A landmark book on the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict

Palestine 1936 is essentially the story of how two nationalist movements took root and developed, leading to the Great Arab Revolt and the start of today's Arab-Israeli conflict.

 Oren Kessler (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)
Oren Kessler
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict is an eminently readable account of how the State of Israel emerged from the flames of Mandate Palestine, but it is much more. It is the first scholarly, extensively researched, investigation into the formative events of 1936-39 in the Holy Land – events that its author, Oren Kessler, demonstrates to be the origin and model for the subsequent unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, Arab-Israel conflict. He shows how, during what he calls “the Great Revolt,” the concept of Arab Palestinianism was born while, at the same time, the decades-long Zionist dream of a Jewish state – Jewish nationalism – began to solidify into reality.

The Arab Revolt of 1936–39 was the first sustained uprising of Palestinian Arabs in more than a century. Thousands of Arabs from all classes were mobilized, and nationalistic ideas were disseminated throughout Arab society. The British, mandated to govern Palestine and create a national home for the Jewish people, were taken aback by the extent and intensity of the revolt. They shipped more than 20,000 troops into Palestine, and by 1939 the Zionists had armed more than 15,000 Jews in their own nationalist movement.

Dealing with the period leading up to 1936, Kessler describes the short, but deadly, pre-Mandate attacks on Jews – 1920 in the Old City of Jerusalem, and May Day 1921 in Jaffa – but he categorizes much of the later 1920s as “the Mandate’s calmest chapter.” The number of Jewish immigrants reached 80,000; agricultural settlements doubled to over 100; the Hebrew University was founded; and it was a time of economic and trade growth and development.

But it was the calm before the storm. In 1929, Tisha Be’av (the 9th of Av) – the day both First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed – marked the start of the deadliest clash so far between Jews and Arabs. British officialdom had promulgated new severe restrictions on Jewish access to the Western Wall. Mass protests by Jews generated counter protests by Arabs. The clashes between them got out of hand. Bloodthirsty Arab mobs embarked on a six-day killing spree which included lynching, rape and other unspeakable brutality. In addition to hundreds of wounded on both sides, 133 Jews died.

Britain set up a commission of inquiry. Its report, in the spring of 1930, concluded: “The outbreak…was from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews.”

 An explosion is seen in Jaffa in 1939 amid the Arab revolt. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An explosion is seen in Jaffa in 1939 amid the Arab revolt. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The outbreak…was from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews.”   

Describing the situation in 1936, just prior to the Great Revolt, Kessler reminds us that Hitler and the Nazis had been in power in Germany for three years, and that his intention to emasculate his Jewish population was already evident. In Palestine, the fanatical Izz al-Din al-Qassam, killed by the British police, had become the first Arab martyr and cult hero. Meanwhile, Jewish immigrants had been flooding into Palestine. By 1936 there were some 400,000. As Kessler puts it: “The Arabs of Palestine started to wonder…whether a world war was looming, one that might rid their country of Britain and the Jews for good.”

The incident that sparked the Great Revolt occurred on April 15, 1936. A Jewish poultry dealer, ambushed by Arabs seeking money for weapons intended to avenge the death of Qassam, could not meet their demands and was shot. Kessler recounts, with the pin-point accuracy only achieved through assiduous research, the details, one after another, that built up to a full-scale riot in Jaffa, known as the Bloody Day, while the British police attempted, and failed, to control the situation.

Shortly afterwards, an Arab National Committee was formed in Nablus, to be followed by local branches across the country, all urging the Arab public to withhold their taxes. Then came the establishment of an Arab Higher Committee (AHC), chaired by the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a visceral hater of the Jewish people. The AHC masterminded a general strike of Arab workers, demanding an end to Jewish immigration, an end of land sales by Arabs to Jews, and the establishment of a representative government to reflect the country’s Arab majority.

The Arabs’ anti-British action continued for months, with waves of armed rebellion, arson, bombings, and assassinations. Masterminded by the mufti, British soldiers and Jewish civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately, to say nothing of suspected Arab collaborators. In desperation, the government agreed to a step it had previously resisted – arming and training Jews for self-defense. The Jewish Supernumerary Police was founded.

Kessler describes how the mufti, alarmed at the effect the revolt was having on the Arab economy, maneuvered his way out of the uprising. The strike was called off in October and, with peace restored, Britain reverted to its time-honored device of a royal commission of inquiry.

Presided over by Lord Robert Peel, the commission was dispatched to investigate the volatile situation. The mufti, Hajj Amin, sent them a brief letter of welcome “to this holy Arab land” but declined to appear before them, given Britain’s efforts to “Judaize…this purely Arab country.”

Its star witness, Kessler tells us, was Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization. During the Peel Commission’s two months in Palestine, he testified five times. In July 1937, the commission reported. In their view, the revolt was caused by an Arab desire for independence and the fear of the Jewish national home. They declared the Mandate unworkable and also that separate undertakings given by Britain to the Arabs and the Jews were irreconcilable. Consequently, the commission recommended that the region be partitioned. For the first time, a British official body explicitly spoke of a Jewish state. The Arabs, horrified by the commission’s conclusions, increased the ferocity of the revolt during 1937 and 1938.

Kessler charts how a change of direction within the British government led to the London conference of 1939, where the concept of limiting permitted Jewish immigration to Palestine and restrictions on Jewish land purchase surfaced. These concepts were later embodied in what is known in British parliamentary terms as a White Paper (the precursor to legislative action by the government), which was rejected by Arabs as inadequate and by Jews as oppressive. The Zionist opposition led to violent anti-government protests in Palestine and a flood of illegal immigration.

In an Epilogue, Kessler sketches the trajectory of the post-Second World War Arab-Israeli conflict. Its roots in the events of 1936-39 are obvious. 

One Arab figure features prominently throughout the book. Musa Alami was the very opposite of extremist in temperament. The son of a one-time mayor of Jerusalem, he was probably the first Arab from Palestine to attend Cambridge University, which he did in the years following WW I. Mature and generous in disposition, he studied law but read widely in philosophy. He is also known to have read History of Zionism by Nahum Sokolov, a future head of the Zionist Congress.

It was after the 1929 riots that David Ben-Gurion first met Musa Alami. He described him as “a nationalist and a man not to be bought by money or by office, but who was not a Jew-hater either.” He was, Ben-Gurion wrote, “extraordinarily intelligent,” judicious and trustworthy. Their discussions in the early 1930s were Ben-Gurion’s first attempt to find common ground with the Arabs of Palestine.

The two men maintained a life-long relationship. After the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion phoned him in London, urging him to return to the Middle East to help make a viable peace out of Israel’s extraordinary victory, but this was a step too far for Alami. Two years later, they met in London and, according to Alami, Ben-Gurion discussed how Israel’s territorial gains might be used to achieve a permanent accord between Israel and the Arab world: In return for peace, said Ben-Gurion, Israel should relinquish all the territories conquered in 1967, with the exception of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

According to Kessler, Ben-Gurion reported these discussion to the Foreign Ministry, but it is unclear whether any attention was paid to them. By then, Ben-Gurion was near the end of his active career. He died in 1973. His friend Musa Alami passed away in 1984.

Palestine 1936 is essentially the story of how two nationalist movements took root and developed. Oren Kessler tells us that he is no academic. He is, though, an accomplished journalist who, some years ago, became fascinated by the then under-recorded history of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and decided to research and write about it. The extent and depth of his research is evidenced in the 49 pages of references that he includes in his work. But it is his journalistic skills that make the book so absorbing a read for everyone – scholar and general public alike. This detailed account of a seminal period in the history of both Israel and the Arab world is highly recommended. ■

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict Oren KesslerRowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2023334 pages, $26.95orenkessler.com