The Arab Revolt in Palestine (1936-1939) - any lessons for Britain?

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The Arab Revolt in Palestine (1936-1939) - any lessons for Britain?

Postby Jonathan » 08 Jan 2014, 20:19

The Arab Revolt in Palestine 1936-1939

I recently read a good book on this topic (alas, only available in Hebrew), wondering whether any lessons might be useful in the case of a possible future revolt in Europe. I thought it might prove interesting to share my thoughts with the forum, hoping perhaps in this way to put them in order. Should open revolt come to Britain and Western Europe, then some of these patterns may repeat themselves, and it's also interesting to consider the means by which Britain suppressed the revolt, and imagine how her current leaders would handle a similar situation.

Since I doubt the subject appears in the average high school curriculum, let me give the very minimum background.

In 1936, Palestine is still governed by Britain, by virtue of a Mandate from the League of Nations. The Arab population is about 900,000, Jewish population about 400,000. The last few years have seen a great increase in the rate of Jewish immigration because of the deteriorating situation in Europe. In parallel, the fecklessness of the Western powers has been amply demonstrated by their unwillingness to stop Mussolini in Ethiopia and Hitler in the Rhineland. The recent past knew several short-lived Arab riots (1929, 1921 and 1920), but none of them turned into a long-term revolt.

It begins in late spring, with attacks on unarmed Jews. Jewish resistance and retaliation spark large-scale riots, with more casualties. A general strike is called for in the cities, and enforced by newly-formed gangs. Propagandists spread the word to the villages in the countryside. The British response is conciliating, and the Peel commission comes to investigate. The onset of winter, and expectations from Peel calm the riots, but when the recommendations are published in 1937, advocating partition, the revolt rekindles. In late 1938, after the Munich pact, Britain decides the revolt must be ended before war in Europe breaks out. Additional troops are brought, and stern measures suppress the armed bands. Political concessions to Arab demands in the White Paper of 1939 help prevent its being rekindled.


So - what lessons can be drawn from this, which might be applicable to the West if an Islamic insurgency breaks out?


(1) The thing which triggers a large revolt can be very small. We've seen this most recently in the Arab Spring (one man in Tunisia sets himself on fire), but also in the recent London riots and in the first Palestinian Intifada (accidental death).

(2) The outbreak of large-scale ethnic violence can produce an immediate, though relatively small wave of internal immigration, as small minorities flee their immediate surroundings for safer areas. The outbreak of violence saw Jews fleeing from Jaffa and Hebron. Jews also fled Hebron in 1929, and Arabs in 1948.

(3) The putative leadership of the revolt often has little control over events, and is following up after the fact to save face. The revolt may also be directed against the existing power structures, with existing notables vying for influence with the new gangs so as not to be displaced.

This means, for example, that negotiations with prominent Imams are very much a sham. Some concession will be demanded, in the hope that the government will refuse; when it is conceded, some relative quiet will be attained; but soon one member will be found for whom Honor or Vengeance will require bloodshed, and the fighting will resume. At this point, no Imam will admit that he is helpless - rather, some pretext will be found to blame the government, and some greater concession will be demanded. Rinse and repeat.

(4) The armed gangs which sustained the revolt were small clan-based units, made up of lower-class peasants, operating locally out of their villages. There were very few middle-class city boys.

This was the typical mode of action for Arab clans in hilly areas. The violent revolt in Syria is also based largely on rural Sunni villagers, though foreign jihadis play a greater role there.

What does this mean for Western Europe? I suspect that Muslim-dominated suburbs of large cities will play a role similar to hill-country villages. Similarly, the unassimilated, never-employed angry young immigrant men are good parallels for the lower-class peasants. I do not know whether the close-knit clan-based society of Arab villages has its parallel in Pakistani- or Somali-dominated suburbs in Britain. One must also remember that the clan ties might suddenly get a lot more important if violence breaks out.

(5) Armed gangs in revolt first have to dominate the local population. They exact payments, and struggle with other gangs for turf. As the revolt wears on, especially if sustained pressure is applied to the local population, this causes two problems: first, the local population can turn against the gangs, even to the point of taking up arms against them and forming their own, defensive gangs; second, rivalries between gangs (including blood feuds) prevent them from uniting against their enemies.

(6) Britain in 1938 took measures as a matter of course which would be excoriated today. Examples - punitive searches of villages, collective fines, paving roads to rebellious villages to enable fast troop movement, establishment of garrisons, building a fence (I almost wrote apartheid wall :) along the northern border to prevent resupply from Lebanon, exiling of the political leadership, nocturnal ambushes to intercept armed gangs, placing notable civilians in the first car of a convoy to deter mining operations.

(7) The Jews faced a difficult dilemma upon the outbreak of the revolt. Each village or neighborhood had its armed guards, but these were insufficient to prevent sniping attacks or roadside ambushes. British efforts to suppress the revolt were ineffective for the first few years.

So - what to do? Establish your own army, and risk incurring the wrath of the British Empire? Or adopt a more passive stance, and wait for Britain to get her act together? Consider an example, of an isolated Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Every night Arabs from a nearby neighborhood climb to an overlooking hill and snipe at you. The British do nothing. Do you send out 2 men with guns to lay an ambush and scare them away? If they get caught, the law will treat them like any other gunman and they might face the gibbet. If they succeed, will the next night bring quiet, or just a stronger attack?

One can imagine an analogous situation in Britain, with restive immigrants in the role of the Arabs, a British government paralyzed by PC in the role of the British Mandate, and the indiginous population in the role of the Jews.


(8) Foreign elements came to help under the banner of Jihad, led by one Fawzi al Qawukji (who played a greater, though equally unsuccessful role in 1948). However, friction with the local population rendered him ineffective, and he accomplished nothing. A comparison with Syria shows a variation on this pattern - in Syria, the foreign elements seem much more dominating that Qawukji was, and have had notable successes. However, now that the revolt is in its third year, one can find many reports of friction with the locals.

In Europe, any insurrection is likely to act as a magnet to thousands of Jihadis all over the world, enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. But if the wave can be endured for a year or two or possibly three, the foreigners will start damaging the unity of their cause.



The most startling conclusion of this book was that the revolt of 1936-1939 wound up putting more pressure on the local Arab population than anyone had guessed. Repeated exactions by armed gangs, revenge killings between gangs, economic pressure because of strikes and disruption of trade - all these add up. One of the effects of this was a moderate wave of emigration - estimated at a few tens of thousands, perhaps 5% of the population. After the fighting subsided, all of these returned to their homes as if nothing had happened. The author suggests that this experience encouraged the flight of Arabs from their homes in 1947-1948 - these became the Palestinian refugees, when Israel decided that it would be suicide to let them all back in.


Looking forward to the different fortunes of the two sides in 1948, one might suggest that the different ideologies of the two sides played a great role in the final results. What united the Arab side was the ancient Arab culture, the nascent Arab Nationalism, and religious Jihad. However, Arab culture is inherently fractious, with its concepts of Honor, Shame, and Vendetta, and this tendency proved stronger than Nationalism or Jihad. The Westernized Jews were united by Zionism, not divided by it, and were able to establish and field armies with western discipline.

In assessing the chances of Britain should internal strife break out, one must first examine the culture of the immigrants who would be expected to participate. I am not sure there is anyone in this forum who can answer this question (though of course I will welcome correction), as we tend to see the unassimilated immigrants as undifferentiated Muslims.
Jonathan
 
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