an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

palestine 4 – the inter-war years 1919-1935

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Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner to Palestine, enters Jaffa in 1921

Jacinta: So with our tendency to think of the present as eternal, we imagine that countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have always been with us. When and how were these countries, as well as Israel, created, and what was the purpose of their boundaries? Did they more or less capture particular ethnicities, or try to?

Canto: That’s a very big question, but an important one – we’ll try to give some semblance of an answer as we go along. It’s certainly the case that these terms are ancient and referred to indistinctly defined regions under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which had a loose structure of provinces or ‘eyalets’ over many centuries, their boundaries and titles changing as power ebbed and flowed in different sectors. After WWI the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, first planned years before, began. It was a four-year process.

Jacinta: The Sykes-Picot agreement really kicked off the planning, and it represented the first major incursion or interference of the modern ‘west’ in middle-eastern or Arab affairs. The partitioning was decided upon in a series of treaties presided over by the new League of Nations, which created temporary mandates over former Ottoman territories which the west clearly considered incapable, at least at the time, of governing themselves. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

their peoples were not considered “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. The article [Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations] called for such people’s tutelage to be “entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility”.

Canto: I suppose it’s easy to be cynical about this, but there was clearly a view that modern, western-style nationhood was the only way to go, that There Was No Alternative. It was a matter of shape up or be steamrolled. So, after Versailles, the middle-eastern lands were divvied up by decisions of the victorious Central Powers in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the San Remo Conference (1920) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The United Kingdom was given a mandate over the Emirate of Transjordan (roughly corresponding to modern Jordan) from April 1921, and Palestine (roughly corresponding to modern Israel) from September 1923. France was given control of ‘Syria’, which included Lebanon, also from September 1923. The Palestine mandate was to uphold the 1917 Balfour Declaration for a Jewish homeland in the region.

Jacinta: Which brings us to the situation on the ground there. The phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ had become something of a catch-cry among Restorationists, the mostly Christian forerunners of Zionists, and it was used to play down the numbers and significance of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine at that time. For example, as far back as 1901, Israel Zangwill, an associate of Herzl, gave a speech using the phrase. Here’s how he described the region:

Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin [farmers or farm workers] and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes… Restore the country without a people to the people without a country. For we have something to give as well as to get. We can sweep away the blackmailer—be he Pasha or Bedouin—we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.

But interestingly, Zangwill disavowed this speech a few years later as he came to realise the density of the Arab population there, though he still used the sort of arguments that colonists have used everywhere to justify their incursions, claiming that the Arabs there weren’t really ‘fused’ with the land, and only used it ‘as a sort of encampment’. But the fact was that, in spite of the National Jewish Fund mentioned in the last post, the population of Palestine in 1922 was 75% Muslim, 13% Jewish and 11% Christian, and nobody seemed game to inquire of the majority population whether they would allow the Zionists to create a homeland – basically a nation-state – there. Unsurprisingly.

Canto: Yes, they didn’t inquire because they had a good idea of what the answer would be. Even before the mandate, the Brits and the French occupied the Levant and the Mesopotamian region due to their victories in 1918, so they were increasingly aware of the rise of Arab nationalism, which was a concomitant of the rise of Zionism. We wrote of the Arab Revolt and the McMahon Agreement last time, in which the British promised assistance in creating an Arab Kingdom in return for Arab assistance against the Ottoman Turks. This resulted in the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz in the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, recognised in the Arab world as the first modern Arab state. Later, in 1920, the Arab Kingdom of Syria was self-proclaimed, but was opposed by the occupying British and French. It only lasted a few months before surrendering to French forces.

Jacinta: Yes the politics of all this is complex and murky. It seems many of the Arabs themselves weren’t particularly supportive of the Hashemite Kingdoms (Hejaz and Syria) because they saw them as British proxies. Many were more than happy with life under the Ottoman Sultanate. So there was tension among Arabs as well as tension between the British and the French, and between each colonial power and the Arabs, and then there were the Jews, who felt they weren’t being fully supported in their claims.

Canto: But though these first Hashemite Kingdoms weren’t well supported at the time, in later years their failure came to be, from the Arab perspective, symbolic of western interference and duplicity. As did western support for the Zionist cause. It’s interesting to note that at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 there was intense argy-bargying between the Brits and the French about control of Arab lands, especially in the Levant region, but it was the Americans who came up with the novel suggestion that perhaps the local inhabitants might be consulted. At first the Brits and the French agreed but then, presumably recognising what they might lose, they backed out. The Americans, though, went ahead with the consultation process and found that the Arabs were strongly in favour of an independent Arab state in the region. The results of the survey, though, weren’t published until 1922, after the League of Nations mandates were agreed upon.

Jacinta: And of course Arab-Zionists tensions were rising. Despite Zionist efforts, the Arab population in the early thirties still vastly outnumbered that of the Jews, but of course the Zionists had powerful interests on their side. Meanwhile many surrounding countries were attaining full independence – Egypt in 1922, Saudi Arabia in 1926, and Iraq in 1931. The French, in their way, were reluctant to grant independence, but did so partially to Syria and Lebanon in 1936. They took full independence during WW2. The region known as Transjordan, bordering Palestine, was nominally under the control of the British, but they showed little interest, and handed effective control to local authorities under a 1928 agreement. Full independence was granted in 1946. All of this added strength to a growing pan-Arabic movement.

Canto: Of course the British had put themselves into a tight spot, with promises to the Arabs and the Zionists, who grew increasingly hostile to each other. An anti-western Muslim movement, Salafism, became popular in Egypt and spread to regions of conflict – Palestine in particular. The movement was personified by, among others, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Muslim scholar and preacher who landed up in Palestine after 1920. A militant opponent of Zionism, he was incensed by the treatment of Palestinian Arabs, especially the working poor, and embarked on a guerilla campaign against the British and the Jews. His death at the hands of British police was a major contributor to the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, of which more later.

Jacinta: Yes and at the same time, Arab pressure on the British brought about a reduction in Zionist immigration, which led to British-Zionist conflict. It was all about land of course, and neither the Arabs nor the Zionists were willing to give an inch on the topic. There were various more or less failed attempts by the British to placate both sides, including the Churchill White Paper of 1922, which, while emphasising the import of the Balfour Declaration, argued that this was not an imposition of a Zionist state upon the Palestinian population. It also called for a reduction of immigration to “the economic capacity of the country to absorb new arrivals”. But it seems that all attempts at compromise only increased militancy on both sides. And then of course there was the rise of Nazism in Germany – although this didn’t really come to affect the Palestinian situation until the 1940s.

Canto: So next time we’ll look at the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and also at the impact of WW2 and the post-war creation of the United Nations, and how they influenced the increasingly fraught situation on the ground in Palestine.

“A daily scene in Jerusalem under British administration during the 1930s. Friday prayer mob clashes with British Police in front of Hebron Gate in Jerusalem.”
This is from the great collection of Palestinian journalist Mohamed Ali Eltaher (1896-1974), a fearless critic of the Zionist movement, and of the Arab response to it

Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2019 at 3:57 pm

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