By John Newsinger
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The first intifada: when Palestine rose against the British

Historian John Newsinger looks back at when Palestinians fought against British Empire and Zionist settlers

Palestinians fought against British rule and Zionist settlers (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

On 7 September 1938, British troops descended on the village of al-Bassa in Palestine. They came to punish the villagers for an attack on a British lorry that had been blown up a few days earlier. The villagers were rounded up and their homes were destroyed. 

Some of them were shot out of hand and others were publicly beaten, flogged, in front of their families and neighbours. The collective punishment culminated with some fifty villagers being packed onto a bus, which was then blown up. This was how the British crushed the great Palestinian revolt.

The Palestinians’ first intifada—“uprising”—had begun with the call for a general strike and boycott on 20 April 1936. This protest was driven from below, forced on a reluctant Palestinian leadership that quickly tried to take control of the movement. 

It was a militant protest against both British rule and against the British sponsored Zionist settlement in the country. When the British had occupied Palestine at the end of the First World War, they had set about implementing the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had promised the country to the Zionist movement. The intention was to create a Zionist colony that would be dependent on and loyal to the British Empire, bolstering the British position throughout the Middle East. 

This is, of course, much the same role that Israel is expected to play for the US today. As far as the British were concerned, one consequence of this plan was that the Palestinians could not be allowed any vestige of self-determination, even that conceded to Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East. The Palestinians would never agree to their own removal, their replacement by Zionist settlers, so they were to be denied any voice in the colony’s affairs. From the very beginning Zionist settlement met with resistance. 

On top of that, throughout the 1920s hardly any European Jews wanted to settle in Palestine. This began to change with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and far right, antisemitic movements elsewhere. It is vital to remember that support for the Zionist movement was given a tremendous boost by the virulence of European antisemitism. And not just of antisemitism in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. 

The effective closure of the British and US borders to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, which was to eventually culminate in mass murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, inevitably strengthened the Zionists. Many Jews felt they had nowhere else to turn. The figures speak for themselves. In 1931 just over 4,000 Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine. By 1933 the number had risen to over 33,000, to more than 45,000 the following year and to over 66,000 in 1935. It was this that provoked full-scale rebellion.

The general strike lasted from April until October 1936 with increasing levels of violence. Many towns and cities were effectively taken over by the strikers, with barricades erected and snipers firing on troops and police. Troops were sent in to “restore order”. 

In June 1936, the British re-occupied Jaffa. The Palestinian inhabitants were punished when the British demolished much of the old city. 

The British dynamited over 230 buildings, destroying homes and livelihoods, giving people no time to salvage their possessions. Thousands were left homeless and destitute. As one British officer put it, “That will fucking well teach them.” He was put under arrest for “using obscene language whilst on active service”. Standards had to be maintained! By the time the general strike was called off, over a thousand Palestinians had been killed.

In any other colony, the scale of the resistance would have forced the British to make concessions to the “native” population. In Palestine, however, the commitment to the Zionists severely limited the British room for manoeuvre. Indeed, in the course of the struggle, the British had actually come to rely more and more on Zionist support. They were increasingly involved in helping the British military effort. And at the same time the Histadrut union federation was helping break the general strike, providing scabs to replace striking Palestinians. 

Even so the British set up a commission to try and find a settlement that could prevent a return to conflict. The Peel Commission in July 1937 recommended the partition of the country with the Zionists receiving some 40 percent of the land. This would have placed a large Palestinian subject population under Zionist rule, awaiting expulsion as more settlers arrived. Expelling the Palestinians was certainly the Zionist leadership’s intention. Not only that, the territorial settlement was only provisional as far as the Zionists were concerned. As soon as they were strong enough they would take more Arab land, driving out the population. The Palestinians rejected the proposals, setting the scene for the second phase of the revolt.

The revolt shifted to the countryside where through the winter of 1937 and into 1938 the rebels proceeded to take control, driving the British out. With the countryside in their hands, the rebels began moving into the towns and cities. By October 1938, they had control of Jaffa, Gaza, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Old City of Jerusalem. This was a massive popular movement with local committees taking control of much of the country and ruling in the interests, not of the Palestinian rich, but of the ordinary people. 

The commander-in-chief of British forces, General Haining, in November 1938 reported that there was “a very deep-seated rebellious spirit throughout the whole Arab population”. Indeed so popular and widespread was the rebel movement, that it was “not untrue to say that every Arab in the country is a potential enemy of the government”. Certainly the troops and police seemed to operate on that assumption. Every Palestinian was an enemy.

The British poured reinforcements into the country and set about the brutal repression of the Palestinian national liberation movement. Villages were destroyed, collective punishments were imposed, livestock was confiscated, people were publicly flogged and there were mass arrests and internments. 

According to one account over half a million people were arrested and detained—some for years, some more than once—during this phase of the repression. The scale of this is brought home by the fact that this amounts to more than the entire Palestinian male population at this time. It is worth remembering that this would not have been a pleasant experience, but would have been accompanied by violence and abuse. And, many people were summarily executed, that is “shot while trying to escape”. 

Even when houses were not actually demolished, the troops were positively encouraged to wreck Palestinian homes when searching them. They smashed the furniture, fouled their foodstuffs, and roughed them up. And there were occasions when houses were demolished with the families still inside.

The use of torture was widespread and routine—although, to be fair, this was the case in every colony where the British confronted resistance. One British officer described how on one raid, the police beat one prisoner on the feet and applied a lighted cigarette to the testicles of another. And they beat a third until “his eyes were closed, blood was flowing and a number of teeth were spewed out onto the floor”. Rather naively, the officer complained that these were surely the methods of the Nazi Gestapo but was told that it was “the only language these Arabs understand”.

And prisoners, both men and women were raped. Indeed as part of the pacification offensive, special torture centres were set up by top cop Charles Tegart, brought in from India to supervise the operation. Water-boarding, electric shocks, the removal of finger nails and the use of boiling oil were all part of the British interrogation armoury. This dimension of British colonial rule is, of course, usually removed from the historical record, forgotten, denied.

What made all this possible was racism. The Palestinians were not only the enemy—they were also an inferior subject people as far as the British occupiers were concerned. Many soldiers and police behaved brutally towards the Palestinians as a matter of routine. Palestinians were deliberately run over by military and police vehicles that never bothered to stop. And some troops entertained themselves by hitting passersby with their rifle butts as they drove past them, inflicting terrible injuries for a laugh. This is not Palestinian propaganda, but is testified to by British sources. And there were occasions when troops and police just rioted, beating up Palestinians in the street, wrecking homes, shops and cafes, shooting anyone who resisted. This was how Britain ruled Palestine at this time.

Once again, “order” was restored in the towns and cities and then the process of pacifying the countryside got underway. Here the RAF airforce played an important role, bombing and machine gunning suspected rebel bands and punishing villages loyal to the revolt. The RAF commander in Palestine, Arthur Harris, advocated bombing “each village that speaks out of turn”. It is worth remembering that in the early 1920s in Iraq, the RAF was bombing villages for non-payment of taxes. 

Remorselessly, the revolt was ground down. And every step of the way, the British were assisted by the Zionists who provided thousands of police volunteers and established the Special Night Squads, Zionist death squads, that carried out raids and assassinations. The Zionist far right—the “Revisionists”, predecessor of today’s Likud Party—made their own contribution. They carried out indiscriminate bombings in Palestinian markets, killing dozens of men, women and children in the course of 1938.

By 1939, the intifada was defeated by overwhelming force and brutal repression that left some 5,000 Palestinians dead. On top of those killed by the troops and police, another 112 were hanged, among them one rebel in his 80s. This defeat was of immense historic significance. The Zionist settlers were considerably strengthened while the Palestinians were left weakened, disarmed, and demoralised. It was a vital precondition, indeed preparation, for the Nakba of 1948 when around 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed to found Israel. 

One thing that is astonishing is how little opposition to this repression there was in Britain. While there was a massive movement in support of the Spanish Republic, there was hardly a voice raised against the brutality of British rule in Palestine. Indeed, most of the left actually supported the repression, condemning the revolt as “fascist inspired”. The Labour Party was wholly committed to the Zionist cause. It had supported the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and this support continued throughout the revolt. Indeed, one Labour MP in October 1938 actually called for “the exemplary destruction of the Arab town of Jaffa”. 

The spectacle of the chain-gangs would not only cowe the Palestinians. It would also intimidate Baghdad, Alexandria and Beirut which ‘would fear a like fate’. This Labour MP recommended that Britain had to “if necessary behave in the same way” as the “Hitlers”. He inevitably ended up in the House of Lords. 

One of the Labour Party’s leaders, Herbert Morrison  praised the Zionists as “first class colonisers”. He condemned the revolt as the work of “the agents of Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini”, and urged that the Zionists be allowed to extend their settlements into Jordan. Later, as home secretary during the Second World War, Morrison was to be a strong opponent of letting Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust into Britain.

It is worth remembering that in the 1945 general election the Labour Party actually campaigned in support of a Zionist state with the Palestinian population removed. And once in office, Clement Attlee’s Labour government continued to bar Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors, from coming into Britain. That was even while it notoriously allowed the settlement of a surrendered 8,000 strong Ukrainian SS division. Those on the left who supported the Palestinians during the 1930s intifada were inevitably accused of antisemitism.

But what of the village of al-Bassa? In May 1948 it was destroyed once again, but this time by the Israelis. Israeli troops levelled the village, executed a number of villagers and expelled the rest of the population, who fled into Lebanon, refugees without a homeland.

  • John Newsinger is author of The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire available from Bookmarks Bookshop

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