1920 - The year the conflict commenced

The conflict commenced in Spring 1920 when the main actors, Jews, Arabs and British clashed in the streets and alleys of Jerusalem. Op-ed.

Yisrael Medad ,

Riots at Ras El-Amoud, Jerusalem
Riots at Ras El-Amoud, Jerusalem
Flash 90

The Arab world's conflict with Israel and Zionism did not begin with a supposed conquest and occupation in 1967 nor did it begin in 1948, the year of the creation of the state of Israel. Neither was it 1929 as claimed by Hillel Cohen, for example, when three weeks of murderous riots swept the Palestine Mandate and Arabs killed and raped hundreds of Jews.

And by `conflict` I mean not only an ideological confrontation which the PLO Charter marks as the year 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was issued, or the first instances of violence over property and land purchaes, as in Jerusalem in 1851 or Petah Tikva in 1886, among many cases of clashes which led to the murder or injuring of Jews, some of which I have listed here.

My intention is to point out the critical moment when the aspirations of Jews, the intentions of the British and the wishes of the Arabs came together - and the result made it quite obvious that from this moment on there would be continued tensions of a political, economic, diplomatic and security character,
with only one winner.

The conflict commenced in 1920 when the three main actors, the Jews, the Arabs and the British clashed during the Passover holiday in the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem. Present were British military government commanders such as Ronald Storrs and Louis Bols; Arabs such as the future Mufti Amin Al-Husseini and Zionists including Pinchas Rutenberg and Ze`ev Jabotinsky.

While the claim is heard that the McMahon-Hussei Correspondence that began in July 1915, pointed to a British willingness to allot the area of Palestine to become part of a grand Arab State, the fact is that already at the end of June, British policy as contained in the De Bunsen Report was firm that Palestine was a special case and needed to be treated as a separate issue with regard to post-War negotiations if Turkey were defeated. In fact, Gt. Britain needed to retain Palestine in its sphere.

On December 1917, a month after the publication of the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the Jewish Legion, General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem, ending four centuries of Moslem Ottoman Empire rule, although military actions continued into September including in the area of Transjordan in which Jabotinsky and the Jewish Legion participated when they captured E-Salt.

A Military Government, "Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (South)", was set up. In mid-April 1918, the seven members of the Zionist Commission arrived in the country determined to assure that the developments follow the British policy decision to reconstitute the historic Jewish homeland.

By early May, Jaffa Arabs established a Muslim-Christian Association (MCA) in Jaffa and their anti-Zionist activity set about in earnest. The lines of the conflict-to-come were being drawn. In fact, the occasion of the marking of the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration by processions of Jewish school children on November 2, 1918 developed into scenes of Arab ruffians, encouraged by the Arab Mayor and other officials, assaulting them. Jabotinsky wrote that there was a pogrom atmosphere and decried the lack of essential British security personnel.

In June 1918, representing the Zionist Commission, Weizmann traveled to southern Transjordan, there to meet Faisal, a move originally suggested by General Gilbert Clayton in February 1918. The intention was to create a mutual understanding that would result in an agreement between the two whereby both an Arab Kingdom and Jewish settlement in Palestine could proceed. That was followed in October with a meeting between Nahum Sokolov and Faisal and the talks then culminated in January 1919.

At the June 4 meeting, Weizmann, true to his overly moderate position, let Faisal know that the Jews did not wish to establish a Jewish State in Palestine, but were willing to live under the suzerainty of Great Britain, and there was no intention of ousting anybody from the country. For his part, Faisal stated that he quite realized the value of the Jews to Palestine, and that he himself was quite sympathetic to Jewish national aspirations. The January 3, 1919 agreement which followed, based on a two-state solution, with an Arab state to include the entire area of Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia or as Faisal described it: as stretching north of Alexandretta until the shores of the Indian Ocean in the south, and a Jewish Palestine, led to hopes which were dashed by Faisal`s removal from his Damascus throne in 1920.

In the meantime, between June 10 and July 21, 1919, the King-Crane Commission, sponsored by the American Administration, was visiting the area of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Its report, delivered to the Paris Peace Conference, was quite negative to Zionism and buoyed Arab aspirations of ending what they viewed as Zionist encroachment in Palestine.

Early on during his 1918 visit, Weizmann needed to offset Arab propaganda, both locally and in a meeting with the Sultan of Egypt. The charge was that the Zionists were planning to replace the Dome of the Rock with a Temple. This potential religious-activated fuse that could lead to an explosion was deeply imbedded in the Moslem distrust of Jewish designs. The British brought in to Jerusalem from Egypt a special all Moslem unit, mainly of Indian soldiers serving in the Expeditionary Force, to guard the Temple Mount.

As Robert Mazza footnotes, according to PRO FO 371/3061 War Office to Headquarters Cairo, London, 21 November 1917, the Prime Minister instructed Allenby that in his first announcement regarding the ‘occupation of Jerusalem in House of Commons...(that) you entered Holy
City on foot…That Mosque of Omar and area around it has been placed under exclusive Moslem control.’ Thus, the issue of the holy sites and their status quo was already a high profile matter. Weizmann did, however, propose to the British in May that the Zionists be permitted to purchase the Western Wall and its forecourt. That request was rejected by Gilbert F. Clayton, first Chief Administrator of Palestine, in June.

The scheme was taken up again in 1918, but again opposition arose and again it was abandoned. After the April 1920 Riots, the matter was discussed by the Palin Commission as just at that time, Moslems had been engaged in repairing the upper courses of the wall. That led to complaints by the Jewish community. The Zionist Commission protested to Colonel Storrs in a May 16 letter that the act of repairing the wall by the Moslems is a 'sacrilege'.

Some six weeks after the riots, on May 30, then Chief Rabbi Kook wrote that the Temple area and the whole of the Mount are "bound in the end to revert to us" and asked the Government to entrust the Wailing Wall "to the care and control of the Representatives of Jewry: and any reparations that shall be required we shall carry out ourselves".

The Jerusalem Rabbinate also wrote to Storrs on June 2 that the "The Holy Wall, the Wailing Wall is the property of Israel as far as the heavens and no other person or persons is allowed to touch it...At the same time we beg to declare our right to recognize the sacredness of the whole Moriah and Temple area; we are sure that the day will come and God will deliver his people; and our Holy Temple will be rebuilt in its glory as in the days of old...". For the British, all this was quite suspicious. They took the view, however, that regarding the Western Wall, Jews, while claiming it as their possession, have no claim in law, for the Wall together with the rest of the Haram is the property of the Sultan of Turkey. For the Moslems the Jewish attitude regarding the Temple Mount was quite an affront.

In addition to the above-mentioned MCA, Amin al-Husseini had opened a branch of the Syrian-based 'Arab Club' (El-Nadi al-Arabi) in Jerusalem on November 18 which was countered by the Nashashibi-clan`s 'Literary Club' (Al-Muntada al-Adabi). There were four other societies in Jerusalem alone. The self-inflicted internal dissension and rivalry was thus born, despite a Supreme Committee of the Arab Societies in Palestine being established in November 1919 in Haifa, which proved fatal for Arab Palestinian unity throughout the Mandate year, leading to assassinations and internal terror over the next two decades and more.

Moreover, during this time and into the 1920s, the Arab claim was that Palestine was part of Southern Syria and the demand was for Palestine to be rejoined with Syria and not become itself independent.

In late December 1918, an Eretz Yisrael Conference was convened in Jaffa with the participation of 114 delegates and produced a scheme for a provisional government for the country. Notably, it adopted the principle of national community autonomy and the equality of the Hebrew and Arabic languages. On the other side of the divide, the first Palestine Arab Congress was held in Jerusalem at the end of January and the first week of February 1919. Its resolutions confirmed the Syrian orientation:

"We consider Palestine nothing but part of Arab Syria and it has never been separated from it at any stage…tied to it by national, religious, linguistic, moral, economic, and geographic bounds…Our district Southern Syria or Palestine should be not separated from the Independent Arab Syrian Government and be free from all foreign influence".

All during 1918 and throughout 1919, the Jewish Yishuv was also organizing itself and reestablishing various representative bodies such as City Councils (Va`adei HaIr), parties, teachers` unions and trade labor assemblies. In Jerusalem in April a Rabbinical Assembly was founded. On July 24, 1918, a foundation-stone laying ceremony was conducted on Mount Scopus for the future Hebrew University. On the eve of Succot, Zichron Yaakov was liberated. The Third Wave of Aliyah began in 1919, with approximately 40,000 Jews coming to Palestine over the following four years.

In Versailles outside Paris, the Peace Conference took place from mid-January, and on February 27, the Zionist delegation made its proposals. The Land of Israel borders were to reach to the Litani River in the north, in the south, a line from a point near Akaba to El Arish and to the east, just west of the Hejaz Railway. But those were not to be. The Balfour Declaration would be implemented through the High Contracting Parties recognizing the historic title of the Jewish people to Palestine and the right of the Jews to reconstitute in Palestine their national homem but that the sovereign possession of Palestine was to be vested in the League of Nations and the Government entrusted to Great Britain as Mandatory of the League.

Faisal, in correspondence with Felix Frankfurter, continued to express a sympathy with Zionist aims. It was becoming apparent, however, that Faisal`s political aims, upon which he had stipulated his agreement to accept Zionist goals, were being stymied and that would ultimately lead to a collapse of nascent Jewish-Arab cooperation.

On July 2, 1919, the Syrian Congress, representing prominent Arab families in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, adopted a resolution rejecting French rights to Syria, claiming Lebanon and Palestine as inseparable parts of Syria, and opposing Jewish immigration. This began to influence events in British-occupied Palestine. Earlier, at the end of March, British authorities in Palestine had denied Arabs a permit to demonstrate against Zionism. On October 25, 1919, a public statement by the MCA spoke of their opposition to giving their land to Zionist emigrants wishing to appropriate their land.

This came after a meeting between Menachem Ussishkin and Musa Kazim al-Huseini, effectively the mayor of Jerusalem, on October 8, when al-Husseini was bluntly told that Palestine would be separated from Syria and be under British protection, he replied: "We demand no separation from Syria". Throughout 1919, the pan-Syrian national theme was the only political goal of the Arabs of Palestine. The slogan at that time was "Unity, Unity, From the Taurus [Mountains] to Rafah [in Gaza], Unity, Unity."

Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, then still on active military duty, foresaw in March 1919, as he wrote to Lloyd George, that the Jews and Arabs would clash in the future and suggested investing British trust in the loyalty of the Jews. He also advised that "the Palestine Administration must be purged of those elements hostile to Zionism." These opinions got him appointed Chief Political Officer in August 1919. By this time, the population of the territory, not including Transjordan was estimated to be 639,000 of which 512,090 were Moslems, 61,000 Christians and 66,100 Jews. Samaritans residing in Nablus numbered 153. There was, however, a Jewish majority in Jerusalem since the 1860s.

By late 1919, the reports of agents engaged in intelligence work for the Zionists were indicating a rise in the active hostility developing among the Arab population. Even a letter which used the phrase to describe Zionist intentions as a Jewish State "as Jewish as England is English" written by a Joseph Cohen in a letter to The Times of September 19th, 1919 was later noted as a contributory factor in the increase of Arab anger.

On November 27, 1919, a protest against Zionism was sent to the U.S. Consulate offices in Haifa which including a direct threat of violence: ‘We hereby declare that we are not responsible for any trouble or disorder that may occur in this country as a consequence of the obvious general excitement and dissatisfaction.’ Jabotinsky was requested by Weizmann, who had returned to the country in October, to begin efforts to raise a self-defense unit as he had done in Odessa in 1905, based on his military service in the Legion.

On December 22, Tel Hai was attacked by marauding Bedouins who were rebelling against the French forces and Schneur Shapushnik was killed. On February 2, in another attack on Tel Hai, Aharon Sher was killed. In January 1920, at a meeting held at Nablus, the Supreme Committee of Arab Societies, decided to boycott economic Jewish activities (Islamic–Christian Conference to American Representative, Nablus, Jan. 16, 1920)

The French pressure to oppose Faisal`s promoted reign in Damascus began to affect the pro-Syrian elements in Palestine as did the non-publication of the King-Crane Commission report of the previous summer. The Damascus Congress in March had declared independence, naming Faisal as King of Syria and Palestine (and his brother Abdullah as King of Mesopotamia). Parallel to these developments, in Palestine itself, on February 27, non-violent demonstrations took place in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. Shops closed down and the British district officials were presented with petitions. In Jerusalem, an estimated one thousand protesters marched, carrying banners with slogans such as "Stop Zionist Immigration" and "Our Country For Us".

The Palin Report at Paragraph 49 described it in these words: The demonstration which was attended by between two and three thousand persons, passed off quietly and the police kept the people well in hand, in spite of a provocative incident by the Jews in starting the Hatikva, the Jewish National Anthem as the procession was passing the Jewish Blind School.

On March 1, Tel Hai in the Upper Galilee, which did not receive promised reinforcements, was overrun, a casualty of the Franco-Syrian War. Joseph Trumpeldor was killed as he defended the settlement along with five others that day. On March 8, a day after Faisal was proclaimed king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in Damascus, a second demonstration occurred in Jerusalem, this time a more event while, in the midst of this, on March 6 (or 26) Yehoshua Hankin met with a group of Syrian nationalists in Jerusalem led by Najib Sfeir and obtained an understanding that Palestine will become a Jewish national home.

A Zionist intelligence report detailed the route of the demonstrators as exiting the Haram courtyard. Then being joined by Bethlehem Christians, they left the Old City through the Damascus Gate to the Augusta Victoria Hospice where the offices of the Military Governor were, located on the Mount of Olives, and then back down passing in front of foreign consulates. Coming back to the municipality building, speeches were made. Jewish passers-byes were attacked and five were injured before the Arabs were dispersed. The slogans shouted out were "Death to Jews" or "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!"

The speeches were described as of a violently political character, there was a good deal of shouting against the Jews, and the temper of the mob was "decidedly nasty". There was some stone throwing. Even the Palin Report concludes that `there is no doubt that the attitude of the mob on this occasion was seditious and extremely threatening. The Chief Administrator issued a prohibition on further demonstrations on March 11. The newly-founded Haaretz daily was reporting on what was being published in the Arabic press and so the political intentions of the Arabs were clear for all. On March 24, Haaretz reported that at a meeting of the Vaad Hair (the Jewish town council) the previous night, it was noted that Arabs had been attacking Jews going to the Western Wall as well as Jewish passersby on Hebron Road.

The Jewish self-defence force, now overseen both by Jabotinsky and Pinchas Rutenberg, increased recruitment, training and obtaining of arms during March. By the end of the month, 600 volunteers had been absorbed. Rudimentary training was carried out at the Lemel School and exercises in military-style movement was conducted on the slope of Mt. Scopus in a purposeful attempt to goad the British into taking a more serious attitude to the question of Jewish security.

However, the elections, set for April 19, for the first Asefat Nivcharim (Representative Assembly] and women`suffrage was the main focus of attention (over which Jabotinsky got into an argument with Rabbi A.Y. Kook as Jabotinsky argued for full representation of women in the electoral process whereas Rabbi Kook opposed women participating in the elections).

The first week of April brought together three holidays and a festival: Passover, Easter and Nebi Mussa. April 2 was Good Friday. For the Jews, Passover began Friday evening. The Moslems would mark Nebi Mussa. Jerusalem was as a magnet; all congregating into the city. The Nebi Mussa procession, with band and banners and marches was conducted on the Friday and Saturday without any violence. However, Sunday developed into a day of blood.

As described in the Palin Report, the Nebi Mussa procession halted in the Jaffa road outside the Jaffa Gate to hear speeches delivered by Sheikh Aref al-Aref. He was the editor of the Suriya al-Janubiya (Southern Syria) newspaper, the organ of the al-Nadi al-'Arabi. After the events, he was arrested and charged with incitement, but taking advantage of being let out on bail, he escaped to Syria together with his fellow conspirator Haj Amin al-Husseini. The crowd then halted further up the road and heard more speeches of a political character delivered from the balconies of the municipality and the Nadi el Arabi Club by the Mayor and other prominent Moslems, culminating in the portrait of Emir Feisal being displayed. Shouts of "King of Syria and Palestine" went up. The portrait was then carried in the procession with the flags.

By this time, the crowd had gotten itself into a highly self-inflamed condition and were being whipped up towards a frenzy. They moved off to the Jaffa Gate, the police moving them along. Someone had been filming opposite the Amdursky Hotel (inside the Jaffa Gate) with groups dancing with sword play.

The violence seems to have exploded, literally, when, at a point outside the gate somewhere between Christaki's Pharmacy and the Credit Lyonnais Bank, something was set off. The exact incident which caused the explosion has not been clearly ascertained, but on the evidence of Messrs. Russell and Perrott, the report points to the origin of the affair as being an attack by a Moslem on some person in the crowd whose part was then taken by a Jewish soldier.

[A] riot broke out, the people began to run about and stones were thrown at the Jews…there were screams…I saw one Hebronite approach a Jewish shoeshine boy, who hid behind a sack in one of the wall’s comers next to Jaffa Gate, and take his box and beat him over the head. He screamed and began to run…The riot reached its zenith. All shouted, ‘Muhammad’s religion was born with the sword’ … my soul is nauseated and depressed.

The understaffed police forces proved to be very ineffective. After an hour and a half, troops were brought in. Another two hours would pass before calm was restored.

Jabotinsky and 19 other members of the Hagana were arrested, tried and sentenced to jail terms, with Jabotinsky receiving no less than 15 years as he was convicted of possessing arms. Arrested on April 7, Jabotinsky spent the rest of April, all of May and June in Acco Prison with his fellow self-defense activists. After protest, they were released on July 7. Aref and al-Husseini were charged with inciting the Arab crowds with an inflammatory speech and sentenced by military court held in camera to ten years imprisonment in absentia, since he had already violated his bail by fleeing to Transjordan to avoid arrest.

Beyond the immediate loss of life and property, the threat to the essential Zionist project became apparent. In an April 12 letter to Allenby, Bols, seeking to deflect harsh criticism of his conduct, suggested that the Zionist Commission be dissolved and called it an `irritant to the native (Arab) population`. It had become a quasi-government, he asserted, mirroring the departments of the Military Administration. Zionists were `being privileged and all the way were complaining of British prejudice and bias towards them`. Lieutenant-Colonel L.R. Waters-Taylor, the Military Administration`s finance advisor, was proven to have been also an advisor to Amin el Husseini.

Within just two months, matters turned around. Herbert Samuel arrived to assume the position of High Commissioner and on April 24, the San Remo Conference decision confirmed Britain`s Mandate over Palestine. Nevertheless, the administration he inherited was far from being apro-Zionist and Balfour Declaration-supporting.

One odd conclusion of these events culminating in the Riots is that of Mazza:

With the creation of political organisations on both sides - the Zionists with the Zionist Commission, later to become the Jewish Agency, and the formation of Muslim-Christian associations and later Arab societies - and the absence of political institutions, violence became a tool for political communication.

In the first place Arab violence responding to Jewish national actions, such as purchasing property and farming preceded 1920 by almost 70 years. In the second, Jews built up a very complex political structure in Mandate Palestine. The Arabs did not, leaving political mainly to the Mufti although there were political parties if ineffective due to rivalries of the noble/notable families and clans.
Although the Military Administration ended on June 30, 1920, the direction taken by Samuel and subsequent officials was to prove inherently corrosive.

In the June 25, 1920 issue the The Sentinel, based on a report of the J.C.B. (Jewish Correspondence Bureau forerunner of the JTA), Menachem Ussishkin presumed this is what would happen
M. M. Ussishkin, the noted Russian Zionist leader who has just returned from an extended stay in Palestine, declares that the situation there is steadily improving. The English government and the Zionists have arrived at the following program with regard to the future of Palestine : Immigration will be carried on, on a broad scale and will be controlled by the Zionists. The purchase of land will be centralized by the Zionists through their acquirement of istateland. All inhabitants will have complete internal cultural and judicial autonomy. The boundaries will extend to the Litany river and the Hedjas railway. A great national loan will have to be raised and the budget for next year will amount to 300,000 pounds. The regular transportation of immigrants at the rate of 3,000 monthly will commence in autumn and will be gradually increased. The Jewish Assembly in Palestine which will soon open will be made the supreme legislative body.

In reality, Transjordan was separated from the territory of the Jewish National Home, anti-Zionist officials remained (such as ET Richmond), a second round of riots broke out in May 1921 and in Jerusalem in November 1921 and in June 1922, the Churchill White Paper was published which indicated that

it is the intention of His Majesty's government to foster the establishment of a full measure of self government in Palestine. But they are of the opinion that, in the special circumstances of that country, this should be accomplished by gradual stages and not suddenly.

and as for Jewish arrivals,

immigration cannot be so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals.

Moreover, it starkly declared that what is meant by the development of the Jewish National Home in Palestine, it may be answered that it is not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, and furthermore

Unauthorized statements have been made to the effect that the purpose in view is to create a wholly Jewish Palestine. Phrases have been used such as that Palestine is to become "as Jewish as England is English." His Majesty's Government regard any such expectation as impracticable and have no such aim in view. Nor have they at any time contemplated, as appears to be feared by the Arab delegation, the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. They would draw attention to the fact that the terms of the Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded `in Palestine.'

T

he path led further on to the November 1928 Status Quo White Paper, the 1929 pogroms, the 1930 Passfield White Paper and the 1939 White Paper was thus set.

Yisrael Medad and his wife moved to Israel in 1970 and the family has lived at Shiloh since 1981. He was in the Betar youth movement in the US and UK., worked as a political aide to Members of Knesset and a Minister during 1981-1994, lectured at the Academy for National Studies 1977-1994, was director of Israel's Media Watch 1995-2000 and currently, works at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Besides appearing in various media publications, he had a weekly media show on Arutz 7 radio and serves as an unofficial spokesperson for the Jewish Communities in Judea & Samaria.




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