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British Palestine Mandate: The Arab Community Under the Mandate

(1922 - 1948)

The British Mandate and the intensification of Jewish settlement in Palestine significantly altered Palestinian leadership structures and transformed the socioeconomic base of Palestinian Arab society. First, British policy in Palestine, as elsewhere in the Middle East, was based on patronage. This policy entailed granting wide powers to a small group of competing traditional elites whose authority would depend upon the British high commissioner. In Palestine, Herbert Samuel granted the most important posts to two competing families, the Husaynis (also seen as Husseinis) and the Nashashibis. Of the two clans, the Husaynis were given the most powerful posts, many of which had no precedent under Ottoman rule. In 1921 Samuel appointed Hajj Amin al Husayni, an ardent anti-Zionist and a major figure behind the April 1920 riots, as mufti (chief Muslim religious jurist) of Jerusalem. In 1922 he augmented Hajj Amin's power by appointing him president of the newly constituted Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), which was given wide powers over the disbursement of funds from religious endowments, fees, and the like.

By heading the SMC, Hajj Amin controlled a vast patronage network, giving him power over a large constituency. This new patronage system competed with and threatened the traditional family-clan and Islamic ties that existed under the Ottoman Empire. Traditional Arab elites hailing from other locales, such as Hebron and Haifa, resented the monopoly of power of the British-supported Jerusalem-based elite. Furthermore, as an agricultural depression pushed many Arabs westward into the coastal cities, a new urbanbased elite emerged that challenged the Nashashibis and Husaynis.

Tension between members of Arab elites was exacerbated because Hajj Amin, who was not an elected official, increasingly attempted to dictate Palestinian politics. The competition between the major families and the increased use of the Zionist threat as a political tool in interelite struggles placed a premium on extremism. Hajj Amin frequently incited his followers against the Nashashibis by referring to the latter as Zionist collaborators. As a result, Palestinian leadership during the Mandate was fragmented and unable to develop a coherent policy to deal with the growing Zionist movement.

The other major transformation in Palestinian Arab society during the Mandate concerned the issue of land ownership. During the years of Ottoman rule, the question of private property rights was never fully articulated. The tenuous nature of private property rights enabled the Zionist movement to acquire large tracts of land that had been Arab owned. The sale of land to Jewish settlers, which occurred even during the most intense phases of the Palestinian Revolt, reflected the lack of national cohesion and institutional structure that might have enabled the Palestinian Arabs to withstand the lure of quick profits. Instead, when increased Jewish land purchases caused property prices to spiral, both the Arab landowning class and absentee landlords, many of whom resided outside Palestine, were quick to sell for unprecedented profits. In the 1930s, when Palestine was beset by a severe economic depression, large numbers of Arab peasants, unable to pay either their Arab landlords or taxes to the government, sold their land. The British did not intervene in the land purchases mainly because they needed the influx of Jewish capital to pay for Jewish social services and to maintain the Jewish economy.

Sources: Library of Congress