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Gaza and the struggle for Palestine: the 1930s

THE LEVANT – By William R. Polk – Annoyed but not deterred, the British Colonial Office decided in the 1930s, as it was then also doing in India, to crack down hard on the “troublemakers.” It put Palestine under martial law and brought in 20,000 regular soldiers to be quartered on rebel villages, blew up houses of suspected insurgents and imprisoned Palestinian notables. Over 1,000 Palestinians were killed. But it was clear to the government in London that these were measures could be only temporarily and that more durable (and affordable) policies must be found and implemented. The British appointed a Royal Commission to find a solution.

Echoing what previous investigators had found and recommending much of what they had suggested, the Royal Commission report has a modern ring. It concluded that:

“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country…There is no common ground between them. The Arab community is predominantly Asiatic in character, the Jewish community predominantly European. They differ in religion and in language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as incompatible as their national aspirations…In the Arab picture the Jews could only occupy the place they occupied in Arab Egypt or Arab Spain. The Arabs would be as much outside the Jewish picture as the Canaanites in the old land of Israel…This conflict was inherent in the situation from the outset…The conflict will go on, the gulf between Arabs and Jews will widen.”

Agreeing that repression “leads nowhere,” the Royal Commission suggested the first of a number of plans to partition the land.

Partition sounded sensible (at least to the English), but in 1936 there were too many Palestinians and too few Jews to carve out a viable Jewish state. Small as it was to be, the Jewish state would have 225,000 Arabs or only 28,000 less than the 258,000 Jews, but it would contain most of the better agricultural land. (The land expert of the Jewish Agency reported that the proposed Jewish state would contain 500,000 acres “upon which as many people could live as in the whole of the remainder of the country.”)

Partition was immediately rejected by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who was the intellectual father of the Israeli terrorist groups, the Stern Gang (Lohamei Herut Yisrael) and the Irgun (Irgun Zva’i Leumi), and of a whole series of Israeli leaders, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Jobotinsky warned the British that

“We cannot accept cantonisation. because it will be suggested by many, even among you, that even the whole of Palestine may prove too small for that humanitarian purpose we need. A corner of Palestine, a ‘canton,’ how can we promise to be satisfied with it. We cannot. We never can. Should we swear to you we should be satisfied, it would be a lie.”

The Zionist Congress refused the Royal Commission plan, and patterning themselves on Gandhi’s passive resistance movement, the Palestinians set up a “National Committee” which demanded that the British allow the formation of a democratic government (in which, the Arab majority would have prevailed) and that the sale of land to the Zionists be stopped until the “economic absorptive capacity” could be established. And they offered an alternative to partition: essentially what today we call a “one state solution:” Palestine would not be divided, but the current ratio of Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants would be maintained.

The Royal Commission proposal got nowhere: because the Zionists thought they could get more while Palestinian leaders could not negotiate since they had been rounded up and put in a concentration camp.

Blocked from peaceful and non-violent action, the Palestinian leaders and their followers began a violent campaign against the British and the Zionists. To protect themselves, the British created, trained and armed a Jewish paramilitary force of some 5,000 men. Violence grew apace. In 1938, the Mandate government reported 5,708 “incidents of violence” and announced that it had killed at least 1,000 Palestinian insurgents and imprisoned 2,500.

Neither the British, nor the Zionists, nor the Palestinians could afford to give up. In the middle of the Great Depression, the British could not afford to rule a hostile country from which they expected no return (unlike Iraq, Palestine had no oil); the Zionists, faced with the existential challenge of Nazism and having gone far toward statehood, could not agree to the terms proposed by the Palestinians; and the Palestinians saw in every ship load of immigrants a threat to their hopes for self rule. So, eight years after the Hope-Simpson report, two years after the Royal Commission another British Government commission (the “Palestine Partition Commission”) was sent to try to redraw the map in some fashion that would create a larger Jewish state.

The best deal the partition commissioners could get for the Jewish state was an area of about 1,200 square miles with a population of roughly 600,000 of whom nearly half were Palestinians; to increase the Jewish ratio to Palestinians, the proposed Jewish state would have had to be drastically reduced in size. A rumor that the British had decided to recognize Palestinian independence had the expected effect: throughout Palestine, Arab groups danced with joy in the streets and Zionist militants bombed Arab targets.

Actually, the British did decide to implement much of the new proposal: the Government favored a plan to stop Jewish immigration and to restrict land sales after five years and after ten years to make Palestine a single state under representative government. The policy was approved by Parliament on May 23, 1939. The Zionist reaction was furious: Jewish hit squads burned or sacked government officers, stoned policemen and on August 26 murdered two senior British officers. Five days later, the Second World War began.

While attention was otherwise directed in the midst of the war, partition was formally rejected by the Zionist organization in the so-called Biltmore program proclaimed in America in May 1942, and, as I shall discuss in the next essay in this series, the solution to the dilemma of Jewish-Palestinian population ratios would be found in 1948 when most of the Palestinian population fled or was driven out of Palestine.

During the 1930s, while most of the world was plunged in a stultifying depression, the Jewish community, the Yishuv, profited from a material and cultural expansion. Money poured in from Europe and America. While the amounts were small by today’s standards, Jewish donations enabled land to be bought, equipment purchased, factories opened, systems of transport set up and housing to be built. Jerusalem was built in stone by Arab labor and Zionist money, and Tel Aviv began to look like Miami. The Yishu became a quasi state with its own schools, hospitals and other civic institutions, and enlivened by the influx of Europeans, it pulled increasingly away from both the Palestinian community and from the surrounding Arab societies. That has remained the persistent aspect of “the Palestine Problem:” while physically located in the Middle East, the Judenstaat was and is a European rather than a Middle Eastern society.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians slowly began to evolve from a colonial, peasant-farmer, village-centered society. Their agriculture spread in extent and began to focus on such specialized crops as Jaffa oranges, but villagers continued their traditional habit of isolating themselves from (now British) government and did not develop, as did the Zionists, their own governmental and administrative institutions. The growing but still tiny urban middle class of Christians and Muslims worked with the British administration and enrolled their children in British-run, Arabic-language, secular schools. That is, they accommodated. Meanwhile, the traditional urban elite contested power not so much with the Zionists as with one another; whereas the Arab leaders spoke of national causes, they acted in and asserted leadership over mutually hostile groups.

Overall, the Palestinians never approached Israeli determination, skill and financial capacity; they remained divided, weak and poor. That is, they remained over all a colonial society. What constituted their national cause was not so much a shared quest for independence as a reactive sense of having been wronged. So, year-by-year as more immigrants arrived and as more land was acquired by the Jewish National Fund, opposition increased but never coalesced. Whereas anti-Semitism created Zionism, fear of Zionism fostered a Palestinian reaction. But, until another generation had passed that reaction remained only a seedbed of nationalism, not a national movement. To understand this, we must look back to the previous century.

The idea of nationalism came to the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria) and Egypt nearly a century after it had become dominant in Europe, and it came only to a small and at first mainly Christian elite. One’s identity came not from a nation-state, as in Europe, but either from membership in an ethnic/religious “nation” (known in Ottoman law as a millet) — for example, the Catholic “nation” — or, more narrowly, membership in a family, a clan or a village. The Arabic word watan catches exactly the sense of the French word pays: both “village” and “nation.”

Arabs, like Europeans, welcomed nationalism, wataniyah, as a means to overcome the evident and weakening effects of division not only among the religious communities, particularly the division between Muslims and Christians, but also among the families, clans and villages. In Palestine, nationalism by the end of the British mandate had still not coalesced into an ideology; to the extent the concept of a watan had been extended beyond the village and had become popular, it was a visceral reaction to the thrust of Zionism. Anger over loss of land and the intrusion of Europeans was general, but the intellectual underpinning of nationalism was slow to be formulated in a way that attracted much of the population. It still had not attracted general support until long after the end of the British mandate. In part, as I shall later point out, it became possible in large part because of the destruction of the village communities and the fusing of their former residents in refugee camps: simply put, the watan (nation) had to die before wataniyah (nationalism) could be born.

Jewish nationalism, Zionism, drew on different sources and embodied more powerful thrusts. The Jewish community as a whole benefitted from two experiences: the first was that for centuries in what they call their diaspora virtually all Jewish men had meticulously studied their religious texts. While intellectually narrow, such study inculcated a mental exactitude that could be, and was, transferred to new, secular, broader fields when the opportunity presented itself in the late Eighteenth century in Austria, Germany and France. Thus, with remarkable speed, Polish and Russian Jews emerged in the West as mathematicians, scientists, physicians, musicians and philosophers, roles that were not part of the religious tradition. While the British had certainly been wrong to believe that Jews dominated the Bolshevik movement in Russia, Jews also certainly played a major political and intellectual role both there and in western Europe.

The second experience that increasing numbers of Jews shared was the sense of exclusion but increasingly the reality of participation. During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, while often disliked and occasionally maltreated, Jews were generally able to take part in Western European society. Thus, they were able to expand their horizons and to develop new skills. Many thought that they had arrived at a satisfactory accommodation with non-Jewish Europe. It was the shock of finding this not to be true that motivated Theodor Herzl and his colleagues to begin the quest for a separate Jewish nation-state, a Judenstaat, outside of Europe, and it was the conservatism of religious Judaism that forced the Zionist movement to reject offers of lands in various parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia and to insist on the location of that nation-state in Palestine.

Jews, of course, had to focus more on Europe than on Palestine. The Zionist movement was located in Europe and its leaders and members were all European. From the end of the First World War, secular, “modern” Jews began to migrate to Palestine and soon outnumbered and overshadowed the traditional Jewish pilgrims. Then, from the election of Hitler in 1932 and the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933, pressure on the German Jewish community moved through increasingly ugly incidents like the 1938 kristallnacht toward a crescendo of anti-Semitism. Desperate, increasing numbers of Jews sought to flee from Germany. Most went to other countries — particularly America, England and France — but they were often not welcomed and in some cases were actually prevented from entering. (America implemented restrictions and accepted only about 21,000 Jewish refugees up to the eve of the Second World War.) So, in increasing numbers, as I have pointed out, increasing numbers of mainly secular, educated, Westernized Jews went to Palestine. The numbers were important but more important was that the individuals and groups coalesced to create a new community. It was this “nation-state-in-formation,” the Yishuv, that set the trend toward the future.

Nothing like these impulses were felt by the Palestinians. They had never experienced pogroms but lived with neighbors of different faiths in a carefully structured and religiously sanctioned form of mutual “tolerancem” and, despite the Ottoman empire’s moves toward modernization/westernization/fiscal control, they lived in an acceptable balance with their environment. Few had an enlivening contact with European thought, industry or commerce. To the English, they were just another colonial people, like the Indians or the Egyptians.

That is how the British officials in Palestine treated the Palestinians. As I read Indian history of the same period I find striking parallels: colonial officials in India were equally dismissive of even the richest and most powerful Hindu and Muslim Indians. As “natives” they had to be kept in their place, punished when they got out of order and rewarded when they were submissive. Generally, the poorer natives could be treated with a sort of amused tolerance.

But, the Jews didn’t fit in the colonial pattern and could not be treated as “natives.” After all, they were Europeans. So the British colonial officials never felt comfortable dealing with them. Should they “belong to white men’s clubs” or not? With the natives one knew where he stood. With the Jews, relations were at best uncertain. Worse, they were adept at going over the heads of the colonial officials direct to London. This minor but important aspect of the Palestine problem was never resolved.

Then, suddenly, as Germany invaded Poland, the world slipped into war.

William R. Polk, MA (Oxford) PhD (Harvard) was teaching at Harvard when President Kennedy invited him to become a Member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia He served for 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, During that time he was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis and head of the interdepartmental task force that helped to end the Franco-Algerian war. Later he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and Founder and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. At the request of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, he negotiated with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser the cease fire that ended Israeli-Egyptian fighting on the Suez Canal in 1970. He was called back into the White House by the President’s special representative, McGeorge Bundy, as his strategic adviser to write a possible treaty of peace. (He has written three — abortive –peace treaties.) He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine; The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique . He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, available on Amazon, are Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

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