PALESTINE - BRITAIN’S “CROSS” TO BEAR
After Turkey’s defeat in the First World War, several of her former territories were handed over to Britain as “mandates” to be reared for nationhood. One of these - Palestine - involved Britain in a tragic and intractable dilemma. Here in a harsh land with a sparse but predominately Arabic population, Jews had already begun the attempt to re-establish the Jewish nation destroyed and scattered 20 centuries before. Paradoxically, Britain had assumed obligations to both communities - a recipe for disaster. An influx of Jewish immigrants, eager to see Jerusalem once again the capital of a Jewish nation, alienated the Arabs. British efforts to control the rush, set Jew against Briton. After 30 years of mutual bitterness and violence, Britain departed, leaving Israel to come to birth in a welter of blood.
Palestine was never legally or technically a part of the British Empire, but from 1920 to 1948, when the state of Israel was established, it looked as if it was. During these years it as a Mandate, and the sovereign of Palestine was not the British King but the League of Nations and then, after the Second World War, the United Nations. Up to 1939, “the mandatory” (the British government) reported every year to the League.
The Mandate system was devised by the Allies of the First World War at the Peace conference of 1919. Its avowed purpose was to prepare politically inexperienced people for national independence and to rescue them from previous misrule. It was applied only to the colonial possessions of Germany in Africa, and the subject provinces of Turkey in Asia, which included the area of Palestine.
Sceptics and enemies declared - and still declare - that the mandate system was a piece of imperialist cunning . But this view ignores the great measure of sincerity in the establishment of the mandate system. Proof of this came in 1931 when the British mandate in Iraq was withdrawn and replaced by a treaty between Great Britain and now independent Iraq.
British rule had been instituted in Palestine with the conquest of Jerusalem in December 1917. At the end of the First World War few British authorities foresaw any very great complications in the new undertaking despite the fact that assurances of support had been given to both Arab nationalists in the Middle East and Jewish nationalists - the Zionists - in Britain, encouraging them to work for a Jewish national ‘home’ in Palestine. That there was some contradiction and, many alleged, a radical contradiction in British promises was apparent only to men on the spot. This does not mean that the British leaders were blind or stupid; it does mean that they were over-influenced by theory.
In the major documents conveying the British pledge to support Arab nationalism Palestine was not mentioned. There was god reason for this. Until 1920 there was no such political entity as Palestine for many hundreds of years. It was reasonably argued that without a nation you cannot have nationalism, and certainly not a nationalist problem. The area still called Palestine by outsiders was a conglomeration of Turkish provinces without any unified authority. Furthermore this politically complex area was even more confused by the presence of large and influential minorities who enjoyed special privileges. The most ancient of these minorities was the Jewish one. However, through emigration, Turkish expulsions and a rise in the death rate from disease during the war the number of Jews had sunk by 20,000 leaving around 60,000 by the time the British Army took on rule in Palestine. The little Jewish community represented lass than 10% of the population, most of whom were Arabic speaking Muslims.
Chiefly under the influence of the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, the British government had added a further complication. It is known to history as “The Balfour Declaration”. It took the form of a letter written by Balfour on November 2, 1917, to Lord Rothschild, a Jewish financier and supporter of Zionism. It ran as follows : - “I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet: His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”.
These now often quoted words made surprisingly little stir at the time. In the Commons it was the subject of some forgotten questions and answers. The French and U.S. Governments had already accepted a pro-Zionist Allied policy with little argument, or perception of what it implied.
Odder still, after some assurances that a Jewish State was not intended, the nominal leader of the Arabs in the wartime revolt against Turkey, Hussain, King of the Hejaz, was soon put at ease. Even odder, except for members of the Zionist party, the Jews of Europe and Asia were not greatly interested, and some of the loudest clamour (never very loud) against the Declaration came from British Jews who feared that it would force all Jews into divided loyalties.
Why did the British government make this declaration? No one has found a wholly satisfactory answer to that question. Contemporary documents show plainly enough that in the British military and and political world there was a great desire to take Palestine into the British sphere of influence to counter the imperial ambitions of France in the Near East. Since the time of Napoleon, British governments have been obsessed with fears that a French establishment of power in the eastern Mediterranean would block the way to India, and the wartime alliance had not lessened British anxiety. This attitude, irrelevant as it was by 1918, was still to be found throughout all the British services, civil and military. There was thus a readiness, especially in the lower echelons of government, to take Palestine into the British Empire, temporarily or permanently , by acting as the guardian of Zionism.
Of the reasons prompting those who organised the Declaration, only those of Balfour and the Zionists leadership can be known with certainty. Both were idealistic. Both believed that the establishment of territorial national Jewish home would redeem the Jews from the habits of mind towards which the centuries of ill-treatment had contributed. Balfour, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader and other Zionist sympathisers, took a rather exaggeratedly gloomy view of the effects of segregation and anti-Semitism on Jewish character. Balfour believed, and persuaded others in the government that that the Bolshevik Party in Russia was Jewish. Thus the Declaration was a hope that it would, by holding out the promise of a Jewish homeland, detach Jews from Lenin and completely emasculating his party.
The government were also alarmed by reliable reports that a political party in Germany was trying to influence the German government towards supporting the Zionist wish for a national home in Palestine. Dr. Weizmann warned the Foreign Office in 1917 that his might result in Zionists turning to Germany for support. The British government and the Zionists overlooked the fact that, as Turkey’s ally, Germany was unable to embark on a Zionist policy.
To return to Palestine. From 1917 on the military regime, known as O.E.T.A. (Occupied Enemy Territory Administration) was in great difficulties. On them fell the full weight of the contradictions in British policy.It was found that, though it was a perplexed and incoherent force, there was such a thing as Palestinian Nationalism, in the sense that most Arabs of Palestine shared the ideas and emotions of the Arab national movement. The task of O.E.T.A. was not made easier by the presence of a Zionist Commission sent to Palestine to prepare the establishment of the Jewish homeland. The Commission had British approval but was not welcomed by the O.E.T.A.
As time went on, anti-Zionism increased in O.E.T.A. And most officials became openly pro-Arab. The reason was not far to seek. Palestinian Arabs in those days welcomed British rule because it was a great improvement on Turkish rule, and they trusted in O.E.T.A. As an effective shield against Jewish ambition.
The Zionist immigrants had welcomed British rule at first, believing that the Balfour Declaration guaranteed 100% pro-Zionist British administration. When they found that this was not so, and that the British administration interpreted its “sacred trust” as “ an equality of obligation,” they became disillusioned and distrustful with some reason. Many politicians in Great Britain, mostly Conservatives, were working for a rescinding of the Balfour Declaration and they encouraged O.E.T.A. In their bias.
Lacking in experience, O.E.T.A. Stumbled into bringing about the opposite of what the pro-Arab party sought. Exasperated at the continued meddling of the Zionist Commission, the O.E.T.A. Chief, Lt. General Sir Louis Bols, wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon in April 1920, asking for the Commission to be abolished. O.E.T.A, could not have timed its request more disadvantageously to themselves. Curzon was at that time attending the Conference of San Remo, with Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour. The last two were the strongest Zionists in the Cabinet. When Bols dispatch was forwarded to Curzon and he consulted them, they were both incensed at what they took to be Bols’s incompetence, bias and disloyalty. In large part the conference had been convened to discuss the partitioning of the former Turkish provinces in the Arabic-speaking world. With the approval of the Conference, the text of the Balfour Declaration was included in the terms of the Mandate for Palestine. The Liberal leader Sir Herbert (later Lord) Samuel, an eminent British Jew and Zionist, accepted the post of the first High Commissioner. O.E.T.A. Was abolished. It was a great triumph for Zionism.
These decisions took effect on July 1, 1920, when Samuel arrived in Palestine the Jews received him with acclaim and in the belief that the wrongs of many centuries would now be cancelled in the rebuilding of the Jewish state. The Arabs received him with gloom, dreading their swift reduction to servitude under new Jewish masters. Both soon found they were mistaken. The most prominent feature in Samuel’s character was fairness.
Almost immediately Samuel ran into serious trouble that was not resolved till March 1921. It began in the north where King Hussain’s second son, Feisal, had been made “King” of “United Syria,” comprising modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, the area at the time being divided between British and French administrations. His capital was Damascus in French mandated Syria . His position was only tenable if he maintained good relations with the French Mandatory power, but whenever he attempted to do this, his subjects accused him of being no more than a French pawn, and so he was forced into anti-French attitudes.
His only champion among the great powers was Britain who felt an obligation towards him for his part in the Arab Revolt in the war. But his nationalist ministers forced him into courses which lost him this support.
Feisal’s anti-Zionist activity was particularly culpable, for in 1918 he had signed an agreement with Dr. Weizmann that was hailed then - and by some is still hailed - as a noble act of state which could have led to a lasting Arab-Zionist accord.
A helpless puppet in the hands of his ministers and advisers, Feisal was ultimately pushed into directly challenging the French Army. By July 1920, he had lost all his allies and the allegiance of most of his subjects. With needless cruelty the French flung him out.
The situation was made all the more complicated by the fact that the British Mandate included the territory east of the River Jordan which now forms the State of Jordan. Before his ejection in July 1920, Feisal, as King of United Syria, had held a shadowy rule over this territory, unlike his merely theoretical rule over Palestine. Tactfully, Feisal’s Trans-Jordan rule had not been officially questioned or disapproved by the British Government or the Mandatory. With Feisal’s fall however, the matter needed close examination.
Suddenly the inhabitants of this Transjordan area found themselves without their Chief of State and they hastened to establish new authority. There followed one of the curiosities of history, one that has been very little remarked. The area broke up into autonomous sheikdoms one of which was “The National Government of Moab” under the Presidency of the local British official, Alec Kilbride. Moab even minted its own coinage.
In January 1921, Feisal’s elder brother, the Emir Abdullah, appeared on the southern frontiers of Palestine at the head of a small army and declared his intention to march to Damascus to expel the French.
Abdullah weas not a warlike man and he was easily dissuaded from his revengeful intentions, especially after he had been acclaimed as their ruler by the little republics who were by now conscious of isolation in a dangerous world. By public consent and and with Britain’s blessing Abdullah became Emir of Transjordan.
After the San Remo Conference British responsibility for the Palestine Mandate passed from the Foreign Office to the Colonial Office, then under Winston Churchill. Without much hope of success he and Samuel urged on all parties the desirability of an elected legislative council and the erection of a constitution which would replace the High Commission’s arbitrary rule. With their long association with liberalism, the Jews accepted the proposition though they saw the considerable danger to themselves. With inconceivable folly, the Arabs rejected the institution of a legislative council so effectively that in the first part of 1922, the High Commission had to abandon the whole enterprise.
Haj Amin Hussain
Mufti of Jerusalem
The Arab argument was that by taking part in the elections they would be forced to admit the legality of the Balfour Declaration and of the Zionist endeavour in Palestine. What they overlooked and continued to overlook until it was too late, was that by cooperating in a council and making it work they would have had the Zionists at a permanent disadvantage through holding a permanent working majority. It is hard to see how, if the council had been accepted by the Arabs, a State of Israel could ever have come into being. But the parliamentary game has never suited Arab temperaments and they preferred to go a more heroic and as it turned out, a suicidal way. Much blame attaches to the British politicians and publicists in Britain who encouraged the Arabs in these foolish courses.
From 1921 to 1929 there was peace in Palestine: difficult, often broken peace, but peace nevertheless. Lord Samuel the first High Commissioner, commanded respect, and was honest and generous in his approach to his task. His successor in 1925 was Field-Marshal Lord Plumer, dissimilar from Samuel in all superficial respects, but his equal in uprightness and determination. He was the typical British senior officer of his time. He wore large white moustaches and was severely correct in the discharge of his official duties. This disguised his acute political sense.
Plumer was not a natural Zionist or a natural Judeophil. But he had an instinctive admiration for courage and hardihood, and he recognised this in Zionism in Palestine.
He was also too optimistic in his view of the Arab parties. Seeing that under his rule there had been no great disorders he mistakenly recommended a reduction in the size of British units. He reckoned without Haj Amin Hussain an instigator of anti-Jewish and anti-British riots, whom Sir Herbert Samuel, with typical generosity had not only amnestied but had recommended as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a post which that secretive, crafty, persuasive evil-minded man was immediately appointed. Lord Plumer suddenly overcome by illness, asked to be relieved of his post in 1928. His farewell audience with the main Arab delegation was of some historic importance in that by this time the Arabs had recognised the blunder they had made in respect of a legislative council and formally requested the formation of such a body, a request Lord Plumer duly passed to London. After Plumer left peace began to break down. The trouble was not widespread and the new High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, hoped that with patience and good-will it would pass. He was a man of great administrative ability and successfully inaugurated the construction of the harbour at Haifa and other valuable industrial and commercial undertakings, but did not have the political flair of his predecessors.
In 1929 the peace really broke down in general and hideous fashion. The religious quarrel was still going on in Jerusalem, but what caused the outbreak cannot be said for certain. The extremist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, made bellicose speeches . He spoke of an immediate Jewish State in Palestine, of “great colonizing masses” of Zionists founding a Jewish empire “on either side of the Jordan.” Arabs thereupon organised frequent, provocative and insulting counter-demonstrations in Jerusalem. These are the usually accepted causes of the disorder of 1929. Anyone who has studied the evidence, however, cannot resist suspecting another likely one: the intrigues of the Mufti.
The atrocities of the 1929 rising were appalling. It was now that Plumer’s misjudgement in reducing the military and police forces became evident. It required three days for British reinforcements to arrive from Egypt, and those three days were fatal. In the last week in August mass Arab attacks on Jews spread throughout the whole country. Several Jewish settlements were laid waste between Jerusalem and Haifa and in the South. The most horrible of the atrocities took place at Hebron where 60 Jews, including children, ere murdered, and at Safed in the north where 23 were murdered. The lightly armed administration was hampered by the fact that Muslim policemen often refused to take action against Muslim rioters. In all, 133 Jews were killed and 399 wounded.
The High Commissioner was in London when these events occurred. Filled with indignation he issued a manifesto during his swift journey back, denouncing the Arab leadership for the abominable crimes of the last week of August and breaking off the negotiations for the establishment of a legislative council. He wrote in passionate wrath, but without proof. The Arab leadership, defective in understanding but in cunning, protested. Chancellor was forced to retract. He assured the Arab leaders the matter would be submitted to a Commission that would adjudge the responsibilities of both sides.
The new Socialist Colonial minister, Lord Passfield, better known as Sydney Webb was clearly anti-Zionist. Sydney Webb with his wife Beatrice Webb the sociologist, belonged to an old-fashioned continental type of socialism that looked with suspicion on Jewish-led big business, organisations that undoubtedly supported much of the Zionist effort. In addition, the Webbs had little regard for the rights of small nations. They looked on the very existence of small nations as mischievously reactionary and a hindrance to true socialism. In the idea of a National home they detected a small nation in the making.
Sir Arthur Wauchope arrives in Palestine
Passfield was keen to revive the idea of a multi-lateral legislative assembly. The Zionists had not opposed this in 1928 and they did not oppose it no. It was the cause of much anxiety to them, but they need not have worried.In December 1930, the government invited the Zionists and the Arab Leadership to a Round Table Conference on the subject. The initiative had come from Dr. Weizmann, for which reason, perhaps, the Arabs decided to boycott the Conference. Thus the constitutional issue lapsed for six more vital years, during which Hitler came to power and Jewish immigration into Palestine increased enormously. The Arab had thrown away their initiative for ever.
After the events of 1929, there was an uneasy peace in Palestine once more. In July, 1931, Sir John Chancellor resigned and he was succeeded in November by Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wauchope who remained as High Commissioner till February 1938. Wauchope was little known outside the army but among his acquaintances he enjoyed a high and deserved reputation as a cultivated man of ability. It was hoped that under him Palestine would have a happy time but the hopes were soon dashed. The cause of distress was the rise to power of Adolph Hitler.
This fact has to be emphasised, as Zionist propaganda has made strenuous and largely successful efforts to persuade the world that the woes of Palestine were exclusively due to to British anti-Semitism. This is factional nonsense. The would-be destroyer of civilisation was Adolph Hitler, not Stanley Baldwin.
Jewish immigration into Palestine, which in spite of some recent increase had continued to be a matter of Zionist disappointment, changed character after 932 and became the cause for new anxieties and redirections of policy. By 1935 the annual figure for Jewish immigration had grown from around 5,000 to 62,000. Inevitably this radical change in the population figures affected the Arab nationalist elements in the country. Inevitably too, the immigration in three years of over 134,500 had given rise to massive disorders and would give rise to more. The Mandatory authorities on the spot deserve praise for urging, against many warnings and anti-British rioting that in their desperate need Jews should be allowed to take full advantage of the regulations, but the British Government who agreed to this deserves less credit. It was clear that Palestine alone, could not solve the problem caused by Hitler’s anti-Jewish mania. The only way to reduce the strain on Palestine was to open doors elsewhere, and Great Britain could in fact have absorbed the whole German Jewish population. But this would not have been popular and would have added to the already large unemployment figures and angered the trade unions. The British authorities never sent Jewish refugees back to Germany, but made no public move. The lethargic Baldwin, always preferred to do the minimum. The burden continued to fall on Palestine. Britain could certainly have done more.
The expected major trouble broke out in 1936. An immediate cause was the constitutional issue. Through 1935, Sir Arthur Wauchope doggedly pursued the goal of a legislative council, and the Arab leaders, of whom, the Mufti, was now openly the chief, realised that their previous rejections had made them the only Arab community in Asia without independence or a representative chamber. They accepted Wauchope’s invitation in principle. But this time the Zionists emphatically rejected it. Undismayed, Wauchope continued to hold out the offer but the issues as shelved by the outbreak on April 18, 1936 of the Arab Rebellion.
With terrible casualties (the highest being Arabs killed by rebels as collaborationists) the rising continued until October 1936, after which the British Government promised a Royal Commission to inquire into the causes of unrest. The Commission was led by Lord Peel and had a distinguished membership. Although it failed in its attempt to find a solution as all commissions did, it is historical because it ultimately influenced events. Its main recommendation was for a partition of Palestine into Jewish-ruled and Arab-ruled areas.
The idea received unintentional support from the attitudes of the two sides. The Mufti himself insisted that Turkish rule had been more humane and more freedom-loving than the British, and he had tried to scare the Commissioners with melodramatic tales of lurid conspiracies organised by Rabbis to seize Muslim shrines. The lasting impression was of fanaticism against reason.
Before submission to the League of Nations, the Peel recommendations needed to be approved by the Houses of Parliament. The Commissioners included no member of either House except Peel himself who was ill and nearing the end of his life. He defended his work feebly, as did the government. The man ho killed the recommendation was Lord Samuel. In a brilliant speech in the Lords, he pointed out the disconcerting fact that in a time of peace it is literally impossible to move populations except by force and that the Jewish population of Palestine was not concentrated or large enough for the proposed partition to be put viably into effect by other means. The League of Nations rejected the recommendations of the Peel Commission.
One event in 1938 should be remembered. A young Scots officer in the British Army, Orde Wingate, got permission from the Palestine Military Commander, Sir Archibald Wavell, to raise small units, recruited from Jews and officered by British, to counter attack Arab Guerrillas who were attacking Jews by night. Wingate called them the Special Night Squads. They first went into action in June 1938, and operated successfully until the summer of 1939 when they were disbanded. The S.N.S. gave the Jews, restless under the Zionist policy of “self-restraint,” a new self-confidence.
Early in 1939, Neville Chamberlain hand his Colonial Secretary, Malcolm Macdonald, summoned a Palestine Conference in London which as attended by an Arab and a Jewish delegation, and delegations from the Arabic-speaking world. Since the Arabs refused to meet the Jews it was held as two conferences: Anglo-Arab and Anglo-Jewish. (The Mufti had fled Palestine and was absent.) Though the army was slowly mastering the Arab Rebellion, the Palestine Arabs were in a strong position. The neighbouring Arab countries had grown interested in Zionism after 1935, and some of them were large suppliers of oil, which would be needed in the coming war. The Jews had no oil. It would have been madness for a British Government in 1939 to open a serious quarrel with the Arabs.
Still believing that reason would prevail if only there could be frank discussion, the government hoped vainly that they would not have to be cruel to the Jews. (There could be little frank discussion with the Arab delegates because they feared that any concessions would bring on them the murderous wrath o the Mufti.) In the end they imposed their own solution in what all Zionists called “ the infamous White Paper” of May 1939.
It was a milder version of a proposal, later withdrawn, by Lord Passfield in 1930, . It distressed not only the Zionist Party but all Jews, especially in the English-speaking world. What most exasperated opponents was the rigid limits set on Jewish immigration. They amounted to 10,000 Jewish immigrants a year for 5 years, with an additional immediate immigration of 25,000.
The Jews were in a helpless position. They protested vigorously and when the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations rejected the White paper in June 939, the Jews declared it illegal. But the Jews could do no more than protest for it was also psychologically impossible to take the anti-British side in the manifestly approaching war with Germany.The Arabs, who had no such inhibitions and who tended to look with admiration on Hitler, also protested against what they held to be a British surrender to Zionism, but their indignation may have been less sincere. For in fact the White paper achieved its immediate political aim. The incentive to the Rebellion weakened and it slowly ceased. Oil supplies to the Middle East Command from Arab areas were not interrupted during the Second World War. But the dubious morality of this appeasement had later to be paid for by the British.
Zionist propaganda painted throughout the Second World War, and after a horrific picture of brutal British imperialists turning back helpless Jewish immigrants and handing them back to their persecutors. The facts suggest other interpretations of events. Before the war the High Commission committed an act of gross insensitivity. Three gunboats, filled with Jewish refugees whose passports had false immigration visas supplied by the Gestapo, arrived in Palestine during March and April, 1939. They were sent back to their post of embarkation. This cruel action produced a storm of rage in the House of Commons, and the government found itself in danger. Zionist propagandists (notably Arthur Koestler), insists that there was repetition of such incidents throughout the war, but they give no names of boats after April 1939. In fact here are no recorded cases of this kind after April, but British policy remained repugnant to the Jewish Agency none the less.
The new Mandatory policy was to receive Jewish immigrants only up to the White Paper Quota,from which the number (never large) of known illegal immigrants was harshly deducted. Further immigrants were not sent back but given asylum in British overseas territories.
The Jewish Agency wanted a Zionist solution of the refugee problem. This led to the tragedy of the S.S. Patria in November, 1940. Some 1800 refugees were in the course of being transferred from three hulks anchored in Haifa to the French boat Partia with a view to their shipment to Mauritius. The Jewish Agency arranged for saboteurs to put the engines out of action. But a miscalculation with explosives resulted in the sinking of the ship and the death of over 250 people. The Jewish Agency then represented the disaster as an act of mass suicide. The survivors of the Patria itself were allowed to stay in Palestine, a fact not always mentioned.
Another ship the Struma, holding 769 refugees reached Istanbul in December. The Turks refused asylum. The Jewish Agency insisted that visas for Palestine, and no other sort of visa, should be issued to the refugees. It was to be Palestine or nothing. MacMichael the High Commissioner, refused, then relented, agreeing to Palestine visas for those between the ages of 11 and 18. Before this decision reached the refugees the Struma in February 1942, was towed into the Black Sea where it blew up and sank. It may have struck a mine. There was only one survivor.
MacMichael incurred blame through his weakness. Like his uncle, Lord Curzon, he had the manners and obstinacy of a strong man, but in times of crisis could be irresolute and afraid. One may wonder why he did not act strenuously on his own, independently of the Jewish Agency, and thus save these wretched people. By the end of 1942 boatloads of refugees had become rare. Hitler’s “Final Solution” - the wholesale execution of the Jews - was in full operation. Gestapo aid to refugees in the earlier phase, furnishing them with false visas, etc., may puzzle some readers. It was partly due to bribery, and mostly due to a policy aimed at confusing British rule in Palestine. In 1942 German policy became less devious, and the “Final Solution” aimed simply at the ultimate finality - extermination!
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