The Palestine Revolt
At the same time that the Syrian delegation arrived in Paris, the British High Commissioner for Palestine invited a delegation of leading Arab politicians to negotiations in London.11 The Palestinian press gave voice to fears that refugee Jews fleeing Europe would overwhelm and displace the Arab population, and popular anxiety pressured politicians to be more confrontational. The popular daily al-Filistin declared, “the English do not understand leniency and kindness, and we should therefore be most extremist and speak to them in a language they understand. The Arabs are otherwise doomed for annihilation in ten or twenty years thanks to the British and the Jews.” The press also bemoaned the lassitude of the Palestinians while Syrians were seizing their national rights.12 The Iraqi law-student delegation, on a government stipend from Iraqi prime minister Yasin al-Hashimi, visited all sizable Arab towns in Palestine during March and held public meetings and speeches, emphasizing Arab brotherhood and the need for collective struggle to free all the Arabs from colonial rule and form a united Arab state. British observers remarked sourly that independence had encouraged Iraqis to agitate everywhere they wished.13
As opposition simmered, British officials tried to advance directly to political negotiations, and avoid the intermediate stage of a Palestine General Strike.14 The British Mandate authorities hoped negotiations could halt the inertia toward confrontation. But among Palestinians, the stark lessons of the Syrian General Strike and the Syrian Revolt a decade before showed that change would only come from militant action. A few months before the Syrian General Strike, in October 1935, British police had discovered a huge cache of smuggled weapons destined for Zionist paramilitaries in a cement shipment at Haifa’s Port. The next month, police tracked and killed roving rebel band leader and fiery anti-mandate preacher cIzz al-Din al-Qassam outside a village in the Nablus district. In April 1936 Palestinian political leaders accepted the invitation to London and discussed the members and schedule of the delegation. Their efforts were too late to prevent an explosion.
In mid April 1936 armed men, calling themselves Brothers of Qassam (Ikhwan al-Qassam), set up an ambush on the main road outside Nablus.15 They stopped a convoy of about ten trucks by means of piled stones in the roadway, and opened fire when the drivers emerged to inspect the roadway. In 1922, Sultan al-Atrash had employed identical tactics to destroy a French armored convoy in an unsuccessful effort to ignite an uprising. The insurgents killed one Jewish driver on the spot and injured others, at least one of whom later died.16 The Syrian Revolt and General Strike provided the inspiration.
A day later, Irgun members killed two Arabs in retaliation. Their funeral turned into a battle as demonstrating Jews attacked Arabs, who retaliated and attacked first Jews involved in the original demonstration and then bystanders. Police intervened, truncheons swinging, and were driven back by stones thrown by both crowds, at which point they began firing, but evidently dispersed the crowds with few injuries.17 As in 1929, rumors flew, usually claiming a massacre of Arabs by Jews.18 The High Commissioner declared martial law, and within a few days, leading Arab citizens in every town and village formed local strike committees to organize and direct opposition activities. The Arab boatmen’s guild evacuated 4,000 Jews from Jaffa via the harbor to adjoining Tel Aviv. Arab inhabitants of Tel Aviv got out any way they could. The political leaders canceled their trip to London.
As in Syria, the nationalist politicians asserted leadership well after events had progressed. Shops everywhere were shuttered and streets empty before politicians, including Jerusalem mayor Husayn al-Khalidi, and the Mufti, Amin al-Husayni, declared the General Strike and the formation of a new Arab Higher Committee toward the end of April. The new committee issued three demands: a halt to Jewish immigration, a halt to land sales to Jews, and the appointment of a representative national government. They resolved to maintain the strike until the British authorities met the demands. When the strike extended to the transport sector by late April, the entire mandate economy was threatened. Strikers spread nails on city streets to disable private cars breaking the strike. As painful as six weeks of General Strike in Syria had been, prospects for Palestinians were far bleaker; in Palestine a larger, better-funded, Zionist economy already existed alongside the more agrarian Arab economy. Hungry Jewish immigrants were ready to take the place of every worker and fill the void created by shuttered shops. Meanwhile the Higher Committee worked to keep the strike peaceful and non-confrontational.19
A Higher Committee delegation visited Amir Abdallah in Transjordan, who advised them to call off the strike and negotiate with the British government.
Large demonstrations continued during May in Jaffa, Haifa, and Nablus involving thousands of people. Police responded to stonethrowing with live fire and killed small numbers of demonstrators. Smaller demonstrations took place in Transjordan in Salt, Amman, and Macan. Small groups of Jews attacked individual Arabs and small groups of Arabs attacked individual Jews in incidents in Jaffa and Jerusalem. The Higher Committee tried to assert control over the uprising and preserve relations with the mandate authorities, but brutal police tactics, hunger, frustration, and desperation, especially in the countryside, undermined their efforts. By mid May, organized groups of armed men had attacked mandate army and police patrols in rural areas and outside the towns. By June, the urban strike had become a rural revolt. Mandate authorities clamped down on the political leadership and arrested nationalist lawyer cAwni cAbd al-Hadi of the Istiqlal party and detained him in a “concentration camp with common agitators” at Sarafand in an effort to humiliate him. Jamal al-Husayni left the country for England, and British intelligence considered the leadership disunited and disconnected from events in the countryside. Local village and town committees emerged to continue clandestine organization, and food and relief distribution. New British counterinsurgency laws called for death sentences for anyone firing at Mandate troops or disrupting communications.20 By mid June there were daily attacks throughout the Palestine Mandate.
Insurgents nightly destroyed train lines, mined roadways with explosives, cut telephone and telegraph wires, and sniped at trains and vehicles. Over the course of the month, attacks became more brazen and involved larger numbers, becoming more organized and effective. Mandate counterinsurgency tactics, identical to those criticized so fiercely earlier by British officials in Syria, appeared immediately. The Palestinian press accused mandate forces of atrocities and pillage, and as his French counterpart in Syria had done, the High Commissioner closed the newspapers.21 Senior Arab government officials submitted a memorandum to the High Commissioner pointing out that “the cause underlying the present disorders is the insufficient regard paid to legitimate Arab grievances,” and that “it is impossible to continue to act as the useful link between the Administration and the population.” RAF airplanes dropped leaflets on the population of the old city of Jaffa, giving 24 hours’ notice, before the city was sealed, hundreds of structures demolished with explosives, and a 100-foot-wide corridor bulldozed through the rubble for counterinsurgency access. Authorities planned further demolitions and clearing for a ring cordon. A hundred thousand leaflets were printed to warn the populace against the strike and outline the consequences of opposition for airdrop throughout the mandate.22
During July, British infantry reinforcements and RAF aircrews arrived from Egypt and Malta. Armored patrols and airplanes shelled and bombed the rural areas day after day. British intelligence reported that the Mufti and other religious officials had begun to mix religious appeals and language with nationalist agitation in vocal opposition to the mandate and to Zionism.23 Ambushes of British forces increased and Arab riflemen were increasingly disciplined, accurate, and numerous. Smaller British patrols were often pinned down and needed rescue from armored car and mobile machine-gun units, as well as airplanes.
Regional Arab newspapers followed events and the Iraqi paper al- Istiqlal proclaimed Arab unity in defense of Palestine and argued British brutality could provoke a general uprising of all the Arab countries.24 The Iraqi Petroleum Company Oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa ceased functioning as saboteurs damaged the line repeatedly. Mid July marked the hundredth day of the strike, and British intelligence remarked with incredulity that insurgent attacks remained tactical and disciplined with no sign of looting. Reports noted that military training was increasingly evident among the insurgents and ex-Ottoman veterans appeared among the bands. Counterinsurgency operations required continuous air cover and British forces were stretched thin.25 Murders and reprisal killings between Arabs and Jews increased, but British forces and personnel were the overwhelming targets of insurgent attacks. London announced the formation and eventual dispatch to Palestine of yet another official commission of enquiry.
In early August the Arab workers of the Haifa railway terminus and workshops walked off the job and the remaining Arab workers of the Haifa port joined them. Arab employees of the Iraqi Petroleum terminal, and oil companies Shell and Saucony also joined the strike. Jewish workers replaced some striking employees, but the labor shortage forced mandate authorities to shut down rail service and non-essential parts of the port. British army personal ran essential trains and services.26 British police sought, arrested, and transported striking workers to their workplaces in chains under armed guard.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Nuri al-Sacid appointed himself negotiator between Britain and the Palestinian Arabs and traveled to Palestine.27 Nuri met the High Commissioner immediately upon his arrival, but hastened to call upon the Mufti Amin al-Husayni, cAwni cAbd al-Hadi, and other imprisoned members of the Higher Committee in detention in the concentration camp at Sarafand. Observers expected Nuri to strengthen the hand of the Higher Committee political leaders who sought a negotiated end to the strike. The Higher Committee accepted Nuri’s offer of mediation, but armed rebels active in the countryside were unim- pressed.28 The Zionist press feared that Nuri’s close ties to the British government would yield concessions that would threaten Zionist goals. Nuri’s diplomacy showed the Palestine question involved all the Arabs, and could undermine the primacy of the Zionist position. Zionist leaders warned the High Commissioner that they had long suppressed militant elements in their community, owing to the more civilized habits of the Jews and their cultural sympathy with the mandate authorities, but serious negotiations with the Arabs would embolden those who wished to secure and protect Zionist rights to Palestine through violent means.29
Nuri returned for more substantive negotiations in late August 1936. Optimism for British concessions and a favorable end to the strike ran high, but Nuri and the Higher Committee only announced their intention to pursue negotiations and continue the strike as long as necessary to “safeguard and attain the rights of the nation.” Mandate authorities initially greeted Nuri’s claim to speak for the Iraqi government and “the Arab kings and princes” with public disdain and private worry. But Nuri was a reassuring presence to British colonial authorities, and since 1920 had ably reconciled and served his own and British imperial goals. His ostensible leader, and perennial rival, Iraqi prime minister Yasin al- Hashimi, was much more threatening to British imperial priorities.
Nuri and King Ghazi sought to expand their influence with British authorities and Palestinian “moderates,” but prime minister Yasin al- Hashimi and his brother, army chief Taha al-Hashimi, supported a covert force of military men with roots in the Ottoman army and post-war insurgencies in Anatolia, Iraq, and Syria. With Yasin’s blessing and financing, Fawzi al-Qawuqji recruited, organized, and armed a group of Arab professional soldiers in Baghdad.30 Yasin told the British ambassador he had halted their advance, but their appearance in Transjordan in August belied the story. As they traveled toward Palestine, Syrian exsoldiers in exile in Transjordan, like Muhammad al-Ashmar and Sacid al-cAs, and other veterans of the Syrian Revolt, joined them. Together they crossed into Palestine with a force variously reported between 50 and 300 armed men, and at least a few machine guns.31 Qawuqji issued proclamations signaling his intent to drive the British and Zionists from Palestine, and unite the Arabs. He styled himself the “Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Forces of Southern Syria.” His adventures received wide press coverage in Baghdad and Damascus.
The British Foreign Office ordered the regional consuls to prepare detailed reports on the effect of the Palestine revolt on the region. Both the Aleppo and Damascus consul claimed forlornly that other European powers were hated far more than Britain, and British “prestige” remained intact due to the honesty with which the treaties in Iraq and Egypt had been concluded. But each noted the undimmed vitality of the pan-Arab movement emanating from Baghdad under Yasin Pasa. The Aleppo consul attributed to his French counterparts a creeping fear that the Iraq Treaty and earlier concessions had measurably weakened the powers in the region. “We are faced with a very difficult situation in the Arab countries, and this will inevitably grow worse if the methods pursued against us meet with apparent success ... It is clear that every point scored will be exploited assiduously to excite further efforts to render the presence of France and Great Britain in Syria and Palestine impossible.”32
Increasing crisis and the prospect of regional Arab revolt provoked a response from the Zionist movement and the British government. The
Zionist Executive, learning that the Colonial Office intended to halt Jewish immigration to help stop the revolt, hurriedly sent David Ben Gurion to London to supervise Chaim Weizmann, who was considered overly accommodating to the British government.33 On September 1, the Palestine Post published a front-page story titled, “End of the Arab Strike: Terms of Surrender Proposed by Arabs,” complete with leaked Arab demands to halt immigration. The same day, Weizmann wrote to the Colonial Secretary demanding clarification of the concessions to the Arabs. The following day a cabinet meeting took place to consider Weizmann’s letter and formulate a response. The day after, The Times published an official letter signed by Lord Frederick Lugard, British Accredited Representative at the League of Nations Mandates Commission. Lugard, speaking for the cabinet, suggested the Arabs and the Zionists should negotiate together, rather than through the mandate authorities, an invitation Weizmann welcomed in a subsequent letter. Lugard noted darkly, though, that before any negotiation could take place, or any concessions be contemplated, law and order in Palestine had to be restored. Intransigence should not be rewarded. Martial law might be necessary. Further decisions would be made.34
On Monday September 6, the Colonial Secretary announced the cabinet resolutions, which appeared the next morning in the pages of The Times. The government ordered an army division sent to Palestine immediately and the enactment of martial law. The Cabinet appointed General John G. Dill overall commander of the mandate. “The Government express their regret that this action has been forced upon them, especially as friendship with Moslem peoples has been ‘a constant aim of British policy,’ but they cannot yield to violence and outrage.”35 That week’s secret intelligence bulletin remarked that the change in policy had “taken the Arabs completely by surprise.”36 Massive British reinforcements embarked for Palestine.
Fawzi al-Qawuqji was the man of the hour in the short interval before the arrival of reinforcements.37 Palestinian villagers greeted his proclamations jubilantly and he was reported to be everywhere, “as often as not in several locations at the same time.”38 On September 3, he organized and led a carefully orchestrated ambush near the olive and orchard farming town of Balca in today’s West Bank. The ambush went well for the insurgents and careful planning yielded dramatic results. British reinforcements sped there by road and air, but five aircraft were hit by fire from the ground and two airplanes were shot down. British intelligence thought the RAF had faced specialized anti-aircraft weapons, but Qawuqji had actually positioned a conventional machine-gun crew to cover the expected air attack. The British counterattack was intense, and the insurgent casualties brought bitter accusations between Palestinian fighters and their “foreign” guests. After the insurgents left the town, British collective punishment of the people of Balca was especially brutal; troops looted the town, demolished a number of houses, and arrested many citizens. The relevant report claimed: “this form of punishment has proved very effective and has had a certain amount of moral effect on the villagers concerned. It is a quick and conclusive form of punishment and one that is understood by the Arab mind. The ruins of the house or houses stand as a lasting memorial of Government punishment.”39 The relevant martial-law code remains in use in the Israeli Occupied Territories.
Qawuqji and his comrades tried to keep up the pressure but the odds were stacked against his brand of armed struggle. The combined forces of professional insurgents and Palestinian volunteers engaged British forces repeatedly over the next two weeks, but without the dramatic results of al-Balca. Al-Qawuqji, following Yasin al-Hashimi’s popular mobilization policies in Iraq, called for youth conscription, and paramilitary organization and training. Many peasant youth heeded his call, and the ranks swelled, but weapons, ammunition, and professional leadership were in short supply. As in Syria in 1926, Qawuqji also organized revolutionary courts, which provoked controversy when he ordered the executions of at least a few “spies and traitors.” Prosperous youth who declined to join the ranks of the insurgents found it unsafe to venture onto village streets, and a climate of militant polarization took hold in the countryside.40 Al-Qawuqji styled himself the “Commander of the Arab Revolution in Southern Syria,” which irritated Palestinian civilian politicians who had been struggling against the Palestine Mandate for almost two decades by 1936.41
By the middle of September, the British War Office had assumed overall control of the Palestine Mandate and at least 10,000 additional soldiers had entered the field, against a few hundred armed insurgents. Boycott, rebellion, and counterinsurgency had ruined the Palestinian agrarian economy, and without the fall harvest, mass hunger loomed. The Higher Committee leadership sought a face-saving solution, and for some, a way to safely facilitate the British counterinsurgency campaign.
By the end of the month of September, insurgent bands faced irresistible pressure from the British forces. Early in October, a group under the command of al-Qawuqji’s long-time friend, Ottoman staff-officer, and like Qawuqji, perennial rebel against the post-war settlement, Sacid al-cAs, and Musa Kazim al-Husayni’s son cAbd al-Qadir ambushed an armed train and military escort. The following day an RAF patrol sighted the band, pursued, and summoned British ground forces. The insurgents retreated and took cover and Sacid al-cAs was killed. cAbd al-Qadir al-Husayni was injured and captured.42
The ambush and death of al-cAs damaged the miliatry prospects of an already lopsided struggle. Military setbacks notwithstanding, the insurgents had become celebrities and heroes among the Arab public. In death their exploits were even more exalted and Sacid al-cAs was widely mourned. Famous poet and intellectual Amin al-Rihani bemoaned his death and celebrated his struggle in an elegy of lament in the pages of the Palestinian newspaper al-Filastin. Al-Rihani praised al-cAs as the peerless and noble “knight of the revolutions,” who represented the best among the Arabs in a front-page commemoration forty days after his death.43
Two or three days later, a Higher Committee emissary met al- Qawuqji at his camp in the hills north of Nablus, and persuaded him to temporarily leave the field and declare a ceasefire so negotiations could take place. Exactly eleven years earlier, in the midst of the Syrian Revolt, the leading notable citizens of Hama had persuaded al-Qawuqji to leave the city after a French bombardment. Both times al-Qawuqji’s forces were probably on the cusp of total defeat, and both times, he came to blame the retreat on the treachery of aristocratic politicians who, in their zeal to preserve their positions, betrayed the people’s hopes and the Arab cause.
On October 12, Fawzi al-Qawuqji declared a ceasefire and the Higher Committee called an end to the General Strike. In a leaflet distributed in Palestine and Damascus, he hailed the achievements of the mujahidin, and called on them to obey the call of the Arab kings and princes and the Higher Committee to halt combat, but to keep their weapons at the ready to re-enter the field should negotiations not yield expected results.44 Al-Qawuqji pictured himself the guarantor of an acceptable outcome for the Arabs. But General Dill had no intention of allowing armed insurgents to remain, and he ordered the collection of weapons and the expulsion of insurgents. Members of the Higher Committee agreed, and negotiated an exit for al-Qawuqji to Transjordan. He left with fewer than 200 fighters on the night of October 23. British forces stood aside and allowed them to leave.45
Within a week, about half the force had left for Syria, an option not available to Qawuqji or others still under French Mandate death sentence from their role in the 1925 revolt. British intelligence had reported rebels selling their rifles and ammunition to the bedouin in order to fund their exodus.46 When Qawuqji arrived in Transjordan, Amir Abdallah was on a state visit to Egypt, and in his absence Crown Prince Talal had welcomed the insurgents. Once Abdallah returned on
October 31, he conspired with the British government to deport Qawuqji to Iraq, but events unfolding in Baghdad made it necessary to stall his exit. Encamped outside Amman, Quwuqji waited and received guests, while British intelligence worried, plotted, and planned.