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San Remo and the Nabi Musa Demonstrations in Jerusalem

The Syrian National Congress had declared the Zionist colonization of Palestine illegitimate and Palestine an indivisible part of united Syria. Two weeks later, in the course of the Nabi Musa procession on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1920, battles broke out between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem. British intelligence blamed an impassioned speech from cArif al-cArif for inciting the crowd. Al-cArif was from a Jerusalem family and edited the nationalist newspaper, Suriyya al-Janubiyya, or Southern Syria. He had been educated in literature in Istanbul and served as a reserve Ottoman army officer during the Great War. In 1915 he was captured by the Russians in Eastern Anatolia, and spent three years in a Siberian prison camp where he published a newspaper and learned Russian and German.36 As the Nabi Musa procession paused, he urged the crowd to resist the injustice of British and Zionist occupation and partition of their country. A portrait of recently crowned King Faysal was on display. Al-cArif soon fled to Damascus, where he joined his fellow former officers Yasin al-Hashimi and Yusuf al-cAzma in time for the Battle of Maysalun.

Military Governor Ronald Storrs accused Jerusalem mayor Musa Kazim al-Husayni of involvement in the demonstrations and dismissed him as mayor. In 1920, Musa Kazim al-Husayni was nearly 70 years old, and was acknowledged as the leading politician and patriarch of the leading family of Ottoman Palestine (Sanjaq al-Quds). He had spent decades in Ottoman public service and had served as provincial governor and member of parliament. Between 1920 and the end of his life he became an international advocate for the cause of Palestine in Europe, and petitioned and visited the Foreign Office and the League ofNations. In 1914, it was the European Zionists who were disadvantaged in their attempts to wrest territory for settlement from the Ottoman central government, but after 1919, the tables had turned, and Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders enjoyed access to European politicians at the highest levels. It is hard to imagine the changed world that suddenly confronted Musa Kazim al-Husayni in his seventh decade of life.

The countryside and region generally was already in a state of unrest and raids on Zionist settlements and British garrisons had taken place in the area between the French and British zone. Fighting and demonstrations spread within the region and lasted several days. Raids took place against British and French positions in Hawran, and the western mountain areas. Both French and British forces responded with airplane patrols and bombing raids, but attacks continued and intensified. British intelligence noted that Faysal did not support such activities, and was opposed to military confrontation, but in his weakened political condition, he could not oppose the militant demands of the Syrian Congress, without running the risk of being “thrown out” by the members of the congress, who objected in the strongest terms to the division of greater Syria into separate mandatory states, and who were suspected of maintaining worrisome contacts with the Anatolian insurgents.37

British inquiries into the disturbances at Jerusalem reported that while authorities had promised just rule, Palestinians were well aware of Zionist intentions, expressed widely in newspapers in Europe and reported in the Arabic press, to displace the indigenous populations and take full possession of the country. A month before the uprising, then-famous writer and humorist, Israel Zangwill proclaimed in a widely publicized speech in London, “if you shirk exodus, you are confronted by Numbers. Palestine contains 600,000 to 700,000 Arabs ... Are we literally to re-create Palestine, and then to be told it belongs to the ignorant half-nomadic tribes who have planted their tent poles or their hovels there?” Four days before the riots, the Zionist Executive wrote to the Foreign Office about Zangwill. “We are aware that these utterances, which cannot fail to obtain wide publicity, are likely to exercise a disturbing influence on the situation in Palestine.”38

At the end of April 1920, newspapers everywhere announced the results of the San Remo Conference. The conference confirmed the Anglo-French partition of the Ottoman Arab east, and the nominal supervision of the League of Nations mandates system. Representatives of Italy and Japan attended, but there were no representatives from any of the territories discussed. Allenby had urged Faysal to attend the conference, but Faysal argued that he could not agree to the separation of Palestine from Syria, or to the terms of the Balfour Declaration, both of which were preconditions the conference was meant to confirm. When Faysal finally decided he should attend, the French government informed him the invitation had been revoked, and if he insisted on appearing he would be dealt the humiliation of being banished to his hotel room and excluded from the proceedings.39 San Remo represented the final Anglo-French deal over the partition of the region. The next conference, at Sevres in August 1920, was supposed to dictate terms of surrender to the Ottoman State, define borders, and transfer title to the new colonial masters of the Middle East, but the ground had shifted beneath the Great Powers.

In Baghdad, news of Ramadan Shallash’s capture of Dayr al-Zur in January barely preceded news of the Syrian and Iraqi National congresses in Damascus. The people of Baghdad were excited by both events, and outraged by the news from San Remo, but the protests did not immediately threaten British control. Beginning in May, a major revolt, inspired by events in Dayr al-Zur and other former Ottoman lands, and led by ex-Ottoman Arab officers and war veterans, spread along the river towns from the north to the south of the country, nearly leading to a British evacuation, and to a major crisis of confidence in London. A secret telegram noted, “we now require an army to hold Mesopotamia as large as that required to take it from the Turks.”40

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