Beset On All Sides

REVIEW: ‘Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict’ by Oren Kessler

Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city
Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city / AP
April 8, 2023

Few subjects have attracted more attention from both press and policymakers than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And arguably few have been more misunderstood. As Oren Kessler highlights in his new book, Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict, the origins of that conflict predate the Jewish state’s re-creation in 1948.

A former journalist and longtime Middle East analyst, Kessler examines a period that is as formative as it is overlooked in this well-written volume. Kessler utilizes recently declassified documents and memoirs, among other sources, to paint a briskly moving picture of what might properly be considered the first Palestinian Intifada.

The word "intifada" is variously translated as "shaking off" or "uprising." But in practice, the term is far less innocuous and has become synonymous with coordinated campaigns of anti-Jewish violence. It is commonly held that the First Intifada began in 1987 and was, in its initial stages at least, organic. The Second Intifada, launched in 2000 and lasting nearly five years, was a supremely bloody affair, with more than 1,000 Israelis being murdered as part of an organized terror wave launched by Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah movement.

But as Kessler’s book illuminates, the so-called Arab Revolt of 1936 marks the moment in which the outlines of today’s conflict were first set in stone. The events of eight decades ago have, he notes, made a "tragic template" for Arabs and Jews alike.

That template begins, first and foremost, with an unwillingness by many Arabs to accept Jewish social and political equality, let alone self-determination, in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland. This is the undeniable core of the conflict.

World War I shattered empires throughout the world, including the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled, if haphazardly, over most of the Middle East for centuries. In the final year of the war, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which called for a "national home for the Jewish people" in the Ottoman region often referred to as "Palestine" or "Southern Syria." The 1920 San Remo Agreement and the 1924 Anglo-American Convention also enshrined Jewish territorial claims into law. Zionism, or the belief in Jewish self-determination, had achieved a signal victory.

From nearly the beginning, however, there was opposition. Some leading Arab families in the area hoped to weaken British commitment to the Balfour Declaration. Both 1920 and 1921 saw organized pogroms against the Jewish population, with Arab leaders like Amin al-Husseini jockeying for influence and power while simultaneously eschewing attempts by both ruling British authorities and Zionist leaders to broker a compromise.

More violence would follow in 1929 when Arab politicians and clerics provoked riots by falsely accusing Jews of plotting to take control of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque. For several years after, a tenuous peace would take hold. But it was not to be.

Rising fascism and anti-Semitism led many Jews to flee Europe. Most countries, however, kept their doors closed. Tensions in British-ruled Mandate Palestine grew as Jewish immigrants sought refuge in the land of their forefathers. Many Zionist leaders expected that as they created jobs and economic growth, Arab opposition would lessen. They were wrong.

Some leaders of the Yishuv, as pre-state Israel was known, held out hope that a compromise could still be reached. As Kessler recounts, David Ben-Gurion, who would later become Israel’s first prime minister, held meetings with Arab "moderates" like Musa Alami, hoping to reach an accord between two people with their own conflicting national ambitions.

But as Kessler’s book notes, power didn’t reside with Alami or other Western-educated Arab nobles. And if it did, it’s not clear that it would have made much of a difference, given that even "moderates" like Alami secretly worked to secure weapons from the Fascist powers to fight both the British and the Zionists.

Among the Arabs of Mandate Palestine, power resided with men like Husseini. The British had installed Husseini as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, making him the city’s chief Muslim religious figure. More importantly, they created the Supreme Muslim Council and made Husseini its head, giving the Grand Mufti patronage powers he would eventually use to build a network to oppose—and murder—British and Zionists alike.

Foreshadowing future mistakes, some British policymakers seemed to have hoped that by bestowing a "hardliner" like Husseini with power, they could coopt him. But Husseini himself had to contend with an Arab opposition that viewed him as too accommodating of British power and too unwilling to challenge Zionist ambitions.

One such figure was Izz al-Din al-Qassam, an older cleric born in what is today Syria. Qassam had spent decades traversing the Middle East and fighting Westerners, including the Italians in Libya and the French in Syria. Husseini had appointed Qassam as imam at a new mosque built by the Supreme Muslim Council in Haifa.

Qassam used this perch to foment jihad (holy war) against the British and Jews. He formed an armed group, the Black Hand, that was, in many respects, a progenitor of future Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas. The rise and subsequent demise of Qassam, who was killed by British authorities, were key factors in unleashing the 1936 revolt.

"The Arabs of Palestine started to wonder," Kessler writes, "if Western democracies were declining relative to the Fascist powers that seemed everywhere on the march. And they wondered whether a world war was looming, one that might rid their country of Britain and the Jews for good."

The revolt that followed would forever change the Middle East and shape the contours of the conflict to the present day. Indeed, reading Palestine 1936, one is struck by all the similarities between the past and the present.

Arabs attempted to boycott Jewish stores, echoing tactics of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) effort of today. Arab leaders like Husseini repeatedly rejected efforts by the leading Western superpower, Great Britain, to work out a compromise—presaging future Palestinian leaders like Yasser Arafat and current PLO head Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom rejected numerous U.S. and Israeli offers for statehood in exchange for peace. Husseini secured support from the preeminent anti-Western fascist powers of his day, just as his distant cousin, Arafat, received Soviet largesse.

The 1936 Arab Revolt would be brutally snuffed out by a fed-up Britain, which employed tactics like using prisoners to sweep for mines, destroying their homes, and imprisoning and executing many of its leaders. Husseini would escape, become an active Nazi collaborator, and live to reject future attempts at compromise—all while murdering his opponents and critics.

Indeed, as Kessler argues, the revolt "was the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced." Pragmatists were "sidelined" for extremists and "the revolt to end Zionism had instead crushed the Arabs themselves, leaving them crippled in facing the Jews’ own drive for statehood a decade on."

The 1936 Arab Revolt "was the closest the Palestinians would ever come to victory; they have never quite recovered." Kessler skillfully tells the tale, relying on deft character sketches and lively prose to convey a story whose tragic consequences echo to the present day.

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict
by Oren Kessler
Rowman & Littlefield, 317 pp., $26.95

Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.