II. Early Mandate

II. Early Mandate

British Show of Force

British troops in full kit march through Jerusalem in a show of military force.

August 1929
Matson Photo Service, Library of Congress

As World War I came to an end, Palestine was placed under British rule, first in the form of the military administration of the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration and later as a Class A Mandate of the League of Nations. Palestinians were relieved that the hardships of the war and the Ottoman rule (which had become increasingly unpopular in the years preceding the war) were finally over, but their relief was quickly tempered by British commitments to the Zionist project in Palestine and the realization that efforts toward Arab independence would be undermined at all turns by the European powers. Jewish immigration, though uneven, significantly increased Palestine’s Jewish population, and Zionist institutions grew stronger and increasingly entrenched within the Mandate’s governing structures. As Palestinian political leaders sought to engage the British administration, popular forms of resistance periodically erupted into violent clashes, the most significant being the Buraq Uprising of 1929 and widespread anti-British demonstrations in 1933. By the end of 1935, Palestine stood poised on the brink of full-blown revolt.

In the summer of 1919, structures emerged through which the European powers would assert their control over the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire and undermine Arab efforts for self-determination. In June, the Treaty of Versailles and the Covenant of the League of Nations were signed, introducing a post–World War I order in which the Arab provinces were recognized as “independent nations,” to be assisted in their path toward independent statehood by a Mandatory. Meanwhile, in July, the General Syrian Congress was held in Damascus at which delegates from throughout the Levant elected Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, king of an Arab state to comprise Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan. But Faisal’s Arab state was quickly scuppered by the European powers: by July 1920, Faisal had been deposed by the French, who with Britain’s acquiescence imposed their rule in Lebanon and Syria under the Mandate framework.

Britain, in return, was allotted the Mandate for Palestine in April 1920 at the San Remo Conference. This was done despite the fact that Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant stipulated that the wishes of the communities concerned must be taken into account. The King-Crane Commission, dispatched to the Levant in May 1919, had indeed recorded Palestinians’ support for Arab independence and their overwhelming concerns about Britain’s support for Zionism as expressed in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In April 1920, the first violent clashes occurred between Palestinians and Jewish immigrants in Jaffa, in which five Jews were killed and two hundred wounded; four Palestinians were also killed and twenty-one injured. A British commission of inquiry attributed the riots to Palestinian “disappointment at the non-fulfillment of the promise of independence” and “fear of economic and political subjection” to Zionists.

Palestinian concerns were inflamed further by the appointment of Sir Herbert Samuel, a prominent British Zionist, to the post of high commissioner of the Palestine Mandate. In May 1921, clashes between rival Zionist factions spilled into Jaffa and prompted Palestinian protests against Zionist immigration in which forty-six Jews and sixty-eight Palestinians were killed. Meanwhile, Palestinians were also mobilizing politically and diplomatically against British support for Zionism. They organized Christian-Muslim associations in major cities, which went on to hold four national congresses between January 1919 and August 1922 and elected an Executive Committee. In 1921 and 1922, three Palestinian delegations visited London to present their case for a policy that prioritized the rights and needs of Palestine’s Arabs. Undeterred, Britain forged ahead with its commitment to Zionism but attempted to clarify it: a 1922 White Paper declared that Britain’s intention was to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, not the conversion of all of Palestine into such a home, and it linked the regulation of Jewish immigration into Palestine to the “economic absorptive capacity” of the country. In July 1922, the League of Nations approved the terms of Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, which reiterated Britain’s commitment to the Zionist project in multiple articles, and in September 1923 the Mandate officially came into effect.

Between 1923 and 1929, Zionists made steady progress in their project to establish a Jewish national home. From 1918 to 1929 some sixty new Zionist colonies were established, Zionist landownership rose from 2.04 percent of the total area of the country in 1919 to 4.4 percent in 1929, and immigration increased the Jewish proportion of the population from 9.7 percent to 17.6 percent during the same period. Zionist institutions in Palestine continued to assert themselves—in August 1929, the Jewish Agency was created to represent Jewish communities worldwide—and the British continued to privilege Zionist interests over the principle of self-determination or any structures that would have given the Palestinians political power commensurate with their demographic weight.

In 1929, Palestinian frustrations boiled over after right-wing Revisionist Zionists led a demonstration to the Western Wall/al-Buraq, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, to protest the status quo that had governed rights and access to religious sites in Palestine for centuries. The threat of the violation of this status quo prompted a violent reaction among Palestinians, and demonstrations and riots spread throughout the country, the most deadly occurring in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad. The clashes exposed the depths of Palestinians’ resistance to the imposition of the Zionist project against their will and prompted the British to consider the long-term impact of their pro-Zionist policy. In March 1930, a commission of inquiry (the Shaw Commission) confirmed that Palestinians saw Jewish immigration as both an economic and political threat, and another report (the Hope-Simpson Report), published in October, concluded that there was no additional land available for agricultural settlement by new Jewish immigrants. The British government issued, also in October 1930, another White Paper (Passfield White Paper) that recognized the conclusions drawn in these reports and advocated that greater attention be paid to Palestinian grievances. However, fierce Zionist criticism of the White Paper led to its virtual withdrawal in February 1931.

The Zionists made a number of gains in the 1930s, spurred forward by the rise of anti-Semitism—official and unofficial—in many European countries and Zionist efforts to channel Jews fleeing such oppression toward Palestine. Between 1931 and 1936, sixty-four new Zionist colonies were established, Zionist land ownership in Palestine rose to 5.4 percent of the total area, and the Jewish proportion of the population increased to 29.5 percent. The radical influx of Jewish immigrants invigorated Zionist institutions, including the illegal military organization Haganah. In October 1935, the discovery of a massive illegal arms shipment destined for the group confirmed Palestinians’ fears that the Zionist movement sought their displacement by military—in addition to political, demographic, and economic—means.

The early 1930s were also a period of increased Palestinian political activity. New political parties were formed and new newspapers were established; traditional elite-based politics were challenged and complemented by the rapid development of groups such as the Arab Youth Congress, the Young Men’s Muslim Association, the scouting movement, and the Istiqlal Party. Meanwhile, the global economic depression, combined with British policies and Zionist pressure, drove many young Palestinians from rural areas to cities in search of work. These groups became the raw material for the new popular political trends that were emerging. In 1933, large demonstrations throughout Palestine gave voice to the anger and frustration with British rule and were met violently by its agents. At the same time, secret paramilitary organizations began to organize in various regions of Palestine, the most famous being the Black Hand group led by Izzeddin al-Qassam. Al-Qassam was a Syrian who had fled the French authorities and gained a following in Haifa, where he preached at a mosque that catered to the new rural migrant underclass. In 1935, al-Qassam and a group of his followers clashed with British police and he was killed. His funeral in Haifa turned into a mass demonstration. As the following years would demonstrate, Palestinians were willing to risk everything to resist the British-backed imposition of Zionism.

Selected Bibliography: 

Bunton, Martin. Colonial Land Policies in Palestine, 1917–1936. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Huneidi, Sahar. A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, 1920–1925. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001.

Lesch, Ann M. Arab Politics in Palestine, 1917–1939: The Frustration of a Nationalist Movement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Muslih, Muhammad. The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press; Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1988.

Seikaly, May. Haifa: Transformation of an Arab Society, 1918–1939. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995.