Efraim Karsh. Israel Affairs. Volume 14, Issue 3. July 2008.
In discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, few claims have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of observers, than the Zionist movement’s alleged non-recognition of the Palestinian Arabs and its stark determination to dispossess them from their patrimony. First articulated in the early 1920s by the Palestinian Arab leadership, headed by the militant Jerusalem Mufti Hajj Amin Husseini, this charge has been reiterated by generations of Arab propagandists and unwitting Western supporters until it has become a staple of the historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict, challenged only by a small, and ever decreasing, number of critical scholars.
Thus we have the self-styled Israeli ‘new historian’ Benny Morris describing Zionism as ‘a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement … intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs’, which, in line with ‘the routine European colonist’s mental obliteration of the “natives” … managed to avoid “seeing” the Arabs, of whom there were about half a million in the country around 1880, about seven hundred thousand in 1914, and 1.25 million in 1947’. When, the argument goes, this reality eventually dawned upon them in the late 1930s, the Zionist leaders quickly despaired of achieving a Jewish majority in Palestine through mass immigration (or Aliya), concluding instead that ‘Palestine would not be transformed into a Jewish state unless all or much of the Arab population was expelled’. ‘The idea was in the air from 1937 onward [when an official British commission of inquiry, headed by Lord Peel, proposed “a transfer of land and, as far as possible, an exchange of population” between the prospective Jewish and Arab states]’, Morris claims, ‘and without doubt contributed in various ways to the transfer that eventually took place, in 1948’.
The American academic Edward Said put the idea in similarly blunt terms. ‘From the beginning of serious Zionist planning for Palestine (that is, roughly, from the period during and after World War I), one can note the increasing prevalence of the idea that Israel was to be built on the ruins of this Arab Palestine’, he wrote.
For in order to mitigate the presence of large numbers of natives on a desired land, the Zionists convinced themselves that these natives did not exist, then made it possible for them to exist only in the most rarefied forms … The question of Palestine is therefore the contest between an affirmation and a denial, and it is this prior contest, dating back over a hundred years, which animates and makes sense of the current impasse between the Arab states and Israel.
A strange prognosis indeed given that a few months earlier the September 1978 Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Accords not only provided for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a transitional five-year period, during which Israel and the Palestinians (together with Jordan and Egypt) would negotiate a permanent peace settlement on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, but also recognized ‘the legitimate right of the Palestinian peoples and their just requirements‘.
What makes Said’s assertion particularly galling is that he knew full well that the failure of this peace plan had nothing to do with the Zionist denial of Palestinian existence but rather with the PLO’s rejection of any agreement that was not based on Israel’s destruction. As he was personally told by PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat in March 1979, a few months after passing him a secret US invitation to join the peace process: ‘Edward, I want you to tell [Secretary of State Cyrus] Vance that we’re not interested … This is a lousy deal. We want Palestine. We’re not interested in bits of Palestine. We don’t want to negotiate with the Israelis. We’re going to fight.’
If the question of Palestine is indeed a contest between an affirmation and a denial, as it most certainly is, then it is not the Zionist movement that has been on the side of denial but the other way round. Far from pretending that the Palestinian Arabs did not exist, the Zionist movement was not only keenly aware of their presence from its onset in the late nineteenth century, but also acknowledged the existence of an Arab corporate identity well before the Palestinians came to identify themselves in these terms.
As early as 1891, the eminent Zionist thinker Asher Zvi Ginsberg (Ahad Ha-am) underscored the existence of a vast Arab community in Palestine, which he referred to in terms of proto-nationalism. This view was echoed 14 years later by such prominent leaders as Max Nordau, second in command to Theodor Herzl, founding father of political Zionism, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party, who famously underscored this theme in a 1923 article entitled ‘The Iron Wall’. While Arthur Ruppin, the incoming head of the Zionist movement’s Palestine office, advocated in a series of articles (in 1908) the teaching of Arabic in Jewish primary schools ‘since knowledge of Hebrew alone will be of little help [to Jewish children] once they venture beyond the Jewish neighbourhoods’.
A report submitted to the first Zionist congress (1897) aptly estimated Palestine’s population at 400,000-500,000, including 70,000 Jews, while the eleventh congress (1913) revised this figure to 700,000 of whom 100,000 were Jews. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, came into contact with Arabs shortly after his arrival in Palestine in 1906, and ten years later co-authored a comprehensive book on the country’s history (with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, future president of the state of Israel), which discussed at great length the origin of the Palestinian Arabs and their socio-economic development. ‘Most of Palestine’s inhabitants are Arabs’, he wrote in 1915. ‘Aside from the 90,000 Jews, there are in the country some half-a-million Muslim Arabs and 100,000 Christian Arabs.’ Three yeas later, Ben-Gurion noted that ‘Palestine is not an empty country. In the territories that have historically, politically, ethnographically, and economically been part of Palestine, comprising 55,000-60,000 square kilometres on both sides of the Jordan River, live more than a million souls. In the territory west of the Jordan alone reside some 750,000 people’.
Haim Arlosoroff went a significant step further. In the summer of 1921, a few months after arriving in Palestine, the 22-year-old Labour activist and the Zionist movement’s future ‘foreign minister’ insisted on treating the Arab question as a political rather than a purely socio-economic issue. ‘Is there a political force in the country called an “Arab movement?”‘ he asked. His answer: ‘There is such a force and we must not ignore this fact. There is a vast community in the country which is united by Arab slogans; and whether or not we refer to it as a national movement, we must explore its essence and determine our attitude towards it.’
Even the first Zionist film on the Jewish national revival in Palestine, an eclectic collection of brief episodes shot in 1911 and titled ‘Scenes from the Holy Land’, includes numerous depictions of Arabs and Arabic sites, from the Haifa bazaar, to scenes from an Arab village, to Arab festivities, to Arab-Jewish associations. And so on and so forth.
Nor were the Zionists oblivious to the potential Arab threat to the Jewish national revival. In his 1891 article Ahad Ha-am warned that while the Arabs ‘don’t deem our present activities as endangering their future … and try to extract the greatest possible profit from the newcomers, while laughing at us in their hearts … should our national development in Palestine reach such a stage as to encroach upon them to a greater or lesser extent, they will not give in easily’. Writing in a similar vein in 1901, the prominent leader Menahem Ussishkin warned that unless the Zionists embarked on a sustained and comprehensive effort of agricultural settlement, the Arabs would retain control of the rural areas and the countryside, thus ghettoizing the Jews in a similar condition to that they had sought to escape in the Diaspora.
Shortly after Zionism had won its hitherto greatest political success—the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 stipulating ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’—Nordau identified the Arab question as the foremost obstacle to the Zionist enterprise. ‘When we return to our ancestral homeland we will find there some 600,000 Arab inhabitants’, he argued,
This figure is of course an estimate as Turkish statistics, the only available source, are highly questionable. But even in the event of large and rapid Jewish immigration it is likely that initially, and for some time to come, we will remain a minority within, or beside, an Arab majority. This majority may or may not welcome us; it may be sympathetic, hostile or indifferent to our cause, and can facilitate our settlement in the Holy Land or make the lives of our pioneers difficult. We must therefore prepare ourselves without delay for the looming challenge of coexistence with our future neighbours.
Jabotinsky needed no reminder of the formidable obstacles to Arab-Jewish reconciliation. In an address to the Zionist Executive in July 1921, two months after Arab violence had claimed 90 Jewish lives, he dismissed the possibility of peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence in the foreseeable future since the Arabs were not going to acquiesce in what they considered an alien encroachment on their patrimony. And while Arab hostility could be ameliorated through economic incentives, these measures were necessarily of limited value so long as the Arabs upheld the hope of destroying the Jewish National Home by force of arms.
Jabotinsky amplified this stark prognosis in ‘The Iron Wall’, where he repeated the claim that Arab acquiescence in the Jewish national revival in Palestine would only follow upon the establishment of an unassailable Zionist power base—political, diplomatic, and military. ‘As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter’, he wrote in his characteristically frank way,
because they are not a rabble, but a living people. And when a living people yields in matters of such a vital character it is only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘Never!’ And the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions. Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizens, or Arab national integrity.
And when that happens, I am convinced that we Jews will be found ready to give them satisfactory guarantees, so that both peoples can live together in peace, like good neighbours.
Keenly aware of his militant reputation, Jabotinsky went to great lengths to deny any connection between the ‘Iron Wall’ concept and the possible expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs. ‘I am reputed to be an enemy of the Arabs, who wants to have them ejected from Palestine, and so forth’, he wrote. ‘It is not true. Emotionally, my attitude to the Arabs is the same as to all other nations—polite indifference … I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine—which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority’.
Jabotinsky reiterated this position on numerous occasions. In the autumn of 1936 he told a Jewish gathering in Warsaw that ‘Palestine can offer a solution to our immigration problem without expelling any Arabs or harming them in any way’, and a few months later testified before the Peel commission that ‘there is no question of ousting the Arabs. On the contrary, the idea is that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should hold the Arabs, their progeny, and many millions of Jews’. At a meeting with British parliamentarians on 13 July 1937, Jabotinsky criticized the Peel commission’s recommendation of a population exchange between the prospective Arab and Jewish states as a means of reducing inter-communal tensions. ‘The commission’s report describes me as an extremist’, he said.
But at least I never dreamt of demanding the Arab inhabitants of the Jewish state to emigrate. This might be a most dangerous precedent that will jeopardize the interests of the Jewish Diaspora. Nor will the prospective Arab state, once deprived of Jewish energy and capital [following the transfer of its Jewish inhabitants] be able to absorb these Arabs. Hence the notion of ‘uprooting’ masses of people is nothing but idle talk.
Jabotinsky upheld this view to his dying day. ‘The transformation of Palestine can be effected to the full without dislodging the Palestinian Arabs. All current affirmations to the contrary are utterly incorrect’, he wrote in 1940, the year of his death.
A territory of over 100,000 square kilometres settled at the average density of France (87 inhabitants per square kilometre) would hold over 8 million inhabitants; at the density of Switzerland (104) over 10 million; at the density of Germany or Italy (140) about 14 million. It now holds, counting Arabs and Jews and Transjordanians and all, just over one million and a half inhabitants. There is margin enough for Palestine to absorb the better part of East-Central Europe’s ghetto—the better part of 5 million souls—without approaching even the moderate density of France. Unless the Arabs choose to go away of their own accord, there is no need for them to emigrate.
What about the position of the Arab minority in the prospective Jewish state? They would be full-fledged citizens who would participate on an equal footing ‘throughout all sectors of the country’s public life’. As early as 1905, Jabotinsky protested at the mistreatment of Arabs by some Jewish villagers, insisting that ‘we must treat the Arabs correctly and affably, without any violence or injustice’. He reiterated this position in ‘The Iron Wall’: ‘I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone. This seems to me a fairly peaceful credo.’
Eleven years later Jabotinsky presided over the drafting of a constitution for Jewish Palestine. According to its provisions, Arabs and Jews were to share both the prerogatives and the duties of statehood including, most notably, military and civil service; Hebrew and Arabic were to enjoy the same legal standing; and ‘in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice versa’. When asked by the Peel commission whether he still subscribed to the view that ‘on a long view the Jewish village cannot prosper unless the Arab village prospers with it’, Jabotinsky replied: ‘Yes. I think on the whole it is true and I think Palestine, such as I dream of it, should be a country of very happy Arabs. … When we shall become a majority and make the country rich and develop all its possibilities and utilize all its resources, then it will be a prosperity in which the Arabs will be happy.’
Meir Grossman, Jabotinsky’s right-hand man, put the matter in similar terms. ‘It is nonsense to say that we want to keep the Arabs down’, he stated in May 1925.
It is in the interests of the Jews that the Arab population should rise from its present low economic level, become a prosperous element, and thus make possible the development of trade and industry on a large scale. There is, of course, no idea of driving the Arabs out of the country. There is plenty of room for the next ten years or so at least, for a large increase in the population, especially if a new and modern system of land settlement were employed by the Jews.
If this was the position of the more militant faction of the Jewish national movement, it is hardly surprising that mainstream Zionism had always taken for granted the equality of the Arab minority in the future Jewish state. As early as 1915, Ben-Gurion argued that ‘our goal is not antithetical to the Arab community in the country; we do not intend to marginalize the Arabs, or to displace them from their lands and take their place’. Three years later he forcefully stated that ‘had Zionism desired to evict the inhabitants of Palestine it would have been a dangerous utopia and a harmful, reactionary mirage’.
In 1926, as secretary-general of the federation of Jewish workers (Histadrut), the foremost Jewish socio-economic organization in mandatory Palestine with responsibility for the Jewish community’s (or the Yishuv as it was commonly known) nascent clandestine military arm the Hagana (meaning defence in Hebrew), Ben-Gurion argued that ‘the Arab community in the country is an organic, inextricable part of Palestine; it is embedded in the country, where it labours and where it will stay. It is not to disinherit this community or to thrive on its destruction that Zionism came into being … Only a madman can attribute such a desire to the Jewish people in Palestine. Palestine will belong to the Jewish people and its Arab inhabitants’.
In a letter to his son Amos on 5 October 1937, Ben-Gurion stressed that ‘We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption—proven throughout all our activity in the Land [of Israel]—that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs’. At the twentieth Zionist congress in Zurich (August 1937), Ben-Gurion outlined his vision of the position of the Arab minority in the prospective Jewish state:
No Jewish state, big or small, in part of the country or in its entirety, will be [truly] established so long as the land of the prophets does not witness the realization of the great and eternal moral ideals that we have nourished in our hearts for generations: one law for all residents, just rule, love of one’s neighbour, true equality. The Jewish state will be a role model to the world in its treatment of minorities and members of other nations. Law and justice will prevail in our state, and a firm hand will eradicate all evil from within our ranks. This eradication of evil will not discriminate between Jews and non-Jews. Just as an Arab policeman helping Arab rioters will be severely punished, so a Jewish policeman failing to protect an Arab from Jewish hooligans will be severely punished.
In its July 1938 submission to the Palestine Partition Commission, headed by Sir John Woodhead and charged with re-evaluating the Peel commission’s recommendations, the Zionist movement undertook ‘not only to respect the civil and religious rights of its non-Jewish citizens [as required by the Balfour Declaration], but also to safeguard and, to the best of its ability, to improve their positions’. Insisting that ‘there can be no question of any citizen of the Jewish State being at a disadvantage by reason of his race or religion’, the Zionist movement pledged to strive ‘to bring about a greater measure of real equality in education and standards of life’ between the state’s Arab and Jewish communities. Specifically, the Arabs were not only to participate in elections ‘for any representative Legislature which may be set up in the Jewish State’ but would also be represented in its executive organ; were promised full religious freedoms, including the freedom of worship, protection of holy places, and maintenance of existing religious institutions and some legal practices (e.g., family law); and were assured that ‘no citizen of the Jewish State shall be at a disadvantage as a candidate for public employment by reason of his race or religion’, that the state would do its utmost to narrow the gap between Jewish and Arab wage levels, and that while Hebrew would be the language of the Jewish state,
Arabic will have full recognition as the language of an important section of its citizens. No attempt will be made to force Hebrew upon the Arab public. Arabic will be the language of instruction in the Arab schools; official notices will be issued and official business transacted in Arabic in areas in which this is required for the benefit of an Arabic-speaking population; [and] Arabs will be entitled to address the Government in Arabic and to receive replies in that language.
Even the sporadic outbreaks of Arab violence did not disabuse the Zionist movement of the hope of peaceful coexistence. Writing shortly after the 1921 pogroms, Arlosoroff insisted that for all the pain and frustration ‘we have only one way—the way of peace—and only one national policy: that of mutual understanding’. Echoing this prognosis, the twelfth Zionist congress, convened in the Czech town of Carlsbad in September 1921, pronounced ‘the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of concord and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community’. Two years later, the thirteenth Zionist congress (convened yet again in Carlsbad) reaffirmed that ‘the Jewish people who are beginning to rebuild their National Home are resolved with all their spiritual, moral and material powers to associate themselves with this new world now only coming into being [in the Middle East], but so rich in energies and possibilities, and to collaborate on a footing of equality with the peoples whose destinies they share, in close communion and fruitful harmony of interests’.
Arlosoroff also sought to downplay the nature and significance of the 1929 riots, in which 133 Jews were murdered and hundreds more were wounded. ‘How many of Palestine’s 930 Arab villages actively responded to the venomous slogans from Jerusalem? No more than a few dozens’, he reasoned. ‘How many of the country’s 750,000-strong Arab population participated in these riots? No more than a few thousands’. Even then, religious fanaticism (let alone nationalist militancy) played only a limited role in the crisis since ‘after the first frenzied days of rioting, when the masses responded to the calls for a jihad, which made the violence so horrendous, pillage emerged as the foremost motivation’.
This of course did not mean that the Zionist movement should dismiss the riots, let alone ignore their occurrence. Yet as the Palestinian Arabs would evolve into a modern and cohesive national community, they were bound to recognize that ‘the solution to this problem cannot be based on English bayonets or the surrender of [Jewish] fundamental demands, but must rather be based on joint action by the two peoples inhabiting Palestine and living side by side in peace’. Behind this optimism lay an age-old Zionist hope: that the material progress resulting from Jewish settlement of Palestine would ease the path for the local Arab populace to become permanently reconciled, if not positively well disposed, to the project of Jewish national self-determination.
As early as 1899 Herzl reassured the Jerusalemite notable Yusuf Zia Khalidi that, rather than endanger them in any way, growing Jewish immigration to Palestine held great economic promise for its Arab inhabitants. Three years later, in his utopian Zionist novel Alteneuland (Old-New Land), Herzl painted an idyllic picture of Arab-Jewish coexistence in 1923 Palestine, which by that time had become a modern, prosperous, liberal, and egalitarian Jewish state. ‘It was a great blessing for all of us’, Rashid Bey, the proverbial voice of the Palestinian Arab population in the novel, explained the impact of Zionism to an enquiring foreigner,
The Jews have enriched us … They dwell among us like brothers. … Naturally, the land-owners gained most because they were able to sell to the Jewish society at high prices, or to wait for still higher ones … [but] those who had nothing stood to lose nothing, and could only gain. And they did gain: Opportunities to work, means of livelihood, prosperity. … These people are better off than at any time in the past. They support themselves decently, their children are healthier and are being taught something. Their religion and ancient customs have in no wise been interfered with. They have become more prosperous—that is all.
In his report to the eleventh Zionist congress (1913), Ruppin advocated a greater socio-economic effort to convince the Arabs of the material gains attending the Jewish national awakening. He noted the significant benefits brought to the Arab population in the fields of employment, modern agricultural methods and improved health services yet insisted that more was to be done. ‘In my report to last year’s annual meeting I showed that the Jews could substantially improve Arab wellbeing by stamping out epidemics in Palestine, especially the frightfully common eye diseases’, he argued. ‘Since then, this idea has been realized by [the American Jewish philanthropist] Nathan Strauss, assisted by a number of charitable societies, and one hopes that this work will win us the Arabs’ sympathy.’
For his part Ben-Gurion argued that ‘the Jewish settlement is not designed to undermine the position of the Arab community; on the contrary, it will salvage it from its economic misery, lift it from its social decline, and rescue it from physical and moral degeneration. Our renaissance in Palestine will come through the country’s regeneration, that is: the renaissance of its Arab inhabitants’. As late as December 1947, shortly after the Palestinian Arabs had already initiated a violent effort to subvert the UN resolution partitioning the territory of Palestine into two states, Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, argued that despite appearances of implacable enmity, ‘If the Arab citizen will feel at home in our state … if the state will help him in a truthful and dedicated way to reach the economic, social, and cultural level of the Jewish community, then Arab distrust will accordingly subside and a bridge will be built to a Semitic, Jewish-Arab alliance’.
This hope was based, on the face of it, on reasonable grounds. Far from ‘being built on the ruins of Arab Palestine’, as Said would later claim, the inflow of Jewish immigrants and capital after World War I revived the country’s hitherto static population. If prior to the war some 2,500-3,000 Arabs, or one out of every 200-250 inhabitants, emigrated from Palestine every year, this rate was slashed to about 800 per annum between 1920 and 1936, while the Arab population rose from about 600,000 to some 950,000 owing to the substantial improvement in socio-economic conditions attending the development of the Jewish National Home. ‘The general beneficent effect of Jewish immigration on Arab welfare is illustrated by the fact that the increase in the Arab population is most marked in urban areas affected by Jewish development’, read the Peel Commission Report. ‘A comparison of the Census returns in 1922 and 1931 shows that, six years ago, the increase per cent in Haifa was 86, in Jaffa 62, in Jerusalem 37, while in purely Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron it was only 7, and at Gaza there was a decrease of 2 per cent’.
Raising the standard of living of the Palestinian Arabs well above the neighbouring Arab states, the general fructifying effect of the import of Jewish capital into the country was not limited to the upper classes, or the effendis, who ‘sold substantial pieces of land [to the Jews] at a figure far above the price it could have fetched before the War’, but extended to the country’s predominantly rural population, the fellaheen, who ‘are on the whole better off than they were in 1920’. The expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially in the field of citrus growing, Palestine’s foremost export product, was largely financed by the capital thus obtained, and Jewish know-how did much to improve Arab cultivation. In the two decades between the world wars, Arab-owned citrus plantations grew sixfold, as did vegetable-growing lands, while olive groves grew fourfold and vineyards increased threefold.
No less remarkable were the advances in Palestinian Arab social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates in the Muslim population dropped sharply while life expectancy rose from 37.5 years in 1926/27 to 50 in 1942/44 (compared to 33 in Egypt). Between 1927/29 and 1942/44, child mortality was reduced by 34 percent in the first year of age, by 31 percent in the second, by 57 percent in the third, by 64 percent in the fourth, and by 67 percent in the fifth. Consequently, the rate of natural increase among Palestinian Muslims grew by a third (from 23.3 per 1,000 people in 1922/25 to 30.7 in 1941/44)—well ahead of the natural increase (or of the total increase) of other Arab/Muslim populations.
That nothing remotely reminiscent of this spectacular progress took place in the neighbouring British-ruled Arab countries (notably Egypt and Transjordan), not to mention India, can only be explained by the decisive Jewish contribution to mandatory Palestine’s socio-economic well-being. As the Arab states struggled to balance their budgets, the tens of millions of pounds brought to Palestine by Jewish immigration, much of which flowed into the coffers of the mandatory exchequer, placed the country’s finances on exceptionally solid grounds. In the words of the Peel commission, ‘much the greater part of the customs duties are paid by [the Jews], and the rising amount of customs-revenue has formed from 1920 to the present day the biggest item in the rising total revenue’. Though the commission was unable to calculate the precise share of customs revenue borne by the Jews, this was estimated at approximately 65 percent by a later official survey, while the Jewish share in the revenue from income tax in 1944/45 amounted to 68 percent (compared with 15 percent paid by the Arab community, nearly twice the size of its Jewish counterpart).
This massive contribution to state revenues was accompanied by the Yishuv’s extensive public health provision that benefited a substantial part of the country’s Arab population. Jewish reclamation and anti-malaria work slashed the prevalence of this lethal disease (during the latter part of 1918, for example, 68 per 1,000 people in the Beit Jibrin region died of malaria; in 1935, the number of malaria-related deaths in the whole of Palestine was 17), while health institutions, founded with Jewish funds primarily to serve the Jewish National Home, also served the Arab population. The Hadassah Medical Organization, in particular, treated many of the poorest in Arab society, notably at the Tuberculosis Hospital at Safad and the Radiology Institute at Jerusalem; admitted Arab country-folk to the clinics of its rural Sick Benefit Fund; and did much infant welfare work for Arab mothers. It is hardly surprising therefore that the greatest reductions in Arab mortality, as well as the rise in the quality and standard of living, occurred in, or near, localities where Jewish enterprise had been most pronounced.
Had the vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they would have most probably been content to get on with their lives and take advantage of the socio-economic opportunities afforded by the growing Jewish presence in the country, as evidenced by the fact that the periods of peaceful coexistence during the mandatory era (1920-1948) far exceeded those of violent eruptions, which in turn were perpetrated by a small fraction of the Palestinian Arabs.
In the 1920s, Jewish representatives held hundreds of formal meetings with their Arab counterparts in Palestine and the neighbouring Arab states, and were frequently welcomed at social gatherings and official events held by rural and urban leaders, as well as at the homes of prominent Arab families. There were also various joint Arab-Jewish projects and enterprises, ranging from the association for orange growers in Jaffa, to mixed committees for the building of the Jaffa port and similar enterprises in Haifa; from active cooperation by Arab and Jewish villagers in anti-malarial drainage and in the improvement of water supplies, to a joint organization for the benefit of the poor and the aged, to Arab-Jewish professional unions. In 1923, about 100 Arab children attended private Jewish schools while 307 Jewish children attended private Christian Arab schools. Three years later, the number of Jews attending Arab schools grew by some 50 percent to 445—including 315 Jewesses in Arab all-girl schools.
In the course of a brief trip to the Galilee in April 1923, for example, Colonel Frederick Kisch, the most senior Zionist official in Palestine between 1923 and 1931, conferred with the local mufti and the ‘very friendly’ mayor of Tiberias, a town of mixed Arab-Jewish population where ‘none of the Arabs are definitely opposed to us’; met Arab farmers visiting kibbutz Deganya; was informed by the Rosh Pina villagers of their cordial relations with their Arab neighbours; and noted with satisfaction the treatment of Arab patients at the Hadassah hospital in Safad. The following month, having returned from a festive event at a Jewish village attended by at least 100 Arabs, Kisch recorded in his diary: ‘It was gratifying to see so many Arabs, most of them inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, participating happily in such a ceremony under the shadow of the blue and white flag. No better answer could be given to the constantly repeated charge that all Arabs are opposed to Zionist work’.
Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton, a prominent champion of the pan-Arab cause and no friend of Zionism or the Jews, who in 1923 became Palestine’s chief political secretary, acknowledged that ‘on non-political matters, such as taxation, agriculture, etc., the Jewish colonies and Arab villages speak the same voice and sometimes from the same hall’. He once recalled how he arrived in a kibbutz to deliver a speech on the National Home only to find a mixed gathering of Jews and Arabs engaged in an animated discussion, thus necessitating a complete change in the subject of his own remarks.
‘Tell Balfour that we in the South are willing to sell him land at a much lower rate than he will have to pay in the North’, a Gaza sheikh told British officials shortly after their conquest of Palestine. Indeed, during the first two decades of the mandate, thousands of Arabs from all classes and walks of life profited handsomely by selling land to the Jews. In the three-year period from 1933 to 1936, for example, 2,809 of the 3,076 Arab-Jewish land sales (or 91 percent) involved ordinary people selling smallish plots of less than 25 acres, rather than absentee landlords. Even the extreme Palestinian Arab leadership, which put its followers on the tragic collision course with Zionism that was to result in their collective undoing, unabashedly prospered from the Jewish national revival. While ordinary Arabs were ostracized, persecuted, and murdered for the ‘ultimate crime’ of ‘selling Palestine’ to the Jews, the instigators of this brutal campaign were doing the same with impunity. Thus we have the staunch pan-Arabist Awni Abdel Hadi facilitating the sale of 7,500 acres to the Zionist movement, for which he was rewarded to the tune of £2,700. Other members of the Abdel Hadi family, all respected political and religious figures, sold plots of land to the Zionists. So did the prominent leaders Muin Madi, Alfred Rock, Musa Alami, As’ad Shuqeiri (father of Ahmad, later founder of the PLO), and numerous members of the Husseini family, the foremost Palestinian Arab clan during the mandate, including Musa Kazim (long time Jerusalem mayor and father of Abdel Qader Husseini) and Hajj Amin’s father Muhammad Tahir Husseini.
Nor did Hajj Amin himself have any qualms about seeking Jewish aid and support whenever this suited his needs. Prior to his appointment as mufti of Jerusalem he pleaded with Zionist leaders to lobby on his behalf with (the Jewish) Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner for Palestine; in 1927 he asked Gad Frumkin, the only Jewish Supreme Court Justice during the mandatory era, to influence the Jerusalem Jewish community to back the Husseini mayoral candidate in the municipal elections. He likewise employed a Jewish architect to build a luxury hotel for the Supreme Muslim Council, which he headed, while ordering his constituents to boycott Jewish labour and products. ‘Arab nationalist feelings were never allowed to harm the interests of the Husseini family’, wrote the prominent Jerusalem lawyer and Zionist activist Dov Joseph, a future minister of justice in the Israeli government. ‘One of [the Mufti’s] kinsmen, Jamil Husseini, had once engaged my services in land litigation which went as high as the Privy Council in London … For years one of the Mufti’s close relations prospered mightily by forcing Arab small-holders to sell land, at niggardly prices, which he then resold to Jews at a handsome profit.’
Arab-Jewish coexistence even survived the ‘Arab Revolt’ of 1936-1939, in which some 430 Jews (and several times as many Arabs) were murdered by rampaging Arab gangs. Though taking a huge beating owing to the paralytic atmosphere of terror and a ruthlessly enforced anti-Jewish economic boycott, bilateral relations continued on many practical levels and were largely restored after the subsidence of violence, or even during these turbulent years, whenever the necessities of daily life so required. Even land sales to Jews continued apace, with the lion’s share of the 1,300-plus transactions in 1936-1939 involving ordinary people. When in December 1938 the Jewish workers at the port of Haifa declined service to a German ship, after a German naval officer insulted a Jewish porter, their Arab colleagues swiftly followed suit.
In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that in the valedictory report summing up his term in office (1920-1925), Samuel painted an upbeat picture of the development of Arab-Jewish relations:
In the first place, the people discovered that the disasters, which they had been told were about to fall upon them, did not in fact occur. The attacks upon their villages by well-armed Jewish colonists, which some of the agitators had announced, did not take place. The day when a hundred thousand Jews were to disembark in Palestine in order to occupy their lands, came and went, and there was no such invasion. Month followed month and year followed year, and no man had his land taken from him. So far from the mosques closed and turned into synagogues, a new, purely Moslem, elected body was created to which the control of all Moslem religious buildings, and of their endowments, was transferred; it rebuilt those that were in ruins and began to restore those that needed restoration. It is difficult, under such conditions, to maintain indefinitely an attitude of alarm; people cannot be induced to remain constantly mobilized against a danger which never eventuates.
Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, this optimism was grossly overstated. In authoritarian patriarchal communities alien to the notions of civil society or liberal democracy the hopes and wishes of ordinary people are rarely taken into account. As Musa Alami, one of the foremost Palestinian Arab moderates during the mandatory era, told David Ben-Gurion, ‘he would prefer the land to remain poor and desolate even for another hundred years’ if the alternative was its rapid development in collaboration with the Zionists.
Neither has socio-economic progress been a recipe for political moderation and inter-communal coexistence. In the modern world it is not the poor and the oppressed masses that have led the great revolutions and/or carried out the worst deeds of violence; rather, it is militant vanguards from among the better educated and more moneyed circles of society. As for the Palestinian Arabs, the more prosperous, affluent, and better educated their leaders became, the greater their extremism. In the words of the Peel Commission Report:
We have found that, though the Arabs have benefited by the development of the country owing to Jewish immigration, this has had no conciliatory effect. On the contrary, improvement in the economic situation in Palestine has meant the deterioration of the political situation. … With almost mathematical precision the betterment of the economic situation in Palestine meant the deterioration of the political situation.
In line with this prognosis, in April 1920, 13 months after Emir Faisal ibn Hussein, the celebrated hero of the ‘Great Arab Revolt’ against the Ottoman Empire and the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement, had signed an agreement with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, upcoming leader of the Zionist movement, which supported ‘the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British Government’s Declaration of the 2nd November 1917’ and the adoption of ‘all necessary measures … to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale’, Arab rioters in Jerusalem murdered five Jews and wounded 211. ‘Do you really think that we will ever accept [a Jewish National Home]?’ Awni Abdel Hadi asked a Jewish acquaintance. ‘There are 52 million Muslims around Palestine … and we will not rest until the country is either placed under a free Arab government or becomes a graveyard for all the Jews in the country. We’ll finish them off one by one: if not in a month, then in a year, if not in a year—then in ten years. But our goal will be achieved, and there is nothing that can prevent us from achieving it, slowly but surely’.
From that point on, the primary instrument used by the Palestinian Arab leadership for opposing Jewish national aspirations was violence, and what determined Arab politics and diplomacy was the relative success or failure of that instrument in any given period. In May 1921, Arab riots claimed a far higher toll—some 90 dead and hundreds wounded. In the summer of 1929, as noted above, another wave of violence resulted in the death of 133 Jews and the wounding of hundreds more. A particularly gruesome fate befell the ancient Jewish community of Hebron, dating back to biblical times, where 67 people were brutally slaughtered by their Arab neighbours, many dozens of others were wounded, property ransacked, and synagogues desecrated.
For quite some time, this confrontational approach seemed to be working. It was especially effective in influencing the British, who had been appointed the mandatory power in Palestine by the League of Nations. Though the explicit purpose of the British mandate was to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, the mandatory authorities repeatedly gave in to Arab violence aimed at averting that goal and to the demands that followed upon it. In two White Papers, issued in 1922 and 1930 respectively, Great Britain severely compromised the prospective Jewish national home by imposing harsh restrictions on immigration and land sales to Jews.
In July 1937, Arab violence reaped its greatest reward when the Peel commission recommended repudiating the terms of the mandate altogether in favour of partitioning Palestine into two states: a large Arab state, united with Transjordan, that would occupy some 90 percent of the mandate territory, and a Jewish state in what was left. This was followed in May 1939 by another White Paper that imposed even more draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases, closing the doors of Palestine to Jews desperate to flee Nazi Europe and threatening the survival of the Jewish national project. Agitating for more, the Arabs dismissed both plans as insufficient. ‘The Jews left Palestine 2,000 years ago’, the Mufti told the British High Commissioner. ‘Let them go to other parts of the world, where there are wide vacant places.’
The Arabs did the same in November 1947 when, in the face of the imminent expiration of the British mandate, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two independent states—one Jewish, the other Arab—linked in an economic union, they resolved to destroy the state of Israel at birth.
And thus it was that while Ben-Gurion was publicly stating that ‘in our state there will be non-Jews as well—and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well’, Hajj Amin proclaimed that ‘we would rather die than accept minority rights’ in a prospective Jewish state and his deputy, Jamal Husseini, stated that ‘should partition be implemented, it will only be achieved over the bodies of the Arabs of Palestine, their sons, and their women’, while Zionist committees laying the groundwork for the nascent Jewish state discussed in detail the establishment of an Arabic-language press, the improvement of health in the Arab sector, the incorporation of Arab officials into the government, the integration of Arabs within the police and the ministry of education, and Arab-Jewish cultural and intellectual interaction, the Palestinian and Arab leaderships were steadily escalating the level of violence; and while the Jewish military plan for rebuffing the anticipated pan-Arab invasion (Plan D) was predicated, in the explicit instructions of Israel Galili, the Hagana’s commander-in-chief, on the ‘acknowledgement of the full rights, needs, and freedom of the Arabs in the Hebrew state without any discrimination, and a desire for coexistence on the basis of mutual freedom and dignity’, Fawzi Qawuqji, commander of the pan-Arab force that invaded Palestine in early 1948 vowed ‘to drive all Jews into the sea’, Abdel Qader Husseini, the Mufti’s foremost henchman, stated that ‘the Palestine problem will only be solved by the sword; all Jews must leave Palestine’, and the Syrian minister of defence pledged to turn the year 1948 into ‘a bloodbath in which the Arab countries will make a stand against all the injustice suffered at the hands of foreign powers’.
As it was, the Palestinian and pan-Arab attempt to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the Jewish community backfired spectacularly. In the 1948 war, not only did Israel confirm its sovereign independence and assert control over somewhat wider territories than those assigned to it by the UN partition resolution, but the Palestinian Arab community was profoundly shattered, with about half of its population fleeing to other parts of Palestine and to neighbouring Arab states. A contest between an affirmation and a denial indeed.