Season 2, Episode 23
You Two Need to Separate
In April 1936, Palestinian Arabs executed two Jews at a roadblock outside the town of Tulkarm, igniting a three-year rebellion against both the British and the Jews. The Jews quickly took their revenge and by the summer the two were at war. The Arabs were determined to force the British to end Jewish immigration to Palestine. For the first time the idea of partition — separating the Arabs and Jews into different political territories — was floated as a serious measure to resolve the conflict.
Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim representative to the British High Commission, was simultaneously in a struggle for power with other Palestinian families, fighting an insurgency against the Jews, and trying to negotiate with the British. In the summer of 1936, with violence at its peak, al-Husseini called a general strike, thinking this would cause so much harm to the economy that the British would cave. Instead, it bolstered the Jewish economy, wrecked the Arab economy, and the Arabs turned against al-Husseini. So he blamed the Zionists and called for more violence.
In November 1936, after several hundred Jews, Arabs, and British had been killed, the British Peel Commission arrived to investigate the causes. It was at this point that the idea of partition was considered. Chaim Weizmann was in favor: it meant the creation of an actual Jewish state. With its defined boundaries, he reasoned, the Arabs would settle into acceptance and the Jews would constitute a majority. The downside was a much smaller amount of territory than had been originally conceived for the Jewish homeland, as well as the need to transfer populations — Jews and Arabs — to their respective sides, something which the Zionist Movement hadn’t seriously considered as necessary or desirable.
The British government announced that it would accept these recommendations of the Peel Report of 1937, along with a dramatic reduction in Jewish immigration to appease the Arabs. Just 12,000 Jews would be allowed in a year, at a time when hundreds of thousands were at imminent risk in Nazi Germany. This was the most significant British policy statement on Palestine since the Balfour Declaration back in 1917.
The Jews weren’t excited about it — it was a huge setback — but chose to neither oppose nor accept it. They had an Arab ally — Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, who stood to gain a great deal of territory from partition, and who was anyway much more moderate towards the Zionists than his Arab nemesis, al-Husseini
Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian Arab leadership all rejected the Peel Report, as it still allowed for even a small amount of Jewish immigration. The Arab Revolt entered its second, bloodiest phase, in the summer of 1937.
The Arabs were unrelenting in their attacks on the British, killing hundreds of soldiers while the British carried out severe reprisals. The Arabs also attacked the Jews throughout Palestine, including the murder of 11 Jewish children in Tiberias. By 1937 and 1938, the Jews had had enough. The Haganah modified its policy of havlagah (restraint) to allow for pre-emptive strikes. A British officer named Orde Wingate organized Jewish Special Night Squads to raid villages from where al-Husseini’s fighters emerged, keeping the Arabs on the defensive and boosting morale amongst the Jews. Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist splinter militia, called the Irgun, ditched havlagah altogether in favor of bloody reprisals against the Arabs.
But ultimately it was al-Husseini who did the most damage to the Arabs. He used the revolt as an opportunity to consolidate his power by murdering his political opponents in the Nashashibi clan, who were much more moderate in their approach to the British and the Zionists. By the end of the Great Revolt in 1939, al-Husseini had murdered around 3,000 Palestinians.
It’s hard to know the exact toll of the Great Revolt, but around 5,000 Arabs, 500 Jews, and several hundred British soldiers were killed.
Amin al-Husseini: Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, his 1936 general strike failed to sway the British against the Jews. So al-Husseini launched a murderous revolt against the British, the Jews, and his Palestinian political opponents in an effort to consolidate his power.
Emir Abdullah: the ruler of Transjordan who got along well with Zionist leaders, especially Chaim Weizmann. He wasn’t always able to deliver on the kind of cooperation the Zionists hoped for, but he was the go-to guy whenever the British were trying to resolve disputes amongst the Arabs. He later became King Abdullah I of the Kingdom of Jordan.
Orde Wingate: British military officer and fundamentalist Christian whose obsession with the biblical prophecies led him to support the Zionist movement. He convinced the British government to let him organize small Haganah units into a pre-emptive strike force called Special Night Squads. He trained several future Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan. Wingate was killed in a plane crash in 1944.
The Nashashibi clan: The Nashashibi were, like Abduallah in Transjordan, much more moderate in their approach to the British Mandate and Zionism, and political opponents of Amin al-Husseini. Although they were ultimately opposed to unrestricted Jewish immigration and the creation of a Jewish state, they nevertheless supported the Peel Report and were willing to make compromises for peaceful relations with the Jews. They believed this was in the long-term interests of the Arabs. al-Husseini murdered many members of the family and its supporters during the Arab Revolt.
THE BIG IDEAS
The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 was a response to mounting Arab frustration that massive Jewish immigration would lead to the creation of a Jewish homeland, in which the Jews would be the majority population in Palestine. The Revolt was the bloodiest fighting yet in the growing Arab-Jewish conflict. Arabs murdered hundreds of British soldiers and Jews alike, launching attacks on schools, synagogues, buses, and public places all over Palestine. The British responded with extremely harsh measures, including executions and razing whole villages. The Arab Revolt changed Jewish self-defense, as the Haganah and the Irgun both relaxed the policy of havlagah (restraint) in favor of pre-emptive strikes (the Haganah) and reprisals (the Irgun).
The Arab Revolt that began in 1936 led the British to consider the idea of partition — separating Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. The Jews expressed tepid interest and support for the idea while the Arabs in Palestine rejected it. Partition became a driving theme over the next decade, and continues today in the form of questions about how to create a Palestinian state. The perennial challenge is how to separate two violently-opposed peoples in a country the size of New Jersey.
The Peel Commission recommended partition as well as strict limits on Jewish immigration. The Arabs, with the exception of Emir Abdullah, rejected it. The historian Howard Sacher notes that they all had different reasons to use the Palestinian cause for their own purposes. Syria hoped to absorb Palestine into its own territory. Egypt wanted Palestine to be an Arab buffer region for the defense of the Sinai Peninsula. Iraq wanted an Arab state along the coast to export oil into the Mediterranean. The Saudis claimed to support Palestinian Arab independence.
Emir Abdullah’s family are Sunni Muslims known as Hashemites — they trace their lineage directly to the Prophet Muhammad some 1,500 years ago. His great-grandson, Abdullah II, is the current king of Jordan.
© Jason Harris 2019