Season 2, Episode 22
Add Nazis, Stir
By the mid-1930s there were so many competing Jewish, Arab, and British imperatives in Palestine that something had to give way. The Arab Revolt began in 1936 and no one involved would ever be the same again. But before we get to the revolt part, we have to understand the various storylines converging in the mid-1930s, especially the story of the Arabs.
There are three storylines converging on each other in the 1930s. Things are generally going well — growing economic prosperity, capable British administration of Palestine, growing cities, farms, and infrastructure. But under the surface there is a great deal of tension. The Jews remain traumatized by the Arab massacres of the 1920s, and angry that the British gave in to Arab demands then. The door to Jewish immigration is steadily closing at the time when they need it the most open, to counter the threat posed by the rise of the Nazis.
The Arabs want to stop Jewish immigration and land purchases, and are frustrated that their diplomatic efforts can’t match those of the Jews. Their own Arab nationalist movement is on the rise, and Muslim leaders settle on violence as the main strategy to oppose the Zionists and the British. They begin to see a zero-sum contest in Palestine: any gain for the Zionists is a loss for the Arabs.
The British are trying to figure out how to stabilize the Mandate without creating a disaster in Palestine just in time for another European war with Germany.
A new Muslim leader emerged: Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam. He used Islamic theology to raise an underground militia, claiming it was a religious obligation of all Muslims to fight against Western imperialism, especially the Zionist Jews. He criticized Amin al-Husseini for not devoting enough resources to warfare. He and his fighters tried to launch a rebellion from Haifa in 1935 but were soon discovered by the British and killed during a firefight. al-Qassam became a martyr for Arab and Muslims across the Middle East who now saw “freeing” Palestine from the British and the Jews as part of their own nationalist agenda.
The Arabs in Palestine started to refer to themselves less as “Arabs” and more by another name: “Palestinians”. Thanks to al-Qassam’s short-lived revolt, they had a hero, a movement, and a cause to rally around, and soon settled on mass violence as a way to oppose the British and the Zionists.
Into this mix came the Nazis and other European fascists, who saw an opening to garner the support of the Arabs. Their propaganda message to the Arabs was that they, like the Arabs, were also a movement of young people trying to reclaim their rightful heritage and territory (it didn’t hurt that the Arabs had much-needed oil, too). Plus they all share the same common enemy in the Jews. The Nazis, along with Mussolini’s Italy, promised to fully support the Arab nationalist movement. The propaganda worked. And so into the potent stew of local resentment, anger, martyrdom, burgeoning Palestinian identity, Jewish immigration, British imperialism, and a commitment to mass violence came international support from the rising European military power. Nazi support for the Arab nationalist movement, especially in Palestine, gave the Arabs a ton of leverage to use with the British against the Jews. They got to play the game: “don’t make us side with the Nazis,” they said. “You better start pulling back your support for the Zionists.” As the 1930s rolled on into a full-blown crisis, that’s exactly what the British did.
Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam: A Syrian, he involved himself in anti-colonial revolts against the British, Italians, and French, and ended up in Haifa as the imam of the prominent local mosque. He made a name for himself as a kind of warrior-preacher and attracted a huge following. In 1935 al-Qassam and his fighters set out from Haifa to start a rebellion, but were soon killed in a shootout with the British police. al-Qassam became an early hero to the Arabs of Palestine, and inspired them to take up violent rebellion against the Jews and British.
THE BIG IDEAS
Although the development of Palestine brought widespread prosperity to Jews and Muslims alike, the Arabs were deeply upset by the constant influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe. Though economically better off than anywhere else in the Middle East, they were upset that Jews were buying up the best land, that the Arabs were in danger of becoming a minority, and that Zionistic ideals — like socialism, democracy, urban development, gender equality, equal rights, religious tolerance, etc — were in many cases anathema to the austere and conservative values of Muslim society. Colonial efforts throughout the Middle East meant that the Arabs were fearful of losing out on establishing an Arab empire.
The Zionist Movement and its leadership had a blind spot for the intensity of the Arabs’ opposition. Going back to Theodore Herzl many leaders insisted that the Arabs would embrace the political and economic benefits of the Jewish homeland. No matter how many Zionist leaders came forward — and many did — to say “this is not going well,” Chaim Weizmann and others refused to change course. The focus was always on relentlessly building the Jewish homeland.
Al-Qassam charged the fight in Palestine with an intense religious fervor, emphasizing that it was a struggle between Jews and Muslims. Since the colonialist British supported the Jews, he said, the Zionists were also imperialists, and therefore could, and should, be attacked at every opportunity. Other Arab leaders like Amin al-Husseini looked at the situation — at their frustration with diplomacy with the British, at the influx of Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany, at the success of riots against the British in rallying the Palestinians together, and at the success of al-Qassam’s ideology and the way he became a heroic figure. They decided on a permanent new strategy to stop Jewish immigration, stop Jewish land purchases, and drive the British out of the Mandate: mass violence. These leaders made the decision to define this early-stage Palestinian national movement as anti-Zionist and anti-British imperialist, and to use mass violence as the means to achieve their goals.
A British-built oil pipeline ran from the fields of Kirkuk, Iraq, to the port of Haifa, which turned the port city into a major industrial city.
By the middle of the 1930s the Arab population of Palestine was around one million.
al-Qassam remains a Palestinian hero. The military wing of Hamas, which carries out terrorist attacks against Israel, is officially called the al-Qassam Brigades. And one of the rockets that Hamas fires at Israel is called the Qassam rocket.
© Jason Harris 2019