HomeHistory of PalestineThe Rise of Zionism


The 1st Jewish Neighbourhood

In 1860 the first Jewish neighbourhood was built outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

1882 – 1903
Jewish Migration

From 1882 to 1903 25,000-35,000 Jews migrated to Ottoman Syria (which included Palestine).
By the end of the 19th century Zionism had arisen and the Zionist migration started. Zionism was defined as the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The aim seemed reasonable but for the fact that Palestine was already inhabited. That fact was carefully ignored, though not by all Jewish leaders – Ahad Ha’am, when visiting, observed that it was hard to find land that was not cultivated. There was an indigenous people, predominantly Muslim, living in that area who had to be displaced if Israel was to be created. Their rights were not considered.

The population in 1800 was: Muslims 246,000, Christians 22,000, and Jews 7,000.
The population in 1890 was: Muslims 432,000, Christians 57,000, and Jews 43,000.

The 1st Zionist Congress

In 1897 the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel.

Britain’s Promise of Independence

In the years leading up to the First World War there was growing Arab hostility against the Ottomans. One of the leaders was Sherif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, and he was negotiating with the British. Hussein wanted a British guarantee of an independent Arab state including the Hejaz, Syria and Mesopotamia in return for rising against the Ottomans. The Ottoman sultan had called to all Muslims for a jihad against the British Empire, especially in India. Britain was worried about this and saw Hussein as a buffer.

By October 1915, Hussein was pressuring Britain and threatening to back the Ottomans. That would have swung the balance against Britain so High Commissioner Henry McMahon in Cairo sent Hussein a letter that promised that if the Arabs fought the Ottomans, then Britain would recognise Arab independence after the First World War “in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca”, but excluding lands over which the French had interest. France wanted Syria as a colony and so was against an independent Arab state. Unfortunately, the British officials in Egypt, including McMahon, knew nothing of the negotiations for the Sykes-Picot Agreement (see next paragraph).

The Balfour Declaration

In 1917, the British Secretary of State, Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild (a member of the British Jewish community) promising British support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Britain considered that the Jewish need was of greater importance than the rights of the Palestinians already living there.

1917 – 1918
Britain Secures Jerusalem & Defeats Ottomans

The British secured Jerusalem by 1917 and completed the victory over the Ottomans in 1918.

Unfortunately, Britain had made three different promises to three different parties – the Arabs, the French and the Zionists. The aims of these three were at odds as the Arabs wanted an independent state, the French wanted colonies, and the Zionists wanted to establish Israel. So Britain and France excluded the Arabs and signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided up the area between them. Britain would control Palestine, Jordan, south Iraq, Haifa and Acre; France would control Turkey, north Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Realisation of The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The Sykes-Picot Agreement came into place in 1923. It was seen as a turning point in relations between the West and the Arabs as it also negated the promises for an Arab homeland in Greater Syria (the Levant) negotiated on behalf of Britain by Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).

T.E Lawrence (1988-1935) was a British Army officer who was famous for his liaison role in World War 1 during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (between Britain and the Ottoman Empire) and the Arab Revolt of 1916 (also against the Ottomans). He had studied history at University and then worked as an archaeologist in Syria at the onset of WW1. He was co-opted by the British Army to investigate and map the Negev Desert (the Ottoman army would have to cross this to get to Egypt). He enlisted in the British Army in October 1914 and was stationed in Egypt where he became an intelligence officer. Lawrence was sent to Arabia in 1916 and became involved in the Arab Revolt with Emir Faisal (a member of the Hashemite dynasty who subsequently became King of Syria in 1920 and Iraq from 1921-33). Lawrence’s help for the Arab Revolt lay mainly in strategy, liaison and in certain military engagements. Lawrence tried to persuade his superiors in the British Government to support the Arabs’ bid for independence and a homeland, but the Sykes-Picot Agreement forestalled his efforts.

Thus Britain and France divided up the Middle East between themselves. At the same time the Balfour letter (see earlier) was suggesting that Britain favoured the promotion of a Zionist state in Palestine.

The League of Nations Palestine Population report

In 1920 a League of Nations report suggested that the population of Palestine was about 700,000 of whom 80% were Muslims. A small proportion were Bedouin Arabs, and the rest were of Arabic-speaking mixed race. About 77,000 were Christian and speaking Arabic. The Jews numbered 76,000 and almost all had entered Palestine during the previous 40 years.

Britain Awarded Governing Mandate

The League of Nations needed a way to administer the lands formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire and set up the Mandate system to operate “until such time as they are able to stand alone”. In 1922 Britain was formally awarded the British Mandate for Palestine to govern the land west of the River Jordan known as Palestine, and the land east of the river known as Transjordan. In 1946 Transjordan gained independence under the Hashemite family (Fatimids i.e. descended from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad) and became Jordan in 1949. Note: they used the word “Palestine” to describe the land east of the River Jordan.

Palestine was unique in the Middle East in that the controlling power (Britain) never invited the cohabiting populations into basic mechanisms of government such as a legislative assembly. Legislative councils have long been seen as a crucial way of transferring power to local colonial people. The problem was that the Arabs were continually asking Britain to limit Jewish immigration and land purchase, and Britain was not prepared to concede.

In contrast to the lack of any sort of body for Arab representation, the mandate enjoined Britain to set up a Jewish Agency for the purpose of preparing them for government. The Jewish community, called the Yishuv, still only numbered 10% of the population in the 1920s but as the Second World War approached anti-semitism in Europe encouraged Jewish immigration to almost 30% of the total.

Most of the Yishuv were agricultural workers, and the Jewish National Fund paid high prices for good agricultural land along the coast and in the inland valleys. Most of the landowners were absentee Arabs who had invested in land in the 19th century but found themselves on the wrong side of the border (e.g. in Beirut). They were keen to sell and the prices were high. Once the JNF had purchased land they only leased it to Jews, so the Arabs working it were displaced.

Unlike the Arabs, the Jewish community in Palestine managed its own taxes, health care and education. It started its own military force (the Haganah) that, although illegal, Britain ignored. One of the Jewish institutions was the Histadrut, the Federation of Jewish Labour that promoted Jewish labour and boycotted Arabs. Towards the end of the mandate it was the second largest employer and had become political (David Ben Gurion, whom Tel Aviv airport is named after, led the Mapai party who were part of the Histadrut).

In contrast, the Arabs suffered from the British policy of divide and rule – long used for controlling colonial peoples. Notable families had prospered under the Ottomans and Britain put them in opposing positions, e.g. one was the mayor Jerusalem, another the Grand Mufti. Rivalry was inevitable.

The Palestine Riots

Britain’s intentions for Palestine were not clear. Zionists believed that the 1917 Balfour letter gave them the right for a Jewish homeland in Palestine despite the Jewish population then being only 10% of the total. The Arabs were getting increasingly suspicious and in 1929 a series of demonstrations became the Palestine riots. They were the culmination of long-lasting disputes between Arabs and Jews over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem (see earlier). The Report from the Shaw Commission, a British-led Enquiry in 1929, concluded that the cause of the rioting was Arab fears of continual Jewish immigration and land-purchase with consequent loss of Arab land. This was later repeated in the Passfield White Paper and the Hope Simpson Enquiry. Both called for limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

1936 – 1939
The Arab Revolt

The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 was a bid for independence following the killing of Al-Qassam, a Muslim activist. Ben Gurion admitted that the Arabs feared increasing Jewish economic power, mass Jewish immigration and fear of British support for Zionism. Arab casualties numbered 19,792 with 5,032 dead. The British killed 3,832: 1,200 from “terrorism” and 961 from “gang activities”. Jewish deaths numbered somewhere between 90 and a few hundred. The Revolt was unsuccessful and caused the British to support Zionist militias.

British Palestine Royal Commission: Two State Solution

In 1937, the British Palestine Royal Commission, led by Lord William Peel, concluded that a harmonious solution between the races was not possible and recommended a two state solution including an independent state of Palestine. Unfortunately, Arabs formed more than half the population in the Israel area and 225,000 Arabs would have to be forcibly removed from their ancestral homes. Only 1,200 Jews would have to leave the Arab area. Neither side would accept the proposal.

During the British Mandate there arose two major nationalist movements, one among the Jews, and the other among the Arabs. The Arab revolt, from 1936-9, and then the Jewish insurgency, culminating in the Civil War of 1947-8.

The causes of the rebellion were thought to be:

“[First] the desire of the Arabs for national independence; secondly, their antagonism to the establishment of the Jewish National Home in Palestine, quickened by their fear of Jewish domination……the rush of Jewish immigrants escaping from Central and Eastern Europe; the inequality of opportunity enjoyed by Arabs and Jews respectively in putting their case before Your Majesty’s Government………the growth of Arab mistrust; Arab alarm at the continued purchase of Arab land by the intensive character and the “modernism” of Jewish nationalism; and, lastly the general uncertainty, accentuated by the ambiguity of certain phrases in the Mandate, as to the ultimate intentions of the Mandatory Power”. Quoted from the Peel Report, 1937.

1939 – 1945
The Second World War and The Holocaust

Then came the Second World War and the Holocaust which naturally hardened Zionist resolve. Many countries including the USA pressured Britain to permit Jewish immigration despite the Passfield White Paper, the Hope Simpson Enquiry and the Peel Report mentioned above. Britain handed over the problem to the new United Nations. Unfortunately, Arab leaders refused to cooperate with the UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) and this may have been a mistake despite the unfairness of the proposals put to them. Britain did not want another Arab uprising and might have been prepared to negotiate.

In 1947 the population of Palestine was: Muslims 1,970,000, Jews 630,000, and Christians 143,000.