Colonisation: 1890 to 1939

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Palestine: 1500 years in a nutshell 

Palestine is a nation located in the Eastern Mediterranean, bordered by Lebanon and Syria in the north, Jordan in the west, and Egypt in the South.  

Due to the concentration of sacred sites in Palestine, it is a land of significant importance to Muslims, Christians and Jews. That’s why it’s often referred to as ‘the Holy Land’. In the 5th century CE, during the Roman occupation, Palestine became the centre of Christianity. In the 7th century, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ peace and blessings be upon him), the Arab Muslims conquered ‘the Levant’. This is the broad area encompassing the Eastern Mediterranean, including modern-day Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus and parts of Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.  

Central Levant – dark green area. Source: Wikipedia (creative commons) 

Palestine remained under Muslim rule until 1099. That was the year Christian crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, in 1187, Muslims reconquered Palestine under the righteous command of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (a.k.a. ‘Saladin’). Palestine then remained largely under Muslim rule for the next 800 years. 

In 1918, during World War One, Britain and its allies captured Palestine from the Ottomans. This marked the beginning of the pro-Zionist British occupation of Palestine. 

What is Zionism? 

Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement. It’s the ideology that underpins the colonial project to create an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Zionism arose in the late 1800s in response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe and is grounded in the belief that Palestine is the ancient homeland of the Jews. The movement itself is named after Mt Zion, a hill in Jerusalem and the site of King David’s tomb. 

In 1896, Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl called for large scale Jewish migration to Palestine in his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Herzl’s vision was for an independent Jewish state to be established in Palestine during the 20th century. At the time, Palestine was already inhabited by indigenous people, over 85% of whom were Arab Muslims. Thus, for Herzl’s vision to be realised, it would be necessary to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestine’s indigenous majority.  

Theodor Herzl, 1897. Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

In 1897, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. This was where the imperial Zionist program was officially stated: ‘to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.’ 

Over the next 20 years, tens of thousands of Jews emigrated from Europe to Palestine. Many of the Jewish settlers were financed by French banker, Edmond de Rothschild. Naturally, tensions arose. The influx of European Jews to Palestine in the early 1900s upset the delicate cultural balance between the indigenous Muslims, Christians and Jews. 

1917: The Balfour Declaration 

In 1917, during World War One, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Lionel Walter Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. This letter is known as the Balfour Declaration. It’s only 67 words long, but it has haunted the Palestinian people for generations.  

On behalf of the King and British government, Balfour declared ‘sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations’. He pledged Britain’s commitment to ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ and ‘to facilitate the achievement of this object’. 

Whilst the letter states ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’, Balfour doesn’t name these indigenous Arab communities, nor does he mention their political or national rights. 

The wording of the letter is notably vague and fell short of granting the Zionist’s request for Palestine to be reconstructed as a new Jewish state. However, the Balfour Declaration gave the Zionists the international legitimacy they craved and paved the way for catastrophe in Palestine.  

1918: British Occupation of Palestine 

After a series of decisive battles in World War One, Britain captured Palestine. This ended four centuries of mostly uninterrupted Ottoman rule and marked the beginning of the British occupation of Palestine. 

Having promised the Palestinians independence, the British now reneged. During World War One, Britain enticed the Arabs of the Levant to join the allied cause against the Ottomans. They did this by fostering Arab nationalism and promising them independence from the Ottomans once the war was won. At the same time, the British were also busy making deals with rich and influential Zionists in Europe.  

Britain’s double dealing with Arabs and Zionists helped the allies win the war and secure their imperial interests across the Middle East. Of course, once the war was won, the British only honoured the promises that were in their interest. 

As the British began to occupy Palestine in 1918, Palestinian Arabs – Muslim and Christian – continued to assert their nationhood. At the same time, Zionist associations formed in Palestine and began to actively pursue their political goals, aided by the British. 

1920: The British Mandate of Palestine 

In 1920, Britain affirmed its occupation of Palestine under a League of Nations1 Mandate. This gave Britain the authority to govern Palestine now that the Ottomans had been driven out. Central to the Mandate was Britain’s responsibility to fulfil the promises made in the Balfour Declaration. That is, to establish a ‘national home for Jewish the people’. 

Palestinian Arabs were opposed to the Balfour Declaration and tried to establish their own representative government. However, it was clear that the British occupiers favoured Jewish economic and political development in Palestine. Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers began to pour in, mainly from Eastern Europe. They established elected assemblies, trade unions, national councils, and a paramilitary organisation known as the Haganah2

Naturally, Palestinian Arabs were bitterly opposed to Zionism and the British policies that supported it. Thus, the next three decades were marked by widespread unrest.  

An Arab protest gathering in session in the Rawdat el Maaref hall, 1929. Source Wikipedia (public domain)

1936-1939: The Arab Revolt 

The tension between Arabs and Jews in Palestine culminated in The Great Revolt of 1936-1939. This sustained, violent uprising against the British administration demanded Arab independence. Indigenous Palestinians were fed up with the pro-Zionist regime that had been imposed on them and called for and an end to mass immigration. With the support of the British, the Jewish population in Palestine had swelled from 57,000 in 1920 to 320,000 by 1935. 

Jaffa Riots, April 1936 – British Mandatory Police disperse a crowd and beat people with batons. Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

The revolt began with a general strike and spontaneous popular resistance. When this was suppressed by the British, Palestinian Arabs rebelled and targeted members of the British Army. This resulted in a brutal campaign by the British to crush the local resistance. The British declared martial law in 1937, and while the resistance continued into 1939, the Palestinians’ strength was eroded. 

Palestinian resistance fighters during the Arab revolt, 1938. Source: Wikipedia (creative commons)

 Ultimately, The Great Revolt was unsuccessful. By 1939, over 5,000 Palestinian Arab men had been killed, 15,000 injured, and over 5,000 imprisoned. In those days, that was about 10% of the male population of Palestinian Arabs.  

In the wake of The Great Revolt, British support for the Zionist cause in Palestine strengthened. Meanwhile, key Arab and Muslim leaders were arrested, deported or forced into exile. The remaining indigenous Palestinians struggled to recover from their sustained efforts to resist the occupation. Ultimately, they were left disarmed, dejected and divided along social and religious lines.  

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