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Britian, Haj Husseini and the Arab Riots of 1920

The British administration did not just wait on events to foster implementation their policy of increased British control in the Middle East. 

They worked hard, simultaneously on a second front, in Syria, against the French. In July 1919, a "Syrian National Congress" demanded the unity of Syria (that is, to include Palestine) and the installation of Faisal as king. The French expressed a fear that this sudden materialisation from nowhere of a Syrian national movement and the reversal of the popular feeling against the Sherifians was the result of a British intrigue. The British replied with denials and reassuring statements. In fact, Allenby in Cairo and his subordinates in Palestine, G.O.C. General Bols and his Chief of Staff, Col. Waters-Taylor, were secretly pressing their home government to "accept the situation": to jettison their government's pact with the French, to abandon the Zionists, and to give Syria and Palestine to Faisal.

The plan, in the face of London's official Zionist policy, it had to be covered by an Arab cloak

The plan, however, could, not be pursued as a bald British purpose. In the face of London's official Zionist policy, it had to be covered by an Arab cloak, and quickly. The military administration itself began creating an Arab organisation that could then be presented as the authentic voice and representative of "the Arabs" in rejecting and combating the Zionists and the Zionist policy of the British government. Here began the history of the first Arab political organisation, the Moslem Christian Association (MCA). Its first branch, in Jaffa, was organised at the inspiration of the District Military Governor, Lt. Col. J. E. Hubbard -- who had formally proposed to his superiors in the administration the setting up of an Arab organisation -- and under the personal direction of the district head of British Intelligence, Captain Brunton. Not insignificantly, the most active and disproportionately numerous early recruits were Christian Arabs. Years later, a leading member of the military administration, Sir Wyndham Deedes, admitted that from its inception the Moslem Christian Association had enjoyed the support and financial aid of the British administration.1

The purposes of the administration were now pursued by a stream of memoranda of protest and demands by the several branches of the MCA, dutifully forwarded to London with accompanying evaluations of their originality, spontaneity, sincerity, and the representative character of their signatories.

A "situation" had to be created

Memoranda, however, were not enough to generate quick action; a "situation" had to be created. Col. Waters-Taylor maintained contact with Faisal in Damascus, urging upon him action to assume power in Syria from the French. He assured him that the Arabs of Palestine were behind him and would welcome him as king of a "united Syria," that is, including Palestine. He urged him, moreover, "to stand up against the British Government for his principles." Early in 1920, this general effort at persuasion gave way to more specific inducement; money and arms were provided for the planned coup.2

In Jerusalem, Waters-Taylor and Col. Ronald Storrs, one of the original members of the Cairo school and now Governor of the city, established and maintained regular contact with the handful of militant Sherifians, notably Haj Amin el Husseini, the young brother of the Mufti of Jerusalem, and Aref el Aref. In early 1920, Waters-Taylor suggested to his and Storrs' Arab contacts the desirability of organising "anti-Jewish riots to impress on the Administration the unpopularity of the Zionist policy." A detailed critical report of all these activities was submitted to General Allenby by the political officer of the Palestine administration, Col. Richard Meinertzhagen. Allenby told him he would take no action.3

In March, the coup was carried out in Damascus and Faisal was installed as king, in Palestine there were riots - against the Jews

The spring of 1920 was chosen for action. In March, the coup was carried out in Damascus and Faisal was installed as king. In order to achieve a sizeable riot in Palestine, the country (in the words of the subsequent military Court of Enquiry) was "infested with Sherifian officers."4 who carried on a lurid agitation against the Jews. As the court noted euphemistically, the administration took no action against them.

On the Wednesday before Easter, Col. Waters-Taylor had a meeting in Jerusalem with Haj Amin el Husseini and told him "that he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world that the Arabs of Palestine would not tolerate Jewish domination in Palestine; that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall; and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols and General Allenby would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home" (Meinertzhagen, pp. 81-82).

Britain dispanded almost all Jewish regiments, soldiers and removed Jewish policemen from Jerusalem

That year, Easter coincided with the Moslem festival of Nebi Musa. Its celebration included a procession starting in Jerusalem, where the crowd was addressed by the Sherifians and told to fall on the Jews "in the name of King Faisal." For doubters, there was an even more convincing argument: Adowlah ma'ana -- the government is with us. This was a demonstrable fact; all but a remnant of the Jewish regiments, that had helped liberate Palestine had been disbanded over the preceding months; the few remaining soldiers were confined to camp at Sarafand. On the day of the outbreak, all British troops and Jewish police had been removed from the Old City; only Arab policemen were left.

The mob in the Old City, armed with clubs and knives, first looted shops. Then it caught and beat up or killed Jews and raped Jewish women. The Court of Enquiry -- itself a creation of the administration -- summed up: "The Jews were the victims of a peculiarly brutal and cowardly attack, the majority of the casualties being old men, women and children" (p. 76).

Zeev Jabotinsky and Pinchas Rutenberg had in the preceding days hastily organised a Jewish self-defence unit. Their way into the Old City was barred at the gates by British troops.

In the first flush of enthusiasm, a British military court compounded the offence in traditional fashion: The defenders were punished. Jabotinsky was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment and twenty of his followers were given lesser terms. But Haj Amin and el Aref had operated too openly for any government publicly to ignore their guilt. Though they escaped across the Jordan, they were sentenced in absentia to ten years' imprisonment each.

"A Pogrom in Jerusalem"

The British government, however much whitewash it was willing to splash over the events in Jerusalem, had to react to the outcry that went up in Europe and the United States at the phenomenon of a pogrom in Jerusalem. Nor could it ignore the factual inside information it received. Meinertzhagen, as a representative of the Foreign Office, sent a new, detailed report derived from an independent intelligence unit he had established. This, time, he bypassed Allenby and wrote directly to the Foreign Office.

As a result, the sentence on Jabotinsky was quashed; the most obvious conspirators, including Bols and Waters-Taylor, were removed; the military regime was replaced by a civil administration. Storrs, more subtle than his colleagues, remained, and he was not alone.5 The Arabist purpose of the Cairo school did not change but was carried over into the civil administration of Palestine and pervaded and finally dominated the Mandatory regime.

It did not succeed in creating an Arab "nation" in Palestine in 1918

It did not succeed in creating an Arab "nation" in Palestine. In 1918, at the height of his campaign to register Arab achievements, Colonel Lawrence himself had cautiously confessed in one of his confidential reports:
  "The phrase Arab Movement was invented in Cairo as a common denominator for all the vague discontents against Turkey which before 1916 existed in the Arab provinces. In a non-constitutional country, these naturally took on a revolutionary character and it was convenient to pretend to find a common ground in all of them. They were most of them very local, very jealous, but had to be considered in the hope that one or the other of them might bear fruit."6 In 1919 and 1920, despite the historic transformation that had taken place around them, the Arabs had not changed. When in July 1920 the French in Syria decided on a firm stand and ordered Faisal to leave the country, he meekly complied. The popular forces which his British sponsors attributed to him did not show themselves. In Jerusalem that Easter, even the Arab mob in the marketplace, before they attacked Jews, had to be fired by religious incitement, by the invocation of a living king, by the visible evidence that their victims were defenceless, and by the assurance that their violence would be welcomed by the British rulers.

"Arab national feeling," he wrote, "is based on our [British] gold and nothing else"

The political officer to the administration went even further: "Arab national feeling," he wrote, "is based on our gold and nothing else" (Meinertzhagen, p. 83).

In the early years of the civil administration, there was still a running policy conflict between the British statesmen who had been responsible for, or associated with, the negotiations with the Zionists and the undertakings made to them and the purveyors of Laurentian pan-Arabism. The Laurentians, however, contrived to fill key posts in the Palestinian administration, and some of them were inevitably recruited to fill the posts in the Middle Eastern Department of the Colonial Office, which in 1921 took over responsibility for Palestine.

The Cairo-Khartoum school, moreover, found an unexpected ally in the first chief of the civil administration, Sir Herbert Samuel. Samuel, precisely because he was a Jew, soon found himself in the position of either following the advice of his subordinates or being considered insufficiently British. In striking contrast to his English soldier-successor, Lord Plumer, who adhered as best he could to the status quo and to the brief he had from Whitehall, Samuel allowed his administration to develop naturally the anti-Zionist themes of the military administration it had replaced. An anti-Zionist official named Ernest T. Richmond, in government employ as an architect, was manoeuvred by Storrs (as is now made clear by the British government archives) into the post of assistant secretary (political), whose duties were formally those of chief adviser to the High Commissioner on Moslem affairs.7

British advice to Arab agitator-leaders

Richmond, receiving a salary to carry out the London government's official policy, openly spent his time in the administration on efforts to undermine it. He gave advice to the Arab agitator-leaders. He became their intermediary and self-appointed spokesman. It was at the initiative and under the tutelage of Richmond, Storrs, and their colleagues, and under their inspiration, that the Sherifian instigators of the pogrom of 1920 were now brought back into the arena to build up a political machine so that they could claim to speak for the "Arabs of Palestine."

Haj Amin el Husseini was hiding across the Jordan to avoid serving his jail sentence. Since no other candidate for this kind of leadership had appeared among the Arabs, Samuel was persuaded by Storrs to pardon Haj Amin -- and his colleague Aref el Aref -- as a "gesture"; and they returned to Jerusalem. When the incumbent Mufti of Jerusalem died soon afterward, the Moslem religious leaders convened as an electoral college to recommend a short list of three candidates from whom the High Commissioner would have to make the appointment. Haj Amin entered the contest. He had no special qualification to be the head of Moslem community in the city. He was twenty-years old and his education must have been over well before he was twenty-one, since he had served in the Turkish Army certainly before 1917. In the poll, he received the lowest number of votes and thus could not be included in the recommended list of three.

Haj Husseini appointed by British as Mufti of Jerusalem - even though he received the lowest number of votes from the Moslem community

Richmond launched an energetic campaign to get Samuel to appoint him nevertheless. He urged upon him the "expert" view that the poll was unimportant, that Haj Amin was the man the "Moslem population" insisted on. A virulent agitation was let loose within the Moslem community against the successful candidate, Sheikh Jurallah, who was described, among other things, as a Zionist who intended to sell Moslem holy property to the Jews. Samuel gave way. He did not in fact send Haj Amin the letter of appointment and it was never gazetted. Haj Amin simply "became" the Mufti of Jerusalem. Thus, this man, imposed on the Moslem community, became and remained, for most of the crucial years of the Mandate, the director and spearhead of the war on Zionism. The Moslem dignitaries, whom even the backward Turks had not accustomed to such outrageous interference or dictation, nevertheless took the hint. They knew now beyond any doubt what the British power expected of them.

When he started on his career, however, Haj Amin's followers were few, and he had no sources of finance for the political task projected for him. This, too, had been thought of. The administration then set up a body called the Supreme Moslem Council. Haj Amin, now clothed with the authority of Mufti and authentic favourite of the British, was elected its president without difficulty. His position was entrenched: The appointment was for life, so that no opposition could ever unseat him democratically. He and his pliant subordinates became the arbiters of all Moslem religious endowments and expenditure. Many Moslems became dependent on him for their livelihood. He controlled an annual income of more than £100,000, for which he was not accountable. (By today's values, this would be equivalent in purchasing power to about $2 million.) Such was the origin of the organised "national movement" of the "Arabs of Palestine."

Haj Husseini's next attack, the defenceless Yeshiva community of Hebron in 1929

The means of organising propaganda and violence against Zionism and the pattern of its organisation were thus assured. A short localised attack took place in 1921 and simultaneous onslaught in several areas in 1929. This latter attack was again distinguished by the choice of helpless, defenceless people as its target-in Hebron the bulk of the community of rabbis and yeshiva students and their wives and children were slaughtered -- and by the blatantly benevolent neutrality of the British forces of law and order, one of whose first acts was to disarm the Jewish villages. In 1936 came the last and most protracted offensive, officially organised by an informal political body called the Arab Higher Committee; it was led by Haj Amin el Husseini, still Mufti and still President of the Moslem Supreme Council.

In the intervening years, the men of the Cairo school -- as they progressively increased their dominance in Palestine as well as over the central policies in the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office -- were able to deepen and diversify their campaign against Zionism. During those years, their propaganda identified Zionism with Bolshevism -- an image carrying instant demonic conviction with devout Christians as well as devout Moslems. During those years, the Lawrence myth was built into the popular history of the age, and with it the story of the "Arab Revolt" gained credence. Now the Arabs, and even the Arabs of Palestine, gradually came to play a major role in the liberation of the country from the Turks. Now, too, the claim promoted by Lawrence and embellished by Oriental imagination about how the Arabs had been "let down" by the British was broadcast as historic truth. The very real and significant Jewish share in Allenby's campaign in Palestine on both sides of the Jordan was not mentioned. 

The Balfour Declaration had become a document to protect the rights of Arabs, not Jews

The Balfour Declaration was somehow twisted at one and the same time into a discreditable transaction and a meaningless document that promised the Jews nothing, and guarenteed the rights of Arabs over Jews in Palestine.

During those years, in order to match the unique relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, the "rights of the Palestine Arabs" were manufactured and endowed with the fictitious historical continuity which serves as the substance of present-day Arab propaganda.

1. J. E. Hubbard to Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, November 20, 1918. Israel State Archives, Pal. Govt. Secretariat File No. 40. Quoted in Y. Porat, Tsemihat Hatenua Ha’aravit Hapalestinait 1918-1929 (Tel Aviv, 1971), P. 24.

2. Samuel, Unholy Memories, p. 9.

3. Meinertzhagen, Middle East Diary 1917-1956 (London, 1959), pp. 55-56.

4. Report of Court of Enquiry, FO 371/5121, p. 38.

5. Henrietta Szold, the American Zionist leader, described Storrs as "an evil genius, who despises Jews." Marvin Lowenthal, Henrietta Szold (New York, 1942), pp. 186-187.

6. T. E. Lawrence, Secret Despatches from Arabia (London, 1939), p. 158.

7. FO 371/5267 file E 9433/8343/44; FO 371/5268 files E 11720/8343/44, 11835/8343/44.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine" by Samuel Katz, 
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"Battleground" is one of the best written and most informative histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict. ... I advise everyone to read it. - Congressman Jack Kemp

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Copyright © 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 by Samuel Katz.
All rights reserved.  Reprinted by Permission.
Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz