among its roughly 3,500 headstones they will find that of 19-year-old Pvt. Potter—whose grave is now listed as an official tourist attraction, through no fault of his own. The real-life Harry was killed in action in Hebron in July 1939, during the three-year Arab revolt against British rule and Jewish immigration.

Nearby is the tomb of Capt. Neil Primrose—a 34-year-old Liberal MP and, through his mother, a scion of the Rothschild banking dynasty—killed in 1917 while fighting the Turks in Gaza. There’s also the tombstone of Sgt. Sara Rachela Shoshana Blank, killed in December 1944 under unclear circumstances while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service—the British Army’s women’s corps, which filled an array of logistical and support roles and sacrificed more than 700 of its 200,000 servicewomen during WWII.

While the graves inside Israel proper are well-kept oases of foreign influence, the CWGC’s two cemeteries in Gaza have suffered along with the territory. Gaza War Cemetery houses more than 2,600 gravestones, mostly casualties from the spring 1917 First and Second Battles of Gaza—costly offensives against the city’s Ottoman defenders that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Middle Eastern theater. The burial ground is anchored by a Great Cross, and most of its graves are inscribed with the Christian symbol—except those of Lance Cpl. Cohen, 2nd Lt. J. Levy, and three other Jewish troops. There are also sections reserved for Hindus, “Mohammedans,” and Canadians—as if the last of these were a religion—and an adjoining plot for enemy Turkish soldiers.

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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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