The Palestine Revolt

BRITISH INTEREST IN PALESTINE was primarily strategic. The country was of little economic interest, but was seen to be of considerable importance to the defence of the British position in Egypt and, once Turkey was finally defeated in the First World War, bolstering British domination of the Middle East. In October 1918 Leo Amery, a key member of prime minister Lloyd George’s secretariat, argued that “strategically Palestine and Egypt go together”, that Palestine was “a necessary buffer to the Suez Canal” and “geographically practically the centre of the British Empire”.1This strategic interest intersected with the ambitions of the Zionist movement that hoped to establish a Jewish state in Palestine and was looking for an imperial sponsor.

As far as the British were concerned, this Zionist connection came to be seen as a way of strengthening the British claim to Palestine. If Britain undertook to sponsor Zionism, this would effectively see off any French claims to the country.2 Moreover, a Zionist settlement would introduce a loyal and dependent population, a sort of Jewish Ulster, into the Middle East. Even though the settlers would not be British in origin, they would owe their allegiance to the British Empire. In fact, far from strengthening the British position, the Zionist settlement was to seriously undermine it.

Zionism and Imperialism

Zionism has always looked to the imperial powers for the realisation of its ambitions.3 This derives both from the weakness of a settlement that would always require an imperial protector to defend it from the “natives” and from the position that the Middle East occupied in the struggle between rival empires. Moreover, the great majority of the world’s Jews have never shown any desire to actually live in Palestine. The Ottoman Empire had seemed a possible sponsor before the First World War and it is worth remembering that both of Israel’s first two prime ministers, David Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett, had worn the Turkish fez in their youth. Ben Gurion had studied law in Istanbul in 1913-14 and had ambitions to be elected to the Turkish parliament, while Sharett served as a volunteer officer in the Ottoman army throughout the War.4

While the settlers on the ground inevitably looked to the Turkish government for support and protection, the international Zionist movement was concerned to persuade European governments to pressure the Turks into being more sympathetic. This involved developing a relationship not only with the rival European empires, but also with openly anti-Semitic governments and politicians. Indeed, according to one historian, Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism:

regarded the anti-Semites as his most dependable friends and allies. Rather than attack and denounce anti-Semitism, Herzl declared that ‘the anti-Semites will be our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies’.5

The Zionists, at this time, argued that there was no place for Jews in countries like Russia, Germany, France, Britain or the United States, and this sentiment was reciprocated by anti-Semites in those countries. They could cooperate on the basis of this shared understanding.

With regard to Britain, Herzl had tried to interest both Joseph Chamberlain, the colonial secretary, and the colonialist Cecil Rhodes in settlement projects. Most famously, Chamberlain had offered land in East Africa, what is usually referred to as the “Uganda” proposal, although the settlement would have been in Kenya. This was more a way of attaching Zionism to the British Empire rather than a serious alternative to Palestine. What it demonstrates quite clearly, however, is the extent to which Zionism was a European settler project, a child of Western imperialism, that showed no real concern for the inhabitants of the territory to be settled.6 This was to be amply demonstrated over succeeding years. What was to be distinctive about Zionism was its promiscuity as regards choice of imperial sponsor.

The British decision to embrace Zionism was taken in response to the situation that confronted the empire in 1917. An agreement had already been concluded with the French, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, on the division of the Ottoman Empire, and at the same time the Arabs had, been promised self-government, in the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence. The incompatibility of these two separate undertakings was to be compounded by the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 that promised the Zionists a “national home” in Palestine. This was seen as a way of outmanoeuvring the French so as to ensure that Palestine fell into British hands. There was also a concern that Germany was about to announce its support for the Zionist project. Indeed, so far as most Zionists were concerned at the time, Germany was the more sympathetic country because Britain was allied with Tsarist Russia, the land of the pogrom. Indeed, when the Germans went to war in 1914, they proclaimed themselves the liberators of Polish and Russian Jewry. Moreover, the Russian government responded by treating its Jewish subjects as the “enemy within”, deporting from its Western territories over 3,000,000 million Jews, in the most appalling circumstances and with considerable loss of life.7

Lloyd George was to later emphasise the extent to which the Germans were “engaged actively in courting favour” with the Zionists. He wrote of how:

The German General Staff…urged, early in 1916, the advantages of promising Jewish restoration to Palestine…at any moment the Allies might have been forestalled in offering this supreme bid [author’s emphasis]. In fact in September 1917 the German government was making very serious efforts to capture the Zionist movement.

He put their failure down to the fact that “fortunately the Turk was too stupid to understand”. What was at stake was the support of “Jewish sentiment…throughout the world” which the Zionists promised to deliver to their benefactor. Particularly important was the belief that, by embracing Zionism, Britain would rally “Russian Jewry to the cause of the Entente”.8 The reality was, however, that Zionist promises of delivering support were empty. The movement just did not have the influence that its spokesmen claimed. Indeed, as one historian has pointed out, Chaim Weizmann, the man with whom the British negotiated, had “simply elected himself—with authority from no one—as a representative of the Jewish people”.9

Clearly, a number of factors were involved in the making of the Balfour Declaration, but what pulled them all together was imperial self-interest. Accordingly, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, sent his notorious letter, promising an Arab country to Zionist settlers, to Lord Rothschild for communication to the Zionist Federation:

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 the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.10

The Palestinian Arabs, Christian and Muslim, despite being an overwhelming majority of the population (93 percent), found themselves relegated to the status of “existing non-Jewish communities” and their “civil rights” did not include being consulted about their country being given away.

The mandate

Britain was awarded control over Palestine by the League of Nations in 1922 with the Balfour Declaration incorporated into the mandate. Moreover, the first high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, was not only a senior Liberal politician and a former home secretary, but also a Jew and a Zionist (the two were and are not interchangeable) and had only recently acted as an adviser to the Zionist movement.11 As someone whose ancestors “had dwelt in this very land for a thousand years” and who now “after another two thousand years was charged with the special duty of preparing for the return that had been longed for through all that time”, he regarded his appointment as a “high privilege”. The British government, he later wrote, not only knew “of my Zionist sympathies”, but had appointed him “largely because of them”.12

As a good Liberal, Samuel was, as Sahar Huneidi puts it, to make “pacifying statements about Zionist and British intentions”, but in practice, “he went ahead and firmly laid down the foundations of a fully-fledged Jewish state”. From the moment he took office, he introduced ordinances “vital to the Zionists”, allowing Jewish immigration, facilitating land transfers and privileging the settlers. Hebrew was recognised as an official language along with English and Arabic. The Zionist settlement was from the beginning allowed to function as a state within a state, even to the extent of establishing its own militia, the Haganah. The British treated the Zionists’ Jewish Agency, as if it was a government in waiting. As for the Arabs, they found themselves with “no voice or say in the government of the country”. One British official, Ernest Richmond, wrote home that the Arabs were starting:

To regard the government as Jewish camouflaged as English. They will not accept Jewish rule. We deny them all the representative institutions which they enjoyed under the Turks… The country is in a ferment.13

This ferment was to seriously test the British commitment to the Zionist project.

Palestinian hostility to Zionism manifested itself even before the First World War. In 1882 there had been only 24,000 Jews in Palestine, but by 1914 there were 85,000. The five Jewish settlements of 1882 had increased to 47 by 1914 and Jewish landholding from 25,000 dunams to over 420,000. Land was purchased from absentee landlords and the existing Arab tenants, who had often farmed the land for generations, were evicted to make way for European settlers. The Zionist purchase of land in the Plain of Esdraelon resulted in the eviction of 8,000 Arabs and the destruction of 22 villages.14 Inevitably this caused conflict, often violent. The first violent clashes had taken place as early as 1886 when Palestinians attacked the Zionist settlement at Petah Tikva, “inflicting considerable damage and killing one Jewish settler”. The Arab farmers felt “alienated from the land that they had cultivated for centuries” and were determined to resist. There were many such clashes in the years before the Balfour Declaration.15

Once Palestine came under British rule, hostility to Zionist settlement was joined by resentment at the way the British had reneged on promises of self-government made during the war. Indeed, as far as Palestine was concerned, self-government was ruled out until there was a Zionist majority. As Balfour had put it in a letter to Lloyd George, “In the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination”; after all, “if the present inhabitants were consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict”.16 While privately acknowledged, this policy was never made explicit for fear of the explosion of Palestinian anger it would provoke.

The first serious clashes under the mandate took place in April 1920 and May 1921. On the first occasion there was serious rioting in Jerusalem that left five Jews and four Arabs dead. The subsequent British Commission of Inquiry “listed as the causes of unrest in the country: British promises to Arabs during the war; the conflict between these promises and the Balfour Declaration; fear of Jewish domination; Zionist aggressiveness; and foreign propaganda”. It described Zionist attitudes and behaviour as “arrogant, insolent and provocative… If not carefully checked they may easily precipitate a catastrophe, the end of which is difficult to forecast”.17 The following year a much more serious outbreak took place after clashes between Zionists and Communists, all Jews, in Jaffa, on May Day. This precipitated attacks on the settlers that spread to other towns and were only suppressed by the police after 47 Jews and 48 Arabs had been killed.

What prevented the apparently inevitable progress to a full-scale Palestinian rebellion at this time? Certainly the ferocity of Arab hostility took the British authorities by surprise, and led to a pulling back from their Zionist commitment. Even the high commissioner Herbert Samuel, for example, found himself bitterly criticised by the Zionist leadership for showing too much concern for Arab sensibilities. This in turn led the Palestinian notables, the rural and urban upper class, to believe that the British were susceptible to pressure, so that a resort to violence would be unnecessary. Decisive, however, was the fact that in the 1920s the Zionist project came close to foundering altogether because European Jews showed no inclination to emigrate to Palestine.

The faltering of Jewish immigration took the edge off Palestinian hostility and indeed suggested that the Zionist settlement, the Yishuv, would never become strong enough to take over the whole country. A serious economic crisis hit the settlement in 1926 and the following year, while 3,000 immigrants arrived, 5,000 left.18 What transformed the situation was the rise of extreme anti-Semitism in Europe, in particular the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany.

The 1920s closed with a further outbreak of violence in August 1929 that was deliberately provoked by the “Revisionist” wing of the Zionist movement, the fascist sympathisers of Vladimir Jabotinsky.19 Jabotinsky’s supporters used a dispute concerning the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as an occasion for an aggressive demonstration. The resulting week of violence saw considerable damage inflicted on the Yishuv, with six settlements virtually destroyed and 133 Jews killed. Officially 117 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, but the real figure “was probably higher because many of those killed and injured were not brought to hospital”.20 The Arab fatalities were in the main inflicted by British police and troops. Indeed, what particularly disturbed the authorities was the anti-British character to the outbreak with serious clashes taking place in purely Arab towns such as Nablus, Jenin, Acre and Gaza.

The road to revolt

The Palestinians’ situation was to deteriorate during the 1930s. The rise of Nazism and the encouragement this gave to anti-Semites throughout Europe saved the Zionist project. Jewish immigration increased dramatically. The figures speak for themselves:


Number of immigrants

























According to Yehoshua Porath, 1935 was the “turning point in the struggle of the Palestinian Arabs” with immigration over 66,000 and the Zionists purchasing “almost 73,000 dunams” of land.21 Nevill Barbour makes the point that the corresponding figure for immigration into Britain just in 1935 would have been 2,000,000, while the corresponding figure for the whole period from the end of the First World War until the end of the Second World War would have been 20,000,000.22 At the same time as this massive immigration into Palestine was taking place, both Britain and the United States were severely restricting Jewish immigration. In 1935, for example, the United States only allowed in 4,837 Jewish immigrants. If we take the four years from 1932 until 1935, whereas 144,093 immigrants arrived in Palestine, the figure for the United States was only 14,118.23Moreover, whereas those Jews who actually made it to the United States or Britain arrived as refugees, in Palestine they came as colonists, determined to take the country over and displace its inhabitants. George Antonius, one of the leading Arab intellectuals of the day, made the still pertinent point in 1938 that:

The treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate suffering and distress. To place the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole civilised world. It is also morally outrageous. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of Arabs from their homeland; and the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress upon an innocent and peaceful population.24

One other point worth making here is the extent to which the Zionist movement actually collaborated with the Nazis in the 1930s, in particular with the SS. To be blunt, they found they had a shared interest in the eviction of Jews from Germany. Reinhard Heydrich no less, later to be the architect of the Holocaust, in September 1935 proclaimed his solidarity with Zionism in the SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps. The Nazis, he made clear, were “in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry itself, the so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry throughout the world, and the rejection of all assimilationist ideas”. Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the destruction of Europe’s Jews, actually visited Palestine in 1937 at the invitation of the Zionists. The Gestapo worked closely with Mossad, the Zionist agency handling illegal immigration. In 1939 Heydrich was demanding that Mossad should be sending off “400 Jews per week…from Berlin alone”. This cooperation extended to the SS providing the Haganah with smuggled arms.25 The moral bankruptcy of the Zionist movement is nowhere better demonstrated than in Ben Gurion’s response to the possibility of thousands of Jewish children being admitted into Britain after the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany. On 7 December 1938 he told a meeting of Zionist leaders:

If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of those children, but also the history of the people of Israel.26

With the Nazis, of course, there was to be no such choice.

Between 1920 and 1939 the Zionists purchased more than 846,000 dunams of land, which brought the amount of Jewish-owned land to 1,496,000 dunams. While this was only 5 percent of the country’s total land area, it was a fifth of the arable land. According to Pamela Ann Smith, what this meant was that in 1935 each Jewish colonist had an average of 28.1 dunams, while each Palestinian had only 9.4 dunams. This transfer of land into Zionist hands inevitably resulted in increased poverty and landlessness for the Arab population. Moreover, with the explosion in Jewish immigration came an influx of Jewish capital that led “to an excessively high rate of inflation when agricultural wages were severely depressed”.27 And, of course, the Arabs were not just evicted from their land, but were also confronted by the Jewish-labour only policy of the Histadrut, the Zionist trade union movement. Employers who took on Arab workers were picketed, often violently, in an attempt to drive them out. Even when they were employed Arab workers were paid considerably less than Jewish workers.28 For many Arab families, the shanty slums that grew up around the towns and cities became home. Surviving in the most appalling conditions, living in hovels, communities of the dispossessed sprang up. According to one commentator, in 1935 in Haifa alone, there were 11,000 families living in these new slums.29 These people, the rural and the urban dispossessed, were to be the backbone of the coming revolt.

The growing unrest also had a political dimension. The dramatic increase in Jewish immigration confronted the Palestinian leadership with the prospect that a Zionist majority was not too far off. This was at a time when, elsewhere in the Middle East, British and French imperialism was having to make important concessions to Arab nationalism. In Egypt, Iraq and Syria the British and the French had been forced to concede varying degrees of self-government in the face of Arab protest. In Syria a general strike that had lasted for seven weeks had forced the French to retreat. Only in Palestine were there to be no concessions. British commitment to the Zionists meant that there would be no self-government until there was a Zionist majority. Reluctantly and half-heartedly, the Palestinian leadership, that had hitherto placed its reliance on the British, recognised that a stand would have to be made.

On 27 October 1933 a demonstration against Jewish immigration was dispersed by police gunfire that left 15 protesters dead. A general strike was called that was accompanied by demonstrations and protests that left another ten people dead. The authorities rode out the disturbances, apparently oblivious to the deteriorating situation. And all the time the settlers became increasingly arrogant and aggressive in the belief that the future belonged to them. The Yishuv was increasing in wealth and numbers and, courtesy of the Nazis, was taking steps to arm itself. This became common knowledge in October 1935, when a secret shipment that included 254 Mauser pistols and 50,000 rounds of ammunition was discovered in Jaffa. Arab opinion was outraged.30

Even while the notables, led by the Mufti, Mohamad Amin al-Husayni, still hoped for British intervention on their behalf, others were deciding to resort to arms. A Syrian preacher, Izz al-Din al-Qassam, whose following was among the dispossessed, was organising an underground network. His intention was to launch a revolutionary war. He took to the hills around Jenin with a guerrilla band, but it was wiped out by the British and he was killed in November 1935. His death, according to the Mufti’s biographer, “sent a wave of grief and rage over Palestine. He became a symbol of martyrdom and self-sacrifice, embodying for her people a selflessness conspicuously absent among their leaders”.31 His funeral was “a great national demonstration against the government”.32 The Mufti and the rest of the Palestinian leadership were noticeably absent. Events were escaping from their grasp.

Ben Gurion later paid a begrudging tribute to the dead Islamic revolutionary. In July 1938, he told a Zionist audience:

From the time of Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam it was clear to me that we were facing a new phenomenon among the Arabs…not a matter of a political career or money. Sheikh Al Qassam was a zealot ready to sacrifice his life for an ideal. Today we have not one, but hundreds, perhaps thousands like him. Behind them is the Arab people.33

The Great Revolt, 1

According to Rosemary Sayigh, the Palestinian Revolt “was the most sustained phase of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Arab world before the Algerian War of Independence”.34 What is astonishing is how little it figures in British history books. A revolt that was sustained from 1936 to 1939, that for a while saw much of Palestine in rebel hands, and whose defeat was a vital preparation for the mass expulsion of the Palestinians from their land in 1948, has been pretty much ignored. And indeed, much the same was true at the time. The British left, for example, was vitally concerned with the civil war in Spain, but virtually ignored the great popular rebellion against British imperialism in Palestine, a rebellion that was put down with considerable brutality.35 What will be argued here is that the revolt was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East and that the British response is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the empire.

While the outbreak was inevitable, given the accumulation of Palestinian grievances, what finally precipitated the revolt was an attack by Arab guerrillas, almost certainly followers of al-Qassam, on 17 April 1936. A bus was stopped near Nablus and two Jewish passengers were killed. Two days later Revisionist gunmen killed two Arab shepherds in reprisal. These sparks were enough to ignite a massive conflagration. On 19 April there was serious rioting in Jaffa in which nine Jews were killed. The following day a general strike was called and quickly spread throughout Palestine with local committees being formed to supervise the stoppage. This was very much a spontaneous affair. It was the work of an emerging radical leadership at local level that was acting independently of the traditional notables. The general strike was called, for example, without the Mufti’s involvement. According to his biographer, the Mufti was still trying to serve “two masters, the British and the Palestinians, and was now being forced to choose”. On 25 April a Committee of Ten, soon to become the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), involving all the Arab political factions, was formed. The Mufti became its president. The AHC was very much “the child of the spontaneous revolt” rather than its father as it appears in some accounts, and at least initially, “it did not lead the revolt so much as be led by it”. Leadership remained in the hands of the local committees, “controlled by young radicals”.36 According to George Antonius, far from the revolt “being engineered by the leaders”, it was, in fact, in a very marked way a challenge to their authority and an indictment of their methods.37

The general strike was to last for 175 days, the longest in history. It was inevitably accompanied by considerable violence and in the countryside armed bands were formed that clashed with the British and the Zionists. The movement had some weaknesses. In Haifa, Arab dockers soon returned to work for fear of their jobs being taken by Zionist scabs. The Histadrut was everywhere involved in providing “highly motivated strike-breakers”.38 More important, the AHC did not call out Arab civil servants, but instead demanded that they donate part of their salaries. This was a serious mistake. If they had come out on strike, the administration would have been brought “to an almost total standstill”.39 The British responded to this challenge with repression that increased in ferocity as the strike went on.

When the British brought in troops to restore order in the towns and cities in late May, they found themselves faced by barricades, stoned by hostile crowds and shot at by snipers. In Gaza resistance was so fierce that tanks and armoured cars had to be sent into the city. The situation was most serious in Jaffa. Here the high commissioner, Arthur Wauchope, confessed that the old city of narrow streets and alleyways “formed a hostile stronghold into which government forces dare not penetrate”.40 The British responded by blowing up 237 houses, ostensibly on public health grounds, leaving thousands of people homeless. As John Marlowe observed, most were forced to live “in insanitary hovels on the outskirts of Jaffa, built mainly from old petrol tins. So much for the administration’s concern for sanitation”.41 With the armed reoccupation of the towns and cities, the revolt’s centre of gravity shifted to the countryside where the armed bands were in control. Volunteers came from other Arab countries to bolster the armed struggle. The Syrian revolutionary, Fawzi al-Qawuqji established a revolutionary command in an attempt to give the movement direction and control.

The British responded to what was becoming a guerrilla war with mass arrests, shootings, torture and the blowing up of houses. By the time the general strike was finally called off on 10 October 1936, 37 British troops and police had been killed, 80 Jewish settlers and over a thousand Palestinians. The scale and ferocity of the revolt were such that there can be no real doubt that, but for their Zionist commitment, the British would have made substantial concessions to the Palestinians to bring the conflict to an end. Not only was the revolt proving extremely costly, but it was also compromising Britain’s relations with the rest of the Arab world. The British desperately needed some way out that could satisfy both their Zionist commitment and placate the Palestinians. To this end, the British government appointed the Peel Commission.

While the AHC demanded independence for Palestine, the Peel Commission was to recommend the partition of the country. Its report, published on 7 July 1937, proposed that Palestine and neighbouring Transjordan be divided into a Jewish state, an Arab state and a British enclave. The Zionists were to receive 40 percent of Palestine consisting of the coastal plain, though not the port cities of Jaffa, Haifa and Acre, which were to remain under British control, and most of Galilee, with its hundreds of Arab villages. The British were to control a strategic corridor from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The rest of Palestine and Transjordan would become an Arab state ruled by King Abdullah. The proposed Zionist state would have a population of 258,000 Jews and 225,000 Arabs, while the proposed Arab state would have a Jewish minority of only 1,250.42 For those Arabs unfortunate enough to find themselves in the new Jewish state, forced removal was, given the Zionists’ track record, a certain fate. Ben Gurion made the position absolutely clear: “I am for compulsory transfer; I don’t see anything immoral in it”.43 Nevertheless, while the commission promised the establishment of a Jewish state, there was considerable argument within the Zionist movement about whether its proposals were acceptable. The Revisionists, for whom any Jewish state that did not encompass the whole of Palestine, together with Transjordan, part of Syria and much of Lebanon, was a betrayal, inevitably rejected the proposals out of hand. The Jewish Agency, however, while sharing most of the Revisionists’ territorial ambitions, took a more pragmatic view. Partition was acceptable because it would establish a Jewish state now. The seizure of more territory would become possible as the Jewish state became strong enough to wage wars of conquest. The AHC rejected the proposals as totally unacceptable. The revolt flared up again.

Before we consider the second phase of the Great Revolt, it is worth briefly examining the attitude of the British Labour Party to the struggle in Palestine. The Labour Party had endorsed Zionism even before the Balfour Declaration. In 1922, Ramsay MacDonald, the party leader, had published an enthusiastic appreciation of the Zionist project, A Socialist in Palestine, and remained a consistent supporter of the cause for the rest of his life. In 1930, when Labour was in power the colonial secretary, Sidney Webb, proposed a retreat from the Balfour commitment in deference to Arab objections. He was repudiated by the now prime minister, MacDonald, after frantic Zionist lobbying.

With the outbreak of the Great Revolt, Labour took its stand with the Zionist settlers, condemning the general strike and armed insurrection as “fascist” and urging the government to stand firm. Initially Labour opposed the Peel Commission’s partition proposals as a betrayal of Zionism, but once the Jewish Agency indicated its acceptance, inevitably the party endorsed their stand. Herbert Morrison, one of the party’s leaders, was not alone in his enthusiastic celebration of Zionist colonisation: “The Jews have proved to be first class colonisers, to have the real good, old empire qualities, to be really first class colonial pioneers”. This Labour support for Zionism was to continue into the Second World War. In 1944 the party was actually to propose the removal of the Arab population from Palestine “on humane grounds… Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in”.44 The Palestinians had nothing to gain from looking towards the Labour Party.

The Great Revolt, 2

On 26 September 1937 Palestinian revolutionaries assassinated the district commissioner of Galilee, Lewis Andrews, and his police bodyguard in Nazareth. This attack was condemned by the AHC, but the British seized on it as an opportunity to arrest as much of the Arab leadership as possible. The Mufti, however, managed to escape to Syria. Andrews’ successor in Galilee, Alec Kirkbride, regarded the arrests as a mistake as they left “no Arabs of influence with whom I could deal and the masses were completely out of control”. On taking up his post, it was made clear to him by his Arab subjects that he “would be killed at the first opportunity as would anyone else who followed next”.45 The response to the arrests was a revival of the guerrilla war in the countryside, but at a level of intensity far greater than in 1936. Moreover, the struggle increasingly took on a class dimension with “the poor peasantry…asserting themselves against the landowning elite”. For a brief period, according to Ann Lesch, the people challenged the political dominance of this elite.46

The revolt increased in strength through the winter of 1937 and into 1938, achieving its greatest successes that summer and autumn. Much of the countryside was in rebel hands, with revolutionary courts set up and a revolutionary administration beginning to emerge at a local level. At the height of the revolt there were between 10,000 and 15,000 rebel fighters in arms. As their hold on the countryside tightened, the rebels moved down into the cities, occupying Jaffa, Beersheba, Gaza, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah and other centres. In October 1938 they took over the Old City of Jerusalem, driving out the police. The rebels proclaimed a moratorium on all debts, something very popular with the poor, and proscribed the Turkish fez, insisting that the kaffiyah headdress of the Arab revolutionaries be worn in the cities.

For the British, the situation was dire. Hugh Foot, an assistant district commissioner, later remembered that they were confronting:

a full-scale rebellion… All ordinary administration ceased. Every morning I looked through a list of disorders and destruction—telephones cut, bridges damaged, trains derailed, convoys ambushed, fighting in the hills. For two years I never moved without a gun in my hand—we soon learned that it was useless to have a gun in the holster.47

Another official, Edward Keith-Roach, district commissioner for Jerusalem, remembered how:

On three occasions I missed death from bombs by a few inches, and Arabs were caught with revolvers in my garden a couple of times… Scores of my acquaintances met their death by bullet or bomb, and one never knew who would be the next victim… Police and military were attacked 1,000 times and Jewish settlements over 600. The telephone was sabotaged on 700 occasions and the railways and roads on 340. The Iraqi Petroleum Company pipeline was damaged at an average rate of twice a week.48

At the end of November 1938 the commander in chief, General Richard Haining, reported “a very deep-seated rebellious spirit throughout the whole Arab population, spurred on by the call of a Holy War”. The rebels, he went on, have “such a hold over the mass of the population that it is not untrue to say that every Arab in the country is a potential enemy of the government”.49 One of his divisional commanders reported that “the country was in a state of extreme unrest bordering on anarchy”.50 With the international situation threatening war with Germany in 1938, the British could not reinforce their forces in Palestine. Once Chamberlain’s government concluded the Munich Agreement with Hitler in September, however, reinforcements could be rushed in. The reconquest of the country could now begin. The British set about regaining control of the cities, with Jerusalem being cleared first. Once this was achieved, the “pacification” of the countryside could begin. This was to be accomplished with considerable brutality.

The routine brutality of colonial rule is brought out in David Smiley’s account of his experiences as a young officer in Palestine. He was invited to accompany a police patrol on a raid. They burst into a house, seizing three suspects. The women and children were sent out while the prisoners were interrogated:

The first man was seized by two Arab policemen and held upside down while his feet were placed between a rifle and its sling. He was then kept in this position while policemen took it in turns to beat the soles of his feet with a leather belt with short pauses for questioning. After a time, he agreed to talk, and the beating ceased. The second man talked after the application of a lighted cigarette to his testicles, but the third seemed to be the leader and was more truculent. In a flash, the Arab sergeant flew at him and hit him in the face until both his eyes were closed, blood was flowing and a number of teeth were spewed out onto the floor. He then agreed to talk.

The young Smiley was, he admits, “somewhat shocked” by all this, and complained, quite correctly, that these were the methods of the Gestapo. He was assured “that force was the only language these Arabs understood” and that one never had to torture prisoners oneself, but ordered the Arab police to do it.51

This particular episode is worth recounting for two reasons. First, it is a graphic illustration of the nature of British rule in Palestine. Second, in more general terms, the reality of colonial rule is that it always rests on the shoulders of a policeman or soldier beating a suspect or applying a cigarette to their testicles. This is something that the apologists for the empire, whether they be politicians, academics or journalists, are seldom prepared to confront.

The letters home of another British policeman, Sydney Burr, provide further insight into the reality of British rule. He complained of the leniency of the courts, but happily this was not too much of a problem because “any Johnny Arab who is caught by us in suspicious circumstances is shot out of hand”. After a bomb attack, he described how the police had “descended on the sook [market] and thrashed every Arab we saw, smashed all shops and cafes and created havoc and bloodshed”. Most disturbing, perhaps, was his revelation concerning road accidents: “Most accidents out here are caused by police as running over an Arab is the same as a dog in England except we do not report it”.52 Charles Tegart, a man with considerable experience of policing the “natives’”in India, was bought in to advise the British administration. One of his innovations was the establishment of “Arab Investigation Centres” where “the gentle art of the third degree” was practised on Arab suspects “until they spilled the beans”.53 Indeed, the phrase “duffing up” actually comes from the interrogatory exploits of one particular police man, Douglas Duff.54

From late 1938 into 1939 the Great Revolt was relentlessly ground down. Villages were bombed (Arthur Harris of Second World War fame, the RAF Air Commodore in Palestine, advocated “one 250 lb or 500 lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn”).55 While the fascist bombing of Guernica in Spain caused outrage in Britain, British aircraft were bombing Palestinian villages with hardly a murmur. In 1938 one RAF squadron alone dropped 768 20 lb and 29 112 lb bombs and fired over 62,000 rounds in operations against rebel targets.56 Thousands of Palestinians were interned without trial, harsh collective punishments were imposed on whole communities, routine use was made of Arab hostages as human shields, and ID cards were introduced. Collective punishments were often drastic. After the shooting of an assistant district commissioner in Jenin in August 1938, much of the town was blown up as a reprisal. Early the following year an army vehicle was blown up by a mine, killing one soldier and wounding two others. In reprisal much of the village of Kafr Yasif was burned down. When neighbouring villagers came to help put out the fires, they were machine-gunned, and nine of them were killed.57 One last episode is worth mentioning, the screening of the inhabitants of the village of Halhul in the summer of 1939. Suspects were kept in the open for five days with hardly any water as a punishment. At the end of the five days many of them had collapsed and five were dead.58 The British also hanged 112 Palestinian freedom fighters.

The British were, of course, able to call on the assistance of the Zionists in their efforts to crush the revolt. The Jewish Agency was eager to cooperate, providing strike-breakers through the Histadrut and thousands of volunteer police through the Haganah. Most important was the establishment of the Special Night Squads by Orde Wingate, a British officer, who “went out to beat the Arab gangs at their own game. His methods were extreme and cruel”.59 The Special Night Squads, Jewish volunteers under British officers, were what today would be called “death squads”, torturing and summarily executing prisoners and suspects. While the Jewish Agency cooperated with the British, the Revisionists through their underground militia, the Irgun, carried out a series of terrorist bombings of Palestinian civilian targets. On 6 July 1938 a bomb killed 21 Arabs in a market in Haifa; on 15 July ten Arabs were killed by a bomb in Jerusalem; on 25 July, another market bombing in Haifa killed 39 Arabs; and on 26 August a bomb in Jaffa killed 24 Arabs.60 The Palestinians staged a week-long general strike in protest against these attacks.

Defeat and aftermath

The British had successfully defeated the Great Revolt by the spring of 1939, although military and police operations continued throughout the rest of the year and into 1940. By the end of the conflict some 5,000 rebels had been killed. But while the revolt was militarily defeated, the increasing danger of war with Nazi Germany forced the British into major concessions to the Palestinians. The prospect of war increased Palestine’s strategic importance and made the maintenance of good relations with the Arab states throughout the Middle East an absolute priority. To this end, in May 1939, the Chamberlain government issued a White Paper that in effect repudiated the Balfour Declaration. For the next five years Jewish immigration was to be limited to 75,000 people and after that could only be resumed with Palestinian agreement. In the House of Commons the Labour Party and a handful of Conservatives led by Winston Churchill voted against this “betrayal” of the Zionist cause. The retreat was considered necessary, however, to safeguard the empire’s position in the Middle East. The Zionists were, of course, outraged, but in fact this was to be only a temporary setback. The reality of the situation was that the Yishuv had increased in strength considerably during the revolt, while the Palestinians had been weakened. Although still dependent on the British for the time being, the Jewish Agency, with Ben Gurion leading the way, began looking for a more reliable imperial sponsor that would not feel the same need to appease the Arabs. Ben Gurion increasingly looked to the United States.

During the Second World War the Jewish Agency followed a policy of cooperating with the British against the Nazis while, at the same time, fighting to overthrow Chamberlain’s White Paper. The Revisionists split with one faction opting to cooperate with the British, while another faction actually attempted to ally itself with the Nazis. By now, of course, the Nazis were moving in the direction of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and their earlier cooperation was soon forgotten. The Mufti, however, did ally himself with Nazi Germany, hoping for a British defeat in the Middle East. This did the Palestinian cause considerable damage, although there is no evidence that he was complicit in the Holocaust. As for the Zionists, by the end of the war they felt themselves strong enough to break with the British Empire and in October 1945 launched a guerrilla campaign to drive the British out of Palestine. This war continued until the British finally evacuated the country at the end of June 1948. With the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union, the Zionists proceeded to establish the state of Israel, driving out some 700,000 Palestinians in the process. While the Americans provided diplomatic support, the Russians actually armed the new state.61 Both countries saw their support for Israel as a way of weakening the British Empire. And, indeed, the British had suffered the first major blow to their position in the Middle East at the hands of people they had invited in.

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