The decade or so of British Mandate rule in Palestine that began in 1936 and ended in early 1947 was pivotal in Palestine’s modern history, setting the stage for the loss of Palestine in 1948. This crucial decade opened with a widespread Palestinian uprising against the British Mandate and the Zionist project in Palestine. Following the brutal suppression of this revolt, Palestine was caught up in the global upheavals of World War II; it experienced an economic boom as the site of British military mobilization, while dissension between Zionists and the British intensified over the question of the illegal immigration to Palestine of European Jews forced out of Europe or fleeing the atrocities of the Holocaust. By the end of the war, the Zionist movement’s search for sponsorship had been redirected from Britain to the United States, and the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) stood positioned to launch political and military campaigns to force Britain out of Palestine and to establish the State of Israel in defiance of Palestinian will.
In 1936, widespread Palestinian dissatisfaction with Britain’s governance erupted into open rebellion. 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 and was characterized by the formation of National Committees in major Palestinian cities and the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) as an organizing political body; a general strike throughout Arab Palestine; armed insurrection in rural areas; and the introduction of Arab volunteers from outside Palestine to join in the revolt. Such activities were met by British counterinsurgency—which employed repressive measures including imprisonment, torture, collective fines, and the demolition of parts of Jaffa’s Old City, among other forms of violence—and a diplomatic effort that took the form of a commission of inquiry led by Lord Peel. The weariness of the Palestinian population after six months of general strike, the promise of some political progress through the Peel Commission, and pressure from some Arab heads of state led the AHC to call off the strike in October 1936. From November 1936 to January 1937, the Peel Commission toured Palestine to ascertain the causes of the rebellion, and during this period there was an overall reduction of violence throughout the country. Tensions began to mount in the spring of 1937, however, and when the Peel Commission published its report in July 1937, proposing that Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states, Palestine exploded anew.
This marked the beginning of the second phase of the revolt, which lasted until the fall of 1938. In the face of renewed Palestinian resistance, the British government outlawed the AHC and all Palestinian political parties and organizations. Individual Palestinian political leaders and activists were arrested and the most prominent were exiled. Collective punishment was imposed in the form of mass detentions, the destruction of residential quarters, and the levying of collective fines, among other methods. Although martial law was not officially declared, military tribunals issued summary executions solely for arms possession. British military reinforcements were called in and aircraft, tanks, and heavy artillery were deployed against the rebels. The AHC, reconstituted in Damascus, was effectively marginalized and initiative increasingly passed to the field commanders. (Though there had always been a significant rural component, the revolt was increasingly peasant-oriented.) The Palestinian rebels made considerable gains on the ground, even extending their control to Jerusalem’s Old City for some time. Meanwhile, British-Zionist cooperation against the rebels meant the subsidization and entrenchment of Zionist military structures on the ground.
In the third phase, from the fall of 1938 to the summer of 1939, the British launched a full-scale military offensive against the insurgency even as they backed away from partition and expressed a willingness to concede to some of the rebels’ demands. However, the pressure under which the rebels found themselves exposed various fractures in Palestinian society, and the British took advantage of this to turn some Palestinians against the rebels. Palestinian society was exhausted and depleted from three years of revolt: some 5,000 Palestinians were killed and nearly 15,000 wounded (in a population that did not exceed one million) and the political leadership had been exiled, killed, or set against one another. In this context, the British published the MacDonald White Paper in May 1939, which proposed limitations on Jewish immigration and land purchases and promised an independent unitary state after ten years, conditioned on favorable Palestinian-Jewish relations. Despite its limitations, it seemed to offer an escape from the crushing weight of Britain’s military counterinsurgency, and the revolt drew to a close over the summer of 1939.
The policies outlined in the White Paper were soon overtaken by the exigencies of a much larger geopolitical crisis within which Britain was engaged: World War II. During the war years, the AHC and other Palestinian political activity remained illegal, and much of the Palestinian political leadership thus remained in exile. Haj Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem and head of the AHC, fled in 1941 to the Axis countries, where he spent the war years—a fact later exploited by Zionists to allege widespread Palestinian collaboration with Nazism. In fact, some 23,000 Palestinians volunteered for service with British forces in North Africa and the Arab Legion. Many others worked in the various jobs that served British military forces stationed in Palestine during the war, and the economy in Palestine enjoyed a boom. Despite continued disillusionment with certain British policies, Palestinian sympathy for the Axis powers was a marginal phenomenon.
The war years are characterized by the increasing friction between Britain and the Zionist movement. Already strained by Zionist dissatisfaction with the 1939 White Paper, relations deteriorated further as Zionist organizations pressured Britain to raise limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine in light of the ongoing Holocaust in Europe. Illegal immigration continued and British attempts to stop it resulted in the sinking of ships carrying Jewish refugees in 1940 and 1942. Although some 27,000 Jews from Palestine enlisted in the British armed forces, the Zionist Right (Irgun and the Stern Gang) launched violent attacks against British officials, and the Zionist movement more broadly began to seek out alternative sponsorship.
In May 1942, a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, attended by leading American Zionists and David Ben-Gurion representing the Jewish Agency, concluded with a call for the establishment of a “Jewish commonwealth” in all of Palestine and the organization of a Jewish army. In August 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman requested that the British admit 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors into Palestine and in December the U.S. Congress requested unlimited Jewish immigration into Palestine. American pressure on the British continued into 1946. With the support of a new Great Power sponsor thus secured and with their own position toward the Palestinians strengthened, the Zionists in Palestine would embark upon a concerted campaign—political and military—to push Britain out of Palestine and impose a Jewish state on the Palestinian population.
‘Amr, Sami. A Young Palestinian’s Diary, 1941–1945, trans. and introduced by Kimberly Katz, foreword by Salim Tamari. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
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. New York: Committee for a Democratic Palestine, 1972.
Swedenburg, Ted. Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.