A group of dignitaries plants trees in the orchards of Tel Mond, circa 1930. (PikiWiki Israel)

Jews and Arabs in British Mandate Palestine

During the interwar period, the two populations struggled to lay claim to the land.

The Yishuv (Jewish Settlement) During the Interwar Period

By the end of the British Mandate‘s first decade, more that 162,000 Jews lived in Palestine, making up 17 percent of the country’s inhabitants. Of these, 37,000 lived on the soil, in 11 agricultural settlements totaling 700,000 dunams [approximately 175,000 acres]; 13 other Zionist agricultural schools and experimental stations were also functioning. Improved farming techniques were continually being devised. Citrus crops were growing in size and quality.

The industrial development of the Yishuv showed similar promise. By 1930, 1,500 Jewish-operated factories and workshops were producing textiles, clothing, metal goods, lumber, chemicals, stone, and cement, with a total capital value of about PL 1 million.

The quality of life was improving, as well. The broad Kupat Cholim health network was partially responsible. So was Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Founded in 1912 by an American Jewish woman, Henrietta Szold, Hadassah’s dedicated mass membership by 1930 had established in Palestine four hospitals; a nurse’s training school; 50 clinics, laboratories, and pharmacies; and an excellent maternity and child hygiene service in most of the cities and in a number of the larger villages. The Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) maintained three infant welfare centers in Tel Aviv.

It was as a result, then, of expanding medical care, of systematic Jewish efforts to drain marshes and swamps, to provide a reasonable diet and living standard for the Yishuv altogether, that marked reduction was achieved in the incidence of tuberculosis, malaria, trachoma, and typhoid, the historic scourges of the region. The Jewish mortality rate fell from 12.6 per thousand in 1924 to 9.6 per thousand in 1930; Jewish infant mortality dropped from 105 per thousand in 1924 to 69 per thousand in 1930. Progress in education was not less impressive. In the early years of the mandate, the Va’ad Le’umi [an executive committee of 36 men and women drawn from the 314-member National Assembly, the elected Jewish governmental body in the Yishuv] instituted compulsory school attendance on the elementary level. By 1930, there were 28,000 children attending Jewish schools.

This, in sum, was the measure of the Yishuv’s growth. It had developed its own quasi-government, its own largely autonomous agricultural and industrial economy, and its own public and social welfare institutions. Its schools were infusing children with a spirit of Jewish national pride unprecedented either in western Europe or among the most intensely Zionist communities in eastern Europe. These qualities of self-sufficiency and national loyalty ultimately would prove decisive — more crucial even than the expansion of landholdings, financial resource, and world Jewish support — in protecting the National Home against the mounting perils of Arab hostility and British diplomatic equivocation.

The Palestinian Arabs During the Interwar Period

As late as 1882, the Arab population of Palestine barely reached 260,000. Yet by 1914 this number had doubled, and by 1920 it had reached 600,000. Under the mandate, the figure grew even more dramatically, climbing to 840,000 by 1931, and representing 81 percent of the country’s inhabitants.

Approximately 75,000 of the Palestine Arabs were Christian, heavily impacted­ [that is, tightly packed] in the urban areas, comparatively literate, and widely employed at the middle and lower echelons of the mandatory administration. The Muslim A­rabs — the majority — were [much less economically and institutionally developed]. Fully 70 percent of them lived on the soil, mainly in the hilly northern and central regions of the country, where they raised grains, vegetables, olive oil, and tobacco.

A 1922 census revealed that a third of the Arab farmers were fellahin — tenant sharecroppers — whose average plot rarely exceeded 100 dunams (25 acres). Endlessly indebted to their landlords, to whom they paid a rent of from 33 to 50 percent of their crops, they lived with their families of five or more children in mud‑brick huts, possessed virtually no sanitary facilities, and suffered chronically from amoebic dysentery and bilharziasis.

Submarginal as these conditions were, they were immeasurably better than those of Muslim Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East. The statistics of Arab population growth were revealing: In Palestine, the increase between ­1922 and 1946 was 118 percent, a rate of almost 5 percent annually, and the highest in the Arab world except for Egypt. It was not all natural increase. During those 24 years, approximately 100,000 Arabs entered the country from neighboring lands. The influx could be traced in some measure to the orderly government provided by the British, but far more, certainly, to the economic opportunities made possible by Jewish settlement.

The rise of the Yishuv benefited Arab life indirectly, by dispro­portionate Jewish contributions to government revenues, and thereby to increased mandatory expenditures in the Arab sector; and directly, by new markets for Arab produce and (until the civil war of 1936) employment opportunities for Arab labor. It was significant, for example, that the movement of Arabs within Palestine itself was largely to regions of Jewish concentration. Thus, Arab population increase during the 1930s was 87 percent in Haifa, 61 percent in Jaffa, 37 percent in Jerusalem. A similar growth was registered in Arab towns located near Jewish agricultural villages. The 25 percent rise of Arab participation in industry could be traced exclusively to the needs of the large Jewish immigration.

Under the Turks, Arab political life had been rudimentary and had consisted largely of maneuvers for civil office among rival effendi families [“effendi” is a Turkish title of respect, used most commonly for government officials or members of the aristocracy]. No organized nationalist movement whatever came into being until after the Armistice, when Muslim‑Christian Associations were founded in various Arab towns to protest the impending Jewish National Home. This opposition, too, was at first essentially a projection of Syrian nationalism. It followed the lead of Arab politicians in Damascus during the unsuccessful 1919‑1920 effort to establish an independent Syrian kingdom.

Accordingly, the collapse of Feisal’s regime in the summer of 1920 and the transfer of nationalist headquarters from Damascus to Jerusa­lem played a critical role in the development of an authentic Palestine Arab nationalism. It did not escape the Arab leadership, especially those who formerly had devoted their energies to the Hashemite cause in Syria, that the Zionists, as a minority settlement, were surely more vulnerable to concerted resistance than were the French or British.

In December 1920, therefore, the Muslim‑Christian Associations spon­sored a convention in Haifa, a gathering that subsequently transformed itself into a Palestine Arab Congress. Here at last the demand was expressly submitted that Britain institute a national — that is, Arab — government in Palestine. The Congress afterward proceeded to elect an Arab Executive, a body that from 1921 on implacably opposed the British mandate and the Jewish National Home.

While the Executive’s hostility to Zionism was rooted at least partly in suspicion of Jewish free labor and collective agriculture­, and the ideas these innovations might plant in the minds of the fellahin, it reflected more basically a fear of the political consequences of Jewish immigration. Centuries of exile in Europe clearly had westernized Jews and enabled them to far exceed the Arab community in their intel­lectual and technological accomplishments. The Arab leaders were genu­inely alarmed by the influx of these “overbearing and truculent” newcomers, and warned that the European Jews, with apparently limitless energy and financial backing, would someday engulf the whole of Palestine.

Reprinted with permission from A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Times (Knopf).

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