When did the Arab–Israeli conflict begin?
Over the decades, historians, politicians, and activists have posited numerous dates: There’s 1897, when Theodor Herzl, fresh off his publication of Der Judenstaat convened the First Zionist Congress; 1917, when Lord Balfour issued his famous declaration that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; 1929, when Arab rioting convulsed Hebron, Jerusalem, and Safed; 1947, when the United Nations approved the Partition Plan; 1948, when Israel declared independence; and there’s 1967, when the Jewish state won a stunning victory in the Six-Day War and found itself in control of lands containing millions of Palestinians.
Each year saw milestones in Israel’s development and in the entrenchment of the conflict. But in Palestine 1936, Oren Kessler proposes a new and under-explored starting point for the conflict. In 1936, the Arab Revolt erupted, “Palestinian identity coalesced,” Arab extremists dominated pragmatists even as refugees began to trickle out of Palestine, Britain realized that “its two-decade Zionist experiment had proven too costly,” Zionists reluctantly understood the imperative of force, and Jewish terrorism first arose.
Countless histories have been published about Mandatory Palestine from the perspectives of the Jews, the Arabs, and the British. But Kessler, an American-born writer residing in Israel, rightly asserts that his book represents “the first full-length, deeply researched but general-interest history of the Great Revolt: of the uprising itself, its effect on Palestine’s Jewish and Arab nationalisms, the geopolitical moves it engendered, and its lasting legacies today.” Along the way, he vividly sketches the characters of several important but forgotten figures on all sides of the conflict.
To be sure, the roots of the conflict run deep, nourished by mutual distrust. By the 1920s, prominent figures such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, had already articulated ideologies that left little room for political or territorial compromise. And as Mandatory white papers, commissions of inquiry, and interconfessional bloodshed dominated the early 1930s, a satisfactory resolution to the growing crisis seemed unlikely.
But April 1936 saw an explosion of violence unparalleled in previous years. The trigger was the killing of Israel Hazan, an immigrant from Greece, by a group of masked Arabs near Nablus. His funeral in Tel Aviv nurtured fear and resentment, and soon a group of Jews were walking southward toward Arab-dominated Jaffa. Violence swift-
ly escalated, leaving 16 Jews dead at the hands of Arabs and five Arabs at the hands of British police. The mufti then declared a general strike across all of Palestine, which both crippled the larger economy and spurred the Jewish community to accelerate its development of independent institutions, such as the newly inaugurated Tel Aviv port.
May 1936 saw more killing, of Jews by Arabs and Arabs by British. By the summer, the mufti was openly encouraging bloodshed and the harboring of weapons and warriors in the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa compound, where the British dared not intrude. In June, some 75,000 Jewish trees were destroyed, and suspected Arab collaborators around the country were assassinated alongside Jews. But most of the fighting raged between Arab militias and British forces. By the time the violence ebbed, nearly 1,000 Arabs had been slain.
Yet the revolt had stirred in Palestine’s Arabs an unmistakable sense of pride and enthusiasm. “From now on,” the nationalist Khalil Sakakini said at the time, “the name Palestine will not be mentioned without men bowing their heads in respect.” The rebellion gained the attention and support of neighboring Arab states. It also caused British authorities to slash Jewish immigration dramatically. And it sparked the creation of the Peel Commission, where the British first seriously entertained the notion of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and transferring populations accordingly.
Moderate Arab leaders, including the future king of Transjordan, the former mayor of Jerusalem, and the mayors of Jaffa, Haifa, Nablus, and other cities, initially warmed to the partition proposal before abruptly rejecting it amid death threats and other pressure from extremists. These included the newly energized mufti, who expressed “profound grief and repugnance” at the “humiliating” proposal and raged against the Jews as “a minority of intruders.” The Arabs temporarily managed to stall the implementation of partition, but not for long.
After a British official was murdered in Nazareth in late 1937, the mufti was exiled to Damascus. But the flame of nationalism had been lit. As the Jerusalem-based historian George Antonius wrote in The Arab Awakening in 1938, in words that are now echoed by the likes of Representative Rashida Tlaib, “the violence of the Arabs is the inevitable corollary of the moral violence done to them,” and “there is no room for a second nation in a country which is already inhabited by a people whose national consciousness is fully awakened.”
A parallel disillusionment with any sort of “peace process” could be discerned on the Jewish side as well. In March 1934, David Ben-Gurion, then a rising leader within the Labor Zionist movement and the head of the Histadrut union, met with Musa Alami, personal secretary to High Commissioner Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, to discuss potential arrangements. While cordial, the meeting concluded disastrously. Ben-Gurion and his ally Moshe Shertok had assumed they had a certain commonality of interests with the Arabs, but “that assumption was shattered” by their discussions with Alami. Israel’s first prime minister would later recall their proposed coexistence as an “experiment that failed.”
Instead, the Jewish community recommitted itself in the wake of the Great Revolt to expanding settlements, especially in the Galilee, where the Arab population predominated. From Bet She’an in the east to Nahariya in the west, Jewish pioneers laid down stakes, establishing new villages and homesteads while surreptitiously buying up land from Arabs who were fearful of reprisals for overtly selling to Jews. Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion’s previous posture of havlagah—restraint—in the face of Arab attacks began to give way to proactive deterrence by the armed Haganah and its offshoots. As Kessler puts it, the Jewish community’s forces were “being transformed from a loose confederation of local night-watchmen to a unified, mobile, countrywide Jewish paramilitary, and one increasingly willing to pursue the enemy.”
At the same time, Jabotinsky’s Revisionists—Ben-Gurion’s rivals with their own militia, the Irgun—sharpened and broadened their attacks. “Acts of retaliation,” thundered a 1938 Irgun placard, “will show the British government and the world that the [Jewish community] is a fighting force” and “will break Arab terror!” During the three years of the revolt, the Irgun killed more than 250 Arabs. In June 1938, for the first time in Palestine’s history, more Arabs perished than Jews. The Irgun’s tactics, however, met with revulsion from the Zionist establishment—whereas the mufti and his allies cheered the violent depredations of Arab terrorists. Ben-Gurion even labeled the Revisionists a “Nazi party in Israel.”
But while the Great Revolt animated both Jewish and Arab nationalism, it ultimately exacted the heaviest price from its instigators while severely antagonizing the British. Kessler reports that somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 Arabs died, 7,500 Arab-owned guns and 1,200 bombs and grenades were confiscated, and 2,000 Arab homes were demolished. Additionally, 40,000 Arabs, “disproportionately representing the political, commercial, and landed elite,” departed Palestine for neighboring lands, and the local Arab economy collapsed. And when Arab leadership, dominated by extremists, rejected a 1939 white paper distinctly favorable to Arab interests, British authorities all but threw up their hands.
As Kessler demonstrates in this sobering and engaging history, 1936 crystallized the many elements of the Arab–Israeli conflict in ways that other hinge dates did not. It was then that “the Arabs of Palestine had effectively already lost the war,” owing, in Alami’s words, to their “inability to create some kind of real unity among ourselves.” It was then that Palestinian Arab nationalism and intransigence melded into a malign and self-destructive force—and Jews coalesced into a determined fighting power.
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