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Gaza war graves - a personal pilgrimage

Mark Urban | 12:09 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Few people know that thousands of Commonwealth war graves lie in the battlegrounds of the Gaza strip.

During the recent campaign, the main Gaza War Cemetery suffered extensive damage as Israeli troops and Hamas militants fought nearby.

Now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is seeking compensation from Israel, the BBC has learned.

The organisation estimates the cost of repairing or replacing the 363 headstones damaged by recent Israeli shelling at £95,000.

The graveyards date from 1917 when British divisions fought their way into Palestine against intense opposition from defending Ottoman Turkish forces.

After costly setbacks in Gaza, the British eventually gained the upper hand, defeating Turkish troops in the country, so paving the way for the creation of modern Israel.

The role of that campaign in shaping the modern Middle East means that even today, the soldiers' resting places remain powerfully symbolic.

Last April the cross shaped monument at the centre of the Deir al-Balah Commonwealth cemetery was blown up, apparently by Islamic militants.

For me, getting to the Gaza War Cemetery became a personal pilgrimage.

Although I have covered Middle East affairs for the BBC for nearly 20 years, it was only recently that I learned that my great uncle, Lance Sergeant Walter Holmes, had been killed in Gaza on 19 April 1917 and laid to rest at the Commonwealth War Cemetery there.

L/Sgt Holmes was just 18 years old when he fell in the Second Battle of Gaza.

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His battalion, the Isle of Wight Rifles (or Eighth Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment) launched its attack on that fateful day with over 800 men, only 92 of whom returned to British lines.

They were among 6,000 Allied casualties in a slaughter that rivalled some of the worst scenes on the Western Front.

Reaching the cemetery for the first time earlier this month, I found that my great uncle's headstone was one of those damaged in January's shelling.

It suffered two chips from shrapnel.

Any sadness we may feel is minor compared to those who lost children or had homes destroyed in the recent conflict

Of course, you only have to speak to people nearby to be reminded about the hardships and losses suffered by the living during January's fighting.

Adil al-Jidba, a local farmer, told me he had fled the area to what he thought was a safer place only to lose three of his children to Israeli shelling.

The Israeli army, following initial inquiries about damage to the graveyard, said that it has come about as a result of a nearby Palestinian arms dump being hit by an airstrike.

But we observed evidence of Israeli tank and artillery fire among the shattered headstones.

Faced with our questions, an Israeli army spokeswoman has said that units were returning fire at Palestinian fighters in the area of the cemetery.

L/Sgt HolmesThe issue of whether it can produce evidence of this militant fire may well determine the army's response to the British compensation claim.

Writing as a relative of one of those whose headstone was damaged, I recognise that any sadness we may feel is minor compared with those who lost children or had homes destroyed in the recent conflict.

However, the recent incidents at both Deir al-Balah and Gaza Commonwealth cemeteries can be seen as symbolic of the intensification of strife there.

These British graveyards have after all been laid out according to the hallowed principles of the War Graves Commission.

Brothers in arms laid to rest without regard to rank, colour or religion.

It seems these days that some people either care more about today's conflict than respecting those values, or indeed actively dislike what the cemeteries stand for.


  • Comment number 1.

    The notion that in some way Israel does not respect the British war dead is absurd. Firstly there are Jewish soldiers buried there in Gaza. Secondly similar cemeteries in Haifa, Beersheva and elsewhere in Israel are beautifully cared for and given proper respect by the local population. How the Arab population feel is another thing. They no doubt regard these war dead as part of a Crusader invasion of the Middle East which drove out the Muslim Turks in a war of imperial conquest, replacing it with 31 years of British Christian rule. But as always the BBC seeks to blame Israel for all ills.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a shame the 1917 war graves were desecrated. How sad that British soldiers had to die in Gaza in The Great War.

    How much sadder though that the West ( including Great Britain ) sold the Jewish nation down the river after World War 2 by
    1. setting unrealistic boundaries for the new State of Israel, making Israel so difficult to defend and therefore ripe for Arab invasion.
    2. not providing any military support to Israel after the fateful withdrawal of western troops in 1948.

    If Britain (and others) had paid more than a token political gesture to setting up an Israeli state, much of the conflict in that area since 1948 would not have occurred.

    And now the UK is asking Israel to compensate us for collateral damage as the Jewish people continue to fight for their continued existence.

    What a sickening profession politics is !

  • Comment number 3.

    Of course, any damage to war graves, or indeed any other grave is to be deplored. But to me, this whole piece, which lasted at least 10 minutes smacked of anti-semitism. I object most strongly to reports of this nature. People who were interviewed said they were nowhere near the cemetery and couldn't therefore be certain who carried out the damage to these graves. It was a biased piece of reporting and I think the BBC should explain why it decided to air this item.

  • Comment number 4.


    Since modern war is fought by killing civilians, is not the anonymous, ragged, rubble pile more fitting than the worked stone and smart plot?

  • Comment number 5.

    Hey, look, when it comes to bombing Palestinian civilians, killing and injuring thousands of women and children, Israel pretty much gets a free a pass from the BBC and British government. But after seeing how that gravestone has suffered two chips from shrapnel you can expect Israel to be bombed by the British if they dont pay for the repair!

  • Comment number 6.

    Yes, how sickening that the British did not play their part in the myth of 'a land without a people for a people with out a land'. How sad they did not remove the local Arabs before handing over the "whole lot" to Jews from all over the world. I mean, if they had done so, then there would surely be no such damage incured today, there may well have a been a few more British graves though.

    And what situation do we have now, we have a group of imprisoned refugees threatening the very existance of all Jews with their home made rockets. You only have to look at the damage done to Israel during Israel's assault on Gaza to see how Israels existance is threatened. Though Israel did manage to kill more of its own than the Palestians managed didnt they? So would that make Israel more of a threat to itself than the Palestinian are?

    But of course, to even suggest that Israeli forces could have done anything improper makes you an antisemite, it stands to reason doesnt it. I mean, just because every army in the world has engaged in improper conduct, doesnt mean you can go around thinking that about the Israeli army. An army that killed and injured so many Palestian women and children, destroyed so many homes, destroyed so much arable land etc etc etc. An army that didnt leave that graffiti in Palestinians homes - cuz that must have been put there by Hamas or something.

    Well, at least we all seem to agree it was a waste of BBC airtime, not to mention money, to do a report on the damaged grave stones when there was so much other stuff to report on. Like patio damage from an existance-threatening home made rocket falling on Sderot. But it was Mark Urban's Great Uncle, and he is the editor.

  • Comment number 7.

    Look, whilst I may sympathise for the damage done to the headstone, the fact of the matter is that people should quite rightly care more about the conflict that is going on today. The Palestinians are being illegally occupied by the Israelis (as decreed by the ICJ Advisory Opinion of July 2004 and UN resolution 242) and are forced to live a dehumanising existence and people forget how this began!! When the British signed the Balfour Declaration, promising the Zionists land that belonged to another people.

    With regards to the comment made by Newsjock, what on earth were the British to do about the territorial boundaries that were assigned to Israel in 1947 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181? There were Palestinians living in that land! Should they all have been wiped out so that the Jews could have had a homeland? Why should the Palestinians have been punished for European anti-semitism?! If there was any real justice, it would have been the Germans and the Austrians who would have handed over territory.

    And people wonder why the Arab and Muslim world is boiling over with rage! The Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and murdered in the act of creating a Jewish state not three years after the end of WW2 and the Holocaust, and the Israelis still want sympathy?! It beggars belief!

    The Middle Easterners are depicted time and time again as war mongers when the real villains are the West trying to create obedient client states in the Middle East and plundering its resources under the false pretenses of bringing democracy. We need to sort our own affairs out at home before we start waging war in someone else's homeland.

    As for the Israelis being sold down the river, Newsjock, well, what can I say?! Never a good idea to build your home on someone else's land.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    #7 Finkelstein_lobby

    "Ethnically cleansed"

    I realise this is only the BBC and facts are therefore an impediment to the distribution of propaganda, but please look at population demographics before Balfour, after 1948 and now, before making such a ludicrousely hyperbolic claim.

    You may as well describe the gentrification of Islington by the Guardianista in the same light; it is on that level of absurdity.

  • Comment number 10.

    8# Mine

    Sincere apologies for the spelling error.


  • Comment number 11.

    Bravo Finkelstein_Lobby, thank you a good analysis, little left for the imagination.

    Concord 100% with you.

  • Comment number 12.

    Why not ask HAMAS to cover the expenses since they militarized these areas so that BBC reporters would blame Israel for fighting back.

    News to all, This ain't 1938. The Jews plan on fighting back. Don't attack Israeli civilians from your neighborhoods and you won't suffer any casualties...

    News to England. Open your eyes. You are being Colonized as punishment for your past colonization of Arab lands. Have a gander at Paris so you know what to expect.

  • Comment number 13.

    Dear Mark Urban

    Would you have gone to Gaza without the fact that your great uncle's headstone suffered two chips from shrapnel?

    Are we yet to see your report on the real reason for going, or was getting to the Gaza War Cemetery it?

  • Comment number 14.

    This blog contained not one iota of useful information, in common with the vast majority of modern "reportage" it neither informed nor analysed.

    Pointless would be one of the milder adjectives that could be applied to it.

    When will you realise that the world outside the BBC is the real world and that the closed coterie of sloganeering, fad following
    anti-s you inhabit are a major part of the reason that disputes continue.

    The blind antipathy to the USA (unless its Obamafied) and the militant pacifisticity (unless it's violence against Britain, the USA or Israel) together with a pro anything that denigrates anything that pre-existed your university uni days is turning what was once a beacon of light and veracity into an unwatchable, unthinking offerer of unthought out opinion.

    On a day to day basis, give us the facts, we can work out what they mean. If you must comment, then do an obvious feature programme of your views balanced by a similar one by those of opposing positions.

    This piece was truly a nadir in BBC output, I weep for what was.

  • Comment number 15.

    Your trip to your great uncle's grave was very moving. The success of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and their local gardeners in creating these oases of peace in the most unlikely places never ceases to amaze me

  • Comment number 16.

    @9. Moncursalion-Monochrome!

    Well you are really showing your age with that remark. History of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is no longer taught as it was over 20 years ago, not least because so much more is known about Israel's grave human rights abuses and complete disregard for international law and the Geneva Conventions. By the by, if you're using Joan Peters' "From Time Immemorial" or Alan Dershowitz's "The Case For Israel" as your sources, then you really don't have a clue. If you don't know what I am talking about, I suggest you Google "Norman G. Finkelstein" who is widely regarded as being the GENIUS who exposed both as complete falsifications and hoaxes.

    Perhaps you could start with reading "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" by Ilan Pappe (an Israeli Jew) and "Scars of War, Wounds of Peace" by Shlomo Ben Ami (An Israeli Jew, self-proclaimed 'ardent zionist' and Israel's former Foreign Minister and one of the chief negotiators during the Camp David Peace talks under Clinton). Both agree very strongly that Palestine was ETHNICALLY CLEANSED of Palestinians and that such an act was not a by-product of war, it was methodical, systematic and most definitely pre-meditated.


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