The violence we associate with the Arab-Israeli conflict began on March 1, 1920, in a tiny Jewish settlement called Tel Hai, just a few miles south of today’s border with Lebanon.
The Jewish settlement of Tel Hai sat in the border region between British-controlled Palestine and French-controlled Lebanon. The Arabs were fighting the French and frequently came into Tel Hai to search for French military activity. On March 1, 1920, several hundred Arabs came down from Lebanon, though it remains unclear whether they were looking for the French or were, instead, intent on raiding Tel Hai. A Jewish farmer signaled for help from the nearby village of Kfar Giladi and Joseph Trumpeldor led a group of HaShomer, the Watchman, to respond. A firefight broke out over what both sides later described as a misunderstanding, but Trumpeldor, five other Jews, and five Arabs were killed. The Arabs burned down Tel Hai.
A month later a riot broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City after Arab officials, crying “Death to the Jews!” during a protest, called for Arabs to attack the Jews. The riot resulted in the death of five Jews, four Arabs, and swath of destruction across the city, made worse by the British military’s decision to evacuate its troops from the Old City — what they later admitted was a mistake.
The Arabs were protesting two grievances. They were angry about the failure to obtain an independent Arab empire which had been promised them by the British during World War One. And they were angry about the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the possibility that the majority Arab population would have to live under a minority Jewish rule. They worried that Balfour would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine
Amin al-Husseini, scion of one of the most prominent local Arab families, emerged as the first major leader of the Palestinian Arabs of Palestine. His inflammatory speeches incited violence against the Jews and the British, and he refused to compromise on any point that would, in his view, be favorable to the Jews.
In an attempt to improve their management of Palestine, under the direction of the League of Nations the British switched from a military regime to a civilian-run administration. It was organized under the High Commissioner, a kind of colonial governor, with Herbert Samuel, a Jew, serving as the first one. He had a mixed record of supporting Zionism but also bending over backwards to appease the Arabs, creating a muddled policy of lasting confusion and conflict.
In May, 1921, riots broke out in Jaffa, a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. The violence soon spread to other cities. Forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs were killed in a sign that the conflict had spread far beyond the confines of Jerusalem.
Herbert Samuel mostly blamed the Jews, temporarily suspending immigration to Palestine to appease the Arabs. The British issued the Churchill White Paper in 1922, which limited the Jewish homeland to lands west of the Jordan River and restricted Jewish immigration to the “economic capacity” of Palestine to absorb them. Though it also reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The Zionists, though disappointed by the White Paper, opted to accept the terms. The Arabs rejected it.
Finally. Herbert Samuel appointed Amin al-Husseini as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who thus became both the religious leader and political head of the Muslim community in Palestine. His elevation to the leadership of the Arab community guaranteed lasting, bitter, and violent conflict between Arabs and Jews for the next thirty years and beyond.
Joseph Trumpeldor, by the age of 39, had been the most decorated Jew in Russian military history, a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and a farmer at Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania.
Trumpeldor’s last words are said to have been, “En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu”. “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.”
The largest city in Israel’s north, Kiryat Shmona, or the Town of Eight, is named after Trumpeldor and seven other Jews killed at the beginning of the conflict.
NAMES TO KNOW
Joseph Trumpeldor: One-armed Zionist hero from the First World War who formed and led the Zion Mule Corps at the Battle of Gallipolli. He was killed in battle with the Arab at Tel Hai in 1920.
HaShomer (the Watchman): early, local Jewish self-defense group.
Amin al-Husseini: Palestinian leader who led Arab rejection of Zionism, Balfour, and the Jews, forever refusing any compromise. Appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, making him the Islamic religious leader of the city as well as the top political representative of the Muslim community to the British High Commission.
Herbert Samuel: a British Jew, the first to serve as High Commissioner for Palestine. He had good intentions, but appeased Arab violence by conceding to their demands.
Winston Churchill: Colonial Secretary in charge of Britain’s overseas colonies. A supporter of Zionism and Balfour who made a deal with the Arabs to cease their violence in exchange for securing autonomy in Transjordan, which was a part of Palestine.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
The Arabs worried that the Balfour Declaration would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, which would give the Jews political and economic power. They were right to be worried because that is what happened, and that was a major goal of Zionism. To ensure the Jewish homeland was a place of safety and revival, the Jews had to be in the majority with a monopoly on power. Jewish immigration was therefore the key to achieving this.
The clashes with the Jews in the 1920s brought Arab nationalism to the forefront. It was based on the idea of establishing a sovereign homeland for the Arabs in the Middle East to, like Zionism, renew Arab culture, language, history, and identity. But they were much younger and less unified than the Zionist movement, and struggled to achieve the diplomatic success of Zionism, which led to frustration and the view that Zionism, with its ties to the British, was a colonialist movement.
The violent Arab protests of 1920 and 1921 resulted in the British limiting Jewish immigration to appease Arab demands. From this the Arabs learned that violence works. This set the stage for a strategy that would continue over the next century, as the Arabs repeatedly employed violence to achieve political results, often with success. The British didn’t seem to appreciate that there was no scenario in which the Arabs would accept the Balfour Declaration, and yet the High Commission kept trying anyway. For the Zionists, this was a key pillar in the development of right-wing Zionism.