The First Declaration of War, 1917–1939
There are plenty of cases of war being begun before it is declared.
—Arthur James Balfour1
At the turn of the twentieth century, before Zionist colonization had much appreciable effect on Palestine, new ideas were spreading, modern education and literacy had begun to expand, and the integration of the country’s economy into the global capitalist order was proceeding apace. Production for export of crops like wheat and citrus fruit, capital investment in agriculture, and the introduction of cash crops and wage labor, notable in the rapid spread of orange groves, were changing the face of large sections of the countryside. This evolution went hand in hand with the accumulation of private land ownership by fewer people. Large tracts were coming under the control of absentee landlords—many of whom lived in Beirut or Damascus—at the expense of peasant smallholders. Sanitation, health, and rates of live births were all slowly improving, death rates were in decline, and the population was in consequence increasing more quickly. The telegraph, the steamship, the railway, gaslight, electricity, and modern roads were gradually transforming cities, towns, and even some rural villages. At the same time, travel within the region and beyond was faster, cheaper, safer, and more convenient.2
In the 1860s, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi had to go all the way to Malta and Istanbul to acquire an education along Western lines. By 1914, such an education could be had in a variety of state, private, and missionary schools and colleges in Palestine, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. Modern pedagogy was often introduced by foreign missionary schools, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, as well as by the Jewish schools of the Alliance israélite universelle. Partly out of fear that foreign missionaries in league with their great-power patrons would come to dominate the instruction of the younger generation, the Ottoman authorities established a growing network of state schools, which eventually served more students in Palestine than did foreign schools. Although universal access to education and widespread literacy were still far in the future, the changes leading up to World War I offered new horizons and novel ideas to more and more people.3 The Arab population benefited from these developments.
Socially, Palestine was still heavily rural with a predominantly patriarchal, hierarchical nature, as it largely remained until 1948. It was dominated by narrow urban elites drawn from a few families like my own, who clung to their positions and privileges even as they adapted to new conditions, with younger family members acquiring modern educations and learning foreign languages to maintain their standing and their advantages. These elites controlled the politics of Palestine, although the growth of new professions, trades, and classes meant that in the 1900s there were more avenues of advancement and upward mobility. In the rapidly growing coastal cities of Jaffa and Haifa in particular, change was more visible than in the more conservative inland towns such as Jerusalem, Nablus, and Hebron, as the former witnessed the appearance of a nascent commercial bourgeoisie and an embryonic urban working class.4
At the same time, the sense of identity of large parts of the population was also evolving and shifting. My grandfather’s generation would have identified—and would have been identified—in terms of family, religious affiliation, and city or village of origin. They would have cherished their descent from revered ancestors; they would have been proud speakers of Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, and heirs to Arab culture. They might have felt loyalty to the Ottoman dynasty and state, an allegiance rooted in custom as well as a sense of the Ottoman state as a bulwark defending the lands of the earliest and greatest Muslim empires, lands coveted by Christendom since the Crusades, lands in which the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem were located. That loyalty had begun to weaken in the nineteenth century, however, as the religious foundation of the state was diminished, as Ottoman military defeats and territorial losses mounted, and as the ideas of nationalism evolved and spread.
Greater mobility and access to education accelerated these shifts, and the burgeoning press and availability of printed books also played an important role: thirty-two new newspapers and periodicals were established in Palestine between 1908 and 1914, with even more in the 1920s and 1930s.5 Different forms of identification, such as nationhood, and novel ideas about social organization, including working-class solidarity and the role of women in society, were emerging to challenge previously fixed affiliations. These modes of belonging, whether to a national or class or professional group, were still in formation and involved overlapping ties of loyalty. Yusuf Diya’s 1899 letter to Herzl, for example, evokes religious affiliation, Ottoman loyalty, local pride in Jerusalem, and a clear sense of identification with Palestine.
In this first decade of the twentieth century, a large proportion of the Jews living in Palestine were still culturally quite similar to and lived reasonably comfortably alongside city-dwelling Muslims and Christians. They were mostly ultra-Orthodox and non-Zionist, mizrahi (eastern) or Sephardic (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain), urbanites of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean origin who often spoke Arabic or Turkish, even if only as a second or third language. In spite of marked religious distinctions between them and their neighbors, they were not foreigners, nor were they Europeans or settlers: they were, saw themselves, and were seen as Jews who were part of the indigenous Muslim-majority society.6 Moreover, some young European Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Palestine at this time, including such ardent Zionists as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (one became prime minister and the other the president of Israel), initially sought a measure of integration into the local society. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi even took Ottoman nationality, studied in Istanbul, and learned Arabic and Turkish.
The much more rapid pace of transformation in the advanced countries of Western Europe and North America compared to the rest of the world during the modern industrial era led many outside observers, including some eminent scholars, to mistakenly claim that Middle Eastern societies, including Palestine, were stagnant and unchanging, or even “in decline.”7 We now know from many indices that this was by no means the case: a growing body of solidly grounded historical work based on Ottoman, Palestinian, Israeli, and Western sources completely refutes these false notions.8 However, recent scholarship on Palestine in the years before 1948 goes much further than just dealing with the misconceptions and distortions at the heart of such thinking. Whatever it may have looked like to uninformed outsiders, it is clear that by the first part of the twentieth century there existed in Palestine under Ottoman rule a vibrant Arab society undergoing a series of rapid and accelerating transitions, much like several other Middle Eastern societies around it.9
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MAJOR EXTERNAL SHOCKS have powerful effects on societies, especially on their sense of self. The Ottoman Empire grew increasingly fragile in the early twentieth century, with major territorial losses in the Balkans, Libya, and elsewhere. A long series of wrenching wars and upheavals stretching for nearly a decade started with the Libyan war in 1911–12, followed by the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, and then the extraordinary dislocations of World War I, which led to the empire’s disappearance. The four years of that war brought severe shortages, penury, starvation, disease, the requisitioning of draft animals, and the conscription of most working-age men, who were sent to the front. Greater Syria, which included Palestine and present-day Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, is estimated to have suffered half a million deaths between 1915 and 1918 due to famine alone (which was exacerbated by a plague of locusts).10
Hunger and general hardship were only one cause of the dire state of the population. Focused as most observers were on the appalling casualties on the Western Front, few realized that the Ottoman Empire overall was dealt the heaviest wartime losses of any major combatant power, with over three million dead, 15 percent of the total population. Most of these casualties were civilians (the largest single group being the victims of massacres at the behest of the Ottoman authorities in 1915 and 1916—Armenians, Assyrians, and other Christians).11 Additionally, of the 2.8 million Ottoman soldiers originally mobilized, as many as 750,000 may have died during the war.12 Arab casualties were correspondingly high, since the army units recruited in Iraq and Greater Syria were heavily represented on bloody battlegrounds such as the Ottoman eastern front against Russia, as well as in Gallipoli, Sinai, Palestine, and Iraq. The demographer Justin McCarthy estimated that after growing by about 1 percent annually until 1914, Palestine’s population declined by 6 percent during the war.13
The turmoil of the period did not spare even well-off families, such as my own. When my father, Ismail, was born in 1915, four of his adult brothers, Nu‘man, Hasan, Husayn, and Ahmad, had been conscripted for service in the Ottoman army. Two of them sustained wounds in the fighting, but all were fortunate to survive. My aunt ‘Anbara Salam al-Khalidi remembered harrowing images of starvation and deprivation in the streets of Beirut, where she lived as a young woman.14 Husayn al-Khalidi, my uncle, who served as a medical officer during the war, recalled similar heartbreaking scenes in Jerusalem, where he saw the bodies of dozens of people who had starved to death lying in the streets.15 The wartime exactions of the Ottoman authorities included the hanging, on charges of treason, of my aunt’s fiancé, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-‘Uraysi, alongside many other Arab nationalist patriots.16
Husayn and Hasan al-Khalidi, conscripts in the Ottoman army
In 1917 my grandfather Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, and my grandmother Amira, known to all as Um Hasan, together with the other residents of the Jaffa area, received an evacuation order from the Ottoman authorities. To escape the encroaching dangers of war, they left their home at Tal al-Rish near Jaffa (my grandfather’s work as a judge had brought them there from Jerusalem many years earlier) with their four youngest children, my father among them. For several months the family sought refuge in the hill village of Dayr Ghassaneh, east of Jaffa, with members of the Barghouti clan, with whom they had long-standing connections.17 The village was far enough from the sea to be out of the range of Allied naval guns, and away from the heavy fighting along the coast as the British armies under General Sir Edmund Allenby advanced northward.
From the spring of 1917 through the late fall, the southern parts of the country were the scene of a grinding series of battles between British and Ottoman forces, the latter backed by German and Austrian troops. The fighting involved trench warfare, air raids, and intensive land and naval artillery bombardments. British and imperial units launched a number of major offensives, which slowly pushed back the Ottoman defenders. The fighting spread to the north of Palestine in the winter (Jerusalem, in the center, was captured by the British in December 1917), and continued into early 1918. In many regions, the direct impact of the war caused intense suffering. One of the worst-hit districts comprised Gaza City and the nearby towns and villages, where large areas were pulverized by heavy British shelling during prolonged trench warfare and then the slow Allied advance up the Mediterranean coastline.
Soon after Jaffa fell to the British in November 1917, my grandfather’s family returned to their Tal al-Rish home. Another aunt, Fatima al-Khalidi Salam, then an eight-year-old, recalled her father addressing the British troops. “Welcome, welcome,” he said in his undoubtedly imperfect English. Um Hasan, who heard this as “Ya waylkum”—“Woe to you!” in Arabic—feared that he had endangered the family by taunting the alien soldiers.18 Whether Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi welcomed or lamented the arrival of the British, two of his sons were still fighting on the other side, and two were being held as POWs, which placed the family in a perilous position. Two uncles remained with the Ottoman army, which resisted the British in northern Palestine and Syria, until late 1918.
They were among the thousands of men still absent from their homes at war’s end. Some had emigrated to the Americas to escape conscription while many, the writer ‘Aref Shehadeh (later known as ‘Arif al-‘Arif) among them, were being held in Allied prisoner of war camps.19 Others were in the hills, dodging the draft, like Najib Nassar, editor of the outspokenly anti-Zionist Haifa newspaper al-Karmil.20 Meanwhile, there were Arab soldiers who had deserted the Ottoman army and crossed the lines, or who were serving in the forces of the Arab Revolt led by Sharif Husayn and allied with Britain. Still others—such as ‘Isa al-‘Isa, the editor of Filastin, who had been exiled by the Ottoman authorities for his fierce independence with its strong echoes of Arab nationalism—were forced from the relatively cosmopolitan confines of Jaffa to various small towns in the heart of rural Anatolia.21
All of these profound material shocks heightened the impact of the wrenching postwar political changes, which obliged people to rethink long-standing senses of identity. By the end of the fighting, people in Palestine and in much of the Arab world found themselves under occupation by European armies. After four hundred years, they were confronted by the disconcerting prospect of alien rule and the swift disappearance of Ottoman control, which had been the only system of government known for over twenty generations. It was in the midst of this great trauma, as one era ended and another began, against a grim background of suffering, loss, and deprivation, that Palestinians learned, in a fragmentary fashion, of the Balfour Declaration.
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THE MOMENTOUS STATEMENT made just over a century ago on behalf of Britain’s cabinet on November 2, 1917, by the secretary of state for foreign affairs, Arthur James Balfour—what has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration—comprised a single sentence:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
If before World War I many prescient Palestinians had begun to regard the Zionist movement as a threat, the Balfour Declaration introduced a new and fearsome element. In the soft, deceptive language of diplomacy, with its ambiguous phrase approving “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the declaration effectively pledged Britain’s support for Theodor Herzl’s aims of Jewish statehood, sovereignty, and control of immigration in the whole of Palestine.
Significantly, the overwhelming Arab majority of the population (around 94 percent at that time) went unmentioned by Balfour, except in a backhanded way as the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” They were described in terms of what they were not, and certainly not as a nation or a people—the words “Palestinian” and “Arab” do not appear in the sixty-seven words of the declaration. This overwhelming majority of the population was promised only “civil and religious rights,” not political or national rights. By way of contrast, Balfour ascribed national rights to what he called “the Jewish people,” who in 1917 were a tiny minority—6 percent—of the country’s inhabitants.
Before securing British backing, the Zionist movement had been a colonizing project in search of a great-power patron. Having failed to find a sponsor in the Ottoman Empire, in Wilhelmine Germany, and elsewhere, Theodor Herzl’s successor Chaim Weizmann and his colleagues finally met with success in their approach to the wartime British cabinet led by David Lloyd George, acquiring the support of the greatest power of the age. The Palestinians now faced a far more formidable adversary than ever before, with British troops at that very moment advancing northward and occupying their country, troops who served a government that had pledged to implant a “national home” wherein unlimited immigration was meant to produce a future Jewish majority.
The British government’s intentions and objectives at the time have been amply analyzed over the past century.22 Among its many motivations were both a romantic, religiously derived philo-Semitic desire to “return” the Hebrews to the land of the Bible, and an anti-Semitic wish to reduce Jewish immigration to Britain, linked to a conviction that “world Jewry” had the power to keep newly revolutionary Russia fighting in the war and bring the United States into it. Beyond those impulses, Britain primarily desired control over Palestine for geopolitical strategic reasons that antedated World War I and that had only been reinforced by wartime events.23 However important the other motivations may have been, this was the central one: the British Empire was never motivated by altruism. Britain’s strategic interests were perfectly served by its sponsorship of the Zionist project, just as they were served by a range of regional wartime undertakings. Among them were commitments made in 1915 and 1916 promising independence to the Arabs led by Sharif Husayn of Mecca (enshrined in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence) and a secret 1916 deal with France—the Sykes-Picot Agreement—in which the two powers agreed to a colonial partition of the eastern Arab countries.24
More important than British motivations for issuing the Balfour Declaration is what this undertaking meant in practice for the crystal-clear aims of the Zionist movement—sovereignty and complete control of Palestine. With Britain’s unstinting support, these aims suddenly became plausible. Some leading British politicians extended backing to Zionism that went well beyond the carefully phrased text of the declaration. At a dinner at Balfour’s home in 1922, three of the most prominent British statesmen of the era—Lloyd George, Balfour, and Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill—assured Weizmann that by the term “Jewish national home” they “always meant an eventual Jewish state.” Lloyd George convinced the Zionist leader that for this reason Britain would never allow representative government in Palestine. Nor did it.25
For Zionists, their enterprise was now backed by an indispensable “iron wall” of British military might, in the words of Ze’ev Jabotinksy. For the inhabitants of Palestine, whose future it ultimately decided, Balfour’s careful, calibrated prose was in effect a gun pointed directly at their heads, a declaration of war by the British Empire on the indigenous population. The majority now faced the prospect of being outnumbered by unlimited Jewish immigration to a country then almost completely Arab in its population and culture. Whether intended this way or not, the declaration launched a full-blown colonial conflict, a century-long assault on the Palestinian people, aimed at fostering an exclusivist “national home” at their expense.
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THE PALESTINIAN REACTION to the Balfour Declaration was late in coming, and initially was relatively muted. Word of the British pronouncement had spread in most other parts of the world immediately following its promulgation. In Palestine, however, local newspapers had been shuttered since the beginning of the war by both government censorship and a lack of newsprint, the result of a tight Allied naval blockade of Ottoman ports. After British troops occupied Jerusalem in December 1917, the military regime banned publication of news of the declaration.26 Indeed, the British authorities did not allow newspapers to reappear in Palestine for nearly two years. When reports of the Balfour Declaration finally reached Palestine, they trickled in slowly via word of mouth and then through copies of Egyptian newspapers that travelers brought from Cairo.
The bombshell struck a society prostrate and exhausted at this late stage of the war, when survivors of the chaos and displacement were slowly returning to their homes. There is evidence that they reacted with shock to the news. In December 1918, thirty-three exiled Palestinians (including al-‘Isa) who had just made their way from Anatolia to Damascus (where their access to news was not restricted) sent an advance letter of protest to the peace conference being convened in Versailles and to the British Foreign Office. They stressed that “this country is our country” and expressed their horror at the Zionist claim that “Palestine would be turned into a national home for them.”27
Such prospects may have seemed remote to many Palestinians when the Balfour Declaration was issued, at a time when Jews constituted a tiny minority of the population. Nonetheless, some far-sighted individuals, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi among them, had discerned the danger posed by Zionism early on. In 1914 ‘Isa al-‘Isa wrote, in an astute editorial in Filastin, of “a nation threatened with disappearance by the Zionist tide in this Palestinian land,… a nation which is threatened in its very being with expulsion from its homeland.”28 Those who felt trepidation about the encroachment of the Zionist movement were alarmed by its ability to purchase large tracts of fertile land from which the indigenous peasants were removed and by its success in increasing Jewish immigration.
Indeed, between 1909 and 1914 some forty thousand Jewish immigrants had arrived (although some left soon afterwards) and eighteen new colonies (of a 1914 total of fifty-two) had been created by the Zionist movement on land it had bought mainly from absentee landlords. The relatively recent concentration of private land ownership greatly facilitated these land purchases. The impact on Palestinians was especially pronounced in agricultural communities in areas of intensive Zionist colonization: the coastal plain and the fertile Marj Ibn ‘Amer and Huleh valleys in the north. Many peasants in villages neighboring the new colonies had been deprived of their land as a result of the land sales. Some had also suffered in armed encounters with the first paramilitary units formed by the European Jewish settlers.29 Their trepidation was shared by Arab city dwellers in Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem—the main centers of Jewish population then and now—who observed with mounting concern the stream of Jewish immigrants in the years before the war. After the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the disastrous implications for the future of Palestine were increasingly apparent to all.
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BEYOND DEMOGRAPHIC AND other shifts, World War I and its aftermath accelerated the change in Palestinian national sentiment from a love of country and loyalties to family and locale to a thoroughly modern form of nationalism.30 In a world where nationalism had been gaining ground for many decades, the Great War provided a global boost to the idea. The tendency was compounded toward the end of the war by Woodrow Wilson in the United States and Vladimir Lenin in Soviet Russia, who both espoused the principle of national self-determination, albeit in different ways and with different aims.
Whatever the intentions of these two leaders, the apparent endorsement of the national aspirations of peoples the world over by ostensibly anticolonial powers had an enormous impact. Clearly, Wilson had no intention of applying the principle to most of those who took them as inspiration for their hopes of national liberation. Indeed, he confessed that he was bewildered by the plethora of peoples, most of whom he had never heard, who responded to his call for self-determination.31 Nevertheless, the hopes aroused and then disappointed—by Wilson’s pronouncements in support of national self-determination, by the Bolshevik Revolution, and by the indifference of the Allies at the Versailles Peace Conference to the demands of colonized peoples for independence—sparked massive revolutionary anticolonial upheavals in India, Egypt, China, Korea, Ireland, and elsewhere.32 The dissolution of the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires—transnational dynastic states—was also in large measure a function of the spread of nationalism and its intensification during and after the war.
Political identities in Palestine had certainly evolved prior to the war, in keeping with global shifts and the evolution of the Ottoman state. However, this had happened relatively slowly, within the constraints of the dynastic, transnational, and religiously legitimated empire. The mental map of most of its subjects before 1914 was limited by their having been governed by this political system for so long that it was hard for them to conceive of not living under Ottoman rule. Going into the post-war world, suffering from collective trauma, the people of Palestine faced a radically new reality: they were to be ruled by Britain, and their country had been promised to others as a “national home.” Against this could be set their expectations about the possibility of Arab independence and self-determination, promised to Sharif Husayn by the British in 1916—a promise repeated in multiple public pledges thereafter, including in an Anglo-French declaration of 1918, before being enshrined in the Covenant of the new League of Nations in 1919.
One crucial window into Palestinians’ perceptions of themselves and their understanding of events between the wars is the Palestinian press. Two newspapers, ‘Isa al-‘Isa’s Jaffa publication, Filastin, and al-Karmil, published in Haifa by Najib Nassar, were bastions of local patriotism, and critics of the Zionist-British entente and the danger that it posed to the Arab majority in Palestine. They were among the most influential beacons of the idea of Palestinian identity. Other newspapers echoed and amplified the same themes, focusing on the burgeoning, largely closed Jewish economy and the other institutions created by the Zionist state-building project and supported by the British authorities.
After attending the ceremonial opening of a new rail line in 1929 that connected Tel Aviv to the Jewish settlements and Arab villages to the south, ‘Isa al-‘Isa wrote an ominous editorial in Filastin. All along the route, he wrote, Jewish settlers took advantage of the presence of British officials to make new demands of them, while Palestinians were nowhere to be seen. “There was only one tarbush,” he said, “among so many hats.” The message was clear: the wataniyin, “the people of the country,” were poorly organized, while al-qawm, “this nation,” exploited every opportunity offered them. The title of the editorial summed up the gravity of al-‘Isa’s warning: “Strangers in Our Own Land: Our Drowsiness and Their Alertness.”33 Another such window is provided by the growing number of published memoirs by Palestinians. Most of them are in Arabic and reflect the concerns of their upper-class and middle-class authors.34 To find the views of the less well-to-do segments of Palestinian society is more difficult. There is little oral history available from the early decades of British rule.35
While sources such as these provide a sense of the evolution of identity among Palestinians, with the increasing use of the terms “Palestine” and “Palestinians,” the turning points in this process are hard to pinpoint. A few things can be gleaned from my grandfather’s personal trajectory. Hajj Raghib, who had a traditional religious education and who served as a religious official and as a qadi, was a close friend of ‘Isa al-‘Isa (who incidentally was my wife Mona’s grandfather), and contributed articles on topics like education, libraries, and culture to Filastin.36 Through Khalidi and al-‘Isa family lore we get a sense of the frequent social interactions between the two—one Muslim, the other Greek Orthodox—primarily in the garden of my grandfather’s house in Tal al-Rish on the outskirts of Jaffa. In one story, the two men put up with the interminable visit of a boring, conservative local shaykh before returning, after he leaves, to the more convivial pleasure of private drinking.37 The point is that Hajj Raghib, a religious figure, was part of a circle of leading secular advocates of Palestine as a source of identity.
The history revealed by even a cursory examination of the press, memoirs, and similar sources generated by Palestinians flies in the face of the popular mythology of the conflict, which is premised on their nonexistence or lack of a collective consciousness. In fact, Palestinian identity and nationalism are all too often seen to be no more than recent expressions of an unreasoning (if not fanatical) opposition to Jewish national self-determination. But Palestinian identity, much like Zionism, emerged in response to many stimuli, and at almost exactly the same time as did modern political Zionism. The threat of Zionism was only one of these stimuli, just as anti-Semitism was only one of the factors fueling Zionism. As newspapers like Filastin and al-Karmil reveal, this identity included love of country, a desire to improve society, religious attachment to Palestine, and opposition to European control. After the war, the focus on Palestine as a central locus of identity drew strength from widespread frustration at the blocking of Arab aspirations in Syria and elsewhere as the Middle East became suffocatingly dominated by the European colonial powers. This identity is thus comparable to the other Arab nation-state identities that emerged around the same time in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The al-Khalidi family, Tal al-Rish, circa 1930: Top row from left: Ismail (the author’s father), Ya‘coub, Hasan (holding Samira), Husayn (holding Leila), Ghalib. Middle row: ‘Anbara, Walid, Um Hasan (the author’s grandmother), Sulafa, Hajj Raghib (his grandfather), Nash’at, Ikram. Bottom row: ‘Adel, Hatim, Raghib, Amira, Khalid, and Mu‘awiya.
Indeed, all the neighboring Arab peoples developed modern national identities very similar to that of the Palestinians, and did so without the impact of the emergence of Zionist colonialism in their midst. Just like Zionism, Palestinian and other Arab national identities were modern and contingent, a product of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century circumstances, not eternal and immutable. The denial of an authentic, independent Palestinian identity is of a piece with Herzl’s colonialist views on the alleged benefits of Zionism to the indigenous population, and constitutes a crucial element in the erasure of their national rights and peoplehood by the Balfour Declaration and its sequels.
* * *
AS SOON AS they were able to do so in the wake of World War I, Palestinians began to organize politically in opposition both to British rule, and to the imposition of the Zionist movement as a privileged interlocutor of the British. Palestinians’ efforts included petitions to the British, to the Paris Peace Conference, and to the newly formed League of Nations. Their most notable effort was a series of seven Palestine Arab congresses planned by a country-wide network of Muslim-Christian societies and 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 congresses established an Arab executive that met repeatedly with British officials in Jerusalem and in London, albeit to little avail. It was a dialogue of the deaf. The British refused to recognize the representative authority of the congresses or its leaders, and insisted on Arab acceptance of the Balfour Declaration and the terms of the Mandate that had succeeded it—the antithesis of every substantive Arab demand—as a precondition for discussion. The Palestinian leadership pursued this fruitless legalistic approach for over a decade and a half.
In contrast to these elite-led initiatives, popular dissatisfaction with British support for Zionist aspirations exploded into demonstrations, strikes, and riots, with violence flaring notably in 1920, 1921, and 1929, each episode more intense than the previous one. In every case, these were spontaneous eruptions, often provoked by Zionist groups flexing their muscle. The British repressed peaceful protests and outbreaks of violence with equally harsh severity, but Arab popular discontent continued. By the early 1930s, younger, educated lower-middle- and middle-class elements, impatient with the conciliatory approach of the elite, began to launch more radical initiatives and organize more militant groups. These included an activist network set up throughout the northern parts of the country by a Haifa-based itinerant preacher of Syrian origin named Shaykh ‘Iz al-Din al-Qassam, which was clandestinely preparing for an armed uprising, as well as the Istiqlal (“independence”) Party, whose name summarized its aims.
All of these efforts took place initially in the shadow of a strict British military regime that lasted until 1920 (one of the congresses was held in Damascus because the British had banned Palestinian political activity), and thereafter under a series of British Mandatory high commissioners. The first of them was Sir Herbert Samuel, a committed Zionist and former cabinet minister who laid the governmental foundations for much of what followed, and who ably advanced Zionist aims while foiling those of the Palestinians.
Well-informed Palestinians were aware of what the Zionists were preaching both abroad and in Hebrew in Palestine to their followers—that unlimited immigration would produce a Jewish majority that would permit a takeover of the country. They had been following the doings and sayings of Zionist leaders via the extensive reportage on the subject in the Arabic press since well before the war.38 While Chaim Weizmann had, for example, told several prominent Arabs at a dinner party in Jerusalem in March 1918 “to beware treacherous insinuations that Zionists were seeking political power,”39 most knew that such assertions were strategic and meant to cloak the Zionists’ real objectives. Indeed, the Zionist movement’s leaders understood that “under no circumstances should they talk as though the Zionist program required the expulsion of the Arabs, because that would cause the Jews to lose the world’s sympathy,” but knowledgeable Palestinians were not deceived.40
While readers of the press, members of the elite, and villagers and city-dwellers who were in direct contact with the Jewish settlers were conscious of the threat, such awareness was far from universal. Similarly, the evolution of the Palestinians’ sense of self was uneven. While most people desired Palestinian independence, some entertained the hope that such independence could be secured as part of a larger Arab state. A newspaper briefly published in Jerusalem in 1919 by ‘Arif al-‘Arif and another political figure, Muhammad Hasan al-Budayri, proclaimed this aspiration in its name: Suriyya al-Janubiyya, or Southern Syria. (The publication was quickly suppressed by the British.) A government under Amir Faysal, son of Sharif Husayn, had been established in Damascus in 1918, and many Palestinians hoped their country would become the southern part of this nascent state. However France claimed Syria for itself on the basis of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and in July 1920, French troops occupied the country, eliminating the newborn Arab state.41 As Arab countries under mandates or other forms of direct or indirect European control became preoccupied with their own narrow problems, more and more Palestinians realized that they would have to depend on themselves. Arabism and a sense of belonging to the larger Arab world always remained strong, but Palestinian identity was constantly reinforced by Britain’s bias in favor of the burgeoning Zionist project.
Changes elsewhere in the Middle East swept a region racked by continued instability. Following a bitter clash with Allied occupying forces, the nucleus of a Turkish republic arose in Anatolia in place of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Britain failed to impose a one-sided treaty on Iran and withdrew its occupation forces in 1921. France established itself in Syria and Lebanon, after crushing Amir Faysal’s state. Egyptians revolting against their British overlords in 1919 were suppressed with great difficulty by the colonial power, which was finally obliged to grant Egypt a simulacrum of independence in 1922. Something analogous occurred in Iraq, where a widespread armed uprising in 1920 obliged the British to grant self-rule under an Arab monarchy headed by the same Amir Faysal, now with the title of king. Within a little more than a decade after World War I, Turks, Iranians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Iraqis all achieved a measure of independence, albeit often highly constrained and severely limited. In Palestine, the British operated with a different set of rules.
* * *
IN 1922, THE new League of Nations issued its Mandate for Palestine, which formalized Britain’s governance of the country. In an extraordinary gift to the Zionist movement, the Mandate not only incorporated the text of the Balfour Declaration verbatim, it substantially amplified the declaration’s commitments. The document begins with a reference to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which states that for “certain communities … their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized.” It continues by giving an international pledge to uphold the provisions of the Balfour Declaration. The clear implication of this sequence is that only one people in Palestine is to be recognized with national rights: the Jewish people. This was in contradistinction to every other Middle Eastern mandated territory, where Article 22 of the covenant applied to the entire population and was ultimately meant to allow for some form of independence of these countries.
In the third paragraph of the Mandate’s preamble, the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, are described as having a historic connection to Palestine. In the eyes of the drafters, the entire two-thousand-year-old built environment of the country with its villages, shrines, castles, mosques, churches, and monuments dating to the Ottoman, Mameluke, Ayyubid, Crusader, Abbasid, Umayyad, Byzantine, and earlier periods belonged to no people at all, or only to amorphous religious groups. There were people there, certainly, but they had no history or collective existence, and could therefore be ignored. The roots of what the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called the “politicide” of the Palestinian people are on full display in the Mandate’s preamble. The surest way to eradicate a people’s right to their land is to deny their historical connection to it.
Nowhere in the subsequent twenty-eight articles of the Mandate is there any reference to the Palestinians as a people with national or political rights. Indeed, as in the Balfour Declaration, the words “Arab” and “Palestinian” do not appear. The only protections envisaged for the great majority of Palestine’s population involved personal and religious rights and preservation of the status quo at sacred sites. On the other hand, the Mandate laid out the key means for establishing and expanding the national home for the Jewish people, which, according to its drafters, the Zionist movement was not creating, but “reconstituting.”
Seven of the Mandate’s twenty-eight articles are devoted to the privileges and facilities to be extended to the Zionist movement to implement the national home policy (the others deal with administrative and diplomatic matters, and the longest article treats the question of antiquities). The Zionist movement, in its embodiment in Palestine as the Jewish Agency, was explicitly designated as the official representative of the country’s Jewish population, although before the mass immigration of committed European Zionists the Jewish community comprised mainly either religious or mizrahi Jews who in the main were not Zionist or who even opposed Zionism. Of course, no such official representative was designated for the unnamed Arab majority.
Article 2 of the Mandate provided for self-governing institutions; however, the context makes clear that this applied only to the yishuv, as the Jewish population of Palestine was called, while the Palestinian majority was consistently denied access to such institutions. (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—only the first Catch-22 in which the Palestinians would find themselves trapped.) Representative institutions for the entire country on a democratic basis and with real power were never on offer (in keeping with Lloyd George’s private assurance to Weizmann), for the Palestinian majority would naturally have voted to end the privileged position of the Zionist movement in their country.
One of the key provisions of the Mandate was Article 4, which gave the Jewish Agency quasi-governmental status as a “public body” with wide-ranging powers in economic and social spheres and the ability “to assist and take part in the development of the country” as a whole.
Beyond making the Jewish Agency a partner to the mandatory government, this provision allowed it to acquire international diplomatic status and thereby formally represent Zionist interests before the League of Nations and elsewhere. Such representation was normally an attribute of sovereignty, and the Zionist movement took great advantage of it to bolster its international standing and act as a para-state. Again, no such powers were allowed to the Palestinian majority over the entire thirty years of the Mandate, in spite of repeated demands.
Article 6 enjoined the mandatory power to facilitate Jewish immigration and encourage “close settlement by Jews on the land”—a most crucial provision, given the importance of demography and control of land throughout the subsequent century of struggle between Zionism and the Palestinians. This provision was the foundation for significant growth in the Jewish population and the acquisition of strategically located lands that allowed for control of the country’s territorial backbone along the coast, in eastern Galilee, and in the great fertile Marj Ibn ‘Amer valley connecting them.
Article 7 provided for a nationality law to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews. This same law was used to deny nationality to Palestinians who had emigrated to the Americas during the Ottoman era and now desired to return to their homeland.42 Thus Jewish immigrants, irrespective of their origins, could acquire Palestinian nationality, while native Palestinian Arabs who happened to be abroad when the British took over were denied it. Finally, other articles allowed the Jewish Agency to take over or establish public works, allowed each community to maintain schools in its own language—which meant Jewish Agency control over much of the yishuv’s school system—and made Hebrew an official language of the country.
In sum, the Mandate essentially allowed for the creation of a Zionist administration parallel to that of the British mandatory government, which was tasked with fostering and supporting it. This parallel body was meant to exercise for one part of the population many of the functions of a sovereign state, including democratic representation and control of education, health, public works, and international diplomacy. To enjoy all the attributes of sovereignty, this entity lacked only military force. That would come, in time.
To fully appreciate the particularly destructive force of the Mandate for Palestinians, it is worth returning to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and looking at a confidential memo written by Lord Balfour in September 1919. For areas formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Article 22 (“provisionally”) recognized their “existence as independent nations.” The background to this article in relation to the Middle East involved repeated British promises of independence to all the Arabs of the Ottoman domains during World War I in return for their support against the Ottomans, as well as the self-determination proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, all the other mandated territories in the Middle East ultimately won independence (although both mandatory powers, Britain and France, twisted the rules to maintain the maximum degree of control for the longest possible time).
Only the Palestinians were denied these advantages, while representative institutions and progress toward self-rule were obtained by the Jewish population in Palestine, which benefited uniquely from Article 22 of the covenant. For decades, British officials disingenuously but steadfastly maintained that Palestine had been excluded from wartime promises of Arab independence. However when relevant extracts from the Husayn-McMahon correspondence were revealed for the first time in 1938, the British government was forced to admit that the language used was at the very least ambiguous.43
As we have seen, one of the officials most deeply involved in depriving Palestinians of their rights was Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour. A diffident, worldly patrician and former prime minister and nephew of long-time Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, he had served for five years as Britain’s chief secretary in Ireland, the empire’s oldest colony, where he was much hated, earning the nickname “Bloody Balfour.”44 Ironically, it was his government that authored the 1905 Aliens Act, meant primarily to keep destitute Jews fleeing tsarist pogroms out of Britain. A confirmed cynic, he nevertheless held a few beliefs, one of which was the utility to the British Empire, and the moral rightness, of Zionism, a cause to which he was enlisted by Chaim Weizmann. In spite of this belief, Balfour was clear-eyed regarding the implications of his government’s actions that others preferred to pretend did not exist.
In a confidential September 1919 memo (not publicly known until its publication over three decades later in a collection of documents on the interwar period45), Balfour set out for the cabinet his analysis of the complications Britain had created for itself in the Middle East as a result of its conflicting pledges. On the multiple contradictory commitments of the Allies—including those embodied in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Covenant of the League of Nations—Balfour was scathing. After summarizing the incoherence of British policy in Syria and Mesopotamia, he bluntly assessed the situation in Palestine:
The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the “independent nation” of Palestine than in that of the “independent nation” of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.… The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.
In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to understand is how it can be harmonised with the declaration, the Covenant, or the instructions to the Commission of Enquiry.
I do not think that Zionism will hurt the Arabs; but they will never say they want it. Whatever be the future of Palestine it is not now an “independent nation,” nor is it yet on the way to become one. Whatever deference should be paid to the views of those who live there, the Powers in their selection of a mandatory do not propose, as I understand the matter, to consult them. In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.
In this brutally frank summary, Balfour set the high-minded “age-long traditions,” “present needs,” and “future hopes” embodied in Zionism against the mere “desires and prejudices” of the Arabs in Palestine, “who now inhabit that ancient land,” implying that its population was no more than transient. Echoing Herzl, Balfour airily claimed that Zionism would not hurt the Arabs, yet he had no qualms about recognizing the bad faith and deceit that characterized British and Allied policy in Palestine. But this is of no matter. The remainder of the memo is a bland set of proposals for how to surmount the obstacles created by this tangle of hypocrisy and contradictory commitments. The only two fixed points in Balfour’s summary are a concern for British imperial interests and a commitment to provide opportunities for the Zionist movement. His motivations were of a piece with those of most other senior British officials involved in crafting Palestine policy; none of them were as honest about the implications of their actions.
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WHAT DID THESE contradictory British and Allied pledges, and a mandate system tailored to suit the needs of the Zionist project, produce for the Arabs of Palestine in the interwar years? The British treated the Palestinians with the same contemptuous condescension they lavished on other subject peoples from Hong Kong to Jamaica. Their officials monopolized the top offices in the Mandate government and excluded qualified Arabs;46 they censored the newspapers, banned political activity when it discomfited them, and generally ran as parsimonious an administration as was possible in light of their commitments. As in Egypt and India, they did little to advance education, since colonial conventional wisdom held that too much of it produced “natives” who did not know their proper place. Firsthand accounts of the period are replete with instances of the racist attitudes of colonial officials to those they considered their inferiors, even if they were dealing with knowledgeable professionals who spoke perfect English.
The experience in Palestine was dissimilar to that of most other colonized peoples in this era in that the Mandate brought an influx of foreign settlers whose mission it was to take over the country. During the crucial years from 1917 until 1939, Jewish immigration and the “close settlement by Jews on the land” enjoined by the Mandate proceeded apace. The colonies established by the Zionist movement up and down the coast of Palestine and in other fertile and strategic regions served to ensure control of a territorial springboard for the domination (and ultimately the conquest) of the country, once the demographic, economic, and military balance had shifted sufficiently in favor of the yishuv.47 In short order, the Jewish population tripled as a proportion of the total population, growing from a low of about 6 percent of the whole at the end of World War I to about 18 percent by 1926.
However, in spite of the extraordinary capacity of the Zionist movement to mobilize and invest capital in Palestine (financial inflows to an increasingly self-segregated Jewish economy during the 1920s were 41.5 percent larger than its net domestic product,48 an astonishing level), between 1926 and 1932 the Jewish population ceased to grow as a proportion of the country’s population, stagnating at between 17 and 18.5 percent.49 Some of these years coincided with the global depression, when Jews leaving Palestine outpaced those arriving and capital inflows decreased markedly. At that point, the Zionist project looked as if it might never attain the critical demographic mass that would make Palestine “as Jewish as England is English,” in Weizmann’s words.50
Everything changed in 1933 with the rise to power in Germany of the Nazis, who immediately began to persecute and drive out the well-established Jewish community. With discriminatory immigration laws in place in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries, many German Jews had nowhere to go but Palestine. Hitler’s ascendancy proved to be one of the most important events in the modern histories of both Palestine and Zionism. In 1935 alone, more than sixty thousand Jewish immigrants came to Palestine, a number greater than the entire Jewish population of the country in 1917. Most of these refugees, mainly from Germany but also from neighboring countries where anti-Semitic persecution was intensifying, were skilled and educated. German Jews were allowed to bring assets worth a total of $100 million, thanks to the Transfer Agreement reached between the Nazi government and the Zionist movement, concluded in exchange for lifting a Jewish boycott of Germany.51
During the 1930s the Jewish economy in Palestine overtook the Arab sector for the first time, and the Jewish population grew to more than 30 percent of the total by 1939. In light of fast economic growth and this rapid population shift over only seven years, combined with considerable expansion of the Zionist movement’s military capacities, it became clear to its leaders that the demographic, economic, territorial, and military nucleus necessary for achieving domination over the entire country, or most of it, would soon be in place. As Ben-Gurion put it at the time, “immigration at the rate of 60,000 a year means a Jewish state in all Palestine.”52 Many Palestinians came to similar conclusions.
Palestinians now saw themselves inexorably turning into strangers in their own land, as ‘Isa al-‘Isa had warned in dire tones in 1929. Over the first twenty years of British occupation, the Palestinians’ increasing resistance to the Zionist movement’s growing dominance had found expression in periodic outbreaks of violence, which occurred in spite of commitments by the Palestinian leadership to the British to keep their followers in line. In the countryside, sporadic attacks, often described by the British and the Zionists as “banditry,” bespoke the popular anger at Zionist land purchases, which often resulted in the expulsion of peasants from lands they considered to be theirs that were their source of livelihood. In the cities, demonstrations against British rule and the expansion of the Zionist para-state grew larger and more militant in the early 1930s.
Trying to maintain control of events, the elite notables organized a pan-Islamic conference while sending several delegations to London and coordinating various forms of protest. These leaders, however, unwilling to confront the British too openly, withstood Palestinian calls for a full boycott of the British authorities and a tax strike. They remained unable to see that their timid diplomatic approach could not possibly convince any British government to renounce its commitment to Zionism or to acquiesce in the Palestinians’ demands.
In consequence, these elite efforts failed to halt the march of the Zionist project or to advance the Palestinian cause in any way. Nevertheless, in response to growing Palestinian agitation, and especially following the outbreaks of violent unrest, different British governments were obliged to reexamine their policies in Palestine. The result was a variety of commissions of inquiry and white papers. These included the Hayward Commission in 1920, the Churchill White Paper in 1922, the Shaw Commission in 1929, the Hope-Simpson Report in 1930, the Passfield White Paper in 1930, the Peel Commission in 1937, and the Woodhead Commission in 1938. However, these policy papers recommended only limited measures to placate the Palestinians (most of which were countermanded by the government in London under pressure from the Zionists) or proposed a course of action that only compounded their deep sense of injustice. The eventual result was an unprecedented, country-wide violent explosion in Palestine starting in 1936.
* * *
THE FRUSTRATION OF the Palestinian population at their leadership’s ineffective response over fifteen years of congresses, demonstrations, and futile meetings with obdurate British officials finally led to a massive grassroots uprising. This started with a six-month general strike, one of the longest in colonial history, launched spontaneously by groups of young, urban middle-class militants (many of them members of the Istiqlal Party) all over the country. The strike eventually developed into the great 1936–39 revolt, which was the crucial event of the interwar period in Palestine.
In the two decades after 1917, the Palestinians had been unable to develop an overarching framework for their national movement such as the Wafd in Egypt or the Congress Party in India or Sinn Fein in Ireland. Nor did they maintain an apparently solid national front as some other peoples fighting colonialism had managed to do. Their efforts were undermined by the hierarchical, conservative, and divided nature of Palestinian society and politics, characteristic of many in the region, and further sapped by a sophisticated policy of divide and rule adopted by the mandatory authorities, aided and abetted by the Jewish Agency. This colonial strategy may have reached its peak of perfection in Palestine after hundreds of years of maturation in Ireland, India, and Egypt.
The British policies meant to divide the Palestinians included co- opting factions of their elite, setting members of the same family, such as the Husaynis, against one another, and inventing out of whole cloth “traditional institutions” to serve their purposes. Examples of these British creations were the position of grand mufti of all Palestine (traditionally, there had been four muftis of Jerusalem, not all of Palestine: one each for the Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, and Hanbali rites) and the Supreme Muslim Council to administer Muslim community affairs. The British had nominated Hajj Amin al-Husayni as grand mufti and head of the council after he pledged to Sir Herbert Samuel during a sort of job interview that he would maintain order (which he did for the better part of fifteen years).53 His appointment served two purposes. One was to create an alternative leadership structure to the nationalist Arab Executive of the Palestinian congresses, which was headed by the mufti’s cousin, Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni, and thus also to instigate friction between the two men. The other was to enforce the idea that, besides the Jewish people, with its national characteristics, the Arab population of Palestine had no national nature and consisted only of religious communities. These measures were meant to distract the Palestinians from demanding democratic, nationwide representative institutions, to divide the national movement, and to prevent the creation of a single national alternative to the Mandate and its Zionist charge.54
Although the tactics of divide and rule were fairly successful until the mid-1930s, the six-month general strike of 1936 constituted a popular and spontaneous explosion from the bottom up that took the British, the Zionists, and the elite Palestinian leadership by surprise, and that obliged the latter to put aside its divisions, at least nominally. The result was the creation of the Arab Higher Committee, which was set up to lead and represent the entire Arab majority, although the British never recognized the AHC as representative. The committee was made up entirely of men, all people of substance, and all members of the Palestinian elite in its service, landowning, and merchant wings. The AHC tried to take charge of the general strike, but unfortunately their most important achievement was to broker an end to it in the fall of 1936 at the request of several Arab rulers, who were essentially acting at the behest of their patrons, the British. They promised the Palestinian leadership that the British would provide redress for their grievances.
The disappointing outcome of this intervention came in July 1937, when a Royal Commission under Lord Peel charged with investigating the unrest in Palestine proposed to partition the country, creating a small Jewish state in about 17 percent of the territory, from which over two hundred thousand Arabs would be expelled (expulsion was euphemized as “transfer”). Under this scheme, the rest of the country was to remain under British control or be handed over to Britain’s client, Amir ‘Abdullah of Transjordan, which from a Palestinian perspective amounted to much the same thing. Once again, the Palestinians had been treated as if they had no national existence and no collective rights.
The Peel Commission’s satisfaction of the basic Zionist aims of statehood and removal of the Palestinians, albeit not in the whole of Palestine, combined with its denial of their fervently desired goal of self-determination, goaded the Palestinians into a much more militant stage of their uprising. The armed revolt that broke out in October 1937 swept the country. It was only brought under control two years later through a massive use of force, just in time for crack British military units (by then there were a hundred thousand troops in Palestine, one for every four adult Palestinian men) to be redeployed to fight World War II. The revolt achieved remarkable temporary successes but ultimately produced debilitating results for the Palestinians.
Of all the services Britain provided to the Zionist movement before 1939, perhaps the most valuable was the armed suppression of Palestinian resistance in the form of the revolt. The bloody war waged against the country’s majority, which left 14 to 17 percent of the adult male Arab population killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled,55 was the best illustration of the unvarnished truths uttered by Jabotinsky about the necessity of the use of force for the Zionist project to succeed. To quash the uprising, the British Empire brought in two additional divisions of troops, squadrons of bombers, and all the paraphernalia of repression that it had perfected over many decades of colonial wars.56
The refinements of callousness and cruelty employed went well beyond summary executions. For possession of a single bullet, Shaykh Farhan al-Sa‘di, an eighty-one-year-old rebel leader, was put to death in 1937. Under the martial law in force at the time, that single bullet was sufficient to merit capital punishment, particularly for an accomplished guerrilla fighter like al-Sa‘di.57 Well over a hundred such sentences of execution were handed down after summary trials by military tribunals, with many more Palestinians executed on the spot by British troops.58 Infuriated by rebels ambushing their convoys and blowing up their trains, the British resorted to tying Palestinian prisoners to the front of armored cars and locomotives to prevent rebel attack, a tactic they had pioneered in a futile effort to crush resistance of the Irish during their war of independence from 1919 to 1921.59 Demolitions of the homes of imprisoned or executed rebels, or of presumed rebels or their relatives, was routine, another tactic borrowed from the British playbook developed in Ireland.60 Two other imperial practices employed extensively in repressing the Palestinians were the detention of thousands without trial and the exile of troublesome leaders.
The explosive reaction to the Peel Commission’s partition recommendation culminated in the assassination of the British district commissioner for Galilee, Captain Lewis Andrews, in October 1937. In response to this direct challenge to British authority, the Mandate authorities deported virtually the entire Palestinian nationalist leadership, including the mayor of Jerusalem, Dr. Husayn al-Khalidi, my uncle. With four others (he and another two were members of the AHC) he was sent to the Seychelles Islands, an isolated location in the Indian Ocean that the British Empire frequently chose for exiling nationalist opponents.61 The men were held in a heavily guarded compound for sixteen months, deprived of visitors and outside contact. Their fellow prisoners in the Seychelles included political leaders from Aden in Yemen and Zanzibar. Other Palestinian leaders were exiled to Kenya or South Africa, while a few, including the mufti, managed to escape and made their way to Lebanon. Still others were confined, generally without trial, in more than a dozen of what the British themselves called “concentration camps,” most notably that in Sarafand. Among them was another uncle of mine, Ghalib, who like his older brother was involved in nationalist activity deemed to be anti-British.
Just before his arrest and exile, Husayn al-Khalidi, who served on the AHC and as Jerusalem’s elected mayor for three years before he was removed by the British, encountered Major General Sir John Dill, the officer in command of the British forces in Palestine. In his memoirs, my uncle recalls telling the general that the only way to end the violence was to meet some of the Palestinians’ demands, specifically stopping Jewish immigration. What would be the effect of arresting the Arab leadership? Dill wanted to know. A senior Arab figure had told him that such arrests would end the revolt in days or weeks. My uncle set him straight: the revolt would only accelerate and spread out of control. It was the Jewish Agency that wanted the arrests, and al-Khalidi knew that the Colonial Office was considering it, but solving the Palestine question would not be so simple.62
My uncle had been right. In the months after his exile and the mass arrests of others, the revolt entered its most intense phase, and British forces lost control of several urban areas and much of the countryside, which were taken over and governed by the rebels.63 In the words of Dill’s successor, Lieutenant General Robert Haining, in August 1938, “The situation was such that civil administration of the country was, to all practical purposes, non-existent.”64 In December, Haining reported to the War Office that “practically every village in the country harbours and supports the rebels and will assist in concealing their identity from the Government Forces.”65 It took the full might of the British Empire, which could only be unleashed when more troops became available after the Munich Agreement in September 1938, and nearly a year more of fierce fighting, to extinguish the Palestinian uprising.
Members of the Higher Arab Committee in exile in the Seychelles Islands, 1938. Dr. Husayn is seated on the left.
Meanwhile, deep differences had appeared among the Palestinians. Some, aligned with Amir ‘Abdullah of Jordan, quietly welcomed the Peel Commission’s recommendation of partition, as it favored attaching to Transjordan the part of Palestine that would not be transformed into the new Jewish state. Most Palestinians, however, strongly opposed all aspects of the recommendations—whether the partition of their country, the establishment in it of a Jewish state, however small, or the expulsion from that state of most of its Arab population. Thereafter, as the revolt reached its height in late 1937 and early 1938, an even more intense internecine conflict among Palestinians followed a bitter split between those loyal to the mufti, who favored no compromise with the British, and the mufti’s opponents, led by the former Jerusalem mayor Raghib al-Nashashibi, who were more conciliatory. In the view of ‘Isa al-‘Isa, inter-Palestinian disputes, which resulted in hundreds of assassinations in the late 1930s, gravely sapped the strength of the Palestinians. He himself was forced into exile to Beirut in 1938 after his life was threatened and his house in Ramleh burned with the loss of all his books and papers. This was undoubtedly the work of the mufti’s men, and it left him deeply bitter.66 If at the outset the revolt “was directed against the English and the Jews,” he wrote, it was “transformed into a civil war, where methods of terrorism, pillage, theft, fire and murder became common.”67
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IN SPITE OF the sacrifices made—which can be gauged from the very large numbers of Palestinians who were killed, wounded, jailed, or exiled—and the revolt’s momentary success, the consequences for the Palestinians were almost entirely negative. The savage British repression, the death and exile of so many leaders, and the conflict within their ranks left the Palestinians divided, without direction, and with their economy debilitated by the time the revolt was crushed in the summer of 1939. This put the Palestinians in a very weak position to confront the now invigorated Zionist movement, which had gone from strength to strength during the revolt, obtaining lavish amounts of arms and extensive training from the British to help them suppress the uprising.68
As war clouds loomed in Europe in 1939, however, momentous new global challenges to the British Empire combined with the impact of the Arab Revolt to produce a major shift in London’s policy, away from its previous full-throated support of Zionism. While the Zionists had been delighted by Britain’s decisive smashing of Palestinian resistance, this new shift confronted their leaders with a critical situation. As Europe slid inexorably toward another world war, the British knew that this conflict would be fought, like the previous one, in part on Arab soil. It was now imperative, in terms of core imperial strategic interests, to improve Britain’s image and defuse the fury in the Arab countries and the Islamic world at the forcible repression of the Great Revolt, particularly as these areas were being deluged with Axis propaganda about British atrocities in Palestine. A January 1939 report to the cabinet recommending a change of course in Palestine stressed the importance of “winning the confidence of Egypt and the neighbouring Arab states.”69 The report included a comment from the secretary of state for India, who said that “the Palestine problem is not merely an Arabian problem, but is fast becoming a Pan-Islamic problem”; he warned that if the “problem” was not dealt with properly, “serious trouble in India must be apprehended.”70
After the failure of a conference held in the spring of 1939 at St. James’s Palace in London involving representatives of the Palestinians, the Zionists, and the Arab states, Neville Chamberlain’s government issued a White Paper in an attempt to appease outraged Palestinian, Arab, and Indian Muslim opinion. This document called for a severe curtailment of Britain’s commitments to the Zionist movement. It proposed strict limits on Jewish immigration and on land sales (two major Arab demands) and promised representative institutions in five years and self-determination within ten (the most important demands). Although immigration was in fact restricted, none of the other provisions was ever fully implemented.71 Moreover, representative institutions and self-determination were made contingent on approval of all the parties, which the Jewish Agency would never give for an arrangement that would prevent the creation of a Jewish state. The minutes of the cabinet meeting of February 23, 1939, make it clear that Britain meant to withhold the substance of these two crucial concessions from the Palestinians, as the Zionist movement was to have effective veto power, which it would obviously use.72
The Palestinians might have gained an advantage, albeit a slight one, had they accepted the 1939 White Paper, in spite of its flaws from their perspective. Husayn al-Khalidi, for one, did not believe that the British government was sincere in any of its pledges.73 He stated acidly that he knew at the St. James’s Palace conference, which he was brought out of exile in the Seychelles to attend, that Britain “never seriously intended for one moment to be faithful to its promises.” From the first sessions, it was clear to him that the conference was a means “to gain time, and to drug the Arabs, no more and no less … to please the Arabs so they would stop their revolution,” and give the British “time to catch their breath as war clouds gathered.”74 He nevertheless came around to favoring a flexible and positive response to the White Paper, as did other Palestinian leaders such as Musa al-‘Alami and Jamal al-Husayni, the mufti’s cousin.75 In the end, however, the mufti, after indicating that he was inclined toward acceptance, insisted on outright refusal, and his position carried the day. After the St. James’s Palace conference, the British once again sent Husayn al-Khalidi into exile, this time to Lebanon. When he saw how the revolt had degenerated in the face of massive British repression and how dire the situation was in Palestine, he argued for halting the resistance. But here, too, his views were overruled.76
In any case, it was already too late. The Chamberlain government had only a few months left in office when it issued the White Paper, Britain was at war very soon afterward, and Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister, was perhaps the most ardent Zionist in British public life. More important, as World War II turned into a truly global conflict with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor, a new world was about to be born in which Britain would at best be a second-class power. The fate of Palestine would no longer be in its hands. But as Dr. Husayn bitterly noted, by this point Britain had already more than done its duty to its Zionist protégé.
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LOOKING BACK IN his three-volume memoirs written in Beirut in 1949 (during one of the many periods of exile he endured), my uncle believed that the primary problem faced by the Palestinians during the Mandate was the British.77 He deplored the bad faith and ineptitude of the leaders of the Arab states, and he directed balanced and mostly even-keeled criticism at the failures of the Palestinian leadership, including at times his own. He saw clearly the impact of the Zionist movement’s single-minded focus on complete domination of Palestine and the competence and sheer deceitful audacity of its leaders, many of whom he knew personally. But like most of his generation and class, Dr. Husayn reserved his true spleen for the British and their hostility toward the Palestinians.
He knew many of their officials well—he had served as a senior medical officer under the Mandate administration before becoming mayor of Jerusalem. He later dealt with them as a negotiator at the St. James’s Palace conference in 1939 and then in Jerusalem through the fighting of 1947–48, when he was one of the few Palestinian leaders to remain in the holy city (many were still in British-ordered exile). He apparently got on with a few British officials, and the English he had learned at the Anglican St. George’s School in Jerusalem and the American University of Beirut served him well in his dealings with them, but his resentment of the hypocrisy, haughtiness, and duplicity of British officialdom in general was boundless.78 He took T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) as a perfect example of British perfidy (although he was careful to contrast Lawrence’s frank description in Seven Pillars of Wisdom of his deception and betrayals of the Arabs with the honesty and uprightness of the British teachers and missionaries he knew in Jerusalem before the war).79
It was their consistent support for the Zionists that most angered Dr. Husayn. Even if British officials in Palestine became convinced of the unsustainable manifold costs of maintaining the iron wall to protect the Zionist project (whose leaders were often ungrateful for all that was done for them), their recommendations were almost invariably countermanded in London. At least until 1939, the Zionists were able to place their supporters, or sometimes their leaders, like the formidable Chaim Weizmann, at the elbow of key British decisionmakers in Whitehall, some of whom were also fervent Zionists. Dr. Husayn notes caustically that when official British commissions came out to Palestine to investigate the situation in the 1920s and 1930s, any conclusions they reached that were favorable to the Arabs were countered by Zionist lobbying in London, where an extraordinary degree of intimacy prevailed between Zionist leaders and senior British political figures.80
‘Isa al-‘Isa also wrote his memoirs in exile in Beirut soon after the 1948 war. His view of the interwar period differs in many respects from my uncle’s. Unlike Dr. Husayn, al-‘Isa had fallen out bitterly with the mufti after the Peel Commission report in 1937, and he suffered personally from the subsequent split in the Palestinian leadership. If in al-‘Isa’s view this internal division gravely harmed the Palestinians, so did backward social relations and lack of education among the Arabs, and above all the unwavering focus of the Zionists, backed by the British, on supplanting the indigenous population, a topic on which he had been writing eloquently for many decades. He had no love for the British nor they for him, but in his analysis the central problem was Zionism, compounded by Palestinian and Arab weakness. Fittingly, his critiques in poetry and prose of the Arab rulers after 1948 were scathing, and his descriptions of them, especially Amir ‘Abdullah, are far from complimentary.
Two further things must be said in conclusion about the revolt and about Britain’s repression of it. The first is that it proved the clear-sightedness of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the self-delusion of many British officials. The Zionists’ colonial enterprise, aimed at taking over the country, necessarily had to produce resistance. “If you wish to colonize a land in which people are already living,” Jabotinsky wrote in 1925, “you must find a garrison for the land, or find a benefactor who will provide a garrison on your behalf.… Zionism is a colonizing venture and, therefore, it stands or falls on the question of armed forces.”81 At least initially, only the armed forces provided by Britain could overcome the natural resistance of those being colonized.
Much earlier, the King-Crane Commission, sent out in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson to ascertain the wishes of the peoples of the region, had come to similar conclusions as those of Jabotinsky. Told by representatives of the Zionist movement that it “looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine” in the course of turning Palestine into a Jewish state, the commissioners reported that none of the military experts they consulted “believed that the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms,” and all considered that a force of “not less than 50,000 soldiers would be required” to execute this program. In the end, it took the British more than double that number of troops to prevail over the Palestinians in 1936 through 1939. In a cover letter to Wilson, the commissioners presciently warned that “if the American government decided to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, they are committing the American people to the use of force in that area, since only by force can a Jewish state in Palestine be established or maintained.”82 The commission thereby accurately predicted the course of the subsequent century.
The second point is that both the revolt and its repression, and the consequent successful implantation of the Zionist project, were the direct, inevitable results of the policies set out in the Balfour Declaration, and the belated implementation of the declaration of war that Balfour’s words embodied. Balfour did “not think that Zionism will hurt the Arabs,” and initially seemed to believe there would be no significant reaction to the Zionists taking over their country. But in the words of George Orwell, “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield,”83 which is precisely what happened on the battlefield in the Great Revolt, to the Palestinians’ lasting detriment.
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AFTER 1917, THE Palestinians found themselves in a triple bind, which may have been unique in the history of resistance to colonial-settler movements. Unlike most other peoples who fell under colonial rule, they not only had to contend with the colonial power in the metropole, in this case London, but also with a singular colonial-settler movement that, while beholden to Britain, was independent of it, had its own national mission, a seductive biblical justification, and an established international base and financing. According to the British official responsible for “Migration and Statistics,” the British government was not “the colonizing power here; the Jewish people are the colonizing power.”84 Making matters worse was that Britain did not rule Palestine outright; it did so as a mandatory power of the League of Nations. It was therefore bound not just by the Balfour Declaration but also by the international commitment embodied in the 1922 Mandate for Palestine.
Time and time again, expressions of deep Palestinian dissatisfaction, in the form of protests and disturbances, caused British administrators on the spot and in London to recommend modifications in policy. However, Palestine was not a crown colony or any other form of colonial possession where the British government was free to act as it pleased. If it appeared that Palestinian pressure might force Britain to violate the letter or the spirit of the Mandate, there was intensive lobbying in the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva to remind it of its overarching obligations to the Zionists.85 Thanks to Britain’s faithfulness to these obligations, by the end of the 1930s it was too late to reverse the transformation of the country or to change the lopsided balance of forces that had developed between the two sides.
The great initial disadvantage under which the Palestinians labored was compounded by the Zionist organization’s massive capital investments, arduous labor, sophisticated legal maneuvers, intensive lobbying, effective propaganda, and covert and overt military means. The Jewish colonists’ armed units had developed semi-clandestinely, until the British allowed the Zionist movement to operate military formations openly in the face of the Arab revolt. At this point, the Jewish Agency’s collusion with the mandatory authorities reached its peak. There is a consensus among objective historians that this collusion, supported by the League of Nations, severely undermined any possibility of success for the Palestinians’ struggle for the representative institutions, self-determination, and independence they believed were their right.86
What the Palestinians might have done to get out of this triple bind is an impossible question to answer. Some have argued that they should have abandoned the preferred legalistic approach of their conservative leadership of mounting empty protests and fruitlessly sending delegations to London, to appeal to British goodwill and “fair-mindedness.” Instead, this thesis suggests, they should have broken completely with the British, refused to cooperate with the Mandate (as had the Congress Party with the Raj in India or Sinn Fein with the British in Ireland), and, failing all else, they should have followed the path of their Arab neighbors and risen up in arms much sooner than they ultimately did.87 In any case, they had very few good choices in the face of the powerful triad of Britain, the Zionist movement, and the League of Nations Mandate. Moreover, they had no serious allies, besides the support of amorphous, inchoate Arab public opinion, which was solidly behind them even before 1914 but all the more so as the interwar period wore on. No Arab country (except Saudi Arabia and Yemen), however, enjoyed full independence; indeed all of them were largely still under the thumb of the British and the French, and none had fully democratic institutions, such that this pro-Palestinian opinion could express itself fully.
When the British left Palestine in 1948, there was no need to create the apparatus of a Jewish state ab novo. That apparatus had in fact been functioning under the British aegis for decades. All that remained to make Herzl’s prescient dream a reality was for this existing para-state to flex its military muscle against the weakened Palestinians while obtaining formal sovereignty, which it did in May 1948. The fate of Palestine had thus been decided thirty years earlier, although the denouement did not come until the very end of the Mandate, when its Arab majority was finally dispossessed by force.
Copyright © 2020 by Rashid Khalidi