Labour Monthly

The Events in Palestine

By British Resident [1]

Source : Labour Monthly July, 1936, No.7
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 most accounts of the Palestine disturbances which I have read in the English press, even in those sections of the press which do not normally blatantly champion imperial interests, the picture drawn has been one of Arab hooligans and bandits, hired with Italian gold (or German or Russian, according to the particular political point of view), instigated by self-interested Arab politicians ("effendis"), attacking the lives and property of peace-loving Jews, whose only object is to develop the country economically in the interests of the Arabs, while the British Government, anxious only to do the decent thing by both Arab and Jew, tries with a gentle hand (too gentle, that friend of oppressed races, the Times, thinks) to restore order.

This picture, if it were true, would be unintelligible; which is a good a priori reason for believing that the picture is untrue.

The three main falsehoods which seem to recur in almost every account of these disturbances are: -- (i) that the disturbances have no political justification; (ii) that they are the result of instigation; (iii) that the Government uses gentle methods to repress them.


Articles about the disturbances appearing in the press always leave out their political background altogether; the disturbances are repreŽsented as occurring in a political vacuum. What is their real context? The Palestine Arabs, who were induced to desert from the Turks to the British during the last war with promises of freedom, have for the last eighteen years endured an undiluted British autocracy. The whole legislative and executive power in Palestine is concentrated in the hands of a British High Commissioner who carries out the instructions of the British Cabinet. The latter is nominally responsible to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, which exercises a largely fictitious supervision over the administration of the Palestine Mandate. Like other mandated territories, Palestine is for all practical purposes (except from a tariff point of view) a Crown Colony. There is no vestige of self-government, less even than in the most backward African colonies. There is no contesting the fact that all the really responsible posts are held not by the Palestinians themselves (whether Arabs or Jews) but by Englishmen. A legislative council of the normal colonial ‘concealed official majority' type was offered by the British and refused by the Arabs in 1922, and again proposed and withdrawn in 1929. A legislative council of a similar type was offered by the present High Commissioner in December of last year. This council was to be composed on a community basis and to consist of five official members, eleven nominated unofficial members (three Moslems, four Jews, two Christians and two ‘Commercial') and twelve elected members (eight Moslems, three Jews and one Christian): the Christians would presumably be Arab Christians. If the relative weights of the British and Zionist elements and of the Arab element are compared (this would be likely to be the actual line of cleavage over any major political issue), it is clear that the British and pro-British forces (five officials, seven Jews and two ‘Commercials') would, with the casting vote of the senior official member, be stronger than the forces repre-senting Arab interests (eleven Moslems and three Arab Christians), even at the most favourable estimate. The council would moreover be rendered finally clawless by the fact that money bills, the annual budget and the twice-yearly labour immigration schedules would be outside its scope, and that the High Commissioner would have emergency powers to pass legislation without the council's consent and to postpone the holding of elections for more than twelve months after the council's dissolution. The effect of the establishment of this council would be that British colonial policy might sometimes be impeded but could never be actually thwarted. The institution of such puppet councils is favoured by the British Government, as they are powerless to harm British interests and at the same time provide a useful safety valve for anti-imperialist feeling. Such a piece of machinery would be useless either to carry on the struggle for ultimate Arab independence or to realise their day-to-day needs.

What the Arabs have got then is British autocracy, and the prospect of its continuance for an indefinite time. What is it that they want? Principally they want what any victim of imperialism wants -- to be rid of imperialist control and of a policy directed in imperialist interests. But this desire has become complicated by the fact of Zionism, which, though in reality a British colonising movement, tends to be seen by the Arabs as a separate act of aggression, separable from British policy generally, for which the Jews and not the British are responsible. Instead of seeing Zionism and British policy as a single enemy, Arabs tend to regard Zionism as their first enemy and British policy as their second; their resistance to both becomes more ineffective in consequence. Some simple-minded Arabs even think, or used to think before these disturbances, that British rule in Palestine would be unobjectionable if it could be purged of Zionism. Up to the present the struggle against Zionism has dominated and obscured the struggle against British rule.

The degrees of importance which the Arabs attach to these two aspects of the same struggle is manifest in the three demands for the satisfaction of which the present strike is being carried on. They are:-

(i)   the immediate stoppage of Jewish immigration;

(ii)  the introduction of legislation to prevent further sales of land by Arabs to Jews;

(iii)  the setting up of a responsible national government.

The condition of calling off the strike is the satisfaction of the first of these demands only. The Arabs would then be prepared to negotiate in regard to the other two. The main point of the first two demands is that, unless they are granted, the Arabs will finally lose the power to struggle for the granting of the third. They are never likely to be able to achieve political independence if they are once dominated politiŽcally by the Jews. The effect of such domination would be to give the British an irresistible bulwark in Palestine which would be likely to block successfully all efforts of Palestine Arabs to obtain independence. Economically the Arabs are already dominated by the Jews who control the country's industries and share with the British control of its finance. Numerically the Arabs are in danger of becoming dominated: the present strengths of the two communities are roughly 900,000 Arabs to 375,000 Jews: the total Jewish immigration over the last three years (1933-35) has been about 150,000. As regards land, the prospect of Arab dominaŽtion by Jews is more remote. At present Jews own only about 300,000 acres out of an officially estimated total of rather more than 3,000,000 acres of cultivable land in the country: but the area owned by Jews consists for the most part of plain land and is some of the most fertile in the country. The steady sale of lands is moreover turning a large number of Arab cultivators into proletarians, with the insecurity of livelihood which is bound to be the fate of proletarians under capitalism.

It is not difficult to see that if the Jews, who already control the economic life of Palestine and have a secure footing on the land, once become numerically in a majority they will become politically dominant. Then good-bye to any hopes of an independent Palestine.

It is not Jewish immigration per se or the sale of lands to Jews per se against which the Arabs are struggling but against immigration and the sale of lands controlled, or left uncontrolled, by the British Government in the interests not of the native population but partly of world Zionism, partly of Great Britain's trade and strategic interests in the Near East, to the frustration of Arab desires for independence.

* * * * * *

The cause of the present disturbances is that the Arabs have now reached a point which almost all victims of imperialism are bound to reach sooner or later, when it becomes clear that it is impossible by methods of negotiation and petition to move a step further in the direction of independence, and that more effective measures must be used or the struggle abandoned. No sensible man likes violence. But equally no sensible man can pretend that imperialist governments, blindly pursuing their own interests, will not often give way on questions of colonial policy when violence is used and will not give way when peaceable methods are used. The present disturbances in Palestine are therefore unpleasant but reasonable.

Why it should have been meritorious in Lord Allenby to impose British rule upon Palestine by force in 1918 and wicked of the Arabs to use force now in order to take a step in the direction of getting rid of British rule is a question which only imperialists can answer. Those who now call the Arabs hooligans and bandits should remember the acts of hooligan Allenby and bandit Lawrence.

The following events, occurring shortly before the present disturbances, had influence in causing them to happen at the time at which they actually happened.

(1). After eighteen years of negotiation with the British and Palestine Governments the Arabs were at the end of last year as far as ever from obtaining any control over their own affairs. Instead the tendency had been for British control to become tighter. In November, 1935, the titular leaders of the. Arabs presented their three demands to the Palestine Government in the form of an ultimatum. It was generally understood that if the reply to these demands was unsatisfactory the Arabs would have recourse to other methods than negotiation. The reply was wholly unsatisfactory as regards the stopping of immigration, largely unsatisfactory as regards the checking of land sales, and instead of a responsible national government the Arabs were offered a castrated legislative council. It was clear that the Government would not budge from this attitude unless something drastic were done to budge it.

(2). Two recent examples, encouraging to the Palestine Arabs, of violence having been apparently effective in securing concessions from a colonial power which peaceful methods had failed to secure were the Cairo riots in December, 1935, and the Syrian strike in January and February, 1936. In both cases it was possible that the motives of the British or French Governments were simply to get order restored by the appearŽance of concessions which they were actually not prepared to grant: in that case the victories of the Egyptians and Syrians were apparent only and the struggle would have to start again. But at any rate the Egyptians and Syrians appeared to have gained something (at the date of writing it seems that the Syrians at least have really gained something) by violent methods, while the Palestine Arabs had obviously gained nothing by peaceful methods.

(3) Another event which moved the Arabs in the direction of violence was the parliamentary debates on the legislative council proposals. They constituted an absolutely convincing piece of evidence of the Zionist strangle-hold on British policy in Palestine, in which the Arabs had always believed. In these debates, which were fully reported in the Arabic press and closely followed by the Arab public, die-hard imperialists and labour pro-Zionists united to condemn any movement in the direction of giving any measure of independence to the irresponsible Arabs. The subsequent offer of an Arab delegation to London was regarded by many as the Government's first step in a planned graceful retreat from its legislative council pledges.


As regards the second falsehood, the present strike is not the result of instigation, either by foreign agents or by local agitators. Doubtless Italian agents do subsidize the strike and local agitators do agitate. But they are no more the causes of the present resistance to the Government than a sheet of paper is the cause of what is written on it. The strike is a spontaneous movement which has the support of almost all sections of the Arab people, the natural response to the Government's continued frustration of all peaceful efforts of the Arabs towards independence. Its character is plain from its origin. It started as a movement from below not from above, and it has been kept alive by pressure from below. Attacks by Arabs on Jews (made as an act of counter-reprisals) and the shooting of Arabs by the police in Jaffa on April 19th led to the outbreak of a strike in that town on April 20th. No strike had been planned by the Arab leaders: the shutting of shops was a spontaneous act. Strike action followed in Nablus on the same day and shortly after in other towns. By April 23rd the Arab shops in all the main towns except Tiberias were shut. In each town local strike committees were appointed by the people of the town to organise and maintain the strike and to arrange relief for the strikers. The pressure of these local strike comŽmittees, brought to bear on the leaders of the five Arab political parties, compelled them to form a Higher Strike Committee, to co-ordinate the activities of the local committees and to negotiate with the Government. It would be foolish to pretend that the members of the Higher Strike Committee are disinterested angels. Several of them would probably be ready to sell the strike, betray their followers and compromise with the Government if they had the chance: the same is true of many of the local leaders. But they have no chance. They are now being carried on the backs of the exasperated Arab people, who are determined that this struggle shall go on until either the Arabs get satisfaction from the Government or are broken by the Government.

At the beginning only the towns and the villages in the immediate neighbourhood of towns were implicated in the strike: now, a good deal thanks to the repressive action taken by the Government against villages, the villagers throughout the country are solidly behind the strike and behind whatever line of resistance to the Government the towns may decide to take. So far their action has consisted in contributing generously to relief funds for the support of workers and shopkeepers whom the strike has rendered out of work; attacks on Jewish property; and attacks on Government communications. In the hill country of Samaria numbers of villagers have obtained arms and have left their villages for the hills where they carry on what almost amounts to guerrilla war against any detachments of British troops that they come across. If it were not that they are now occupied with the harvest the villagers would probably be more active in their resistance to the Government than they are. In a month when the harvest is over, if the strike still continues, it is likely that the villagers will participate more actively.

The present resistance to the Government is not confined to men: women and schoolboys and schoolgirls have initiated demonstrations and presented protests in many of the towns. Most of the boys and girls attending Government schools in the towns have gone on strike and the schools have been closed down in consequence. Village schools have followed their lead. British teachers have written shocked letters to the newspapers deploring the fact that the children whom they have trained to be nice little Anglophiles should now show a cloven hoof. It is such a pity, they say, in the children's own best interests that they should spoil their chances in the forthcoming summer examinations.

The methods by which a subject people can put pressure on a great colonial power with almost unlimited military resources are restricted. The Palestine Arabs have hitherto had no training in these methods and have learned no technique. They are, moreover, naturally a peaceful-minded people. The villagers enjoy talking politics, but it goes against their grain to disturb the normal course of their lives in order to take violent action for a political end. Nothing but the blindly self-interested policy of British imperialism could have driven them to behave as they are now behaving. In spite, however, of their lack of training in methods of resistance and their natural unaggressiveness the Arabs have so far during these disturbances shown imagination and courage. In addition to the general strike, now in its sixty-first day, the Higher Strike ComŽmittee, under pressure from the people, has proclaimed civil disobedience. This has so far taken the form of a general refusal to pay to the GovernŽment both the ordinary urban and rural taxes and the extraordinary fines and punitive exactions which the Government has imposed in the course of these disturbances. The value both of the strike and of civil disobedience is principally their protest value. They have a subsidiary value in that they put pressure on the Government by depriving it of a considerable amount of revenue. Arab Municipal Councils are already on strike, and, far more important, Arab Government officials and Arab police (who naturally resent being required to take part in repressive activities against other Arabs) have been considering joining the strike front. Among sections of both officials and police there is already strong feeling in favour of doing so. What chiefly deters them is: (1) that a strike, to be effective, would have to be unanimous or nearly so; (2) that for them to strike might well involve the permanent loss of their liveli-hoods; for shopkeepers and most town workers on the other hand the loss is likely to be only temporary; (3) that Government officials as members of the middle class, have a traditional dislike of taking part in strike action.

Should a strike of Arab officials and police actually take place the whole machinery of civil administration would break down and the Government would be paralysed. It would then presumably have no alternative but to yield to Arab demands or to govern the country by a complete, instead of as at present a partial, military dictatorship.


Finally there is the lie, possibly the biggest lie of all, that the GovernŽment has dealt gently with the disturbances. In the early stages the Government remained, comparatively speaking, on the defensive. When demonstrations took place and refused to disperse they were broken up with baton charges, and in some cases (in the towns of Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre, Nazareth and Jenin at least) with shooting. Several hundred Arabs were arrested for taking part in disturbances, for stone throwing and for picketing shopkeepers who kept their shops open. Savage sentences were inflicted by the courts: seven years for a man in a demonŽstration who wounded a British constable with a knife (how much lighter would the sentence have been if the constable had been an Arab); three years for throwing stones at the police; boys caught picketing were lashed. Numbers of people (including a large number of ComŽmunists) suspected by the police of being likely to be a danger to the peace if left at large, were kept in prison on remand without a trial. In some cases those arrested were beaten illegally. Heavy collective fines were imposed upon Arab villages and tribes believed to have been responsŽible for attacks on Jewish or Government property and, when they refused to pay the fines, their goods were seized.

In about the middle of May the High Commissioner decided that the measures so far taken were not severe enough to break Arab resistance. A Government offensive was therefore launched of which the two principal lines of action were: (a) the confining (without a trial) of political leaders to specified towns and villages, (b) the carrying out by the military or police or both of punitive raids against villages suspected of acts of damage or arson. The first of these measures hurt the Government more than it hurt the political leaders since the latter usually succeeded in intensifying anti-Government feeling in the towns and villages to which they were deported. The Government, realising its mistake, has now changed its policy and has started a concentration camp with accommodation for a hundred Arab politicians at a place called Auja el Hafir in the Beersheba desert. A second concentration camp with accommodation for two hundred and fifty, is reported to be in course of construction at Sarafand, near Ramle. District authorities have power to order any person to be confined in a concentration camp, and if he escapes from the camp to be imprisoned, for any period up to one year -- in both cases without a trial.

The Government has shown itself at its most brutal in the military raids against villages. These raids are described by the Government as "searches," since their supposed purpose is to search for arms, which are actually almost never found: any villager who has arms has already left his village and gone into the hills. Although Martial Law has not been declared the troops (which have now been increased by reinforceŽments from the normal garrison of two battalions to eight battalions, in addition to units of the Air Force and tanks, are allowed a practically free hand in the carrying out of a raid, at which frequently no civil authority is present. In two cases raids have been accompanied by the shooting and killing of innocent people. Others have been beaten. Cupboards are broken open,. flour and oil upset, clothes and mattresses slashed and destroyed: money and jewellery has been looted by the soldiers. In the case of one tribe tanks rode over their tents; all their personal property was destroyed, and their animals, on which they chiefly depended for a livelihood, killed. Up to the present not less than thirty of these raids must have been carried out in different parts of the country. Their effect on the villages in which they have taken place and in the neighbouring villages which have heard of them has been to intensify the villagers' hatred of the Government and to strengthen their will to resist.

When it was found that these measures were ineffectual to crush resistance the Government tightened the screw. The most recent measures of repression include certain "Emergency Regulations": (1) empowering district authorities to force strikers to open their shops; (2) imposing the death penalty for shooting at a policeman or throwing a bomb (if it is done with the intention of assisting armed rebels), or for damaging or interfering with Government communications (if the act is one likely to endanger life), otherwise life imprisonment in both cases; (3) giving the Government power to confiscate and destroy any house "situated in any town, quarter, village, or other area where the inhabitants have committed, aided or abetted any offence involving violence or intimidation, even though the actual offenders are unknown." This last measure is so wide in its terms that it almost amounts to giving the Government carte blanche to pull down all the Arab villages in Palestine.

All the Arab daily newspapers which are published regularly were recently suspended for a fortnight. At the date of writing only one is allowed to appear and its comments on local events are strictly controlled. Every week fresh inroads are made on civil liberty. Over 1,300 Arabs have been imprisoned in the last two months for offences connected with the disturbances. With the fair excuse that ‘order must be restored' the police and military are left free to bully the people almost without restraint. These are the gentle methods of the Palestine Government.

The contrast between England's attitude to Italy's treatment of Abyssinia and her own treatment of the Arabs of Palestine is one frequently pointed out by Arabs, with much justice. At a time when right-minded people in England are expressing their disgust at the successful conŽclusion of Mussolini's imperialist adventure in Abyssinia, and their contempt for the hypocrisy of Italy's gesture in ‘liberating the Abyssinian slaves' they might spare some of these feelings for the events of their own democratic empire. Palestine, like Abyssinia, was conquered in the course of an imperialist war. The act of aggression by which Palestine was brought within the British Empire, like the act of aggression by which Abyssinia was brought within the Italian Empire, was represented as an act of liberation, and for some time the Arabs of Palestine were compelled to observe the day on which Allenby marched into Jerusalem and their country was formally occupied by the British as "Liberation Day." The British and Zionists claim that they have brought prosŽperity ‘to Palestine: the Italians are going to bring prosperity' to Abyssinia.

You cannot have it both ways. Either it is just that Italy should annex Abyssinia by force in order that that country should serve the interests of Italian capital and Italian imperial strategy, and incidentally enjoy better roads and railways and a more efficient system of posts and telegraphs. Or it is unjust that England should have annexed Palestine by force, and should now be holding the Arabs down by force, to serve the interests of British and Zionist capital and British imperial strategy, and incidentally enjoy better roads and railways and a more efficient system of posts and telegraphs. You cannot eat your neighbour's cake and then look shocked when another fellow eats his neighbour's sugar biscuit.


1. The writer of this article has lived in and been closely acquainted with Palestine for some years.