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The First Palestinian Intifada, 1936-1939

Rod Quinn

In films, in literature and in ceremonies honouring the fighters, the significance of the Spanish Civil War still resonates. The War’s triumphs and tragedies, its images of lines of refugees, of battered towns and cities and its clear identification with World War Two preserves its place in 20th century history. In 1936 another more obscure but no less significant conflict flared. In common with Spain, it had popular support; there were mass demonstrations, strikes and armed conflict. At its height it involved at least 20,000 British troops, police and thousands of armed auxiliaries.

The years 1936 to 1939 marked the beginning and end of Spain’s war. For the Palestinians, those years marked the beginning and tragic end of one phase in a long-term struggle. By 1939, there were thousands of casualties, their leaders had been exiled or killed and the social and economic life of the Palestinians had been crippled. Preoccupied with a global war, the world forgot, even if they had known about, Palestine’s tragedy.

It has been a commonplace to regard the British standpoint in the conflict between Palestinians and zionists as ambivalent or even neutral. This essay will suggest that enormous British civil and military support for zionism before, during and after the Revolt has almost always been total. The similarities or consanguinity between the zionists and British Mandate forces went further than learning how best to destroy an Arab dwelling or to extract information from detainees. From well before Mandate times, support from all three major parliamentary powers was assured. From Lloyd George, MacDonald and Baldwin to Thatcher and Blair, governments have, with fluctuating enthusiasm, continued this tradition.

By the end of 1936 the fledgling Palestinian national movement was a broadly-based popular one. Despite its conservative official leadership, the movement had conducted a highly effective six-month general strike and organised direct physical confrontation with its enemies. One of the Revolt’s three basic demands was independence. If the zionists could imagine a separate country, why should the Palestinians not imagine their own? Within Britain’s Palestinian Authority, the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) were methodically creating all the appurtenances of a state. The Revolt demonstrated that the Palestinian Arabs, too, had laid the social groundwork for independence. It was the widespread organisation at grass-roots level, not the landowning elite, which coordinated the mass rebellion.

Some commentators on the Revolt have asserted that the Palestinians had their weapons trained on the wrong target; the real enemy, they claim, was the zionists. Maxime Rodinson, in his Israel – A Settler Colonial State?, wrote that:

"with respect to the events of 1936, it seems to us that had they not happened in the manner and at the time in which they did in fact occur, it is doubtful that the Jewish community could have waged a war for independence eight years later. The Jewish community emerged from these dangerous 1936 events in a stronger position as a result of the strong support received from the British government and army in Palestine.

"The 1936 events actually involved a confrontation between two national movements, but the Arabs made the mistake of concentrating their attacks an the British government and army... This confrontation with the British (and not with the Jews) caused the destruction of Arab military strength in Palestine, and was responsible for the partial elimination of Arab leadership in the country. After about three years of unequal warfare, Arab military power was destroyed; during this same period, however, the Jews, protected by the British, succeeded in building up their own strength.... British reprisals against the Arab armed groups and against the Arab population were much more severe than those against Jewish clandestine organizations a few years later."

Palestinian attacks were directed at Jews and their enterprises, but the major clash was with the British, who had absolute control over mass immigration, land acquisition and the issue of Palestinian independence. Sonia Fatha el-Nimr in her 1990 Ph.D thesis ("The Arab Revolt of 1936"), provides figures which demonstrate that during 1936 half the Palestinian attacks were on Jews and their enterprises.

Over sixty years after the end of the Revolt, the Palestinians’ major foe speaks Hebrew, not English, but house demolitions, curfews, random arrests, mass detention, torture and assassination have no mother-tongue. Continual defeats by a well-armed and financially-buttressed enemy have never diminished the Palestinians' endurance and desire to control their own affairs. In an interview in the Jerusalem Post in April 1983, John Le Carré said that: "If you destroyed the entire PLO leadership and all the fighters you would still not scratch the surface of the Palestinian will. That’s my conviction. I had the same conviction about the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. There are some people who simply cannot be extinguished."

For any understanding of the situation in contemporary Palestine it is important to explore the cause, conduct and long-term effect of the Revolt. One lasting effect of the Revolt was the fatal weakening of hope for Palestinian-Jewish working class solidarity. The communists and some left zionists had always worked for this, but nationalism was to marginalize their efforts. The victors were the Labour Zionists and their British Labour Party allies. Caught between zionism, socialism and international forces such as the Comintern, Jewish socialists were in an inescapable vice.

If the British Labour Party is seen as "left", then a large part of the British left has been and still is pro-zionist. For those farther to the left, there has also been some ambivalence. The British communists, ever obedient to the Kremlin’s diktat, were nominally anti-zionist. When the Soviet Union adopted a pro-Israel approach in the mid-’40s, British communists had, perforce, to follow. The Kremlin’s "new line" on Palestine had little direct influence on matters then preoccupying British communists; but, for Jewish and Palestinian communists, the "new line", was disastrous. It was not a disaster for the zionists; Soviet diplomatic and military support was to contribute hugely to the Palestinian tragedy.

Despite some ambivalence over which side to support in the 1914-18 conflict, most zionists came down on the British/French side. By 1917 this proved to be of obvious value when British support for the zionist venture was expressed in the Balfour declaration. Did people such as Balfour and prime minister Lloyd George really identify with the Jews and the stifling oppression they endured within the Russian Empire and elsewhere? Any examination of zionist supporters in British ruling circles makes it clear that they did not.

Tom Segev (One Palestine Complete) quotes the British Director of Information under Lloyd George, John Buchan (The Thirty Nine Steps): "the Jew is everywhere ... with an eye like a rattlesnake. He is the man who is ruling the world just now and he has his knife in the Empire of Tsar." Balfour too, according to Segev, was an anti-semite; he told Weizmann that he shared some of Cosima Wagner’s anti-semitism. His support for the anti-semitic Aliens’ Act did not prevent him from announcing to the Cabinet: "I am a Zionist." After quoting a number of senior British establishment figures of similar mind, Segev concluded: "In standing by the Zionist movement, the British believed they were winning the support of a strong and influential ally. This was an echo of the notion that the Jews turned the wheels of history, a uniquely modern brand of classical anti-Semitic pre-conceptions and romantic veneration of the Holy Land and its people."

Tony Greenstein, in his contribution to the March 1989 issue of the magazine Return, wrote of the Conservative candidate for Whitechapel, David Hope-Kydd, who during the 1906 elections described Jewish immigrants as "the scum of the unhealthiest continental nations". Kydd, nonetheless, "coupled his desire for an aliens’ immigrant bill with heart-rending support for the Zionist movement". Support from individuals like Kydd and the leader of the proto-fascist British Brothers League, William Evans-Gordon, was to form a lasting pattern; contemporary France’s Le Pen is a Kydd or Evans-Gordon of our time.

For zionist ideology, Kydd and Evans-Gordon simply suffered from a malady inherent to all non-Jews. Ilan Halevi, in his A History of the Jews, quoted the physician and zionist pioneer Leo Pinsker, who wrote that: "Anti-Semitism is a disease; and, as a congenital disease, it is incurable." Ariel Sharon’s ideological forebear, Jabotinsky, provided a social and economic explanation for the inevitability of the disease: "It is not the anti-semitism of men; it is, above all the anti-semitism of things, the inherent xenophobia of the body social or the body economic under which we suffer" (Laqueur and Rubin, 1976).

Theodor Herzl, zionism’s secular founder, at least initially eschewed the scriptural defence for the colonisation (although his epigones were to recognise the Bible as a powerful propaganda tool). And, until the Second World War and the holocaust, the religious underpinning of zionism was rejected by most observant Jews. Their Zion was a purely religious place; for men to create such a place on earth was to break the covenant between the Holy One and the Jews. It was an Anglican, the Reverend William Henry Hechler, who provided the religious apologia for the colonisation of Palestine. Hechler legitimised the "God gave it to the Jews" school among the colonists and influenced a generation of Christians occupying influential public positions. Lloyd George’s formative religiosity was with the sect, "The Disciples of Christ", and it undoubtedly primed him for his support for zionism.

If Christian fundamentalism provided some justification for what was essentially the British colonisation of Palestine, economic fundamentalism provided the rest. Control of Palestine meant control and strategic protection of the Suez Canal and Britain’s major source of oil. In encouraging the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham, the British Mandate prepared the foundations for a protected European outpost policing the region. With characteristic bluntness, Winston Churchill stated that: "The Balfour Declaration must, therefore, not be regarded as a promise given from sentimental motives; it was a practical measure taken in the interests of a common cause at a moment when that cause could afford to neglect no factor of material or moral assistance" (Hadawi, 1988).

The first to react to the zionist threat were the Christian and Muslim business and professional classes. Palestinian entrepreneurs could never match the far better funded and technologically superior Jewish enterprises. Despite the spurious claim that European Jewish modernity would help to liberate the backward locals, it was obvious from the outset that the zionists saw themselves in competition for land and political control of the whole of Palestine. At its least ambitious, their Palestine was to embrace the Litani River to the north and territory reaching close to Damascus and Amman. These claims were submitted in 1919 to the Paris Conference by the World Zionist Organisation.

In this sense at least, the Yishuv and the state which sprang from it bore some resemblance to South Africa, Australasia and of course the United States. From their apogee to slow but ineluctable collapse, the Ottomans were not settlers; incompetent, corrupt and greedy as they were, they never sought to permanently occupy the land. The zionists, like the Afrikaners and the Nonconformist puritans in North America, saw the land as theirs by God-given right. It was ideologically impossible for them to consider the indigenous inhabitants as partners in the new adventure.

As the settler-colonialist nature of Jewish immigration became clearer, Palestinian alarm mounted. Tom Segev suggests that the Revolt began in the summer of 1929; there was, in fact, violent opposition to zionist colonisation from its foundation. Attempting to obscure the profoundly political nature of the Revolt, the zionists portrayed the rebels as bandits and terrorists led by corrupt Arab landlords. Behind the propaganda lay an awareness that the late ’30s marked a qualitative leap in the nature of Palestinian resistance.

An enduring symbol of that resistance was Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a popular imam based in the Istiqlal mosque in Haifa. He had criticised the conservative Palestinian elite and built support for the national movement among the workers and slum-dwellers in Haifa and Jaffa. His earlier activities against the French in Syria provided him with a model for Palestinian resistance. In November 1935 he and a small group of followers began their campaign in the hills around Nablus. Within a couple of weeks, he and many of his small group of irregular fighters were dead. Thousands attended his funeral, which turned into a massive demonstration of national unity, and the figure of al-Qassam became an inspiration for succeeding generations. Leila Khaled wrote that: "His generation started the revolution; my generation intends to finish it."

Quoting Ben-Gurion, Segev writes that: "The rebellion cast the Arabs in a new light. Instead of a ‘wild and fractious mob, aspiring to robbery and looting’, Ben-Gurion said, they emerged as ‘an organized and disciplined community, demonstrating its national will with political maturity and a capacity for self-evaluation.’ Were he an Arab, he wrote, he would also rebel, ‘with even greater intensity, and with greater bitterness and despair ...’ This, he said, was what he had learned about the Arabs in the days of al-Qassam."

The three central Palestinian demands in the Revolt were: the end of mass immigration and land purchases and the granting of national independence. During the ’20s, Jewish immigration averaged less than the Palestinian natural increase, but in the ’30s the figures mounted. In 1931 Jews formed 17% of the population; by 1935 the percentage was 27% (Lockman, 1996). Flapan claimed that by 1936, there were 400,000 Jews in the country who now made up 30% of the population. It was clear that with every passing year the possibility of an independent Palestinian state was receding.

For the Palestinians, fear of the effects of mass immigration was heightened by continuing zionist land purchases. One example of this was in the Jezreel Valley where a total area of 50,000 acres were sold between 1921 and 1925. The land, sold by the absentee landlord Susoq family from Beirut, contained 22 villages. The Jewish Agency claimed that 750 families were displaced; the Arab Executive quoted the figure of 1,750. Sonia Nimr states that "there were 8,000 Arab tenants on these lands inhabiting 22 villages but when the transfer of lands was completed, twenty-one of those villages were evacuated and their inhabitants evicted. Another 700 tenants were evicted following purchase of lands in the Haifa-Acre coastal area and the Qusqus-Tab’n areas in the 1920s and the subsequent establishment of 23 Jewish settlements on these lands."

Sir John Hope Simpson in his Report on Immigration, 1930, reported that "of 86,980 rural Arab families in villages ... 29.4% are landless". It was from among these landless Palestinians that much initial support for the Revolt grew.

With the consolidation of the British Mandate, and the growing military presence, the development in transport and other state enterprises created urban employment. A major cement works, oil refinery, an expanding railway network and many other commercial enterprises provided employment for a growing working class population. The Arab population of centres such as Jaffa and Haifa grew rapidly but maintained ties with home villages and rural life.

Another boost to the Mandate’s economic life came through zionist collaboration with the nazis. It was that collaboration which broke a campaign for a world-wide boycott of German trade. In his article "Zionism and the Holocaust" (Return, March 1989), Haim Bresheeth wrote that:

"Immediately after the Nazi takeover in 1933, Jews all over the world supported or were organising a world wide boycott of German goods. This campaign hurt the Nazi regime and the German authorities searched frantically for a way of disabling the boycott. It is clear that if Jews and Jewish organisations were to pull out, the campaign would collapse. The problem was solved by the ZVfD [the Zionist Federation of Germany]. A letter sent to the Nazi party as early as 21.6.33, outlined the degree of agreement that existed between the two organisations on the questions of race, nation, and the nature of the ‘Jewish Problem’, and it offered to collaborate with the new regime.

"In their eagerness to gain credence and the backing of the new regime, the Zionist organisation managed to undermine the boycott. The main public act was the signing of the ‘Transfer Agreement’ with the Nazi authorities during the Zionist Congress of 1934. In essence, the agreement was designed to get Germany’s Jews out of the country and into Mandate Palestine. It provided a possibility for Jews to take a sizeable part of their property out of the country, through a transfer of German goods to Palestine. This right was denied to Jews leaving to any other destination. The Zionist organisation was the acting agent, through its financial organisations. This agreement operated on a number of fronts – helping Jews to leave the country, breaking the ring of the boycott, exporting German goods in large quantities to Palestine, and last but not least, enabling the regime to be seen as humane and reasonable even towards its avowed enemies, the Jews. After all, they argued, the Jews do not belong in Europe and now the Jews come and agree with them.

"After news of the agreement broke, the boycott was doomed. If the Zionist Organisation found it possible and necessary to deal with the Nazis, and import their goods, who could argue for a boycott?"

Forty years later Israel took similar advantage of growing sanctions on apartheid South Africa. From joint development of nuclear weapons to the sale of South African products under the "made in Israel" label, relations between the two settler states became that of close allies. In 1976, Yitzhak Rabin hosted South African prime minister John Balthazar Vorster as an honoured visitor. Vorster’s wartime internment as a nazi supporter was overlooked as Rabin toasted "the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa – the hope for justice and peaceful coexistence".

At home, the Palestinians had to deal with a boycott initiated, this time, by the zionists. It called for a boycott on "Arab" goods and labour. It was the Histadrut, with support from the Yishuv leadership, which organised the boycott. At least a generation of socialists were confused by the fact that the Yishuv’s dominant political power during and for long after the British Mandate was nominally social-democratic. In common with its settler cousins in South Africa and Australia, it boasted a relatively strong trade union movement, complemented by labour-oriented political parties. That those labour movements were almost exclusively European and that they were devoted to the supremacy of European labour was generally ignored or simply overlooked for much of the 20th century.

In the Yishuv and then in the Israeli state, the Histadrut was founded and long remained an exclusively Jewish organisation. Its founding name, the "General Organisation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel", seemed apposite for its "Hebrew Labour" campaign ,which was yet another reminder to the Palestinians that they were threatened with displacement, banishment to the fringes of society or ultimately with exile. Ben-Zvi, later to become Israel’s president from 1952 to 1963 wrote, in 1912, that: "in certain historical circumstances, national interests must take precedence over class solidarity.... the organised and class-conscious Jewish workers in Palestine had the right to demand that cheap and unorganised Arab labour be excluded from jobs in the Moshavot and elsewhere in the Jewish sector" (Lockman, 1996).

"Returning" to "the land" meant more, in zionist terms, than simply going to live in Palestine. An exiled people returning to till the neglected soil became a potent zionist myth. Most Jewish immigrants were, however, urban dwellers who chose to settle in towns, particularly in Tel Aviv and Haifa. They, unlike the ideologues of the Kibbutz movement, were loath to work in an agricultural environment. One inducement for those urbanites who did seek manual work was the fact that they were able to enjoy higher wages than their Palestinian workmates. Lockman cites a 1938 study published by the Economic Research Institute of the Jewish Agency, which found that Palestinian workers were paid an average of 25% less than Jews carrying out the same tasks.

Where there was competition from Palestinian labour, the Histadrut took direct action. Employers were coerced into employing Jewish labour and Palestinian workers were pressured into leave their jobs. The Histadrut deployed mobile pickets who often employed physical violence to drive Palestinians from work-sites while propaganda described Arab workers as "cheap", "unorganised" and "alien". Quoting a newly-arrived immigrant, Yuri Avneri in his Israel Without Zionism, captured the ambivalence felt by some Jewish workers: "To defend the fact that I could not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives, that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there … to pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash eggs they had bought .…" (Dimbleby and McCullin, 1978).

Apartheid-style wage discrimination practiced by the Mandate and the Histadrut’s Hebrew Labour campaign stimulated the development of Palestinian trade unions. The Palestinian Arab Workers Society (PAWS) was established in 1925. It aspired to leadership of a Palestinian Labour Federation and already embraced the AURW, the first Palestinian trade union, organised among the thousands employed by the then extensive Palestinian rail network.

In the railways, in the oil industry, in the building and agricultural spheres and in such sectors as road transport and textile manufacture, Palestinian workers had long used the strike weapon. In at least one instance, they had used tactics such as the sit-in. Their late beginnings had made them compress the European labour experience into a few years. There were even industrial conflicts which united Arab and Jewish workers. International Press Correspondence reported one such episode in 1935 when 600 workers from both communities struck against the British-owned Iraq Petrol Company in Haifa. While "normal" worker relationships did surface sometimes, the nationalist face of Jewish and Palestinian trade unionism was the predominant one. In 1933 for example, an 8-day strike by Palestinian workers supplemented widespread anti-immigration demonstrations across the country. The demonstrations left 30 dead and 200 injured. Another inflammatory incident, in October 1935, was the discovery of an illegal shipment of arms concealed in a consignment of cement at Jaffa.. The Palestinian dockworkers struck in protest.

Sometimes rivalry between large families or clans such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis divided those resisting the zionist advance. At other times activists were divided by broader political, religious or regional differences. Under mass pressure, those who held leadership positions realised that divisions could only weaken the struggle for generally-held nationalist and other demands. In April 1936, the foundations for unity were laid for an All-Palestine Labour Federation. Zachary Lockman listed some of the participants: "Among those attending were Abd al-Haymur, the veteran Haifa railway worker who was secretary of the Palestinian Arab Workers’ Society, Sami Taha, who would later emerge as that organisation’s preeminant leader; Michel Mitri and George Mansur, leaders of the Arab Workers’ Society in Jaffa; Khalil Shanir, one of the Palestinian Communist Party’s top Arab leaders, Hamdi al-Husayni of Gaza, a radical journalist who belonged to the Istiqlal Party and had links with clandestine Arab nationalist groups preparing for armed revolt; and Akram Zu’aytar of Nablus, another radical Istiqlalist in contact with members of al-Qassam’s band holed up in the hills around Nablus. The Istiqlalist Party was an offshoot of an older Istiqlal group which called for the inclusion of women and youth in the struggle against colonialism and the semi-feudal nobility. This gathering manifested the convergence of the fledgling Arab trade union movement with the most radical segment of the nationalist movement and with the Arab communists, signalling not just a desire for labour unity but also a sense that the Arab labour movement must play an important role in the more militant phase of the national struggle that seemed about to begin."

The first National Committee, with Ahram Zuayter as its secretary-general, was formed in Nablus in April 1936. National Committees, soon formed in every village and town, took responsibility for fund-raising, relief, promotion of national industries, the legal framework and medical matters. It was these committees, not the Higher Arab Committee which provided the real leadership of the revolt. It was they, not the uneasy alliance between religious representatives and wealthy notables such as the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who organised the strike and unanimously agreed to suspend payment of taxes. In an interview with with Jonathan Dimbleby, Ahram Zuayter said that:

"We felt we had to do something to force the British the change their policy, otherwise we would lose Palestine to the Zionists. So we decided on the General Strike. It was a great step for us and daunting to take on the British Empire, can you imagine? But we believed that the strike would bring about a peaceful revolution. That with every single person on strike in Palestine it must lead to that. So we called for an indefinite strike until the British changed their policy."

As hopes for a peaceful achievement of self-determination faded, Palestinians turned to direct action. British installations such as the railways and Jews and their property were the targets. On April 15th, 1936, the remnants of Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam guerrilla band began to attack vehicles using the Tulkarm-Nablus road; retaliation soon began. On 15 April 1936, the remnants of Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam’s guerrilla band began to attack vehicles using the Tulkarm-Nablus road. The first victims of the campaign were Jews; retaliation was soon launched by right-wing Jewish organisations when two Arab workers were murdered in their huts near Petah Tikvah. In common with the language of all colonial powers, the militants were described as the ignorant dupes of "mad mullahs", opportunist Effendis, foreign communists or just plain criminals. From its outset, the Revolt reflected a complex of socio-political currents existing within any 20th century society. Sonia Nimr wrote that between 1904 and 1922 there were 50 Palestinian newspapers with another 10 published before the Revolt. Nimr also wrote of the role of the creative arts in raising political awareness. She cites Nouh Ibrahim, "whose songs were known and recited in almost every part of the country with many still being sung today". The Mandate authorities quickly imposed an emergency law to be followed five months later by martial law. In a tactic to become familiar to succeeding generations of Palestinians, the British began the punitive demolition of houses in villages and towns. In the name of "town planning", they destroyed 250 houses in the old city of Jaffa and an additional 825 wooden barrack homes were also demolished. The measures left a total of 10,000 homeless. That the "town planning" explanation was a lie emerged clearly after George Mikhail el-Qaser sued the Attorney General of Palestine and the District Commissioner of Jaffa in an attempt to prevent the demolition of his house. Hearing the case, Chief Justice, Sir Michael McDonnell said that:

"The Petitioner, however, has done a public service in exposing what I am bound to call the singularly disingenuous lack of moral courage displayed by the Administration in the whole matter .... It would have been more creditable if the Government, instead of endeavouring to throw dust in people’s eyes by professing to be inspired by aesthetic or other quasi-philanthropic motives, such as those concerned with town planning or public health ... had said frankly and truthfully that it was primarily for defensive purposes" (quoted in Freedom, 1989).

For his devotion to the truth, McDonnell was offered the choice of an inferior appointment in a British colony or retirement. Half a century later the heirs of British brutality were still employing the same methods of collective punishment to crush Palestinian resistance.

The general strike which launched the anti-colonialist revolt lasted from April to October 1936. The strike involved the vast majority of Palestinian workers with the significant exception of railway employees who were faced with instant and permanent dismissal if they were "unlawfully" absent from their posts. The threat was not only from post-1926 (British General Strike) attitudes to industrial relations but also from the Histadrut’s Hebrew Labour campaign. On the Haifa waterfront, the British Army provided protection for strike-breakers recruited from Kibbutzim and elsewhere. The railways could have provided another opportunity. Jewish Agency leader, Moshe Shertok (Sharett) made the position clear:

"The presence of a substantial number of Jews would have acted as a very effective deterrent [to an Arab railway strike]. There would have been no incentive to agitation and the organisers of the disorders would not have derived such encouragement from the prospects of being able to bring the railways to a standstill. When the crisis did occur – on the 9th of August – and hundreds of Arab railwaymen walked out, there were many factors which militated against it and brought them back to reason and to work, but one of the factors was that we mobilised a few dozen Jewish engine drivers whom we placed at the disposal of the Government and they were ready to step into the breach .... [T]hat was one of the factors that liquidated that very dangerous situation which existed for a few days" (Lockman 1996).

Palestinian railway workers did go out for ten days in late August 1936.

Some claim that it was pressure from Trans-Jordan’s Prince Abdullah, Iraq’s King Ghazi and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud which ended the strike; their call was to end the dispute and to, "rely on the good intentions of our friend Great Britain who had declared that she will do justice".

Exhaustion could perhaps provide another cause. Palestinian workers had endured one of the longest general strikes in labour history. Their children were hungry, they could pay neither rent nor mortgage and could see no short-term outcome; the citrus season offered paid employment which would bring some relief.

Armed Resistance
As the strike had progressed, so too had the armed wing of the movement. With most economically strategic enterprises such as the railways and Haifa waterfront immune to industrial action, military confrontation seemed to offer the only effective course of action. Although the 1936-39 conflict has been described as a "peasants’ revolt" and much of their fighting locale was rural, the fighters obviously included urban workers with strong ties to their villages. Listing the origins of the Revolt’s 196 leaders, Nimr includes 71% from villages and 22% from towns. Among the leadership positions were those of platoon or Fasil commanders. A Fasil could have anything from a dozen to thirty or forty from a village but the Faz’ah or auxiliaries provided the indispensable reserve. The Faz’ah could be called out to assist a fasil after which they would return to the village and simply resume their ordinary daylight activities. The first and perhaps most militant of the armed rebels came from areas suffering from land-purchases. In the first stages of the revolt the leadership were able to channel supplies in from Syria and send the wounded and hunted over the border.

Two urban activists were Fuad Nassar and Mohammad Nimr Uda, who were transferred by the Communist Party to operate as political advisers to the Arab Higher Command under Haj Amin el-Husseini. Unerringly, the party leadership sought allies and influence in the higher, essentially reactionary echelons of the Palestinian leadership; the genuinely popular National Committees, like their counterparts in Spain, were superfluous to Stalin’s strategic requirements. Nasser and Uda were arrested by the British but were able to escape to Iraq. Nassar would later become the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Jordan (Nahas, 1976).

Compared with later developments, the first armed phase of the Revolt was low-key but it set such of the manner in which the campaign was to be pursued. On 7 May 1936, National Committees from all areas met in Jerusalem and repeated their main demands: immediate cessation of Jewish immigration, prohibition of transfer of Arab land to the Jews and the establishment of a national government responsible to a representative council. The National Committees also unanimously declared that Mandate authority courts were to be replaced by town and village National Committees.

Civil disobedience, at least in the short term, was far less threatening that armed resistance. Deadly ambushes on British convoys and attacks on government and Jewish targets rarely developed into set-piece battles but certain clashes shattered official self-assurance. In the figures provided by Sonia Nimr, two percent of the Revolt’s leaders were volunteers from Arab countries, the most notable was Fawzi el-Qawqji who was experienced in military matters and was able to impart his skills to the fais’ils. The first battle under Qawuqji’s leadership, on 3 September 1936, lasted for six hours. According to the British authorities, their casualties were three killed including the pilot of a downed plane and four injured, one of whom was in a critical condition. Palestinian casualties were ten killed and six injured.

Between Palestinians and Jews the fighting was generally in the form of tit-for-tat incidents. In mid-April, for example, Palestinians were attacked in Jaffa streets and on 19 April nine Jews were murdered and four were wounded. A major focus for activity against the Jews was in the Galilee where land-purchases for the exclusive use of Jewish labour had displaced hundreds of Palestinians. Rebel ranks were swollen as British reprisals such as the mass house demolitions in Jaffa drew more Palestinians into action mining roads and barricades, severing telephone lines and oil pipelines and derailing trains. International Press Correspondence of 30 May 1936 reported that in Palestine all trains moved under escort with none running at night and that telephone communications were suspended. In Gaza, British families were moved into police barracks.

The only British response to the deteriorating situation was to impose heavier and heavier punishment on the population. Roundups and internment under "emergency legislation" which also made it possible, after trial by a military court, to hang someone for merely possessing a firearm. Concentration camps, collective fines, searches without warrant and tight control of posts and publications rounded off the picture. British looting, gratuitous bullying and violence further convinced Palestinians that the Mandate authorities stood behind the Yishuv. In September, London announced that an additional division of troops would be sent to support the 20,000 already in the field; it was the largest body of troops to leave Britain since the 1914-18 war. Confronted by a large and growing professional army, the Palestinian forces were still able to threaten the Mandate’s structure. Apart from some modern weapons such as the machine-gun which downed the aircraft, the Palestinians relied on a peculiar array of arms. In one search, the British found an 18th century Portuguese rifle still in working order. Probably their initial supplies came from materiel discarded by the Turks as they retreated in 1917. By the end of October, 1936 the general strike was over and the armed struggle had abated; 37 police and army, 80 Jews and hundreds of Palestinians were dead with thousands more wounded. Many of the Revolt leaders were exiled and Palestine’s neighbouring Arab elites were calling for an end to the strike. Promise of yet another Royal Commission was all that the suffering had brought.

Alarmed by the sometimes violent clashes in 1929, the British Labour government produced the Passfield White Paper. Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb) recommended restrictions on land sales and Jewish immigration into Palestine; the Paper was (predictably) rejected by the zionist leadership and by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. In a craven letter to Dr Chaim Weizmann, MacDonald reaffirmed his commitment to Jewish "closer settlement" and to limitless land sales. His obeisance to the zionist cause may have sprung from his religiosity or from what he perceived as Britain’s strategic requirements, but in typically convoluted language he emphasised "His Majesty’s Government’s obligation to facilitate the landless Arab’s settlement on new land". He then stated that: "The recognition of this obligation in no way detracts from the larger purpose of development which His Majesty’s Government regards as the most effectual means of furthering the establishment of a National home for the Jews." And he fully endorsed the Histadrut’s Hebrew Labour campaign: "in all the works or undertakings carried out or furthered by the [Jewish] Agency it shall be deemed to be a matter of principle that Jewish labour shall be employed …. The principle of preferential, or indeed exclusive, employment of Jewish labour by Jewish organisations is a principle which the Jewish Agency are entitled to affirm" (Lacqueur and Rubin, 1976).

The 1919 zionist plan for Palestine extended to the Hejaz railway in the east and almost to Beirut and Damascus to the North. Jabotinsky, Begin and Shamir, founding fathers of Ariel Sharon’s political movement, dreamed of a Greater Israel stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. The 1937 Peel Commission Plan envisaged a more modest Jewish homeland. It included the most fertile part of Palestine, the Sea of Galilee and a seaboard running from the Lebanese border to Gaza. A huge enclave taking in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a large corridor to Jaffa would remain as Mandated territory. The "Arab" state, apart from the area now known as the "West Bank" was relatively arid. Jerusalem and its populous surrounds were not to be part of their proposed state. Heavily-populated Acre, Nazareth, Haifa and even Jaffa would also be lost to Palestine if the partition plan were enacted.

The post-First World War creation of an array of new nation states strengthened calls for national independence throughout the colonial world. Britain’s policy decreed that independence for colonial subjects could only evolve after an extended process of social and political development; colonies would achieve a measure of autonomy when they reached "maturity". The "maturity" of the Palestinians was such that their demand for free elections would be a major step towards self-determination. By any democratic standards their electoral majority should have prevailed; enactment of the Peel Commission Plan would shatter that electoral hope. Inevitably it would dismember the land and condemn hundreds of thousands of native inhabitants into exile or life as foreigners in their own land.

All Palestinians were familiar with the history of land purchases where the new "owners", aided by Mandate police, had forced tenant farmers from their land. They also feared that within a Jewish state this practice would be intensified. Peel designated the "Arab" part of Palestine as "an Arab state composed to Trans-Jordan" ; a Palestinian national entity would in time, cease to exist. Ignoring Palestinian alarm, the British Government accepted the Peel Commission proposals as "the best and most hopeful solution of the deadlock". The Palestinians were left with direct action as their only means of ending the "deadlock". Dimbleby writes that: "The Palestinians ... reloaded their rifles and came down from the hills".

The Conflict Renewed
Lewis Andrews, the senior Mandate official in the Galilee, was assassinated in the spring of 1937 as he was attending evensong in Nazareth’s Anglican church. Significantly, the Galilee was not only the site of large land purchases but it was also designated as part of the "Jewish Homeland" under the Peel partition arrangements. The British, completely ignoring the root causes of Palestinian anger and frustration, arrested and deported most of the Revolt’s leaders and persisted with their attempts to cow the Palestinians into passivity.

By the end of 1937, the Palestinians had further developed their own shadow state. There were rebel courts supplemented by appeal courts, an intelligence system and an administration with its network of messengers. The Palestinians’ system of justice was divided into four regions. In a report to the War-Office (30.11.38) General Robert Haining wrote that the central region boasted an almost hierarchical system. Civil courts handled public disputes and military courts dealt with crimes committed by combatants; judges, ceremonies, robes and wigs complemented by witnesses and prison guards clearly reflected the "cargo cultism" borne of the caste and class nature of colonial conditioning. The trappings of British constitutional monarchism though, never diminished the profoundly felt desire for self-determination.

The revolt reached its peak in the summer of 1938. A Palestine Mandate Police veteran, Mr R. Martin described the situation to Sonia Nimr:"During 1938, the whole country was really in rebellion .... They [the Palestinians] held the whole of the country, apart from the main towns. Palestine’s government, together with the British forces, then held the main towns and their various camps in which they were stationed, but the outside was really rebel country controlled by the rebel armies."

Employing classical guerrilla tactics, many of the fighters were not organised into permanent combat units. One of Nimr’s interviewees, Hasan al-Haj Yusif said that: "We used to go and ambush a British patrol near the school or on the main road at night. We shot at them, then we withdrew; and in the morning we were all back in our fields, tending our crops."

The irregulars sometimes created "no-go" areas for the British authorities in even the main towns. Nimr cites Hebron, Beersheba, Khan Yunis and the Old City of Jerusalem as targets for temporary occupation by the Palestinian forces. During the occupations, police were killed as their stations were stormed and arms were seized.

A Colonial Office report to the Council of the League of Nations the year 1938 saw 63 British soldiers killed and 200 injured; there were also 12 police killed and 15 injured. In addition, the report claimed 500 Palestinians dead with 598 wounded. The same report underlined the increasing financial burden on the Mandate’s exchequer; expenditure of £P641,276 in 1936 and risen to £P1,034,825 in 1938. If the Revolt were to be beaten back, stronger measures would have to be adopted. By the end of 1938, High Commission Despatches to the Secretary of State for the Colonies referred to 17 battalions or one-tenth of the British regular army then stationed in Palestine.

With the full militarisation of civil society, orderly-room discipline, it was hoped, would tame the Palestinians. By late 1938, permission to travel had to be obtained from the army, thousands were held without trial in "administrative detention" (concentration) camps, collective punishments became widespread and judicial homicide (hangings) took scores of lives. It was the memory of sadistic collective punishments and the form they took which lodged most firmly in the memory of most ordinary people. Two of Sonia Nimr’s interviewees recalled how: "The English used to come to our village and asked the Mukhtar to take the men to the village square, and the women and children to the village mosque. We used to stay from morning to evening. When we went to our houses in the evening we found the oil, wheat, barley and flour all mixed together and thrown on the beds. We found our cattle, cows and sheep cut loose. One year this lasted for thirty days. They used to come and do this every day. They used to make the men walk on prickly pear leaves bare foot."

Another interviewee said: "There was a clash near our village Sha’ib [between the rebels and the British forces]. After it was finished, and we had buried the man from our village who was killed in the clash, a mine exploded under an army vehicle. They [the British] came, and surrounded our village, and then they demolished more than forty or fifty of the houses in the village."

The veracity of these recollections is borne out in a letter from General Haining to the Colonial Office which details the forms of repression. He writes of mass arrests, of collective fines, collective demolition and curfews in towns and quarters "in which a terrorist crime is committed". Another letter, this time sent from the Sheikh of Kufur Masr to the District Commissioner of the Galilee details an example of British terrorism: "An ultimatum of fifteen minutes was granted for the villagers to produce seven rifles, failing which the lives of fifteen villagers would have to be sacrificed as an alternative.... When the time was up, the officer in charge ordered the male villagers to line up and counted them picking out every eighth person. The three victims, whose ill-fortune had caused them to be sacrificed, were manacled to each other, led about fifteen yards from the whole assembly and with their backs to the firing squad were shot and killed like dogs. They finished this gala entertainment by beating the crowd of villagers who were standing dumfounded, looking at what they could only interpret as a horrible nightmare." Survivors from those times would be struck by the similarities between then and the current occupation.

Terror and the Protagonists
The Palestinian relationship with the British was that of coloniser and colonised while the relationship between the British and the Yishuv’s was in Segev’s words that of "informer, sub-contractor, and client". "[T]he [Zionist] Commission had provided the army with intelligence reports and situation evaluations, and had even absorbed the expenses involved. This cooperation dwarfs almost to insignificance any claims that the military administration acted in opposition to Zionist concerns; the mutual intelligence work was directed against Arab national interests."

Personification of this relationship is evident in Zachary Lockman’s pen-sketch of Reuven Zaslani (nom de guerre Reuven Shilo’ah). Zaslani operated inter alia as a spy in Iraq, as an agent provocateur among the Kurds and as a conduit between British and zionist intelligence; in the ’30s he was employed as translator and secretary to the British officer in charge of intelligence in Palestine. Expelled from Iraq in 1934 by the suspicious authorities, his espionage skills found application in the Histadrut’s Arab Department. Until his death in 1959, he continued his pioneering work in zionist intelligence probably with Americans as his new clients.

Of the three above-mentioned aspects of the Yishuv-British relationship, informer, sub-contractor and client, it was the sub-contracting of terror which most threatened the Palestinians during and even after their 1936-1939 Revolt. Captain Orde Wingate was the sub-contracting agent and instructor appointed by the British to set up an independent unit for pursuing Palestinians at night . Of the Special Night Squads, comprising four platoons of about 200 troops (150 of whom were Jews), Ben Gurion said that:: "The Haganah’s best officers were trained in the night squads, and Wingate’s doctrines were taken over by the Israeli defence force which was established twelve days after the birth of the Jewish state" (Segev, 2001).

Describing his own initiation into Special Night Squad tactics, Moshe Dayan said that after killing four and capturing five Palestinians in an attack on a "suspect" village, Wingate provided his pupils with a practical example of his military doctrines. When the captives protested ignorance of the whereabouts of an arms cache,"Wingate reached down and took some sand and grit from the ground; he thrust it into the mouth of the first Arab and pushed it down his throat until he choked and puked". Questioned again, the Arab still denied knowledge of the arms and Wingate ordered a Jewish Squad member to shoot the still spluttering and coughing prisoner. The Jew looked at him at him questioningly and hesitated. "Wingate said in a tense voice, ‘Did you hear? Shoot him.’ The Jew shot the Arab. The others stared for a moment, in stupefaction, at the body at their feet. The boys from Hamita (the ‘suspect’ village) were watching in silence. ‘Now speak,’ said Wingate. They spoke"(Dayan quoted in Leonard Moseley, Gideon Goes to War, 1955). Another member of the Special Night Squad, Tsion Cohen, wrote that "Wingate taught us to be good soldiers with values" (Segev, 2001).

On 26 July 1936, 53 people, their horses, mules and donkeys died in the melon market of Haifa. In that month at least a hundred Palestinians were victims of zionist terror. They were joined in 1946 by nearly one hundred victims of the King David Hotel bombing. Two years later the Deir Yassin massacre set the tone for the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. These were but three of a long and bloody list of atrocities. The atrocities, it was claimed, were the work of ETZEL, the right-wing zionist military organisation which acted beyond the Yishuv’s official remit. The "official" shadow army, the Haganah, was seen to stand above such barbarities; it was, after all, to mutate after 1948 into the Israel Defence Force. In reality, far from standing above right-wing terrorism, the Haganah was complicit in both the King David Hotel and Deir Yassin actions.

An Israeli Ministry of Defence lexicon states that: "The teaching of Orde Charles Wingate, his character and leadership were a cornerstone for many of the Haganah’s commanders, and his influence can be seen in the Israel Defense Force’s combat doctrine" (Segev, 2001). Israel’s current prime minister Ariel Sharon, while a little too young to be directly trained by Wingate, clearly grasped the core of the master’s sadistic "combat doctrine".

Inherent in war is its removal of normal legal barriers to criminality. The participants, often led and encouraged by psychologically disturbed commanders, descend into killing frenzies such as at Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatilla. In October 1938, some Palestinians attacked the Jewish neighbourhood in Tiberias; 19 people, including 11 children were killed. Arriving soon after the massacre, truck driver Alex Morrison wrote that: "They had left behind them one of the worst sights I ever saw in my life.... The place was strewn with the bodies of men, women and, children. The naked bodies of the women exposed the evidence that knives had been used in the most ghastly way. In one building, apparently a nursery, the burnt bodies of children were still smouldering; the attackers had poured gasolene over them and then set them alight" (Morrison Diary, quoted by Segev, 2001).

Despite the burgeoning democratic structures of self-rule, such as committees for publication, finance, public relations and legislation, Palestinian society was still burdened by clans, blood-feuds and a religiosity linked to powerful local magnates. Nimr refers to civil legislation that even extended to standards of hygiene in shops, but repression of those committing crimes against humanity seemed to be beyond the powers of the fledgling institutions. In 1935, when Sheikh Izz ed-Din al-Qassam summoned Palestinians to armed revolt he preached that it was "not against Jewish women and children, but against British imperialism" ( from "Revolt" tract in private archive, Halevi, 1997). Given self-rule, their society could have resumed the "normal" process of social exchange leading inexorably to a deepening of conflict around class, democracy, gender politics and religious power. Retarded by a brutal and semi-feudal past, elements of the national movement were allowed, sometimes with impunity, to perpetrate their despicable crimes.

Amid the mounting hysteria and violence, there were many incidences of neighbours from both communities "taking each in" for protection during crises. In some workplaces, too, there were examples of solidarity. Locomotive engineer and trade unionist Efrayyim Schvartzman spoke of Arabs warning their Jewish workmates about travelling on certain trains and protecting them in violent situations: "There was one Arab who was my assistant, and is today a locomotive engineer. I remember that, during the disturbances, when we were pulling trains and there were often mines on the tracks, he would travel with me as my assistant and would always check at each station if all was well, because he watched over me a lot during the disturbances" (from interview [20.3.72] Lockman, 1996).

Workers in Jaffa extended their support beyond their workmates. On 22 April 1936, the Times’ Palestine correspondent reported that: "In the thick of this disorder, the Jaffa lightermen, a remarkably tough set of Arabs notorious for their unruliness, voluntarily evacuated a great part of the Jewish population of Jaffa by sea to Tel Aviv, a couple of miles away, and thus beyond doubt saved the lives of many. This fact is gratefully recorded by the Jewish leaders, who attribute it to the good relations established between the Arab Lightermen’s Union and the Jewish labour unions" (International Press Correspondence, Vol.16 No.25, 30 May 1936).

In answer to parliamentary questions put by Cecil Wilson MP in March 1939, the Colonial Office provided a set of wartime casualties figures in Palestine. By the end of 1938, a total of 1,242 had been killed; of them, 752 were Arabs. From 1936 to the end of 1938, there had been 77 hangings, two of whom were Jews. Two hundred and thirty four towns and villages had been fined in connection with "political disturbances" and 1024 homes had been demolished. Allowing even for Colonial Office obfuscation, the suffering was on a large scale. British forces, augmented by Jewish auxiliaries were exerting increasingly brutal punishment while encouraging divisive elements among the Palestinians. The 6,500-strong Jewish auxiliaries, now the "Settlement Hebrew Police", "developed quickly in its size and organisation of the event [the Revolt]. Until it became a semi-military militia, armed with rifles and machine guns, and equipped with armoured vehicles" (High Commissioner in Palestine to the Colonial Secretary, quoted by Nimr, 1990).

Complemented by internment camps with thousands of prisoners held without trial, a string of fences and "Taggart" forts blocking arms supplies, escape and medical relief, the costs had been too great. For the Palestinians, the battle was over. By the autumn of 1939, buses were running, tax payments were resumed and armed clashes had fallen right off. According to Dimbleby, 3,000 Palestinians were dead; Palestinian researchers claim 5,000.

One achievement of the Revolt was that the current (Conservative) British government finally recognised the three main demands on immigration, land sales and self-determination. The White Paper of May 1939 abandoned partition and recommended that, though remaining tied by treaty to Britain, Palestine should be self-governing within a decade, that neither Arabs nor Jews should dominate a Palestinian government, that Jewish immigration be restricted to 75,000 per year, after which there be no immigration without Arab consent, and that sales of Arab land be restricted. Opposing the 1939 White Paper, a May 1939 Labour Party conference resolution praised the "considerable benefits [which] have accrued to the Arab masses as a result of Jewish immigration and settlement". The resolution stated that, "under the policy of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate, the possibility exists for continued and increasing peaceful co-operation between the Jewish and Arab peoples in Palestine."

The Spanish Civil War was over, the Palestinians had succumbed to a vastly more powerful foe, and the Second World War had begun.

At its 1944 annual conference, the Labour Party reaffirmed its support for immigration, land sales and greater self-determination for the Jewish settlers. Not to be outdone by Hitler and Stalin’s activities, the resolution included support for "transfer of population" (ethnic cleansing?). Hugh Dalton also said that "In Palestine we should lean much more than hitherto toward the dynamic Jew, less to the static Arab" (Abrahams, The New Warlords).

Riven by national chauvinism and slavish adoption of stalinist realpolitik, revolutionary socialist influences in Mandate Palestine were ephemeral. But whether the future holds "two state" or unified democratic secular hopes, the destiny for the Arabic and Hebrew speaking people in Israel/Palestine lies in an ineluctable embrace. Israel’s abandonment of zionism’s racist core inherent in the "Law of Return" and the dismantling of apartheid social structures would create the conditions for the growth of grass-roots democracy in both communities. Coupled to the class nature of the Revolt’s organisation, Palestinian yearning for democracy is best expressed by their national poet, Mahmood Darwish in a Brechtian reply to Yasir Arafat’s complaint that the Palestinians were an ungrateful people, said: "Then find another people." Closing ranks against Bush and Sharon’s assault on Arafat, the Palestinians still advance the three basic demands of the Revolt: for inalienable rights to their land, for an end to immigration (the illegal settlers), and for self-determination.

"The First Intifada" freely exploits the listed authors’ research; a deeper study of British archival and oral sources would shed more light on the baneful outcome of labour movement ambivalence and British state intervention against the interests of the Palestinians.

Abrahams, Edie, The New Warlords: From the Gulf War to the Recolonisation of the Middle East, Larkin Publications, 1994.

Bresheeth, Haim, "Zionism and the Holocaust", Return, March, 1989.

Dimbleby, Jonathan and McCullin, Donald, The Palestinians, Quartet, 1979.

"British Imperialism and the Colonial Crisis", Freedom, Freedom Press, 1989.

Greenstein, Tony, "Zionism and Anti-Semitism", Return, March, 1989.

Hadawi, Sami, Palestinian Rights and Losses in 1948, Saqi Books, London, 1988.

Halevi, Ilan, A History of the Jews, Zed Books, 1987.

International Press Correspondence.

Lacqueur, W. and Rubin, B. (eds), The Israel-Arab Reader, Penguin, 1976.

Lockman, Zachary, Comrades and Enemies, University of California Press, 1996.

Nahas, Dunia Habib, The Israeli Communist Party, Croom Helm, 1976.

Nimr, Sonia Fatha el-, "The Arab Revolt of 1936", Ph.D Thesis, Exeter University, 1990.

Rodinson, Maxime, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, Monad Press, New York, 1980.

Segev, Tom, One Palestine Complete, Owl Books, 2001.