The Wikipedia entrée on the revolt in its opening paragraph offers a very succinct and accurate portrayal of the revolt. “The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, later known as The Great Revolt (al-Thawra al- Kubra) or The Great Palestinian Revolt (Thawrat Filastin al-Kubra), was a popular nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs in Mandatory Palestine against the British administration of the Palestine Mandate, demanding Arab independence and the end of the policy of open-ended Jewish immigration and land purchases with the stated goal of establishing a ‘Jewish National Home’. The uprising coincided with a peak in the influx of immigrant Jews, some 60,000 that year – the Jewish population having grown under British auspices from 57,000 to 320,000 in 1935 [almost one-third of the total population] – and with the growing plight of the rural fellahin rendered landless, who as they moved to metropolitan centers to escape their violence and abject poverty found themselves socially marginalized.”
Though the revolt was against British rule, it ostensibly began with Arab-Jewish inter-ethnic violence that had evolved into tit-for-tat exchanges. Two Jews were murdered by a Qassimite band[i]; Jews killed two Arab labourers in reprisal. In fact, it began earlier when the Qassemites killed a British police officer and the British hunted down al-Qassam and killed him.
While 15 May 1948 is now commemorated as Nakba Day in remembrance of the 720,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee Palestine in 1948, a day later was the initial commemoration day when Amin al-Husseini, the rabidly anti-Zionist Mufti of Jerusalem, declared that date, Palestine Day, to honour those killed by the British and Zionists during the previous month and back to the riots of 1929. After an initial strike in Nablus, Husseini, on behalf of the Arab High Committee (AHC) called for a general strike that lasted six months. It was called off on 11 October 1936.
Unlike 1933, this time the Palestinian leadership seized control and direction to channel the rage of the bottom-up extreme discontent. Though ended by a combination of repressive tactics and international diplomacy by Britain (enlisting the Saudis and others to pressure the Palestinians to end the strike), the General Strike was simply succeeded by the 1937 rural spontaneous uprising that was also repressed. Between 1936 and 1939, the British hung 108 “revolutionaries” and killed at least 2,000 in direct combat, though Rashid Khalidi estimated more than twice that number were killed and another 1200 died in intercommunal violence which resulted in over 200 Jewish dead. Khalidi also claimed there were 20,000 Arab casualties.[ii] Many of them were killed by Arabs in response to waverers, dissenters and collaborators, usually under orders of the euphemistically labelled “Boycott Committee,” more appropriately titled the Assassination Committee.
The dead and wounded were not the only casualties suffered by Arab Palestinians. They lost much of their leadership through death or exile. Their store of arms was largely confiscated, used or destroyed. The economic cost to the Arab community was enormous, especially in the agricultural sector. Since the Arab community became split between the peace committees and the rebels, the cost to social cohesion in the Arab sector also suffered. However, what ultimately emerged was a more cohesive and consolidated Palestinian national identity with a determination to acquire self-rule.[iii]
The revolt was a very violent one with attacks both on infrastructure (oil pipelines and railway lines) and British police and armed forces. By September, the number of British troops deployed to support the police numbered 20,000. It would eventually grow to 50,000 and include both the Air Force and Navy. Jews were killed in the 1936 strike in attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods in mixed cities (Jews fled Acre and Beisan) as well as Jewish settlements, destroying orchards and farms in adumbration of what Jewish settlers do in the West Bank to Arab farmers over the last three decades.
Brutality was not the exclusive prerogative of Arab Palestinians. The British used extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and blew houses up of the families of militants. Civilians were used as shields by the army. Whole villages, like al-Bassa near Haifa-Acre with almost 600 inhabitants, had their populations forcefully expelled and the villages were burned to the ground. Al-Bassa was rebuilt afterwards, but once again, in 1948, the inhabitants were forcefully expelled, this time by the Hagana, and the village again was almost entirely destroyed.
The Peel Commission was launched by Britain between the General strike of 1936 and the wider uprising of 1937. Governance under the Mandate Authority since the 1920s had been divided between the Jewish Agency and the Supreme Muslim Council. The Peel Commission Report of 7 July 1937 recommended that this de facto partition become a political one with a division of the land between the Jews and Arabs, but with significant parts of the land continuing to be controlled by the British thus setting the basis for the tripartite division recommended in the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) Report in 1947, but with the United Nations replacing the British and the Jewish Zionists allocated an even larger area than the larger option in the Peel Commission Report. Peel had offered two options – a very small Jewish Zionist state and a large Arab one linked to Transjordan (Option 1) and a somewhat larger Jewish one, but requiring the transfer or relocation of 275,000 Arab Palestinians (Option2).
The Arabs adamantly rejected partition altogether as did the Revisionist Zionists.[iv] The Labour Zionists led by Ben Gurion revised its initial rejection to accept the larger plan subject to negotiations on the size and the recommendations to restrict immigration.
The revolt resumed in the autumn of 1937 with the assassination by the Qassemites on 26 September of Lewis Andrews, the pro-Zionist Acting District Commissioner of the Galilee. By 1938, the Irgun Revisionist Zionists initiated militant operations against the Arab Palestinians at the same time as the British introduced de facto military control or military rule over the Mandate and systematically set out to repress the revolt. About half the Arabs who were killed had been attacked by Revisionist Zionists beginning in late 1937. But the violence had become much more widespread with abductions, sniping, murders, bombings, armed robberies and destruction of commercial properties as well as infrastructure.
In 1938, the Woodhead Commission was initiated by the British. Initially, the idea of partition had been accepted in principle, but the Woodhead Commission eventually rejected not only partition but the prospect of a Jewish sovereign state in any part of Palestine. Further, anticipating a possible war with Germany with the necessity of eliminating Arab rage against the British, much more severe restrictions on immigration and land sales were proposed.
One result was Irgun guns turning against the British in 1938 using mines or, more accurately, what became known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), offensive weapons favoured in a guerilla war or insurgency. The beginnings of the Jewish revolt against the British had started even before WWII. For with the British recruitment of about 20,00 Jewish policemen, the building of a nascent arms industry by the Hagana, the consolidation of the Jewish leadership and its increased experience not only in military and political matters but in intelligence gathering as well, the Jews had been given a head-start in preparation for the Jewish-Arab war less than a decade later.
[i] Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian who participated in many revolts across the Arab world and migrated to Palestine after the defeat of the Libyan uprising, became a religious leader and anti-Zionist and anti-British agitator. Tom Segev the Israeli historian dubbed him the Arab Joseph Trumpledor.
[ii] Rashid Khalidi (2007) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood Beacon Press. For an earlier account, see George Antonius (1938; 1945) The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement.
[iii] Oren Kessler (2023) Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict.
[iv] Eric Kaplan (2005) The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy. University of Wisconsin Press.