Arab Riots, Then and Now
On March 30 in Israel, Arab anti-Israel demonstrations turned violent, and the security forces had to suppress the violence with crowd control measures. Dozens of Palestinians were hurt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while marking Land Day protests with fierce riots and clashes with IDF soldiers. Palestinian sources reported that one man was killed and thirteen others injured by IDF fire in Gaza after attempting to breach the border fence and infiltrate Israel near the Erez Crossing. This year, the Land Day observances coincided with an ambitious Palestinian plan to organize a global march to Jerusalem to protest Israel's Judaizing of the country's capital. Aside from the Gaza protester who was shot dead, another thirty Palestinians were wounded in the fracas.
The riots lasted for a day and then burned themselves out.
The IDF soldiers, as well as the other security personnel, were very well prepared for any possibility of extreme violence from the part of the protesters[.] ... I believe that this deterrence also worked and kept them away, at least in trying to keep their amount of violence on the low side. And I also think that we also improved ourselves in a few issues since last year. (IDF Lt. Col. Avital Liebovitch, commenting on the March 30 riots)
The IDF and Israeli police force today are trained and adept at controlling Arab riots and Arab violence when it breaks out. But Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early to mid-twentieth century were constantly plagued by a fear of Arab violence and crime.
Initially opposition to the arrival of the 'new' Jews took relatively primitive and benign forms; theft and vandalism against outlying settlements, with the colonists tending to attribute the incidents to local, specific causes and grievances and usually failing to discern a 'national' or even regional pattern. Gradually as the twentieth century advanced, feelings of nationalism, and national displacement replaced local patriotism. (Righteous Victims by Benny Morris, page 50)
These "feelings" expressed themselves in violence as early as April 1920, the month in which the San Remo Conference gave England the Mandate for Palestine. Led by the Grand Mufti Haj Amin El Husseini, and surrounding Muslim Nebi Musa festivities that month, the Arabs in Jerusalem rioted, and their primary objective was to attack Jews.
The fledgling Haganah Jewish Defense Organization was established just before the 1920 riots and played a role in protecting Jews in Jerusalem. Vladimir Jabotinsky was in charge of the organization. When it was all over, six Jews were killed and around 200 wounded. Jabotinsky himself was arrested by British Mandate authorities and received a long prison sentence for weapons possession. But his sentence was cut short, and he was released.
The riots resulted in the deaths of 47 Jews and 48 Arabs. Among the murdered Jewish victims was Hebrew literary pioneer Yosef Chaim Brenner.
The 1929 Arab riots began in August 1929, when some 6,000 Jews marched in Tel Aviv, chanting: "The Western Wall is ours." Rumors that the Jews intended to march on the Temple Mount or attack Arabs (all part of an orchestrated incitement campaign) swept the populace. Leaflets promoted by Haj Amin El Husseini were distributed which said: "The Jews have violated the honor of Islam, and the eyes of your brothers in Palestine are upon you and they awaken your religious feelings and national zealotry to rise up against the Jewish enemy who violated the honor of Islam and raped the women and murdered widows and babies" (Righteous Victims, page 113).
A rampage started in Jerusalem. Arabs shot people and looted houses for several days, during which British police patrols briefly showed up, traded shots with the snipers, and moved on. By the end of August, 17 Jews had been killed in and around Jerusalem. In Hebron, a Jewish community with a history of generations, over sixty Jews were murdered. After a week of disturbances, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed, and 339 Jews and around 232 Arabs were wounded. In spite of the shock, the Jewish Yeshuv worked hard to maintain a positive outlook on the future.
The Jewish population in Palestine in 1939 stood at around 460,000, compared to around 1,070,000 Arabs, and Arab fears of an eventual Jewish majority sharpened. The interwar years also saw a major increase in Jewish land-ownership.
The Arabs came to feel they faced a galloping process. The effect became more pronounced during the late 1920s and early 1930s as a result of increased Arab political awareness and literacy and the dramatic growth of the Yeshuv. (Righteous Victims, page 123)
The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 began on 15 April 1936, when a band of armed Arabs killed three Jewish travelers and the Jews retaliated by killing two Arabs. An Arab rampage in Jaffa followed, in which nine Jews were killed. From there the disturbances spread rapidly. It was to be the biggest and most protracted uprising against the British in any country in the Middle East, and the most significant in Palestinian history until the anti-Israeli Intifada fifty years later.
One Arab leader addressed a Rebellion Conference of the day as follows:
You must fight your enemies, the enemies of religion, who wish to destroy your mosques, and who wish to expel you from your land. (Righteous Victims, page 131)
The British shipped in 20,000 troops from Britain and Egypt, and recruited around 2,700 Jewish policemen. The British succeeded in pushing the Arab terrorists out of the towns by using nightly curfews, patrols, searches, and ambushes.
On the Jewish side, the Yeshuv leaders adopted a policy of "havlaga" restraint, which meant staying on the defensive rather than attacking the Arab enemy.
There was, however, an outbreak of Jewish terrorism. In October 1937 the upsurge in Arab terrorism triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and busses.
Between 1936 and 1937, the British Peel commission investigated the causes of the Arab Revolt and it recommended two main things -- partition of Palestine into a Jewish, and an Arab state and population transfer (225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews).
However, the Woodhead commission, which arrived in Palestine in April 1938, rejected Peel's recommendations for partition and transfer. The British, who were under pressure from war winds blowing from the Nazis and other international pressures, issued a White Paper that totally appeased the Arabs. The British White Paper of May 17 1939 proposes a ceiling of 75,000 on Jewish immigration for the next five years, after which all immigration required Arab agreement. The White Paper also placed severe limitations on Jewish land-purchasing, completely forbidding it in most districts, and proposed an independent Palestinian state with majority rule within ten years.
If the Jews were left after 1939 with the bitter taste of the White Paper, the Arabs had to contend with the legacy of the failed revolt. Most of their political leadership was imprisoned, exiled or driven out of politics and public service in disgust. They became wards of the Arab states and were to remain so until 1976 when Palestine was given Arab League membership. (Righteous Victims, page 159)
In the 1920s and '30s in British Mandate Palestine, it was the British police force that was responsible for suppressing Arab violence against Jews and penalizing the offenders. The Jewish Haganah and other Defense Organizations played a role in this process, but they were in those days still principally underground militias. Since 1948 and the declaration of the independent state of Israel, however, Israel's self-defense has been squarely in its own hands. Suppressing violent Arab riots is the least of the problem. But if the Israeli security forces were not there and were not prepared, the consequences would be unfathomable.
To Israel's regret, the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza frequently employs violence to express its emotions and attitudes about various issues. But so long as Israel's self-defense apparatus is in place, Arab violence will achieve nothing. This was true in the last century, and it is true today.