Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (599)
Call it revolution
What swept Palestine in 1936 -- confronting British mandate policies and mounting Jewish immigration into Palestine -- was neither an Intifada or an uprising. It went by another name, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk
Sheikh Ezzeddin Al-Qassam
Politicians and the media customarily refer to the events triggered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he barged into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as the second Intifada, the first being that which erupted in 1987. Interestingly, when covering these events, the Western press has tended to use the Arabic term. In cases where it has been rendered into English, no better translation could be found than the word "uprising". In fact, both terms -- "Intifada" and "uprising" -- do not do the phenomenon justice. "Intifada" conveys the sense of a sudden flare-up that quickly subsides, which is hardly appropriate to a phenomenon well into its fifth year. "Uprising" on the other hand is connotative of rebellion or insurrection. Both terms fall short of the concept of a "popular revolution" against a foreign colonial occupation.
The mass protests that swept that ill-fated country in 1936 were spared either of these names. Lasting from 17 April until 26 October that year, these events were described in exhaustive detail by Adel Ghoneim in his invaluable study, The Palestinian National Movement from the 1936 Revolution to World War II.
In using the term "revolution" Ghoneim was very much in keeping with contemporary literature, as is apparent in Al- Ahram editions of the period. True, at the outset, our newspaper was shocked at the "acts of vandals" but quickly placed such outbreaks of violence in perspective as excesses in "the general strike in Palestine". It was not long before the strike escalated into clashes between the Arabs and the British mandate authorities on the one hand, and between them and Jewish settlers in Palestine on the other. For some time, the newspaper referred to these confrontations as "disturbances", probably because one of its main sources of information was the statements issued by British security authorities. Eventually, however, as the events approached their conclusion, Al-Ahram decided that the uprising was indeed a "revolution" regardless of how British mandate authorities chose to characterise it.
In spite of the volumes of scholastic works on the 192-day revolution, to which Ghoneim's study is a major contribution, there is nothing like the contemporary accounts in the press for acquiring a sense of the political climate as the events unfolded. This applies in particular to Al-Ahram, with its reputation for accuracy, balanced reporting and diversified sources.
Al-Ahram agrees with the majority of academic sources, which attribute the outbreak of the 1936 uprising in Palestine to the faction led by Sheikh Ezzeddin Al-Qassam. Despairing of political and diplomatic avenues for protecting Palestinian interests, Al-Qassam espoused armed resistance against British mandate policies and against mounting Jewish immigration into Palestine and the increasing scale in the transfer of agricultural land ownership into Zionist hands.
On 20 November 1935, the nascent militant resistance movement entered its first confrontation against British forces, which ended with the death of Al-Qassam himself and several of his followers. The British investigation into the incident lasted three months. On 3 March 1936, Al-Ahram reports: "The British investigating judge today concluded his investigation into the case of the Sheikh Al-Qassam band after having heard the testimony of more than 50 witnesses. The judge ruled to refer the six defendants to the Higher Criminal Court for prosecution on charges of disrupting state security with the purpose of overturning the rule of law. Large throngs of Jews had arrived today from all parts of Palestine to watch the proceedings. Many among them were members of the press. As for the six-band members, I personally saw them in the hall of the courtroom building. They appeared in excellent condition as they performed their prayers in unison."
Tension built up quickly as the trial progressed. On 17 April Al-Ahram relayed a surprising report from its special correspondent in Palestine. It appeared under the headline, "Gangs in Palestine: Serious incidents spread alarm throughout the country". The term "gangs" was not entirely precise, as we shall see: "Several armed gunmen formed a barricade on the highway between Nablus, Tulkaram and Jaffa. They stopped every car that passed and asked the passengers if there were Jews or British soldiers among them. If there were none, they asked the Arab passengers with the utmost courtesy to hand over the money they had on them, saying it was for the national cause. Within three quarters of an hour, they had succeeded in collecting between 300 and 400 pounds. However, they did assault three Jews, swearing revenge for Al-Qassam."
As clashes between Arabs and Jews increased, Arab leaders in Nablus formed an Arab National Committee to take the initiative. Two weeks later, the committee succeeded in organising a general strike in Palestine. Under this headline, Al- Ahram 's Palestine correspondent reports that the strike brought all travel within and between Palestinian towns and cities to a standstill. There were also further outbreaks of violence: a group of Arabs opened fire on a Jewish settlement near Tulkaram, Palestinian demonstrators in Al-Nasra (Nazareth) clashed with police, and in the course of clashes between Arabs and Jews a Jewish resident in Al-Majdal was stabbed. In addition, four Arabs were arrested "for obstructing commerce and traffic by throwing large quantities of nails onto the street".
On 27 May Al-Ahram announced that the demonstrations had escalated into armed revolution. The area between Nablus, Jenin, Tulkaram and Haifa, it wrote, now resembled a theatre of war. "The rebels are holed up in the mountains and airplanes are flying overhead in order to locate their positions while soldiers swarm the cities in pursuit of others." Meanwhile, in Wadi Al-Tuffah, rebels and soldiers challenged each other in a face-off that lasted more than an hour, during which hundreds of bullets and dozens of grenades were fired. In Nablus, a squadron of revolutionaries attacked the British police barracks. "The assault lasted more than an hour resulting in numerous casualties, although the figures are not yet known." In Nazareth, "women demonstrators pelted a Jewish car escorted by an armoured vehicle with stones. Soldiers arrived on the scene immediately and a stray bullet struck a 20-year-old Arab girl, killing her instantly."
As the foregoing suggests, Palestinian women were active participants in the events. Not only did they stage demonstrations but they also mobilised themselves in other ways. We read for example of a women's delegation from Jerusalem that toured neighbouring towns and villages soliciting donations for the victims. "People -- both men and women -- were very generous in their contributions. Women donated their silver and gold jewellery to the delegation, and cheered, 'We sacrifice ourselves for our nation!'"
The Al-Ahram correspondent could not be everywhere at once. The newspaper therefore turned to other British news sources for updates on the situation in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. According to one British newspaper, the inhabitants of these two cities had been unable to get a wink's sleep at night, "having been kept awake by the deafening reverberations of exploding bombs and gunfire." The article continued, "five bombs were detonated in various parts of the city. One of them was thrown from a mosque into the middle of a police patrol."
On 31 May, Al-Ahram 's correspondent again observed that more rebels were cropping up in Palestinian land with every passing day. Seemingly present everywhere, they focussed their efforts primarily in striking at Jewish interests. On the Jericho- Jerusalem road, a band of rebels fired upon a police convoy that was escorting trucks belonging to a Jewish-owned potassium company. There were assaults on numerous Jewish settlements near Jaffa during which the assailants burned Jewish property and cut telephone wires. Another group of villagers attacked a Jewish settlement near Al- Majdal and exchanged fire with police forces who were guarding the stone-pulverising and tannery machinery belonging to the inhabitants of the settlement. "The exchange of fire between the two sides lasted until the ammunition of the police ran out, at which point the rebels captured the police and set fire to the machines, destroying all of them." In other assaults against Jewish settlements, rebels cut down orange trees and demolished the crops.
As one follows the developments of the 1936 Palestinian revolution one realises that its activities were far from random. A close reading of Al-Ahram 's report of 4 November, for example, indicates that the resistance had focussed its efforts on public utilities and on symbols of the mandate authority. That there was a central organising agency was also evident from the many acts of civil disobedience and labour strikes. Inhabitants of the Beni Malek and Safafa villages outside Jerusalem refused to pay taxes and, in one case, chased the tax collector out of the village. Telephone company workers engaged to plant telephone poles between Ras Al-Ain and Raanana went on strike, as did workers for the sanitation authority in Jaffa and Acre, "leading to a horrifying accumulation of filth and refuse in the streets". Soon afterwards, the director of the Supreme Islamic Council announced a strike of all religious courts and waqf (religious endowment) agencies. This was followed by a strike by officials and employees of the municipality of Khalil (Hebron) "in deference to the will of the people and until the demands of the nation are met." Also in Hebron, "bakery workers went on strike and the owners of these stores presented a statement to the British high commissioner declaring their support for the Higher Arab Committee and that 'their strike would last until the end.'"
Aware that the British authorities, unprepared for the sudden breakdown in security, would send to the British garrison in Cairo for reinforcements, the revolutionaries severed the telephone lines between Jerusalem and Cairo. Before these could be repaired, they blew up the railway line near Arqouf, "causing the delay of the train arriving from Egypt and also the delay of the train scheduled to depart from Jerusalem." There was also a plot to derail a train carrying two British regiments from Cairo to Jerusalem; however, it was the train preceding it that was derailed, giving security authorities the opportunity to signal the second train in time to spare it the same fate. The revolutionaries were more successful a second time, having removed a rail from the Artouf-Wadi Al-Sarar line, causing a military train to be derailed along that track. Military authorities were eventually to prohibit trains from stopping in certain stations because of the frequency of rebel attacks in those stations, one of which was the station in Al-Ramla.
As the conflict escalated, the revolutionaries increasingly diversified and refined their methods, to the degree of mounting simultaneous attacks in different locations. On 5 June under the headline, "Disturbances intensify and spread: successive armed clashes and acts of killing and sabotage", Al-Ahram reports several bombings timed too close together to be coincidental. A grenade was thrown onto the railway bed near Khan Younis; another onto a truck in Haifa, injuring its six Jewish passengers; and a third thrown through the window of the post office in Haifa, "terrorising the postal employees inside the building". Another post office, this time in Nablus, was the target of two more grenades "which created a thunderous noise when they exploded." In the same city, a grenade was tossed onto the roof of the Religious Court building where a detachment of soldiers was stationed. Two of the soldiers were seriously wounded and a third died. Also, 20 metres of track on the Lod-Tulkaram line were detonated, "delaying the train for several hours while the railway authorities made repairs." In another escalation of their acts of sabotage, the revolutionaries also targeted the petroleum pipeline between Palestine and Iraq.
In an attempt to quell the revolution, mandate authorities arrested and relocated Arab leaders. Among these was Aouni Bek Abdel-Hadi, "secretary of the Higher Arab Committee, who was arrested and taken from his home in Jerusalem to Al- Hafir. Aouni was having lunch with Ahmed Helmi Pasha and Abdel-Latif Salah at the time of his arrest. Police gave him only half an hour to prepare himself. The news of his arrest triggered an outcry in the country." Also arrested was Fakhri Bek Al-Nashashibi, chairman of the Transport Strike Committee. After having been taken into custody, Al-Nashashibi was temporarily exiled from Jaffa to Jerusalem. No sooner had he returned to Jaffa than he was exiled again, this time to Al-Hafir, along with six youths from the city. Government authorities also threatened the Jaffa municipal chief with the same fate if he did not call off the municipality strike. "When he rejected the ultimatum, a police force came to take him into custody and transport him to Sarafand. The government announced that other municipal council chiefs would be joining him there if they behaved similarly."
In response to these arrests, the Higher Arab Committee issued a statement to "the great Arab nation", declaring that the British authorities "are still determined to debilitate a defenceless people whose only demand is to live safely, freely and independently in their land. One of the authorities' latest schemes is to exile national leaders to Al-Hafir in the middle of the desert, out of the belief that this will sap the resolve of the people and fragment their solidarity." The statement concluded with the declaration that the Palestinian people would not be intimidated by terror regardless of its intensity and would not be shaken by injury, however brutal.
The Higher Arab Committee may have been too optimistic. British authorities did indeed resort to intense terror and brutal injury, but in tandem with signals that they were prepared to respond to some of the revolutionaries' demands if they ceased all violence. In other words, they applied the old carrot and the stick.
The "stick" appeared in the form of large numbers of armed forces that were deployed at various flashpoints throughout the country. The aim was to deal with outbreaks of unrest as soon as they occurred and to inflict the greatest possible human and material damage in the process. This escalation in tactics was prompted in part by the recent rise of Fawzi Al- Qawqaji to the leadership of an armed Palestinian faction that was based in an area between Tulkaram, Nablus and Jenin. The Al-Ahram correspondent describes the area as "a rugged mountainous region with many impenetrable locations overlooking the asphalt-paved road leading from Jerusalem and Jaffa to Haifa, passing through Tulkaram, Nablus and Jenin."
It is doubtful that organised warfare worked to the benefit of the Palestine revolution, as popular revolutions tend to score greater inroads through "hit-and-run" guerrilla tactics. It appears that Al-Ahram of the time was of the same opinion, for it noted that most of the confrontations between the Palestinian armed factions and British forces took place in this area since Al-Qawqaji took command. However trained he was in the arts of war, it is difficult to imagine that his forces would have been a match for the modern British military machine.
The "stick" also took the form of collective punishment. The village of Al-Kabri near Acre was fined 60 pounds, in addition to which 121,000 trees were cut down and 10,000 dunums (approximately 2,300 acres) of fields were raised. The inhabitants of Tiba in the Bisan district were also subjected to a large fine for having cut the telephone lines that passed near the village. When they refused to pay, the authorities confiscated 25 sacks of grain. Villagers of Qabatiya, north of Jerusalem, suffered a similar punishment, when a large police force confiscated 150 pounds worth of grain in lieu of cash payment for the fine the authorities exacted from the village. For similar acts of sabotage, police raided the village of Lafta near Jerusalem and arrested six individuals whom they added to the 60 others they had rounded up from other nearby villages. The detainees were all exiled to Sarafand and other locations.
Sometimes the stick was more like a bludgeon. In some cities, such as Jaffa, the curfew was so strict that people could not leave their houses for more than three hours a day in order to obtain their vital necessities. Even when the situation calmed down a bit and the military authorities reduced the curfew to 11 hours a day, this did not apply to all neighbourhoods. In Florentine, Shabiro and Galleria, where resistance activities had been most intense, residents still had to remain confined to their homes for the better part of 24 hours.
Even the British air force was brought into play. On 1 July, Al-Ahram reports that British airplanes "circled over the mountains in search of revolutionaries but apparently were unable to locate their positions." Apparently that was not quite correct, for several days later the newspaper reported on skirmishes between British forces and Palestinian freedom fighters at Bab Al-Liwa' on the Jerusalem-Jaffa road. "The revolutionaries had staked themselves out in the fields on either side of the road. When a convoy of Jewish vehicles with a military escort appeared from the direction of Tel Aviv, the revolutionaries attacked, unleashing a volley of gunfire. The convoy issued an SOS over the wireless and within seconds several airplanes soared overhead and pelted the fields with explosives and combustibles, setting fire to the edges of the fields. The revolutionaries suddenly found themselves trapped between the blazing fires, the soldiers and the aircraft above. Eleven were killed."
British fighter planes settled the outcome of another mountain battle that lasted 90 minutes. After the gunfire ceased, British forces encircled the hills and moved in to capture the rest of the revolutionaries in that area.
On 28 July Palestinians celebrated the 100th day of their revolution. However, the signs were that it would not last much longer. On the one hand, mandate authorities began to arm the Jews sufficiently that they could take on the Arabs on their own in the event of an attack against their settlements. The arms were not just used for defensive purposes. On the 123rd day of the revolution, an Al-Ahram headline proclaimed, "The emergence of Jewish gangs". The article below it related that two Jewish nurses in the government hospital in Mehalla Al-Lahmi reported discovering two female corpses among those admitted to the hospital. A subsequent news item reports that a Jewish gang had opened fire on four Arabs -- two men and two women -- from a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, wounding all four, one of whom died of his wounds in hospital.
On the other hand, the British were growing anxious over the effects the Arab revolution in Palestine was having on public opinion elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world. In Egypt, the prime minister, responding to appeals from parliament, pledged to do his utmost to halt Palestinian bloodshed. At the grassroots level, the Society of Muslim Youth adopted several resolutions. One was to form the Higher Committee for the Relief of the Victims in Palestine, which would launch a donation drive for that purpose. A second was to lodge a protest against British policies in Palestine, and a third was to form a delegation to travel to Palestine in order to investigate the situation there and recommend the best measures that could be taken to safeguard Palestinian rights.
In Iraq, the Committee for the Defence of Palestine was formed under the chairmanship of Said Thabet Bek. The committee dispatched telegrams to Arab rulers urging them to come to the aid of the home of one of Islam's holiest sanctuaries and to protect the freedom of the Arabs of Palestine.
The Palestinian revolution reverberated as far as India where the British had to tread with particular care. There, the Executive Committee for the Islamic Conference of All India issued a statement expressing its great dismay at British policies in Palestine, adding that these policies would have grave repercussions in the Islamic world.
In the face of such pressure, the British Colonial Office decided it was time to bring in the "carrot". Firstly, London created the Royal Commission, later called the Peel Commission, to conduct an enquiry into Arab demands, particularly those pertaining to the rising scale of Jewish immigration and transfers of land ownership, and the threat this was posing to Palestinian independence and self-determination. Secondly, London appealed to Arab leaders to help restore calm in Palestine. Arab leaders quickly obliged, persuading Palestinian leaders of the armed factions to lay down their guns in exchange for safe passage to the Transjordan. This ushered in an extended period of diplomacy aimed at resolving the highly charged situation in Palestine, but that is another chapter in the Palestinian revolution of 1936.