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Pre-State Israel:
Arab Riots of the 1920's

by Jacqueline Shields


Pre-State Israel: Table of Contents | Photos of 1929 Riots | 1929 Hebron Massacre


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At the end of World War I, discussions commenced on the future of the Middle East, including the disposition of Palestine. On April 19, 1920, the Allies, Britain, France, Italy and Greece, Japan and Belgium, convened in San Remo, Italy to discuss a peace treaty with Turkey. The Allies decided to assign Great Britain the mandate over Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River, and the responsibility for putting the Balfour Declaration into effect. Arab nationalists were unsure how best to react to British authority. The two preeminent Jerusalem clans, the el-Husseinis and the Nashashibis, battled for influence throughout the mandate, as they had for decades before. The former was very anti-British, whereas the latter favored a more conciliatory policy.

One of the el-Husseinis, Haj Amin, who emerged as the leading figure in Palestinian politics during the mandate period, first began to organize small groups of suicide groups, fedayeen (“one who sacrifices himself”), to terrorize Jews in 1919 in the hope of duplicating the success of Kemal in Turkey and drive the Jews out of Palestine, just as the Turkish nationalists were driving the Greeks from Turkey. The first large Arab riots took place in Jerusalem in the intermediary days of Passover, April 1920. The Jewish community had anticipated the Arab reaction to the Allies’ convention, and was ready to meet it. Jewish affairs in Palestine were then being administered from Jerusalem by the Vaad Hatzirim (Council of Delegates), appointed by the World Zionist Organization (WZO) (which became the Jewish Agency in 1929). The Vaad Hatzirim charged Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky with the task of organizing Jewish self-defense. Jabotinsky was one of the founders of the Jewish battalions, which had served in the British Army during the First World War and had participated in the conquest of Palestine from the Turks. Acting under the auspices of the Vaad Hatzirim, Jabotinsky lead the Haganah (self-defense) organization in Jerusalem, which succeeded in repelling the Arab attack. Six Jews were killed and some 200 injured in Jerusalem in the course of the 1920 riots. In addition, two Americans, Jakov Tucker and Ze’ev Scharff, both WWI veterans, were killed resisting an Arab attack on the Jewish settlementof Tel Hai in March 1920. Had it not been for the preliminary organization of Jewish defense, the number of victims would have undoubtedly been much greater.

After the riots, the British arrested both Arabs and Jews. Among those arrested was Jabotinsky, together with 19 of his associates, on a charge of illegal possession of weapons. Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor and deportation from the country after completion of his sentence. When the sentence became known, the Vaad Hatzirim made plans for widespread protests, including mass demonstrations and a national fast. Meanwhile, however, the mandate for Palestine had been assigned to Great Britain, and the jubilation of the Yishuv outweighed the desire to protest against the harsh sentence imposed on Jabotinsky and his comrades.

With the arrival in Jerusalem of the first High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, British military government was superseded by a civilian administration. As a gesture toward the civilian population, the High Commissioner proclaimed a general amnesty for both Jews and Arabs who had been involved in the April 1920 riots. Jabotinsky and his comrades were released from prison to an enthusiastic welcome by the Yishuv, but Jabotinsky insisted that the sentence passed against them be revoked entirely, arguing that the defender should not be placed on trial with the aggressor. After months of struggle, the British War Office finally revoked the sentences.

In 1921, Haj Amin el-Husseini began to organize larger scale fedayeen to terrorize Jews. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, former head of British military intelligence in Cairo, and later Chief Political Officer for Palestine and Syria, wrote in his diary that British officials “incline towards the exclusion of Zionism in Palestine.” In fact, the British encouraged the Arabs to attack the Jews. According to Meinertzhagen, Col. Waters Taylor, financial adviser to the Military Administration in Palestine 1919-23, met with Haj Amin a few days before Easter, in 1920, and told him “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world...that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine, 1919-20] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force, 1917-19, then High Commissioner of Egypt] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home. Waters-Taylor explained that freedom could only be attained through violence.”

Haj Amin took the Colonel’s advice and instigated a riot. The British withdrew their troops and the Jewish police from Jerusalem, and the Arab mob attacked Jews and looted their shops. Due to Haj Amin’s overt role in instigating the pogrom, the British arrested him. Yet, despite the arrest, Haj Amin escaped to Jordan, but he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in absentia. A year later, however, British Arabists convinced High Commissioner Herbert Samuel to pardon Haj Amin and to appoint him Mufti.

Samuel met with Haj Amin on April 11, 1921, and was assured “that the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.” Three weeks later, however, riots in Jaffa and Petah Tikvah, instigated by the Mufti, left 43 Jews dead. Following these riots England established the Haycraft Commission to evaluate the cause of these riots. The appendix of the report reads, “The fundamental cause of the Jaffa riots and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents . . . the Arab majority, who were generally the aggressors, inflicted most of the casualties.”

Following these riots, Haj Amin consolidated his power and took control of all Muslim religious funds in Palestine. He used his authority to gain control over the mosques, the schools and the courts. No Arab could reach an influential position without being loyal to the Mufti. As the “Palestinian” spokesman, Haj Amin wrote to Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill in 1921, demanding that restrictions be placed on Jewish immigration and that Palestine be reunited with Syria and Transjordan. Churchill issued the White Paper of 1922, which tried to allay Arab fears about the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper acknowledged the need for Jewish immigaration to enable the Jewish community to grow, but placed the familiar limit of the country's absorptive capacity on immigration. Although not pleased with Churchill’s diplomatic Paper, the Zionists accepted it; the Arabs, however, rejected it.

Despite the disturbances in 1920-1921, the yishuv continued to develop in relative peace and security. Another wave of riots, however, broke out in 1924 after another wave of pogrom’s sent 67,000 Polish Jewish refugees to Palestine. After a week of skirmishes in Jerusalem between the Haganah and Arab mobs, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs lay dead. The yishuv’s main concern at that time was its financial difficulties; the economic crisis of 1926-1928 led many to believe that the Zionist enterprise would fail due to lack of funds. Zionist leaders attempted to rectify the situation by expanding the Jewish Agency to incorporate non-Zionists who were willing to contribute to the practical settlement of Palestine.

The prospects for renewed financial support for the yishuv upset Arab leaders who feared economic domination by the Zionists. Led by Haj Amin al-Husseini once again, rumors of a Jewish plot to seize control of Muslim holy places began to spread. Violence erupted soon after, causing extensive damage. Rioting and looting were rampant throughout Palestine. In Jerusalem, Muslims provoked the violence and tensions by building and praying on or near the holiest place in the world for Jews, the Western Wall. By late August, the Arabs, in well organized formation, attacked Jewish settlements near Jerusalem. The disturbances spread to Hebron and Tsfat, including many settlements in between, and on the Kfar Dorom kibbutz in the Gaza Strip. After six days of rioting, the British finally brought in troops to quell the disturbance. Despite the fact that Jews had been living in Gaza and Hebron for centuries, following these riots, the British forced Jews to leave their homes and prohibited Jews from living in the Gaza strip and Hebron in an attempt to appease Arabs and quell violence. By the end of the rioting, 135 Jews (including eight Americans) were killed, with more than 300 wounded.

Like the riots earlier in the decade, afterward the British appointed Sir William Shaw to head an inquiry into the causes of the riots. The Shaw Commission found that the violence occurred due to “racial animosity on the part of the Arabs, consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future.” The report claimed that the Arabs feared economic domination by a group who seemed to have, from their perspective, unlimited funding from abroad. The Commission reported that the conflict stemmed from different interpretations of British promises to both Arabs and Jews. The Commission acknowledged the ambiguity of former British statements and recommended that the government clearly define its intentions for Palestine. It also recommended that the issue of further Jewish immigration be more carefully considered to avoid “a repetition of the excessive immigration of 1925 and 1926.” The issue of land tenure would only be eligible for review if new methods of cultivation stimulated considerable growth of the agricultural sector. The Shaw Commission frustrated Zionists, but the two subsequent reports issued on the future of Palestine were more disturbing. The Hope Simpson report of 1930 painted an unrealistic picture of the economic capacity of the country. It cast doubt on the prospect of industrialization and incorrectly asserted that no more than 20,000 families could be accomodated by the land. The Hope Simpson report was overshadowed, however, by the simultaneous release of the Passfield White Paper, which reflected colonial Secretary Passfield’s deep-seated animus toward Zionism. This report asserted that Britain’s obligations to the Arabs were very weighty and should not be overlooked to satisfy Jewish interests. Many argued that the Passfield Paper overturned the Balfour Declaration, essentialy saying that Britain should not plan to establish a Jewish state. The Passfield Paper greatly upset Jews, and interestingly, also the labor and conservative parties in the British Parliament. The result of this widespread outcry to the Secretary’s report was a letter from British Prime Minister MacDonald to Dr. Chaim Weizmann, reaffirming the commitment to create a Jewish homeland.

The Arabs found rioting to be a very effective political tool becasue the British attitude toward violence against Jews, and their response to the riots, encouraged more outbreaks of violence. In each riot, the British would make little or no effort to prevent the Arabs from attacking the Jews. After each incident, a commission of inquiry would try to establish the cause of the riot. The conclusions were always the same: the Arabs were afraid of being displaced by Jewish immigrants. To stop the disturbances, the commissions routinely recommended that restrictions be made on Jewish immigration. Thus, the Arabs came to recognize that they could always stop Jewish immigration by staging a riot. Despite the restrictions placed on its growth, the Jewish population increased to more than 160,000 by the 1930s, and the community became solidly entrenched in Palestine. Unfortunately, as the Jewish presence grew stronger, so did the Arab opposition. The riots brought recognition from the international Jewish community to the struggle of the settlers in Palestine, and more than $600,000 was raised for an emergency fund that was used to finance the cost of restoring destroyed or damaged homes, establish schools, and build nurseries.


Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.
Ahron Bregman, A History of Israel, Palgrave MacMillan; New York, 2002.
The Irgun Site
The Jewish Agency for Israel and The World Zionist Organization.
Leslie Stein, The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern Israel. CT: Praeger Publishers; 2003.
Michael Oren. Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

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