In 1936, widespread Palestinian dissatisfaction with Britain’s governance erupted into open rebellion. Several key dynamics and events can be seen as setting the stage for this uprising. In Palestine, as elsewhere, the 1930s had been a time of intense economic disruption. Rural Palestinians were hit hard by debt and dispossession, and such pressures were only exacerbated by British policies and Zionist imperatives of land purchases and “Hebrew labor.” Rural to urban migration swelled
Unsurprisingly, the combination of these various trends produced periodic upheavals, from the 1929
The strike was widely observed and brought commercial and economic activity in the Palestinian sector to a standstill. Meanwhile, Palestinians throughout the countryside came together in armed groups to attack—at first sporadically, but with increasing organization— British and Zionist targets. Some Arab volunteers joined the rebels from outside Palestine, though their numbers remained small in this period. The British employed various tactics in an attempt to break the strike and to quell the rural insurrection. The ranks of British and Jewish policemen swelled and Palestinians were subjected to house searches, night raids, beatings, imprisonment, torture, and deportation. Large areas of Jaffa’s Old City were demolished and the British called in military reinforcements.
Concurrent with military operations and repressive measures, the British government dispatched a commission of inquiry headed by Lord Peel to investigate the root causes of the revolt. In October 1936, under the combined pressure of British policies, other Arab heads of state, and the effects of a six-month general strike on the Palestinian population, the AHC called off the strike and agreed to appear before the Peel Commission . A period of lower intensity conflict prevailed as the Peel Commission toured the country, but tensions continued to build in anticipation of the commission’s report. In July 1937, the Peel Commission published its report, recommending Palestine’s partition into Jewish and Arab states. Dismayed by this negation of their desires and demands, the Palestinian population relaunched their armed insurgency with renewed intensity, initiating the second phase of the revolt.
This second phase, lasting from July 1937 until the fall of 1938, witnessed significant gains by the Palestinian rebels. Large swaths of the hilly Palestinian interior, including for a time the
The third phase of the rebellion lasted roughly from the fall of 1938 to the summer of 1939. The British dispatched another commission of inquiry, this one headed by Sir John Woodhead
, to examine the technical aspects of implementing partition. In November 1938, the
In May 1939, the British government published a new White Paper that proposed the following: Britain’s obligations to the Jewish national home had been substantially fulfilled; indefinite mass Jewish immigration to and land acquisition in Palestine would contradict Britain’s obligations to the Palestinians; within the next five years, no more than 75,000 Jews would be allowed into the country, after which Jewish immigration would be subject to “Arab acquiescence”; land transfers would be permitted in certain areas, but restricted and prohibited in others, to protect Palestinians from landlessness; and an independent unitary state would be established after ten years, conditional on favorable Palestinian-Jewish relations.
The combined impact of Britain’s military and diplomatic efforts brought the rebellion to an end in the late summer of 1939. Over the revolt’s three years, some 5,000 Palestinians had been killed and nearly 15,000 wounded. The Palestinian leadership had been exiled, assassinated, imprisoned, and made to turn against one another. At the same time, the White Paper—despite its limitations—offered certain concessions to the rebels’ demands. Whatever gains Palestinians might have made through the revolt, however, were quickly overtaken by the larger geopolitical processes of World War II , and the combined British-Zionist assault on Palestinian political and social life during the revolt had a long-lasting impact.
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