Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years of War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part IV: Arab Revolts 1921 to 1929

You can’t foresee what will happen over the next century. But you can peak around the corner. If the most powerful empires in the world back Jewish immigration to Palestine, if they back Jews developing a national home in your national home, the reality of the latter will shrink and the possibility of your own state will recede. You do not have to be a prophet to grasp that. However, currently numbers are on your side. There is time to resist. There is time to fight back – diplomatically and physically.

That fighting began in 1921. High level international diplomacy was one thing. Events on the ground were another. The 1921 Arab revolt or Jaffa riots in Palestine began with a Jewish communist anti-imperialist march and protest on May Day against the British. The goal was establishing a Jewish commune on the model of the Soviet ones. A rival, Ahdut HaAvoda, the arm of the Jewish socialist movement in Palestine, began a competing parade. The two forces clashed. The melee spread to the local population.

Arabs attacked an immigration absorption centre in Jaffa and began attacking both sets of Jews. The Arabs feared that they were the object of the Jewish demonstrators. 47 Jews and 48 Arabs died. 146 Jews and 73 Arabs were wounded. The Arab casualties were a result of British arms and the attempt to protect Jews. The Jews were harmed and killed by Arab rioters. A pioneer of modern Hebrew literature, Yosef Haim Brenner, was among the dead.

The Haycraft Commission (Sir Thomas Haycraft was the chief justice of Palestine) was set up by High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel who had drawn up the pro-Zionist document, The Future of Palestine for the British cabinet in 1916. The Commission blamed the Arabs for both their anti-Zionist attitudes and their anti-British claims that the Brits favoured the Zionists. However, the Commission pointed out that the underlying cause of the Jaffa riots was Arab “hostility to Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration.” Zionists had exacerbated the problem with their insensitivity to Arab concerns.

Samuel responded to the Haycraft Report first by suspending Jewish immigration in mid-May and then in June restricting it in accordance with absorptive capacity and the degree of contribution to the economic well-being of the Arabs. If that was not enough to set off a firestorm of protests from the Zionists, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had been appointed Mufti by Sir Herbert Samuel while only in his late twenties as the youngest ever Mufti of Jerusalem, emerged as one of the leaders of the 1920 Arab riots. He was accused of inciting the masses to murder Jews and loot their homes. He, in turn, accused the rival Palestinian elite, the Nashashibis, of being Zionist collaborators. Nevertheless, he was named by Samuel as President of the newly constituted Supreme Muslim Council.

While Zionists accused Samuel of being an appeaser, Khalidi characterized him very differently. “Sir Herbert Samuel, a committed Zionist and former cabinet minister… laid the governmental foundations for much of what followed, and…ably advanced Zionist aims while foiling those of Palestinians.” To be a middleman between two intractable sides meant only earning the contempt and insults of both.

The Arab community in August 1921 travelled to London to protest directly and insist the Balfour Declaration be withdrawn. The next year, they submitted a petition to the League of Nations demanding an independent and democratic state. However, under the terms of the Paris and San Remo Conferences, on 24 June 1922 the League of Nations made the UK the mandatory power over Palestine. Consistent with the Balfour Declaration that had been endorsed by the League, the creation of a National Home for the Jewish people was approved. Clearly, the support of an imperial power had been sought by the Zionists and was critical to the Zionist success just as when the territory was still under the control of the Ottomans, ben Gurion had sought Turkish support for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

However, Khalidi claims, correctly in my reading, that the League of Nations went even much further than the Balfour Declaration in advancing the proposition of Palestine as an exclusive national homeland for the Jews which was being “reconstituted.” Arabs only enjoyed civil and religious rights. “The Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, are described as having an historical connection to Palestine…The surest way to eradicate a people’s right to their land is to deny their historical connection to it.”

Seven Palestine Arab congresses planned by a country-wide network of Muslim-Christian societies were held from 1919 until 1928. “These congresses put forward a consistent series of demands focused on independence for Arab Palestine, rejection of the Balfour Declaration, support for majority rule, and ending unlimited Jewish immigration and land purchases.”

The British had tried to appease the Arabs by proposing a local legislative council for Palestine consisting of ten British appointees and fifteen elected local representatives, only three of whom would be Jewish. The proposal was rejected out of hand by the Arabs, thereby alleviating the need for the Zionists to do so. I found no reference to this offer in Khalidi. Instead, Khalidi wrote that, “Any later concessions offered on matters of representation, such as a British proposal for an Arab Agency, were conditional on equal representation for the tiny minority and the large majority, and on Palestinian acceptance of the terms of the Mandate, which explicitly nullified their existence.” In spite of Samuel’s convoluted efforts to assuage Arab fears of Jewish immigration and the goals of the Balfour Declaration, Arab opposition to British rule only increased. For a British White Paper confirmed that Jews were in Palestine “as of right and not on sufferance.”

That was a cross that the Palestinians refused to carry.

By the time the League of Nations endorsed the Zionist objective of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine in 1922, the ratio of Jews had remained relatively constant. Other than diplomacy, no significant support on the ground came from Britain in support of Jewish resettlement up until that time. Ye throughout the twenties, Palestinian Arabs, as I quoted above, “focused on independence for Arab Palestine, rejection of the Balfour Declaration, support for majority rule, and ending unlimited Jewish immigration and land purchases.” Khalidi declared that, “The Palestinian leadership pursued this fruitless legalistic approach for over a decade and a half.” The people, as distinct from the elites, wanted Palestinian independence in the competition among Arab nationalism, Palestinian nationalism and local loyalties.

As for the Jews, during the twenties they continued buying up large swaths of land, much of it from absentee landlords, but many smaller parcels from Arabs eager to cash in on the inflated prices. The Zionist settlement enterprise was also supported by foreign Jewish capital. Perhaps its greatest success was the purchase of the swamps in the Jezreel Valley so that by 1925 there were 20 highly productive collective and cooperative farms in the Emek Valley.

However, the total amount of land accumulated by 1927 only amounted to 865,000 dunams or about 3.3% of the total land area of Palestine. Many of the purchases did harm the Palestinians where fedayeen were forced off the land when the absentee landlords sold out their stakes. Political and economic support from abroad was critical to the Zionist advance; in many cases, local Arabs suffered as a consequence. The Balfour Declaration was crucial to that success because Article 4 gave the Jewish Agency quasi-governmental status with wide-ranging economic and social development powers.

Though maximalist Zionists insisted that their Palestine included the land east of the Jordan to the Iraqi border, the Zionist Organization had submitted a map to the Paris Peace Conference based on King David’s kingdom that included Gaza in the south just past Rafah and went north along the coast to just north of Sidon. The map included the Golan, embraced Quneitra and ran south just west of Amman down to Aqaba. Thus, not only was the whole of the West Bank included in the envisioned national home, so was a good part of Jordan west of the Hejaz Railway that connected Maan in the south to Damascus in the north. There were already a few settlements east of the Jordan River. Further, the mandate granted to Britain in San Remo included Transjordan. Jewish ambitions rather than acquisitions frightened the Arabs.

However, Britain was an imperial power both for Arabs and Jews and drew the line between the national home for the Jewish people and the national home for Arabs in the mandate territory to run along the Jordan River. In April/May1923, a degree of independence was granted to Transjordan. Abdullah, the elder son of Hussein bin Ali, the leader of Britain’s Arab allies, was appointed as the monarch. However, Britain as an imperial power retained foreign affairs and defence as British portfolios. The Revisionist Zionists strenuously objected.

Revisionist Arab protests and counter-protests flared up and open gang conflicts erupted. The fighting that broke out in Jaffa described previously was followed by Arab attacks on Jews in Rehovot, Petah Tikvah and other Jewish towns. Like conflicts everywhere, each side had its extremists, its moderates and its bleeding hearts. Ahad Ha’am, the leader of Cultural Zionism, belonged to the last group and always pressed Jewish leaders to get inside the hearts and minds of the Arabs. Weizmann was a moderate while Ben Gurion was the greater “realist.” At the Paris Peace Conference, Weizmann had insensitively put his foot in his mouth when he opined that one day, Palestine would be as Jewish as England is English.

Across the spectrum, most Arabs pissed off the Jews and most Jews, including statesmen like Weizmann, aroused the ire of the Arabs. Revisionists did not mind ignoring and even stomping all over Arab dreams and demands. And if one looked on, it is hard to envision an escape from the zero-sum game underway. For as soon as Zionists accepted the legitimacy of Palestinian self-determination and desire to have a state where they were the clear majority, Jewish aspirations to return to their ancient homeland as a nation had to be pushed aside. As soon as Arab leaders accepted the need for Jews to have a place to go to escape persecution and no one would have them, then they too had to envision the creation of a Jewish state where the Arabs would be reduced to a minority without any national existence in their own land. The political benefits of the impasse on the Arab side went to those willing and eager to confront the other. On the Zionist side, the moderates and realists retained the leadership.

There was a fundamental difference between the two sides, as Khalidi recognized. The Zionists of all stripes were reformers and modernizers. The families that held political power in Arab society were traditionalists and believers in hierarchy. They were not liberals in either the twentieth or the nineteenth century version of that perspective. They could not envision an aristocratic empire supporting a ragtag group of Jews creating a national home in Palestine. They did not understand empires or their use of satraps. The Jews did and manipulated the great powers as much as they were used by them. This meant that the Arabs, in spite of their huge superiority in numbers, were at a severe political and international disadvantage.

But the Arabs could protest. They could fight. And fight they did. Khalidi contends that this was NOT a contest between two rights, as Weizmann claimed, but between one right – that of the Palestinians – and one wrong, that of the wish of the Jews to exercise self-determination in a place where there already was a people seeking self-determination. And that effort was backed, was aided, was advanced by the most powerful empires of the time.  

Between 1924 and 1926, 62,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine, an unprecedented number until 1932. Jews made up 18% of the country in 1926. However, land purchases by Jews and immigration were not the only irritants to the Arabs. Jewish labour practices in giving preference to Jewish labour (what Khalidi referred to as “an increasingly self-segregated Jewish economy during the 1920s”) exacerbated the differences. Displaced Arab agricultural workers added to the urban Arab unemployed.

The rage had almost a decade to build up. And when it exploded in 1929, the riots were unprecedented in Palestine in their ferocity, their scope, their duration and their damage to life and property. Disputes over Jewish access to the Western Wall resulted in small skirmishes in 1925 and 1928. Triggered by the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al Husseini’s incendiary propaganda, which charged the Jews with planning to seize the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Muslims feared Jewish encroachment. Jews insisted on their rights. The Grand Mufti harassed Jews at prayer with mules depositing excrement on the plaza and assigned a muezzin to blast a call for prayer to time with the most sensitive parts of the Jewish prayers. Jews insisted that the Wall was Jewish property; some went so far as promoting the building of a third temple on the Temple Mount.

In mid-August of 1929, many carrying staves for protection and led by Revisionists, Jews demonstrated at the Wailing Wall. Arab mobs attacked both Jews and their property in the Old City. From 23-29 August, 133 Jews were killed; over 200 were injured. 116 Arabs were killed; over 200 were also injured, but by British police and Jews appointed as special constables trying to protect other Jews from the rioters. In the opinion of the Shaw Commission of Inquiry, “disturbances either would not have occurred or would have been little more than a local riot” except that Arab “animosity and hostility towards the Jews” grew and magnified “consequent upon the disappointment of their [Arab] political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future.” Jewish immigrants were regarded as not only “a menace to their [Arab] livelihood but as a possible overlord of the future.”


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