By the early years of the twentieth century, Palestine was becoming a trouble spot of competing territorial claims and political interests. The Ottoman Empire was weakening, and European powers were entrenching their grip on areas in the eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. During 1915-1916, as World War I was underway, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, secretly corresponded with Husayn ibn `Ali, the patriarch of the Hashemite family and Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina. McMahon convinced Husayn to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was aligned with Germany against Britain and France in the war. McMahon promised that if the Arabs supported Britain in the war, the British government would support the establishment of an independent Arab state under Hashemite rule in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. The Arab revolt, led by T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Husayn’s son Faysal, was successful in defeating the Ottomans, and Britain took control over much of this area during World War I.
Britain made other promises during the war that conflicted with the Husayn-McMahon understandings.
But Britain made other promises during the war that conflicted with the Husayn-McMahon understandings. In 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Lord Arthur Balfour, issued a declaration (the Balfour Declaration) announcing his government’s support for the establishment of “a Jewish national home in Palestine.” A third promise, in the form of a secret agreement, was a deal that Britain and France struck between themselves to carve up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and divide control of the region.
After the war, Britain and France convinced the new League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations), in which they were the dominant powers, to grant them quasi-colonial authority over former Ottoman territories. The British and French regimes were known as mandates. France obtained a mandate over Syria, carving out Lebanon as a separate state with a (slight) Christian majority. Britain obtained a mandate over the areas which now comprise Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan.
In 1921, the British divided this region in two: east of the Jordan River became the Emirate of Transjordan, to be ruled by Faysal’s brother ‘Abdallah, and west of the Jordan River became the Palestine Mandate. This was the first time in modern history that Palestine became a unified political entity.
Arabs were angered by Britain’s failure to fulfill its promise to create an independent Arab state.
Throughout the region, Arabs were angered by Britain’s failure to fulfill its promise to create an independent Arab state, and many opposed British and French control as a violation of their right to self-determination. In Palestine, the situation was more complicated because of the British promise to support the creation of a Jewish national home. The rising tide of European Jewish immigration, land purchases and settlement in Palestine generated increasing resistance by Palestinian Arab peasants, journalists and political figures. They feared that this would lead eventually to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Palestinian Arabs opposed the British Mandate because it thwarted their aspirations for self-rule, and opposed massive Jewish immigration because it threatened their position in the country.
In 1920 and 1921, clashes broke out between Arabs and Jews in which roughly equal numbers of both groups were killed. In the 1920s, when the Jewish National Fund purchased large tracts of land from absentee Arab landowners, the Arabs living in these areas were evicted. These displacements led to increasing tensions and violent confrontations between Jewish settlers and Arab peasant tenants.
In 1928, Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem began to clash over their respective communal religious rights at the Wailing Wall (al-Buraq in the Muslim tradition). The Wailing Wall, the sole remnant of the second Jewish Temple, is one of the holiest sites for the Jewish people. But this site is also holy to Muslims, since the Wailing Wall is adjacent to the Temple Mount (the Noble Sanctuary in the Muslim tradition). On the mount is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, believed to mark the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse.
On August 15, 1929, members of the Betar youth movement (a pre-state organization of the Revisionist Zionists) demonstrated and raised a Zionist flag over the Wailing Wall. Fearing that the Noble Sanctuary was in danger, Arabs responded by attacking Jews throughout the country. During the clashes, 64 Jews were killed in Hebron. Their Muslim neighbors saved others. The Jewish community of Hebron ceased to exist when its surviving members left for Jerusalem. During a week of communal violence, 133 Jews and 115 Arabs were killed and many wounded.
European Jewish immigration to Palestine increased dramatically after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, leading to new land purchases and Jewish settlements. Palestinian resistance to British control and Zionist settlement climaxed with the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, which Britain suppressed with the help of Zionist militias and the complicity of neighboring Arab regimes. After crushing the Arab revolt, the British reconsidered their governing policies in an effort to maintain order in an increasingly tense environment. They issued a White Paper (a statement of political policy) limiting future Jewish immigration and land purchases. The Zionists regarded this as a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and a particularly egregious act in light of the desperate situation of the Jews in Europe, who were facing extermination. The 1939 White Paper marked the end of the British-Zionist alliance. At the same time, the defeat of the Arab revolt and the exile of the Palestinian political leadership meant that the Palestinian Arabs were politically disorganized during the crucial decade in which the future of Palestine was decided.
Published January 2001