Before the Nakba: Mandate and Exodus 1920-1939

Perhaps the most contentious issue in the Middle East’s 20th century was the signing by British officials of the Balfour Declaration in contradiction of promises made to both Arab and French partners. Multiple attempts were made by the British, first through King Faisal, and later through loose coalitions of indigenous Palestinian organizations lead by provincial Arab notables[1], to gain acknowledgement by the majority of the declared goals of Balfour – a national homeland for Jewry in Palestine. On each occasion the demand was rejected. Political Zionism, rooted in European anti-Semitism, changed its character considerably overtime, but the embedded goal and its consequences remained the same, a Jewish state encroaching on the land and rights of an already established people. The British search for an answer to their contradictory aims proved elusive from 1920-1939.

What became the Palestine mandate, awarded to Britain at the San Remo Conference (1920), was regarded under the Ottomans as part of Southern Syria, with no distinct administrative entity. Nearly 670,000 Arab inhabitants of Palestine constituted over 85 percent of the population at the onset of the mandate. Zionism, which had a trying start under Leo Pinsker (1891), during World War I rose dramatically. A multitude of organizations were coordinated under Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), and his energy brought a greater diplomatic status that was continued by figures like Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization. The latter’s cultivation of contacts in London brought legitimacy and influence to the Zionist cause, while also “helping” the British realize they had an imperial interest in cleaving the territory from French Syria. Another encouragement to Zionists was recognition by the League of Nations.

What encouraged Zionists alarmed the Arab inhabitants. Through these twenty-eight years of mandate, they were never accorded the same legitimacy as Zionist organizations like the Jewish Agency. The more radical offshoot, The Revisionists, proved more disturbing. A decidedly militant nature was formed here, pushing the idea of Greater Israel and immigration. Passions came to boil when an increasingly landless but also more unified than ever peasantry rioted (Wailing Wall, 36-39 riots). The British and Jewish militias crushed them. The Peel Commission was set up, and found a unitary state untenable, and satisfying neither side. The Arabs rioted, and their leaders were either

arrested or fled. Disturbed by the violence, the British White Paper (1939) declared limitations on Jewish immigration. Zionists were shocked, and Arab leaders saw a small victory, though it was unsatisfactory because it did not achieve independence. Palestinian organization was still light years behind Zionist organization in the Jewish Agency, the National Council, the labor unions, and the paramilitary organizations.

Prophesied by Arab writers as early as the 19th century, when the first Aliyahs (waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine) began, the majority was fast becoming a minority in their own country. A host of justifications were made to defend kicking Palestinians out, like the higher right (returning Jews to their ancestral homeland) being more important than the lower right (the Palestinians already being established on the land). Yet it wasn’t ethical theory that validated the justification, but coercive authority through violence and money. As early as the Ottoman Empire, Jewry used Arab citizens to buy the land from under the peasants. During the Mandate, the landowners sold the peasantry out for exorbitant profits.

The exodus began long before 48′, and the building of a Jewish state began before the Arabs had even knew designs were made on their homeland.

[1] Arab notables acted as intermediary between the people and mandate authorities. They hoped to maintain their social and political position by balancing between indigenous aspirations and British rule. Their role was decidedly more complex than that of notables in Syria and Iraq, for they had to struggle with Zionism in the corridors of London’s power elite, where they, as provincial nobles, had little of the respect accorded to Weizmann.

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