In the latest installment of Neil Rogall’s series on the history of Palestine he looks at a long history of Palestinian resistance to occupation that culminated in the Arab revolt of 1936
1936 witnessed the beginning of the largest and longest Palestinian revolt against British rule. It wasn’t until the First Intifada in the late 1980s that there was resistance again on this scale in Palestine. In my previous article on the development of the settler community in Palestine I traced the transfer of land to the Zionists under the Mandate. In this one I consider the impact this had on the Palestinian peasantry. This is the background to the explosion of 1936.
The beginnings of Palestinian resistance
Palestinian fellahin (peasants) viewed the land they cultivated as their birthright. They might not formally own it but that was somewhat beside the point. Landlordism had only really taken off in Palestine with the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. Many peasants failed to register their land under the new laws. They often couldn’t afford the registration fee or didn’t want their names on government documents for fear of conscription into the Ottoman army. In these cases the land was registered in the name of the local notable . The fellahin believed that this way they would hold onto ‘their’ land. Elsewhere the Ottoman government simply seized land claiming it was needed for security reasons or that it wasn’t being cultivated properly. Such land was then put up for sale and often bought by wealthy men from Beirut .
The result was that many cultivators lost control of their land. The dispossessed ended up as sharecropping tenants on what had been their own land. When Zionist settlers purchased such land from the landlords, they evicted the fellahin. As early as 1883, peasants were attacking these new Jewish settlements. This affected not just the fellahin but also the nomadic Bedouin who were no longer able to graze their animals on what had been seen as common land. In response the Ottoman government often called out the army to remove peasants who had occupied their old lands or were refusing to leave. Such resistance continued into and throughout the entire period of British rule.
Peasant unrest pushed the local elite into protesting about Zionist immigration. Such protests were pretty feeble, and began to undermine the relationships between the notables and their followers. Many of these elite figures hoped that Palestine would be incorporated into Syria following the end of the war. When this didn’t happen, a distinctive Palestinian nationalism begins to develop.
The British, the notables, and nationalism
By the beginning of the mandate Zionism was viewed by large numbers of Palestinians across all classes as a serious threat.
As early as 1920 there was a two thousand strong Bedouin attack on the British. Not surprisingly sometimes urban riots would take on religious colouring,. Christians initiated the Easter 1920 attacks on Jews in Jerusalem: ‘why should we give our land to those who crucified our Christ’ they chanted. There were major clashes again in May 1921.
The political leadership of the Palestinians throughout the 1920s was in the hands of the notables, the a’yan through Muslim-Christian associations. The British rulers strengthened the domination of the leading families. The Mandate authority needed an intermediary between themselves and the mass of Palestinians. An Arab Executive was formed to negotiate with the British. This was very ‘moderate’. The Executive didn’t want to alienate the new rulers as they expected to inherit political power when the British departed. However competition between the most important of these a’yan families weakened even this moderate opposition.
A key figure was the young and seemingly militant Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a former Ottoman officer who deserted to join the ‘Arab Uprising’ during WW1 . He came from one of the two most important notable families, the Husseinis. The British wanted to co-opt the more outspoken wing of the elite so they appointed him ‘Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’ and head of the ‘Supreme Muslim Council’. This was despite the fact that he only came 4th in a vote by the Muslim notables for the post of ‘Grand Mufti’ whose official role was to control Jerusalem’s Islamic Holy Places. The British believed that Hajj Amin al-Husseini was just the man they could use to prevent in their words ‘hotheads getting too excited and too violent’.
In reality none of the notables were able to play an effective role as a nationalist leadership. They were far too compromised. Some had good jobs in the colonial government. They couldn’t defend the peasants from the settlers who were evicting them from their land because it was they, the a’yan who were selling the land to the Zionists. Nor could they offer any political progress to their supporters, as the British were hostile to any democratic reforms that would relegate the Jewish settlers to a minority position. They were totally incapable of providing any serious leadership to ordinary Palestinians faced with the growing settler threat.
Impoverishment of the Palestinian peasantry
Colonial policies helped ruin the countryside. The drive to commercial agriculture, the encouragement of land sales to the settlers and the sheer greed of landlords wretched rural Palestine.
By 1930 some 30% of all Palestinian villagers were landless, while as many as 75% to 80% of the remainder didn’t have sufficient land to meet their needs. On top of this, colonial taxation policies hit Palestinian peasants far harder than the Jewish agricultural enterprises. Such taxes were of course used to pay for British rule and its support of the settlers. Up to half of the male rural workforce now worked as wage labourers outside their villages on construction or road projects, or as temporary agricultural labourers for the citrus harvest.
A rural proletariat was being born. Many in the end were forced to emigrate to the growing cities looking for work. But there was little work in the cities, as most secure jobs were held by the more highly skilled Jewish workers or by family members of the Palestinian elite. The reality was that most immigrants to the cities lived from hand to mouth as casual labourers doing menial jobs or became petty traders.
Tensions exploded in August 1929 when Jabotinsky’s Revisionists held a series of provocative demonstrations at the western ‘wailing’ wall of the Haram al-Sarif, the 3rd holiest shrine in Islam the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Violence spread throughout Jerusalem, and then across the country. 133 Jews were killed and at least 117 Palestinians. Often Palestinian violence was directed against the British as well as at the Jewish settlers. In response, the Mandate government planned to restrict land sales and Zionist immigration. Ramsey MacDonald, the British prime minister blocked this.
The impoverishment of the rural Palestinian population accelerated with the global depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. This was made worse by the increasing number of settlers who arrived following Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 and the growth of an increasingly deadly anti-Semitism in Poland. Peasant indebtedness led to many selling their land to pay their debts. Simultaneously the big landlords made huge killings selling their estates to the Jewish National Fund.
“The bankruptcy of the notables‘ policies was therefore increasingly apparent: they had made no progress toward achieving national independence, and were incapable of stemming the Zionist tide of increasing population, land settlement and economic development.”
In these circumstances the a’yan class themselves splintered. The Nashashibi family clan turned against the policies of the Arab Executive, dominated by the Husseini family. The Nashashibis called for compromise with the British and the settlers. This followed from their class interest: the Nashashibis were the wealthiest landowners, the largest citrus exporters and greatest sellers of land to the settlers.
Another wave of anti-British violence occurred in 1933. The Arab Executive and Hajj Amin al-Husseini realised that they were losing control. If they were going to keep power over their ‘community’ and break out of the political impasse, more radical methods would be necessary.
Before the 1936 uprising exploded, there was a revolt that in retrospect appears as a harbinger of what was soon to follow. The name of Hamas’s military wing the ‘al-Qassam Brigades’ comes from the key figure in this short-lived revolt. Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, was Syrian by birth and an Islamic scholar. He fled to Palestine after an abortive revolt against French rule in Syria. Al-Qassam united Salafist hostility to the saint worship deeply rooted in traditional Palestinian Islam with a militant anti-imperialist message.
This was not so different from many other Islamic inspired revolts around the world in the 19th and the early 20th century. For Al-Qassam the anti-imperialist message meant struggle against the settlers. By 1935 he had upwards of 200 followers engaged in military training. In late November he set out to Haifa hoping to raise the peasantry in rebellion. But before he could do so the British murdered him. Despite his death his actions electrified the country and many were inspired to emulate his methods.
The 1936-1939 revolt was the most protracted rebellion against British rule in the Middle East. The trigger was the killing of two Jewish settlers followed by tit for tat murders of two Palestinians. Within a few days the growing violence sparked off the uprising. At first young nationalists drove the movement forward. Their elders were reluctant to take on the British. A general strike was called on the 19th April in Nablus. By the 21st it spread across the whole of Palestine. On the 25th Hajj Amin al-Husseini set up an Arab Higher Committee to take control of the strike. This was a case of the elite having to run fast to take charge of a movement they were rapidly losing control of.
The Higher Committee aimed to halt Zionist emigration, curtail land transfers and force the British to create a democratically elected assembly. The strike lasted almost 6 months. Economic life in much of Palestine was brought to a halt. It was accompanied by civil disobedience and attacks on settlers and their property.
The British authorities brought in 20,000 troops to smash the rebellion. At the same time they were frightened by it. In July they announced a reduction in Jewish immigration to the colony and a Royal Commission into the troubles, The Peel Commission.
By mid-May the centre of revolt had shifted from urban areas to the countryside. By the summer the countryside was aflame with guerrilla warfare. “Telephone and telegraph communications were cut, the oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa was severed, several police stations attacked, rail lines blown up, roads mined and bridges destroyed.” The oil pipeline was partly owned by the British Anglo-Persian oil company. The British declared martial law on September 7th.
On October 11th the general strike was called off. This was partly due to the British counter insurgency. But there were economic reasons too. The citrus crop was about to ripen. Prices were sky high on the international market because the Spanish Civil War had disrupted supplies worldwide.
Andalucia, after all was one of the early battlegrounds of the revolution and civil war. The big Palestinian landlords were keen to harvest their crop and after 5 months without work and wages many labourers were eager to start earning again. In fact the Mufti, Amin al-Husseini secretly called on the leaders of the surrounding Arab states, all of which were British clients, to call publically for an end to the strike. This set a dangerous and fatal precedent of allowing Arab rulers elsewhere to control the Palestinian movement
Relative quiet reigned until the Peel Commission reported in July 1937. It horrified Palestinians. The Zionist movement were to be given 20% of Palestinian land for a Jewish state. This was the area where the Zionists owned most land. It also happened to be the most fertile part of the country. The rest of Mandate Palestine was to be annexed to Transjordan across the river. The British were to keep control of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The report also proposed the transfer of 225,000 Palestinians out of the ‘Jewish’ area to the enlarged Transjordan (and 1,250 Jews into the Jewish area). The transfer proposal was at the suggestion of the Zionist leaders. “I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it”, said Ben-Gurion a year later.
The Zionists were divided. The Revisionists rejected the Peel Commission proposals out of hand as did some Labour Zionists. The majority accepted them, under the influence of Ben Gurion: they were a basis for negotiation. But Pandora’s Box had been opened. Partition and ethnic cleansing were now on the agenda.
The Arab Higher Committee rejected the Peel plan. What right did the British have to give away any Palestinian territory to foreign settlers? The revolt reignited in September. At the end of the month the Arab Higher Committee was made illegal. Many of its members fled the country. The Grand Mufti went to Lebanon, eventually ending up in Nazi Germany. He then became a propaganda tool for Nazi Barbarism. His anti-Zionism became anti-Semitism. Of course the Zionists continue to make great play of Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Third Reich, notwithstanding the fact that the Zionists had made the Haavara agreement with Nazi Germany during the 1930s as described in my previous piece.
For a balanced and perceptive account of the Grand Mufti’s role it is worth looking at Gilbert Achar’s ‘The Arabs and the Holocaust’.
The second revolt reached its peak in the summer and autumn of 1938. At its height there were seven and a half thousand guerrilla fighters. But as the struggle continued, the political struggle took on a social character. This frightened the nationalist leadership of the a’yan. The rural rebels now called for a cancellation of debts that the peasants owed to the rich Arab landowners. They warned debt collectors and land agents not to visit the villages. The landlord class were horrified. Thousands of wealthy Palestinians abandoned their homes and fled to other safer Arab countries.
The causes of defeat
But by the summer of 1939 the British had crushed the uprising. The infamous Munich agreement, between Nazi Germany and Britain was signed on the 30th September 1938. More Imperial troops were now available to send to Palestine to put down the rebels. By 1939 the authorities had 30,000 trained soldiers fighting the insurgents. The RAF bombed Palestinian villages. A policy of collective punishment was implemented. If one member of a village was involved in armed rebellion the whole community was punished. The Israelis of course, continue this vicious policy.
Throughout the rebellion the settler community, the Yishuv collaborated with the British. The Mandate authorities formed the Jewish Settlement police. By 1939, one in twenty of the settler community was a member, some 21,000 people in all. Orde Wingate, a British officer, organised a counter-insurgency force of Jewish fighters, the Special Night Squads. They terrorised villagers and guarded the oil pipeline. Internally the Yishuv expanded the Haganah, secretly imported arms and set up factories to manufacture weapons.
The revisionist militia, the Irgun, began a terrorist campaign in May 1938. They threw bombs into crowded Palestinian market places or left them hidden in carts. Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa were all targeted. Some estimates suggested that up to 250 Palestinians were killed in these barbaric attacks. When Zionists talk about Palestinian suicide bombers, it is worth remembering who began bombing civilians in Palestine.
During the General Strike, Jewish workers scabbed, replacing Palestinians on the docks, the railways and elsewhere. With the Arab economy paralysed, the Zionist one grew supplying the British administration and the huge military presence.
In contrast the Palestinians found it difficult to unite, despite the fact that the differences between Muslims and Christians counted for little. All agreed that the settlers had to be stopped from creating a state in which the Arabs would be forced to choose between a position of inferiority or exile. But family and clan often divided rural Palestinian rebels. Such loyalties prevented coordination of strategy or unity of purpose. At the same time division at the top of Palestinian society between the two leading families, the Nashashibis and the Husseinis further undermined the movement. The Nashashibis opposed the rebellion after the Peel report as it threatened their interests. The Husseinis continued to support the rebellion but used it opportunistically to advance their position at the expense of the Nashashibis.
With the rebellion crushed, another British Royal Commission report was issued in 1939. The uprising had achieved something. The British now agreed to reduce Zionist immigration and limit land purchases by the settlers. Partition was ruled out permanently. Independence with majority rule was promised within ten years. The Zionists were furious but the Arab Higher Committee also rejected it on the grounds that some parts of the white paper were too ambiguous. This was perhaps a tactical blunder. Nevertheless given future developments I am sceptical that it would have changed the course of the conflict.
There were up to 6,000 Palestinians killed in the uprising, and 6,000 more in detention. 2,000 homes had been destroyed. The British hanged 100. The Palestinians had suffered an enormous defeat, any leadership they had was dead, in exile or driven out of politics. They could no longer play an independent role. In future they became disastrously dependent on other Arab states for leadership. They still had not recovered from the defeat when the crisis of 1948 hit. It wasn’t until the 1960s that an independent Palestinian leadership was to re-emerge with Yasser Arafat and El Fatah.
Nevertheless the uprising had seriously threatened British rule, and mobilised ordinary Palestinians in a way never seen before. The alternative to rebellion would have been acquiescence in the face of the Zionist colonisation. The uprising still inspires Palestinians today.
The next piece will look at World War Two, its aftermath and the Nakba.
Neil’s previous pieces can be found here:
Part one of Neil’s series, The Origins of the Zionism, is here.
Part two, Palestine, the Great War and imperialism, is here.
Part three, The origins of the Iron Wall: Zionist settlers during the mandate is here.