Palestine May Day Riots 1921

The war devastated much of the Ottoman realms, but the suffering of the Palestinian population was unique in its severity. Unlike most Ottoman regions, Palestine had been an actual battlefield between British and Ottoman armies for most of 1917 and 1918. The majority of the male population had been conscripted and were consequently unable to support their families. In 1915 there had been a locust plague, and in 1916 there was a drought, crop failure, and famine that continued until the end of the war, followed by the worldwide influenza pandemic. Mortality between 1914 and 1920 may have been upwards of 25 percent of the population.64

Throughout the nineteenth century, Palestine, like Lebanon, had been an arena of intense international scrutiny and involvement. The Ottoman state had established, both in Mount Lebanon and in Palestine, a special administrative regime to manage and prevent international intervention in Ottoman affairs in each area. Jerusalem had been a special administrative Sanjaq, or district, under a governor directly appointed and answerable to the central authority in Istanbul. Unlike other important provincial cities, Jerusalem did not house a permanent army command or military middle and preparatory schools. This meant that in Jerusalem, unlike Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and the provincial capitals of Anatolia, there were comparatively few local men who had been educated within the Ottoman military system.65

The Ottoman Great War had ended with the Ottoman defeat at Nablus. The rout had meant that the Ottoman army had been in full retreat from Palestine, and the British army was in uncontested control of the country from September 1918 onward. By contrast, the Ottoman military never fully demobilized in Anatolia. Syria was under nominal control of Faysal and his ex-Ottoman officer followers. Iraq, with its vast expanses, was not fully pacified until early 1921, but Palestine was completely occupied and de-militarized, undermining in advance any attempts to challenge the imposition of mandate rule by armed resistance.

The San Remo Conference had confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine and the Balfour Declaration in April 1920, formally ending British military occupation. Unlike other wartime pledges, the British government had remained committed to the Balfour Declaration because of the popularity and influence of Zionism in Britain, and because of the expectation that Zionism would make British control over Palestine easier and probably cheaper. These expectations turned out to be dramatically wrong. Opposition in the form of demonstration in the cities and periodic armed clashes in the countryside had emerged in 1919 and 1920.

With the start of the mandate, British authorities attempted to formulate some kind of native governing arrangement including political representation and police forces. This attempt was notably unsuccessful. The British conception of native rule was based on parallel Zionist and Arab governments and institutions. The Zionists in Palestine and abroad embraced the notion that their movement deserved equal representation. The Arab leadership protested first the notion that an indigenous majority, then constituting 85 percent of the population, should share equally in state institutions with a small, but clearly ambitious and growing, immigrant minority, and second, the idea that there should be divided state institutions. They argued that there should be one police department, with officers from all religious groups, one executive, one government, and so on. Arab leaders understood that they, alone among the former Ottoman regions, were subject to a religiously validated movement of settler colonialism aiming to displace them, first from positions of power, and ultimately from the territory altogether.

The British learned quickly how complicated their support for Zionism would make colonialism in Palestine. When in 1921, the High Commissioner proposed to the Zionist leadership a gendarmerie made up of one part Jews and one part Arabs, coordinated by British officers, the Zionists expressed their agreement, insisting that it could not be more than half Arabs. The mandate authorities then brought the proposal to the Arab representatives, who argued that they could not possibly accept a force in which more than a third of the members were Jewish immigrants, and that it should be fully integrated, since a divided force was an obvious ingredient for civil strife. The Zionist movement and the British were committed to dual structures of native rule existing in subordination to a British mandatory superstructure. While this arrangement suited the aims of the Zionist movement, the Arab leadership opposed it and generally registered their opposition by non-cooperation. Since the Zionist leaders cooperated eagerly, representation of the two communities was further unbalanced.66

In March 1921 the Mufti, or head Islamic judge, for Jerusalem, Kamil al-Husayni, died in office. The British High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, selected his brother, Haj Amin al-Husayni to succeed him. British Middle East policies favored dynasties and various types of noble families over democratic structures, and Samuel subverted the normal election process to select al-Husayni in April and styled him Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine a title he invented. The year before, when Samuel’s predecessor, military governor Ronald Storrs, dismissed Musa Kazim al-Husayni as mayor, he had appointed a member of a rival family, Raghib al-Nashshashibi, in his place. When the leading candidate for Mufti emerged an ally of the Nashshashibi family, Samuel resolved to manipulate the results in order to prevent a concentration of political leadership in one Jerusalem family.67

Haj Amin al-Husayni eventually become the leading figure of Palestinian politics during the mandate. His biography resembled that of many of his Ottoman contemporaries. Haj Amin was born in Jerusalem in 1893. He had spent two years at al-Azhar in Cairo, where he met and studied with the famous Syrian scholar Rashid Rida. Al-Husayni volunteered for service in the Ottoman army during the Great War, and received officer training and a commission as a reserve officer in Istanbul in 1916. He served continuously as an Ottoman army officer between 1916 and 1919, mostly in Izmir. After the war he returned to Jerusalem, where he immediately became involved in politics and attended various congresses including the Syrian National Congress of 1920 in Damascus.68 After the Nabi Musa events of April 1920, he fled to Damascus and was at the Battle of Maysalun in July 1920.

Zionist efforts to publicize the project of Jewish colonization in Palestine were widespread and sophisticated. Chaim Weizmann had been in continuous contact with Lloyd George, who was sympathetic to Zionism, as he was sympathetic to the dreams of non-Muslim people to establish nationalist states within the Ottoman realms generally. Weizmann lobbied tirelessly for the expansion of the Jewish national home to include the Hawran south of Damascus, and much of the coastal plain and southern mountains of what became Greater Lebanon. To bolster the case, Weizmann invoked the bible, ancient history, modern economics, and the geopolitical priorities of Britain.69 Weizmann was also well received at the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva.

Despite the best efforts of diplomats in Europe, the Zionist project in Palestine was never smooth. On May Day 1921, riots between Communist immigrant Jews and Socialist immigrant Jews broke out in Jaffa. As the two groups battled, the Communists were driven back into the lanes of the Muslim quarter, whereupon the inhabitants of the quarter joined the fight. By the end of the day, 20 had been killed and 150 wounded. In the following days the High Commissioner barred the landing of some 300 additional Jewish immigrants en route on two ships. Villagers from all over the region organized themselves into groups, often armed, and began marching toward Jewish settlements and Jaffa. There were continuous battles between British troops and Arab Palestinians. A number of villages were bombed from the air and the British navy sent two destroyers to Jaffa to intimidate the population.

The eventual investigation found that Bolsheviks had incited the crowd in the first instance, and that rampant rumors of attacks on Arabs by Jews, increased immigration, and rumors of Arabs dispossessed of their homes and lands had caused the disorder. There had likewise been a rumor in wide circulation that the British intended to give al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock to the Zionists for their exclusive use as a temple. The rumor was claimed to have started from a New York newspaper publishing an illustration of the Dome of the Rock topped by a Zionist flag. British intelligence officers feared widespread Muslim opposition, and worried ceaselessly that France would not be able to stop the Turks from returning to Syria, at which point Ottoman forces would return to Darca at the border with Transjordan and Palestine. The mandate authority temporarily halted Jewish immigration and proposed to create an Arab Agency to represent the indigenous population as the Jewish Agency represented the Zionist immigrants.70

In June 1921, rebel fighters ambushed the convoy of General Gouraud near Darca in the Hawran between Jerusalem and Damascus. Gouraud was unharmed, though one mandate official traveling with him was killed and one was wounded. The attackers, Adham Khanjar and Ahmad Muraywid, fled south into the British zone ostensibly ruled by Amir Abdallah.71 The French authorities protested vigorously to the British authorities in Transjordan, but the insurgents were not caught. A year later, Adham Khanjar was caught on his way to blow up the electrical power station in Damascus. Armed opponents of the mandates were not easily dissuaded.

During summer 1921, France confronted the limits of its post-war ambitions. Kemal’s reconstituted Ottoman army units had forced French forces from the area north of the armistice line of disengagement. A series of the treaties between Britain and France, imposed on the remnants of the Ottoman Sultan’s government, had partitioned greater Syria, Iraq, and Anatolia. By the time of the Treaty of Sevres, in August 1920, the conceit of victory was already dissolving. France had claimed a sphere extending to the town of Sivas and nearly to the Black Sea. But the territory claimed by France in Anatolia was under nationalist control and it was becoming clearly impossible to occupy both Syria and southeast Anatolia. Recently elected Prime Minister Millerand realized voters would punish him for either a retreat from the Middle East, or a renewed call-up of metropolitan troops. To keep Syria, France would come to terms with Kemal’s nationalist movement. French envoy Henry Franklin-Bouillon negotiated the Treaty of Ankara in October 1921. France withdrew from Anatolia and recognized Mustafa Kemal’s national government in exchange for nationalist recognition of the French Mandate in Syria, and a secret promise of a return of Ottoman weapons from Syria. The ceasefire with France eventually led to a new comprehensive peace treaty with the Anatolian nationalist movement in 1923 in Lausanne.72

Faysal received the newly invented Iraqi throne in August 1921. The process was less smooth than Churchill and Lawrence had hoped. After the bloody suppression of the revolt, and the deaths of at least 6,000 Iraqis, most segments of Iraqi society wanted nothing to do with Britain and a British-selected king. Some considered Faysal a British stooge, or an opportunistic interloper, but the way was cleared by the British arrest and exile of his most formidable Iraqi rivals for national leadership. The High Commissioner appointed a Council of Ministers made up of twenty-one prominent citizens, which was intended to formally offer the throne to Faysal. Formation of the Iraqi army followed. British officials appointed Faysal’s two most loyal lieutenants, Jacfar al-cAskari and his brother-in-law Nuri al-Sacid, minister of defense and chief of staff respectively. The promotion of Nuri and Jacfar was noteworthy. Unlike the other ex-Ottoman officers, Nuri al-Sacid and Jacfar al-cAskari had accompanied Faysal into exile from Damascus, and then rushed to Baghdad to lobby British officials for positions for Faysal and themselves. Both had been involved in the Arab Revolt from the beginning, and had been recruited by British intelligence officers after they had surrendered, foreclosing the possibility of remaining in Ottoman service. Their Ottoman rank at the time of their capture had been modest, but neither was accused of taking up arms against France or Britain between 1918 and the coronation of Faysal as king of Iraq.

A Council of Ministers resolution and rigged referendum preceded Faysal’s coronation in August 1921. Kinahan Cornwallis engineered both operations. Faysal and his British advisors soon recognized that while they shared an interest in the stability and durability of the system they devised, their interests diverged in many other ways. Faysal had no original connection to Iraq, and he required some level of Iraqi consent for his rule. It was obvious that his legitimacy would potentially increase or decrease proportionally based on the distance he could put between himself and the British Mandate authorities in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis opposed the idea of a colonial mandate. Depending on individual political outlook, citizens of the new state viewed the British role with something between moderate and intense opposition. The “extremist nationalists,” comprising much of the former Ottoman elite of the country, opposed anything short of full independence and legal equality between states. Faysal and his closest advisors, Nuri and Jacfar, were more compromising to British demands, but they pointedly asked for the deletion of the word “mandate” from whatever agreement would ensue.

The British Foreign Office rejected this request. According to historian Peter Sluglett, the British wished to avoid trouble with France by appearing more receptive to Iraqi demands than the French were to Syrian demands.73 The situation was similar to Egypt where the Wafd Party and Egyptian population rejected the notion of a “Protectorate,” and united in opposition to such an arrangement. First High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Percy Cox, resolved that a treaty between the Iraqi government and Britain could best protect British interests. The notion of quasi-native rule by treaty was common to British colonialism at the time generally, and the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 had been suppressed and followed by a year of fruitless “negotiations” over the Anglo-Egyptian treaty. When Egyptian politicians refused to accede to the demands of Britain to control most aspects of the state, Britain unilaterally declared Egypt independent in February 1922 and imposed the treaty conditions without further discussion or agreement. Simultaneous treaty negotiations were equally unpopular in Iraq, but Faysal owed far more to Britain than the leaders of Egypt’s Wafd. Treaty discussions dragged out over months, as Faysal faced the anger of the Iraqi public on the one hand, and the impatience of his British benefactors on the other.

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