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10 May 2008
The Mufti inspects the Muslim Unit in Bosnia, 1946. He met with
Hitler in 1941 to offer his services.
BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On a pleasant Thursday in December 1948, Emilio Traubner, a correspondent for The Palestine Post, found himself near Abu Kabir, not far from Jaffa. Trenches and expended cartridges were strewn about, reminders of the fighting between units of the Irgun and local Arab forces that had taken place there seven months previously. There was a large Arab villa from where Traubner recovered a diary. It turned out to be the daily record of Yusuf Begovic of Pale, a town near Sarajevo in modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina. In it Begovic had described his activities as a cook for the “Arab Army of Liberation.”
Traubner described who Begovic had been serving: “35 Yugoslav Muslims who had a good reason to expect to be among the first to occupy and loot Tel Aviv, were part of a group of some thousands who came to the Middle East to join the jihad against Israel.”
What were Yugoslav Muslims doing in Jaffa in 1948? How had they managed to get themselves all the way to the Holy Land? What had motivated them? Who had recruited them? What was the Bosnian or Albanian connection to the Palestinians, if there was one?
There was a Bosnian connection: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, had been in Bosnia in the 1940s. Had he recruited these men? What had become of them?
It turned out that in 2005 a Bosnian had given an interview in Lebanon to a Croatian newspaper and claimed to have fought in the 1948 war. The story began to crystallize.
The Long Shadow of Haj Amin
In October 1937, Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Arab Higher Committee, was hiding from the British authorities in the Haram al-Sharif, the holy sanctuary atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. On October 13, disguised as a Beduin, he fled to Lebanon via Jaffa. In Lebanon he received sanctuary from the French mandatory authorities but he fled again with the outbreak of war in 1939. This time he made his way to Baghdad disguised as a woman. In Baghdad in 1940 and 1941 he increased his contacts with Germany, offering to aid the Nazis in return for their help in gaining independence for the Arab states. The Italians helped him enter Turkey, and then he made his way to Rome on October 11. He met with Mussolini and then with Hitler on November 28. After the failure of various schemes to create an Arab military unit he eventually settled for recruiting Muslim volunteers to aid the Nazis from the Balkans, Bosnia and eventually Kosovo.
In speaking to potential recruits, Husseini stressed the connections they had to the Muslim nation fighting the British throughout the world: “The hearts of all Muslims must today go out to our Islamic brothers in Bosnia, who are forced to endure a tragic fate. They are being persecuted by the Serbian and communist bandits, who receive support from England and the Soviet Union… They are being murdered, their possessions are robbed and their villages are burned. England and its allies bear a great accountability before history for mishandling and murdering Europe’s Muslims, just as they have done in the Arabic lands and in India.”
Three divisions of Muslim soldiers were recruited: The Waffen SS 13th Handschar (”Knife”) and the 23rd Kama (”Dagger”) and the 21st Skenderbeg. The Skenderbeg was an Albanian unit of around 4,000 men, and the Kama was composed of Muslims from Bosnia, containing 3,793 men at its peak. The Handschar was the largest unit, around 20,000 Bosnian Muslim volunteers. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, “These Muslim volunteer units, called Handschar, were put in Waffen SS units, fought Yugoslav partisans in Bosnia and carried out police and security duties in Hungary. They participated in the massacre of civilians in Bosnia and volunteered to join in the hunt for Jews in Croatia.” Part of the division also escorted Hungarian Jews from the forced labor in mine in Bor on their way back to Hungary. The division was also employed against Serbs, who as Orthodox Christians were seen by the Bosnian Muslims as enemies.
The Handschar division surrendered to the British army on May 8, 1945. As many as 70,000 Bosnian Muslim POWs and their families were moved by the British army to Taranto in Italy. The creation of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia at the end of the war meant that former Bosnian Muslim volunteers in the German SS units could not return home for fear of prosecution or internment. George Lepre, a scholar on the history of the Handschar and author of Himmler’s Bosnian Division: The Waffen-SS Handschar Division 1943-1945 describes their fate: “Those Bosnians who elected to remain in the camps eventually found asylum in countries throughout the Western and Arab worlds. Many of those who settled in the Middle East later fought in Palestine against the new Israeli state.”
But first they had to get to the Middle East.
The formation of the Bosnian unit in 1947
The Bosnian Muslims, usually referred to as “Yugoslavs” in period newspaper accounts as well as in intelligence reports, remained in DP camps in Italy until 1947, when it was reported in The Palestine Post on April 18 that there was a “request from the Syrian government for the transfer of 8,000 Bosnian Moslem refugees at present in Italy. Yugoslav quarters here say that the Arab League has written to all Arab states, urging them to assist these Moslem DPs, and that some financial help has already been received. Yugoslav officials say that they too want these 8,000 Moslems back, as they are the Handschar Division of the German Wehrmacht which surrendered to the British… The Yugoslavs state that they view with the gravest concern the possibility of the transfer of this group to the Middle East.”
By December 1947 a nucleus of former Handschar officers had made their way to Syria and were beginning to reconstitute their unit in Damascus. A report by Israel Baer in the Post noted that “the latest recruits to the Syrian army are members of the Bosnian Waffen SS… It is reported that they are directing a school for commando tactics for the Syrian Army.”
No doubt the fledgling Syrian army which had been born in 1946 was in need of officers and trainers with experience. Emilio Traubner, writing on December 3, 1947, noted that the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was even convinced to fund the travel of Bosnian Muslims from Italy to the Middle East so that they could find homes since they refused to be repatriated to Yugoslavia.
In January 1948 Arab agents were working to recruit Bosnians for the fight in Palestine. On February 2, it was reported that 25 Bosnian Muslims had arrived in Beirut and were moving to Damascus to join 40 other Bosnians already there. A report by Jon Kimche on February 4 further noted that up to 3,500 were being transferred to Syria to fight alongside Fawzi Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army (ALA) in its invasion of Palestine. On March 14 a party of 67 Albanians, 20 Yugoslavs and 21 Croats led by an Albanian named Derwish Bashaco arrived by boat in Beirut from Italy. They were hosted by the Palestine Arab Bureau and made their way to Damascus to join the ALA. In the first week of April another 200 Bosnians arrived in Beirut.
A lengthy report by Claire Neikind on March 2 described the procedure by which Arab agents were recruiting volunteers among the DPs in Italy. Men between 22 and 32 were sought and in return they would receive free passage to Beirut and their families would receive maintenance. According to Neikind, 300 men had already arrived and 90 Croatian Ustashi were also making there way. Fifty-seven were sent to Amman. Between December 1 and February 20 a total of 106 were sent to Syria. Neikind noted that “as soon as their families are settled, they enter Arab military service.”
If one accepts merely the low totals from newspaper accounts it appears that there were at least 520 Bosnians, 67 Albanians and 111 Croatians in Syria or Beirut, as well as 135 Bosnians on their way to Egypt and 57 Bosnians in Jordan. Thus 890 volunteers from Yugoslavia and Albania were in the Middle East by April 1948, before Israel’s declaration of independence on May 15, 1948.
Upon arrival the volunteers found their way to a camp at Katana, a military base west of Damascus that the Syrian army had provided for use by the Arab Liberation Army being assembled to invade Palestine. Here they met their commander, Fawzi Kaukji for the first time. Kaukji, 58, was a former Ottoman soldier who had fought in the Arab Revolt. Hagana intelligence estimated as many as 4,000 volunteers had joined his army.
In December of 2005, Hassan Haidar Diab, a journalist in Bosnia, was able to locate Kemal Rustomovic, a Bosnian who had served with the Yugoslav volunteers. He claimed to have been a member of the Arab Salvation Army where 150 of his fellow Bosnians served under a Bosnian officer named Fuad Sefkobegovic.
The Role of the Bosnians in the War of Independence
Since the fall of 1947 Arab forces under Abdel Khader Husseini and other locals had harassed Jewish traffic and supplies moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A mixed Bosnian-Arab unit of the ALA had been dispatched to aid in the siege of Jerusalem and this unit found itself embroiled in the battle for Castel between April 3 and 8, 1948. This battle was part of the Hagana’s Operation Nahshon which was intended to relieve the siege of Jerusalem. It is not clear what became of the Bosnians who fought at Castel. Some may have retired to Ramallah, where it was reported on April 16 that Muslim foreigners including Yugoslavs had taken over the best hotels and “molested” the local population.
The next battle that the Bosnian units participated in was at Jaffa between April 25 and May 5. Jaffa had been allotted to the Arab state in the UN partition plan, but it was surrounded by territory allotted to the Jewish state. The battle began when the Irgun launched an attack on the city. According to the Hagana, there were 400 “Yugoslavs” and 200 Iraqis defending Jaffa. On April 28, Michel Issa, the Christian Arab commander of the Ajnadin Battalion, received orders from Kaukji to move from the Jerusalem foothills to relieve the siege of Jaffa. On the same day, Hagana intelligence noted that there were 60 “Yugoslavs” among the defenders of Jaffa. Issa arrived in Jaffa on April 29 ; the commander of Jaffa, Maj. Adil Najmuddin, deserted the city on May 1, leaving Issa and his Yugoslavs. According to Issa’s telegram to Kaukji, “Adil left [the] city by sea with all [the] Iraqis and Yugoslavs.” Prior to their departure the Yugoslavs had been billeted at local homes and their unit even included a cook.
Kemal Rustomovic recalled in his interview that he had first been at Nablus, then Jaffa and finally at Jenin. Between the evacuation of the Yugoslavs by sea from Jaffa and their reunion with the ALA, the State of Israel was born on May 15, 1948. On the same day five Arab armies invaded Israel and the war became much wider.
The ALA became a disorganized and largely spent force by the time it saw fighting again around Nazareth again in July. During the fighting in the North, Kaukji’s army of 2,500 men was reduced to only 800 and it was driven from Nazareth into northern Galilee. Rustomovic was one of these men according to his interview. The Post reported that the ALA still included “Yugoslavs.” On July 18 the Post reported that the British government’s intelligence had acted to “systematically sabotage [the] Palestine partition scheme” and provided as evidence the fact that England was aware of the presence of Bosnian volunteers in Syria.
During the fighting in October the IDF conquered the entire Galilee and parts of Southern Lebanon. A report on November 1, detailing the capture of the Galilee, noted that some “Yugoslavs” had been captured during the fighting that had driven the ALA and the Lebanese army from Palestine and actually found the IDF in Lebanon.
The Bosnians and the 1948 war, strange bedfellows?
It is not known what became of the Bosnians who served with the Arab forces in the 1948 war. Rustomovic, who was born in the village of Kuti in central Bosnia in 1928, joined the Lebanese army in 1950. He served his adopted country for 30 years, married a local woman and had seven daughters and five sons with her. He was granted Lebanese citizenship, unlike the Palestine refugees who fled to Lebanon, and retired from the army in 1980. According to him, none of the Bosnians who had served in the SS ever returned to Yugoslavia. Some ended up in the US, Australia and Canada. It is assumed that some also settled in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East. Today many would be in their 80s and 90s and it is doubtful that many of them survive.
In the 1990s during the Balkan wars, Arabs would journey to the Balkans to participate in war between Bosnians and Serbs. In a strange twist they would be repaying the debt incurred when 900 or more Bosnian Muslims gave up their homes and past to come to the Middle East to serve the Muslim Arab cause. The involvement of these Bosnians may be seen as an early version of the linkage of Muslim conflicts throughout the world. This has gained increased exposure lately due to the involvement of foreign Muslim volunteers in the Algerian, Lebanese, Kashmiri, Sudanese and Afghani conflicts among others.
The writer is in a doctoral program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his MA thesis was on the Christian Arabs in the 1948 war.