14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (307)World War I and the 1919 Egyptian Revolution effectively kept the issue of Palestine off the front pages of Al-Ahram. However, events in Palestine would soon share top billing. Deadly riots in Jerusalem in 1920 and even bloodier demonstrations in Jaffa a year later riveted the nation's attention as in both incidents the newspaper's correspondents were there to provide a unique blow-by-blow, eyewitness account. In particular, the revolt in Jaffa marked not only the birth of the Palestinian resistance movement but Egyptian awareness of the Palestinian issue. Dr Yunan Labib Rizq * traces Al-Ahram's belated, but subsequently close involvement in the Palestine cause
A cause is bornOn 2 November 1917, Lord Balfour issued his famous declaration proclaiming a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That Al-Ahram appeared to pay little attention to the subsequent rush of events in that period and region in the Arab world can best be attributed to the circumstances of the world war that was reaching its zenith at the time. Later, beginning in November 1918, the newspaper was swept up in the local turbulence that would lead to the exile of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and the Egyptian revolution of 1919.
In April 1920, clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem would draw Al-Ahram's interest again, but not for long. The clashes subsided as quickly as they began in what Al-Ahram described as little more than "disturbances". On the other hand, the events in Jaffa a year later were another story entirely. These events would rivet the attention of the newspaper for a full five weeks, marking an important chapter in Al-Ahram, not to mention Palestinian and Arab history.
Not that the newspaper was inure to the Palestinian cause before the 1919 Revolution. On 4 August 1918, for example, it announced the founding of the Hebrew University on Mount Olive. The opening ceremony, it reported, was attended by General Allenby, senior British government army officials and "several Israelites". Also on hand were prominent Egyptian Jews, most notable among whom were the chief rabbi of Alexandria, the Baron Munassa and Mousa Qatawi Pasha. It did not escape Al-Ahram's attention on this occasion that Egyptian Jews were actively involved in the Zionist movement, gainsaying claims to the contrary. In fact, earlier that year, in March, the newspaper reported that Egyptian Jews sent a delegation to the Zionist Congress held in London. Prior to that, Egyptian Jews held two meetings to elect the delegates, one in Cairo chaired by Qatawi Pasha and the other in Alexandria chaired by Leon Nahmiyas. "The task of the delegates," wrote Al-Ahram, "will be to press for the aspirations of Egyptian Jews regarding Palestine during the process of formulating and adopting the resolutions the Zionist Congress will bring before the Paris peace conference."
Nor did it escape Al-Ahram's attention that Egyptian Jews had began publication of a four-page French-language weekly. The first edition revealed many Zionist aims that would later become reality: the creation of a national homeland, the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish traditions and the resurrection of the grandeur of the Holy Land. The Zionist newspaper also drew attention to "the importance of Egypt" in which there were "great people whose hopes and aspirations we could study and with whose leaders we can establish contacts and relations." It also reminded its readers that "the sanjak of Jerusalem was one of the five divisions that made up the ancient Jewish kingdom". (A sanjak was a subdivision of an Ottoman walaya, or province.)
Evidently, British officials encouraged Egyptian Jews to hold celebrations commemorating the Balfour Declaration and Al-Ahram reported such celebrations in Alexandria and in Tanta. While what followed was a three-year hiatus in Al-Ahram's focus on circumstances affecting the future of Palestine, events in Palestine continued their inexorable march.
In The Palestinian National Movement: 1917-36 Dr Adel Hassan Ghuneim offers several fundamental insights. The Palestinian national movement, he wrote, emerged within the general Arab nationalist movement that swept the Levant in the early 20th century. Aspirations for independence reached a zenith with the uprising of Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, whose armies advanced in tangent with the forces of General Allenby in order to drive the Turks out of Greater Syria. Greater Syria at the time was the large Ottoman walaya that comprised what has become present-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine at its southwestern corner. The Palestinians quickly rallied around the independent government that was formed under Prince Faisal following the defeat of the Turks. They were eager to become part of the independent Arab nation that was in the process of establishing itself with its capital in Damascus. In spite of the old administrative boundaries that separated Palestine from other parts of Greater Syria, the Palestinians sent two delegates to the Syrian National Congress that proclaimed Syria's independence and drew up the national constitution.
However, as was frequently the case, the Palestinians were buffeted by cruel winds. Because of the particular status the allied powers accorded to their country after the war, the Palestinians were cut off from the main body of the Arab nationalist movement in Greater Syria. Palestine was placed under British military administration as part of London's determination to fulfil the terms of the Balfour Declaration. Jewish immigration rose dramatically. These factors and others contributed to a distinct set of circumstances that set Palestine apart from the remainder of Greater Syria. The Palestinians' sense of identity began to manifest itself in their definition of what constituted a Palestinian Congress. Dr Ghuneim observed that the second Palestinian Congress in particular was a turning point for Palestinian self-identity. Some Palestinians, he said, persisting in their definition of Palestine as the southern portion of Greater Syria, contended that the meeting that was held in Damascus on 27 February constituted the second Palestinian congress. Others, arguing on the basis of the Palestinians' unique concerns, held that the second congress was the meeting that would have been held in Jaffa that month had not the British military authorities intervened. Then, from the third Palestinian Congress onward, Palestinian congresses were those held in Palestinian cities and by Palestinian leaders.
Early on the Palestinians were acutely aware that it was not the British military presence that constituted the major threat to their national aspirations. Zionism and the encroaching Jewish immigration were the real problems. Because of the religious nature of the threat it was only natural that the Palestinian national movement counter in similar terms. Arab Christians and Muslims became natural allies against the commonly perceived Jewish threat. Following World War I, observers remarked on the rapid spread of Christian-Muslim societies in Palestine, in what later scholars described as "the first organised nationalist movement". The first of these societies was the Jerusalem Society, created shortly after the city fell to Allenby's forces. In September 1918 the nascent society distributed a bulletin describing its aims and listing its members. Soon virtually all other Palestinian cities followed suit with the exception of those which had no Christian population, in which case only Muslim societies were formed.
The scene was set for the incipient Palestinian movement to emerge from its cocoon. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Al-Ahram, on 21 March 1920, began to feature a regular column called "News from Palestine". Also, in order to convey to Egyptian readers the mood in Palestine, it reprinted articles that had appeared in Palestinian newspapers. From Carmel, a small newspaper published in Haifa, it reprinted an item about a banquet hosted by city dignitaries for "the British director-general of the southern occupied enemy territory". The guest of honour sought to promote Jewish immigration and told his hosts: "You will see that the Jews who will come to this country are better than the Jews who live among you in Palestine. They are educated and will bring progress and prosperity to this country." The appeal did little to comfort the guests and hosts at the banquet and Al-Ahram conveyed the sense of foreboding the report created.
It makes sense that the first manifestations of the nascent Palestinian movement would appear in Jerusalem. That extremely religiously sensitive city was one of the main objectives of the Zionist movement and the target of the lion's share of Jewish immigration. From the outset, the Zionists sought to establish their institutional presence in Jerusalem. The opening ceremony at Hebrew University in 1918, for example, was still vivid in memory. It also makes sense that spring would bring the initial eruption in the Palestinian movement. Spring would bring the greatest friction between Arabs and Jews, for on 4 April it is the custom of the people of Jerusalem to receive pilgrims from Hebron during their annual visit to the tomb of Moses. This important religious occasion for the Palestinians also coincided with the Jewish Pesach and the Christian Easter. The climate would inevitably be highly charged. Thus, when on 4 April 1920, the people of Jerusalem and surrounding villages, along with the people from Nablus and the various Christian denominations, rallied to the cries for Arab unity, independence, and a halt to Jewish immigration, the volatile situation needed only a match. On hand to provide the flame was a Jewish pharmacist who shouted insults at the demonstrators, who then chased him as he fled. When his colleagues and a number of British soldiers intervened, the situation exploded. Rioting continued through the following day, and when Jews opened fire on passing demonstrators the British declared marshal law. A curfew was imposed, newspapers were suspended and shops and businesses declared a temporary strike. Nine died during the disturbances, five Jews and four Arabs. Over 200 had been wounded, 22 critically.
On 7 April, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Jerusalem wired Cairo headquarters to report that the British 8th Infantry regiment had taken control of the city. Arabs from outside Jerusalem were permitted to enter but were put under close surveillance. Several days later, at a meeting with Arab and Jewish leaders, the "British director-general of the southern occupied enemy territory" stated that "the distressful events have sewn deep bitterness. None of the religious denominations behaved in accordance with the dictates of humanity and reason." He concluded the meeting with a veiled warning: "I have been indulgent with you today because I am aware that I stand among a people who did not know what they were doing. But now I tell them to be alert to the dangers that may befall them if they disturb the peace."
If the British general's warning kept the situation subdued in Jerusalem it did not reach Jaffa where discontent evolved into a full-fledged uprising. The popular revolt in the famous Palestinian port city can be said to mark the true birth of the Palestinian resistance movement. Jaffa in those days was a patchwork of distinct quarters. The old quarter, with its narrow alleyways and huddled buildings, was inhabited by Muslims. The coastal quarter of Mahalla Al-Ajami was inhabited by Muslims and Christians, while to the north Mahalla Al-Manshiya was inhabited by Muslims and Jews. Three-quarters of Jaffa's inhabitants were Arabs, two-thirds of whom were Muslims and a third Jews. The remaining quarter were Jews.
Because the majority of Jaffa's Jews originated from the working classes of central and eastern Europe they developed a strong labour movement. They were represented by one of two major groups: the Socialist Workers' Party, and the Ahadot Avoda, or the labour union. The former espoused a Bolshevik ideology while the latter was more moderate. The workers' party initially sought to recruit other Jewish workers to communism, but having failed they directed their drive toward the Arabs. Here, too, they were unsuccessful but in the process they aroused deep misgivings.
The situation in Jaffa erupted on 1 May 1921. Al-Ahram informed its readers that it had a special correspondent in the city who filed detailed reports covering the first five days of turbulence. In spite of the many works that have been written on this subject, Al-Ahram's correspondent provides a unique eyewitness account.
He began his coverage with a discussion of the so-called "Soviet society" in Jaffa. This society had "sewn agitation among the inhabitants through its dissemination of revolutionary leaflets in Hebrew and Arabic. The movement has quickly amassed numerous supporters among the Jews and workers until it became so large as to pose a threat to the public order."
This was not the first time Al-Ahram had alerted its readers to the perils of the socialist labour organisation. Under the headline "Communists in Palestine" it warned against allowing communists "into our peaceful eastern countries in order to create a nation for who knows what purpose it will be founded upon whatever these communists' beliefs might be." So grave was the danger, it continued, that "the peoples of these countries are now obliged to defend their rights and the property of their forefathers against the onslaught of that movement."
illustration: Makram Henein
Returning to the report of the Al-Ahram correspondent, it transpired that the leaflets the Socialist Workers' Party had been distributing were exhorting the public to take part in the "glorious" May Day demonstrations. "The Jews are the soldiers of the revolution who came to help you, our Arab comrades and peasants, to cast off the yoke of your oppressors," declared the leaflet. It was signed: "the Executive Committee of the Communist Party in occupied Palestine".
On the eve of May Day, hundreds of communists arrived from the neighbouring colonies, and on May Day itself, "as of 7.00 in the morning", they began their "procession through the streets of the city". Eventually, the communist demonstrators "marching behind red banners", rallied in Mahalla Al-Manshiya. Approaching from the other end were groups of Jews "carrying Zionist flags", and the sides clashed.
Up to this point, the Arabs had not been involved. However, the workers' party would ensure that the situation would not remain that way for long. When the Jewish labour activists began to harass Arab workers for refusing to take part in the demonstrations, Al-Ahram reports, "the indigenous inhabitants of the quarter had no alternative but to resist in self-defence. Pandemonium broke out as the Jews brandished their guns at the Palestinians while the Palestinians rushed at the demonstrators with sticks. The fighting lasted for several hours during which there was much blood shed, shooting and explosions from hand grenades. The police were unable to quell the rioting which by then had developed into an all-out war between the two sides."
Al-Ahram's correspondent goes on to relate that the intensity of the battle escalated when some Polish Jewish immigrants threw hand grenades from their balconies down onto the Palestinians in the streets. The Palestinians responded by attacking the houses. The skirmishes, he writes, lasted until four in the afternoon at which point a British armed force supported by air cover arrived. Although the British succeeded in quelling the disturbances temporarily, "a turbulent mood continued as Jews and Palestinians took refuge in their homes harbouring thoughts of revenge". When the smoke had cleared, a body count revealed that Jewish losses outstripped those of Palestinians. Twelve Arabs and 30 Jews had died and 57 Arabs and 150 Jews had been wounded.
The following day, a Jew attacked and killed a Palestinian, triggering renewed violence. "Blind fury raged as the death toll mounted, hospitals filled with the injured and fire was set to a Jewish ship anchored off the coast." On Tuesday, 3 May, Al-Ahram's special correspondent, along with other observers, predicted that "the situation will calm down and peace will be restored". An emissary from the pope in Rome arrived to placate the Palestinians, who continuously interrupted him with an appeal to "put a halt to Zionist immigration". In addition, the French, Italian and Spanish consuls called upon the British governor-general. By 7.00 that evening, the correspondent reports, "people had returned to their homes. They had been warned that anyone apprehended with a gun, knife or bomb would be severely punished. The total number of casualties stood at 10 Palestinians and 20 Jews dead and 37 Palestinians and 142 Jews wounded."
On Wednesday and Thursday the crisis began to subside. People began to emerge peacefully from their homes and shops reopened for business. The military authorities had issued orders to the residents of Arab and Jewish farms "to remain at a distance of 100 metres from their adjacent borders".
Had the affair come to a rest at this point, the Jaffa riots would have been no more than a local event between its Arab inhabitants and Jewish settlers. However, the subsequent spread of unrest was to transform the events of Jaffa into the birth of the Palestinian resistance movement. As Al-Ahram relates on 10 May: "Inhabitants of Jabal Nablus rallied in Tolkaram which became the site for a regrettable incident between Arabs and Jews. Simultaneously, the people of Qalqila, Jaljouliya and Kafr Saba attacked the Jewish settlement which the Jews call the City of Hope. Although the Jews instigated the confrontation they were defeated. Also, a throng of peasant farmers attacked the Jewish settlement known as Rokholaz and another settlement known as Rizhon Lezion, although we have yet to receive the details on these encounters. Other disturbances erupted in the vicinity of Haifa and parts of Galilee. But tensions were at their highest in Nablus where the military authorities had to bring in Omar Effendi Al-Bitar, the head of the Christian-Islamic Society in Jaffa, to appeal for calm."
Jaffa, meanwhile, remained a powder keg. On 12 May, Al-Ahram's correspondent recounts that a group of Jews saw a Palestinian peasant passing by carrying eggs. They offered to buy the eggs, "but the peasant refused because of the general boycott the peasants had declared". It appeared that a clash was about to ensue, and "within moments the entire city had shut its doors. Rumours spread among the Palestinians that the Jews were preparing to attack them in their own homes and they began taking precautions to defend themselves. The Jews also feared that the Palestinians were about to launch an assault and began to assemble in the streets. Fortunately, tension was defused when people learned the truth about what had occurred that day."
The repercussions of the events in Jaffa extended to neighbouring Arab countries. Perhaps the appeal to "assist the victims in Jaffa" that appeared in Al-Ahram on 31 May most epitomises the Arab reaction. From the advertisement, we learn that a "Palestinian committee" had been founded in Egypt with the aim of collecting donations for the "victims in Jaffa". From this it could be said that Jaffa also marked the birth of the Egyptian awareness of the Palestinian cause. This would ultimately bring Egyptian diplomacy down the long and arduous road toward a just and lasting settlement, the most recent effort being the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli agreement in Sharm Al-Sheikh.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.