Jerusalem Contested

The Holy City changed hands many times before the War of Independence.

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Nebi Musa and the Grand Mufti

 The first hints of the violence to come came in the spring of 1920, during the Palestinian Muslim holiday of Nebi Musa. According to Palestinian Muslim tradition, Moses' tomb was located on the West bank of the Jordan, and the Palestinians had built a shrine in that location. This shrine was the object of an annual pilgrimage festival. Even before the mandate, this festival had often been marked by in-fighting amongst the Palestinians. Under British rule, however, the violence of Nebi Musa reached new levels, as the festival took on nationalistic significance. The gathering became an opportunity to rally against Christian domination of Jerusalem, engage in intercommunal fighting, and foment anti-Jewish feeling. In April 1920 the political speeches erupted into violent rioting. Nine people were killed and 244 injured. In the wake of the riot the mandatory authorities made an unfortunate strategic decision that would confound the possibilities for Arab-Jewish peace. In exchange for a promise that there would be no more rioting at Nebi Musa, the British appointed Hajj Amin al Husayni, a firebrand who had been responsible for most of the incitement, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

This was but the first step for the Mufti, who would in 1921 become president of the newly established Supreme Muslim Council. Through this position he was able to build a strong power base, which he used to catapult himself to the forefront of the Palestinian Arab Nationalist Movement. He raised funds for the maintenance of the Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) from Muslims the world over and demanded Muslim rights at holy places. The efforts of the Grand Mufti changed the balance of power in the growing conflict, placing Jerusalem and Palestine on the political agenda of the greater Arab world.

Partition Plans

In 1936, Palestinian Arabs called a general strike and rebellion. In response, the British government created a commission, led by Lord Peel, to investigate the cause of the violence. The Commission concluded that the cause of the violence was growing Palestinian anxiety over the increase of Jewish immigration, and it recommended that Palestine be partitioned into two states:  an Arab state, which would become part of Transjordan, and a smaller Jewish state. The city of Jerusalem, as well as several cities well outside its boundaries would remain under British mandate. The Arabs, though divided, ultimately rejected this proposal in its entirety. The Jews, after much debate, chose to accept it (with demands for more generous borders) reflecting a belief that, given the international religious interests involved, they had little chance of being awarded Jerusalem. The Peel Plan was not implemented, and a new commission, the Woodhead Commission, was appointed in 1938. It rejected the idea of partition, maintaining that is was impractical, given Palestine's small size. The Woodhead Report would also ultimately be shelved.

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Lili Kalish Gersch

Lili Kalish Gersch is Director of Literature, Music & Dance at the DCJCC. She was the Managing Editor of MyJewishLearning.com.