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Great Arab Revolt, 1936-1939

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Great Arab Revolt, 1936-1939
A Popular Uprising Facing a Ruthless Repression

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In 1936, widespread Palestinian dissatisfaction with Britain’s governance erupted into open rebellion. Several key dynamics and events can be seen as setting the stage for this uprising. In Palestine, as elsewhere, the 1930s had been a time of intense economic disruption. Rural Palestinians were hit hard by debt and dispossession, and such pressures were only exacerbated by British policies and Zionist imperatives of land purchases and “Hebrew labor.” Rural to urban migration swelled Haifa and Jaffa with poor Palestinians in search of work, and new attendant forms of political organizing emerged that emphasized youth, religion, class, and ideology over older elite-based structures. Meanwhile, rising anti-Semitism—especially its state-supported variant—in Europe led to an increase of Jewish immigration, legal and illegal, in Palestine.

Unsurprisingly, the combination of these various trends produced periodic upheavals, from the 1929 al-Buraq Uprising to multicity demonstrations in 1933 against the British Mandate. In October 1935, the discovery of a shipment of arms in the Jaffa port destined for the Haganah fueled Palestinian concerns that the Zionist movement was introducing the human and military resources necessary for its state-building project under the nose of the British. Meanwhile, the popular and populist Syrian Shaykh Izzeddin al-Qassam, who preached to the slum-dwelling rural transplants near Haifa’s rail yards and who had spent the early 1930s building a cell-based paramilitary network, was killed in a firefight with British forces in November 1935. Qassam’s funeral in Haifa elicited a mass outpouring of public outrage. These events are often seen as direct predecessors of the mass Palestinian uprising that took place in 1936.

The Great Palestinian Rebellion, or the Great Arab Revolt, as this uprising came to be known, lasted for three years and can be generally divided into three phases. The first phase lasted from the spring of 1936 to July 1937. With tensions throughout Palestine running high since the fall of 1935, the revolt was ignited in mid-April 1936 when followers of Qassam attacked a convoy of trucks between Nablus and Tulkarm, killing two Jewish drivers. The next day, the Irgun killed two Palestinian workers near Petah Tikva, and in the following days, deadly disturbances ensued in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. In Nablus, an Arab National Committee was formed and a strike was called on 19 April. National Committees in other cities echoed the call to strike, and on 25 April the Arab Higher Committee (Lajna) (AHC) was formed, chaired by Haj Amin al-Husseini, to coordinate and support a nationwide general strike, which was launched on 8 May.

The strike was widely observed and brought commercial and economic activity in the Palestinian sector to a standstill. Meanwhile, Palestinians throughout the countryside came together in armed groups to attack—at first sporadically, but with increasing organization— British and Zionist targets. Some Arab volunteers joined the rebels from outside Palestine, though their numbers remained small in this period. The British employed various tactics in an attempt to break the strike and to quell the rural insurrection. The ranks of British and Jewish policemen swelled and Palestinians were subjected to house searches, night raids, beatings, imprisonment, torture, and deportation. Large areas of Jaffa’s Old City were demolished and the British called in military reinforcements.

Concurrent with military operations and repressive measures, the British government dispatched a commission of inquiry headed by Lord Peel to investigate the root causes of the revolt. In October 1936, under the combined pressure of British policies, other Arab heads of state, and the effects of a six-month general strike on the Palestinian population, the AHC called off the strike and agreed to appear before the Peel Commission. A period of lower intensity conflict prevailed as the Peel Commission toured the country, but tensions continued to build in anticipation of the commission’s report. In July 1937, the Peel Commission published its report, recommending Palestine’s partition into Jewish and Arab states. Dismayed by this negation of their desires and demands, the Palestinian population relaunched their armed insurgency with renewed intensity, initiating the second phase of the revolt.

This second phase, lasting from July 1937 until the fall of 1938, witnessed significant gains by the Palestinian rebels. Large swaths of the hilly Palestinian interior, including for a time the Old City of Jerusalem, fell fully under rebel control. Rebels established institutions, most significantly courts and a postal service, to replace the British Mandate structures they sought to dismantle. The British, meanwhile, imposed even harsher measures to try to quash the revolt. The AHC and all Palestinian political parties were outlawed, political and community leaders were arrested, and a number of high-profile public figures exiled. The military aspects of counterinsurgency intensified, and British tanks, airplanes, and heavy artillery were deployed throughout Palestine. The British also meted out collective punishment: thousands of Palestinians were relegated to “detention camps”; residential quarters were destroyed; schools were closed; villages were collectively fined and forced to billet British troops and police. Zionist military institutions took advantage of the situation to build up their capacities with British support. By early 1939, members of the Jewish Settlement Police (about 14,000) were subsidized, uniformed, and armed by the British government as a thinly veiled front for the Haganah, and so-called Special Night Squads comprising Jewish and British members launched “special operations” against Palestinian villages.

The third phase of the rebellion lasted roughly from the fall of 1938 to the summer of 1939. The British dispatched another commission of inquiry, this one headed by Sir John Woodhead, to examine the technical aspects of implementing partition. In November 1938, the Woodhead Commission report concluded that partition was not practicable, marking a certain British retreat from the Peel recommendation. At the same time, however, the British launched an all-out offensive: in 1939 more Palestinians were killed, more were executed (by hanging), and nearly twice as many were detained than in 1938. Such brutality placed immense pressure on the rebels, exacerbating rifts between the political leadership of the AHC exiled in Damascus and local leadership on the ground, between rebel bands and village populations that were expected to support and supply them, and ultimately between Palestinians who remained committed to the revolt and those willing to reach a compromise with the British. British-supported Palestinian “Peace Bands” were dispatched to battle their compatriots.

In May 1939, the British government published a new White Paper that proposed the following: Britain’s obligations to the Jewish national home had been substantially fulfilled; indefinite mass Jewish immigration to and land acquisition in Palestine would contradict Britain’s obligations to the Palestinians; within the next five years, no more than 75,000 Jews would be allowed into the country, after which Jewish immigration would be subject to “Arab acquiescence”; land transfers would be permitted in certain areas, but restricted and prohibited in others, to protect Palestinians from landlessness; and an independent unitary state would be established after ten years, conditional on favorable Palestinian-Jewish relations.

The combined impact of Britain’s military and diplomatic efforts brought the rebellion to an end in the late summer of 1939. Over the revolt’s three years, some 5,000 Palestinians had been killed and nearly 15,000 wounded. The Palestinian leadership had been exiled, assassinated, imprisoned, and made to turn against one another. At the same time, the White Paper—despite its limitations—offered certain concessions to the rebels’ demands. Whatever gains Palestinians might have made through the revolt, however, were quickly overtaken by the larger geopolitical processes of World War II, and the combined British-Zionist assault on Palestinian political and social life during the revolt had a long-lasting impact.

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Selected Bibliography

Anderson, Charles W. "State of Formation from Below and the Great Revolt in Palestine." Journal of Palestine Studies 47, no. 1 (Autumn 2017): 39-55.

Hughes, Matthew. “From Law and Order to Pacification: Britain’s Suppression of the 1936–1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine.Journal of Palestine Studies 39, no.2 (Winter 2010): 6–22.

Kanafani, Ghassan. The 1936–39 Revolt in Palestine.

Shbeib, Samih. “Poetry of Rebellion: The Life, Verse and Death of Nuh Ibrahim during the 1936–39 Revolt.Jerusalem Quarterly 25 (Winter 2006): 65–78.

Sufian, Sandy. “Anatomy of the 1936-39 Revolt: Images of the Body in Political Cartoons of Mandatory Palestine.Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.2 (Winter 2008):  23–42.

Swedenburg, Ted. Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.