The Palestinian Arab National Movement (book review) - Musa Budeiri

Book review by Musa Budeiri on Yehoshua Poreth's The Palestinian Arab National Movement, from Riots to Rebellion.

The Palestinian Arab National Movement (book review) - Musa Budeiri

Y. Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement, from Riots to Rebellion, vol 2 (1929-1939), London, Frank Cass 1977.

The history of the Palestinian Arab national movement during the years of the British Mandate has not yet been written. What has appeared until now, both in Arabic and English, can be grouped together under three main headings: popular journalism, propaganda, apologetics. There are two reasons for this. The first and more im­portant is that the Palestine problem remains a political issue, exciting great passions and political disagreements; and the history of the Palestine national movement over the last sixty years remains a central theme in the political struggle of the Palestinian people to exercise their right of national self-determination and to establish their own national state. The second is the dispersal of source material and the absence, or reticence, of most of the Palestinian national leaders who played a prominent part during Mandatory times, and whose few contributions to the history of the period can only be classified as falling within the realm of apologia. Yehoshua Porath of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written what will undoubtedly become the standard reference work of the history of the Palestinian national movement, and deservedly so: this despite the fact that at times he seems unable to free himself from his political prejudices, and ab­dicates his professed role of detached historian to don the mantle of the partisan adversary.

The Three Stages of the Palestinian National Movement

Three broad and distinct stages can be perceived in the development of the national movement from 1917 to 1948. The first, starting with the beginning of the Mandate and stretching to 1935-6, was a period characterised by the attempts of the Arab national leadership to arrive at an accommodation with British imperialism. Prominent members of the national movement continued as office holders in the Man­datory administration, and the movement's main thrust was directed against what was perceived to be the main enemy and threat; the increasing influx of Jewish immigrants, and the zionist movement. (At no time was the national leadership able to distinguish between the Jewish inhabitants of the country and the zionist movement and its activities.) This is best exemplified by the massacres which ac­companied the uprising of 1929, when the main slogan of the Arab demonstrators was 'the Government is with us'. The Arab leadership was at pains to point out to the British imperialists that the Arab opposition was not directed against the Mandate as such, let alone the British presence in Palestine, but solely against the national home clause in the Mandate provisions, and the consequent threat posed by the expanding Jewish presence in the country. Gradually, there was a realisation that struggling against the Jews alone would not, and indeed had not, produce any positive results. This led to the second stage in the development of the national movement, when the British themselves became the main object of the national struggle.

Here it is important to note two points. Firstly, the national movement was not unified in its resolve to struggle against the British, and a sizeable faction, represented by the Nashashibis and their supporters, still favoured the old tactics of confining the struggle to the Jews and persisting in the attempts to come to an understanding with the British (the oft discussed Legislative Council was the Nashashibis' favourite hobby horse). Secondly, the national leaders who realised the imperative of taking up the struggle against the British saw this as a way to exercise pressure on the Mandatory authorities to retreat from their support of the national home policy, and this was not directed against British imperialism as such. Throughout the years of armed struggle, 1936-39, the Palestinian Arab leadership tried, through the small group of 'independent' Arab states, to exert pressure on Britain. Thus the British imperialist presence was never seen as the central target of the armed struggle. The main enemy remained the zionist movement and armed activity against British symbols of authority was merely a tactic to exert pressure.

The demonstrations of 1933, predominantly directed against the British, foreshadowed the advent of the armed struggle initiated by the band of Shaikh al Kassam, and the general strike of April 1936 and the armed rebellion which ensued. Although the rebellion was crushed by the military, it had a positive outcome in the shape of the 1939 White Paper. Yet this relatively positive result of the rebellion, and the Palestinians' success in bringing in the Arab states to put 'pressure' on Britain, was accompanied by the disintegration of the Palestine Arab leadership, the exhaustion of the national movement, and the replacement of Palestine's Arab inhabitants by the Arab states as the arbiters of the fate of the country. This last, as events were to show in 1948, proved to be a most unhappy change.

The third stage of the national movement, stretching from the end of the rebellion in 1939 to the partition of Palestine in 1948, was characterised by an internal vacuum as far as the leadership of the Arab national movement was concerned. The movement had been crushed, the Arab masses were exhausted, and the leaders had either been deported or fled into exile. The Mufti, aligning himself with the Nazis during the second world war, provided the British with a perfect excuse to maintain their ban on Arab political activity. When, after the end of the war, they allowed the reconstitution of some political activity, it was the Arab states which played the main role in establishing the new political leadership of the Palestinian national movement. It is important in this context to remember that the Arab League was the brainchild of British colonial political strategy, and that the most important Arab states who played a role in determining the future of Palestine (Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) enjoyed only the semblance of independence and were under the control of British imperialism.

When partition was decreed, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine played a secondary role in the conflict which ensued. The initiative had long been seized by the neighbouring Arab states; and these, while verbally opposing partition, actually consecrated it by sending their armies to annex those parts of the country which under the partition scheme had been allocated to the Arabs, and to prevent the establishment of an independent Palestinian Arab state. Until recently – and, some would argue quite credibly, even now – the initiative has remained in the hands of the Arab states; the Palestinians themselves have been able to play a role only in so far as they can exploit the differences and contradictions between the various Arab states.

Porath's History of the National Movement

The present work is a continuation of Porath's previous study which dealt with the national movement from 1917 to 1929. It continues the story up to the end of the 1939 rebellion. The author has amassed an enormous amount of information and pursues the development of events in great, perhaps excessive, detail. He provides a 'blow by blow' account of events which at times tends to obscure rather than elucidate the subject. The book also suffers from an excessive reliance on Jewish intelligence sources which, by the nature of the conflict in Palestine, cannot but be politically suspect.

Without minimising the wealth of information that the book provides, it nevertheless must be said that there is an absence of analysis; this is substituted for an implicit conspiracy theory which makes the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini, the arch-villain of the piece. In addition, Porath chooses to see the Arab national movement in re­ligious terms, and hence to separate Palestinian Arab Christians and Palestinian Arab Druze from the mainstream of the national movement. The book is also occasionally marred by the author's attempts to don the mantle of a partisan adversary, by colourful anecdotes of 'Arab anti-semitism', 'the rape of Christian girls' and 'Arab cowardice'.

On the positive side, the book brings into focus the activity of Ragheb Nashashibi and his supporters, composed of large landowners and the heads of the various Arab municipalities. As Porath rightly explains, the latter's election was almost automatically ensured by the limitation of the franchise to the propertied classes. From the outset of the Mandate, Ragheb Nashashibi and his followers were opposed to the more radical elements within the national movement and ad­vocated the pursuit of a 'positive policy' exhibiting readiness to co­operate with the British imperialist authorities. In the 1920s they were in favour of a nominated legislative council, while in 1928 they dominated the proceedings of the Seventh Palestine National Congress – a congress which was described by one of the radical delegates from Gaza, Hamdi Husseini, as being 'made up of British police agents and land brokers'. Remaining faithful to their line, they came out in opposition to the anti-British demonstrations which broke out in 1933.

While in their public statements Ragheb Nashashibi and other members of the opposition paid lip service to nationalist aims, Porath documents their private conversations with various zionist leaders, where they showed themselves ready to come to an accommodation with the zionist movement. Among those leaders who maintained contact with zionist functionaries, Porath records the names of Ragheb and his nephew Fakhri Nashashibi, Hassan Sidki Dajani, Boulous Shihadeh, Shaikh Abdullah Qalqili, and Mughanam Elias Mughanam. Many of the opposition leaders solicited funds from the Jewish Agency, and a number of newspapers, among them Miraat al Shark, received some form of financial backing from zionist circles.

The opposition policy of attempting to thwart the progress of the national movement was a hallmark of their activity throughout the years of the Arab Revolt (1936-1939). Ragheb Nashashibi himself had resigned from the Higher Arab Committee in July 1937, though he had stopped attending its meetings some time before, a step which Porath explains as being taken at the prompting of Prince Abdullah of Trans-Jordan, with whom the opposition in Palestine enjoyed a close rapport.

Although initially the opposition party had felt impelled to support the strike, and one of its supporters, Fakhri Abdul Hadi, commanded an armed group in the Jenin region, it was opposed to the continu­ation of the armed struggle after the ending of the strike. Not satis­fied with verbal opposition, Porath records that Ragheb Nashashibi approached the Jewish Agency in December 1937 with demands for a financial subvention to establish an armed band to fight against the rebels. Although Porath does not tell us the outcome of this revealing episode, Fakhri Hashashibi organised the 'Peace Gangs', armed and financed by the British Army, which played an active role in fighting against the Arab guerrilla bands in the mountains. Two men who played a prominent role as leaders of this mercenary group were Fakhri Abdul Hadi (who returned to Palestine from his exile in Damascus after being pardoned by the British for his role in the first phase of the rebellion), and Farid Irshed; both were members of prominent landowning families in the Jenin area.

The other corollary of the Nashashibis' good relations with Prince Abdullah was the cordiality which existed between Abdullah and the Jewish Agency. Porath records that Abdullah had enjoyed friendly relations with the leaders of the Jewish Agency since the 1920s, and that from 1933 private consultations and regular meetings became a matter of course. In 1935 Abdullah offered to sell to the zionists lands in Ghour al Kabed on the East Bank of the Jordan. The British ob­jected to the sale and the scheme fell through. Nevertheless, in return for his consent to keep the Jewish Agency's option on the land open, Abdullah received a generous financial reward. His contact with the Jewish Agency continued during the years of the revolt. An incident which took place in the closing stages of the revolt highlights Ab­dullah's real attitude to what was going on in Palestine. Shaikh Yussuf Abu Durrah, a prominent military leader of the revolt, took refuge in Trans-Jordan after the defeat of the movement. He was arrested by Abdullah's forces during the middle of 1939 and was later extradited to the British authorities in Palestine, where he was tried and hanged. The French in Syria, on the other hand, when faced with a similar situation concerning Aref Abdul Razik, refused to extradite him and put him under house arrest in Palmyra. Porath correctly explains that it was in the immediate interest not only of Abdullah but also of the neighbouring Arab countries, where anti-British feeling had been aroused as a result of the struggle of the Palestine Arabs, to put an end to this struggle as soon as possible. It was with this in mind that the Arab states tried to exercise a moderating influence, often suc­cessfully, on the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, urging it not to burn its bridges with British imperialism and to trust in its good intentions.

The means employed by the British army to crush the Arab Revolt have become familiar methods of 'counter insurgency'; yet some of these were so harsh and barbaric that it is difficult to find parallels to them even now. The British authorities used the 'iron fist' policy immediately after the murder of Andrews (a government official in Galilee) in October 1937. They unleashed a wave of arrests and deportations, the local national committees were declared illegal, warrants were issued for the arrest of Higher Arab Committee members, the Mufti of Jerusalem was removed from his office as head of the Supreme Moslem Council and the entire leadership and active cadres of the national movement were put under arrest or forced to flee the country. All these steps, however, proved to be of no avail; by September 1938, Porath records, the rebels were in control of most of the mountainous part of Palestine, and civil administration and control of the country had for all practical purposes ceased to exist.

Eventually, the British army inflicted heavy military defeats on the rebels. To achieve this it waged an all-out war on the Palestinian countryside: collective punishments were imposed on villages; villages were bombed from the air; a hundred people were hanged between 1937 and 1939; in October 1938 the British Army entered the Old City of Jerusalem, using local Arabs as 'human shields'; special police stations were established in villages at the expense of the local inhabitants; and to safeguard trains from being blown up by rebels, relatives of known guerrilla commanders were often made to ride on the inspection trolley which preceded the engine. Unfortunately, Porath gives little detail on the activity of Wingate's Special Night Squads (where a number of future Israeli generals received their early training in 'counter terrorism'), nor does he examine the role played by the Nashashibis' 'Peace Gangs' in weakening the revolt.

When dealing with the land problem, Porath gives the curious impression that he does not agree with the results of his own findings. The only possible explanation is that they run counter to his political prejudices. Although he states that the British administration's figures of dispossessed peasants were rather conservative, and gives the lie to zionist claims that Jewish land purchases did not lead to the dispossession and eviction of large numbers of Arab peasants, at the same time he insists that only 'a few thousands were evicted'. He ex­plains land sales as the result of a desire by Arab landowners to get capital for irrigation and modernisation projects. The figures he produces show that of total land sales during 1936-39, 52.6 per cent were by non-Palestinian landowners, 24.6 per cent by Palestinian landowners, and only 9.4 per cent by peasant owners. He explains peasant land sales as being the outcome of indebtedness to urban landlords; the exorbitant rate of interest charged forced peasants to sell their lands to payoff their creditors. While ignoring the political aspect of land acquisition by the various zionist bodies, Porath nevertheless arrives at the conclusion that the economic results were harmful to the Arab economy and contributed to the creation of a stratum of landless peasants who were forced to drift into the towns and become casual labourers.

The movement of Al Kassam has been referred to by many writers; none however gives it the weight and importance which Porath assigns to it as part of the Palestinian national movement. Going beyond the death of Al Kassam, which is where most writers begin and end, he attempts to trace the role of the various members of Kassam's original band during the years of the revolt, and provides us with a breakdown of the social and geographical origin of both Kassamites and other leading military cadres of the rebellion. The lack of source material, the secrecy and the 'grass roots' nature of Kassam's organising efforts have led most writers to dismiss Kassam, or to hail him as a rather romantic figure who has become important only in historical retrospect, but who does not belong to the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. Porath evidently does not share this belief. If anything, his account suffers from an over-emphasis on the role of Kassam's followers, and the extent of Kassam's own activity, which is not fully warranted by the sources at our disposal.

In an article written a few years ago, Porath said that with the exception of the National Liberation League (the organisation of the Arab communists in Palestine), there were no modern (on the western model) political parties in the Arab section of Palestine. Despite some mention of Arab political parties in this book, the discussion does not rise above the level of generalities, and the treatment of the subject is not comprehensive. Porath does not provide a social breakdown of party supporters, nor the extent of support the various parties en­joyed. The impression he gives of political parties during this period is that they were little more than collections of notables with no grass­roots organisation, and completely reliant on family and clan support. Indeed Porath implies this by emphasising the extent of traditional family rivalries and inter-factional struggle, but he does not attempt to give an explanation of this phenomenon nor to relate it to the course of political developments.

In his attempts to explain the radicalisation of the national movement in the 1930s Porath emphasises the role played by Istiklal party members. However, he ignores some pertinent facts: that the Istiklal movement was initially pro-Hashemite in origin, that its existence as an organised group was very short-lived indeed, that prominent Istiklal members drifted towards the Mufti's camp and some became functionaries of the Waqf administration. The emphasis on Istiklal radicals as the harbingers of radicalisation seems to be misplaced and unwarranted.

While attempting to show that the Mufti of Jerusalem was double faced and the leader of the radical faction within the national movement, Porath ignores his own findings yet again, and is forced to rely on such unreliable sources as Emil Ghouri. He fails however to show that the Mufti used the Supreme Moslem Council funds to further his own political aims, or more importantly, those of the national movement; and he fails to explain why, until 1936, the Mufti was opposed to any direct clash with British imperialism and persisted in his rejection of a policy of non-cooperation with the British, exemplified by his lack of support for the policy of resignation of Arab government officials.

While giving a comprehensive factual account of the progress of the national movement, Porath does not attempt to provide any analysis of the movement and its component parts, nor to account for the aims and possible reasons for the consequent failures of this movement. Basic to this is his failure to face up to the all-important question of whether one could speak of the existence of an organised Palestinian national movement (in the same sense as for example one could speak of the existence of a zionist movement). Despite the appearance of parties, organisations and conferences, the Palestinian national movement remained composed of a leadership without an organised following. It was a movement of traditional notables with feudal family support who were deeply divided among themselves, whose policies were governed by short-term self-interest, and who were incapable, as events were to prove, of facing up to the tasks of the national independence struggle.