The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) was the leading political body opposed to the creation of Israel. Did the AHC, like Abbas, oppose the creation of Israel because Israel was viewed as an outpost of Western imperialism? Did the AHC regard the Holocaust as a product of Jewish perfidy? Finally, did the AHC believe that the West in general, and European countries in particular, were driven by guilt over the Holocaust and, therefore, supported the creation of Israel? The answer to all three questions is, “No!”
The AHC was formed on 25 April 1936 in Palestine to lead a general strike against Britain to oppose any Jewish immigration to Palestine and any sale of land to Jews. The AHC was chaired by Supreme Muslim Council President HajQassemj Amin al-Husayni who had allegedly been a leader of the 1920 Nebi Musa riots against both British rule and Zionism. It was not clear what precise role Husayni played in the 1920 riots. The result of the four days of rioting – 5 Jews and 4 Arabs dead, 211 Jews wounded versus 33 Arabs wounded. Later that year, Husayni was pardoned by Britain for his conviction of leading the revolt and allowed to return to Jerusalem in 1920 where he succeeded his brother as head of the Supreme Muslim Council in 1922.
The evidence for his role in the 1929 riots when 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were left dead and 339 Jews and 232 Arabs had been wounded was also mixed, for he continued to lead the British to believe that he was “devoted to maintaining tranquility in Jerusalem,” a pledge that had facilitated his appointment as Mufti in 1922. However, by 1929 he had become the de facto political leader of the Arab Muslims in Palestine. At the time he was evidently still open to Jewish proportional representation (17%) in an independent Palestine. But he remained adamantly opposed to immigration and land purchases by Jews.
The AHC was not an unrepresentative body since it included the heads of all six Arab Muslim political parties (Palestine Arab, National Defense, Istiqlal – the much more radical Independence Party, Reform, the National Bloc and the Youth Congress) as well as two token Christian Arabs. Further, between 1921 and 1935, Husayni remained allied with British politicians, diplomats and defence officials who opposed the implementation of the Balfour Declaration as inimical to British interests or who simply felt that Husayni would be useful to the British military in return for maintaining peace among the Arabs of Palestine. Some, erroneously, and in spite of his rhetoric, convinced themselves that eventually Husayni would reconcile himself to the use of Palestine as a Jewish homeland.
Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (after whom the radical Al-Qassam brigades are named) had been a more militant leader than Husayni in the 1920s. In 1935, however, in a shoot-out with the British, he was killed and was subsequently revered as a martyr of the Palestinian cause ever since. The wave of grief and rage set off by his death throughout Palestine had a profound effect on Husayni, who soon thereafter became convinced that he had to lead the revolt and not serve as an emissary between the Palestinians and the British.
The AHC only gave up the general strike in 1936 just over six months later because of pressure from the Arab population in Palestine who turned out to be the major victims of that strike. 187 Muslim civilians, as well as 80 Jews and 10 Christians, had been killed. Husayni had opposed religious partition in Jerusalem and would not even accede to Jewish access to the Western Wall. But the main driver of his opposition was not religion, but immigration of Jews to Palestine. By 1935 the percentage of the Jewish population in Palestine had risen to 30%. Jewish immigration increased as follows:
The AHC was seen as presenting the main Palestinian position when it appeared before the Peel Commission in 1937 and when it rejected the Commission’s support of limited Jewish immigration and partition. The AHC wanted zero Jewish immigration. Further, the AHC believed that the Jews in Palestine should have no future role in governance in a post-colonial Palestinian world, though it then insisted that Jewish civil rights would be protected. Given that the AHC was not only opposed to British policy, but was a subversive organization that was responsible for killing a British official, the District Commissioner for the Galilee, the leadership was banned and sent into exile or, like Husayni, who had assumed active leadership of the militant rebellion, fled abroad.
According to Philip Matar (“The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Politics of Palestine,” Middle East Journal, 42:2, 1988), “Husayni’s career went through two distinct phases: the Palestine phase, between 1917 and 1936, when he was a cautious, pragmatic, traditional leader who cooperated with British officials while opposing Zionism; and the exile phase, after 1936, characterized by bitterness, inflexibility, and political alliances of dubious value or wisdom.”
The AHC had not argued that the Jews were an outpost of British imperialism for the Jews were also opposed to continuing British rule. The AHC was adamantly opposed to Jewish immigration, any Jewish immigration, and to any land sales to Jews. Further, the British indulged the AHC even though the latter had led the revolt between 1936-1939 that could be considered the first al-Nahba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians. 3,074 Palestinians had been killed. 112 were hung. 6,000 were put in prison. Nevertheless, the British allowed AHC representatives in exile to participate in the London Conference in 1939, a conference held largely to try to prevent Arab opposition to Britain in the anticipated war with Germany. Only 75,000 Jews would be allowed to migrate to Palestine over the next five years. Land sales to Jews would be limited. There would be a move to self-rule over 10 years. Palestinians would then dominate since they constituted two-thirds of the population. Nevertheless, the AHC rejected the White Paper that was produced. It was one of many no’s over the period of conflict in Palestine.
In the report of the Permanent Mandate Commission to the Council of the League, the Commission unanimously stated that, “the policy set out in the White Paper was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the Mandatory Power and the Council, the Commission had placed upon the Palestine Mandate.” However, with the outbreak of the war, the League of Nations effectively became defunct and Britain and its Arab quasi-allies were totally free to severely restrict Jewish entry into Palestine.
The AHC’s view of the Jews as perfidious arose only when Husayni made common cause with the Nazis during WWII because, unlike Britain, Germany had not colonized Palestine. Husayni sought and won German support for Arab independence and convinced the Germans not to export Jews from Europe to Palestine. Bibi Netanyahu, in October 2015, suggested that the whole idea of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was originally a Husayni idea pressed upon the Nazis and that it was al-Husayni who inspired Hitler to embark on a program of genocide to prevent them from coming to Palestine. A colleague of Eichmann, Dieter Wisliceny, had claimed that the Grand Mufti “played a role in the decision of the German Government to exterminate the European Jews.” But there is no evidence to back up even Wisliceny’s much more modest claim. Netanyahu, however, was correct that Husayni was not just an Arab nationalist but had become by then an out-and-out antisemite. Nevertheless, Husayni was not even Hitler’s henchman as the American Jewish Congress declared when it worked to drum up support for a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine.
Historical evidence does support the thesis that Husayni was fully aware of the Nazi Jewish extermination project by the summer of 1943. After the war, he never denied the Holocaust. His main objective was to ensure that Germany did not use Palestine as a dumping ground for its unwanted Jews. He soon adopted the Nazi example and openly declared that Muslims follow the German policy of providing a “definitive solution to the Jewish problem.” That definitive solution was ethnic cleansing, not genocide. In November 1943, the Mufti declared that, “It is the duty of Muhammadans [Muslims] in general and Arabs in particular to … drive all Jews from Arab and Muhammadan countries.”
For Husayni, the Jews represented a scourge and danger for the whole world. Nevertheless, in spite of all the evidence of Husayni’s antisemitism and his support for a “final solution,” there is no evidence that he was actively involved in any way in Jewish extermination. His main efforts concentrated on preventing countries from sending their unwanted Jews to Palestine, including opposing the Kinder Transport of 4,000 Jewish children or the Hungarian Jews to Palestine.
In sum, though not directly responsible for any Jewish extermination, he was indirectly complicit in opposing Jewish immigration for any reason. He did participate not only in Palestinian propaganda efforts against the British and even subversive actions behind British lines. However, it has to be said that Britain had been far more successful in recruiting Arabs from Palestine for its cause than the miniscule force that the Mufti raised. Further, in addition to Husayni’s antisemitism and absolutist opposition to Jewish immigration, he was convinced that the Jewish settlements in Palestine represented, not an outpost of British imperialism, but an advance guard of Bolshevism which he contended to be as inimical to Islam as the Jews. Jews were not outposts of imperialism, but the manipulators behind the Bolshevik revolution.
However, the main story of our concern takes place after the end of WWII. Husayni was never put on trial as a Nazi collaborator or propagandist; the French refused to comply with British requests for his extradition. Though he was arrested and placed under house arrest at Konstanz by the French occupying troops in May 1945 and subsequently transferred to Paris, the French gave him special status with the intention of using him for their traditional rivalry with the British in the Middle East and advancing their own policies in Syria and North Africa. Husayni had a car and enjoyed limited freedom of movement and unfettered freedom of association. The French also refused to extradite him to Yugoslavia for his part in the massacre of Serbs or to Greece for his alleged involvement in massacres there.
Even the Jewish leadership, which had decided to assassinate him, drew back under instructions from Moshe Sharett and David ben Gurion because they had decided that he was now relatively impotent and they did not want to raise his profile to martyr status. In the interim, Husayni was hustled abroad by France for sanctuary in Cairo. At the height of the UNSCOP hearings and investigation in August 1947, which the AHC boycotted, Husayni wrote French foreign minister George Bidault to thank France for its help and to offer cooperation, or, at the very least neutrality, in North African Arab opposition to the French in return for opposing the efforts of the Zionists in Palestine.
In short, Husayni was himself in the palms of French imperial interests, as he much earlier had been partners with the British. He supported the Holocaust and never let up on his absolute opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine, let alone supporting any degree of self-government for Jews there. Although he organized the boycott of UNSCOP, he was no longer the sole or leading voice. The Arab League tried to sideline him after first failing in an effort to collaborate with him. But Husayni turned the tables on them and ended up taking full control of the Arab Palestine opposition to UNSCOP.
However, the Arabs were united in fighting to make the objectives of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) repatriation and not resettlement of the Jewish refugees. To some degree they were successful. The Jewish refugees were classified as D.P.’s whom the IRO was mandated “to encourage and assist in every possible way…the early return to their countries of origin.” The Arab League, led by Egypt, tried to make repatriation the goal for both refugees and D.P.s. Though supported by the U.K., they failed. But they also failed with the D.P.s who refused to cooperate and would not return. Further, Dr. Malik of Lebanon attempted to place restrictions on where refugees could be resettled and to put in place a restriction that they could not be placed where the refugees “will create political difficulties in the countries of resettlement or in neighbouring countries.” Consent would be required of those countries. These efforts were defeated. However, a compromise condition was put in place. The IRO, in considering resettlement, had to take into account “evidence of genuine apprehension and concern…by the indigenous (my italics) population of the non-self-governing country in question.” However, in law, Palestine as a Class “A” Mandate was not defined as a non-self-governing territory.
On the other hand, during UNSCOP, Frida Kerchwey prepared a 9-page pamphlet for UNSCOP, entitled The Arab Higher Committee, Its Origins, Personnel and Purposes that was acknowledged as influencing the thinking of at least some members of UNSCOP. However, it was not guilt over the Holocaust that motivated a negative response to Husayni from members of the committee, but the latter’s treachery during and after the Holocaust. This was in spite of Husayni’s continued popularity among the Arab masses, both in Palestine and across the Arab world. But those masses did not rally around him, let alone serve under him in any significant numbers in his militant opposition to partition of Palestine.
Husayni certainly felt no guilt over the Holocaust. But neither did he believe that Europeans supported the Jews, to the extent that they did, because of the Holocaust. Further, as tensions heightened after the UNGA resolution supporting partition in November 1947, Hussayni was systematically sidelined by the Arab states each of which had their own imperial ambitions with respect to Palestine.
Four days after the Arab League’s 9 February 1948 meeting, when it began its plans for the invasion of Palestine, it rejected Husayni’s requests for enlarging the sphere for Palestinian self-determination in areas occupied by Arab countries let alone creation of a Palestinian Provisional Government. The Arab League rejected his desire to have a representative on the General Staff coordinating the planned war and his requests for interim funding. In reprisal, the Mufti issued arms only to his own solid supporters, a major cause of the military weakness of the Palestinian Arab population.
Other Arab leaders, specifically King Abdullah I of Transjordan, engaged in secret coordination with the Jewish Agency to partition Palestine between the Zionists and Transjordan. Abdullah met with half of the UNSCOP members in Amman and he indicated that Arab countries would be reluctant to support partition, but if partition was recommended, UNSCOP should award control over the West Bank to Transjordan. Egypt countered Abdullah’s moves by trying to set up an All-Palestine government under Cairo’s auspices, with Hussayni as its nominal but powerless head, an effort that quickly proved unsuccessful in spite of support from a number of Arab governments.
Husayni’s now totally radical and extremist antisemitism did not help the Arab cause in spite of his wide mass appeal. None of these different factions suggested that the Europeans or the US supported partition because of guilt over the Holocaust.
On the other hand, some Zionist claims of Husayni’s active involvement in the Holocaust seem to have been clearly false and were “invented” to support Jews and Israel asking for reparations, an effort which in part led to the development of the alleged belief that guilt over the extermination of Jews was responsible for European support.