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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East


In early 1928, Amir cAbdallah’s Transjordan became a British- recognized principality. The British “statement of policy” defined a formal, subordinate relationship for Transjordan, in place of a treaty, or a more ostensibly equal arrangement. A few months later, a constitution was announced that established a twenty-one-member Legislative

Council, which was partly elected and mostly appointed, met infrequently, and could, in any case, be ignored or dismissed at the Amir’s pleasure. A group calling itself the Jordanian National Party protested the arrangement, constitution, and collusion between Britain and Prince cAbdallah as a violation of mandatory promises of representation and democracy.13

Palestine: 1928 and 1929

The Balfour Declaration made the prospects for a constitution more complicated in Palestine than the other mandates. The mandate treaty recognized the Balfour Declaration, acknowledged the Jewish Agency as the representative of “all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home,” and codified a number of provisions explicitly facilitating the goals of the Zionist movement. The indigenous 80 90 percent of the population rejected both the Balfour Declaration and the mandate. In August 1922, High Commissioner Samuel promulgated a constitution, which proposed a twenty-three- member council made up of eleven mandate government officials, and twelve members freely elected from the population. Samuel’s original idea had been for an advisory committee with near numerical parity between Arabs and Jews, but he recognized the folly of such a plan, and the 1922 proposal was supposed to comprise eight Muslim Arabs, two Christian Arabs, and two Jews.14

Despite the realistic proportions, participation required acceptance of the Balfour Declaration and the terms of the mandate, and a majority of Palestinian politicians refused this acknowledgement. The Palestinian population boycotted the election and the council was not convened. Later efforts to appoint members similarly failed. The design of the mandates required acceptance in exchange for participation. Put another way, the Mandates Commission and the powers demanded mandate citizens endorse the legitimacy of the colonial/mandate arrangement before they could participate or complain. Protests that considered the settlement itself unjust were thus automatically disqualified. Palestinian politicians could not accept the mandate’s terms, most particularly the Balfour Declaration, and so they were rendered officially unrepresented.

The representatives of the Zionist movement found the terms of the Mandate and Balfour Declaration congenial and were consequently able to choose their representatives according to their collective prefer- ences.15 By the time the Arab leadership had come around to the idea of proportional representation, it was no longer on offer. In 1924, Jamal al-Husayni wrote, “We demand the establishment in Palestine of a

National Constitutional Government in which the two communities, Arab and Jewish, will be represented in proportion to their numbers as they existed before the application of the Zionist Policy.”16 The proposal, and its ratio of ten to one, was, by this time, out of the question from the perspective of the mandate and the Zionists.

Reasoned arguments based on justice and rights seemed to go nowhere. Musa Kazim al-Husayni and other ex-Ottoman civilian political leaders opposed the mandate and Zionism by recourse to rights, promises, and careful argument. Musa Kazim and Jamal al-Husayni made numerous visits to Geneva, and to London and wrote scores of petitions protesting the injustice of the situation in Palestine. By the end of the first decade of mandate rule, such arguments were proven ineffective, and different rhetorical strategies and leadership came to dominate the opposition.

The Western Wall of the Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sharif, is contemporary Judaism’s holiest place, and the last remnant of the Second Temple (70 CE). On the platform above the Wall lies the Umayyad era (eighth century CE) Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Wall was close along an alley between medieval houses of the Ayyubid era (eleventh to twelfth century CE) Maghribi quarter. Ottoman authorities had allowed prayer but no alterations or added structures or furniture to the area. The alley adjoining the wall and the quarter were owned by a waqf, or Muslim pious foundation, established in the early fourteenth century. Mandate officials followed the practice of enforcing the Ottoman status quo over religious sites, but Zionist leaders found the status quo of their holy places unsatisfactory and worked within the mandate administration to change the terms of access to the Wall.17 Even before the Armistice in 1918, Zionist leaders began to collect international donations with a view to purchasing the adjoining neighborhood and clearing the structures there.18 Jerusalem Military Governor Ronald Storrs had attempted to broker such a sale. The administrators of the waqf rejected all offers and during the late 1920s the area was on its way to becoming the symbolic center for the struggle over control of Palestine.19

During Yom Kippur in September 1928, a group of Jewish worshipers brought some furniture and screens to the Wall. After complaints from the director of the Muslim waqf that administered the area, mandate police ordered the screen removed. When it was not, they removed it forcibly the next day. Jewish protests were intense and considered the offense very grave, since the screen was used to separate male and female worshipers in keeping with traditional practice. The insensitivity of the mandate police was widely covered in the international press, and from the perspective of the Zionist movement, the basic right to free exercise of religious practice had been grievously violated. From the perspective of Arab and Muslim petitioners, the change of status symbolized a new claim and assertion of control over sacred territory they believed belonged to them. A petition noted:

The wall belongs to the Great Mosque, the Muslim ownership of which is uncon tested. It is the tradition of our faith to respect the religious beliefs of others and members of our faith have, out of pity for the Jews, always allowed the latter to come and wail at the foot of this wall. This is simply a matter of toleration, a mere concession, and has never implied any right of ownership or usufruct.20

Mandates Commission member William Rappard commented on the petitions received. Arab petitioners considered that the British government had broken its word in enforcing the status quo, and actively favored the Zionists. A British Land Expropriation ordinance decreed a few years earlier, making legal the seizure of property for undefined “public good” heightened the sense of foreboding. The writers feared the possibility that the government could redistribute land to benefit one community at the expense of another. In Rappard’s words, they considered the land decree a weapon designed for future use against their community. Meanwhile, Zionist petitions asked the League of Nations to assist them in “securing fundamental rights to the site” of the Wall, and in enacting a more positive interpretation of the idea of enforcing the status quo.21 The events of 1928 showed anyone who cared to note that Zionist aspirations were irreconcilable with what the indigenous majority considered their rights to the country.

In Jerusalem, Musa Kazim al-Husayni was 76 years old. Decades before, he had served as governor and in state administrations in the Balkans and Yemen, both Ottoman territories thousands of kilometers apart. Educated in Jerusalem and Istanbul, he had served the state, and traveled widely between far-flung posts. In the late 1920s he devoted his efforts to advocating the rights of the Arab population of Palestine in a small mandate of about 26,000 square kilometers. The mandate was larger than the special Ottoman administrative district of Jerusalem, or Mutasarrifiyya al-Quds al-Sharif, but far smaller than most Ottoman provinces. In 1928 and 1929 his younger relative, Amin al-Husayni, the British-appointed Mufti, increasingly became the leading Palestinian political figure. Amin al-Husayni focused his political efforts on mobilizing Palestinians, rather than on lobbying the mandate government, or League of Nations.

In October, the Mufti led an escalating series of protests against what he termed the granting of new rights for Jews to claim Muslim holy land. He used not the language of rights, law, treaties, and equal justice as Musa Kazim al-Husayni and other petitioners had done, but claims of religious injury and insult, displacement, and usurpation. Younger and more radical Zionists both in Palestine and in Europe made similar appeals and made clear their claims to the Wall, and even their wish to rebuild the temple where the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock stood. Chaim Weizmann often found himself explaining to the British government why such activities were not representative, and why Hatzohar, or the Revisionist Movement did not speak for Zionist goals or tactics.

In July 1929, several hundred Zionist youth marched to the Wall. Once there they sang the Zionist anthem, waved flags, and chanted “the Wall is ours.” The following day, a Friday, after noon prayers, the Mufti, Amin al-Husayni, led a march to the Wall, during which marchers destroyed some Jewish property and injured a Jewish prayer leader. In the following days, intensifying attacks on Jewish and Arab individuals took place around Jerusalem. The inertia of heated sentiment was ominous.

On Friday July 23, after a week of escalation, Palestinian villagers from the areas surrounding Jerusalem came to the city, and during the afternoon began to attack individual Jews and Jewish property around the city. Rioters killed many Jews without provocation that afternoon, and by the evening mandate authorities had begun to arm Jewish “special constables” and ex-British soldiers among the Jewish population. Other community members were issued wooden clubs. During the course of the next week, rioters killed many members of the Jewish community in Hebron, and other villages, including twenty people in Safad. At the end of the week, 133 Jews had been killed, mostly by rioters, and 116 Arabs were killed, mostly by police.22

British forces failed to protect Jewish inhabitants. The police forces available were inadequate to protect and separate the communities. In many cases police were unsympathetic to the Zionists, and denied the scope of the troubles. While support for Zionism was mandate policy, Zionist leaders considered many individual British colonial functionaries hostile to their movement. The High Commissioner requested and received reinforcements from Egypt and Malta, and attempted to close the border with Syria, lest armed insurgents travel to Palestine.23 Mandate authorities accepted no blame, but intercommunal conflict between Muslims and Jews was without precedent during centuries of Ottoman rule.

The High Commissioner had promised publicly that he would not bomb villages and neighborhoods. The Colonial Office objected, and wished to know why an administrator would rule out tactics of bombing villages and destroying houses. The Colonial Office ordered him to threaten bombing, and deliver, if necessary.24 The High Commissioner explained that bombing would make the situation worse and prolong unrest, and he had already had appropriate legal decrees to levy heavy fines, make arrests, and hold trials. He could not “entrust the maintenance of internal order security of Palestine to aeroplanes and armoured cars without the support of infantry.”25 The High Commissioner’s reservation was not based on humanitarian grounds, but was part a bureaucratic struggle for resources and increased funding for security forces. The financial costs of mandate counter insurgency provoked public opposition in London. Reinforcements suppressed the unrest within ten days.

British intelligence intercepted a telegram appeal from the Nablus Arab Congress, which was to be sent to twenty-seven institutional recipients in surrounding countries. The telegram claimed falsely that the Arabs had been disarmed and that the Zionists were killing them. Populations in the surrounding mandates, and further afield, paid close attention to events in Palestine, and demonstrations and angry newspaper editorials were commonplace. British officials and consuls sent a flurry of worried telegrams and dispatches about agitation, marches, and public meetings in Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Egypt. Demonstrations took place in Damascus immediately, but police dispersed them. A few months later, five Damascus National Bloc deputies declared a one-day general strike to protest the events in Palestine and the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The deputies sent a well-argued petition opposing Zionism to the consul, who attached a note to the Foreign Office.

They laid stress on specific promises made to King Hussein in 1915/1916 ... It is not my duty to trace the thread of the negotiations the Arabs carried out with the India Office or the Arab Bureau, or of the Sykes Picot agreement: I need only say that in Syria, the opinion is universal that his Majesty’s Government has failed to honour its signature, an accusation which I at least find extreme difficulty in refuting.26

The Colonial Office hastily sent a commission of enquiry to investigate the events in Palestine. The Shaw Commission visited the mandate and produced another official report, which it published in 1930.27 The Commission found that the unrest was unplanned, spontaneous, and directed at Jews, and not the mandate government. The immediate spark had been intemperate articles in both Jewish and Arab newspapers, the willingness of some to exploit popular fears, and the long series of incidents at the Wall. The Mufti was mostly blameless in instigating events. But not quite as blameless as the mandate government.

The fundamental cause is the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future ... The feeling is based on the twofold fear of the Arabs that by Jewish immigration and land purchases they may be deprived of their livelihood and in time pass under the political domina tion of the Jews.

The Arab Executive elected a delegation to present their case in London. British officials advised them to visit after the publication of the Shaw Commission Report, and they arrived in early April. Musa Kazim al-Husayni was cautious and careful by nature, a veteran survivor of successive Ottoman governments, but the political practice of petitions and traveling delegations to the imperial capital, familiar from Ottoman times, was unsuited to British colonial politics.

Chaim Weizmann and the World Zionist Organization had regular access to successive prime ministers and cabinets. King George eventually rewarded King Faysal with a lavish royal state visit complete with military escorts, horse-drawn carriages, and state dinners. Musa Kazim al- Husayni’s visit in the spring of 1930 by contrast was a modest and unsuccessful affair, which failed to affect policy or draw much attention in Britain. The welcoming committee at Victoria Station consisted of an unofficial group of three English ladies from the pro-Arab National Political League.28 Mid-rank government officials granted the delegation a series of meetings. The women of the League were hospitable and sympathetic to their cause, but the official meetings offered nothing of substance.

In 1929, British newspapers protested mightily the expense of the mandate. The Daily Mail exclaimed: “Hand back the Mandates or the Middle East may be our ruin!” The same piece claimed the British government had spent 300 million pounds over the decade since the war, or “a cash present of ?100 for every man, woman and child living in the ex-enemy territories of Palestine and Mesopotamia. ”29The financial pressure on the mandate was intense, and in the wake of the Shaw Commission Report, the Yishuv was exposed, insecure, and uncertain of continued British support.

The Shaw Commission Report had found Jewish immigration and land purchases had created “a landless and discontented class.”30 The findings of the Commission brought a storm of protest in London and put the Labour government on the defensive. The prime minister convened another committee to reconsider the issue, and temporarily suspended immigration. The committee issued a report in agreement with the Shaw Commission and the government issued the Passfield White Paper based on the previous reports in October 1930.

The White Paper was a partial repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. But British conservatives and Zionists protested the White Paper so vigorously that the survival of the Labour government was threatened. Chaim Weizmann resigned as head of the World Zionist Organization, and wrote that the changed policy would be “denying the rights and sterilizing the hopes of the Jewish people.”31 The prime minister wrote to Weizmann, and repudiated the White Paper, and met with him to formulate a policy statement acceptable to the Zionist movement a level of access no Ottoman or Arab leader ever enjoyed. Immigration and unrestricted land sales resumed.

The 1929 events were different from military insurgencies that had occurred in Syria, Iraq, and Anatolia. The unrest was short-lived. There was no defined political program, and there was no leadership, either military or political. Palestine was unique in that it was the focus of a colonization program of settlement and intense scrutiny unlike any of the other mandates. The historical circumstances of late Ottoman Palestine were also unique. Anatolia, Iraq, and Syria, were all geographical areas comprising two, three, or more Ottoman provinces. The region of Jerusalem, like Mount Lebanon, had not been part of an Ottoman province, but a special administrative district. Late Ottoman statesmen had designed each separate region to limit Great Power involvement in local affairs, but after the war and settlement, the peculiar circumstances of each made intense British and French involvement more likely, not less. Each Ottoman province had had an army command, several military middle schools, and a military preparatory school in the provincial capital.

Palestine had none of this state infrastructure, and while Amin al- Husayni and a handful of others had been Ottoman reserve officers during the Great War, there seem to have been no Palestinians among the mektebli-school trained Arab Ottoman officers. So while Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, and many cities in Anatolia and the Balkans had military preparatory schools, and consequently at least a few experienced and trained ex-officers who might return after the wars, Palestine did not have such people. The political leadership was hobbled by its inability to compete with Zionist Europeans, and there was little indigenous military leadership. The country had been a battlefield in 1918, and the victorious British army had occupied it and pacified it more fully than any other Ottoman region.

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