Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine

Palestinian Arabs united first through a general strike and then through violent resistance to the British mandate and its policy supporting a Jewish homeland. A severe British response left thousands dead, but the Arabs succeeded in curtailing immigration.

Summary of Event

The Shaw Commission, Shaw Commission which had investigated the 1929 riots at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Riots;Western Wall concluded that the major cause of unrest in Palestine was the worsening economic condition of rural Palestinians, and it recommended limitations on Jewish immigration and land purchases. However, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald MacDonald, Ramsay essentially ignored this report, and conditions grew more perilous for Palestinians. Instead of looking to the Palestinian countryside, the new British high commissioner, Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, recruited European Jewish investors to improve the urban economy. [kw]Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine (Apr. 15, 1936-1939)
[kw]Uprising of Arabs in Palestine, Great (Apr. 15, 1936-1939)
[kw]Arabs in Palestine, Great Uprising of (Apr. 15, 1936-1939)
[kw]Palestine, Great Uprising of Arabs in (Apr. 15, 1936-1939)
Palestine;British mandate
British mandate (Palestine)
[g]Palestine;Apr. 15, 1936-1939: Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine[09190]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 15, 1936-1939: Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine[09190]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Apr. 15, 1936-1939: Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine[09190]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Apr. 15, 1936-1939: Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine[09190]
Wauchope, Sir Arthur Grenfell
Peel, First Earl (William Robert Wellesley Peel)
Ḥusaynī, Amīn al-
Ḥusayn, ՙAbd Allā ibn al-
Ḥusaynī, Abd al-Qādir al-
Qassām, Izz al-Dīn al-
Qāwuqjī, Fawzī al-
Wingate, Orde Charles
Weizmann, Chaim
Ḥusaynī, Jamāl al-

A younger generation of Arabs, who had been educated under the British mandate, began to direct their hostility at the British occupiers. New parties were formed around the principle of noncompliance, including the pan-Arab Istqlal Party, which was founded in 1932 in the northern towns. At the same time, Khalil al-Budayri, a Jerusalem physician impressed with Gandhi’s efforts in India, proposed a strategy of nonviolent resistance. This tactic had proved successful elsewhere in the Arab world: Demonstrations in Damascus in 1935 had led to renegotiations of agreements with the French, and similar demonstrations in Egypt affected British policies.

In 1933, however, thousands of Arabs had taken to the streets of Jaffa to protest British policy. They were met with force, and a dozen Arabs were killed in one day. In response, Sheik Izz al-Dīn al-Qassām, a fundamentalist Syrian Muslim preacher in Haifa, began a wave of militant attacks on Jews and British interests. Although he was killed by the British agents in November of 1935, he quickly became a martyr who inspired further resistance.

On April 15, 1936, the murder of two Jews and the immediate retaliation by Jewish forces triggered an uprising. For the first time, various Arab factions were able to come together to form the Arab Higher Committee, Arab Higher Committee which called for a general strike that lasted from April to November. The strike included a total boycott of Jewish goods and prohibition on the sale of goods to Jews. Paid agricultural workers on Jewish settlements quit their jobs, and many laborers in factories and construction accepted significant sacrifices by refusing to work. Those who had already been living at subsistence levels were stretched to the limit. Government workers continued in their positions in order to retain influence, but they contributed 10 percent of their earnings to aid other strikers. The Jerusalem elite were taxed to support the poor. Bands of young men took it upon themselves to enforce compliance by attacking both Jewish shopkeepers and Arabs suspected of dealings with Jews.

In many ways, the strike was a failure. Vacated jobs were soon taken by Jewish immigrants. The closing of the port of Jaffa led Jews to develop their own port in Tel Aviv. This unified action, however, succeeded in attracting British attention. A commission of inquiry led by the First Earl Peel recommended that Palestine be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jerusalem and a corridor to the port of Jaffa would remain under British authority. The division of territory fell roughly in line with population figures, which meant that Jews would receive only 20 percent of the land. However, the recommendation that the proposed Arab state be joined with Transjordan (now Jordan) under the authority of ՙAbd Allā ibn al-Ḥusayn did not sit well with Arab notables of Jerusalem, who expected self-rule. It was an even greater blow to the 250,000 Arab inhabitants of the northern region who would be expected to cede their fertile land to the proposed Jewish state. These northern Arabs had taken an active role in the uprising’s earliest stages with the help of the Istqlal Party and the militant al-Qassām. They rejected the offer and resumed the struggle.

In 1937, the center of the uprising shifted from the cities to the rural areas. The movement was led by figures from within Palestine such as Abd al-Qādir al-Ḥusaynī and by figures from outside, such as Fawzī al-Qāwuqjī. These men had gained military experience in Syria and Iraq, and they helped make the movement increasingly violent. Armed bands mined roads and tried to disrupt transportation, and the railroad was a frequent target. A newly constructed oil pipeline from Iraq to the port of Haifa was sabotaged, and eventually postal service came to a halt.

A number of attacks were made on Jewish settlements. In September, rebels killed a significant number of Jews in Tiberias, and they raided British prisons and set political prisoners free in other cities. At one time, two thousand rebels occupied Jerusalem’s Old City for five days, and they wrested control of Jaffa away from the British for several months. Perhaps the blow that hit the British hardest was the September, 1937, murder in Nazareth of Lewis Andrews, the acting commissioner of Galilee. The numbers of British troops increased to twenty thousand, and they came down on the Arabs with an iron fist. Leaders of the Arab Higher Committee were arrested, more than one hundred militants were publicly hanged, and homes that harbored rebels were dynamited. Jerusalem mufti Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, the first head of the Arab Higher Committee, and others were forced into exile.

The British also encouraged retaliation by the Jewish defense force, the Haganah, which by this time numbered around fifteen thousand troops. British military strategist Orde Charles Wingate came from India to organize Jewish forces, and he helped them make night raids on Arab villages. More extremist Jewish military groups emerged, but when one of these groups, Irgun, killed seventy-seven Arabs in a period of three weeks with bombs in Arab marketplaces, the British also publicly hanged one of the Irgun leaders. In its latter stages, the uprising turned into a civil war: There were reports of Muslims attacking Christian Arabs and the poor attacking the elite. Many Arabs who supported cooperation with the British were killed or sent into exile. By 1939, the once-united Arab resistance was fragmented and exhausted, and by the time order was restored, nearly five thousand Arabs, four hundred Jews, and two hundred Britons had been killed.


The uprising of the late 1930’s has been described as the event that shaped the Palestinian Arab identity. For the first time, Arabs were able to unite in a sustained push for a common cause, and their efforts changed British policy. The British mandate had been built on the principle of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Balfour Declaration which had promised to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine without fully considering the existing population’s needs. Unlimited Jewish immigration and land purchase had been the norm for two decades, but after the 1936-1939 uprising, the British reversed themselves. The 1936 Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, and a 1938 white paper demonstrated that partition was not a satisfactory solution, and they led to limits on immigration.

This latter decision was the result of a follow-up diplomatic conference in London in 1939. Instilled with new confidence, the Arabs demanded that they be able to negotiate directly with the British. Meeting separately with Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann reiterated the need for continued unlimited Jewish immigration, especially with the precarious position of European Jews. Jamāl al-Ḥusaynī, speaking for the Arab delegation, asked for a reconsideration of an independent Arab state promised by the British diplomat Henry McMahon during World War I. In the end, the British agreed with the Arab proposals, and the British government issued another white paper on May 17, 1939, that called for the eventual creation of a single Palestinian state. At the time, the region was about 70 percent Arab and 30 percent Jewish, and the British promised to limit Jewish immigration to ensure an Arab majority. The 1939 white paper reinterpreted the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish homeland, saying that it would be determined by the needs of the existing Arab inhabitants. With Jewish interests now defeated in the diplomatic arena, their struggle shifted to force the British out of Palestine. The extremist military groups Irgun and Stern Gang began to direct terrorist attacks on the British. The well-organized Haganah began to prepare itself for its war of independence after the departure of the British and the eventual partition of Palestine by the United Nations. Revolts;Palestine
Palestine;British mandate
British mandate (Palestine)

Further Reading

  • Bowden, Tim. “The Politics of Arab Rebellion in Palestine, 1936-1939.” Middle Eastern Studies 11 (1975): 147-74. Chronicles the difficulties inherent in attempts to organize the rural peasantry and compares this population to the traditional urban political elite.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Sees the Arab uprising as the formative event in shaping Palestinian identity.
  • Morris, Benni. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Reevaluation of the history of the period draws on original sources.
  • Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Concerned that Israelis and Palestinians have separate histories shaped by their own ideologies, Pappe writes an interwoven story that focuses on the lives of the victims, not the powerful.
  • Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. Translated by Haim Watzman. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999. A comprehensive journal drawn from the diaries and letters of three decades of the British mandate.
  • Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Designed as a textbook for undergraduate college classes. It gives a balanced introduction to the conflict.

First Kibbutz Is Established in Palestine

Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine

League of Nations Establishes Mandate for Palestine

Western Wall Riots