Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

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

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part V: The Arab Uprising 1936-1939

The dilemma was clear. In the early thirties, in part as a result of Arab mobs attacking Jewish civilians, Jewish migration to Palestine had declined severely. The immigration numbers in 1929 were 5,249, in 1930, 4,944, and, in 1931, 4,075. In three years, approximately the same number of Jews moved to Palestine as in the year 1926, 40% of the number over three years as in the single year of 1925. However, with the increasing persecution in Europe even before the Nazis came to power, and with the closure of other opportunities of countries to which they could flee, Palestine became the only realistic opportunity for Jews who were prescient enough to see what was coming in Europe and chose to migrate to Palestine.

The following were the migration figures:

Year off MigrationNumber of Jews Migrating to Palestine

1936 was the year the Arab revolt began. For the Jewish population had grown from 6% to 10% to 18% and by 1936, 28%of the population of Palestine was Jewish. By 1939, that percentage grew by 16% and amounted to 30% of the entire population. The writing was on the wall. Arabs still constituted the majority. But their increase depended overwhelmingly on natural increase. (See the Simpson Enquiry and the Passfield White Paper of 1930.) Relatively small numbers of Arabs then migrated to Palestine. Arabs would in the foreseeable future be a minority in what they regarded as their own homeland. Further, given the League of Nations Mandate, the Jews were promised an eventual national home, not the Arabs.

The pinnacle of the conflict, arrived in 1935 when, “as a result of Nazi persecution and the closure of Western borders to Jewish immigration, more than sixty thousand Jewish skilled and educated immigrants with capital came to Palestine in 1935 alone.” This was more than the whole of the Arab migration to Palestine between 1919 and 1939 that totaled 50,000. At the same time, it took the PLO until the seventies and eighties to acquire the same proto-state status in the United Nations that the Jewish Agency had acquired in the twenties and thirties. The Arab Palestinians were faced with a severe disadvantage in the migration trends and their relative political status.

Even during the Arab Uprising in Palestine between 1936 and 1939, Jewish migration into Palestine that had gone down in 1936 by half, far exceeded Arab in-migration. As well, though relatively small, the expulsion of illegal migration of Arabs far exceeded that of the Jews.

Palestinian immigration 1936-1939


Expulsions of illegals, 1937-1938

JewsArabs (et al.)

By 1936, in anticipation of a need for Arab support in a possible approaching European war, with the Peel Commission in 1936-7 and even more with the 1938 Woodhead Commission, Britain began to backtrack seriously on its international legal obligations to the Jews, narrowing the land targeted as a Jewish homeland, placing obstacles in the way of land purchases and introducing restrictions on Jewish immigration. By 1939, 31% of the population was Jewish according to Khalidi (my estimate is 30%). However, Zionism could no longer be described as having even the half-hearted support of Britain and the new rising power, the United States, had not yet displaced Britain as the imperial power supporting the Zionists.

What happened between 1936 and 1939 that put the Arabs in Palestinians at an even greater disadvantage after the war than they had been in 1936?

First, they were at a moral disadvantage. Arabs had elsewhere to go and could move easily. Jews could not. Their outlets were blocked across the globe and the pressures on them to flee were rapidly increasing in both force and frequency. Second, in an enlightened resettlement country, it should not have mattered whether the in-migration was Chinese or African, Jewish or Yazidis. If, for example, the pressure on the Chinese on Hong Kong by Beijing in the current era became extreme and half the population of Hong Kong sought asylum in Canada, that is almost four million people, the intake of an additional 10% of the population of Canada, and four times the number of ethnic Chinese than those already living in Canada, would have certainly shifted the face of Canada – about 15% of Canada would be ethnic Chinese – that would not basically matter.

Except, and this is a big except, the ethnic Chinese do not speak French. They would overwhelmingly migrate to English-speaking Canada. The Quebecois as a nation would decline from 18% of the Canadian population to 16%. Quebecois would still make up 75% of the population of Quebec, but their political clout and control over their national determination would inherently decline. This is merely an illustration to indicate that when there is a clash between a nation that feels under siege and an expanding population that does not share the national identification of the indigenous population, clashes are certainly possible. They are certainly more likely when the national identification of the Arabs excludes the inclusion of Jews from Europe.

The clashes are inevitable when the incoming ethnic group insists it is returning to its ancient homeland and wishes to establish its own nation-state in Palestine. When that vision is backed by the primary international organization at the time, the clash becomes not only inevitable, but a matter of great urgency. Thus, there should be no surprise that the Arab revolt against the British in Palestine broke out in 1936.

The Uprising or the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936 demanded immediate Palestinian independence and an end to Jewish migration into Palestine and land purchases in the country. Of course, the stated goal of the in-migrants of an independent national home was anathema. A trigger was the killing by the British of Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam in 1935. He had organized the terrorist anti-Zionist Black Hand that targeted railway lines and uprooted trees planted by Jewish settlers. What became a standard over the next eighty-five years, a massive funeral procession in Haifa for al-Qassam, was used both to heighten and advertise Arab opposition to both the British Mandate and not only the preference given to the Zionists but their very being in Palestine.

The Zionists saw the writing on the wall. They could no longer look forward to establishing their state by peaceful means. They began to prepare for an anticipated armed struggle. The British intercepted a huge shipment of arms destined for the Haganah in October 1935. On 16 May 1936, precisely twelve years before the Jewish state would declare its independence as Israel, Hajj Amin al-Husseini called a General Strike in Palestine. It lasted approximately five months.

The strike was accompanied by tit for tat killing of Jews and Palestinians, beginning with the murder of Israel Khazan and Zvi Dannenburg, two Jewish drivers. The Irgun killed two Palestinians in retaliation.

In this first phase of the uprising, the hastily organized Higher Arab Committee (HAC) was in charge and utilized strikes and other forms of “non-violent” protest. However, by October, the revolt had been suppressed by the threat of the imposition of martial law combined with the enlistment of international players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the side of Britain. Further, Britain acceded to the demand of the HAC to establish a commission to look into the issues of Jewish immigration, Jewish land purchases and self-determination.

However, the street, led by Palestinian displaced peasants, ignored the leadership of the HAC; the legions of unemployed resorted to violence and attacked British forces in Palestine. The Nashashabi clan, once accused by Husseini of collaboration with the Zionists, now adopted violent means and offered leadership to the uprising. Britain responded with force and set out to repress the revolt.  

Over 2,000 Arabs were killed. 108 were hanged according to the British. But almost another 1,000 killed were blamed on inter-Arab factionalism. Walid Khalidi considered these figures to be gross underestimates. There had been almost 20,000 casualties, one quarter killed, of which total, three-quarters had been killed by the British. 10% of the Arab adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled. That is an estimated 20,000 adult males. At most, 200 Jews died, but that understates the effect on the Jewish population of the Yishuv. For thousands of dunams of farmland were destroyed. The terrorism petrified the Jewish population of Palestine as they were the civilians targeted.

As alluded to previously, the roots of the conflict lay not just in a struggle between two nationalisms and over immigration, but over Jewish land purchases and the displacement of Arab peasants and fellahin. Between Jewish land purchases that converted farming land to cooperative and communal farms, and pro-Jewish labour policies was added the additional effect of farm efficiencies of Jewish farming that required far less labour to produce profitable crops.  The revolt was as much driven by this unemployed population as by national sentiments and concerns with self-determination, particularly in an environment in which most Arabs blamed Jews as the primary source of their economic woes. Add to that the fact that significant numbers of political organizations had been developed in civil society to lead the revolt. The political achievements of movements in neighbouring states offered examples of resistance that had achieved some degree of success in enhancing Arab self-determination.

The Peel Commission to look into the causes and impact of the uprising arrived in Palestine on 11 November 1936. The members immediately concluded that the revolt was very broad-based. Arab civil servants throughout the land had been sympathetic. The cost of suppression had been very high and the Commission looked for an escape for Britain. It proposed partition, a narrow strip of land along the coast where most Jewish property was located would be allocated for the Zionists. The balance would be slotted for linkage to Transjordan. There would also remain a British-run enclave, a residual Mandate running from Jerusalem to Jaffa.

The Brits had abandoned the Balfour Declaration. The terms of its Mandate under the League of Nations were now generally viewed as internationally irrelevant. The proposal for partition, however, was rejected outrighted by both the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish community. Inspired by the idea of Arab transfers from the Yishuv to the balance of territory slotted for Transjordan (an estimated 225,000), both Ben Gurion and Weizmann recommended acceptance of the offer to the Zionist Congress.

The British government created the Woodward Commission to deal with implementation. That Commission recommended that a larger swath of territory be retained by Britain, that the extent of the territory allocated to the Jews be further reduced, and that Jewish immigration be significantly reduced. Both Ben Gurion and Weizmann felt that they had been double-crossed by the British. And the Arabs remained unbent. They insisted that all the land be made part of that assigned to the Arabs and that it be independent of Transjordan. In 1937, the Irgun took the offensive against the British which was now faced with a revolt from two different sides.

Partial martial law was introduced throughout Palestine and the revolts were largely quelled given Britain’s enormous superiority in arms and military personnel. Terrorism, however, became widespread with widespread sabotage, bombs, raids on military installations and almost one thousand murdered and over 300 abducted. Britain resorted to a practice still in use in Israel – punishment of the family of a terrorist by destroying the family’s property. In addition to the practice of collective punishment, there were documented massacres and extra-judicial killings. Laws of just war were routinely ignored as hey had been in Ireland and as was the case in India.

While Britain was increasingly backing away from the terms of the Balfour Declaration, the government was allying with and arming the Haganah to provide support for repressing the insurgency. The Jewish military under the control of Labour Zionist gained a great deal of military training in this exchange.

Further, in the tale that Khalidi tells of the 1936-1939 period, rather than Britain reversing positions in dealing with the Jews, which Khalidi acknowledged, he stressed the very brutal suppression and eventual defeat of the Palestinian uprising by the British while the Yishuv, the organized Jewish society in Palestine, went from strength to strength obtaining positions in government as well as military training and arms. Further, besides the British, the Zionists had the legal legitimacy of the League of Nations at its back.

In contrast, the Palestinians through the savage British repression, the death and exile of so many leaders, the loss of so much manpower in the period 1936-1939, and the deep divisions within Palestinian society – supporters of Abdullah and becoming part of Transjordan, the extremist followers of the Mufti, the more compromising Palestinian nationalists – were irretrievably weakened and in no position to take on the Zionists after the war. Further, given their conviction that the British were hypocritical, haughty and duplicitous, the Palestinians were in no position to take advantage of the British shift in policy abandoning support for the Zionist cause, even though world politics had very much strengthened the need for Britain to appease the Arab Palestinians. As Khalidi described the situation, Palestinian nationalism was apparently betrayed many times, mostly by Arab countries, but also by the Palestinian movement itself. 


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