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Arab Revolt (in Palestine) or "The Great Uprising" Definition

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Arab Revolt (in Palestine) - The Arab revolt in Palestine should be distinguished from the Arab revolt of WW I that was led by Lawrence of Arabia and Sherif Hussein. It was also called "The Meoraot" - by the Jews, and the "Praot" - riots, and the "Great uprising" by the Arabs.

The "Arab revolt" in Palestine, or "The Great Uprising" took place between 1935-6 and 1939. It  consisted of a strike including withholding of taxes, of acts of sabotage against British forces, assassination of British officials, murder of Jewish civilians and murder of other Arabs. The revolt was triggered by Arab dissatisfaction and alarm at the relatively large number of Jewish immigrants arriving in the early 1930s, worsening economic conditions due to the world depression and other factors, and disaffection stirred up by the Husseini clan.

The revolt was a pivotal event in the history of Zionism and of Palestine:

  • It signaled the real beginning of active involvement of the Arab states  in the Palestinian cause.

  • It established an ethos of Arab violence and of Jewish reprisals against Arab civilians.

  • It destroyed the leadership of the Palestinian Arab community. This occurred mostly because Hajj Amin El Husseini's Al Futuwwa (officially designated "Nazi Scouts"[1]) liquidated most of the Palestinian opposition, especially the Nashashibi and Nusseibeh families.

  • It precipitated a final break between the Zionist movement and the British when the British ended Jewish immigration with the White Paper  of 1939. This embittered the Zionist movement, especially when it turned out that nearly all the Jews trapped in Europe were murdered in the Holocaust.

  • It helped to create the Haganah as an effective fighting force and at the same time generated the Irgun as a dissident group.

  • It gave birth to the idea of Palestine partition - the Peel Commission Report, generated as a result of the revolt, floated the idea of partition of Palestine.

The events of the revolt thus set the stage for the further events of 1946-1948 including partition of Palestine,  Israel independence  and the clash of the Arabs and Jews of Palestine in the war of 1948. These however, were postponed because of the intervention of World War II.

All of the issues of the Arab-Zionist struggle in Palestinian had matured and had been framed by the time of the uprising. Each side was right from their point of view. The real issue was the threat of a Jewish majority in Palestine, which would make Palestinian Arabs lose  any hope of political control of Palestine. The reality of the threat was brought home by the increase in Jewish population from 17% to 27% of Palestinian population in five years. In 1935, the last big immigration year, over 66,000 Jews had arrived in Palestine, mostly from Germany where conditions had become intolerable with the rise of Nazism. The Arab perception of the threat was made quite clear from the start. By 1919, representatives of the Jaffa Muslim-Christian council were saying:

"We will push the Zionists into the sea or they will push us into the desert" [2]

This animosity and desire for domination was legitimate from the narrow standpoint of nationalist interests, though it is to be noted that the Arabs of Palestine had never had political control of Palestine in all history. It was originally a province of the Arab Caliphate and later a province of the Mameluke and Ottoman Turkish empires. During the time of the Crusader kingdom they were ruled by Christian Europeans.

The Palestinians wished to present their cause in a different light. Therefore, the issue was carefully disguised as a fear of economic displacement for the purposes of convincing British commissions regarding the "plight" of the Arabs of Palestine. However, there were no real data to back up the claims of economic deprivation. The Arabs of Palestine enjoyed an unprecedented economic advance during most of the period of the British mandate (see Zionism and Its Impact ), though the period in question coincided with a world depression and with a local drought that had forced many Palestinians off the land.  To bolster their claims however, the Arabs of Palestine could point out the announced policy of the Zionist movement of encouraging the hiring of Jewish, rather than Arab workers in Jewish industries. They could also point out that they were denied democratic representation according to their numbers in the government of Palestine.

From their point of view, the Zionist movement had invested large sums of money  in Palestine, as well as considerable efforts in helping to secure a British Mandate for Palestine. All this was done to obtain a national home, and the further investment and cooperation with the mandate was on the basis of the promise, secured in the Mandate of the League of Nations, that Palestine would be a national home for the Jewish people. Moreover, the Jews of Europe were rightly perceived to be in mortal peril. It seemed a natural right and duty for the Jews of Palestine to extend every aid and shelter to their brothers. If Arabs had faced a similar danger, would not the Arabs of Palestine have rallied to their aid?

The revolt can be viewed as having the following stages and major "events" associated with it.

Prologue - The economic and political setting and events prior to the revolt.

Revolt of Izzedin el-Qassam and his death at the hands of the British in November 1935.

Cooptation by the Mufti and The General Strike - The revolt was coopted by Grand Mufti Hajj Amin el Husseini. Establishment of the Arab higher committee and the general strike and sporadic violence in the spring of 1936. During this period, the Zionist Executive and the Haganah counseled Havlaga - self control, and dissident Etzel (Irgun) likewise followed this policy.

The interlude of the Peel Commission - The general strike was called off and violence was stopped beginning in October of 1936, in order to give the Peel commission time to work.

Resumption of the Revolt - After the efforts of the Peel commission ended in failure, the revolt resumed. In September or October of 1937, the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin el Husseini and much of the Arab Higher Committee were forced to flee after the murder of Lewis Andrews, the British High Commissioner for the Galilee. - The revolt did not end with the flight of Husseini and the higher committee, but rather increased in intensity, to the point where the British lost control entirely in Jerusalem and Beersheba for while. Numerous greater or lesser attacks on Jews like the Kiryat Haroshet Massacre of 1938 caused the Etzel to move to reprisal attacks, and the Haganah also began more pinpoint reprisals.

St James Conference - The British called a "round table conference" in London in February 1939 in an attempt to get some agreement regarding the future of Palestine. The conference was a failure.

Further suppression of the revolt - The revolt sputtered on until September of 1939 despite the issuance of the British White Paper in May of 1939 and despite brutal attempts at suppression. The final dissolution of the revolt did not come until the outbreak of World War II. Remarkably, until that time, the French had allowed the leadership of the revolt to continue its operations in Damascus unhindered. When war broke out, the French suppressed the Damascus leadership and the revolt came to an end.

The events of the revolt are surprisingly poorly documented in histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Militarily the Arabs suffered the most.  About 500 Jews and 4,500- 5,000 Arabs died in total. A large number of Arabs were killed by Husseini's faction, which apparently killed more Arabs than Jews, and most of the rest were killed by brutal British reprisals. There was at least one massacre of Jews in Tiberias. In Jerusalem and Hebron, the Arabs wrested control from the British and the Jewish communities had to be evacuated. The remnant of the Hebron community, which had been weakened by the massacre of 1929  after  living there for hundreds of years, did not return after 1936. The Jewish community in the old city of Jerusalem was greatly depopulated. Additionally, there were numerous separate incidents of terror, directed against Jewish civilians, against infrastructure and against British officials and soldiers.  Zionist sources do not dwell on Arab massacres and violence very much, because at the time the importance of Arab violence was minimized so as not to discourage immigration to Palestine. Diplomatically, there is no doubt that the Arabs won their objective with the publication of the British White Paper of 1939, which ended Jewish immigration for all practical purposes. In any event, immigration had been curtailed during the years of the revolt.

An aspect of the revolt that is especially poorly documented is the chain of leadership and financing. The revolt was coopted in its later stages by the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al Husseini and his family, but it was ignited by Izzedin el Qassam, a Syrian immigrant to Palestine, and the military leadership and supply bases remained in Syria, which was controlled by the French. As noted, no steps were taken against this leadership until the outbreak of World War II.


The violence and agitation that had come to the fore in the riots of 1929 never really stopped. There were continual incidents, meetings and initiatives by Palestinians against Jewish settlement in Palestine. According to Ghassan Kanafani [3] the following parties had been formed by 1935 with the dissolution of the Arab Executive Committee:

  1. The Arab Palestine Party, in May 1935, headed by Jamal al-Hussaini; it more or less embodied the policy of the Mufti and represented the feudalists and big city merchants.
  2. The National Defense Party, headed by Raghib al-Nashashibi; founded in December 1934, represented the new urban bourgeoisie and the senior officials.
  3. The Independence Party, which had been founded in 1932, with Auni Abd al-Hadl at its head. It included the intellectuals, the middle bourgeoisie and some sectors of the petty-bourgeoisie; this contributed to its left wing playing a special role.
  4. The Reform Party which, founded by Dr Husain al-Khalidi in August 1935, represented a number of intellectuals.
  5. The National Bloc Party, headed by Abd al-Latif Salah.
  6. The Palestine Youth Party, headed by Ya'qub al-Ghusain.

The Mufti's Arab Palestine party and the National Defence party were probably the most important, representing the Husseini clan and the Nashashibi clan respectively. The Nashashibi clan controlled the mayoralty of Jerusalem. This gave it a political base as well contact and cooperation with Jews who were employed by the Jerusalem municipality. The party represented a relatively moderate line in Palestinian politics. An allied but separate moderate influence was the reform party, which was established by the Khalidi and Budeiri families [4]. Palestinian politics was thus a reflection of Palestinian clan structure and represented the ruling clans of Palestine. As Kanafani points out, most of the Palestinian workers and peasants were not represented in these parties. The party that was to lead the revolt, the Husseini party, represented the feudal landowners as Kanafani points out, and the Imams and religious establishment, organized in the Supreme Muslim Council run by the Mufti.

Hajj Amin El Husseini had been appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem by the British. His Supreme Muslim Council controlled considerable funds that were taken from the Palestine budget, as well as donations that Husseini raised for the purpose of renovating the mosques in Jerusalem. At least some of these moneys were diverted for propaganda. Husseini used his post as Mufti to build his base with Arab traditionalists as well as to stay close to the British mandatory officials. At the same time, he tried to enlist the help of the Axis powers. He approached the German consul and according to Italian sources, was funded for a long time by the Italian fascist government. His nephew, Jamal Husseini, formed the Arab Palestine (or Palestine Arab party) to meet the challenge posts by the Nashashibis. The Husseini faction probably did not participate directly in any of the violence that preceded the revolt, but certainly contributed incitement, rhetoric and ideological leadership.

The objective bases for Palestinian Arab dissatisfaction and fright over Jewish immigration and land purchases are difficult to judge and were certainly greatly exaggerated by the Mufti and his followers. Jewish immigration to Palestine had certainly increased in the 1930s, owing to relatively good economic conditions in Palestine and the rise of anti-Semitism first in Poland and then in Germany, followed by the German Anschluss (annexation of Austria) and invasion of Czechoslovakia. The following table summarizes Jewish immigration in the relevant years. In the last year before the revolt, about 67,000 Jews had arrived in Palestine. About 150,000 in all had arrived since 1933.

Table 1: Jewish immigration to Palestine
Year Immigrants
1931 4,075
1932 12,533
1933 37,337
1934 45,267
1935 66,472
1936 29,595
1937 10,629
1938 14,675
1939 31,195
1940 10,643
1941 4,592

In 1931, Jews constituted less than 17% of the population. By  1935, 27% of the population of Palestine was Jewish. The British blue book estimates showed 355,000 Jews in Palestine (see Population of Palestine). Kanafani wrote:

Between 1933 and 1935, 150,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine, bringing the country's Jewish population to 443,000 - or 29.6%

This is untrue according to British statistics. Jewish population did not reach 443,000 until about 1939 (see Population of Palestine) .

For racists who are worried about "demography," such an increase in itself is surely alarming. According to Kanafani and other Palestinian sources, the immigration and land purchases resulted in massive displacement of Palestinian workers and dispossession of Palestinian tenant farmers from their land. Objective data do not seem to bear out these claims. There were local pockets of unemployment. In Jaffa, Kanafani writes, by the end of 1935, 2,270 men and women workers were unemployed, with a population of 71,000. This might represent unemployment of 10% or 15% of the work force (perhaps 15,000-20,000 in a population of 71,000) in a city that was chosen to dramatize the plight of Palestinian workers. Considering that unemployment rates of 25% or more were not uncommon in Europe in those depression years, it is not a reason for armed revolt in itself. Overall, Palestinian Arab workers and peasants had a consistently higher standard of living than their counterparts in surrounding Arab countries, and these gains increased over time as we have shown elsewhere (see Zionism and Its Impact ).

The fact is, that the area of land under cultivation by Arabs increased dramatically during the mandate years.  in 1922, there were 22,000 dunams of Arab land producing citrus crops. In 1940, there were 140,000 dunams of Arab citrus land, mostly producing crop for export in Palestine. In 1931 Arabs had  332,000 dunams of olive groves and apple orchards. By 1942 they had 832,000 dunams under cultivation. [5].

Palestinian Arab agriculture and industry enjoyed an unprecedented growth during the period of the Mandate. Objectively and subjectively, these gains were obscured by several factors:

1- During the particular period in question there was a severe world economic recession as well as a local drought.

2-Some traditional Palestinian Arab industries could not compete in the world market or became unprofitable due to rising wages in other industries. Quoting Kanafani:

Between 1930 and 1935, Palestinian Arab pearl industry exports fell from PL 11,532 to PL 3,777 a year. The number of Palestinian Arab soap factories in Haifa alone fell from 12 in 1929 to 4 in 1935. Their export value fell from PL 206,659 in 1930 to PL 79,311 in 1935.

This failure could hardly be blamed on Jews or Zionists. No Jews had invested or were employed in these industries, and Jewish industries did not compete with them. Nonetheless, Kanafani writes:

It was clear that the Arab proletariat had fallen "victim to British colonialism and Jewish capital, the former bearing the primary responsibility."

Why was it clear? To whom? How could the Jews be responsible for the failure of the Arab Palestinian pearl industry or the soap industry?

3- Relative to Jewish workers and Jewish farmers, the wages of Arab Palestinians continued to lag, and in the period in question, apparently fell absolutely. Kanafani writes:

An official census in 1937 indicated that an average Jewish worker received 145% more in wages than his Palestinian Arab counterpart: (As high as 433% more in textile factories employing Jewish and Arab women, and 233% in tobacco factories ). "By July 1937, the real wages of the average Palestinian Arab worker decreased 10% while those of a Jewish worker rose 10%."

In part, the wage differential represented discrimination on the part of Jewish employers. This was a policy of the Zionist organization. The justification given for it was that Arab workers usually lived with their extended family and did not pay rent, whereas Jews lived in the city and had to pay rent as well as higher prices for food and services.  In part, it represented the fact that Arab employers paid less for the same work. That was hardly the fault of the Zionists.  In part, it represented different pay for different skills. By July 1937 of course, the uprising had been going on for well over a year. Arabs had undertaken a general strike and were involved in violence. Arabs were undesirable and suspect employees for Jews. Arabs found employment in Arab industries and agriculture, which paid less. This is probably reflected in the fall in real wages as well as in dismissals of Arabs from work in the Jewish sector. Certainly, the fall in wages in 1937 did not cause the uprising of Izzedin el Qassam in 1935.

4- Selective hiring of Jews by Zionists. Kanafani documents:

The policy of dismissal of Palestinian Arab workers from firms and projects controlled by Jewish capital initiated violent clashes. In the four Jewish settlements of Malbis, Dairan, Wadi Hunain and Khadira, there were 6,214 Palestinian Arab workers in February 1935. After six months, this figure went down to 2,276, and in a year's time, went down to 617 Palestinian Arab workers only.

The last "settlement" is Hedera. It is not clear what the others were. Hedera at least, was on land purchased by the Jewish agency. Before it was developed by the Zionists, there was no employment there for anyone. Jewish Labor did not displace Arab labor. At most, we could say that Jews were now employing less Arabs than previously. Note that the time period cited coincides with the beginning of the disturbances. It is not clear to what extent it was due to "Jews only" hiring practices adopted for ideological reasons and to what extent it was due to firing of Arabs when the disturbances and strikes began, for security reasons or because they did not show up for work. If this process had been an actual cause of the unrest, then it would have been taking place before the unrest began, and not simultaneously with it. 

However, there was certainly a policy of discriminatory hiring. it was felt that Zionist funding should be used to provide jobs for Jewish immigrants. On the other hand, it was felt that hiring of Arabs would establish an unhealthy relationship in which Jews were capitalists and Arabs workers, and that would lead to anti-Semitism. Ben Gurion explained: [6]

  “We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland”  

Built in to the Arab complaint against Avoda Ivrit (Jewish labor) was the assumption that the Zionists owed employment to the Arabs of Palestine. This might have been a valid complaint if Arab industries and agriculture were open to Jews, but they were not. As it is, Zionist investment could not fail to benefit the Arabs of Palestine and it did benefit them objectively, though their relative position declined.

5- Massive capital investment and industrialization by Zionists compared to poor investment and lack of industrialization by Arabs in Palestine.

It was hopeless to try to support the burgeoning Arab and Jewish populations of Palestine from traditional agriculture and from handicraft industries, pearl fishing, soap "factories" using 18th century technology and the like. Industrialization required massive investment, but the Arabs did not supply the capital to their sector. Kanafani wrote:

In 1935, for example, Jews controlled 872 of a total of 1,212 industrial firms in Palestine, employing 13,678 workers, while the rest were Palestinian Arab-controlled and employed about 4,000 workers: Jewish investment totaled PL 4,391,000 compared to PL 704,000 Palestinian Arab industrial investment; Jewish production reached PL 6,000,000 compared to PL 1,545,000 by Palestinian Arab firms..

The disparity represented by the above figures is almost incredible, yet it appears to be a fact. It is an indictment of Arab Palestinian society and not of Zionists or Zionism. No Zionists prevented Palestinian Arabs from raising capital abroad. As the Arabs did not invest in Zionist industries, it is hardly to be expected that Zionists would invest in Arab industries. The numbers are all the more striking when we consider that in 1935, according to British statistics,  there were about 940,000 Arabs and only 355,000 Jews in Palestine.

 6. Arab ruling classes within Palestinian society prevented the rise of an effective labor movement that could equalize the rights of Palestinian workers; their resentment was deflected to the Jew and to the national struggle. As Kanafani writes (emphasis added):

On the other hand, the Palestinian feudal­ religious leadership could not tolerate the rise of an Arab labor movement that was independent of its control. The movement was thus terrorized by the Arab leadership. In the early thirties, the Mufti's group assassinated Michel Mitri, President of the Federation of Arab Workers in Jaffa. Years later, Sami Taha, a trade unionist and President of the Federation of Arab Workers in Haifa was also assassinated. In the absence of a economically and politically strong national bourgeoisie, the workers were directly confronted and oppressed by the traditional feudal leadership; the conflict occasionally led to violent confrontations which were reduced whenever the traditional leadership managed to assume direct control over trade union activities. As a result, labor activity lost its essential role in the struggle. Moreover, with the sharpening of the national struggle, a relative identity of interests united the workers with the traditional Arab leadership.

The last observation by Kanafani could perhaps have been taken directly from an analysis of the economic basis of anti-Semitism and national factors in the class struggle by the Marxist Zionist, Ber Borochov. (See for example, The National Question and the Class Struggle)

7. Industrialization brought about the usual displacement of agricultural population, and rising wages caused handicrafts industries to fail. This problem was exacerbated by the world depression, and the affected population was the Arab felahin and handicraft workers of Palestine. The problem became one of Jews versus Arabs because the Arabs of Palestine failed to reinvest their capital in industrial development. Kanafani writes:

The transformation of the economic and social structure of Palestine, which occurred rather rapidly, had affected primarily the Jewish sector, and had taken place at the expense of the Palestinian middle and petty bourgeoisie, as well as the Arab working class. The change from a semi-feudal society to a capitalist society was accompanied by an increased concentration of economic power in the hands of the Zionist machine

The "concentration of economic power in the hands of the Zionist machine" as we have seen, was due simply to Zionist investment.

8- A prolonged drought and an economic crisis in 1935 precipitated unrest. A drought between 1931 and 1934 was a major cause of Arab migration to the cities. Smallholder tenant farmers were wiped out. Under the impetus of Zionist investment, Palestine had prospered until 1935. In 1935 the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy, which had invaded Abyssinia, causing a bank panic and failure of some firms. To limit the impact on Jewish employment, the Histadruth stepped up its campaign for Jewish labor. [7]. 

9 - Displacement of Arab tenant farmers who were bought out by Zionists - Kanafani and other Palestinian sources cite huge numbers of Arab peasants who were supposedly displaced by Jewish land purchases in the 30s, but objective British government surveys could not find a thousand such families. The movement to the cities undoubtedly occurred. This must happen when a country is industrialized. There is only so much land, and the population increases. If agriculture doesn't become more efficient, some must leave the land.  The difference is made up by industrial employment. All over the world, societies moved from being over 90% rural to being over 90% urban in the space of a century.   Only a few thousand Palestinians in all were directly affected by Zionist land purchases since the 1880s [8]. However, the Palestinians blamed the entire displacement of rural population, an inevitable consequence of industrialization, on "the Zionists." This was not an accident, as it was directly encouraged by the Arab Palestinian ruling classes.

Since the 1920s, Arab feudal interests had represented the problem using two or three assumptions that were adopted not only by the Arabs of Palestine but by the British themselves, and are evident in the Hope Simpson Report  as well as the White Paper of 1939:

a- The land has a fixed capacity to absorb immigration. If Jewish immigrants come in, Arabs will have to leave. This assumption was proven false repeatedly as Jews continued to arrive and the standard of living of Arabs improved overall and Arab population increased, but it was never abandoned by the British or the Arabs.

b - Jews have no right to settle in Palestine; the selective racist prohibition of Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews  is perfectly natural and correct and prevents "colonization." - This assumption was tacitly accepted by the British too, even though they had been given a mandate to create a national home in Palestine and on that basis Jews had settled and invested in Palestine.

c - Zionists owe the Arabs of Palestine a living - Arab land owners and capitalists simply reassigned all of their social obligations to the Zionists, and all the ills of Arab Palestinian society became faults of the Zionists in Arab Palestinian rhetoric. Lack of employment for Palestinian Arabs and lack of education for Palestinian Arabs were somehow turned into faults of the Jews.

The Arab claims of dispossession and impoverishment by invading Zionists were fictional. They can be disproved by a few illustrative facts. It is true that the Jews had purchased over a million dunams of land by the 1930s. It is not true, as Kanfani asserts that this constituted a third of the arable land in Palestine. Kanfani claims:

Ownership by Jewish groups of urban and rural land rose from 300,000 dunums in 1929 to 1,250,000 dunums in 1930. The purchased land was insignificant from the point of view of mass colonization and of the solution of the "Jewish problem." But the expropriation of nearly one million dunums - almost one-third of the agricultural land - led to a severe impoverishment of Arab peasants and Bedouins. By 1931, 20,000 peasant families had been evicted by the Zionists.

Actually, by 1936 the Jews had purchased only 1,231,000 dunams. [10] The total land ownership by Jews in all of Palestine thus amounted to about 4% of the land area of Palestine. Since the total arable land area of Palestine was estimated at the time as  6,440,000 dunams (that is the low estimate; the high estimate was over 12,000,000 dunams), 1,231,000 dunams could hardly have been a third of the arable land. Moreover, with improved irrigation and water sources, more land became arable. In 1936, a commission of inquiry found that a total of 654 Palestinian families had lost their lands as the result of Zionist purchases, out of a total of 61,408 Arab families that owned or tenanted land. In other words, less than 1%. These families lost 46,633 dunams of land, which is less than 1% of the arable area. [9]

Likewise, the "Avoda Ivrit" policy of excluding Arab workers from the Jewish economy could not possibly have had a serious effect on Arab labor, simply because the Jewish economy was too small. In 1936, the Jewish economy employed a total of 82,000 workers. Of these, 14.6% or about 12,000 were Arabs.  [11]

That is not to say that the Arabs had no real grievances or that there was no objective basis for the revolt. The "classic" Zionist-socialist analysis of the roots of the uprising, adopted by non-socialists as well, is that the feudalists and Imams felt threatened by the changes introduced by Zionism in the economy and politics of Palestine. Literacy and modernism challenged traditional society, and industrialization would upset the feudal power base of the land-owning families, creating urban middle class and professional opposition. To some extent these ideas are borne out by the party structure outlined above, and the bitter rivalries that ensued between the Husseini clan and the other factions. In turn, the Zionists, at least in public, tended to ignore or minimize the very real grievances of the Arabs of Palestine and their genuine national and ethnic feelings.

In theory, Zionist Socialists believed they would develop the land to the benefit of both Jews and Arabs, and advance the class struggle of the Arab worker. Ber Borochov had announced in Russia:

Many point out the obstacles which we encounter in our colonization work. Some say that the Turkish law hinders our work, others contend that Palestine is insignificantly small, and still others charge us with the odious crime of wishing to oppress and expel the Arabs from Palestine...

When the waste lands are prepared for colonization, when modern technique is introduced, and when the other obstacles are removed, there will be sufficient land to accommodate both the Jews and the Arabs. Normal relations between the Jews and Arabs will and must prevail (Ber Borochov - Eretz Yisrael in our program and tactics - 1917)

Borochov had made an insightful analysis of the role of nationalism in the class struggle (The National Question and the Class Struggle). He should have understood that Jewish workers would be no more welcome among the Arab proletariat than they were among Russian workers. As he predicted the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism fueled by the lower middle class as Germany developed, he could have predicted the same developments in Palestine.

In practice, instead of normal relations, two wholly separate communities developed in Palestine. Jews and Arabs had separate schools, separate medical facilities, separate political parties and separate labor unions. The Histadrut  was a Jewish labor union, officially called the "Histadrut Hapoalim Ha'ivriim Be'eretz Yisrael" - the Organization of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel. The instinct to separation was to a large extent mutual. The Arabs did not want to learn Hebrew in Zionist schools, and the Jews had no interest in learning Arabic. In the cities, mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhoods as in Jaffa, were rare, and were a focal point for riots and problems. The two communities met as municipal employees in some towns such as Jerusalem and Haifa, and chiefly, in the market place and labor market. Beyond that, they were growing increasingly invisible to each other, by conscious effort. The Jewish community was richer. The Arabs increasingly saw themselves outside, looking in, in their own country. From their perspective, the prosperity of the Jews was being achieved at their expense, and this could not fail to generate resentment.

Both the Mufti and the British ascribed the unrest to landlessness of Palestinian Arab Fellahin, supposedly caused by Zionist land purchases. The causes of landlessness among rural Arabs in Palestine were examined in detail by Kenneth Stein.[45]Archaic land ownership arrangements and the ill-begotten Tanzimat reform favored large and prosperous classes, who had been gradually buying up the land of smallholders. The devastation wrought by the Turks during World War I deepened indebtedness of smallholders, who were being forced to sell to the rich. They were also unable to compete with inexpensive foreign agricultural produce. The extent of landlessness was also deliberately exaggerated by Sir John Hope Hope Simpson, by erroneous interpretation of data. [46]

The Revolt of Izzedin El Qassam

Mohamed Iz-al-Din al Qassam (Izzedin el Qassam, Izzedin el Kassam) , who sparked the Arab riots of 1936-30, was not a Palestinian Arab. He was born in Jablah, near Latakiah in Syria, in the early 1880s. When the French were to take over Syria, he tried to organize guerilla resistance. He joined Feisal in Damascus, but then fled to Beirut and ultimately to Haifa when the French came. In Haifa he taught school, but soon became imam of the Istiqlal mosque. He was then appointed regional registrar of marriages for the Supreme Muslim Council of the Mufti Haj Amin el Husseini. He used this innocent post as a springboard for organizing terrorist cells to strike at the British and the Jews. His followers began to attack Jewish civilians in the way that was to become the hallmark of Palestinian "resistance." Three members of Kibbutz Yagur were killed, and a father and son in Nahalal. His followers also tore up trees planted by the JNF and British railroad tracks. In 1935 Qassam tried to persuade the Mufti to join him in a call for Jihad against the British, but the Mufti refused. In November of 1935, Qassam took to the hills around Jenin with a few men. It is not entirely clear what he intended to do, since he was over 50 years old at the time. Qassam and his followers were in the caves for about ten days, supported by food from villagers. Two of Qassam's men ran into a police patrol searching for fruit thieves and killed a policeman. The British launched a manhunt. They found Qassam in a cave near Ya'bad and he was killed in a gun battle on November 19, 1935. Ben Gurion referred to this battle as the "Arab Tel Hai" - (see Biography of Joseph Trumpeldor ) a symbolic battle that created a symbolic hero. Qassam's death became the focal point of an uprising. [12]

The first phase of the uprising - cooptation by the Mufti and The General Strike

The death of Izzedin El Qassam sparked a more general uprising. The political situation began to change too. Hajj Amin El Husseini now perceived that the time was ripe for more active participation. He formed a paramilitary youth group, al Futuwwah. The character of this movement cannot be disguised. It was officially designated the "Nazi Scouts." At the opening meeting on February 11, 1936, he noted that Hitler had begun with 6 followers and now had 60 million. Al Futuwwah became the major Palestinian underground or terrorist group both during the riots and in 1948. [13].

During this period there was a constant stream of terrorist incidents and disturbances. It is difficult to pinpoint which of these "little murders" marked the beginning of the revolt. Quoting Kanafani,

Dr. Abd al-Wahhab al-Kayyali thinks that the first spark was lit ... in February 1936, when an armed band of Palestinian Arabs surrounded a school which Jewish contractors were building in Haifa, employing Jewish-only labor.

Others generally date the revolt to one of several incidents in April of 1936. Yehuda Bauer claimed, "the incident that is commonly regarded as the start of the 1936 disturbances" occurred on 19th April 1936, when Palestinian Arab crowds in Jaffa attacked Jewish passers-by. [14]  

Palestinian writers and Benny Morris cite an earlier incident that occurred east of Tulkarm, on April 15.  According to Kanafani, an unknown group of Palestinian Arabs, apparently Qassamists, ambushed fifteen cars on the road from Anabta and the Nur Shams prison, robbed their Jewish and Arab passengers alike of their money, while one of the three members of the group made a short speech to the Palestinian Arabs, who formed the majority of the passengers. Morris adds that the Arabs then shot three of the Jews, two of whom died and one survived. In retaliation, members of the  Irgun Bet which had been formed in 1930, drove up to a shack in Petah Tiqva and shot dead its two Arab occupants. [15].

Arab attacks ranged from sabotage of the TAP oil pipe line, to ambushes of British patrols, to bombs hurled into trains and school buildings set afire, to murder of civilians and full scale pogroms. The Arabs preferred to use schoolboys for many of these attacks, as they were not liable for the death penalty. On Saturday, May 16, 1936, three Jews were killed leaving the Edison cinema in Jerusalem. Once was a doctor, another a baker, a third a university student.

 Sabotage of the pipeline became a trademark of the revolt. It was sabotaged at numerous places in Palestine and Transjordan, and defended zealously by the Transjordan legion in Jordan and later in Palestine by Orde Charles Wingate  and his Special Night Squads

These murderous activities apparently had the wholehearted support of the Palestinian community initially. Moderate Palestinian Khalil Sakakini wrote in admiration of this slaughter of the three in Jerusalem: "There is no other heroism like this, except the heroism of the Sheik al-Qassam" [16]. Sakakini also wrote  "They throw bombs, shoot, burn fields, destroy Jewish citrus groves in Jaffa, blow up bridges, cut telephone cables, topple electric poles. Every day they block roads and every day Arabs display a heroism that the government never conceived of." [17]

Sakakini wrote further to his son, Sari, "Two anonymous heroes, threw a grenade at a passenger train full of Jewish civilians and the British soldiers who were escorting them. Who would believe there are such heroes in Palestine? What a great honor it is, my Sari, to be an Arab in Palestine." [18].

Almost all at once, "National Committees" sprang up in every Arab Palestinian community to coordinate the revolt and declare strikes. On April 25, Hajj Amin El Husseini formed the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) to direct the uprising. The AHC remained the leading body of the Arab Palestinians until 1948. A general strike was declared at the end of April or early May [19].  The strike included non-payment of taxes and closure of Haifa port. It was only partially successful, since Palestinian Arab mandatory employees did not strike and farmers sowed their crops as usual. 

The Arabs had three demands:

  1. An immediate stop to Jewish immigration.
  2. Prohibition of sale of  Arab lands to Jewish settlers.
  3. The establishment of a democratic government in which Arabs would have the largest share in conformity with their numerical superiority.

The third demand was certainly justified, but as it would have led to implementation of the first demand, it would violate the terms of the mandate and could not be granted. None of these demands were really economic in nature. The Arabs did not ask to forbid all land sales - only sale of lands to Jews, nor did they ask for a stop to Arab immigration. They did not ask for more jobs in the Mandatory government, though this is one of the grievances that Kanafani lists, or for any other sort of economic relief. Basically, the first two demands were xenophobic and racist.

The strike was accompanied by a violent guerilla uprising in the countryside, primarily centered on Nablus but apparently directed in part from Damascus. The Arabs attacked British police, officials and soldiers, the TAP oil pipeline, railways and Jews as individuals and in groups. They destroyed extensive property, especially by uprooting orchards, which was a traditional method of settling disputes and exacting vengeance in Palestine.

As the months wore on, sporadic attacks by villagers gave way to armed bands. The Arab Higher Committee officially condemned such violence, but they certainly provided the incitement that was a background to it, and may have provided financing as well. According to Morris [20] and numerous other sources, the armed bands, and  the Arab Higher Committee as well, were probably funded by Fascist Italy and perhaps by Nazi Germany. Axis propaganda was certainly quite happy to support the Arab cause against the British. Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, later claimed that millions were given to the Mufti, and Haganah intelligence found evidence of German funding, which was later confirmed by captured Abwehr documents. (see The Iraq Axis Coup ).

As the summer was ending, Fawzi El Qawuqji (or Kaukji) and about 200 volunteers from Iraq, Syria and Transjordan, entered the Samaria region. Kaukji, born in Syria like Izzedin El-Qassam, made a career of fighting the British. Like the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin El Husseini, Kaukji had Nazi sympathies and was to spend the war in Germany, but he was always at odds with Husseini.

The Jewish Response - Except for the initial revenge killing initiated by the Irgun Bet and noted above, the Zionist response was generally restraint - Havlaga. The Jewish Agency decided that the best course was to stay out of the fight, and let the anger of the British be directed against the Arabs, rather than entering the fight and becoming "part of the problem." The latter course would have invited an "even handed" British response. The primary reaction of the Haganah  was initially defensive. It guarded vulnerable Jewish neighborhoods and set up factories for armor plating and protecting buses and other vehicles, as shown at right.

Zionism- Armored bus used during the Arab uprising in Palestine.

Later, under Yitzhak Sadeh, the Haganah organized flying squads that attempted to intercept Arab marauders before they struck. In August of 1936, after two nurses had been murdered in Jaffa, four Jews were murdered in the Carmel and a child was murdered in Tel Aviv, the Haganah took briefly to reprisals, killing several people in Jaffa, attacking a Bedouin encampment and killing a woman in Tira. The Irgun Bet ambushed the Jaffa train, killing an Armenian passenger and wounding five Arabs, and they killed two Arabs in Petah Tiqva. The Haganah reaffirmed its policy of Havlaga (restraint) however, and no further reprisals took place in 1936.

The end of the first phase - With the arrival of Kaukji's band and the increase in violence, the British finally began to show some resolution in ending the violence. An entire division was brought in from Egypt, and British began dynamiting houses in Jaffa and Nablus as punitive measures and to make it easier to control dense neighborhoods. Kaukji and his followers were eventually surrounded. They were forced to leave Palestine but were not arrested.  Economically, the strike had little impact on anyone except the Arabs. The closing of Haifa port led to the development of the port of Tel Aviv. In the Jaffa area, citrus crops were ripening and had to be picked and exported. In any case, the economy of Palestine was carried by the numerically smaller Jewish sector rather than by the Arabs. As Kanafani notes, the value of exports of locally manufactured goods rose from PL 478,807 in 1935 to PL 896,875 in 1937, despite of the revolt. The Arabs could not deprive themselves of their livelihood for long.

The strike and the first stage of violence were terminated when the British announced they would send a commission to study the problem of Palestine. The British enlisted the support of Transjordan's King Abdullah, Nuri As-Said, Ibn Saud of Saudi Arab and others, who called for quiet to give the commission a chance to do its work. In October of 1936, the Arab Higher Committee distributed one or more notices in secret calling upon the armed bands to comply with the armistice. One version of these notices is given by Kanafani:

"Inasmuch as submission to the will of their Majesties and Highnesses, the Arab kings and to comply with their wishes is one of our hereditary Arab traditions, and inasmuch as the Arab Higher Committee firmly believes that their Majesties and Highnesses would only give orders that are in conformity with the interests of their sons and with the object of protecting their rights; the Arab Higher Committee, in obedience to tire wishes of their Majesties and Highnesses, the Kings and amirs, and from its belief ill the great benefit that will result from their mediation and cooperation, calls on the noble Arab people to end the strike and the disturbances, in obedience to these orders, whose only object is the interests of the Arabs."

However, a different version, quoted by Morris [21] makes the support of the Arab Higher Committee for violence fairly explicit:

Honored Brethren! Heroes!... Our poor tongues cannot express the strength of our love and admiration and the exaltation concealed in our hearts for your self-sacrifice and your devoted war for religion, fatherland and all things Arab. Rest assured that your struggle is engraved in letters of flame in the chronicles of the nation. And now...we...urge you to stop activity until needed. Save the bullets and take care of them. We stand now in a period of hope and expectation. If the Royal Commission comes and judges equitably and gives us all our rights, well and good. If not, the field of battle lies before us...We request...self-control and armistice until a new notice.

The Peel Commission Report

The Peel Commission arrived in Palestine on November 11, 1937. They heard both Palestinian Arab and Zionist arguments, though the Arab Higher Committee was initially reluctant to cooperate. The commission concluded that the sides were irreconcilable, and recommended the partition of Palestine. About 5,000 square kilometers including a part of the Sharon plain and the Galilee would become a Jewish state, a small area including Jerusalem and a corridor to Jaffa would remain a British mandate and the remainder of Palestine would become part of Transjordan. To ensure a Jewish majority even in this small area, the commission recommended population transfer. A large number of Arabs, about 225,000,  would be transferred out of the Jewish area and about 1,250 Jews would be transferred out of the Arab area. This idea, since branded as racist and genocidal and anathematized by the mainstream Zionist organization as well as by Arabs, was founded in international precedent. The Peel Commission report noted:

A precedent is afforded by the exchange effected between the Greek and Turkish populations on the morrow of the Greco-Turkish War of 1922. A convention was signed by the Greek and Turkish Governments, providing that, under the supervision of the League of Nations, Greek nationals of the Orthodox religion living in Turkey should be compulsorily removed to Greece, and Turkish nationals of the Moslem religion living in Greece to Turkey. The numbers involved were high--no less than some 1,300,000 Greeks and some 400,000 Turks. But so vigorously and effectively was the task accomplished that within about eighteen months from the spring of 1923 the whole exchange was completed. The courage of the Greek and Turkish statesmen concerned has been justified by the result. Before the operation the Greek and Turkish minorities had been a constant irritant. Now Greco-Turkish relations are friendlier than they have ever been before.

In fact of course, the population exchange between Greeks and Turks was not amicable at all. Indeed the process of expelling people of the wrong ethnicity was accomplished "vigorously and effectively," not only by "statesmen" but by mobs, and it was hardly a model of humanitarianism. In any case, transfer could not be accomplished peaceably without the agreement of both sides, and that was not forthcoming in Palestine. The Zionist executive accepted the proposal, after much debate about the morality of population transfer. Much has been made of the fact that Ben-Gurion believed that the small state would be a "stepping stone" to a larger one, but no larger state was on offer. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC)  rejected the partition offer on the insistence of the Husseini clan. The Nashashibis were initially in favor of partition, which was also favored by Transjordan, but withdrew their support in the face of strong opposition. An assassination attempt on Fakhri Nashashibi in July of 1937 caused the Nashashibis to withdraw from the Arab Higher Committee. The rebellion and with it the Palestinian Arab cause, then fell into the hands of the extremist factions exclusively. Fakhri Nashashibi was eventually killed in Iraq by Husseini partisans in 1941. 

In the face of Arab opposition, the British shrunk the size of the proposed Jewish state in successive plans until it was completely absurd, by sending a different commission, the Woodhead commission. Even this report was rejected and the government concluded that real partition was impractical, voicing the pious and empty sentiment that the best hope lay in Jewish-Arab cooperation. Partition was deemed to be impractical because the Arab state would not be economically viable, no matter how small the Jewish state. Palestine contained more Arabs than ever before in its history, and they enjoyed a higher standard of living than ever before, but they could only be supported as long as they were dependent on the economic activity of the Jewish minority and the investments of the Zionist movement. At the same time, the Arabs of Palestine insisted that this Jewish minority was dispossessing them and tried to rid themselves of the Jews and the Zionist enterprise. The Arabs would say that they had been impoverished by Zionist "dispossession," but in fact they enjoyed a higher standard of living and faster economic growth than their neighbors in Syria, Jordan or Egypt.

In setting in motion the Peel commission negotiations, the British had involved the rulers of the Arab states in the Palestine conflict by asking them to moderate the demands of the rebels. Instead, the Arab rulers, chiefly King Saud of Saudi Arabia, came down squarely on the side of the Arabs of Palestine  (See for example King Saud's Views on Palestine and Partition ). Nuri As Said of Iraq and Abdullah of Jordan were more moderate, but far less influential.  For many years the Mufti Haj Amin El Husseini  had tried to enlist  the Arab leaders in opposing the British and uphold the Palestinian cause, to little avail. Now the British had succeeded in creating an opposition to their own policy!. This involvement, whether it was essential to marshalling Arabs to the British war effort that was anticipated as some claim, or a disastrous error, as Elie Kedourie argues, [22]  was to change the nature of the Palestinian-Jewish struggle.

The Resumption of the Revolt

The violence resumed in September of 1937. On September 26,  Lewis Andrews, the British District Commissioner for the Galilee, was assassinated in Nazareth by Arab gunmen. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) issued a pro-forma denunciation of the murder, and the Mufti himself, who had found sanctuary in the Haram as Sharif (Temple Mount) denounced it as well. Nonetheless, on October 1 ,1937 the British issued warrants for the arrest of all AHC members including the Mufti Hajj Amin El Husseini, who was dismissed as head of the Supreme Muslim Council. On October 12, Husseini, disguised as a woman or a Bedouin, escaped from the Haram as Sharif and fled to Lebanon by boat. From there he fled to Iraq with many members of the AHC , where eventually he helped to instigate a pro-Axis coup. When that was put down, he fled to Nazi Germany, broadcast for the Nazis and organized SS units in Yugoslavia. (see also: Haj Amin El Husseini - Fatwa of 1941, Grand Mufti Hajj Amin El Husseini, and The Iraq Axis Coup

The violence probably peaked in October of 1938. In that month the rebels took over Jerusalem for a time, forcing evacuation of Jews from the old city. They also committed a pogrom in the Jewish part of Tiberias, murdering 19 people, among them 11 children. Alex Morrison, a British truck driver sympathetic to the Arab cause wrote, "They left behind them one of the worst sights I ever saw in my life... The naked bodies of the women exposed the evidence that the knives had been used in the most ghastly fashion." The bodies of children, apparently set alight with gasoline in a nursery, were still smoldering." A short time later the rebels murdered the Jewish mayor of Tiberias. [23]

After the Mufti and the Arab Higher Committee  had fled, the revolt degenerated into internecine clan rivalry and brutality. Notables who opposed the resumption of the strike and violence, such as Khalil Taha, were assassinated. The Mayor of Haifa, Hassan Shukri, survived two attempts on his life in May of 1936 and Janurary of 1937. In February 1937, the Mukhtar of Caesaria was murdered, and in April of 1937 Ibrahim Yusuf, a member of the Nablus municipal council was assassinated. Opposition supporters of the Nashashibi clan and others were beaten and tortured. The terror  was stepped up with the resumption of violence. On the Mufti's orders from exile, hundreds were assassinated and thousands were terrorized into leaving the country.  In April of 1938, the Mukhtar of Majdal and his wife we killed, as well Nasr al Din Nasr, mayor of Hebron. The wife and three sons of the mukhtar of Deir es Sheikh were killed in a bomb explosion in September 1938.. Hassan Sidqi al Dajani, a member of he Jerusalem municipal council was shot dead in November of 1938. The remaining members of the council fled the country.[24]

Some of the opposition was no doubt a reaction to the intense pressure the British applied to villagers, including collective punishment and hangings for minor offences. According to Kanafani, in 1938 a number of peasants were executed merely for being in possession of arms. During that period Britain sentenced about 2,000 Palestinian Arabs to long terms of imprisonment, demolished more than 5,000 houses and executed by hanging 148 persons in Acre prison, and there were more than 5,000 in prison for varying terms. Britain and Haganah intelligence encouraged division among the Arabs and paid informers. Owing to clan rivalries, there were many of these to be found.

H.H. Wilson, an Englishman who taught at Bir Zeit college wrote in the winter of 1938 that "the rebellion seemed now to be turning into a struggle between the two Arab political parties: The Mufti's faction... and the Nashashibis, who hope to get the power away from them by making up to the British." In the spring of 1939, Raghib Nashashibi stated, "We may expect now that for fifty years the Arabs will kill one another to avenge what happened during the disturbances."[25] Privately, he told a Jewish employee of the Jerusalem municipality that there would be peace between the Jews and the Arabs long before there would be peace between the Husseinis and the Nahashibis.

In January of 1939, rebel commander 'Abd al Halim Al Jaulani wrote:

Complaints are received from the villages in the Jerusalem area regarding robbery, execution, torture and murder committed by several people wearing the uniform of the Jihad...How did the innocent sin so that their money is stolen, their cattle robbed, their women raped and their jewellery extorted? Our rebellion has become a rebellion against the villages and not against the government or the Jews.  [26]

Rebel leader Ahmad Mahmoud Hasan (Abu Bakr) reported to the Central Committee in Damascus in May of 1939:

... The behavior of the fighters toward the villagers is extremely tyrannical and horrifying: brutal robbery, execution without prior investigation. Conflicts without any reason, disorder and complete inaction.."  [27]

 Anwar Nusseibeh, then a judge, called it a "bitter and self-consuming abomination." [28]

Given the rivalry as well as the repression by the British, many of the Palestinian elite, about 20,000- 30,000,  thought it was wisest to leave the country. They settled in neighboring countries and most returned in the beginning of World War II.  Opposition to the revolt grew and the villagers with the help of the opposition Nashashibi party and the tacit encouragement of the Zionists and the British, organized peace bands that threw the rebels out in many cases. These were strongest in the Druze areas and around Christian Nazareth, but they also operated around Nablus.

The British Response - The British adopted harsh methods, including torture of both Jews and Arabs, and collective punishment of villages. From India, where he was not beloved of the local populace, they sent Sir Charles Tegart, an experienced policeman, to coordinate the suppression of the rebellion.  After the Munich pact seemed to give Britain some respite in Europe, substantial reinforcements arrived in Autumn of 1938.  From the beginning of 1938 to the end of 1939 over a hundred Arabs were executed, more than one a week on average. Arthur Wauchope, who had been High Commissioner of Palestine for many years and presided over the many failures of the mandate, was replaced by Harold MacMichael. While Wauchope was a humanitarian, a friend of the Zionists who also saw the Arab point of view, MacMichael can only be described as a thoroughly despicable character. He  demonstrated  that he had no regard for Arab life whatever in suppression of the revolt by instituting brutal suppression and indiscriminate punishment. Then in his cynical and draconic enforcement of the ban on Jewish immigration from Europe, he demonstrated that he had no regard for Jewish lives either. Though there were immigration certificates available despite the tiny yearly quota of Jewish immigrants, MacMichael barred the entry of Jewish immigrants from Nazi occupied countries on the grounds that they were enemy aliens! This same attitude was evident in his dealings with Arabs during the revolt.

The British built a network of security roads. Tegart built a security fence along the northern border to prevent infiltration of terrorists. He ordered the construction of a string of police forts, known as Tegart forts, that remain part of the Israeli landscape to this day. These, as well as the fence, were built by the Histadruth construction company, Solel Boneh.

Jewish Response and Jewish British Cooperation - The Jewish Agency policy of "Havlaga" (restraint) was frustrating, but paid dividends to the Jewish Yishuv. Early in the rebellion,  Orde Charles Wingate was forwarded to Palestine as a captain in the intelligence service. Wingate was ultimately to organize the special night squads staffed by British soldiers and the Haganah, that were probably the first effective counter-guerilla forces in modern times. (see biography of Orde Charles Wingate). The British hired some 3,000 to 6,000 Jewish policeman or "Ghaffirs" who were usually also members of the Haganah.  The Ghaffirs carried light arms legally and with British sanction. The Haganah grew to a force of 6,000 to 12,000 volunteers during the period of the revolt. The Haganah and the Jewish community had built a small underground arms industry that was turning out mines, grenades, 2 and 3 inch mortars, armor plating for vehicles and ammunition.[29] Together with the innovations of Yitzhak Sadeh, service in the British police, and the organization of Haganah intelligence that soon evolved into the Sherut Yedioth (Shai), the Jewish response to the revolt and Jewish cooperation with the British  laid the foundation for the Jewish fighting force of 1948. At the same time, the British had outlawed the construction of new settlements. The Jews responded by building numerous Homa Umigdal (Tower and Stockade) settlements that evaded British regulations and allowed construction of dozens of new settlements, about 55 in all between 1936 and 1939. Zionist histories repeat with pride that a large number of settlements were created during the revolt and that no Jewish settlements were removed. Though it is true that no new Zionist settlements were lost, the venerable Jewish community of Hebron had to be permanently evacuated in 1936, and the riots also reduced by half the population of the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

 Despite British restrictions on immigration, legal and illegal immigration were organized at first by the revisionists and in 1939 by the Jewish Agency. According to official figures, immigration was reduced drastically and didn't even fill the quotas. On the other hand, official British estimates based on those immigration numbers gave the number of Jews in Palestine in 1945 as about 554,000, whereas when the results the Anglo-American survey were tallied, there were about 608,000 Jews. The discrepancy was probably due to illegal immigration. (see Population of Palestine).

The response of the Haganahto Arab violence was officially "moral" and restrained and was primarily confined to defensive measures. Ben-Gurion explained the policy of Havlaga ("restraint") after one of the early Arab attacks:

Those who today murdered our people in an ambush not only plotted to murder some Jews but intended to provoke us... The Arabs stand to gain from such a development. They want the country to be in a state of perpetual pogrom.... Any further bloodshed [by the Jews] will only bring political advantage to the Arabs and harm us... Our strength is in the defense... and this strength will give us political victory if England and the world will know that we are defending ourselves rather than attacking. [30]

However in early 1939, on the orders of David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Sadeh created three "special operations" (Peulot Meyuhadot, Pu"m) ) units that attacked Arab terrorists and  civilian targets and later attacked some British military targets as well. 

The Irgun Response - The policy of cooperation and restraint that yielded such dividends for the Zionists was frustrating for the Jewish population, which was under attack. It made a natural political target for the Revisionist faction, that insisted on armed action and had never wanted to cooperate with the British. The Irgun bet had organized itself into the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel) by this time, though about half its members had returned to the Haganah in 1937.  They began a bombing campaign against Arab civilians. The first such attack killed two Arabs in a bus depot off Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on November 11, 1937. On November 14, the Irgun carried out a number of fatal attacks throughout the country. In April 1938, the Irgun ambushed an Arab bus on the Safed-Rosh Pina road. The ambush resulted in no deaths, but the British caught the three perpetrators, and hanged Shlomo Ben Yosef, the only Jew to be hanged in the uprising. The Irgun tried to make him into a hero. Ben Gurion remarked, "I am not shocked that a Jew was hanged in Palestine. I am ashamed of the deed that lead to the hanging." [31]  On July 6, 1938, the Irgun planted two large milk canisters filled with explosive in the Arab suq (market) in Haifa, killing 21 and wounding 52. On July 15, an Irgun bomb killed 10 Arabs and wounded over 30 in the Old City of Jerusalem. On July 25, about 40 Arabs were killed by a bomb in the Haifa market. On August 26, a bomb in Jaffa killed 24 and wounded 39.[32] The Irgun bombings were very possibly the inspiration for the terror bombings of Palestinian Arabs that succeeded them.

The official Zionist organization denounced terror despite the Special Operations units. In addition to considerations of cooperation with the British, it was feared, according to Tom Segev, that terror would unleash an unending Arab blood feud. A group of Jewish intellectuals and politicians issued a declaration against terror. "The imperative (not to kill), present at the infancy of an ancient people, applies today," it stated. The signatories included the author Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the poet Shaul Tchernikovsky, the philosopher Martin Buber, and politicians Berl Katznelson and Golda Myerson ( Golda Meir). [33]

Casualties - Estimates of the numbers of casualties and dead vary widely. According to Morris [34] the revolt claimed between 3,000 and 6,000 Arab dead. Another Israeli historian [35] claimed that 4,500 Arabs were killed by other Arabs. According to Kanafani, citing Khalidi:[36]

The best estimate of Arab human losses in the 1936-39 revolt is that which states that losses in the four years totaled 19,792 killed and wounded; this includes the casualties sustained by the Palestinian Arabs at the hands of the Zionist gangs in the same period.

This estimate is based on the first conservative admissions contained in official British reports, checked against other documents. These calculations establish that 1200 Arabs were killed in 1936. 120 in 1937, 1200 in 1938 and 1200 in 1939. In addition 112 Arabs were executed and 1200 killed in various terrorist operations. This makes the total of Arabs killed in the 1936-39 revolt, 5,032, while 14,760 were wounded in the same period.

Detainees numbered about 816 in 1937, 2,463 in 1938, and approximately 5,679 in 1939.

According to Sachar [37] there were 2,394 Jewish casualties, 620 British and 3,764 Arabs by August of 1939, when the revolt was essentially over.

The St. James Conference - The British understood that world war was looming, and that it was essential not to antagonize the Arabs. The Middle East subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence noted in January 1939:[38]

We feel it necessary to point out... the strong feeling... in all Arab States in connection with British policy in Palestine...We assume that, immediately on the outbreak of war, the necessary measures would be taken... in order to bring about a complete appeasement of Arab opinion in Palestine and in neighboring countries.

The government of Neville Chamberlain dutifully set out to effect "complete appeasement."  To resolve the question of Palestine, the British called the St James conference in February of 1939. The British released interned members of the Arab Higher Committee so that they could attend the conference along with delegates from Arab countries. Hajj Amin El Husseini was barred from attending, but his nephew Jamal Husseini represented him. The Arabs would not meet with the Jews, and so conferences were conducted separately. Ben Gurion, for the Jews, was conscious of the plight of European Jewry, increasingly imperiled by the advance of Nazi Germany and the impending war. A Zionist plea to accept 10,000 Jewish children had been rejected by the British in 1938. Ben-Gurion of course insisted on continued immigration and objected to formation of an independent Arab state, which would void the obligations of the British mandate. The Palestinian Arabs insisted on an end to immigration and an independent Arab state. The Arab states agreed to support whatever solution the Arabs of Palestine would accept, but the Arabs of Palestine would accept no compromise. The British offered to reduce Jewish immigration to 100,000 over 10 years, and later to 80,000 to no avail. The conference adjourned, a failure, on March 17. [39]

The White Paper - The British government apprehended the approach of war more and more strongly with each day that passed, and the need to appease the Arabs seemed to become increasingly acute. Neville Chamberlain remarked "If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs." [40] This policy is more difficult to understand than appears at first. True, the British could not afford an Arab rebellion in the Middle East, interference with shipping via the Suez canal or interference with oil supplies during war time. However, in reality there may have been little to fear from the Arabs. In Iraq, the regime of  Nuri as-Said and the Hashemites was totally dependent on British bayonets, as would be proven shortly. Despite British concessions, the Mufti instigated a pro-Axis coup in Iraq, but it was overthrown by the British and the government was restored. The Hashemite king of Iraq, like Abdullah, the Hashemite King of Jordan, would necessarily have favored a partition solution that gave control of Palestine to the Hashemites rather than to the radical Husseini and his Palestinian followers. Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia was likewise totally dependent on the British. In Egypt, the British had to impose a sympathetic war time government more or less by force in any event. 

However, in 1939, the Chamberlain government remained fixated on its policy of meeting force with appeasement. In May of 1939, the British issued the infamous White Paper of 1939, which became known to Zionists simply as  "The White Paper" - "Hasefer Hajavan." It limited Jewish immigration to 15,000 per year for five years, and placed extreme restrictions on purchases of land by Jews in Palestine. In parliament, Winston Churchill denounced the White Paper as another Munich and a "surrender to Arab violence."  The Permanent Mandates Commission of the Council of the League of Nations rejected the White Paper as violating the terms of the mandate, which was to have created a national home for the Jewish people. [41] The British were undeterred. The League of Nations was dying in any case. The White Paper spelled doom for the Jews of Europe, but it failed to satisfy the Arabs of Palestine. The moderate faction initially accepted it, but the Arab Higher Committee, led by Husseini, rejected it. The slogan of the rebels remained "The English to the sea, the Jews to their graves." [42] The Arabs of Palestine pronounced their own doom. So defined, the conflict could only end with the expulsion or extermination of either Arabs or Jews.

Effect on the Zionist Movement - Since ultimately the Jews triumphed in Palestine and obtained a state, it is too easy to agree in retrospect with historians like Benny Morris [43], who argue that the White Paper was not really a serious blow to the Jewish Yishuv and the Zionist enterprise. Morally, the Zionist movement was stunned. The goal of the Zionist movement had been to create a national home for the Jews and a shelter from persecution. It had now failed the Jewish people in its most critical hour. Anti-Zionist Jews, in particular  Bund members, were to make the most of this failure. The policy of the Zionist executive which was to cooperate with the British, proved to be a disastrous failure, and the Revisionists who opposed such cooperation would use this failure to drive a wedge into the Zionist movement that could have caused a fatal split. True, by 1941 the gates of occupied Europe had been more or less slammed shut by the Nazis, but the British had started limiting immigration in 1936. Perhaps a 100,000 or even 200,000 Jews could have been rescued with a determined effort, if immigration had remained at the levels of 1935, and if a determined effort had been made, with British cooperation. Even n the spring of 1939, it was not too late to save at least some of the Jews of Poland which was yet to be invaded, and even in 1940, Jews could have been rescued from Hungary, France and other countries. The Zionist movement faced a disaster politically, morally and in human terms that should not be minimized in hindsight.

The Zionist movement was to recover from the disaster, but it did not learn all the lessons that should have been learned from the Arab uprising, and it also learned some bad lessons. The primary failure of the Zionist movement was to treat the Arabs of Palestine as invisible, to ignore their needs and concerns and to insist on totally separate development. Humanitarianism, equality and socialist and democratic ideals were given lip service far more often than they were implemented. It is possible that nothing the Zionists would have done could have avoided the split, but a less drastic and bitter fight would certainly have resulted if Zionists had made allowances for Arab labor, had helped to encourage education and literacy among the Arabs of Palestine, they might have created a stratum of the population less inimical to Zionism and more immune to religious and political extremism.

A second error was the resort to terror reprisals against civilians. Such murders were the weapon of the Arab Palestinians, and as long as only they used them, they were clearly in the wrong. When the Zionist groups began replying in kind, they did the extremist Arab cause a service. it could not be morally justified and it was opposed to the vaunted Zionist ideals. Inasmuch as the Arabs of Palestine were in large part unable to control the doings of the Mufti and his henchman or of the revolt leaders in Damascus, terrorizing civilians had no deterrent effect. It helped to fan the fames of hate, to destroy the possibility of coexistence, and to undermine the moral basis of Zionism - all these, after all, were goals of the Mufti and his men, and Jewish terrorism against civilians was accomplishing them. When the Jewish Yishuv became a state, use of terror had worse implications. Indiscriminate murder of civilians by a state is a war crime. it indicates a breach of military discipline - armed forces that are our of control and cannot be depended upon to serve a strategic military purpose.

Effect on the Arab Palestinians - The Arabs had won a great victory in the White Paper, and despite the rejection of the white paper by the AHC, it was perceived as a victory. "The average Arab one spoke to was triumphant, regarding the White Paper as a concession won by Arab arms," wrote the British observer, H.H. Wilson [44].  Palestine under the British would remain essentially closed to Jewish immigration, and Jews would never get a homeland in Palestine as long as the mandate continued. The Zionists would lose the entire Jewish population of Europe, upon which they had counted to settle Palestine. Given the numerical superiority of the Arabs of Palestine and the support of surrounding states, as well their influence with the British it would not have been difficult to ensure an Arab Palestine either through continuation of the mandate or by meeting any feeble Zionist attempt at resistance with massive repression.  By any objective measure, the Zionist project in Palestine appeared to be hopeless.

However, the Arab Palestinians made several mistakes that would prove fatal to their cause. The first major failure was the almost total lack of constructive effort in building up their own institutions, investing in the Arab sector of the Palestinian economy and creating their own "state in the making" as the Zionists did. For example, the Mufti, Hajj Amin El Husseini tried to create a National Fund in 1931, for investment in Palestine and primarily perhaps  to purchase land and prevent the Jewish National Fund from buying it, but they did not succeed in raising very much money [45] The discrepancy in Zionist investment versus Arab Palestinian investment, documented by Kanafani and others, is glaring, and it was certainly not the fault of the Zionists.

A second failure of the Arab Palestinians  was the split in their ranks. The split  that divided the Zionists in failure did not prove fatal, even when the Haganah turned against the revisionists actively. However, the split that divided the Arab Palestinians in their hour of success, accompanied by violence and repression, had grave consequences. Most of the moderate political leadership, resting on the urban middle class led by the Dajanis and the Nashashibis and their allies, the leadership that should have been the backbone of the state, was wiped out. This was largely the doing of the Arab Palestinian leadership, rather than British repression. British repression after all, failed utterly in its attempts to wipe out Hajj Amin El Husseini and his clan, who were the main internal instigators and hence the main targets of their efforts. It is unlikely that it was responsible for the breakdown of Arab leadership as some have claimed.

A third error was resort to terror against Jewish civilians as an almost exclusive weapon. This has backfired on the Palestinian cause since the 1920s and it continues to do so. If, during their uprising, the Arabs of Palestine had confined their violence to British targets, it is unlikely that the Jews would have been so concerned to develop a military defense capability. Arab riots in the 20s and 30s helped to make self-defense a central part of the ethos of Zionism.  Since then, they have gained nothing by branding themselves as terrorists by attacks on schools, hi-jacking of airliners and suicide attacks.

After the victory of the White Paper, the Palestinians made several other errors, the seeds of which were planted in the period of the great uprising or before.

A fourth error was siding with the wrong side in World War II. The identification with the Nazi cause was already evident in the 30s. It proved to be less important than one might think, since the British, as well as Arab leaders, were quite willing to deal with Nazi war criminals like Husseini after World War II. 

A fifth error was utter inflexibility. The great issue of the post war period that built pressure for a Jewish state were the 250,000 displaced persons in Europe, of whom the US pressured Britain to admit 100,000. If the Arabs of Palestine had yielded on this point and allowed immigration, there would have been no decision to partition Palestine in 1947 and no Jewish state.

A sixth and most disastrous blunder committed by Arab and Muslim countries was persecution of their Jewish populations. The basis of this persecution was racism, which in part was inspired by Palestinian rhetoric. Some of it was endemic in the societies of those countries - as for example in Yemen. In part it was kindled by the issue of Palestine.  Persecution of Jews helped to encourage the mass migration of Jews from Arab countries to Palestine and ensured a rapid population expansion in the first years of the existence of the Jewish state.

The Zionist movement would use their defeat much better than the Arabs of Palestine used their victory.

Ami Isseroff


Arnon-Ohana, Yuval, (Hebrew) Peasants in the Arab Revolt in the Land of Israel 1936-1939, Papyrus, 1982.

Bauer, Yehuda, "The Arab Revolt of 1936" New Outlook. Vol.9 No. 6 (81)., 1966. p. 50.

Har-Segor, Michael and Stroun, Maurice, (Hebrew and French) Israel-Palestine, The reality beyond the Myths, .(Yisrael/Falastin, Hametziut Sheme'ever Lamitosim) - Masah, The Jewish-Arab Peace Center, Givat Haviva, 1997.

Kanafani, Ghassan, "The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine" published in English by Committee for a Democratic Palestine, New York, 1972 and by Tricontinental Society, London, 1980. On the Web at http://www.newjerseysolidarity.org/resources/kanafani/kanafani4.htm

Kedourie, Elie, Islam in the Modern World, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Khalidi, Walid, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971.

Morris, Benny, Righteous Victims : A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-1999, Knopf, 2000.

Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Porath J, The Palestinian Arab National Movement, 1919-1939 from Riots to Rebellion, London, Frank Cass, 1977

Sachar, Howard M., A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Segev, Tom, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate trans. H. Watzman, Metropolitan Books, 2000.

Stein, Kenneth W., The Land Question In Palestine, 1917-1939, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Stein, Kenneth W., Palestine's Rural Economy, 1917 - 1939, Studies in Zionism, Vol. 8, no. 1 (1987).

Tessler, Mark A., A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Indiana Series in Arab and Islamic Studies), Indiana Univ Press, 1994.

Teveth, Shabtai, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War, London: Oxford University Press, 1985,


  1. Morris, 2000, p. 124.

  2. Morris, 2000, p. 91.

  3. All "Kanafani" references are to Kanafani, Ghassan, "The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine" published in English by Committee for a Democratic Palestine, New York, 1972 and by Tricontinental Society, London, 1980. On the Web at http://www.newjerseysolidarity.org/resources/kanafani/kanafani4.htm

  4. Morris, 2000, p. 124.

  5. Benny Morris, 1987, pp 8-9.

  6. Teveth, 1985, p. 140.

  7. Morris, 2000, p. 127.

  8. Morris, 2000, p. 123.

  9. Har-Segor and Stroun, 1997, page 225

  10. Tessler, 1994, p 174.

  11. Tessler, 1994, p. 180..

  12. Segev, 2000, pp 360-361.

  13. Morris, 2000, p. 124.

  14. Bauer, 1966 p. 49.

  15. Morris, 2000, p. 128.

  16. Segev, 2000,  p 365

  17. Segev, 2000,  p. 367.

  18. Segev, 2000, p. 368.

  19. Kanafani, 1980, Morris, 2000, p. 130.

  20. Morris, 2000, p.133

  21. Morris, 2000, p. 133.

  22. Kedourie, 1960, pp 93--170.

  23. Segev, p 414

  24. Sachar, 1998, p. 213

  25. Morris, 2000, 153.

  26. Morris, 2000, p. 152

  27. Morris, 2000, p.152

  28. Segev, 2000, p. 369

  29. Morris, 2000 p 154

  30. Teveth, 1985, p. 173-174.

  31. Segev, 2000, p. 385

  32. Morris, 2000, p. 147

  33. Segev, 2000, p. 384.

  34. Morris, 2000, p.159.

  35. Arnon-Ohana, p. 140.

  36. Kanafani, 1980, citing Khalidi, 1971, pp. 836-849.

  37. Sachar, 1998, p. 222.

  38. Morris, 2000, p. 155.

  39. Morris, 2000, p. 156.

  40. Morris, 2000, p. 158.

  41. Morris, 2000, p. 159..

  42. Morris, 2000, p. 158.

  43. Morris, 2000, p. 159.

  44. Porath, 1978, p. 348

  45. Porat, 1978, p. 129 ff.

  46. Stein, Kenneth W., The Land Question In Palestine, 1917-1939, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984; Stein, Kenneth W., Palestine's Rural Economy, 1917 - 1939, Studies in Zionism, Vol. 8, no. 1 (1987); pp. 25 - 49; The Land Question in Palestine .

  47. Stein, Kenneth W., The Land Question In Palestine, 1917-1939, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984 p. 109.

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Praot, Meoraot, Riots of 1936, The Arab Uprising

Further Information: The Pro-Axis Iraqi Coup of 1941 and the Mufti.  Palestine Atrocities   Pre-1948 Violence- Contemporary newspaper descriptions Palestine's Rural Economy, 1917 - 1939 The Land Question in Palestine


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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