Aaron Aaronsohn – the Palestinian problem ……… 6

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In the midst of an answer to one of Sir Basil’s questions, Aaronsohn turned the tables. “Why do you bring water for the Army from Egypt?” Aaronsohn asked. “It slows your progress. There is water right there in the desert, 300 feet down. All you have to do is drill for it.”

“How do you know that?” Sir Basil said.
“The rocks indicate it. And Flavius Josephus corroborates it. He wrote that he could walk for a whole day south from Caesarea and never leave flourishing gardens. Today the desert sands reach to the walls of Caesarea. Where there were gardens there must have been water. Where is that water now?”

Aaronsohn knew the area around the site of the Roman city of Caesarea, on the Galilee coast, well.
It was an easy horseback ride from Zichron Ya’aqov, where he had grown up.
As a botanical and geological researcher he had surveyed much of Palestine on horseback or on foot.
From plants and rock strata he had mapped areas that had turned to desert but which almost certainly were over aquifers.
The Roman wells that had once tapped those aquifers had been lost in one thousand years of Arab subsistence agriculture.
There was enough underground water, he told Sir Basil, to turn the whole of the Sinai into flourishing fields of wheat.
“And what can you do?” Sir Basil asked. “If I were with the British Army, I could show the engineers where to drill. I guarantee that they would find enough water for the Army without having to bring a single drop from Cairo.”

If Aaronsohn was right it could change British strategy and fortunes dramatically.
The British army had been reluctant to go on the offensive against the Turks because of the elaborate logistics needed to supply water for the troops, who were dependent on the water they carried or what they could draw from shallow wells with spear-point pumps.
The increased mobility would give the British a huge advantage against the fixed Turkish defenses, and allow the British command to speed up the timetable for an assault on the Turkish strongholds.
The French, Britain’s ally, were also jockeying for position in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Lebanon; their expectations overlapped British aspirations, and accelerating the timetable for a British advance would have the additional advantage of preempting the French.
Ultimately, progress against the Turks would let Britain focus more assets on the western front, maybe enough to win what most of the generals and the politicians thought of as the real war, the one against Germany.

But could he believe this man and his stories?
Aaronsohn had displayed dazzling erudition.
His knowledge of the terrain and conditions in Palestine and Syria and the Turkish order of battle, training, logistics, and defense plans seemed too good to be true.
How could any outsider know that much?
His story of his journey from Palestine to Britain—across hostile borders, under the noses of Turkish and German authorities, tricking even the fellow passengers on a ship to the United States—was even harder to believe.
Aaronsohn’s wasn’t the first bizarre story Sir Basil had heard.
By 1917 MI5 held dossiers on more than 38,000 individuals and Scotland Yard’s Special Branch had investigated 28,000 suspicious aliens; from the beginning of the war they had sent wild-eyed dreamers and schemers to Sir Basil’s office.
It fell to him to separate the rare kernels of useful information from the chaff of preposterous propositions and incredible stories.

Even after years of oddball cases, Aaronsohn’s story stood out.
Sir Basil concluded that Aaronsohn’s journey from Palestine to Copenhagen, then secretly on to England, thousands of miles of dangerous travel across enemy lines, was the most extraordinary and romantic tale he had yet heard.
Why did you do it?
Sir Basil asked him. Why risk everything to come to Britain?
Aaronsohn had thought about the question.
Sir Basil wasn’t the first to discover that Aaron Aaronsohn had thought about most questions.
Aaronsohn knew that crossing the battle lines to an enemy nation would make him an outcast, a man who had bet everything—family, friends, home, and career—on the outcome of the war.
Once he was safely in England he had no problem explaining his motives.
He was determined not to see the Jews of Palestine follow the destiny of the Armenians.
The only way to prevent that, Aaronsohn told Sir Basil, was for the British to win the war.
Sir Basil was no fool.
He was well aware of Britain’s wartime goals in the Middle East.
From his position at Scotland Yard he knew about the wartime organizing and propaganda efforts of the Zionists in England and elsewhere.
He knew about Chaim Weizmann, the chemist who had invented a method of producing acetone, essential for the production of explosives, in his Manchester laboratory.
In gratitude for Weizmann’s discovery the British had tolerated and even supported his continuing propaganda efforts as a leader of the international Zionist movement.
Sir Basil probably guessed that Aaronsohn shared Weizmann’s long-term goals for the Jews in Palestine.
They did not discuss Aaronsohn’s expectations and aspirations for the Jews that day, but Sir Basil had dealt with intelligence sources often enough to know that any offer of information, at least of good information, would not come for free.
In return for helping the British, Aaronsohn and his colleagues would expect support, or at least cooperation, in building a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
But that was all left unsaid in October 1916.
The two men did not talk about Zionism.
Instead, Aaron Aaronsohn told Sir Basil only that he and his colleagues and friends knew that their spying efforts were dangerous, that if they were found out by the Turks they would be hanged and their families would suffer reprisals. But after what they had heard and seen in the Jewish communities of Palestine, and what they knew about the fate of the Armenians, they were prepared to collect secret information for the British command on the Turkish military preparations and plans.
It was for that, Aaronsohn said—to work for a British victory—that he had come to England to offer his services as a spy.

Only a few months after Aaronsohn’s arrival in London and Lawrence’s meeting with Faisal at his desert camp, the two men met in a hallway at the British GHQ in the Savoy Hotel in Cairo.
By then their separate plans to reshape the Middle East were already  in motion, and the two ambitious and strong-willed men would discover that the futures they had planned for Palestine were on a collision course.

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