Labour Monthly

The class character of the
Palestine Risisng I

BY J. B. (Jerusalem)

Source : Labour Monthly March, 1930, No.3.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

In the treatment of the Palestine problems, raised by the August insurrection and the mass struggles following it as well as by the bloody reaction of the MacDonald regime, there has been a tendency to overestimate superficial factors, such as the imperialist intrigue and provocation and the national and religious issues. It is true that these external factors have played a great role; without an analysis of British imperialist policy, of the fatal Balfour Declaration, of the adventurism of the Zionist enterprises, of the fomentation of religious and national passions, it is hardly possible to understand the peculiar direction taken by the Arab rising or to explain how it was diverted into pogroms and national massacres. Nevertheless, it will not do to neglect in any way the analysis of the inherent forces of the Palestine rising, the significance of the peculiar class relationships which led to it and which determined its outbreak and course, and which, above all, were decisive for its further outlook and particularly govern the whole revolutionary perspective in the Arab countries. Here, indeed, lies one of the most important keys to a correct estimation from a proletarian standpoint of the Palestine rising.

The world war and the subsequent imperialist occupation of Palestine, as well as the carrying through of the Zionist policy by the British Government, gave rise to a fundamental transformation in the social structure of the native population. Both the British and the Zionist policy aimed at allowing the social divisions of the Arab population to remain unmolested, in fact, they aimed at strengthening the position of the ruling classes in relation to the enslaved masses still more than in Turkish times.

This orientation is comprehensible both from the point of view of the interests of British imperialism and from that of Zionism which is bound up with it, Zionism being above all interested in the expropriation of the Arab small peasantry and Beduins and in the transference of their holdings to the Zionist colonisers. The expropriation of the small peasants, however, can only be carried out with the help of the Arab feudal big land¬holders; the sale of land by individual small peasants is very difficult; apart from the fact that the small peasants, however burdened by weight of taxation and economic misery, will only sell their land to foreign immigrants in exceptional cases.

The big estate owners received in exchange for the sale of their land, which they could neither cultivate nor administrate properly, millions of pounds sterling. The loss fell to the Arab peasants ("Harrat" in Arabic; they rented their land from the big landholders on payment of "Humseh," a fifth part of the harvest) who were brutally evicted from their holdings as soon as the landowners had pocketed the Zionist money. The land¬owner was enabled to enlarge his possessions at the cost of the isolated holdings of the small peasants. The expropriation of the Arab fellahin by the Arab big landholders was carried through, as in the time of the Turks, by a system of usury in which the Government and the feudal lords played into one another's hands. Money was lent at extortionate interest to the peasant, who could neither earn enough to maintain himself nor to endure the oppressive taxation of the Government, on the security of his holding until the last scrap of soil was made over to the big land¬owners. The Zionists themselves boast in the statistics published by them that the bulk of the land they colonised was obtained from the big landholders by heavy money payment. Naturally, it was not their affair to inquire how the landholders came by their land and whether they had any rightful title to it.

In this way the Zionist policy led to the accumulation of very large sums of money in the hands of the Arab big estate owners and strengthened their economic power. It is also responsible to a certain degree for a part of the Arab landowners going over from extensive agriculture to modern plantations (the area of Arab orange plantations increased in the years 1922-28 from 2,000 to 45,000 dunams; 1 dunam = 919 sq. metres) as well as for the investment of a part of the accumulated capital in industry and trade, i.e., for the beginning of an industrial bourgeoisie which, however, as in other Arab countries, is closely bound up with big landownership.

For the growth of the political power of the feudal class and trading bourgeoisie, the British Government was responsible. This sounds paradoxical since British imperialism certainly created no political institutions in which the ruling Arab classes could participate as legislators or administrators, but put legislative and executive power in the hands of British officials (a British Crown Colony type of administration). Nevertheless, it is true that British imperialism did increase the political power of the Arab aristocracy, only it did so in peculiar forms.

It put the Arab aristocracy in possession of two instruments which sufficed completely for political domination over the back¬ward, uneducated and terribly oppressed masses. First of all it strengthened the rule of the aristocracy in the village by in¬creasing the power of the feudal-clerical apparatus of the "Supreme Moslem Council." This Council, which had sole charge of the administration of the very extensive estates of the "Wakf," the land owned by the Mohammedan Church, became, so to say, part of the Government apparatus, for the Government took over the dues paid to the Council and itself paid the officials of the Council from the Government treasury. The direction of this feudal-clerical apparatus lay in the hands of the noble Hussein family.

The other instrument consisted in securing the rule of the houseowners and rich merchants in the towns. For this purpose, in 1927 municipal council elections were introduced all through Palestine, but 95 per cent. of the population were excluded from the suffrage. Only houseowners and taxpayers with a high minimum basis could be electors and, with the help of the Zionists, the most important representatives of the urban aristocracy and trading bourgeoisie were brought into the municipal councils which worked under the immediate control of the Government. Not a single one of the feudal-aristocratic privileges of the rich classes was touched; the British Government paid the greatest attention at all times to safeguarding the old feudal-clerical forms.

The British Government hoped to crown its alliance with Arab feudalism and the Arab trading bourgeoisie by the creation of a feudal bourgeois-Zionist parliament under British patronage. Previously this alliance had been hindered by opposition from a section of these Arabs. During 1922-26 non-co-operation tactics had even been adopted against the Government, when the latter, owing to its Zionist policy, refused to accede to demands of the leading Arabs. The basis for the proposed parliament was created by the Seventh Arab Congress in July, 1928, which rejected non-co-operation tactics and satisfied itself with the demand for a parliament. The negotiations on this question were still in progress in the summer of 1929 when the August rising took place and the revolutionary mass forces entered on the stage.

The Zionist colonisation signified for the semi-nomadic Beduins, who make up almost a fifth of the Arab population, that they were forced out of their usual pasture lands. They were faced with the choice either to wander into the desert -- where in any case there was already a hard struggle for pasture, giving rise to an increased pressure on the more fruitful cultivable areas, as shown, for example, by the conflicts of the Wahabis and at the Iraq-Nezhd and Transjordania-Hedjaz frontier -- or to settle down as fellahin (peasant cultivators). This dilemma confronts also the other Arab countries, and neither the imperialist British advisers of the Iraq Government nor the French leaders of the Syrian Government dare overlook the danger threatening from the Beduins driven into desperation. Colonisation plans have been worked out for the nomadic tribes in Iraq and Syria. It is true that they are insufficient and in many cases hypocritical and chiefly for strategical ends, but they are not entirely to be disregarded.

In Palestine, however, the British administration, which wants, with the help of Zionism, to construct a peculiar imperialist citadel, leaves the Beduins to their fate; at the most it takes pains to hasten their fate by special pressure against them. While the introduction of motor cars and railways has caused a continuous fall in the price of camels, a tax is imposed on them by the Government three times as heavy as under Turkish rule. While for the Beduin freedom of movement is a necessity, he finds his path barred everywhere by artificially constructed barriers, and the soil suitable for camping is snatched away by the big landowners for disposal to the Zionists. It is true that the exasperation of the Beduins is held in check by adroit bribing of the sheiks and by the wonderful art of Oriental diplomacy (see Colonel Lawrence), but the impoverished Beduin masses going headlong to ruin are increasingly in forment.

Nor are the poor fellahin better off. The Zionist gold does not benefit them, it destroys them. More than 60 per cent. of the Arab population of Palestine lives in the 800 villages of the country, a great part of the urban population is more or less directly connected with agriculture. The policy of the Govern¬ment counts on this; the biggest part of the tax burden (direct taxation) is borne by the rural population, the fellahin. It is true that the mediaeval tithe tax has been reduced formally from 10 per cent, to 1 per cent., but since this tax instead of being paid in kind as before is now collected in money, and since the basis for the tax is an estimate of the standing crops in the field (without regard to losses in harvesting), the fellah still pays crushing taxation which not only makes any extension of his agriculture impossible but in many cases even makes the con¬tinuation of his life impossible. Government statistics report that the total monthly amount for food, clothing, &c., left for the cultivator per month comes to one or one and a half pounds sterling. Thus, he is faced with a life of frightful inhuman starvation, especially if the growth of the price of necessities in comparison with the pre-war time is taken into account.

This growth in prices has been a colossal one especially owing to the Zionist immigration, as even the Zionist statisticians have to admit:-

Palestine, formerly cheaper than other countries, now, since the Jewish colonisation, belongs to the dearest ones. Without any depre¬ciation of its currency, prices have increased even up to six-fold,¬ and to-day are still more than twice as high as in 1914. (BONNE, Statistical Archive of the German Statistical Society, 1928, p.392.)

No wonder that under such conditions agricultural ruin is complete. The prices of agricultural products of the country are much below those of the price index as a whole.

Under such conditions the Beduins and fellahin are reduced to the lowest limit of want. An ever-increasing number forsake their homes and emigrate to the towns where they constitute a hopeless, desperate "Lumpenproletariat," since there is as yet no kind of industry which can absorb them. Lucky is the pauperised fellah or Beduin who can at least get taken on as a day labourer -- either in the plantations of the effendis or rich Jewish colonists or on one of the numerous public works which the Government is continually embarking on from strategical considerations (railways, bridges, road making, public buildings, military camps, harbour works). Thus the Government and the Zionist: colonists, after having completely ruined the fellahin and the Beduins, have made out of them an army of reserve labour of the cheapest kind for themselves and for the big Arab planters. In this way there is arising in Palestine, from the pauperised small peasants and Beduins, an agricultural and urban proletariat, in which, however, the number of semi-proletarians (seasonal workers still connected with the village) is still fairly con¬siderable.

In the town itself, the impoverishment of the broad working masses also goes rapidly forward. In particular, the small hand-workers are being slowly but systematically ruined by the import of cheaper and better commodities from abroad. Similarly, the small traders in the bazaars are also being ruined, so that they are in a great measure being compelled completely to liquidate their workshops or shops, they become unemployed, looking for work, and together with the pauperised peasants go to build the ranks of the urban proletariat. In any case, the desperately hit urban petty-bourgeoisie, among which must be reckoned also the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, the impoverished descendants of the larger aristocratic families and the lower very badly paid strata of officials, also constitute an element which has every ground for seeing its enemy in the British occupation and in the Zionist policy.

As for the proletariat in the towns and on the land, they are subjected to terrible, almost limitless exploitation. The myth that Anglo-Zionism has improved the wages or conditions of the Arab worker has been constructed on the false assumption that the rise in nominal wages, relative to the pre-war standard and to the level in neighbouring countries, is equivalent to a rise in real wages. Among those who have disseminated this myth are the Labour M.P. Colonel Wedgwood, in his book, The Seventh Dominion, Ramsay MacDonald, even so early as 1922, in his travel-impressions, and Emile Vandervelde, in his sentimental ode to Zionism, Le Pays d'Israel (1929). Actually, prices are twice or two and a-half times as high as in neighbouring countries, while wages are only about 50 to 75 per cent. higher than in Egypt or Syria; the real wages of the Arab workers are, therefore, even more miserable than those of the Syrians and Egyptians. Add to this an unlimited working-day, an extortionate piece¬work system alternating with characteristically Oriental methods of speeding-up, and the absence of any social insurance or provision for the unemployed. The employer, moreover, is com¬pletely unhampered by rules and regulations. For example, the Government, even in its capacity as employer, has no obligations towards its employees the 3,000 workers on the railway are entirely at the mercy of the administration, a worker with ten years' service can be thrown on to the streets without the smallest excuse or a halfpenny of compensation; there have been cases of fatal accidents occurring early in the day where the family of the victim has received the amount due for the four hours' work he had put in before he was killed and nothing more.

At the same time the Government and its allies, the Zionist Labour leaders, hamper every kind of workers' organisation. Thanks to the systematic sabotage practised by the leaders of the so-called Jewish Railwaymen's Union, 90 per cent. of the rail-workers (including all the Arab workers) are unorganised. In 1927, just as it was beginning to be popular with the Arabs, the club "Ihud" (unity), which arrived at a common trade union organisation for Jews and Arabs, was closed by order of the police, no reason being vouchsafed for this action. The Congress of the Jewish Trade Union organisation "Histadruth" rejected an appeal for admission to membership put forward by a delegation of over 2,000 Arab workers, despite the stress laid in the appeal on the trade union and international character of "Histadruth." The Arab agricultural workers in Petah Tikvah who applied in 1928 for admission to the trade unions never even received an answer to their request.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that the Arab workers have been driven into the arms of their own bourgeoisie, and that in various parts of the country -- Haifa, Nablus, Jaffa; &c. -- trade unions have been formed which are under Nationalist influence, serving the interests of the merchant class rather than those of the worker.

Thanks to the united efforts of the British Government, the Zionist bourgeoisie and their servants the Zionist Labour leaders (Second International men) and the Poale Zion, the peculiar feature of the situation in Palestine in 1929, so far as the Arab population were concerned, was that while the revolutionary ferment had reached extreme intensity among the working masses -- the Beduins, the poorer fellahin, the self-employed petty-bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the towns -- there was at the same time a complete absence of any revolutionary-political organisation. On the other side all the political influence concentrated on the Arab masses lay in the hands of the big land¬owners and merchant bourgeoisie, whose object was a rapid and conclusive bargain with imperialism on the basis of a Parliamentary Constitution. The dominant elements realised that an outbreak was inevitable and that they would have to utilise it for their own interests, directing it in such a way that it would offer no danger to themselves while leaving the masses securely in their grip.

These, then, are the class-factors of the August rebellion and the subsequent revolutionary struggles in Palestine. On the one hand the masses -- fellahin, Beduins, workers -- radicalised through and through, seething with revolution, ready for a war of liberation against those who have so long oppressed them. On the other, treacherous feudal-bourgeois leaders bent on strength¬ening their alliance with imperialism by compromise and petty political gains, who, after diverting the spontaneous movement of the masses into the channel of a Nationalist struggle and deceiving their followers, finally deliver them over to the guns and bombs of the imperialists.

(To be concluded.)