The following article is based on the excerpts adapted from the author’s maiden book, Palestine 1936 published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
Palestinians, despairing over their thwarted national hopes, wage acts of protest, boycott, sabotage, and violence. All around them Jewish settlements inexorably expand. Islamic hardliners sabotage peace talks, executing suspected collaborators and moderates. Occupation forces launch an aggressive crackdown, demolishing homes, erecting a separation wall, and drawing censure for rights abuses. The world power with the greatest clout over the warring sides pushes a partition plan, even while seeming to doubt its viability. Jewish factions are split: One is ready to give up part of the Land of Israel for peace; another demands the entire ancient patrimony, by force of arms if needed. Further bloodletting appears inevitable.
These could be this morning’s news alerts. Or headlines from the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, the earlier First Intifada, or any number of clashes over the three-quarters of a century since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948.
Instead this is an earlier story—of Palestine’s first Arab rebellion, a seminal, three-year uprising a decade before Israel’s birth that cast the mold for the Jewish-Arab encounter ever since.
Five hundred Jews lost their lives—a civilian toll unmatched until the twenty-first century—and hundreds more British servicemen were killed. But the price exacted upon the Arabs themselves was heavier still, and not just in terms of body count.
The Great Revolt of 1936 to 1939 was the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced. It united rival families, urban and rural, rich and poor, in a single struggle against a common foe: the Jewish national enterprise—Zionism—and its midwife, the British Empire. A six-month general strike, one of the longest anywhere in modern history, roused Arabs and Muslims worldwide to the Palestine cause.
Yet the revolt would ultimately turn on itself. A convulsion of infighting and score-settling shredded the Arab social fabric, sidelined pragmatists for extremists, and propelled the first wave of refugees out of the country. British forces did the rest, seizing arms, occupying cities, and waging a counterinsurgency that left thousands dead and tens of thousands wounded. Arab Palestine’s fighting capacity was debilitated, its economy gutted, its political leaders banished.
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. It was the closest the Palestinians would ever come to victory; they have never quite recovered.
To the Jews the insurgency would leave a very different inheritance. It was then that Zionist leaders began to abandon illusions over Arab acquiescence, to confront the unnerving prospect that fulfilling their dreams of sovereignty might mean forever clinging to the sword. The revolt saw thousands of Jews trained and armed by Great Britain, the world’s supreme military power, turning their amateur guard units into the seeds of a formidable Jewish army, complete with special forces and an officer corps.
But it was also during the revolt that some Jews—facing Fascism in Europe and carnage in Palestine—decided that mere passive defense was national suicide, and when Jewish terrorism first appeared on the landscape.
This is therefore a story of two nationalisms, and of the first major explosion between them. The rebellion was Arab, but the Zionist counter-rebellion—the Jews’ military, economic, and psychological transformation—is a vital, overlooked element in the chronicle of how Palestine became Israel.
For it was then—not in 1948—that Palestine’s Jews consolidated the demographic, geographic, and political basis of their state-to-be. And it was then that portentous words like “partition” and “Jewish state” first appeared on the international diplomatic agenda.
Yet ultimately the uprising also persuaded Britain that its two-decade Zionist experiment had proven too costly—in blood, treasure, and the goodwill of broad swaths of its empire. As war with Hitler loomed, the Chamberlain government determined it was high time that Palestine’s doors—virtually the only ones still open to Jews—be shuttered. Few decisions in the twentieth century would carry repercussions as profound.
The reader might imagine that events of such magnitude would already have been amply investigated. This is, after all, the most written-about of the world’s ongoing disputes, having earned itself the all-encompassing designation as The Middle East Conflict. And yet that same reader, keen to learn more, encounters scarcity: a few pages, or at most a chapter, in wider histories of this land. Remarkably, no single general-interest account has yet been written of this formative but forgotten insurgency.