The Dialogue Project


Friday, June 21, 2002

Between early spring and late fall of 1948, Arab Palestine was radically transformed. At the beginning of that year, Arabs constituted over two thirds of the population of the country, and were a majority in fifteen of the country’s sixteen sub-districts. Beyond this, Arabs owned nearly 90% of Palestine’s privately owned land. In a few months of heavy fighting in the early spring of 1948, the military forces of a well-organized Jewish population of just over 600,000 people routed those of an Arab majority more than twice its size. In the months that followed, they decisively defeated several Arab armies, which had entered the country on May 15th 1948. Over this turbulent period, more than half of the nearly 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs were driven from or fled their homes. Those Palestinians who did not flee the conquered areas were reduced to a small minority within the new state of Israel (which now controlled about 77% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine). At the end of the fighting, Jordan took over the areas of Palestine controlled by its army west of the Jordan River, while the Egyptian army administered the strip it retained around Gaza adjacent to its borders. In the wake of this catastrophe -- al-Nakba, as it was inscribed in Palestinian memory -- the Palestinians found themselves living under a variety of alien regimes, were dispossessed of the vast bulk of their property, and had lost control over most aspects of their lives.

How and why did this momentous transformation happen? Most conventional accounts of the 1948 war tend to focus on events after May 15, 1948, the date when the state of Israel was founded, and the Arab armies intervened unsuccessfully in Palestine in the wake of the stunning collapse of the Palestinians. In fact, however, the decisive blows to the cohesion of Palestinian society were struck even before May 15th, during the early spring of 1948. Furthermore, it is the central argument of this essay that the underlying causes of this collapse, and of the larger Palestinian political failure, lay even further in the past, and were related to the constraints on and the structural weaknesses of the Palestinian political institutions, factionalism among the notable stratum which dominated Palestinian society and politics, and grave shortcomings in leadership. The specific shocks which led Palestinian society to disintegrate in the weeks before May 15th, came as the climax of an escalating series of bombings, ambushes, skirmishes, and pitched battles sparked by the passage on November 29, 1947, of United Nations General Assembly resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. During the first few months of this savage civil war, there were successes and subsequent reverses for both sides in heavy fighting in many parts of the country. However, from the beginning of March until mid-May of 1948, the striking superiority of the armed forces of the Zionist movement and the concomitant weaknesses of their Arab foes began to tell, and they won a series of conclusive victories over the Palestinians. These victories led to the fall of numerous Arab cities and towns, including several of the largest and most important ones, and of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the capture of a number of strategic roads, junctions and positions. The main consequence of these crushing defeats in the spring of 1948 was the expulsion of the first wave of Arabs from Palestine. This first exodus, before May 15th 1948, involved perhaps half the eventual total of 750,000 or so Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the fighting of 1948-1949.

May 15th, 1948 thus marked not only the birth of the state of Israel, but also the definitive defeat of the Palestinians by their Zionist foes, after about half a century of struggle between the two sides over control of the country. It also serves to mark the approximate mid-point in the expulsion and flight of roughly half of Palestine’s Arab population. This crushing defeat ended any lingering hope that the Arab state called for by the United Nations partition plan would ever see the light of day. Instead the putative Arab state was strangled at birth. It was the victim of the superior military capabilities of the nascent state of Israel, the hostility or indifference towards it of all the great powers and most of the Arab states, the collusion with Britain and Israel against the Palestinians of a number of Arab leaders, and the successive failures of the Palestinians themselves. Important though all these factors were in the defeat of the Palestinians, is the last one that will be the topic of much of the analysis that follows.

The scope of this defeat must be borne in mind if we are to understand its causes. Nevertheless, It is hard to convey fully the magnitude of the disaster that befell the Palestinians by the time the fighting ended with the armistices of 1949, even when it is summed up in the stark fact of the uprooting of more than half the Palestinian people. Another gauge of the extent of the Palestinians’ defeat is what happened to those Palestinians who lived in urban areas, who amounted to over 400,000 people at this time, about 30% of the total Arab population of the country. In the space of a few traumatic weeks in the spring of 1948, the seemingly impossible happened, as the Arabs lost control of Jaffa and Haifa, the country’s main ports, and the two Palestinian cities with the largest Arab populations. Beyond that, these cities were the most dynamic centers of Arab economic, intellectual and cultural life in Palestine at the time, as well as being the wealthiest, the most socially evolved, and the fastest growing.

Even before the state of Israel had been proclaimed on May 15, 1948, most of the Arab inhabitants of Jaffa and Haifa had been dispersed, and the bulk of their property had been seized. The same thing happened then or very soon afterwards to the Arab residents of the cities and towns of Lydda, Ramle, Acre, Safad, Tiberias, Beisan and Bir Sabe’. Together with Haifa and Jaffa, these centers included about half of the Palestinian urban population of the country, to which must be added the 30,000 Arabs who lived in the western part of Jerusalem and were driven from or forced to flee their homes at the same time. These new refugees from the urban areas of the country generally tended to be those Palestinians with the highest levels of literacy, skills, wealth and education.

An even worse fate befell the majority of Palestinians who lived in the countryside, where the decades-old struggle for control of land and strategic locations was being decided massively in favor of the Zionists. More than 400 of the over 500 Arab villages in Palestine had been taken over by the Israeli victors by the time the fighting ended with the 1949 armistices between Israel and the Arab states. The inhabitants of these villages were driven out or fled in terror, their land was confiscated, and they were forbidden to return. These were sweeping changes: in the 77% of the land area of Palestine which came under Israeli domination, the end result of this process was the creation of a sizable Jewish majority, and the shift of over 18 million of the country’s 26 million dunams from Arab to Jewish control. They were long lasting changes as well: more than half a century later, the basic demographic and property contours created by this seismic event are still extant. Many explanations have been offered for this debacle, in which Palestinian society crumbled with a rapidity that astonished even its Zionist opponents. The standard semi-official Israeli interpretation of these events -- which has decisively shaped the way they have been understood in the West to this day -- ascribed responsibility entirely to the Arabs. The core of this explanation was that the Palestinians left because Arab leaders, bent on the destruction of Israel, told them to flee. Over the past decade or so, a number of scholars, most of them Israelis, using newly opened Israeli and British archives, have decisively refuted this interpretation in its entirety. In the process they have fundamentally undermined a number of key myths long propagated by Israel. The Israeli “new historians,” as they are called in Israel, have utilized newly discovered evidence from the Zionist and Israeli state archives, and other documents, to confirm in particular these earlier refutations of what turn out to have been entirely baseless claims that Arab leaders told the Palestinians to flee. Much else of importance has been established or clarified by this newly published revisionist history. Neverthless, given the Israeli and Western sources from which their data were mainly drawn, and their primary focus on Israel, the analyses of the new historians have related primarily to the actions of Israel and the great powers, and only secondarily to those of the Arab states and the Palestinians. In explaining the actions of the Palestinians, these accounts have generally added little, stressing the superior power of the Zionists, the weakness of Arab social and political cohesion, and the flight of the Arab upper and middle classes before the fighting reached its height. Most Arab histories of what happened in 1948 have tended to stress that the Palestinians were overwhelmed by massively superior force. The focus in these accounts is on the strength of the Zionist forces, the complicity with the Zionists of the withdrawing British, and the invaluable support for them of the United States and the USSR. Other Arab authors stress the collusion with Israel of Transjordan, which fielded by far the most powerful Arab army in Palestine, the relative military weakness of the Arab states, and the debilitating internecine divisions among them. Yet others underscore the employment by the Zionist forces of terrorist attacks on civilians, notably at Deir Yasin, and their intense bombardments of heavily populated urban areas, especially in the major cities of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem.

There can be no question that the Palestinians, although they outnumbered the Jewish population of Palestine, were facing superior forces on a number of levels. This imbalance in favor of the yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) was naturally not reflected in the traditional Israeli version of the history of the conflict. This version described the yishuv as outnumbered, beleaguered and desperate in its conflict with the Palestinians. Such a false image reflected the uninformed and emotional views of many in the yishuv, and in the Jewish diaspora, and was particularly understandable in the wake of the Holocaust. It reflected as well as the understanding of many, then and since, of the entire course of Jewish history, whereby the Jews were necessarily and always victims (as they almost invariably were for millennia in Christian Europe). However, insofar as Palestine in 1948 is concerned, it cannot be sustained by an objective examination either of the facts, or of the results of the conflict. One of the most recent Israeli historians of the fighting, Haim Levehnberg, has recognized the imbalance in favor of the Zionists at this time. His account, which is generally unsympathetic to the Palestinians, describes the lack of trained, regular Palestinian forces, the absence of a centralized command structure or a reliable source of weapons, and other elements of Palestinian military weakness, by contrast with the relatively formidable capabilities of the Zionist forces.

Nevertheless, superior though the Zionist forces were in numerous respects, the Palestinians had several apparent advantages. These included their massive predominance in numbers and the presence of hundreds of Arab villages all over the country, notably along many of its most strategic roads. The Arabs also had a cadre of veteran guerrilla fighters and a few competent military leaders who had survived the ferocious British repression of the 1936-39 revolt, and a number of specialists just as willing and able to use terror tactics as any among the Zionists. Finally, they expected that they would receive a degree of support from the surrounding Arab world. If some Jews in Palestine perceived themselves as facing an uphill fight against the Arabs, this was certainly understandable in view of these factors, although in the end most of them were considerably less formidable than they initially appeared.

Moreover, when Zionist military capabilities were put to the test against the Palestinians with all their apparent advantages in the decisive battles of the spring of 1948, at the end of the day the Palestinians were not simply beaten, but were routed. Why did this happen? In particular, why were the Palestinians unable to bring such assets as they possessed to bear on the battlefield at the moment of decision? Why were they defeated in virtually all of the important military engagements from late March until the end of the Mandate on May 15th, 1948? And why did their defeats in the field lead to the virtually complete crumbling of so much of their society, and the flight of hundreds of thousands of their people?

As we have already noted, in Arab historiography the incapacities and errors of the Palestinians themselves have tended to get relatively little attention, although a few Palestinian historians have tried to answer questions such as those above, and to examine some of the internal reasons for the Palestinians’ failures. Instead, we have seen that the tendency in this historiography has been to focus on causes external to Palestinian society for an explanation of the disasters which befell it in 1948. This stress on the power of the Zionist movement, the support of the U.S. and the USSR for Zionism, and the complicity of key Arab regimes with the Zionists and with foreign powers hostile to the Palestinians is not entirely misplaced. It is moreover indisputable that the Zionists were much stronger militarily than the Palestinians, that even before the end of World War II the Zionist leadership had as its aim complete control of all of Palestine, and that the international situation was particularly favorable to their objectives at this time.

But explanations that focus on such external factors miss a crucial dimension, that of why the Palestinians were so weak, what they might have done better -- even given their numerous enemies and the unfavorable balance of power -- and why their defeat was so total. Some Arab historians have avoided such issues partly because they were sensitive ones, directing attention to internal Palestinian divisions that still have a painful echo. This also may have happened because such avenues of analysis were seen as serving the Israeli objective of drawing attention away from Israel’s responsibility for the events of 1948, notably its expulsion of the Palestinian refugees. In extreme forms, this tendency produces a narrative of the debacle of 1948 that denies the Palestinians agency in what happened, or indeed any responsibility for their own fate. For example, it is correct to focus on the significance of the strategic siting of Jewish settlements in the approaches to Jaffa in the preceding years as a factor in the fall of the city (and of similar factors in other Israeli victories in 1948). However, this begs the question of why there were no countervailing Palestinian measures over the decades before 1948 to counter these Zionist moves.

Before going further, it is important to stress that for all their flaws, the versions of history produced by this traditional Arab historiography are fundamentally different from the Israeli myths of origin that are currently being deconstructed by the Israeli “new historians.” This is true notably because it is not a myth that a determined enemy bent on taking control of their homeland subjected the Palestinians to overwhelming force. It is not a myth, moreover, that as a result of this process the Palestinian people were victims, regardless of what they might have done differently in this situation of formidable difficulty, and of the sins of omission or commission of their leaders. In this, as in so much else in this conflict, there can be no facile equivalence between the two sides, however much some may long for the appearance of Palestinian “new historians” to shatter the “myths” on the Arab side.

There are nonetheless important realities that the traditional Arab historiography fails to bring out. One is the fact that from early on in the conflict, while the Zionists were planning and acting like a state in embryo, the Palestinians were in general strikingly incapable of concerted planning and effective collective action. Beyond this, there is the fact that at various times the Palestinians faced crucial choices and took decisions, some of them probably misguided or worse, which must be objectively assessed. In a few cases - the rejection of the 1939 White Paper and of the 1947 partition resolution - Israeli writers and others sympathetic to Israel have obsessively and critically analyzed these decisions. In the case of the White Paper, the rejection by the dominant element of the Palestinian leadership - essentially the Mufti -- was clearly a mistake, although it might be asked how much would have been changed in the end had the Palestinians accepted. In the case of Partition, as Issa Khalaf shows in the conclusion to his excellent book, all the political choices facing the Palestinians in 1947-48 were appallingly bad ones.

Another example of this tendency to unduly overemphasize factors that were indeed important is the stress on the flight of the Palestinian upper and middle classes at the earliest stages of the fighting in 1947-48. It is true that this occurred in Palestine with important consequences, and it is a phenomenon worth analyzing. But it happened as well among the Jewish communities of Europe threatened by the Nazis (when flight was still possible), in the Islamic regions of Spain during the reconquista, and indeed in most times and places where extreme danger caused those able to do so to flee, as those who had the misfortune to live in Beirut during the war years from 1975 onwards had occasion to observe repeatedly. In the writings of some, such analyses seem motivated by a desire to cast blame on the Palestinians, and thus by implication to show that they deserved what happened to them, rather than by the impulse to understand objectively why what happened occurred as it did.

The latter, which is perhaps the primary aim of writing history, is the purpose of what follows. It is directed at beginning a process of clarifying the underlying causes of what happened in Palestine in 1948. This essay locates these causes well before the actual events of 1947-48, which it will touch on only in passing. These events have profound implications for the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which still revolves around issues with their origins in 1948, such as land, demography, refugees, restitution of lost property, and the status of Jerusalem, sovereignty, and borders. Beyond all of this, there is the secondary aim of attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past, and thereby to refocus our understanding of the present. Perhaps this also is a reason for writing history, although whether it is often successful may be questionable.


Any serious attempt to explain the underlying reasons for the defeat of the Palestinians in 1948, even if it focuses on the less-studied internal causes for this defeat, must do at least two things. Firstly, It must examine events well before that date, since to lay bare the roots of what happened in Palestine in 1948, it is necessary to analyze trends during the preceding decades of the British mandate, if not before that. Secondly, it must go beyond conventional assertions regarding the debilitating political and military effects of the deep divisions within Palestinian society, and among the elite, and attempt an analysis of these divisions which is not reductionist. Because of the profound impact of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39 in these and other spheres, it is particularly important to examine this uprising, and the long-lasting effects its failure had on Palestinian society and politics. Finally such an attempt must explain the striking lack of organization, cohesion and unanimity in the Palestinian polity before 1948, particularly in view of the contrast with other Arab national movements and with the situation of the yishuv in the same period. This essay will make a beginning in some of these directions, although its limited scope naturally precludes a full-scale analysis of all these questions.

Palestinian society before 1948 was unquestionably riven by internal divisions, and certainly lacked cohesion in a number of respects. However, in analyzing these internal divisions it is important to avoid the approach which, by comparing Palestinian society exclusively to the yishuv, concludes with a circular analysis which relates Palestinian political failures to the social backwardness of Palestinian society relative to Jewish society in Palestine. It is more fruitful to compare Palestinian society to other Arab societies, with which it was quite similar, rather than with the yishuv, with which it was utterly dissimilar in virtually every significant respect. This makes it possible to isolate some of the causes for the political failures of the Palestinian national movement, essentially by comparing the task it faced to those faced by other Arab national movements at the same time. On the political level, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the emerging Palestinian Arab polity was denied any of the attributes of “stateness,” and any access to the levers of state power. In this respect, the Palestinians were completely unlike the yishuv under the leadership of the Zionist movement, unlike the peoples of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and unlike the peoples in most other colonial and semi-colonial domains in the Middle East and North Africa in the inter-war years. Specifically, they had no international sanction for their national identity, no accepted and agreed upon context within which their putative nationhood and independence could express themselves, and no means of claiming the political or constitutional position which their majority status should “naturally” have brought them.

The contrast with the situation of most of the other Arab countries at the same time is highly illustrative. By 1946, the Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Transjordan were already independent states (at least in nominal terms). While Morocco, Tunisia and most of the Gulf sheikhdoms were European protectorates of different types, they too were at least nominally under the control of their own indigenous governments. Only Algeria (and Libya until the defeat of the Italians during World War II), was a pure colony under direct European rule, where the natives had virtually no rights and little or no control over their own affairs. Not coincidentally, Algeria and Libya, like Palestine, were the only Arab countries to be the targets of settler colonialism, which reserved most political and other rights to the incoming European settler population, rather than to the indigenous Arab majority.

Although Britain and France retained military bases and a measure of control even in nominally independent states in the inter-war period, all of the Arab countries besides Palestine (again, with the exception of Libya and Algeria) had recognized indigenous state structures. In every one of them, moreover, it was accepted that sovereignty would ultimately reside with the national majority, in accordance with the Wilsonian principles embodied in the Covenant of the League of Nations. This was true even if in virtually every Arab country before World War II, some of the specific powers and attributes of sovereignty were being temporarily withheld by the colonial powers, and even if there was an ongoing struggle for the transfer of these powers and attributes. Thus the positions of the colonial powers in most Arab countries in this period (whether they were mandates or not) were predicated on the assumption that there existed in each case a people in being or in emergence, with the eventual right to independence and statehood.

The Zionists were in a position analogous to that of these Arab peoples, which was explicitly recognized in the terms of the Mandate for Palestine. The Mandate reprised the wording of the Balfour Declaration in speaking of a “Jewish people” with a right to a “national home,” and recognized the Zionist movement, under the name of the Jewish Agency, as a “public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration” in order to establish this home. In stark contrast, the Palestinians were both explicitly and by omission denied the same national recognition and institutional framework. The Mandate for Palestine as promulgated by the League of Nations on 24 July 1922 mentioned the “civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The wording of this document is significant, for it does not mention the existence of the Palestinians as a people - they are described only as “non-Jewish communities” - nor their political or national rights. In fact, the Palestinian Arabs as such, who constituted over 90% of the population of the country when the British occupied the country in 1917, are not mentioned by name either in the Balfour Declaration or in the Mandate. This was certainly not a coincidental omission, as was shown by the way that the Mandate was implemented in the years that followed.

The governmental system set up by the British to execute the terms of the Mandate reflected the basic ideas of that document. The Palestinian Arabs were not given access to any significant positions of authority in the British mandatory government. This was in distinction to the other Class A Mandates, governed under their British and French High Commissioners by an Amir and Prime Minister in Transjordan, a King and Prime Minister in Iraq, and Presidents and Prime Ministers in Syria and Lebanon. Even when some of those in these positions were no more than puppets or figureheads, they had nominal authority, and sometimes much more. In Palestine the British High Commissioner was the highest, indeed the sole, source of authority in the land, there was no Parliament or any other elected representative body, and no cabinet, nor were there any responsible Arab officials. Neither were the Palestinians given the right to create their own powerful, autonomous para-state structure, with recognized international reach, as the Zionists were with the Jewish Agency, which the terms of the Mandate specifically enjoined the British to establish and assist. A 1923 British proposal for an Arab Agency to be appointed by the High Commissioner (rather than elected as in the Jewish case) was, in the words of Ann Mosely Lesch, “a pale reflection of the Jewish agency,” without sanction in the Mandate, and without international standing.

The significance of the quasi-official status accorded to the Jewish Agency by Britain and the League of Nations through the Mandate cannot be over-emphasized. It gave the Zionist movement an international legitimacy and guaranteed access in London and Geneva which were invaluable, besides providing the framework within which the Israeli para-state could be constructed without hindrance, and indeed with ample British support. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that the generous support of the greatest imperial power of the age was an invaluable asset for the Zionist movement in overcoming its Palestinian opponents. In view of an amnesiac strain of Zionist historiography which focuses on the animosity between the Zionist movement and Britain at the end of the Mandate and tries to blot out everything else, it is worth stressing that for over two decades Britain faithfully supported the Zionists in almost everything. This was true notwithstanding ceaseless carping by the Zionists that they were not getting enough assistance from Britain. British support continued even after the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 forced issuance of the 1939 White Paper, which finally put a ceiling on what the Zionists could extract from the terms of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate. One year later, the elevation of Winston Churchill to the post of Prime Minister meant that for the next five years, the most ardent Zionist in British public life directed British policy in Palestine, and nullified much of the effect of the White Paper. The total time between 1917 and 1948 during which the Zionists did not bask in the favor of the British government thus came to about four years.

Before 1939 there were a few British attempts to redress this structural imbalance of the Mandate regime which favored the Zionists, such as different proposals for a legislative assembly or for an Arab agency. Whether the Palestinians might have obtained tactical advantage by accepting some of these proposals, and turning the resulting institutions to their advantage, or whether their ability to do so would have suffered from the persistent divisions that plagued their elite, is impossible to say. In any case, these proposals were fatally compromised in Arab eyes by the requirement that they accept the terms of the Mandate, which enshrined the inferior status of the Arab majority by comparison with that of the Jews, and denied them the rights which should flow from majority status. In other words, the Palestinian Arabs were not accorded the right of national self-determination and an internationally accepted status as were the Jews of Palestine, and as were the peoples of the other Mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan. Instead, these British proposals (when not withdrawn or nullified by the British themselves) would have allowed the Palestinians to share with the Jews in some of the functions of government. Unlike the Jews, however, they were to do so not by right, as enshrined the documents defining the Mandate, but on sufferance, as it were.

These are significant factors in assessing the failures of the Palestinians. They meant that they did not have any access to the uncontested and recognized “neutral” forum/entity that a state or a para-state provides. For the yishuv and for the other Arab countries under the mandate system, such a forum proved invaluable for the polity to coalesce around or compete for, or as a focus for its action, even if complete control over it was denied by the colonial power. According to Issa Khalaf, “More fundamentally than self-governing institutions, the lack of effective power over the State meant that the Palestinian Arab notability which headed the national movement would be unable to use the resources of the state to centralize power in its hands and thereby develop into a cohesive stratum.”

Palestinian politics were thus condemned to an even higher level of frustration than politics in the other Arab countries. In the other mandates, there was a constant struggle with the mandatory power over the powers to be accorded to the national government, but there was no question about the existence or potential sovereignty of this government. In Egypt, the British and their Egyptian allies managed to keep the hugely popular Wafd party out of power for more than half of the 30 years from independence in 1922 until 1952, but vital elements of state power were nevertheless in some sense in Egyptian hands. The European powers maintained military forces in the Arab countries against the will of their populations, but the struggle against them was directed from within the state, or could be when control of the state could be won. The Palestinians never had any such advantages. And they proved unable to create their own autonomous forum from which to challenge the colonial authority and its Zionist protègés, for reasons to be examined below.


In analyzing the Palestinians’ lack of political cohesion, especially in the crucial decade of the 1930’s and afterwards, the lack of access to the mechanisms of state and the absence of any other recognized central national forum does not explain everything. As we have seen, however, it is important for understanding the differences between the situation of the Palestinian polity and that of both the yishuv and the national movements in other Arab states. There were also other important internal factors specific to Palestine, which help to explain why the Palestinians failed so completely on the political and military levels in the years leading up to 1948.

Deprived of access to control of the state and lacking a para-state forum, the Palestinians held a series of congresses which elected an Arab Executive, headed by Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni, which was unrecognized and often ignored by the British, and was largely ineffectual until its demise in 1934. The reasons for this are many. They include the divisions among the Palestinian elite, and their near-unanimous belief that they could persuade the British to change their policy of support for Zionism. This pathetic illusion, born of this elite’s immersion during the Ottoman period in what Albert Hourani called “the politics of the notables,” whereby they saw themselves as natural intermediaries between local society and the dominant external authority, died hard. As late as 1939, many Palestinian notables apparently seemed to believe that a simple exposition of the justice of the Palestinian case would bring the British to “see reason,” abandon Zionism, and grant the Palestinians independence, under their leadership of course.

In this near vacuum, Palestinian Arab politics were increasingly dominated by religious leaderships that had been authorized, encouraged and subsidized by the British. Indeed the religious-political institutions controlled by these leaders were very much in the nature of an “invented tradition,” in the words of Hobsbawm and Ranger. After their occupation of the country, the British created the entirely new post of “Grand Mufti of Palestine.” There previously had been a mufti of Jerusalem, which had always been an important post in the past, but one limited both in terms of geographical scope and authority. In the Ottoman and every other Islamic system, the post of mufti was clearly subordinate in power and prestige to that of the qadi. The qadi was appointed by the Ottoman state from the ranks of the official Ottoman religious establishment, and almost never came from a local family. The mufti, as well as the qadi’s deputy, the na’ib, who was also chief secretary of the shari’a court, were by contrast always local officials. This existing system was completely restructured by the British, who effectively placed the Mufti above all other religious officials in Palestine.

Similarly, in keeping with their vision of a Palestine composed of three religious communities (only one of which, the Jews, had national rights and status) the British created the Supreme Muslim Shari’a Council in 1921. This was an entirely new body - another invented tradition - which was entrusted with the revenues of the public awqaf in Palestine which had formerly been controlled by the Ottoman state, together with a number of other duties. As such it was meant to relieve non-Muslim Great Britain of having to take on directly some of the religious functions that the defunct Ottoman Empire had performed before 1918. In addition to giving the Council control over the considerable public awqaf revenues and the patronage which went with them, Britain gave it power to nominate and appoint qadis, members of the Shari’a Court of Appeal, and local Muftis. It could also hire and fire all awqaf and Shari’a court officials employed with awqaf funds.

Into both of these newly created positions of unprecedented power of Mufti and President of the Supreme Muslim Council, the British placed one man, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. His appointment as Mufti in 1921 has been a source of fierce controversy ever since. Hajj Amin al-Husayni, whose brother, and three generations of his family before him, had held the post of Hanafi Mufti of Jerusalem, was appointed by the British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, ahead of other apparently more qualified, and older, candidates. This was a gamble that this young radical, only recently pardoned for his nationalist activities, would serve British interests by maintaining calm in return for his elevation to the post. Despite constant Zionist complaints about him, it could be argued that the gamble paid off for the British until the mid-1930’s, when the Mufti could no longer contain popular passions. Among all the other leaders of national movements in Arab countries during this period (and among Palestinian leaders), the Mufti was alone in being a leading religious figure, whose base of power was a “traditional” religious institution, albeit a newly invented one.

Because of the considerable assets which Britain had put in his hands, and his consummate political skill, within a decade al-Husayni had become the dominant Palestinian political leader, and as such a lightning rod for the dissatisfaction of the Zionists. Here too there is an element of amnesiac historiography in the vilification of the Mufti, influenced by his subsequent career after 1936. In fact, al-Husayni served the British exceedingly well for the decade and a half after his appointment, at least until 1936 when he felt obliged to align himself with a growing popular rebellion against his former British masters. One indication of how valuable the British perceived the Mufti to be is the willingness of the notoriously tight-fisted Mandatory administration to subsidize him. When the revenues of the public awqaf properties declined after the Great Depression of 1929, and with it the revenues of the Supreme Muslim Council, the latter were supplemented by direct British subventions starting in 1931, which were naturally kept secret.

Eventually there emerged competing factional, union and political rivals to the range of institutions that the Mufti dominated (these institutions included a political party, al-Hizb al-‘Arabi al-Filastini [the Palestine Arab Party], headed by his cousin, Jamal al-Husayni), but this in the end only increased the factionalism of Palestinian society and politics. Although the Palestinians were able to present a united front to their foes for many years after World War I, the internal divisions among the elite eventually surfaced, ably exploited by the British, with their vast experience of dividing colonized societies in order to rule them more effectively. They were exploited as well by the Zionists, whose intelligence services presumably engaged in undercover activities among the Arabs of in these years that have yet to be fully elucidated. Irrespective of what the British and Zionists may have been doing in this regard, the Palestinian notables, deprived of any access to real power and frustrated at every turn by their stronger foes, were hopelessly split. By the 1930’s, the Palestinian leadership was polarized between a dominant faction led by the British-appointed Mufti, and another even more closely aligned with the British and led by the former Mayor of Jerusalem, Raghib al-Nashashibi, which fueded bitterly with one another. To these and other divisions among the elite must be added another one: that between most of the elite and a growing current of discontent among younger Palestinians, intellectuals and much of the middle classes. Discontent was also rife among the landless former peasants who were flocking to the cities, especially Haifa and Jaffa, and among many in the countryside, saddled with debt to urban merchants and moneylenders. Some of them were driven off their lands by Zionist land purchases and the resultant evictions, others by the imposition of a policy of avoda ivrit (Hebrew labor) by the yishuv, and others by Arab landlords turning land over to more profitable (and less labor intensive) citrus cultivation. This malaise was gravely accentuated by economic distress in the early 1930’s as the worldwide depression hit Palestine, which had become increasingly integrated into the world economy in the preceding decades.

The situation was further aggravated by the impact of rapidly mounting Jewish immigration, as the rise of the Nazis drove thousands of Jews escaping from Europe to seek refuge in Palestine, at a time when most countries coldly shut their doors to them. From 1933 to 1936, the proportion of Jews in the total population of Palestine, which had shrunken or remained stagnant from 1926 to 1932, grew from 18% to nearly 30%. In the year 1935 alone, at the height of this flood of refugees from Hitler’s persecution, almost 62,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine, a number greater than the entire Jewish population of the country as recently as 1919. Whereas at the beginning of the 1930’s, the Zionist project might have appeared to some to be a failure because it seemed that the Jews would never overtake the Arabs in population, a few years later, demographic parity and ultimately Zionist control over the country suddenly seemed to be within the realm of possibility. The Palestinians naturally had a different view of what the Zionists perceived as a major shift in their favor. In the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s several sectors of Palestinian society had already grown dissatisfied with the internecine divisions among the notable elite, and the manifest ineffectiveness of its leadership of the national movement. This dissatisfaction had led to various forms of more radical, grass-roots activism. These included support for a policy of boycotting the British, greater anti-British and anti-Zionist activity among youth groups like Young Men’s Muslim Association and various scouting organizations, and the growth in influence of the radical nationalist Hizb al-Istiqlal [Independence Party]. The latter called for a rigorous Indian Congress Party-style boycott of the British, a line which naturally failed to appeal to many of those among the notable class who were on the payroll of the Mandatory Administration, including the Mufti. Following the out-maneuvering and containment of most of their initiatives by the traditional elite, notably the Mufti and his cousin Jamal al-Husayni, by the mid-1930’s, these discontented elements eventually reacted more forcefully to what they saw as the mounting peril of the growing size and strength of the yishuv.

In the context of these mounting tensions, a Haifa preacher, Shaykh ‘Iz al-Din al-Qassam, a leading figure in several of these radical movements, was killed in a clash with British police near Jenin in November 1935. His partisans and some later biographers describe him as having been engaged in sparking an armed revolt in the north of Palestine. This was the first attempt at an organized, armed revolt against the British since the beginning of the Mandate, in contrast to more spontaneous outbreaks of violence in 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1933. Although British security forces immediately stamped out the attempt, the Syrian-born Shaykh had clearly touched a deep chord in the popular imagination. It soon became evident that he was much more closely in tune with important elements of popular Palestinian sentiment than was most of the elite leadership. His death in battle was portrayed as a glorious “martyrdom,” and huge crowds followed al-Qassam to his grave near Haifa, in a demonstration that surprised many observers at the time. It was followed within a few months by the spontaneous outbreak of a nation-wide general strike in April 1936, which lasted until October of the same year, claimed by its partisans as the longest general strike in history.

In the wake of the strike, and the subsequent recommendations of a British Royal Commission for partition of the country into a small Jewish state, and an Arab state to be attached to Jordan, an armed uprising spread through the country beginning in the spring of 1937. The final results of this revolt, and of the general strike that preceded it, are crucial to understanding what happened to the Palestinians in the subsequent decade. Over the next 18 months, the British lost control of large areas of the country, including the older parts of the cities of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Hebron, before a massive campaign of repression by tens of thousands of troops and squadrons of aircraft in 1938-39 was able to restore “order.”

The Arab revolt of 1936-39 proved to be a massive failure for the Palestinians, in spite of quite remarkable heroism in the face of daunting odds, and great suffering by much of the Arab population. It obtained no lasting concessions from the British, who in a 1939 White Paper promised that Palestine - by implication a Palestine with an Arab majority - would obtain independence within ten years, a promise which they were ultimately unable to keep. The British promised as well limits on Jewish immigration, a promise that was irrelevant in view of the outbreak of World War II, and that proved impossible to implement thereafter following revelation of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, and resultant American pressure. Finally, the White Paper would have placed restrictions on land sales to Jews, but in the event land purchase continued virtually unabated.

Although the yishuv suffered in various ways during the years of the revolt, on balance it benefited considerably. Arab strikes and boycotts served as justification for completing the implementation of the principle of avoda ivrit [Hebrew labor] which excluded Arab workers from an exclusively Jewish “national” economy, which was substantially fortified as a result. The Arab strike served to provide the pretext that the Zionist leadership needed to demand that the Mandatory authorities permit the construction of a modern port at Tel Aviv. This meant the eventual demise of Jaffa as a port, and with growing control of the yishuv over the Haifa port, meant that it now dominated even more of the country’s basic infrastructure. The Zionist movement benefited as well from the significant assistance in armaments and military organization that Britain provided in order to fight the common Arab enemy: by the end of the 1930’s, 6000 armed Jewish auxiliary police were helping the British to suppress the last embers of the revolt. By 1939, the yishuv had achieved the demographic weight, control of strategic areas of land, and much of the weaponry and military organization that would be needed as a springboard for taking over the country within less than a decade.

For the Palestinians, however, the worst effects of the failure of the revolt were on their own society. These effects were manifold and were felt on several different levels. Purely in terms of Arab casualties of approximately 5,000 killed and 10,000 wounded, and those detained, who totaled 5,679 in 1939, the suffering was considerable in an Arab population of about a million: over 10% of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled. A high proportion of the Arab casualties included experienced military cadres and enterprising fighters. The British also confiscated large quantities of arms and ammunition during the revolt, and continued to do so during later years. These heavy military losses were to affect the Palestinians profoundly a few years later when Britain handed the Palestine question over to the United Nations, and it became clear that an open battle for control of the country between Arabs and Jews would take place. As severe as the Palestinian military losses were those in the realm of the economy, and the damage done to the country’s social fabric and political coherence by years of strikes, boycotts, and British reprisals. The strike of 1936, and the armed uprising which followed it, not only helped the Zionists to reinforce the separate Jewish economy they had already built up in Palestine: by 1936 the sector of the economy of Palestine controlled by Jews was already bigger than that of the Arabs. The events of the years 1936-1939 further increased the gap between the two sides in favor of the yishuv, via a series of self-inflicted wounds on the Arab economy. Arab businesses, especially citrus export, quarrying, transportation, and industry, were severely affected by the revolt, as were the Arab port workers of Jaffa. The rebellion in addition had two other negative economic effects, one of which was the levies imposed on the better-off citizens by the rebels to help them finance their activities. These were often extracted in an arbitrary and haphazard fashion, in keeping with the highly decentralized nature of the revolt, and those raising the money were not always dedicated revolutionaries. The other negative effect was the considerable worsening of the economic situation of many landowners, who in consequence were sometimes forced to sell land, which ended up in Jewish hands, thereby undermining one of the main Palestinian national objectives.

Beyond all of these grim results of the revolt, perhaps its most harmful effects were on the social and political levels. In this time of crisis for the Palestinians, their lack of stateness, the absence of a national focus for their political activity, or of strong, independent political parties or youth groups, combined with the political hegemony of religious institutions dominated by the Mufti, proved utterly disastrous. By the end of the revolt, the traditional Palestinian leadership, which had been obliged by grass roots pressure to overcome its differences and form a joint national leadership (the Arab Higher Committee) at the outset of the general strike in 1936, was shattered. It became even more bitterly divided by differences over tactics, which were ably exploited by the British. The British exiled many individual leaders in 1937, and others fled, some never to return to the country, notably Hajj Amin al-Husayni himself. The British took over the Supreme Muslim Council, appointing British officials to supervise it, and depriving the Mufti of its revenues. In this situation, leadership fell to the exiled Mufti, the leader who in spite of his distance from the scene of events still had the greatest resources at his disposal and the most charisma, and who had gradually undermined or eclipsed or outlived all of his competitors, from his older relative and rival, Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni, to Raghib Bey al-Nashashibi and Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam.

The revolt thereafter fell victim both to failures at the top - especially in the Mufti’s style of leadership, his jealousy of potential rivals and his identification of the national cause with himself - and to profound weaknesses at the base. For reasons related to his own tactical interests, the Mufti prevented the rest of the Palestinian leadership from taking actions it was inclined towards, such as accepting the 1939 White Paper, which might not have provided strategic victories, but which could have been to the advantage of the Palestinians. In the case of the White Paper, it is clear that most of the rest of the Palestinian leadership, divided though it was, favored acceptance, possibly with conditions. The Mufti, surrounded by a few younger and more militant advisors, and afraid of losing his domination over the national movement, refused and carried the day. In exile farther and farther away from Palestine, and unaware of the devastating impact on the Palestinians of British repression or of the growth in Zionist strength, the Mufti was increasingly out of touch with events on the ground, and his policies became more and more unrealistic in the years which followed. The divided and decentralized nature of the revolt, which at an early stage helped it to harass the British and throw them off balance militarily, proved to be a liability in the end. So did the divisions in Palestinian society between urban factions, rural clans, and individual leaders, from commanders of rural armed bands to urban notables. The Mufti’s tactic of treating those who disagreed with him as traitors, which at the height of the revolt often meant a death sentence, caused great suffering and further divided an already fragmented Palestinian society. This was ultimately a recipe for crushing defeat, given that the Palestinians would need to have been highly united to stand up to the power of a growing Zionist movement, and a British Empire which had not withdrawn from a colonial possession in generations.


The net result of the events of the late 1930’s was that when the Palestinians faced their most fateful challenge in 1947-1949, they were still suffering from the British repression of 1936-39, and were in effect without a unified leadership. Indeed, it might be argued, they were virtually without any leadership at all. The Mufti was in exile in Beirut after his return from Germany, following a wartime sojourn there which had fatally tainted him in the eyes of many in the West. He remained jealous of any challenge to his dominance of the national movement, although he was even less capable of leading it effectively from a distance than he had been when he was in Palestine. Other leaders like Jamal al-Husayni, Dr. Husayn Fakhri al-Khalidi, Musa al-‘Alami and Raghib Bey Nashashibi could neither take the lead on their own, nor cooperate effectively with one another. ThePalestinians still had no functioning national level institutions, no central para-state mechanisms, no serious financial apparatus, and no centralized military force. The reconstituted Arab Higher Committee, which had in any case been little more than a shell in the late 1930’s, was an even less substantial body than before. The lack of representative institutions, which had been one of the worst features of Palestinian politics in the first two decades of the Mandate, now weakened the stature and credibility of the Palestinian leadership, and reduced further its feeble capability to mobilize the populace in the face of the growing strength of the yishuv.

This essay has argued that the crippling nature of the defeat the Palestinians sustained in 1936-39 was among the main reasons for their failure to overcome the challenges of 1947-48 on the diplomatic, political or military levels. Although some of the damage of the revolt had been made up by then, notably on the economic plane, the Palestinians were still suffering greatly from its negative after-effects on their national leadership, social cohesion, and military capabilities. They suffered too from having failed utterly in the preceding decades to establish a neutral national forum or representative national institutions that could be the axis around which to organize their struggle against the British and the Zionists. In consequence, the great sacrifices of the 1936-39 revolt, which seems to have been supported by much of Palestinian society at the outset, and which in different circumstances, and with better leadership, might have led to gains, were not only wasted, but in fact gravely weakened the Palestinians for their subsequent ordeal.

Thus the Palestinian catastrophe of 1947-49 was predicated on a series of previous failures. The Palestinians entered the fighting which followed the passage of the U.N. Partition resolution with a deeply divided leadership, exceedingly limited finances, no centrally organized military forces or centralized administrative organs, and no reliable allies. They faced a Jewish society in Palestine which, although small relative to theirs, was politically unified, had centralized para-state institutions, and was exceedingly well led and extremely highly motivated. The full horrors of the Holocaust had just been revealed, if any further spur to determined action to consummate the objectives of Zionism were needed. The Zionists had already achieved territorial contiguity via land holdings and settlements in the shape of an “N”, running north up the coastal strip from Tel Aviv to Haifa, south-east down the Marj Ibn ‘Amir (the Vale of Jezreel), and north again up the finger of eastern Galilee. This was the strategic core of the new state, and the springboard for its expansion. They benefited as well from the support of the US and USSR, which both immediately recognized the new state of Israel. Finally, they had understandings with the key Arab military power, Jordan, whose ruler’s ambition was to control as much as possible of the Arab portions of Palestine that were not slated to be parts of Israel.

The outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict of 1947-1948 was thus a foregone conclusion. The Palestinians had superior numbers, but as we have seen, the yishuv had more important advantages: a larger and far more diversified economy, better finances, greater firepower, superior organization and considerable support from the two new super-powers. All of these factors enabled the nascent Israeli state to triumph over the poorly led, poorly armed and mainly rural, mainly illiterate Palestinian population of 1.4 million. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the Palestinians have incorporated this and other failures into their national narrative as a case of heroic perseverance against impossible odds. This draws on a Palestinian perception that they have always faced a constellation of enemies so formidable as to be nearly insuperable. Indeed, it is unimaginable that the British Empire would have abandoned Palestine under Arab pressure on the eve of World War II, or that the world would have supported the Palestinians against the nascent Israeli state in the wake of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, a version of history that starts with the insuperable nature of their foes conveniently absolves the Palestinians for any responsibility for their own fate, since, if their enemies were so numerous and powerful, it is little surprise that they were defeated, and no further analysis is required. What remains for this version to be complete is to draw up an inspiring “national” narrative of utility in the present, and with some power to explain the past. Thus, for example, the death of Shaykh ‘Iz al-Din al-Qassam came to be narrated in later years as martyrdom which sparked the struggle of the Palestinian people against their enemies. In the accounts of Palestinian nationalists like Ghassan Kanafani or activist-historians like ‘Abdel-Wahhab Kayyali and Naji ‘Alloush, al-Qassam is described as providing an alternative to the elite-brokered politics of compromise, and as showing the “correct” path of armed struggle against their enemies. In their analysis of the flaws in the style and approach of the Palestinian elite leadership, such writers are often quite acute. However, they never ask the crucial question of whether armed struggle was indeed the best approach for the Palestinians, or whether they would have been better served by the non-violent confrontationalist tactics of boycott and self-reliance espoused by Gandhi and the Congress Party in India, which had attracted the Istiqlal Party and many other Palestinian nationalists in the early 1930’s. Further, they fail to delve into the social reasons the elite leadership was so easily able to fend off the challenge of the early 1930’s posed by the Istiqlal Party and other radical mass-based groups such as the unions, or the Young Men’s Muslim Associations.

These and other less gifted writers provided a similar version of the 1936-39 revolt, as a popular uprising which had taken the traditional elite by surprise, brought the Palestinian people together, and was “betrayed” by Arab governments and conservative Palestinian leaders beholden to the British. The severe losses suffered by the Palestinians during the course of the revolt were rarely referred to, and there was no assessment of its limited possibilities of success from the outset. The counter-factual question of what the Palestinians might have done differently or at an earlier stage was not posed. The Palestinian aspect of the fighting of 1947-49 was treated the same way, with a stress on the heroism of the Palestinian fighters against heavy odds, the martyrdom in battle of charismatic leaders, and the machinations of the Arab regimes against the Palestinians. However, factors such as the poor political calculations, and the disorganization, confusion, and leaderless chaos on the Palestinian side, all of which contributed measurably to the debacle, were rarely mentioned. Nor was the fact that the Palestinians, still suffering acutely from the after-effects of the defeat of the 1936-39 revolt, and deprived of a central para-state mechanism, a unified leadership and representative institutions, in consequence never had a chance of retaining control of their country once they were engaged in an all-out military confrontation with the organized forces of the yishuv.

Attention to all these considerations has been missing in Palestinian nationalist accounts from the 1960’s through the 1970’s (with little having changed in much of the historiography since then). Ironically, it might be argued that the “national” element was weak in a national movement led by a Muslim cleric in a society with a large Christian minority, who came from a notable family with multiple rivals, and who helped stifle the growth of national political parties like Istiqlal, and independent grass-roots scouting, union and religious organizations In 1936-39 and 1947-48 there appeared to be none of the planning on a national level which the yishuv engaged in nearly from the beginning of the Zionist movement in the late 1890’s, and which were evidenced by the Egyptian and Syrian national revolts of 1919 and 1925-26. For all his dominance of Palestinian politics for nearly two decades, Hajj Amin al-Husayni did not approach the stature of a Sa’d Zaghlul or even a Shukri al-Quwwatly, perhaps most notably because no nationalist political party remotely resembling the Wafd Party, or even the Syrian Kutla Wataniyya, existed in Palestine.

This essay has paid little attention to the actual course of the fighting in 1947-48. However, in looking at the limited accounts available regarding the Palestinian side of this conflict, one is struck by the extent to which the fighting was a local affair, whereas for the Zionists it was centralized and national. By comparison with 1936-1939, indeed, the Palestinians in 1947-1949 seem to have been even less organized and even less centralized, and to have had even less of a national focus. Given the analysis in the above pages, we can understand why this may have been the case, and thus some of the basic reasons the Palestinians failed. Perhaps if the Palestinians had managed to hold off their revolt for a decade, or perhaps if they had confronted the British more resolutely or radically earlier on, they might have met with a different outcome. But the might-have-beens of history are ultimately futile. Given the course of Palestinian history until 1948, the underlying causes of what happened in Palestine in that year should be perfectly comprehensible, and the final outcome should not have been unexpected, shocked and surprised though many Palestinians clearly were by it.

More in:

News, weather, Radiolab, Brian Lehrer and more.
Get the best of WNYC in your inbox, every morning.

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by