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History Repeating Itself in Palestine, Though with Variation?

By Mazen Qumsiyeh

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, September 7, 2011

History sometimes repeats itself though with variation.  In 1923-1928, we had weak and divided and bickering Palestinian political leadership, paralyzed political process, an aggressive colonial power, and a Palestinian police force and local leadership that acted as a subcontractor for the occupation.  But then Al-Buraq uprising changed things. Below is a relevant section from my book "Popular Resistance in Palestine: A history of Hope and Empowerment" (Pluto Press, available at major bookstores,   

            The period 1923-28 saw a significant retrenchment and weakening of the Palestinian national movement. The Executive Committee of the Arab Palestinian Congress scaled down its demands on the British and lowered its expectations. Instead of independence, it called now for representation. Instead of rejecting new European Jewish immigration, they called for proportional representation. The nadir of the Palestinian situation was evident in the seventh Palestinian Arab Congress, held in Jerusalem on 20-27 June 1928. The 250 delegates represented family and clan interests, both nationalist and collaborationist forces, colonising resisters and those who were selling land. The Executive Committee was enlarged to 48 (36 Muslims, 12 Christians) in order to satisfy different regions, factions and trends. The leadership emerged fragmented and weakened.60 Demands no longer included the end of British occupation or rescinding the Balfour Declaration, but focused on more ‘moderate’ requests, including changing British rules to employ Palestinians and objections to the British granting concessions to Zionist companies.61 Participants in an economic conference in 1923 in Jerusalem also asked for lower taxes and aimed to support farmers.62 The weakness continued to be self-inflicted as Palestinian divisions were exploited by the British to support their own policies. It seemed even nature was antagonistic: Palestine was shaken by a powerful earthquake in 1927 in which 272 people were killed, 833 injured and thousands of homes and other buildings damaged.

            The era of petitions, complaints, demonstrations and limited boycotts seemed to be reaching its limits. Prior to 1929, the few notable successes using these civil tactics were only able to inconvenience the implementation of the Zionist project. The machinations of power were such that the British government was able to frustrate resistance efforts, exacerbate divisions among the locals and push forward. The strong Zionist lobby in London and from right-wing conservatives ensured no rational solutions.63 Frustration mounted and the ground was ripe for another uprising. As before and later, the fuse was lit by the Zionists themselves.

Controversy arose at a section of the Haram Al-Sharif (Temple Mount), called the Western Wall by Jews and Al-Buraq by Muslims. Some Jews believe it is part of an old temple, some Muslims believe it is where the Prophet Muhammad tethered his horse on his night journey to Jerusalem. Historians have shown it is not related to the Temple period. The wall and small area adjacent to it are part of the Muslim waqf but Muslims have allowed Jews to pray there by custom. Instigated by the Jewish Agency, some Jews violated both tradition and British policy by erecting a partition and a table at the site, suggesting a beginning of the establishment of a synagogue. This provocation occurred on 24 September 1928, a day that many Jews consider marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, adding fears of an attempt to ‘rebuild’ a temple at the Holy Islamic site. As the days passed and the Jews refused to take down the barrier despite agreements, Muslim anger mounted and moved on from letters and protests in November 1928. The British ruled on 15 August 1929 that Jews must remove any permanent structures at the wall and reiterated that the site belongs to the Islamic waqf, while Jews are permitted to pray there by tradition.

            The Jewish Zionist leadership rejected the ruling and instead held a noisy rally that marched (surprisingly unmolested) through the Muslim quarter to the wall where they raised the Zionist flag and sang the Zionist anthem (Ha’ Tikva). Another Zionist demonstration demanding ownership and control of the Western Wall was held in Tel Aviv on 14 August 1929. Muslims marched to the wall in response on 16 August 1929, the day marking the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, and following the Friday prayers. They demanded implementation of the British ruling and respect for historical arrangements, and denounced the Zionist provocations. As the British could not or would not implement their own rulings, demonstrations and riots were held after the next Friday prayers (23 August 1929) in Jerusalem. The police opened fire on demonstrators, some of whom were carrying sticks, swords and even guns. Enraged Palestinians descended from other cities spreading information and rumours about a Jewish takeover of holy sites and the British killing of Palestinians.

            A political conflict took on a religious character because the Zionists thought that it was the way to mobilise more Jewish support for their cause. Indeed, the wall dominated the World Zionist conference held in Zurich that year. Sigmund Freud captured the essence of it when he explained his refusal to sign a petition condemning Arab riots in Palestine and supporting the Zionist project:

I cannot do as you wish. I am unable to overcome my aversion to burdening the public with my name, and even the present critical time does not seem to me to warrant it. Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgement of Zionism does not permit this. I certainly sympathise with its goals, am proud of our University in Jerusalem and am delighted with our settlement’s prosperity. But, on the other hand, I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives. Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by unjustified hope. (emphasis added)64

            This uprising, both armed and non-violent, came to be known as Hibbet Al-Buraq. When things calmed down, it left in its wake 116 Arabs and 133 Jews dead. Over 1,000 were brought to trial.65 The original provocation to fan hatred and garner support for Zionism seemed to have worked, resulting in arming and militarising the Jewish colonies.66 The troubles were also fanned by British officers with Zionist leanings who wanted to see Arabs react violently; in Hebron, for example, two British officers fanned the flames of Arab hatred by spreading rumours that resulted in Arab attacks while other Arabs shielded and protected their Jewish neighbours.67 Hibbet Al-Buraq made it clear to Palestinians the extent of British bias in favour of the Zionist project. One Jewish police officer who had executed an Arab family was sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to seven years’ imprisonment. On the other hand, three leading Palestinians (Fuad Hijazi from Safad, Ata Alzeer and Mohammed Jamjoum from Hebron) charged with killing Jews were publicly hanged on 27 June 1930.68 The Arab High Commission held a meeting on 8 August 1930 objecting to the reduced sentence on the Jewish terrorist Joseph Mizrahi Elorufli while hanging Palestinians on weak evidence.69 The busy market of Tulkarem sacrificed lucrative business days to join a national strike on 26 August 1930.70

            Hibbet Al-Buraq inspired the grassroots popular resistance movement to mobilise the Arab streets, realising that change must come. Popular Palestinian mass struggle had always involved all sectors of the society. 

            It is always instructive to note that even in such a traditional and patriarchal society, women have held their own and pushed for representation and impact. This push was not just on issues concerning women’s rights, discrimination, forced marriages and family planning, but also on colonisation and occupation. Groups like the Arab Ladies Association pushed for independence and self-determination. The Arab Palestinian Women’s Union (Al-Ittihad Al-Nissai Al-Arabi Al-Filastini) was founded in Jerusalem in 1921. There were many others, including Zahr Al-Ukhuwan (The Lily Flower society), founded in Jaffa 1936, and the Women Solidarity Society, founded in 1942.

            The first Arab Women’s Congress of Palestine was held on 26 October 1929 in Jerusalem and was attended by about 200 women. The demands were those of the Palestinian people against: the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of Jewish colonies, and for self-determination. They elected a 14-member executive committee headed by Matiel E. T. Mogannam.71 Mogannam later wrote a book titled The Arab Women and the Palestinian Problem, which detailed the activities of the movement.72
The women who participated were diverse. Some were fully veiled and some very liberal, some Christian and some Muslim. In their meeting with the British High Commissioner, the women ‘threw back their veils’ and presented their demands in strong language.73 The High Commissioner was impressed, but stated plainly that his ‘authority is limited and some things must be decided by the Ministry of Colonisation ... [however,] I am pleased with the progress of the women’s movement in Palestine ... and will do my best to help in the educational areas of the Palestinian woman so that she can reach her appropriate place in society’.74

            Energised by this meeting, the Congress concluded with a 120-car motorcade through the old city of Jerusalem and sent a telegram to Queen Mary, which opened with these words:

Two hundred Palestine Arab Muslim and Christian women representatives met in twenty-sixth instant in Congress Jerusalem, unanimously decided demand and exert every effort to effect abolition Balfour Declaration and establish National Democratic Government deriving power from Parliament representing all Palestinian Communities in proportion to their numbers; we beseech assistance in our just demands.75

            The group was active for many years, developing novel forms of Palestinian resistance such as silent protests, publishing letters in foreign newspapers, direct support of those suffering from the occupation and prisoner support groups. They ‘sent hundreds of letters to the British government, newspapers, and news media outlets, Arab leaders, and other women’s organisations’.76 It was not without an impact; for example, their persistent letters about political prisoners in British jails resulted in three prisoners being pardoned.77

            On the other hand, a new guerrilla movement was created in the Galilee during the autumn of 1929 called Al-Kaf Al-Akhdar (the Green Palm), led by Ahmed Tafesh. Its military actions against the British occupation forces lasted only a short while before the movement was crushed and its participants killed or captured. The main form of resistance remained demonstrations, protests, civil disobedience and other forms of popular struggle. And there was, of course, still the same group of elites who thought the best way was to work within the system to get whatever the British and the Zionists would willingly give as this was the ‘pragmatic approach’. The gap between the different Palestinian streams widened during Hibbet Al-Buraq. The increased pressure forced the British and the Zionist movement to seek alternative solutions to mollify the growing Arab anger. Ben Gurion, for example, gave the green light to Judas Magnus, president of the Hebrew University and a bi-nationalist, to explore some form of accommodation. Magnus consulted many Palestinian Arab leaders and came up with an idea of shared representation in government with protection for minorities. But Ben Gurion rejected the idea outright and insisted that the goal remain a Jewish majority state. However, to appease critics, he offered the formation of a nine-member ministerial council, consisting of three British (Justice, Finance and Transportation), three Jewish (Settlement, Labour, Immigration) and three Arab (Education, Health and Commerce) members. This was a biased solution but was still rejected by the Zionist leadership.78

            Separately, Palestinians travelled to Britain two months before the investigative committee under the leadership of Sir Walter Shaw issued its report. They pressed the authorities to recognise Arab rights, but stopped short of calling for an end to the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration. The response was still negative and the government insisted on its ‘obligations’ under the Mandate to the Jewish Agency without regard to the rights of the indigenous people. The Shaw Commission concluded about the events of 1929 that the Palestinians had a right to reject the changes at Al-Buraq and that Al-Husseini did not incite the violence, but that other elements, especially Jewish demonstrations at the Western Wall and prevailing political conditions, precipitated acts of resistance. The report also alluded to ‘problems’ that were created following such events as the removal of 15,500 villagers from Wadi Al-Hawareth after the transfer of ownership of 30,000 dunums.79 One of the recommendations of the Shaw Commission was implemented when the British government commissioned an expert to study landownership and use in Palestine. Sir John Hope Simpson, an internationally renowned expert, toured Palestine in July and August 1930 and concluded that, of the 6,544,000 dunums of cultivable land, Zionists already owned nearly one million, or 14 per cent, and that the remaining land was barely enough to sustain the local people. Thus increased Jewish immigration did not make sense.80

            The British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald allayed the fears of the Zionist movement days after the release of the report in a letter to Weizmann stating that there would be no change in the commitments under the Mandate, including the Balfour Declaration. His letter of assurance became known as the black letter (as it was in response to the White Paper). What little hope there was among the native Palestinians thus quickly dissipated.81 Officials directed administrative authorities to help ‘rebuild’ Jewish economic power and interests. Jewish militias were authorised to arm themselves and ‘defend’ the colonial settlements. The Haganah (Jewish paramilitary organisation) was recognised and accepted and more Jews enrolled in British police forces to gain fighting skills.

            Yet popular resistance continued. An Arab village conference was held in Jaffa on 5-6 November 1929. A letter sent from the conference asked for the removal of taxes like ushr and wirco and to replace them with simple customs taxes. Other suggestions included opening an agricultural credit union and measures that could reduce the increasing bankruptcy of farmers.82 A student conference was held in Akka in 1930 and, in early 1931, a national fund (Sandook Al-Umma) was established relying mostly on donations from Palestinians and other Arabs in and outside Palestine. Its aim was to help farmers threatened with loss of their land to the Zionist project. The British authorities had closed the bank that lent to the farmers in March 1920 and refused repeated requests to reopen it. The national meeting in Nablus on 18 September 1931 endorsed the fund project officially and 16 June 1932 was agreed as a national day of fundraising to protect threatened lands. However, with very limited funds it made little impact during its eight years of operation, saving only some lands in Beit Hannoun and Jules. This was no match for the magnitude of the British-Zionist conspiracy to strip farmers of their lands.83





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