Middle East/Palestine
Palestine and the Arabs Struggle for Independence  - Palestine

Palestine and the Arabs Struggle for Independence

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

As the Ottoman Empire entered the mid-19th Century, the world around it had changed much from what it used to be in the classic Muslim era of the last several centuries when Muslims had been nurturing the seedlings of all sorts of new sciences and advancing the old ones to new levels. All this had been possible within the reliefs of a strong Empire having access to all sorts of resources and protected by armies advanced in chivalry. But to their demise the cards of sciences, resources and chivalry were being shifted to some European nations for the last few centuries.

When Selim 1 ‘the grim’ proclaimed Caliphate over the Arab world, in 1512, this was about the same time that Spain, Portugal and a little later Britain had discovered the Americas and established colonies there. When Europe was inventing the steam engine (1769), the railway (1804), the telephone (1876), the bulb (1879) and the electric motor (1888), it seems that the latter Ottoman Kings had forsaken their patronage for learning and invention unlike their predecessors. This does not mean to ignore the immense slavery humanity was subjected to in Europe’s trade and colonialism nor does it say that science and technology in Europe brought only good to humanity and no harm. Yet this overall laydown in the Empire had rendered the Ottomans and the whole Arab World, under their rule, backwards in regards to economy, standard of living, education and military strength compared to some European progressive states.  So much so, that finding themselves less developed and poorer many resourceful families in the Empire looked towards the west for a better education for their children, for trade and for answers to some of their unresolvable issues.

With the Ottoman’s gradual declined from being able to portray their show of power in many fronts, gradually its subjects started turning against it. Algeria had been lost to the French in 1830, Greece had broken away in 1832 and Romania in 1862 and the Russian defeated them in Bulgaria in 1878. In reaction the Arab majority started feeling that the Turks were responsible for all their misery and several movements of Arab identity and Arab nationalism started rising underground from time to time. These movements were led by several intellectuals who had been educated in the west and were impressed by the liberal and progressive way of life and the parliamentary form of government that would decentralize the power from the Ottomans, redistributing it among the Arab majority.

At the same time the Ottomans faced another internal scuffle; many west-influenced Turks were also of the idea that throwing down the age-ridden caliphate that had failed to compete with modern progressiveness was the only way to bring the Turks back to strength in the global arena. The Young Turks Movement did exactly that, it forced the Ottomans to form the parliament in 1908 and as the Arab populace entwined with the nationalistic spirit eventuating in the Arab Revolt, worked to break the Turk hegemony over the Arabs, the Young Turks made sure to break the Ottomans away from power from the inside.

Palestine, with its mixed communities of Muslims, Christians, Jews and the Druze, was also an Arab entity. The people of Palestine like those of the other Arab lands under the caliphate were equally inspired by the Arab Nationalist Movement; they too wanted more autonomy and progress for their region. But the Palestinians were to face two struggles instead of one – the struggle against Zionism was to run parallel to the struggle for Arab identity for them.

From 1882 to 1903, the First Aliyah brought 25,000 to 35,000 Jews into the land of Palestine. These immigrations were made possible by many factors. It is reported that in 1840, British cabinet member Palmerstone, under the leadership of Lord Shaftsbury, attempted to convince the Ottoman Sultan to open the door to Palestine for the return and settlement of Jews. The rationale behind his stand lay in the fact that both the Ottoman Empire and Palestine would benefit from the wealth that the Jewish capitalists would bring with them, and also in the fact that a Jewish presence in Palestine would block any attempt by Mohammed Ali of Egypt to threaten the Ottoman Empire once again.

Nevertheless only the presence of Palmerstone in the Ottoman courts is an attestation of how deep was the influence of the British machinery in the Empire. Similarly the facts that Emmanuel Carasso of the prominent Jewish Carasso family of Ottoman Salonica (Greece) was the founder of the Young Turks Movement’s secret society in Salonica – and that the editor of the newspaper ‘The Young Turks’ was Russian Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky – Henry Morgenthau, a Jew, was the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War – and that Alexander Helphand, a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and a controversial activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, in his five year stay in Istanbul was financial and political advisor of the Young Turks and editor of Turk Yurdu, their daily newspaper – are all questions upon Jewish conspiracies and foreign influences inside the Empire.

On the other hand the Syrian Scientific Society, which upheld Arab Nationalism, penetrated its bases from Iraq to Egypt - it was also patronized by the British offices in Egypt. One pioneer of the Syrian Scientific Society was Butrus al-Bustani, an employee and later close affiliate of the American Protestant Mission in Beirut. Among others was also Abdul Rahim Al-Kawakibi, editor of Ash-Shabba. Al- Kawakibi’s popularized the thought of instating an Arab Caliphate in Mecca. Likewise Christian Arab Najib Azuri founded the Ligue de la Patrie Arabe in Paris, he published a book in French called ‘The Awakening of the Arab Nation’ and supported the French occupation of Algeria and called upon the French to increase their influence and role in Syria and Palestine. So! Did Europe conspire against the Empire? – Maybe yes – but the responsibility of the well-being, progress and security of their people was upon the Ottomans not on Europe. Likewise being unable to recognize the dissatisfied sections of their society or providing solutions was a grave weakness of the Ottomans that opened their people to all sorts of alternatives.

The Palestinians faced double jeopardy with their Arab-identity and the Zionist-initiated Jewish immigrations to the Holy Land. And in spite their issues with the Ottoman central power, they knew that the Jews entering their land were too powerful and well-linked inside and outside their land, and that they would not be able to resist them or prevent their coming and occupying their land, on their own. So from the beginning the resistance of the Palestinian people comprised of writing to the Ottomans office and pressurizing them to halt the immigrations, ban the selling of land to the Jews and make law preventing them from becoming Palestine nationals. The Ottomans did make such a law as to prevent Jews from gaining permanent residence of Palestine, however such laws proved to be short-lived. The Aliyah kept coming from 1882 onwards right up to 1948, in smaller and larger groups, legally and illegally.

The Palestinians showed high political awareness and the awareness of their identity; besides pleading to the center for help the Palestinians kept resisting the Jews physically too, with demonstrations, riots and attacks. The Jews were not just settlers in their land, they were better trained farmers and artisans, they were wealthy traders and had defense mechanism far superior to what the poor farmers had, whom they had come to displace from their homes and lands. But instead of coming to the rescue of the Palestinians, in 1908, the Sultan gave permission to the Jews to form their own security forces –strengthening them further against the poor peasants whom they had ousted from their farmlands.

When several Arab nationalist leaders arranged to meet in Paris under the First Arab Congress in 1913 – the agenda was to demand better conditions for the Arabs and to make Arabic an official language. In spite of many reminders and letters from Palestine to this meeting, their issue was marginalized and ignored.

These and similar events led the Palestinian Arabs to eventually believe that they were to fight the struggle for their rights and survival alone. Though they were rightly a part of the larger Arab community and hitherto willful subjects of the Ottomans but it seemed that they were being played as the expendable card every now and then on the negotiation tables. For this fact, it is imperative to understand the deeper Arab political background to be able to assimilate how the Arabs surrounding Palestine shaped the Palestinian conscience and the circumstances of their political and social fields. 

With WW1, what was once identified as a single unit under the Ottoman, was soon to be disintegrated into un-unifiable distinct centers of interests. Both internal and external factors laid the basis of this irreversible disunity. But as soon as the Ottoman Empire was broken away and dished out between the British and the French as mandates legitimizes through the League of Nations, movements for freedom started sprouting everywhere. One reason for this was that all these people who took part in the Arab Revolt had harbored the dream of Arab independence from the yoke of Turk hegemony and a greater autonomy, not a further downfall into the pit of subjugation to their longstanding imperial rivals – the Christian nations.

Likewise the Hashemite king of Mecca had not bargained the Arab Revolt with the Allied Powers for just a small strip of land to the west of the Arabian Peninsula, rather what was in his mind was the whole of the Ottoman land minus the Ottomans themselves – though it proved rather naïve of him to trust the Allied Powers on this. Lebanon and Syria were mandated to the French by the League of Nations, whereas Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine were put in the British pocket. A short case-study of Syria is useful to understand the time.

At one end, the Arab troops led by Emir Feisal, in understanding with and support of the British forces, capture Damascus, in Oct. 1918, the Syrian majority Sunni population welcomes him and he is proclaimed the King of Syria in June 1919, by the Syrian National Congress that had been politically created by the people of Syria. This Syria of Emir Feisal extended from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt. On the other end the French having their mandate approved in June 1920 – attacked Syria afresh and drove the Emir out of his empire. The French in their bid to divide-and-rule Syria further, divided it into five sections which practically made an Alawi state in the north, a Sunni state at the center, and a Druze state in the south. The three were eventually to be incorporated into a federal Syria, while Lebanon was mapped to make a Christian state around the area of Mount Lebanon. Hence Syria and Lebanon that were previously part of one harmonious state had now been subdivided on religio-ethnic lines. The minorities were now placed in new socio-economic parameters that encouraged them to stand behind the new masters for advantages they could never gain in a unified Syria – advantages that could possibly make the minorities masters over the majority.

Yet the divided people of Syria kept revolting against French control all the same. Shaykh Salih ibn Ali led revolt by the Alawis, Shaykh Ismail Harir rebelled in Hawran, Sultan Pasha al Atrash in the Jabal Druze and Mulhim Qasim in the mountains around Baalbek – eventuating in the Great Arab Revolt of 1925. Arab Nationalism in the Sunni majority was reignited by these revolts. They followed the path of political struggle and pressed the French not to obstruct the framing of a constitution for Syria that was to provide for the eventual sovereignty that the League of Nations mandate had ordered. To subside the revolts the French permitted the formation of a National Bloc. Ibrahim Hannanu wrote a constitution that provided for the reunification of Syria and a long and arduous struggle of the Syrian people for regaining independence from the French went on till 1946.                                                       

Meanwhile Emir Feisal had not been forsaken, he was too valuable to be wasted, for he was one among Arabs capable of signing the likes of the Faisal -Weizmann Agreement, in which Faisal conditionally accepted the Balfour Declaration that promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. So the Emir was made king of Iraq in August 1921, over a people who hardly knew him before that time. Perhaps this was the reason for an earlier independence of Iraq, in 1932. And perhaps Feisal signed that treaty to gain cheap advantages that might help in the pursuit of his greater agenda of Pan-Arabism – he wanted to join Syria and Iraq as one state. 

All the same, the Palestinians were being betrayed again, at least on the face of it.

Between 1882 and 1948 from the Jewish population in the territory that was to be occupied grew from 24,000 to 716,000 – in approximately 66 years or in about three generations. Whereas, the creation of the state of Israel has resulted in 6,600,000 Palestinians have being thrown out of their homeland, living as refugees in neighboring states and 427,000 are internally displaced.                                    

But with all this history behind us, the Jews tend to think and ask all of us to believe that Palestine was, before they came, as Mark Twain, who visited the place in 1867, described it, “… a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds - a silent mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action… We never saw a human being on the whole route… There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

Did Palestine have no farms or farmers, when the first ones to resist the Jew settlers were the farmers that had been expelled by the Jews who had bought their lands, the lands they had tilled for generations; was there no man to be seen in a land that had been the pivot of trade between the East, the West and Africa since the time of the first Pharaohs; were there no olives in the land that had beheld the holy shrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam for millennia?

After their experience in the First Arab Congress in 1913, perhaps the Palestinians felt that their voice has been deliberately ignored. The Muslim-Christian Association, a nationwide platform of the Palestinians decided to create a Palestine Arab Congress that would gather writers, traders and religious representative from around Palestine to put forward the consensual will of the Palestinian people and present it not only to those in power but to the larger world as well. The Congress held 7 consecutive meetings from 1919 to 1928 in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Nablus. The agenda of all these congresses turned out to be – rejection of foreign influences and occupation; rejection of the Belfour Declaration, rejection of the Zionist ideal and Jewish immigrations; rejection of any foreign occupation of Syria; and demand that the Palestinian Territory be joined with the aspired United Arab Syria. Later when Syria had been assigned as mandate to France the Congress shifted its demand to annexation of Palestine with any other independent Muslim state, as Jordan was expected to be.

The British simply did not officially recognize the Arab Palestine Congress, claiming that they were unrepresentative. In March 1921, Musa Kazem, leader of the Congress led a delegation to meet the British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, at the Cairo Conference, where the British policy for the Middle East was being discussed. Churchill refused to discuss any issues with Musa Kazem until after the conference. On his way back, Churchill met the delegates in Jerusalem, where he told them that them they had to accept the Balfour Declaration as an immutable part of British policy. Stonewalled from all sides, sidestepped by the Arabs and compromised upon by the Ottomans – the Palestinian people were being shaken into political awareness.

Placed at the heart of the civilized world, being the well wherefrom sprung belief and godliness and being the crossroad of several civilizations –was there to come this day when Palestine could not be recognized as a state, or part of a state but just as a territory! The Iraqis, the Syrians and the Turks were all entities but the Palestinians were not! The Druze, the Armenians and the Kurds all needed recognitions but the Palestinians did not! Everybody could fight their wars of independence, voice their rights, force occupiers out of their lands but the Palestinians could not! Why did the French carve out Lebanon as an independent state but Palestine was to be treated as a no-man’s land?

Apart from the Arab Palestine Congress several political, educational, social and charitable clubs and societies worked throughout the Arab communities in Palestine. Political organizations and their branches such as the Muslim-Christian Society (al-Jam’iyah al-Islamiyah al-Masihiya), the Arab Club (al-Nadi al-Arabi), the Literary Society (al-Muntada al-Adabi) and the literary publication, al-Nafa’is al-Asriyah, edited by Khalil Baydas voiced the aspirations of the people. But all these civilized voices and democratic methods to gain their legitimate right of self-determination were continuously given to deaf ears – so much so that the patience of the resolute people of Palestine was checked again and again forcing them to come out to the streets and express their anger and frustration in the arms way.

In June 1919 in accordance with President Wilson’s self-determination concept a commission known as the King-Crane Commission, under the leadership of Dr. Henry Churchill King, reached Jerusalem after its tour of Turkey. Its purpose was to inquire about the desires of the local population on the future of the country. It conducted several conferences and interviews with individuals and groups and received petitions submitted to the commissioners. On June 17, the commission tentatively described the results as “in that old biblical city all the delegations showed very careful organization. They were in general agreement concerning the unity of Syria and Palestine, wanted complete independence, and were opposed to Zionism and Jewish immigration”. But the American government did not officially publish the result until 1947. The report also disclosed that the Jews planned a “practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants… by various forms of purchase”.

Along with this democratic struggle, riots against the Jewish settlers were recorded during 1920, 1921, 1929, 1933, eventuating in the open revolt against the British in 1935 to 1939.

By 1935, several political parties had come up in Palestine, like the Istiqlal (1932), National Defence Party (1934), Arab Reform Party (1935), National Bloc Party (1935), the Palestine Arab Party (1935) and the Palestine Youth Party (1932). Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was like many Arabs pro-British until the Balfour Declaration, rose as a national leader when violent riots against the British and the Jews broke out on the annual Nabi Musa procession. He was elected Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, this gave al-Husseini total control over the secret society of Al-Fida’iyya (The Self-Sacrificers) and al-Ikha’ wal-‘Afaf (Brotherhood and Purity) that performed clandestine anti-British and anti-Zionist activities. In 1931, al-Husseini founded the World Islamic Congress. In 1930 Izz ad-Din al-Qassam created the Black Hand Group (al kaff al-aswad), al-Qassam was known to cooperate with al- Husseni. By 1935 al-Husseini controlled the group 'Holy Struggle' (al-jihad al-muqaddas) created by Musa Kazem’s son. In 1936 al-Husseni made the Arab Higher Committee, for a civil disobedience movement. All this power made al-Husseini the leading figure of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt of Palestine. The Revolt left an estimate of 5,032 Palestinians dead and 14,760 wounded – while the Jews death count was between a hundred to several hundreds. The British violently suppressed the revolt forcing most political figures to flee the country; al-Husseini fled to Lebanon. Al- Husseini’s struggle for the cause of Palestine continued as he shifted from country to country, Iraq, Iran, Italy, France and lastly Egypt where he tried to encourage Egypt into entering the Arab-Israel war (1948-49) and tried to organize Palestinian Field Commands and commanders.

Fearing that King Abdullah of Transjordan was reopening the bilateral negotiations with Israel, the Arab League – led by Egypt – made the ‘All-Palestine Government’ in Gaza on 8 September 1948, under the leadership of al-Husseini. In retaliation King Abdullah organized a Palestinian congress as his show of power in the West Bank. This was a divide within Palestine, a divide that would cause Gaza and the West Bank to be occupied or annexed by two different countries at the end of the war – Gaza by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan – while the middle of Palestine was to become Israel!

In 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy of the Muhammad Ali dynasty in Egypt. Gamal wanted to form a United Arab Republic comprising of Syria, Egypt and Palestine, for this reason he abolished the All-Palestine Government in 1959. Al-Husseini moved to Lebanon. After the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Gamal allowed the United Nations Emergency Force to establish itself in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, this led to the expulsion of all "fedayeen" forces from the Sinai. Al-Husseini died in Beirut in 1974, he had refused to join the emerging PLO.

Yaser Arafat was one of the Fedayeens who fled from the Sinai in 1956, immigrating to Kuwait where he laid the foundations of Fatah.