British soldiers attacking protesting Palestinians, Jaffa 1936 British soldiers attacking protesting Palestinians, Jaffa 1936. Photo: The Illustrated London News / Public Domain

In this, the fourth of our series Nakba75: The roots of Israeli Apartheid, Michael Lavalette looks at Palestinian resistance to British rule in the inter-war period

During the second half of the First World War, Arab forces fought for their liberation from the Ottoman Empire, in what is known as the Great Arab Revolt (1915-1918). They were armed by the British and the French with the promise that both imperial powers would support an independent Arab state, or Federation of Arab states, once the war was over.

At the war’s end, however, the British and French broke their ‘promise’. Instead they moved to divide the region between them, using the League of Nations Mandate system as a cover for their imperial desires. But the ‘carve up’ of the Middle East did not go unopposed. The inter-war period was marked by a number of heroic rebellions against empire.

Anti-imperialist revolt in the Middle East

The end of the war unleashed a period of unprecedented revolution and rebellion across the globe. Anti-colonial struggles across the Middle East were part of this general revolt.

The rebellions started with a relatively spontaneous uprising against the British in Egypt in 1919. A student strike in Cairo on 9 March was the spark for the Egyptian rebellion. It was centred around national demands (independence), but there was a strong social content as well, with demands for better wages, for example, and for improved grain and cotton prices for peasants (which were held artificially low for British interests). There was a rolling general strike, schools closed, peasants engaged in sabotage (against railways) and riot (against police stations). There were growing demonstrations in towns and cities across the country.

Such was the scale of the events that the British complained about the ‘Bolshevik nature’ of the movement. By 1922, they had agreed to Egyptian ‘independence’, though around a constitution that maintained British interests through a less direct form of colonialism.

In Iraq, the British faced similar nationalist opposition in the summer of 1920. Sunni and Shi’a communities stood together in an armed revolt against British domination. The British responded ruthlessly to crush the revolt. Nevertheless, just as in Egypt, they opted for a less direct form of rule in the country, so much so that many Iraqis regard the revolt of 1920 as signalling the ‘birth of the nation’.

In Syria, the French struggled to maintain control during the period 1920-7. Again, whilst the French ultimately crushed the revolt brutally, by 1928 they looked to a layer of the Syrian intelligentsia and emerging bourgeois elements to rule the country whilst protecting French interests in the region.

In Egypt, Syria and Iraq, then, the end of the war and the carve up of the region saw major Arab revolts against colonial rule. Although they did not achieve independence, they did push back against direct forms of colonial control. In each case, a weak local bourgeois class would use the movements to give themselves leverage to compromise with their imperial masters in order to obtain a degree of independence within the Imperial system.


Similar factors would shape the inter-war struggles of the Palestinian people: heroic resistance from the Palestinian masses, weak leadership from local elites and notables, and a brutal response from the imperial British forces. However, in Palestine there was another factor shaping the events: the impact of colonial settlement and the collusion of British and Zionist forces to suppress the Palestinian people.

With the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British committed themselves to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When Britain obtained the Mandate for Palestine, they oversaw a growing movement of European Jews to settle in Palestine.

Israeli commentators discuss successive waves of Jewish migration to Palestine in terms of ‘Aliyah’. The first Aliyah (1882-1903) saw approximately 35,000 Jews move to Palestine, primarily from Russia. They joined the approximately 20,000 Mizrahi Jews who were long established in the region, and who shared much common culture with their Arab neighbours. The second Aliyah (1904-1914) saw another 35,000 arrive, primarily from the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. After the Balfour Declaration, the numbers increased. The third Aliyah (1919-1923) saw 40,000 settlers arrive, during the fourth Aliyah (1924-1929) 82,000 arrived and, during the fifth Aliyah (1929-1939), 250,000.

The Jewish settlers set out to colonise the land and expel Arabs from areas under their control. Tens of thousands of Palestinian peasants were dispossessed from their land and migrated to the cities where they scratched a living in marginal work. The settlers implemented a system where they would not employ or work alongside Arabs. They set up their own trade-union organisation (the Histadrut) that only represented Jewish workers. There were regular campaigns to stop Jews buying produce from Arab markets and farmers.

In this context, in the inter-war years, Palestinian campaigns for national independence merged with campaigns against European Jewish immigration, because it was clear that European Jewish migration to Palestine went hand in hand with colonial settlement and Palestinian expulsion from the land.

The Buraq Rebellion

The British initially worked with local Palestinian elites and with representatives of the Jewish settler community. The old tactics of ‘divide and conquer’ were used to maintain British control. But increasingly, Palestinians started to organise against the consequences of Imperial domination and colonial settlement.

Growing tensions between Palestinian and settler communities grew throughout the 1920s. In August 1929, this exploded in the Buraq Rebellion. With similarities to recent events, the rebellion was the result of an organised Jewish march on the Wailing Wall (which is adjacent to Al Aqsa Mosque) held on 15 August. Six thousand right-wing Jewish nationalists marched to the Wall shouting ‘the Wall is ours’. Rumours circulated that Palestinian homes and shops had been attacked.

In response, there were a series of riots across Palestinian towns and cities against the consequences of Jewish migration. In Jerusalem, tit-for-tat attacks took place between Palestinians and settlers. Over the month, 253 people (Jews and Palestinians) were killed.

In the aftermath of the riots, the British set up a commission under Sir Walter Shaw. It concluded that the fundamental cause of the riots ‘is the Arab feeling … [of] disappointment for their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future. … [and fear that the Jewish migrants were] a menace to their livelihood [and] as a possible overlord of the future’.[1]

The British made a number of arrests of ‘ring leaders’: 26 Palestinians and 2 Jewish settlers were sentenced to death. In the end, the British ‘only’ murdered three Palestinians: Atta Ahmed el Zeer, Mohammad Khaleel Jamjoum and Fuad Hassab el Hejazi were hanged on 17 June 1930 at Akka prison. The killing of the three martyrs became another source of Palestinian grievance.

The Great Revolt 1936-1939

The early 1930s saw a significant growth in a number of Palestinian organisations. These included the Young Men’s Muslim Association, scouting and sports clubs, women’s associations, unions, Youth Congresses and political parties. All these were important in raising nationalist sentiment.

In Haifa, a Syrian Imam started to preach about the need to challenge both the British presence and Zionist settlement. Increasingly his message also spoke directly to social issues about poverty, inequality and the need for a more just life. The preacher was Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, and he had been a local leader in the Syrian struggle against the French and was a known critic of British and French rule in the Levant.

His preaching was popular amongst the poor. Gradually, he brought a group of followers together who he organised into cells to confront the British. They targeted settlements, railway lines, telegraph networks and police stations. In October-November 1935, a series of strikes took place by Palestinian workers protesting against Zionist arms smuggling. In the increasingly tense atmosphere, Al-Qassam and his men took to the hills between Nablus and Jenin. There they were surrounded by the British and, in a gun fight, Qassam was killed.

Qassam’s murder was the spark that lit a fuse. His funeral was attended by an estimated 25,000 people. In the weeks that followed, a series of attacks took place between settlers and Palestinians. In April 1936, things came to a head. First, members of Qassam’s group held up a bus near Nablus, killing a Jewish passenger. Two days later, a right-wing Jewish paramilitary group killed two Arabs. In response: ‘Arab protests soon erupted throughout the country, gradually taking on the character of a broad based anti-colonial and anti-Zionist popular uprising’.[2]

Activists called a general strike. It spread quickly across the towns and cities of Palestine. Collections were raised for strikers, support networks established and barricades set up to stop the police and military entering workers’ districts. In the countryside, insurrection broke out. Guerrilla bands were formed by peasants facing dispossession.

A series of ‘popular committees’ and ‘national committees’ were established raising all manner of demands. Many were a direct challenge to British control and Zionist aspirations. A new Arab Higher Committee, with representatives of all Palestinian political parties, was established, though it was divided on strategy. Often the Arab Higher Committee tried to ride the radicalising wave, whilst trying to diminish the movement’s radicalism. By August, it was complaining that it no longer had control of the situation.

What was developing was a deeply radical challenge to the British Empire. At this point, the British asked for a truce, which was backed by various Palestinian notables and Arab leaders (including King Abdullah of Jordan, who was already eyeing the West Bank as part of his extended kingdom). Given vague assurances, the Arab Higher Committee called off the strike in October 1936.

The British appointed the Peel Commission to investigate the reasons for the revolt. It reported in July 1937, arguing that the Mandate was unworkable and that Palestine should be partitioned.

With the prospect of partition now put in place, the Great Revolt exploded into its second phase.

The significant location of the second phase was the rural high lands. The British administration was driven out of many parts of the country. Moratoria were declared on rents and debt. British government property was seized. Popular courts and institutions were set up. Rebels from across the Arab world came to join the liberation struggle, in a manner that, at the same time, many internationalists were joining brigades in Spain to fight fascism.

This had now become the greatest challenge to the British Empire since the Irish liberation struggle of the early 1920s. And in response the British reacted with brutality. The RAF bombed the rebel-held highlands. Thousands of British troops were dispatched to ‘regain control’. The British implemented a variety of ‘special regulations’ (that are still in place in Israel) that allowed soldiers to use human shields, arrest people under ‘administrative detention’, carry out collective punishment, set up checkpoints and roadblocks, and harass Palestinian people going about their daily life.

The British also utilised a number of Jewish networks to attack Palestinians and enforce ‘law and order’. This involved training and arming many Jewish paramilitaries. It also gave settler groups access to the local state, and allowed them to deepen their control over key sectors of society.

By 1939, the revolt was in disarray. Military might and brutality had inflicted a huge toll on the Palestinian resistance movement. As the revolt crumbled, the Palestinian leaders were arrested, exiled or executed. The heroism of the Palestinian masses had come close to inflicting a significant defeat on the British Empire, but their ultimate defeat would have consequences that would impact on events during the Nakba.

[1] The Shaw Commission, Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929, Cmnd 3530 (London, HMSO, 1930), p.150.

[2] Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine (Berkeley, University of California Press 1996), p.240.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.