Mandated Palestine - The beginning of Palestinian resistance

Excerpted from the report “The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917-1988,” by UNISPAL - Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR), June 30, 1978

VI. Mandated Palestine - Palestinian resistance

Throughout the period of the mandate, Palestinian resentment against the denial of their inherent right of national self-determination, and against the colonization of their land by non-Palestinians, manifested itself in a series of outbreaks of violence which, becoming virtually endemic in Palestinian politics, mounted in intensity as the mandate prolonged. The British Government regularly appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the "disturbances" and to present recommendations. But as long as the inherently conflicting lines of policy in the mandate were implemented, violence and resistance continued.

On 2 November 1918, non-violent protests marked the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. As early as April 1920, while Palestine was still under military government, anti-Jewish riots broke out just as the San Remo Conference was finalizing the allocation of the Palestine Mandate to Great Britain. The report of the military commission of inquiry was not published at the time, but was referred to in the report of the Royal Commission in 1937. The underlying causes of the riots were cited as:

"The Arabs' disappointment at the non-fulfilment of the promises of independence which they believed to have been given them in the War.

"The Arabs' belief that the Balfour Declaration implied a denial of the right of self-determination and their fear that the establishment of a national home would mean a great increase of Jewish immigration and would lead to their economic and political subjection to the Jews." 85/

Within a year of Palestine's coming under civil administration, riots again broke out in May 1921, spreading from a clash between Jewish factions. There were 95 dead and 220 injured. A formal inquiry commission, headed by Sir Thomas Haycraft, Chief Justice of Palestine, found:
"The fundamental cause of the Jaffa riots and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents.

"The immediate cause of the Jaffa riots on the 1st May was an unauthorized demonstration of Bolshevik Jews, followed by its clash with an authorized demonstration of the Jewish Labour Party.

"The racial strife was begun by Arabs, and rapidly developed into a conflict of great violence between Arabs and Jews, in which the Arab majority, who were generally the aggressors, inflicted most of the casualties.

"The outbreak was not premeditated or expected, nor was either side prepared for it; but the state of popular feeling made a conflict likely to occur on any provocation by any Jews ..." 86/
The revolt of 1929

The "Churchill Memorandum" reaffirmed the "national home" policy, and Palestinian resentment again broke out into violence in August 1929, sparked by a dispute over the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The clashes between Palestinians and Jews left 220 dead and 520 injured on both sides, and British reinforcements, including aircraft, naval vessels and armoured cars, had to be called in from outside Palestine before the situation was brought under control.

A special Commission, headed by Sir Walter Shaw, a retired Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements, investigated this outbreak. The Shaw Commission observed:
"In less than 10 years three serious attacks have been made by Arabs on Jews. For 80 years before the first of these attacks there is no recorded instance of any similar incidents. It is obvious then that the relations between the two races during the past decade must have differed in some material respect from those which previously obtained. Of this we found ample evidence. The reports of the Military Court and of the local Commission which, in 1920 and in 1921 respectively, enquired into the disturbances of those years, drew attention to the change in the attitude of the Arab population towards the Jews in Palestine. This was borne out by the evidence tendered during our inquiry when representatives of all parties told us that before the War the Jews and Arabs lived side by side if not in amity, at least with tolerance, a quality which to-day is almost unknown in Palestine". 87/
The Commission's findings on the causes of the violence:
"... If there was in Palestine in August last a widespread feeling of resentment amongst the Arabs at the failure of His Majesty's Government to grant them some measure of self-government, it is at least probable that this resentment would show itself against the Jews, whose presence in Palestine would be regarded by the Arabs as the obstacle to the fulfilment of their aspirations"."That such a feeling existed among the leaders of the Arabs and the official and educated classes there can be no question ...

"... The Arab people of Palestine are today united in their demand for representative government. This unity of purpose may weaken but it is liable to be revived in full force by any large issues which involve racial interests. It is our belief that a feeling of resentment among the Arab people of Palestine consequent upon their disappointment at the continued failure to obtain any measure of self-government ... was a contributory cause to the recent outbreak and is a factor which cannot be ignored in the consideration of the steps to be taken to avoid such outbreaks in the future". 88/
The Shaw Commission's report was a major factor in the issue of the Passfield White Paper towards redressing these grievances, but it proved abortive, and the people of Palestine were soon to resort to violence again.

The riots of 1933

In 1933, the Nazis took power in Germany, and their imminent infamous persecution of Jewry brought an exodus of Jews from Germany and other European countries. Large numbers came to Palestine, exciting the already simmering resentment again into violence. No formal commission was appointed to inquire into this new outbreak in 1933, which was surveyed in the Peel Report of 1937.

Examining the effects of the sudden increase in immigration, the report comments:
"The Arab reaction to this sudden and striking development was quite natural. All that the Arab leaders had felt in 1929 they now felt more bitterly ... the greater the Jewish inflow, the greater the obstacle to their attainment of national independence. And now, for the first time, a worse fate seemed to threaten them than the withholding of their freedom and the continuance of Mandatory rule. Hitherto, with the high rate of natural increase among the Arabs, it has seemed impossible that the Jews could become a majority in Palestine within measurable time. But what if the new flood of immigration were to rise still higher? That question gave a very different colour to the idea of self-government in Palestine as Arab nationalists had hitherto conceived it. It opened up the intolerable prospect of a Jewish State - of Palestinian Arabs being ruled by Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, to find ... the old antagonism growing hotter and hotter, till it bursts again into flames." 89/
Clashes erupted mainly in Jerusalem and Jaffa, with considerable casualties, although not as heavy as those of 1929. The report continues:
"So one more page of the history of Palestine under the Mandate had been written in blood. And there was one feature of this last outbreak of Arab violence which was as unprecedented as it was significant. In 1920, 1921 and 1929 the Arabs had attacked the Jews. In 1933 they attacked the Government. The idea that the British authorities in London or Jerusalem were trying to hold the balance even between Arab and Jews was now openly scouted. They were allies of the Jews, it was said, and the enemies of the Arabs. The Mandate was merely a cynical device for promoting British 'imperialism' under a mask of human consideration for the Jews ...

"It was thus becoming clear that the crux of the situation in Palestine was not growing less formidable with the passing of time. On the contrary, the longer the Mandate operated, the stronger and more bitter Arab antagonism to it became".90/
This Palestinian antagonism and resistance to the Mandate from then on gathered strength. By 1933, the various Palestinian political parties and groupings had united to form an Arab Executive Committee, and showed more inclination to co-operate with the British authorities. At this stage the Jews, still in a minority despite massive immigration, were the party to feel apprehension over representative government, and a new move in 1936 to set up a legislative council was defeated in Parliament after the Zionist Congress had:
"... expressed its categorical rejection of the scheme ... as contrary to the spirit of the Mandate".91/
The Palestinian rebellion against the British Mandate

In 1936, the Palestinian resistance to foreign rule and to foreign colonization broke out into a major rebellion that lasted virtually until the outbreak of the Second World War. Palestinian demands for independence drew impetus from the simultaneous nationalist agitations in Egypt and Syria which had forced Great Britain and France to open treaty negotiations with those two Arab countries neighbouring Palestine.

In April 1936, what started as minor Arab-Jewish clashes quickly flared into a widespread revolt. A new union of Palestinian political parties was formed, the Arab Higher Committee, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Al Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The Committee called for a general strike to support the demand for national government. Despite strong Palestinian resistance to Jewish immigration, the British Government issued permits for several thousand new immigrants, offering further provocation to Palestinian nationalists. An unprecedented feature of this nationalist movement was the open identification with it by senior Arab officials of the Palestine administration who protested to the High Commissioner that Palestinians had been forced to violence because of loss of faith in British pledges and alarm at the extent to which Britain was susceptible to Zionist pressure.

As the strike prolonged, violence increased. There were attacks on British troops and police posts as well as on Jewish settlements, sabotage of roads, railways, pipelines and so on. The British administration imposed curfews, called in troop reinforcements from Britain, Egypt and Malta, and resorted to mass arrests, collective fines, and internments in concentration camps and other emergency measures. Large parts of the Arab quarter in the town of Jaffa were demolished by the authorities on the grounds of urban improvement - in the midst of the revolt - but order could not be restored.

During earlier Palestinian Arab uprisings, Jewish settlers often had restrained retaliation under the doctrine of the Havlaga, or restraint. But now, not unexpectedly, there were Jewish reprisals. The principal vehicle was the Haganah, a covert paramilitary force formed early in the mandate years (and which was to play a leading role in later events in Palestine). The Jewish settlers also benefited from 2,800 of their number being enrolled in the police forces as supernumeraries.

The failure of the Palestine authorities to suppress the revolt by military means led to political measures. The British Government announced the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of the "disturbances" and turned to the rulers of other Arab States for the mediation that eventually led to the calling off of the strike in October 1936. The official count of casualties was 275 dead and 1,112 wounded, but the Royal Commission's estimate was 1,000 deaths. 92/

The end of the strike was to prove a lull in the rebellion. The issue of the Royal Commission's report brought an almost immediate renewal of violence, starting with the assassination of a British District Commissioner. Although it was not conclusively established that the assassins were Arab, the High Commissioner declared the Arab Higher Committee proscribed, arresting its prominent leaders and deporting them to the Seychelles Islands, while the Mufti of Jerusalem was able to escape to Lebanon, from where he continued to direct the rebellion.

Military courts were established, awarding 58 death sentences by the end of 1938, apart from numerous life imprisonments. 93/ To interdict support for the guerrillas, a barbed-wire fence, called the "Teggert line" was set up along portions of the Syrian, Transjordanian and Lebanese borders.
"Throughout 1937 British armed forces in Palestine had amounted to no more than two infantry brigades. In July 1938, two additional infantry battalions, two squadrons of the Royal Air Force, an armoured car and cavalry unit, and a battle cruiser were endeavouring to suppress terrorism which, since April, had become open rebellion. By the end of October there were in the country eighteen infantry battalions, two cavalry regiments, a battery of howitzers, and armoured car units, or a total of 18,000 to 20,000 troops, while some 2,930 additional British police were recruited during the year. A virtual military reoccupation of the country proved necessary to deal with the explosion of bombs and land mines, the murder and snipings which were almost daily occurrences. Heavy military concentrations alone preserved a semblance of order in the northern and central parts of the country, while the Jerusalem and southern districts were entirely out of hand ... The main military campaign culminated during the first weeks of October, when troops peacefully occupied the old city - or Arab quarter - of Jerusalem. This operation, which might have been dangerous owing to the narrow streets, was accomplished without serious loss, and by the end of that month all Palestine was under military control ...

"The nature and extent of the Arab rebellion of 1938 can be gauged not only from the figures given above of British armed forces in the country, but also from the fact that casualties during the year reached a total of 3,717, as against 246 in 1937 ..." 94/
As in the first phase of the rebellion, the Jewish side also conducted its own retaliations and reprisals. In addition to the Haganah, another organization, the Irgun Tzeva'i Leumi was active, as were "special night squads", trained by Major Orde Wingate, a serving British officer. According to Christopher Sykes, "the SNS gradually became what Wingate secretly intended, the beginnings of a Jewish army". 95/

By 1939, the large-scale military operations by the British Government against the Palestinian nationalist guerrillas were showing success. Meanwhile, Palestinian grievances were at last being heard in London at a conference attended by other Arab States. As war approached, Britain again turned to these friendly Arab States to intercede in Palestine, and the rebellion was ended after three and a half years.

The rebellion of 1936-1939 culminated 15 years of Palestinian resistance to the Mandate, and was to bring far-reaching consequences in Palestine. It left no doubt that the Palestinians would not acquiesce in the loss of their country under the Balfour Declaration and disproved the Churchill policy's insistence that the "dual obligations" undertaken could be reconciled and would not disturb the peace in Palestine. The response of the British Government had been to propose, in place of the independence pledged two decades earlier, a plan to partition Palestine.