From Mandate to Nation State

How a failed Arab rebellion ensured Israel’s survival

Press photograph of Arab rioters with their commander, Abd-el-Razak, in September 1938 (Wikimedia Commons)
Press photograph of Arab rioters with their commander, Abd-el-Razak, in September 1938 (Wikimedia Commons)

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict by Oren Kessler; Rowan & Littlefield, 334 pp., $26.95 

The broad outline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well known: with the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, the new League of Nations granted Britain a mandate to govern Palestine, and to implement the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s call for the creation “of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Holocaust, in turn, led to founding of the state of Israel in 1947, followed two decades later by the Six-Day War, which ended with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and a cycle of violence that continues today. But according to former Jerusalem Post and Haaretz journalist Oren Kessler’s refreshingly unbiased and captivating new book, Palestine 1936, a crucial episode is missing from this narrative: the Great Arab Revolt, described by Kessler as “Palestine’s first Arab rebellion, a seminal, three-year uprising a decade before Israel’s birth that cast the mold for the Jewish-Arab encounter ever since.”

It began with a gentrification problem.

The Jewish presence in Palestine during the five-century Ottoman occupation was comprised mostly of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle-East; only a small number were Ashkenazi, or European Jews. Yet beginning in the late 19th century, as anti-Semitic pogroms and policies gripped Europe, Ashkenazim began trickling into Palestine. After the British mandate began, the trickle became a flow. These mostly German and Eastern European Jews bought property from the elite landowning Palestinian families and began “making the desert bloom,” as the saying goes, developing productive agricultural, economic, and educational systems previously absent from the area.

Meanwhile, many Muslim Palestinians looked around at the growing and thriving Jewish population and realized that if the trend continued, they would become a marginalized minority in their own land. After all, weren’t they, too, promised self-determination and independence by the British? And so, understandably frustrated with a lack of options, Muslim Palestinians rebelled.

The Great Revolt itself didn’t begin until 1936, but Kessler details earlier incidences of Arab violence against Jewish Palestinians. There were mob-fueled riots in 1920, 1921, and again in 1929, when, on a single day, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron alone. But it was not until April 19, 1936, known as “The Bloody Day in Jaffa,” that the British realized that the problem was getting out of control. Desperate, they produced the Peel Report, which first presented the idea of partition, better known as the two-state solution. Soon after, an irrigation expert named Douglas Gordon Harris took a green marker to a map and divided Mandate Palestine in two. Most leaders around the world did not like this idea of partition but acknowledged that it had the best chance of stopping the cycle of violence. Some foresaw the disaster it would bring: as British diplomat George Rendel wrote at the time, “Are we not, then, by creating this little Jewish state, simply placing on the coast of Asia a kind of time-bomb, which must inevitably explode?”

Muslim Palestinians, furious at the idea of an independent Jewish state, launched a general strike in protest. Under the guidance of exiled Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, they boycotted any negotiations with the British, much less Jewish leaders, and assassinated any “traitors” who dissented. The strike and boycotts were accompanied by regular attacks on Jewish civilians and British police, as well as spontaneous riots. In response, the British imprisoned hundreds of Palestinians and razed dozens of Palestinian homes. As historian Matthew Hughes points out Britain’s Pacification of Palestine (2019), Israel’s present-day practices in the West Bank are simply inherited from Britain’s “systematic, systemic, officially sanctioned policy of destruction, punishment, reprisal, and brutality that fractured and impoverished the Palestinian population.”

Despite such punishments, Muslim Palestinians kept up their revolt for three years. Granted, the unrest persuaded Britain to promise lower Jewish immigration numbers, but the violence destroyed the Palestinians’ economy and gave them a reputation for being incapable of political negotiation. As British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain noted: “I see no light. The Jews as far as I can judge are behaving admirably [and] most reasonably & pathetically patient in the face of brutal realities. The Arabs on the other hand are intransigent, unfair, prejudiced and unreliable.”

Kessler’s account of the Great Revolt’s cycle of violence reads like doomscrolling, with one atrocious event following another. What’s clear from his book is that most Muslim Palestinians did not understand that, for the Jews, the conflict was existential. That Europeans were persecuting Jewish people, moreover, wasn’t the fault of the Arabs. And although the Jews understood that the Arabs would not happily give up their land, they likewise felt that they had no choice but to carve a Jewish sovereign state out of Palestine, even if that meant suffering continued attacks. On the eve of the Great Revolt, David Ben-Gurion—the socialist leader of the Yishuv, the nascent Jewish nation—told George Antonius (whom Kessler calls “Arab Palestine’s most gifted man”) that “if the choice were between pogroms in Poland and Germany and pogroms in the Land of Israel, he would choose the latter.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, Ben-Gurion promoted a policy of havlagah, or self-restraint in response to attacks, which earned respect abroad. As a result, the British allowed the Yishuv to form the Haganah, or defensive forces, though it remained one of the community’s least developed institutions. But as the violence of the Great Revolt dragged on, the British facilitated the training and arming of Jews on a large scale, and the Haganah “transformed from a loose confederation of local night-watchmen to a unified, mobile, countrywide Jewish paramilitary, and one increasingly willing to pursue the enemy.” By 1938, the Haganah had 25,000 members. Combined with the creation of the Irgun, the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Yishuv began fighting back—and the country plunged into chaos.

By mid-1939, Franco had conquered Spain, and Hitler was about to invade Poland. Out of a strategic cynicism, Britain determined it needed to appease the Arab nations, for fear they might side with the fascists. Thus, in what the Jewish Agency, an organization dedicated to bringing European Jewry to Palestine, considered a “surrender to Arab terrorism,” London issued the MacDonald White Paper, which essentially closed Jewish immigration to Palestine, rescinded the Balfour Declaration, and abandoned the two-state solution.

The Great Revolt, it seemed, had paid off.

Six nightmare years later, however, the systematic murder of six million Jews necessitated the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. On November 29, 1947, after Palestinian Jews had launched their own revolt, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into two states, according to Harris’s Green Line. Immediately, British-backed Muslim Palestinians and five neighboring Arab states attacked Israel. Incredibly, Israeli forces fought off the siege and secured the newborn state’s existence. Yet Kessler asserts that this outcome was inevitable. As he writes, the reality was “that the Arabs of Palestine had effectively already lost the war, and with it most of the country, a decade in advance.” This is what has been overlooked by the countless books about the 1947–1949 war. The Great Revolt, writes Kessler,

had left Palestine’s Arabs mortally wounded for the decisive contest with Zionism that awaited after peace. Tens of thousands were dead, imprisoned, or in exile. The political, business, and landed elite were profoundly divided; internecine feuding had riven virtually every town and village. The economy was in ruins, but worse, so too was national morale.

Moreover, the Israeli army was able to plow through the Arab forces only because of the fighting experience it gained during the Great Revolt.

These insights aren’t necessarily unique to Kessler; he refers to Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi’s conclusion that the Great Revolt made the Nakba (Catastrophe) “a foregone conclusion.” Even so, Palestine 1936 provides a revealing understanding of the origin of today’s Israel-Palestine conflict—it also makes the situation seem all the more impossible to untangle.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Randy Rosenthal has a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University, where he teaches writing. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.


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