The Hebron Massacre of 1929 and Its Significance in the History of the Region
By Julian Zuckerbrot - August, 2019
This month marks 90 years since mobs of Palestinian Arabs in the city of Hebron murdered 67 of their unarmed Jewish neighbours in what has become known as the Hebron Massacre. On the afternoon of Friday, the 23rd of August, 1929 – Sabbath eve – a gang broke into a religious school where they found only one person, a young student named Shmuel Rozenholtz. They smashed his head with a rock and then stabbed him over and over. One account says that the mob then turned its attention on the synagogue, where, using knives, swords and clubs, they slaughtered the Sabbath worshippers. There were no further attacks that day, allowing the Jewish community to seek shelter in several homes near the centre of the town.
Hebron city - from the top of a Jewish apartment building, on the only street occupied by Jews
The British, who administered what was then Mandatory Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations, did not allow the Jews to own firearms for their own protection, despite a history of violence directed at them. The Jews of Hebron – an ancient community where many families had lived for centuries alongside the majority Muslim population – had to rely for protection on a small local police unit led by an Englishman but, except for one Jew, consisting only of Arab policemen. Some of the policemen were nowhere to be seen when the killing resumed the next day; others were actually active participants in the massacre.
Just after 8:00 on Saturday morning, gangs again appeared on the streets, shouting “kill the Jews,” “Allahu Akbar,” and “the government is with us.” They forced their way into the houses where the Jews had barricaded themselves and methodically killed and mutilated their neighbours and business associates. The British police officer later testified that he shot a man armed with a sword who was in the process of beheading a young boy. He then saw an Arab policeman attempting to stab a woman; he shot that man too. British reinforcements arrived that afternoon and escorted the survivors to the police station, which the mob then attacked; the siege continued for three days.
Among the first outsiders to view the scene of the carnage were three correspondents for foreign newspapers. One of them, the noted Canadian journalist Pierre van Paassen, later recalled that, in the house of a rabbi, “the rooms looked a slaughterhouse,” the twelve-foot-high ceiling splattered with blood, and virtually all the furnishings that remained in the house “smashed to smithereens.”
When, on returning to Jerusalem, van Paassen discovered that the British administration had issued a statement denying that the Jews had been tortured before having their throats slit, he quickly made his way back to Hebron with two doctors in order to gather up samples of the body parts that he had seen strewn over the floors and on beds in the rabbi’s house. On arriving, however, they found that the authorities would not let them enter the building.
The bodies of the victims were buried in several mass graves. The authorities forced the survivors to leave Hebron. Some made their way back, only to be forced out in 1936, during what became known as the Arab Revolt.
Noah Imerman, massacre victim. Wife and family, survivors, Hebron 1929
Between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan illegally occupied eastern Jerusalem and what they named the “West Bank,” they ethnically cleansed its entire Jewish population. At some point during those years, the bodies in the mass graves were removed and the land turned into a vegetable garden.
In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan. Some soldiers reported that when they approached Hebron they found something they did not see elsewhere: white pieces of cloth -- flags of surrender – on every rooftop, so afraid were the residents that the Israeli soldiers would want to exact revenge for the events of 1929. Of course they did not, but not because they had forgotten the massacre that had taken place in their grandparents’ time.
Today, the Six Day War has itself become, for more recent generations, an event from a long-ago time. Much has changed over the decades, but, in many ways, the struggle over that territory has not. The Hebron Massacre was not the first event in that struggle but it, and the events around it, illustrate themes that have been repeated over and over again, for at least a century.
It is difficult to look at the bustling, verdant country of Israel today and imagine what it looked like before Jews began returning to the land of their ancestors in significant numbers at the turn of the 19th century. Travellers such as Mark Twain, who visited in 1867, found the countryside desolate, almost completely devoid of both human and plant life: “We never saw a human being on the whole route,” he wrote in The Innocents Abroad. “There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
There were pockets of populated areas, such as Jerusalem and Hebron. Most of the population were Muslims – including recent immigrants from surrounding countries – but Jews were the largest group in Jerusalem and other places of religious significance such as Tiberias and Safed, while Christians predominated in Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Much of the land outside those pockets was arid barren scrub and deadly malarial swamps so, when the Zionist movement was founded in 1897 to re-establish a Jewish nation in Israel, almost two thousand years after the Roman legions ended the last one, it is difficult to imagine the extent of both the idealism and the desperation behind it. (The modern Zionist movement was not the first organized attempt by Jews to return to their ancient homeland. In the 13th Century, for example, so many were making the voyage from Europe that the Catholic Church sought to have sea captains refuse passage there to Jewish travellers.)
Underneath Jewish building that houses apartments and school
The First World War began in 1914. One consequence of a victory by the allies over Germany, Austria, and Ottoman Turkey would be the end of Turkey’s 400-year rule over the Middle East. It is in that context that Great Britain in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration, endorsing the idea of a “Jewish nation” in that small corner of what would be former Ottoman territory, should the allies prevail. (The British during the same period made promises to the Arabs, promising them control over the vast majority of what had been the Ottoman Empire.) The French, the U.S., the Italians, Japanese and even the Vatican also gave their support to the idea of a Jewish homeland, during the War and after the Allied victory, including at the international conferences that followed.
The boundaries of the countries that were to be established in place of the former colonies of the defeated nations – not only in the Middle East but in Africa and as far away as New Guinea – were formalized by the League of Nations in what were termed “mandates,” with each mandatory territory assigned to one of the victors. The Mandate for Syria, including Lebanon, was given to France. The Mandate for Palestine – with a responsibility for assisting in the establishment of a Jewish homeland – was given to Britain in 1922, and it originally included what is today both the country of Jordan (the East Bank of the Jordan) and Israel, including the West Bank, as well as Gaza.
Later that year, Britain severed the part east of the Jordan River – comprising three-quarters of the Mandate’s territory – and put it under the control of Abdullah, son of their wartime ally Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, who had been ousted from the Arabian peninsula by the Saudis. Abdullah’s brother Feisal became king, first of Syria and then of Iraq.
The issue of the borders aside, Hussein and his family, the Hashemites, publicly expressed their support for the Zionist enterprise. In 1918, writing in Al-Qibla, the daily newspaper in Mecca, Hussein described Palestine as “a sacred and beloved homeland” for “its original sons,” adding that the “return of these exiles to their homeland” would be good for the entire region. That same year Feisal delivered a speech – translated by T.E. Lawrence – in which he said that “No true Arab can be suspicious or afraid of Jewish nationalism . . . We are demanding Arab freedom and we would show ourselves unworthy of it if we did not now, as I do, say to the Jews—welcome back home.”
The reasons for the Arab leaders’ support for a Jewish homeland may have been based on both self-interest and sympathy, but the British had their own motives as well, as demonstrated by the decision to exclude the East Bank from Jewish settlement. Some in power, such as Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, were truly sincere in their support for the Jews and their cause. For others the Jews were of little importance compared to the region’s Arabs, and what truly mattered was control of the Middle East and especially the Suez Canal, the gateway to India and the parts of their empire that lay farther east.
It was the latter group whose influence seems to have determined the character of the Mandate, which was marked by policies that hampered rather than fostered the establishment of a Jewish homeland: restricting Jewish (but not Arab) immigration; withholding support for Jewish (but not Arab) leadership; and undermining Jewish (but not Arab) self-defence efforts. Some went so far as to actually encourage Arab resistance to the idea of a Jewish state.
Ancient Jewish structure under current Jewish building
The anti-Zionism of some of his countrymen was, for one English officer with a deep involvement in the affairs of the region during the War and afterwards, the result of arrogance and “hebraphobia,” as he termed it. “British sympathy is with the Arab and not with the Jew,” wrote Col. Richard Meinertzhagen. “The Arab…with his connection with the romantic desert will always appeal to the British character in preference to the hard-headed, hard-thinking, practical Jew…The Arab has not been slow to appreciate this fact and take full advantage of it.”
This condescending attitude, and not only on the part of the British, has continued to this day. This kind of stereotyping leads to an infantilization of the Arabs, a denial of their ability to function as responsible adults and to meet the standards of more “civilized” people. They are condemned to eternal victimhood, necessitating their perpetual protection by governments, UN agencies, and NGOs.
The British, however, never announced a policy of favouring the Arabs. After all, the Mandate required that they help in the establishment of a Jewish state. Instead they attributed their anti-Zionist policies to loftier motives. They were neutral peacekeepers between the two opposing sides, as Acting High Commissioner H.C. Luke told Pierre van Paassen in an interview in 1929. “You will realize now how difficult it is for us to maintain a balance between Jews and Arabs.”
The Canadian journalist disagreed. He felt that the Britain’s imperial interests led them to undercut any alliance between the two sides, writing that “in order to forestall the materialization of such a Judeo-Arab alliance, Britain has for seventeen years pursued the old Roman policy of divide and rule… (T)his policy was for many years applied to Palestine in a sly and covert manner.”
So, in 1921, when Arabs had rioted over Jewish immigration, the British did not immediately bow to their demands. Instead the launched an inquiry that led to the issuing of a “white paper.” The new policy did not propose ending Jewish immigration outright – which would have been contrary to the terms of the Mandate – but rather reducing it, in line with the territory’s “economic absorptive capacity.”
The 1930 “Passfield White Paper” that emerged after the Hebron massacre and Arab riots proposed further reducing the number of Jews admitted, this time because of a perceived shortage of arable land. Britain’s reneging completely on its commitments under the Mandate would have to wait until the white paper of 1939, which followed an Arab terror campaign that had begun in 1936. That white paper reduced Jewish immigration to a trickle (and ultimately dependent on Arab consent), just as the mass slaughter of the Jews of Europe was about to begin.
Van Paassen attributed the new policy – and an earlier attempt to further partition Palestine, leaving only a 400-square-mile area for the Jews – as part of Britain’s policy of appeasement. He warned of the danger of a “full-fledged civil war in Palestine (which) would give Britain the excuse to say that neither of the two parties is mature for self-government – and the Jewish National Home should be allowed to stagnate.”
Proof Jews were in Hebron thousands of years ago
The bitterest enemy of the Palestinian Jews during the mandate was Amin al-Husseini, a member of an influential local family who had been sentenced by the British to a ten-year prison sentence for inciting riots in 1920, but fled to Transjordan (the East Bank).
Probably thinking they could control the man and use him to maintain order, the British, in 1921, not only granted him amnesty, but appointed him to the position of Mufti of Jerusalem, thus making him the foremost Muslim religious and political figure of authority. In doing so, they ignored more moderate Arab leaders and elevated a man who was cunning, ruthless and ambitious. He was rabidly anti-British as well as anti-Jewish, and was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and would also be, eventually, to Hitler himself. Not only that, but they even paid him a salary – provided largely from taxes paid by the Jewish community. He would use the position of mufti to steer Muslims in Palestine – and beyond – in the direction of violent extremism.
“A mufti is a teacher in Islam,” the head of Cairo’s al-Azhar University told van Paassen shortly after the 1929 riots. “The man of whom you speak is not really a mufti, for he has not finished a single course of studies here at the University…He is a politician.” He added, "We are not interested in his quarrel with the Jews. We know perfectly well that the Jews have no designs on the mosque….They want to reconstitute their national life. That is a legitimate aspiration….We are Egyptians first. We have nothing in common with Pan-Arabism.”
So what changed? What happened to those voices of moderation? In the 1920s, Arab nationalism was a recent concept and the idea of a Palestinian Arab nation was only beginning to be articulated. Husseini used the position of Mufti to change that.
Palestinian nationalism did not arise because of just that one man, but it was the Mufti who managed to harness Arab fears of Zionism – Jewish nationalism – and anti-British feelings into a violent movement, in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. He found support in Nazi Germany, which shared many of his views. His legacy meant that in the post-War period, it would be the USSR that, for its own purposes, took up his cause, ensuring that Palestinian nationalism would dominate the headlines to the present day, to an extent that it otherwise never would have.
Husseini used the position of Mufti ( or “Grand Mufti” as he styled himself), and as head of the Supreme Muslim Council, not to maintain order but rather to incite Muslim violence against both the Jews and the British. Despite his being the father of Palestinian nationalism, his goal was not an Arab state in Palestine alone, but rather a Greater Syria that would include Palestine, Lebanon and Transjordan. In that Arab state there would no place for infidels in positions of power, no Jewish state – no matter how small or powerless – and no British presence.
It was Husseini who was the behind the attacks on Jews in August of 1929 and thus the instigator of the Hebron Massacre. Tensions were already high during that summer, largely centring on the issue of who controlled the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, which had for centuries been a site of prayer for the Jewish community. Its importance lies in the fact that it is part of the retaining wall of the ancient Holy Temple complex, a site that is also revered by Muslims, who refer to it as the Haram al-Sharif.
Photos from 1929 in the Hebron museum
The Mufti’s Supreme Muslim Council would disrupt prayers at the Western Wall with noisy work and other activities; a Zionist youth group organized a peaceful march to the Wall; the Muslim leadership led a counterdemonstration with speeches denouncing a Jewish threat to the status quo of the Haram al-Sharif.
The focus on Jerusalem and its mosques was a strategic decision, according to the historian Yehoshua Porat: “Toward 1929 the mosques on the Temple Mount became a symbol of the struggle against Zionism. This was a tangible symbol, clear and understood to all, which replaced abstract national slogans of self-definition. Under this approach, the problem of the Land of Israel began to exceed the narrow borders of the land and became a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic problem.”
Today there are still Muslim demands for the status quo to be maintained at the holy sites. In 1929 that appears to have meant a return to Ottoman rules, when non-Muslims were dhimmis, allowed in the country on sufferance. In 2019 it appears to mean that the Muslim authorities – who have done extensive unauthorized alterations to what is the holiest place of all to the Jews, even bringing in bulldozers -- can do whatever they want without interference, while the Israelis can do nothing. When Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount, they were soon forced to take them down.
Today, as in 1929, Arab leaders raise the false accusation of a Jewish threat to the Haram al-Sharif as a means of inciting their followers. In 1929 it was the Mufti and in recent times it was the Palestinian Authority. In 2015, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas said "The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours... and they have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” He claimed the Jews were plotting to divide the holy site and assured his followers that “each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of Allah. Every shahid (martyr) will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded, by Allah’s will.”
Then, as now, violence was used in combination with economic measures. “We will win by means of an economic boycott,” the Mufti told van Paassen 90 years ago . “We have proclaimed a world boycott against Jewish goods. That boycott is growing tighter every day. We will not rest till the Jewish industries are broken and the English, in pity, take their Jewish protégés away on their battleships.”
After the Second World War, the newly formed Arab League announced its boycott of Zionist goods by its members. In 1948 the Arab boycott was extended to companies doing business with the recently declared State of Israel, and even to companies doing business with those boycotted companies. The economic clout of the Arab world was intended to hurt Israel just when it was trying to establish itself by isolating it, economically and politically. The boycott began to crack beginning in 1977, when the U.S. passed a law forbidding American companies from complying with it. Over the years, more moderate Arab nations loosened their trade restrictions.
The latest version – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) – has attracted a great deal of support in universities, NGOs, and other leftist circles since its inception in 2001, just as Israel was becoming an exporting powerhouse. BDS is depicted – even in the august pages of the New York Times – as a recent, moderate campaign directed only at “settlements.” It is neither recent nor moderate, and is intended to harm Israel as a whole.
Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Hebron
Tensions continued to rise in August of 1929, when leaflets suddenly appeared blaming the Jews for multiple atrocities and urging jihad. The Supreme Muslim Council sent out agitators, who called on the population to defend the Haram al-Sharif against Jewish attacks. After prayers at the mosques on Friday, the 16th, worshippers marched to the Western Wall, where they burned Jewish prayer books.
A week later, an even larger group – some armed with clubs, knives, and guns – gathered in the courtyard of the holy sites, where the Mufti harangued them. The mob then emerged from the mosque complex -- shouting “Death to the Jews” and “The government is with us!” – and attacked every Jew they encountered, van Paassen reported. “There were no street battles….As always, the Jews were unarmed.”
British policy was not to allow the Jews to defend themselves but, van Paassen wrote, when the mob turned its attention on Government House, the British headquarters, with reinforcements days away, the Acting High Commissioner ordered that Jews be recruited and issued arms immediately to defend the building. He credited this action with ending the crisis: “A few shots fired into the air dispersed the bloodthirsty mob…The Jews alone had saved British prestige in the Holy Land and in the entire Near East.”
In the course of the riot in Jerusalem the mob killed 17 Jews. The violence also spread to other cities and to the countryside. In all, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs across the territory died in the riots – most of the Arabs were rioters shot by police – while 339 Jews and 232 Arabs were injured. It was the Hebron Massacre where the slaughter was greatest: 67 Jews were killed and many others seriously wounded, including by beheading, torture, mutilation, castration and rape. The victims included women and infants. It should be noted that some twenty Hebron Arabs were recognized as having attempted to defend their Jewish neighbours.
Within days, High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor, issued a proclamation condemning the Arab atrocities and imposed heavy fines on Arab towns and villages but, in the face of the Mufti’s protests, he backtracked and announced an inquiry that would examine the conduct of both sides. The Jewish community protested the notion that the victims of violence should have their behaviour assessed in the same manner of their murderers and assailants.
Today we see a similar tendency to treat aggression directed at Israel and the response to that aggression as being equivalent – as “tit-for-tat violence.” The difference nowadays is that Israel has been re-cast as Goliath in a struggle against a far weaker opponent – a victim that has a right to “resistance.” And when Israel retaliates, its actions are the ones called war crimes, rather than those of the party that launched an unprovoked attack.
In the end, only five of the rioters were put on trial, with the Mufti’s cousin acting as prosecutor. Two were convicted and hanged. One of the leaders of the mobs was given a two-year sentence but served only a month. The new Labour government in London – one that proved to be more hostile to the Zionists’ cause – set up the Shaw Commission to look into the causes of the violence. Although it did find the Arabs responsible – naming the Mufti and other members of his Council specifically – it refused to recognize that the violence had been planned and went on to speculate that the root cause was Arab fears over the prospect of a Jewish state. It therefore recommended – and the government responded accordingly – that Britain should renege on its commitment under the Mandate to assist with establishing a Jewish homeland.
It was not the first time that violence and fears of further atrocities by the “Arab street” resulted in a retreat by the authorities, an abandonment of the rule of law in the face of the mob. Even some human rights activists rushed to justify the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the riots over the Mohammed cartoons. Nor was it the last time that a nation has chosen to abandon its support for the Jewish state rather than angering the Arab world.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the infusion of Jewish capital led to a booming economy for all. One result of good times was rising Arab immigration and a growing Arab middle class – many of whom were white-collar workers and professionals. That, along with the religious and political leadership of the Mufti, led to the beginnings of a Palestinian Arab nationalism, along with a hardening of attitudes towards Zionism and the Mandate.
During the same period, the other Middle Eastern territories were moving towards full independence: Egypt, occupied by Britain since 1882, had been awarded its independence in 1922, although Britain retained a military presence there until 1936; Transjordan had been assured of its future sovereignty when Abdullah was installed as emir; while Iraq was granted sovereignty in 1930, but with the continued presence of British military installations. France negotiated similar agreements with Syria and Lebanon in 1935 and ‘36. Only in Palestine – or rather, what remained after it was divided– was the Mandatory power paralyzed, unable to live up to its undertakings.
And, on the face of it, the other former mandates appeared, until quite recently, more successful and more “legitimate” in the eyes of the world than Israel, which, during the same period had been constantly under attack – of one sort or another. Few then complained about the artificiality of the new Arab states’ borders, or about the way certain nationalities ruled without any concern for other ethnic groups.
That illusion has ended, with Syria now divided and controlled both by outsiders and by a war-criminal regime; Lebanon split into factions and under the thumb of a foreign-controlled terror organization; Iraq, which emerged from a brutal dictatorship to confront myriad new problems; Jordan, where a precarious constitutional monarchy presides over an equally precarious political and economic situation; and Egypt, an economic disaster area, whose Muslim Brotherhood government was replaced by a military one. A dynamic and democratic Israel has turned out to be the only real success story among these former European-controlled territories.
It didn’t look that way in the 1930s though. Palestine was a place of constant violence, impossible to control and with no obvious solution. But that mattered less now to Britain, where the great concern was the prospect of a war in Europe. In such a war, the oil resources of the Muslim world would be crucial and, with the U.S. then sitting on the sidelines, Jewish support for Britain in the fight against fascism could be taken for granted.
Those years were, of course, the same period when life was becoming increasingly difficult for the Jews of Germany, and eventually of German-occupied Europe. Had Great Britain lived up to its obligations under the Mandate – had a Jewish homeland in Palestine been created before the War -- at least some of Europe’s Jews might have been able to escape the Holocaust.
Britain’s pro-Arab tilt during those years, however, didn’t win her the loyalty of the Arabs of Palestine, certainly not their leadership. The Mufti, who had fought for Turkey against the allies in the First World War, became a staunch supporter of Nazi Germany in the Second. It was a natural alliance, given their shared hatred for Jews and their common goal of ejecting Britain from the Middle East – positions that the Axis powers emphasized in their propaganda directed at the Arab world. In the late 1930s, the Germans had begun sending agents to Palestine to increase their propaganda efforts and were shipping weapons to the Mufti. The local Arabs returned the favour: editors began to echo the Nazis’ antisemitic themes in the Arabic press, while Arab protesters brandished pictures of Hitler and Mussolini in the streets, along with German and Italian flags.
Husseini set the pattern for playing Western nations against each other, promising the British stability and quiet while actually acting to undermine the Mandate and, at the same time, working on behalf of her enemies. In later decades, his successor Yasser Arafat did the same sort of thing, courting Western support as the leader of a liberation movement, while in reality, as KGB files later revealed, he was an agent of the Soviet regime that had trained him for his role.
The final years of the 1930s were the years of the Arab Revolt: strikes, riots, killings, and destruction of property – all made possible, according to recently discovered information, by Nazi financing. In 1937, following the assassination of a district commissioner and a policeman, the British arrested five members of the Arab political leadership and abolished the Supreme Muslim Council. The Mufti, who had been president of the Council, fled to Lebanon. Still the violence continued.
The British tried to come up with some kind of permanent solution to the unrest, but whether it was a power-sharing arrangement between the two sides or, as proposed by the Peel Commission, restricting the future Jewish state to a tiny part of what remained of Mandatory Palestine, nothing would satisfy the Arab leadership but a total victory for their side. So that is what the British delivered to them with the MacDonald White Paper of 1939: abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state and restricting – and after five years, completely ending -- Jewish immigration. Yet even that was not good enough for most of the Arab leaders, who regarded the proposed transition period as too long.
Today, 80 years after the MacDonald White Paper and 70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, the leadership of the Palestinian Arabs still rejects the notion of a Jewish state. Every concession and withdrawal on the part of Israel is regarded as weakness, an incentive to increased resistance. And the more Israel’s compromises are rejected, it seems, the more the world community pressures Israel to offer more.
The beginning of the Second World War in September of 1939 rendered discussion of the White Paper moot. "We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper,” Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion said that month, “and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war." And so, agricultural and industrial production increased. Jews applied for military service in large numbers and, after years of pleading, were allowed to form their own brigade within the British Army.
The Mufti, for his part, spent most of the war years in Germany, where he became close to senior Nazi officials, whose antisemitism was no greater than his own. He recruited Muslims for three SS divisions that participated in the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe. He even met with Hitler, proposing to lead an Arab legion alongside the Axis forces in an invasion of the Middle East, which would be followed by the establishment of death camps for the region’s Jews.
His writings and broadcasts to the Arab world on behalf of the Nazis are considered fundamental texts in today’s radical Islam – Islamism – to which he contributed a rabid antisemitism and anti-Zionism based on selected religious texts.
In the wake of the War, Britain, although victorious, was in retreat from her obligations to the Empire, and ever-fractious Palestine offered only an ongoing headache – what today might be called a quagmire without an exit strategy. So the British handed the task of finding a way out to the new United Nations, the successor organization to the League of Nations, which had established the Mandate.
In 1947, the majority of countries on the committee set up to find a solution decided on partitioning Palestine into two small states, one Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem left as an international zone. This decision was endorsed not by the Security Council but as a non-binding resolution in the General Assembly. The Jews were not pleased with the compromise but agreed to it; the Arabs would accept nothing but a single state under their control.
The two-state solution was not a new idea then, and it is still the preferred choice of many outsiders who would like to see a happy ending to this century-long drama. Not so in Israel, which is under constant bombardment from Gaza to the west, while a fence protects the country from terrorists to the east and south – all areas that the country gave up in the name of peace. Nor is it a popular idea among Palestinian leaders, if it means acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. This was as true in 1947 as it is now. As Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha bluntly told a Zionist delegation seeking compromise shortly before the UN vote: “The Arab world is not in a compromising mood…Nations never concede; they fight. You won't get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms.”
Fighting began immediately after the General Assembly passed the resolution to partition. After Israel declared independence in May of 1948, the armies of five Arab nations invaded from three directions, in an attempt to crush the new Jewish state. The Arab defeat in that war did not change their policy of no recognition of Israel, but neither was there any effort to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, which would be occupied by Jordan and Egypt respectively until the Six-Day War of 1967. After Israel’s victory in that war, Arab policy was formalized as the “three noes,” i.e. no peace, no negotiations and no recognition.
Under the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, the Palestinian Authority was established to negotiate a settlement with Israel. The PA, however, would not accept a territorial compromise – even when Israel offered between 94 and 97 per cent of the West Bank. (There was a total, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.) Over the years, the PA has repeatedly refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, with the implication being that its goal is a Palestinian Arab state alongside an Israel that would lose its Jewish character with Arab immigration, leading eventually to a single Arab nation – as depicted on maps produced by the PA.
This conflict has always been particularly difficult to solve because it is as much a religious as a political one. Fatah, the PA’s dominant faction, is an acronym that includes the word jihad (holy war), thus the PA is no less an Islamist organization than Hamas (which stands for The Islamic Resistance Movement), Palestine Islamic Jihad, or any of the other jihadist groups operating in the area. The situation is the same as in the days of Mufti’s Supreme Muslim Council since, for these groups, there can be no peace but only tactical truces, no compromise, and no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Mufti, meanwhile, avoided being charged as a war criminal after Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945, and made his way back to the Middle East, where – assisted by the Muslim Brotherhood and using Nazi and Arab cash to recruit agents -- he continued to foment violence throughout the region for another 30 years, directed not only at Israel but also against the leaders who opposed him. In 1968, he formally bestowed leadership of the Palestinian Arabs on the Cairo-born Yasser Arafat.
Arafat, like Mohammed Abbas who succeeded him, had been trained by the Soviets to lead the struggle against Israel. As head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Arafat was the face of the USSR’s new narrative, under which a victimized Palestinian people was in a struggle against the imperialist, racist state of Israel and its colonialist sponsor, the United States. The storyline found a receptive audience in the Arab world and among the political left, where it persists long after the demise of the USSR.
Arafat was portrayed as far-sighted statesman, ready to compromise for the sake of peace. He even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. In truth he was simply a criminal, inheritor of the Mufti’s blood-soaked legacy from the days of the Hebron Massacre: unending murderous opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel.
By Julian Zuckerbrot