Palestine: Part Two.
The Palestinian Cause.
Summary: Part Two of our series on Israel/Palestine turns back the clock to examine the time period from Part One but from the Palestinian perspective. By establishing the foundation of the conflict in parallel, it helps organize internal and external events that explain sympathies toward Jews and Palestinians alike. This episode digs into the cultural underpinnings of Arab society in the 19th and early 20th centuries and examines the fault lines that occur as a result of Jewish migration, industrialization, the collapse of Ottoman rule and fallout from World War One.
Joan Peters was a freelance journalist who developed a “fascination” with the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts in the 1970s and ‘80s. The publication of her bestselling book From Time Immemorial was an instant sensation that seemed to settle—in the minds of her western audience at least—the debate over the rights of Palestinians to the land in Israel and Palestine. She even went on to loosely advise the Carter administration. Though met with derision in Europe from the outset, it was met with widespread critical acclaim in the United States and put Peters on the map as a serious journalist with the temerity to wade into one of the most misunderstood conflicts in human history.
Her claim that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people was so forceful and backed by scholarly claims, demographic research and first hand reporting from refugee camps that it changed the national discourse in the United States and affirmed the claims of the Zionist movement that sought dominion over the whole of Palestine. There was only one problem.
The book was a complete fabrication.
If you’ve been following the conflict closely these days or have been tuned to it for a while, you may have come across the name Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein was the first American scholar to dig into the claims made in Peters’ book in his PhD dissertation at Princeton, debunking nearly all of its claims.
The mere mention of Finkelstein’s name enrages Zionists and pro-Israel sympathizers the world over. He was banned from even entering Israel for a decade. His PhD was delayed because he had trouble finding professors to read it critically. His career suffered as well as he bounced around institutions, failing to make tenure at any of them. Lauded in left-wing circles as a truth telling son of Holocaust survivors and principled academic; vilified by nearly everyone else in American society as a self-loathing Jew and terrorist sympathizer.
Figures like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky dug into Finkelstein’s claims and uplifted his work. Others like Alan Dershowitz and Peter Novick of U Chicago became mortal enemies. Nearly all of academia and the mainstream media ultimately came to the conclusion that From Time Immemorial was propaganda at best—a hoax at worst. The central conceit of the book—that the Palestinians never existed and that the small number of Arabs in the territory known as modern day Israel/Palestine were nomadic tribes that hailed from other parts of the former Ottoman Empire—endured in pro-Israel policy circles and, more importantly, in the minds of many Americans.
Both Peters and Finkelstein would wind up disgraced for different reasons surrounding the same claim. And while Finkelstein is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence on the left these days, he remains a marginalized voice and is still viewed as a traitor to Zionists.
I begin with this not to surface the work of Finkelstein or any other pro-Palestinian scholar or activist, but to highlight the tension that exists in all walks of academia, activism and punditry. Our propensity to favor propaganda over fact checking scholarship allows false narratives to endure. Jews control the media and banks. Palestinians aren’t real. If you’re Jewish and criticize Israel, you’re a self-loathing Jew. If you’re not Jewish and criticize Israel, you’re anti-Semitic. If you believe in Palestinian self-determination, you’re a terrorist sympathizer. If you’re Palestinian and believe in a two-state solution, you’re a Jew sympathizer.
Listening to facts and scholarship that challenges one’s beliefs is difficult and we need to allow space for as many people as possible who are willing to try. Thus, in Part One I attempted to contextualize Jewish migration to Palestine in the five Aliyot in the first part of the 20th Century. Similarly, the goal of this essay is to explain how the territory of Palestine developed during the same period and how the indigenous population came to identify as Palestinians and call for self-determination.
These first two level-setting essays mostly cover the birth of the Zionist movement and the turning point of 1948. I want to emphasize the titles of the essays for a moment as well before we move on. Part One is titled “The Jewish Question” and Part Two is “The Palestinian Cause.” The implication of both titles is that both Jews and Palestinians have been viewed reflexively as modifiers in a statement; always framed as a question or a cause. There’s something about this that diminishes the humanity of both groups in my mind. At the root of it, that’s what I’m trying to tease out in these first two essays. To go beyond the question or the cause and to see the humanity in the people caught up in this most intractable conflict.
Where it will get tricky and the tightrope walking begins is in the final essay beginning with the events of 1948. For Jews it marked the historic moment of official statehood. Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba, the great catastrophe. But for today, the Palestinian cause.
Chapter One: Origin Stories.
“It's not my analysis. I quote Ze'ev Jabotinsky. I quote Herzl. I quote every Zionist leader up to the 1940s, all of whom described their movement as a settler-colonial movement that had to destroy the resistance of the indigenous population. They had no qualms about saying this.” -Rashid Khalidi
This quote is from a lecture by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, who published The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine in 2020, one of eight books he has authored on the subject. His book begins with a personal family history of his great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, “former governor of districts in Kurdistan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria; and mayor of Jerusalem for nearly a decade.”
In the lecture supporting the book, Khalidi explains that he introduced the book with this anecdote specifically for American audiences because he found Americans unique in their perspective that the Zionist designs on Palestine weren’t settler-colonial in nature; moreover, they had bought into the idea that Palestinians didn’t really exist as an identity, narrative residue of Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial.
In seeking to establish the identity of the people, he uncovered the personal papers of his ancestors from the mid 1800s through the turn of the century. Among the collections of books, letters and archival material he found a critical correspondence between Yusuf Diya and Theodor Herzl.
“Yusuf Diya sent a prescient seven-page letter to the French chief rabbi, Zadoc Kahn, with the intention that it be passed on to the founder of modern Zionism. The letter began with an expression of Yusuf Diya’s admiration for Herzl, whom he esteemed ‘as a man, as a writer of talent, and as a true Jewish patriot’ and of his respect for Judaism and for Jews, who he said were ‘our cousins, referring to the Patriarch Abraham, revered as their common forefather.”
According to Khalidi, a portion of Yusuf Diya’s letter has been used in Zionist literature where he proclaimed Zionism to be, “natural, beautiful and just,” and, “who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country.” And indeed he wrote that. But by unearthing the remainder of the correspondence, Khalidi noted that this was used to acknowledge a shared heritage and claim to the land but as a prelude to warn against the idea of an exclusively Jewish state. Yusuf Diya follows with:
“‘Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and more gravely, it is inhabited by others.’ He concludes his letter saying, ‘Nothing could be more just and equitable than for the unhappy Jewish nation to find a refuge elsewhere…but in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.’”
Let’s reflect on a couple of important points within these sentiments. The first is the notion we expressed in Part One, which is the natural and familial relationship between Jews and Arabs of greater Palestine during this period. This isn’t to suggest that relations in this part of the world, or any part of the world, have always been harmonious. That’s a profoundly ignorant claim. However, it is accurate to suggest that for hundreds of years in Palestine, people of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds lived in relative peace. Upper classes within each group thrived economically and were highly educated. There were competent administrators from all backgrounds that worked cooperatively under Ottoman influence to govern disparate territories. More to the Palestine cause, there were indigenous people of the territory referred to as Palestine, composed of modern day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.
Yusuf Diya’s letter was somewhat prophetic in another respect. As Khalidi writes:
“The former mayor and deputy of Jerusalem went on to warn of the dangers he foresaw as a consequence of the implementation of the Zionist project for a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. The Zionist idea would sow dissension among Christians, Muslims, and Jews there. It would imperil the status and security that Jews had always enjoyed throughout the Ottoman domains.”
This was both a fraternal and pragmatic warning. And it’s almost haunting when you consider it was written 124 years ago.
Incredibly, Herzl responded within three weeks of receiving the letter. His tone was just as deferential and cordial as there was a clear respect between the two men. But his words, while intended to be reassuring, seem dismissive in retrospect. Here is Herzl:
“‘It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own…In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.’ Herzl continues later saying, ‘You see another difficulty, Excellency, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think of sending them away?’”
Let’s pause here because this is important. There are three things to unpack here. Critical aspects of myth building on both sides.
The first thing to note is Herzl’s claim that Jewish entrepreneurship and acumen would economically enhance the region and therefore all who live there. If we go back to Part One and reflect on the economic development of Palestine during the first three Aliyot, this sentiment rings true. The Jewish people brought important cultural and economic innovations to the region that helped foster its growth. Of this, there can be no doubt. It’s also true that like the colonial experience in the Americas, the indigenous populations passed on agricultural knowledge that helped facilitate this growth. It was a dynamic relationship that often inured to the benefit of both cultures.
As we also learned, however, as Jewish immigration intensified one of the aims of the more modern Zionists was to break free from the reliance on Arab labor. This also happened, so the benefits to the local population were as real as they were temporary. Especially as the Jewish National Fund, the British Empire and other Zionist organizations began to pour wealth into the region. These capital inflows throughout the 1920s in particular, exceeded 100% of the GDP of the region and allowed for extraordinary economic growth while the newly formed Arab states surrounding Palestine floundered under the imperial rule of France and Britain.
Then there’s the language that Herzl uses. “In allowing immigration to a number of Jews.” The tacit implication here is that there was already a structure in place to allow for Jewish settlement. In other words, there was already a local population in charge of regional administrative rule. Contrast this with the notion that Palestine was barely populated by non-native Bedouins in tents, and a clear tension emerges.
But it’s Herzl’s last point that stands out the most, especially because it was volunteered to Yusuf Diya. In his letter to Herzl, Yusuf Diya never raised the idea of displacement. And yet, Herzl wrote: “Who would think of sending them away?” This may seem trivial, but when Herzl’s letters and diary were published after his death, this sentiment expressed in his diary four years prior to his correspondence with Yusuf Diya paints a different picture:
“We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”
Herzl visited Palestine only once during his lifetime and passed away in 1904. But as he’s considered the father of Zionism, we must acknowledge both the impact of this sentiment and its strategic importance. While the Zionist project would be carried out by others over time, the idea that the indigenous people of Palestine would be henceforth considered simply “non-Jewish people” persisted and would be reinforced in the public consciousness from the Balfour Declaration through From Time Immemorial; a concept that endures to this day.
Chapter Two: Historic Palestine.
They were Muslims, Jews and Christians. Bedouins, farmers, merchants, fighters, administrators, clerics and educators. Persians, Arabs, Ottomans, Jews. For thousands of years the territory they inhabited was known by many names. The Caliphate. The Levant. The Fertile Crescent. The Ottoman Empire.
Home to the ancient cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mecca, Medina, Hebron and Damascus. But what of the people?
Khalidi said, “My grandfather’s generation would have identified in terms of family, religious affiliation, and city or village of origin. They would have been proud speakers of Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, and heirs to Arab culture. They might have felt loyalty to the Ottoman dynasty and state, an allegiance rooted in custom as well as a sense of the Ottoman state as a bulwark defending the lands of the earliest and greatest Muslim empires, lands coveted by Christendom since the Crusades.”
A people who identified with history, religion, family and language. And like every other person in the world, they would soon be swept up by the changing tide and hurricane winds of industrialism. As we said in Part One, this part of the world was slower to feel the effects of industrialization, but it wasn’t completely immune to it. Just prior to the post-Napoleonic period while Europe’s economy was rapidly expanding the Ottoman Empire, was in one of its waning periods, writes James Gelvin, author of The Israel-Palestine Conflict:
“The [Ottoman] government’s authority throughout the empire was increasingly challenged by local warlords. Two warlords of note emerged in Palestine. A warlord of bedouin origin, Zahir al- ‘Umar, took control over the Galilee region and established a principality with its capital at Acre. Further north, a former slave from Egypt, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, took control over the port of Sidon (in present-day Lebanon) and established a principality that stretched into southern Syria.”
Eventually, the Ottomans settled the dispute by intervening on the side of al-Jazzar who established the cotton trade throughout Palestine. With the demand for cotton on the rise, this positioned certain cities in the region to join newly established trade routes in the fast modernizing world, and led to the build up of the cities of Acre in Galilee down through Jaffa, known today as Tel Aviv. The Arabs in the cotton trade would experience the same boom and bust cycles as their European counterparts, especially when the cotton trade took off in the United States. The interruption of the Civil War in the fledgling U.S. allowed for the markets in these trade ports to remain competitive at a critical time of development.
“The expansion of a market economy in Palestine enlarged what one historian calls the ‘’social space’ of its inhabitants, in effect changing their perception of their lived world as links between cities and countryside, and between inhabitants of the region and inhabitants of the world beyond, increased in number and importance. The expansion of personal horizons in Palestine, along with the appearance of an increasingly complex division of labor uniting the inhabitants there, was one factor that contributed to the diffusion of a culture of nationalism.”
These are important factors to consider through a modern lens that often casts this region as entirely backward and the people nomadic. Furthermore, as we noted in Part One, the governance of these territories took a more outward stance during Egyption occupation under Mehmet Ali. Forces from the south, or northern Africa would battle for hegemony with European empires that sought to lay claim to the fertile territories and ancient cities of greater Palestine from this point forward.
A passage from Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine authored by Roger Owen in 1982 sheds further light on the economic activity of this time:
“Alexander Schölch’s ‘European Penetration and the Economic Development of Palestine, 1856-1882,’ makes a number of interesting points. Foremost among them is Palestine’s remarkable economic upswing prior to the beginning of substantial European colonization in 1882. Palestine’s agricultural production and import-export trade activity grew, as did its towns and urban production. Much of this growth was a response to increasing European interest in the country. But European demand is not the full explanation, since internal Ottoman markets (including Egypt) also stimulated production of Palestinian agricultural and manufactured goods. Schölch calculates that Palestine had a trade surplus in most of the 1856-1882 period, counting foreign and intra-Ottoman trade together.”
When you consider that this territory of the Ottoman Empire had a trade surplus that contributed to the growth and development of both cities and rural areas as connection points, it illustrates two things: one, independent of European imperial exploits, this region had already joined the industrial age and was economically independent; and two, the sudden interest on the part of imperialists makes even more sense when one understands the strategic importance of a developing market economy and mature trading routes based in port cities.
I may pull more from Owen’s report in our post-1948 essay as well, but there’s one more interesting section that speaks to a territory of strategic importance around the time of the British Mandate in Jabal Nablus, part of what is now referred to as the West Bank. Owen cites the work of Sarah Graham-Brown, an economist who studied this era and region and concludes:
“It suggests that, despite the ‘backward’ and apparently static character of Jabal Nablus’ economy compared to that of the coast, the Jabal was in fact bound to and affected by the ‘dynamic’ sector of the Palestinian economy and the world market. Relations of production in agriculture are Graham-Brown’s principal concern. She portrays a peasantry ‘which had only one foot in the market economy and retained a substantial part of the crop for its own consumption.’ Most peasants in Jabal Nablus had to seek off-farm work to supplement their agricultural income, and a small number were able to take advantage of the commodity market to improve their economic position. But a class of rich peasants or kulaks did not emerge. Likewise, sharecropping in various forms remained prevalent in relations between large landowners and their tenants.”
Hopefully it’s evident why I’ve included some dense economic information. Palestine, with Jerusalem as its beating heart, experienced the same economic development as other formerly feudal territories in the world. And with this came similar societal upheaval and changes. The emergence of classes. Different industries took hold. Port cities blossomed. Trade routes and passages were carved through vast desert expanses to connect bustling marketplaces. The trajectory of greater Palestine tracks with that of Europe. And like Europe, it was about to confront an existential challenge in World War One that changed the course of human existence.
Chapter Three: Pan-Arab Nationalism.
Before the Great War, the people of Palestine didn’t question who they were. They just were. They were the inhabitants of Palestine who identified by their family name, village, religion and language. It’s a strange thing to think about today. Palestinian Arabs, Jews and Muslims understood their differences on religious grounds but in all the other ways they shared an identity. Prior to the war, and even with the influx from the First Aliyot, Jewish people made up about 7% of the population in modern day Israel/Palestine. Arab Jews and the newer Sephardic and Ashkenazi settlers were fully assimilated into Palestinian culture, economy and governance. But word of Zionist intent to foster mass migration and carve out an independent administrative state began to worry some of the occupants of the region.
In my research, I wasn’t able to concretely correlate a figurehead of the Palestinian movement to what Theodor Herzl would come to mean to the Zionist movement. This is due to the differences between ruling factions of the vast territory of the Ottoman Empire. While the nucleus of the Empire was Istanbul, there were pockets of power and influence spread among a few ruling families. But there is one figure who deserves attention from this period.
Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi is considered by many to be the father of pan-Arab nationalism. Remember that coming into World War One, the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers because of the close ties to the Balkan region. But as the fighting wore on and it became clear that not only would the Allied Powers prevail, the Ottoman rule was about to come to a close and the western imperial powers were devising plans to carve up the Arab territories. In the midst of the war, Hussein and others led a revolt against the Turks and declared Arab independence from the Ottomans. Behind this bold maneuver was the promise of support from the British to back the founding of an Arab nation that incorporated modern day Syria to the Arabian peninsula.
Not shockingly, the British had already sold the Arabs down the river with the backroom deal of Sykes-Picot, thus infuriating Hussein and the Arab leaders. Again, there’s this idea that the Arabs of this part of the world were unwilling to negotiate with the European powers and the Zionists and therefore looked disorganized and factionalized. Now, there’s an element of truth to this with respect to the territory on the peninsula, or modern day Saudi Arabia, but for the most part there was general alignment behind the concept of an Arab nation among Arabs at least. But let’s talk about the exception because it all happened quickly but had lasting consequences.
Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, known as Ibn Saud, was an Arab leader who first led a revolt against the Ottoman Turks in alliance with the British during the war. But Hussein of the Hashemite dynasty had simultaneously led a revolt against the Turks in the areas of Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia), Transjordan and Damascus. He too worked in concert with the British. Hussein, who had proclaimed himself Caliph over the consolidated territories, was shortly thereafter run out of the peninsula by Ibn Saud, founder of the House of Saud and the first King of Saudi Arabia. So for practical purposes, we can kind of take Saudi Arabia out of the pan-Arab nationalism equation and focus on the area of the Levant.
Here’s where our Arab and Zionist correlation gets a bit tighter.
One of Hussein’s sons was Faisal I bin Al-Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi, whom I’ll refer to simply as Feisel. (Spelling varies depending upon the source.) Feisel would eventually become king of Iraq. Feisel was well liked and far more modern than his famous father. During the war, he became close friends with one of the most enduring figures throughout the western world. T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence became a fixture in Feisel’s world and through his diaries and books on this period, he offered a remarkable glimpse into the negotiations prior to and at the Paris Peace Conference. I mean, the double dealing that went on at this conference, the feuds and mistrust among the Allied Powers makes for fascinating reading.
Anyway, Feisel led the Arab delegation in Paris and brought a more western and modern presentation that even his father was unaware of. Feisel’s aim was a unified Arab nation, much in vision of his father but certain concessions in his back pocket depending upon where certain alliances fell. With the help of Lawrence they repeatedly pushed for a seat at the table only to be rebuffed or placated while the real dealings happened behind closed doors. By this time, it was known that the British were in support of the Zionist declaration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was also understood that the British intended to rule over most of the Arab world. So they were concerned on two fronts: one, that the Sykes-Picot agreement would hold and the territories of the Levant would be unceremoniously splintered, and two, that the area of Palestine would go to the Jews. This would leave the Arabs in this part of the world divided and split between Jewish, French and British rule.
To ward off this potential consequence, Lawrence laid out the Arab case to the British in advance of the conference in an attempt to appeal to the British ego.
“In Palestine the Arabs hope that the British will keep what they have conquered. They will not approve Jewish Independence for Palestine but will support as far as they can Jewish infiltration, if it is behind a British as opposed to an international facade. If any attempt is made to set up the international control proposed in the Sykes -Picot Agreement, Feisal will press for self-determination in Palestine, and give the moral support of the Arab Government to the peasantry of Palestine, to resist expropriation.”
Lawrence was willing to reveal Feisel’s hand, even if it ran afoul of his father Hussein and ran contrary to the secret deals made during the war. In their estimation, the British had the strongest hand and most experience in the region. Unfortunately for the Arabs, the British, French, Zionists, House of Saud and the Americans all had different ideas about the fate of the region.
In an effort to counter the Zionist narrative of an exclusively controlled Jewish state, Feisel himself submitted a memorandum to the Peace Conference pushing for self-determination among the people of Palestine saying, “In Palestine the enormous majority of the people are Arabs. The Jews are very close to the Arabs in blood, and there is no conflict of character between the two races.”
Feisel and Lawrence were trying to demonstrate that not only would the Arab Jews in Palestine be secure in this land but Jewish migrants would as well and that it could be accomplished in a new Arabic nation state that incorporated Jewish, Muslim and Christian Arabs and gave them what he called “representative local administration.”
After Theodor Herzl, the most significant founding father of the Zionist movement is a man named Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann became the leading figure of Zionism after Herzl and eventually was elected the first president of Israel. In yet another fascinating bit of history, Lawrence wrote an account of a meeting between Weizmann and Feisel for which he acted as an interpreter. According to Lawrence biographer Jeremy Wilson:
“Both leaders were now in a position to help one another politically: the Zionists needed Arab acquiescence to their programme in Palestine, while Feisal knew that Jewish support during the Peace Conference might help to swing American opinion behind his cause. Lawrence had already impressed upon Feisal the potential value of Jewish capital and skills. According to his own contemporary account, Weizmann assured Feisal that the Zionists in Palestine ‘should…be able to carry out public works of a far reaching character, and…the country could be so improved that it would have room for four or five million Jews, without encroaching on the ownership rights of Arab peasantry.’ Feisal replied that ‘it was curious there should be friction between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. There was no friction in any other country where Jews lived together with Arabs…He did not think for a moment that there was any scarcity of land in Palestine. The population would always have enough, especially if the country were developed.”
The two men, leaders of movements yet without nation states, even entered into a treaty known as the Feisel-Weizmann Agreement. Here are some of the highlights:
- A Palestinian Constitution that incorporates the Balfour Declaration.
- To “encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible.”
- Freedom of religion.
- Defined boundaries between states defined by a joint commission.
- A survey of economic development possibilities between the two territories.
You might be struck by the first note. Incorporation of the Balfour Declaration. It’s important to understand what Feisel was agreeing to here in collaboration with Weizmann. Feisel was already ceding the idea of a Jewish state. One that was agreed upon, however, by Jewish and Arab parties, not European ones. The Jewish state would live side-by-side with an Arab state that likely incorporated what we know as the West Bank through the Golan Heights, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It’s quite possible that the Jewish territory contemplated by Weizmann and Feisel could have been more substantial, though it’s difficult to say. Whatever it was, both men were so in favor of it they submitted it jointly to the Peace Commission.
By this time, Feisel had already established an administrative council in Damascus as sort of a kingdom in waiting. Yet despite Feisel and Lawrence’s attempts to be heard in Paris, an agreement at the ready with the Zionist movement and an Arab population desirous of self-determination, the European Allies ignored them all. And things quickly dissolved. As Khalidi writes:
“Many Palestinians hoped their country would become the southern part of this nascent state. However France claimed Syria for itself on the basis of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and in July 1920, French troops occupied the country…Following a bitter clash with Allied occupying forces, the nucleus of a Turkish republic arose in Anatolia in place of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Britain failed to impose a one-sided treaty on Iran and withdrew its occupation forces in 1921. France established itself in Syria and Lebanon, after crushing Amir Faysal’s state. Egyptians revolting against their British overlords in 1919 were suppressed with great difficulty by the colonial power, which was finally obliged to grant Egypt a simulacrum of independence in 1922. Something analogous occurred in Iraq, where a widespread armed uprising in 1921 obliged the British to grant self-rule under an Arab monarchy headed by the same Amir Faysal, now with the title of king. Within a little more than a decade after World War One, Turks, Iranians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Iraqis all achieved a measure of independence, albeit often highly constrained and severely limited. In Palestine, the British operated with a different set of rules.”
Chapter FOur: The Palestinian Identity.
In the early 1900s there were major newspapers such as Al-Karmil in Haifa and Falastin in Jaffa that began to refer to indigenous Arabs as Palestinians and the territory as Palestine. It was an identity forged in resistance from the start, first to European imperialism and then to Zionism. Each passing year the bond of the Palestinian Arabs increased; connected at the roots by culture, language and economic activity, then resistance to control and war. As Khalidi writes, “Just like Zionism, Palestinian and other Arab national identities were modern and contingent, a product of late nineteenth and twentieth century circumstances, not eternal and immutable.”
Throughout the decade following the Treaty of Versailles, only Palestinians found themselves as a people without a nation. Jews and Arabs alike. Even while new nation states like Transjordan and Syria were ripped out of the pan-Arab nationalist movement, Arabs leaders continued to press for independence and self-determination rather than the arbitrary constructs of Clemenceau and Lloyd George’s pens. Again, Khalidi:
“Their most notable effort was a series of seven Palestine Arab congresses planned by a country-wide network of Muslim-Christian societies and held from 1919 to 1928. These congresses put forward a consistent series of demands focused on independence for Arab Palestine, rejection of the Balfour Declaration, support for majority rule, and ending unlimited Jewish immigration and land purchases. The congresses established an Arab executive that met repeatedly with British officials in Jerusalem and in London, albeit to little avail. It was a dialogue of the deaf. The British refused to recognize the representative authority of the congresses or its leaders.”
The Arabs of the region had already been administering vast territories under Ottoman rule. The mechanics of governance was hardly a foreign concept and many of the Arab leaders were multilingual academics who had studied all throughout Europe. They were both steeped in Arabic culture and tradition and skilled in European diplomacy and statecraft.
Congress after congress gathered each year to craft policy documents and entreaties to the French and British to consider a range of reforms from the establishment of Greater Syria to codifying the language of the Balfour Declaration. On the latter point, the Arab Congresses were still signaling a desire to absorb Jewish migrants into Palestine so long as Arabs weren’t displaced or their independence compromised. And each year they were ignored, even while tensions between Jewish immigrants and Palestinians began to mount. In 1920, anti-Zionist riots broke out in Jerusalem. In 1921, they broke out in Jaffa. All in response to land purchases by the Jewish National Fund and settlement expansions thereafter.
Significant figures of resistance began to emerge that wholly adopted the Palestinian identity. Figures such as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a religious leader who helped lead a revolt against the French in Syria. Al-Qassam formed a group known as the Black Hand, a militant group designed to expel Zionists and British from Palestine. Al-Qassam was killed by the British in 1935, turning him into one of the first militant Palestinian resistance fighters. In fact, the militant wing of Hamas is named in his honor.
There were notable scholars such as Issa al-Sifri, one of the most popular writers of the time and the first to publish Palestinian history of the British Mandate. Or Musa Kazim Husseini, who served a term as mayor of Jerusalem and presided over the third and fourth Arab Congresses. Al-Sifri took a more hard line stance against British occupation and Jewish migration, rejecting the Balfour Declaration in the third Arab Congress and Zionist claims in the fourth. His activism was more than political. At the age of 80, he led a demonstration in Jaffa in 1933 to stop Arab land transfers but he was struck by a British officer and died from his wounds shortly thereafter.
The point is these were influential public figures imbued with a sense of Palestinian nationalism and identity.
By now the world was becoming aware of the growing tensions between the indigenous Arabs and their imperial rulers. Moreover, as the world approached the Nazi era and life in Europe was getting increasingly difficult and precarious for Jews, prominent figures began to take up the Zionist cause. One of the most widely circulated articles from this time was a letter to the editor of Palestinian newspaper Falastin in 1930 from Albert Einstein in which he wrote:
“I believe that the two great Semitic peoples, each of which has in its way contributed something of lasting value to the civilisation of the West, may have a great future in common, and that instead of facing each other with barren enmity and mutual distrust, they should support each other's national and cultural endeavours, and should seek the possibility of sympathetic co-operation.”
Not even Einstein could conceive of an equation that would satisfy the interests of all those involved in the region. As the 1930s wore on the Great Depression took a toll on the world. The Nazi Party began making life unbearable for German Jews in their push for Judenrein and it was clear Europe was on the precipice of yet another massive conflict.
Lesser known to westerners is the explosion of Arab nationalism in Palestine between 1936 and 1939 among the laboring class. The revolts took the form of general strikes and caught the bourgeois Palestinians, Zionist settlers and the British by complete surprise. The British responded in brutal fashion under the command of Lord Peel who “expelled two hundred thousand Arab Palestinians as a result,” writes Khalidi, “and declared a path forward that would place Palestinian Arab territories under the control of Jordan. The Palestinian people finally had enough and they revolted against the British in a lopsided affair that saw fifteen percent of the adult male Arab population killed.”
There was another consequence of the Arab Revolts from 1936 to ‘39 that isn’t talked about much but leaves one again with that “what if” feeling. In May of 1939 the British published a new white paper that declared the British obligations to the Jewish national home as “substantially fulfilled” and that “within the next five years, no more than 75,000 Jews would be allowed into the country, after which Jewish immigration would be subject to ‘Arab acquiescence;’ land transfers would be permitted in certain areas, but restricted and prohibited in others, to protect Palestinians from landlessness; and an independent unitary state would be established after ten years, conditional on favorable Palestinian-Jewish relations.” It was a stunning turn of events considering it was only two years after the Peel Commission recommended the first partition plan for the creation of two separate states.
While Europe descended into complete and utter chaos and other world powers entered the fray, this was how the British retreated in the critical year of 1939. By this time there was a splinter among Zionists between the labor wing and the land wing represented by young militants such as Menachem Begin and politicians like David Ben-Gurion, respectively. Both men would eventually ascend to the role of Prime Minister of Israel, but they represented markedly different visions. Likewise, Arab leadership would fracture with different factions attempting to gain independence of their newly created territories while others still sought to unite them.
As the Nazis engaged in a genocidal campaign throughout the European continent and the Arab leaders fought for independence, territorial borders hardened and attitudes calcified. For the better part of a decade, the world had lost its humanity. And from the ashes, a new world order would emerge but again leave open both the Jewish question and the Palestinian cause.
- Stamp by Fred Taylor for United Kingdom Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Changes were made.