an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

palestine 5 – the turbulent thirties and forties, towards the Nakba

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The 1930s saw a growing animosity among the native, mostly Sunni Moslem population towards Zionist claims to and appropriation of Palestinian lands. Sentiments about the future of the region were diverse, animated and increasingly dogmatic. There are no clearly ‘representative’ figures, but the career of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948, illustrates some of the complexities of Arab-Zionist-European relations in the period that includes WW2.

Husseini was born to a prominent Palestinian family in Jerusalem (his father and his half-brother also served as the city’s mufti). At the outset of WW1 he joined the Ottoman army, but switched his allegiance to the British after their forces captured Jerusalem, seeking their support for Arab independence against the Ottoman Turks. After the war he became a prominent writer and activist, and a supporter of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria. Later, after securing the position of mufti (and exalting the title to Grand Mufti), he sought to limit or stop Jewish-Zionist immigration to Palestine, in direct opposition to the Balfour Declaration and the British position on the region. Interestingly, it was only through British string-pulling that he was able to secure the job of mufti, a lifelong sinecure. For more than a decade Husseini was seen as a British ally in the region, in spite of his increasing interest in Arab-Palestinian nationalism and his antagonism towards Zionism, but the Arab Revolt (1936-39) obliged him to take sides against Britain. Evading an arrest warrant, he fled Palestine and finally took refuge in fascist Italy and Germany, where he sought Nazi support for Arab independence in the Levant. As a propagandist for the Nazis he was implicated in war crimes. He found refuge in Egypt after the war, but was still active in political life, expressing opposition to the 1947 UN partition plan, and helping to organise an All-Palestine government in Egypt-controlled Gaza. Though supported by many Arab states, it was limited in effect and was superseded by the PLO in the sixties. Husseini died, a controversial and complex figure, in Lebanon in 1974. His connection with Nazism and with the anti-semitism that has since been such a feature of Arab nationalism appears to have been his major legacy.

Husseini’s increasing anti-Semitism mirrored to some extent the Arab nationalist movement as a whole, at a time when post-war Europe and the USA were moving in the opposite direction after the revelations of the Holocaust. These shifts have been momentous in terms of international attitudes to the Arab world and the foundation of the nation of Israel.

Against this backdrop, and after a spike in Jewish immigration to the region, a nationalist revolt against the British mandate in Palestine, which began as a general strike organised by Husseini in 1936 and was at first confined to political action, became increasingly bloody and widespread in response to repressive British measures. According to the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi – whose figures are probably more reliable than those of the British – ‘over ten percent of the adult male Palestinian Arab population between 20 and 60 was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled’, while Jewish casualties were relatively small.

The Arab Revolt (1936-39) was an almost inevitable response to increased Jewish immigration and aggressive land acquisition, leading to an increasingly impoverished and desperate Palestinian Arab peasantry. It failed, of course, against the superior military forces of the British and their European allies, but it led to a more organised Arab resistance movement in the region, though this was countered by increased British support for Zionist militias such as the Haganah – the precursor of the notorious Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

British attempts during its mandate to limit Zionist appropriation of Arab lands were half-hearted and easily circumvented, with the result that the native population suffered the usual consequences of colonisation – marginalisation, impoverishment and disconnection from traditional custom and culture. This also led to an Arab nationalist movement that became increasingly conservative, harking back to a supposed pre-colonial utopia.

Unrest leading up to the revolt caused the British to set up a Royal Commission, which recommended partition of the region into Jewish and Palestinian sectors. The Jewish sector, though smaller, comprised the land already appropriated, which was of course the best agricultural land. The Commission also put forward a more radical proposal, of transfer of Palestinian Arabs from the region to Transjordan – east of the Jordan River. This strongly appealed to Jewish leaders of the period, such as David Ben-Gurion, who favoured Zionist monoculturalism. The commission’s proposals were rejected outright by Arab leaders, and with war in Europe looming, the Brits were anxious to avoid creating enemies in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world. Finally the idea of partition was rejected, or temporarily shelved.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate acts of violence and terror on both sides were stepped up throughout 1937 and 1938. Concentration camps were constructed to accommodate both victims and perpetrators, and collective fines added to the burdens of impoverished Palestinians. The Zionists were uncompromising in their ambitions for the region and this created an us-and-themism in the Palestinians which hadn’t existed before, at least not to such an extent. Elsewhere, as the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe was becoming known, Jews were offered the chance to emigrate to the US, Canada and Australia, but Zionists opposed these offers, as Morris Ernst, international envoy for refugees under Roosevelt, describes:

active Jewish leaders decried, sneered and then attacked me as if I were a traitor. At one dinner party I was openly accused of freer immigration (into the US) in order to undermine political Zionism.

The crushing of the Arab Revolt by the British military was somewhat softened by an attempt to curb Jewish immigration. The Brits declared that it was ‘not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state, that 75,000 Jewish immigrants should be admitted over the next five years, but no more after that without the approval of the Arabs’. This declaration was followed until the end of WW2, after which the revelations of the Holocaust weakened British resolve and essentially sealed the fate of Arab opposition to the creation of the state of Israel. Some idea of what the Palestinians were up against is given in these lines from Paul Heywood-Smith, a Queen’s Counsel and Chairperson of the Australian Friends of Palestine Association:

The Jews not only intended to introduce an alien culture, they planned to make it the only one in the country: culturally, politically, economically and demographically. They insisted on Hebrew, separate schools and hospitals, self-segregation and the exclusion of Arabs from every institution they established.

Combine these drastic and uncompromising intentions with increasing support from the powerful nations of Europe and later the USA, and it becomes clear that the native non-Jewish inhabitants had far less than a fighting chance of having their voices listened to and their rights upheld.

By the end of WW2, Zionists were openly hostile to British attempts to contain the situation in Palestine. Jews were being smuggled into the region at increasing rates, many of them of course in traumatised condition. Non-Jews still outnumbered Jews by a substantial proportion, but organisations such as the Irgun, a well-organised paramilitary organisation which was as violently anti-British as it was anti-Arab, made this disproportion largely irrelevant. Terrorism sometimes does work.

On November 27 1947, the newly formed UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan for Palestine (Resolution 181 II), terminating the British Mandate for the region. There wasn’t much in the way of consultation with the native Palestinians, who rejected the proposal out of hand, along with every other Arab state. The Zionists were willing to agree to it, no doubt as a stop-gap measure, but in any case nothing came of it, because civil war broke out immediately after the plan’s adoption. The British were by this time primarily interested in removing themselves from the region with a minimum of casualties. Their Mandate expired on May 14 1948, and on the same day David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first Prime Minister, declared Israel an independent state. The civil war, however, was still ongoing. This war and its aftermath, known in Arabic as the Nakba, (catastrophe in English) is probably the most important event in this several-part narrative, so I’ll save it for my next post. 

I’ll end this post by looking again at the UN situation. In 1947 the UN voted 33 to 13 for partition of Palestine, with 10 abstentions. The people of Palestine had no vote in the matter. It was convenient for powerful western nations (whose doors were largely closed to Jewish refugees) to support a solution which gave 54% of Palestinian land to the Jewish minority. At the time, many Afro-Asian nations, who would certainly have taken a more dispassionate view of the issue, weren’t part of the General Assembly. Heywood-Smith adds some interesting colour to the vote – revealing much of the bullying shenanigans that have hampered UN votes right up to the present:

… of the 33 who voted in favour many went against their better judgment but were overborne by diplomatic violence and arm-twisting by the Truman White House. A war-devastated France was told it would lose US aid if it voted against partition. Liberia, an impoverished African state, was told that American investment in the country would not proceed unless it voted yes. Latin American delegates were told that the proposed Pan-American highway would be more likely if they voted yes. The Philippines changed its vote after intense pressure and after its delegate initially spoke against the plan.

In any case, partition didn’t occur, and after the civil war, many hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forcibly removed from their homes and out of the new nation of Israel, to which they have never been allowed to return.

References

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, 2014

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/story/14310/guerrilla-warfare-and-mass-strike-1936-revolt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936–1939_Arab_revolt_in_Palestine

https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nov-29-1947-united-nations-partitions-palestine-allowing-for-creation-of-israel/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amin_al-Husseini

Written by stewart henderson

March 10, 2019 at 10:33 am

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