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Arab-Israeli Conflict #1: Pre-State Palestine

Arab-Israeli Conflict #1: Pre-State Palestine

Arab riots and British capitulation characterized Palestine in the first half of the 20th century.

by

When Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers in 1882, fewer than 250,000 Arabs lived there, and the majority of them were not long?time residents but relatively recent arrivals. Palestine was never an exclusively Arab country, although Arabic gradually became the language of the majority of the population after the Muslim invasions of the 7th century.

No independent Arab or Palestinian state ever existed in Palestine. In fact, Palestine is never explicitly mentioned in the Koran, rather it is called "the holy land" (al?Arad al?Mugaddash).

Palestinian Arabs never viewed themselves as having a separate identity. When the First Congress of Muslim?Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919 to choose Palestinian representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, the following resolution was adopted: "We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds."

The representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations submitted a statement to the General Assembly in May 1947 that said, "Palestine was part of the Province of Syria" and that, "politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity." A few years later, Ahmed Shuqeiri, later the chairman of the PLO, told the United Nations Security Council, "It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria."

Prior to 1967, when under Jordanian rule, Palestinians did not demand self?determination or statehood.

The Arab and Zionist national movements shared the desire for independence in their homelands. But there was an important difference: The Zionists were united in their attachment to Palestine, while the Arabs were divided by the competing interests of individual leaders from different lands throughout the region.

Palestinian Arab nationalism, moreover, did not become a significant political movement until after the 1967 Six Day War and Israel's capture of the West Bank. Prior to that time, when they were primarily under Jordanian rule, Palestinians did not demand self?determination or statehood.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs over who would become independent in Palestine was inevitable, because the Arabs were convinced the land was not able to sustain both peoples. This precluded a compromise by which both nations could realize their independence in Palestine.

RIOTING AS AN ARAB WEAPON

In the early 20th century, the Arabs found rioting to be a very effective political tool, because the British attitude toward violence against Jews and their response to the riots encouraged more outbreaks of violence. In each riot, the British would prevent the Jews from protecting themselves, but make little or no effort to prevent the Arabs from attacking the Jews. After each melee, a commission of inquiry would try to establish the cause of the riot. The conclusion was always the same: The Arabs were afraid of being displaced by Jewish immigration. To stop the disturbances, the commissions routinely recommended that restrictions be placed on Jewish immigration.

To stop Arab riots, the British routinely recommended that restrictions be placed on Jewish immigration.

Thus, the Arabs came to recognize that they could always stop Jewish immigration by staging a riot. Since it was the presence of any Jews in Palestine, rather than just large influxes of immigrants that upset the Arabs, British policy virtually guaranteed an incessant circle of violence. Each time the process repeated itself, the British would retreat from their obligation under the Balfour Declaration. This policy of retreat and appeasement eventually led to the disintegration of the mandate.

The pattern of Arab violence, British inquiry, and appeasement began after a series of riots in May 1921. After failing to protect the Jewish community from the Arab mobs, the British appointed the Haycraft Commission (commissions generally became known by the name of their chairmen) to investigate the cause of the riots. Although the Commission concluded that the Arabs had been the aggressors, it rationalized the cause of the attack:

The fundamental cause of the riots was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents.

ARAB POGROMS

The restrictions on Jewish immigration combined with an economic downturn in the mid?1920s not only reduced the number of Jews entering Palestine, it also induced many Jews to emigrate. About 7,000 Jews left Palestine in 1926 and more than 5,000 left the following year. Coincidentally, this was a period of relative calm in Palestine. The calm was shattered, however, in August 1929, when Arab propagandists succeeded in convincing the masses that the Jews had designs on the Temple Mount.

After six days of rioting, 135 Jews were killed and nearly 350 wounded.

A Jewish religious observance at the Western Wall, part of the Temple Mount, served as a catalyst to an outbreak of rioting that spilled out of Jerusalem into nearby villages and towns, including Tzfat and Hebron. Again, the British administration made no effort to prevent the outbreak of hostility and -- after the rioting began -- the British did nothing to protect the Jewish population.

After six days of rioting, the British finally brought troops in to quell the disturbance. By that time, 67 Jews in Hebron had been killed and the 700?odd survivors forced to flee to Jerusalem. In all, about 135 Jews were killed and nearly 350 wounded.

A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE

The Arabs and British both ignored the consequences of the rapid increase in the Palestinian Arab population, choosing instead to take issue with the purchases of land made by Jews for the purpose of settling new immigrants. The Arabs claimed that the Jews were buying the land of poor fellaheen for meager sums and dispossessing the Arab population.

In fact, the Jews were paying outrageous prices to wealthy Arab landowners for small tracts of arid land. The largest tracts were purchased from a handful of prominent families. The Arabs who became "dispossessed" were those who had willingly sold their land at exorbitant prices to Jewish buyers. The Arabs who were hurt by Jewish settlement were the relatively small propertied class who saw the high standard of living of Jewish workers and their communal lifestyle as a threat to their dominance over the fellaheen. Many historians believe that the intellectual class of Arabs feared and resented the superior education and standard of living of the Jews.

Despite the weakness of the Arab claims, the British gave them the usual airing through an investigation. In 1931, Lewis French conducted a survey of Arab "landlessness" and eventually offered new lands to any Arabs who had been "dispossessed." British officials received approximately 3,200 applications, of which more than 2,600 were ruled invalid by the government's legal adviser because they came from Arabs who were not landless. This left only about 600 landless Arabs, 100 of whom accepted the government land offer. The masses of dispossessed Arabs apparently did not exist or simply were not interested in reacquiring land.

THE PEEL COMMISSION

In May 1936, the British Government appointed yet another commission to investigate the cause of the riots. By the time the commission, led by Lord Earl Peel, arrived in Palestine in November, 89 more Jews had been killed and over 300 wounded.

The Peel Commission investigation found that the Arab complaints about Jewish land acquisition were baseless. The Commission's report pointed out that "much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased ... there was at the time at least of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land." Moreover, the Commission found that the shortage of land was "due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population."

The Peel Commission investigation found that the Arab complaints about Jewish land acquisition were baseless.

The Commission was also of the opinion that the presence of Jews in Palestine, along with the work of the British Administration, had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living, and ample employment opportunities.

Despite the beneficial impact of Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Arabs remained obdurately opposed to Jewish immigration and reacted violently. The Commission acknowledged the validity of the Jewish complaints regarding the British Administration's failure to curb Arab violence: "If one thing stands out clearly from the record of the Mandatory Administration, it is the leniency with which Arab political agitation, even when carried to the point of violence and murder, has been treated."

BRITAIN SLAMS THE DOOR

In another attempt to appease the Arabs, the British restricted Jewish immigration in March 1938 to 3,000 for the following 6?month period. Consequently, Jewish immigration fell from its record high of 66,000 in 1935 to a little more than 14,000 in 1938. The Arabs were not pacified by the concession and continued their attacks. By the end of the year, nearly 300 Jews had been killed and more than 600 wounded.

The Zionists persistently and naively clung to the belief that the Arabs would eventually accept their presence in Palestine, and recognize the benefits that Jewish settlement was bringing to the country. In 1934, Ben?Gurion told Palestinian nationalist Musa Alami that the Zionists were bringing "a blessing to the Arabs of Palestine" and that they had no good reason to oppose Jewish settlement.

Alami replied: "I would prefer that the country remain impoverished and barren for another hundred years, until we ourselves are able to develop it on our own."

The violence in Palestine was finally put to rest in 1939 as a result of Great Britain's latest White Paper, in which the Balfour Declaration and subsequent pro?Zionist policies were effectively repudiated. The new British policy articulated in the White Paper called for the establishment of an Arab state in Palestine (not a Palestinian state) within 10 years and the restriction of Jewish immigration to no more than 75,000 total over the following five years -- and none thereafter without the consent of the Arab population.

Even though the Arabs had been granted a concession on Jewish immigration and been offered independence -- which was the goal of Arab nationalists -- they rejected the 1939 White Paper. The Palestinian Arabs did not want an independent state; they wanted Palestine to be part of an independent Arab state of Syria. They also wanted to get the Jews off the land.

The Jews' escape route to their homeland was being closed, not by the Nazis, but by the British.

The Zionist leaders were shocked by this new White Paper and categorically rejected it. They saw it as a complete capitulation to Arab demands, a surrender to extortion, and an abandonment of Great Britain's obligations to the Jews.

The timing of the English government's policy shift could not have been worse: Hitler was occupying Czechoslovakia, and the mass persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was intensifying. The Jews' escape route to their homeland was being closed, not by the Nazis, but by the British. It was this closing of the gates of Palestine, more than anything else, that stimulated the Jewish resistance movement and convinced the necessity of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

COMPETITION FOR LAND

Despite the wartime restrictions on Jewish immigration, the total population of Palestine increased from just over 1 million in 1931 to more than 1.9 million in 1946 -- an increase of more than 80 percent in 15 years. During the 24 years of the mandate (1922?1946), the population increased more than 180 percent.

This prodigious increase cannot entirely be explained by Jewish immigration; in fact, the Arab population grew rapidly as a result of immigration from neighboring Arab states (which constituted 36.8 percent of the total immigration into pre?state Israel), improved living conditions, a reduction in the Muslim infant mortality rate from 199 deaths per thousand live births in 1923 to 91 in 1946, and an increase in the average life expectancy from 37 years in 1926 to 49 in 1943. As a result, the Arab population alone increased 118 percent between 1922 and 1946.

The prolific increase of the Arab population exacerbated the existing tension with the Jewish community, because the Arab immigrants tended to migrate to cities with large Jewish populations. The Arab newcomers were mostly poor and unable to afford land, thereby intensifying their feelings of dispossession.

The Jewish immigrants, on the other hand, could usually acquire land through one of the Jewish organizations, or join a kibbutz. Moreover, more than 70 percent of the land the Jews purchased was bought from large Arab landowners who were paid exorbitant prices. One frequently quoted comparison is that the Jews were paying $1,000 to $1,100 an acre for arid and semiarid land in 1944; rich black soil in Iowa was selling for $110 per acre.

Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books -- Macmillan USA)

Published: February 16, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Anonymous, June 24, 2002 12:00 AM

Thank you

This information is so important, I'm glad I have access to it.
Especially with all of the lies circulating, it is nice to know I have a place where I know I will find truth:)

(6) Hugh Fogelman, June 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Too bad Arabs will not read this

The Arab media have their own version as to what hapened - leaving out the Jewish mind-set of the times. Arab media propaganda ALWAYS blame the Jews for ALL of their problems - their way of life - their living conditions - no economic grownth - living in refugee camps for over 50 years - no jobs, etc.
Oh, these poor Arabs (sob)

(5) Anonymous, February 21, 2002 12:00 AM

A great peice of history

I sent it to all my grandchildren. I thought it is important they learn some of their history

(4) Anonymous, February 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Latin name for Israel.

It would be useful to mention than the name "Palestina" was given by the Romans to Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. The root of the word "Palestina" is "plst" which means Phillistine. The Romans wanted to erase Jewish presence there, so they named the land after the Phillistines and Jerusalem "Aelia Capitolina".

(3) Tamara Adler, February 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Glad

I'm really glad to see this article. Aish has been invaluable as a resource for understanding the conflict.

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