In 1916, land in the Middle East was divided up under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This was a secretly conceived treaty drawn up between Britain and France marking out which country they would have control over in the region.

The two colonial powers divided the areas that had previously been ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Little consideration was given to the indigenous population, provoking widespread discontent.

Frustrations were compounded by the fact that in 1917 Britain backed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As a further insult, the Arab community was deceived into believing that it would be supported in its desire for self-rule.

Talks at San Remo

The decisions of 1916 and 1917 were reinforced at the San Remo Conference of 1920 and finally ratified by the council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922.

During the First World war the Ottoman Turks backed Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. The Arabs, led by the Hashemite dynasty of Mecca, fought against the Ottomans in a bid to shake off their rulers and in an early show of Arab nationalism.

Turkish defeat left the European allies free to control its lands. The French were given the mandate for Syria, which included present day Lebanon, and the British were mandated Palestine, and also control over Iraq and Jordan.

The decision shattered any hopes the Arabs had of founding Palestine within a federal Syrian state. In 1920 the first High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, a British Jew, arrived marking the end of 400 years of Turkish rule and the start of Britain’s 30-year ascendancy.

Uprisings in Jerusalem

Palestinians, who were already resentful because of the increasing number of immigrant Jewish settlers, demonstrated in Jerusalem in February 1920. Approximately 1,500 people came on to the streets after the British general, Louis Bols, declared the enforcement of the Balfour Declaration.

A month later a second demonstration was followed by bloody outbursts, with Arabs attacking Jewish interests. Bols banned all demonstrations.

But in May 1921 an anti-Zionist riot broke out in Jaffa. Dozens of Arabs and Jews were killed in the confrontations. 

Al-Buraq Wall - a flashpoint

September 1929 saw further serious unrest, this time centring on al-Buraq Wall. This site in the heart of old Jerusalem, known to Jews as the Wailing Wall, forms part of the western wall of the al-Aqsa mosque and is therefore viewed by Muslims as a sacred site not to be bought or sold.

Orthodox Jews attend a blessing
ceremony at the wall in 2003

But at the end of the 1920s, a group of rabbis urged Jewish immigrants to gather at the wall to perform a public prayer. The aim after the call was to seize the wall, and declare it as a sacred place for Jews.

Muslim Palestinians were outraged and clashes erupted. These confrontations swiftly turned into an uprising that spread across the country. Fights between Arab Palestinians and Jews backed by British occupation forces, continued for two weeks. Hundreds of Arab Palestinians and Jews were killed in the confrontations.

In June 1930 the League of Nations sent a fact-finding committee, the International Commission for the Wailing Wall, to investigate the reasons behind the uprising. After five months of investigations, the committee concluded that the area around the wall was an Islamic endowment, but that the Jews could continue their prayers at the wall with certain restrictions. 

Jewish immigration intensifies

In the 1930s, after the Nazis had come to power in Germany, Jewish immigration intensified, reaching its peak in 1935 when 61,000 Jewish immigrants entered Palestine. By 1936 Jews from outside Palestine made up more than a third of the population of Arab Palestine.

Such huge numbers meant more land was obtained and tension between Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish newcomers escalated. Both sides realised that by the end of the British mandate, population figures and land ownership would determine the future political control of the country.

As early as 1929 a British inquiry investigated the destabilising effect of mass immigration, concluding that civil unrest was the likely outcome of making the indigenous population landless.

Full-scale uprising

In 1936, the first sustained revolution by Palestinian Arabs for more than a century started. Thousands of Palestinians and non-Palestinian Arabs were mobilised.

Jaffa once again proved a focus for dissent. The followers of Shaikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam – killed by the British in 1935 - initiated a general strike there and in Nablus, and launched attacks on Jewish and British installations. Also instrumental in the national uprising was Haj Amin al-Husayni, the president of the newly formed Arab High Committee, a coalition of political parties.

The streets of Jerusalem during
the Palestinian general strike

The committee called for a general strike, non-payment of taxes, and the shutting of municipal governments. It demanded an end to Jewish immigration and a ban on land sales to Jews. By the end of the year, the movement had become a national revolt.

Britain again sent a royal fact-finding committee. In July 1937, it reported that the revolt was caused by the Arab desire for independence and concern over the idea of a Jewish national home. The committee advised the partition of Palestine.

Additionally, it recommended the compulsory transfer of the Arab Palestinians from the territories earmarked for the Jewish state.

Martial law

The Arabs rejected the proposal and the revolt was stepped up during 1937 and 1938. In the face of the continued uprising, the British declared martial law, dissolving the Arab High Committee, and arresting officials of the organisation behind the revolt, the Supreme Muslim Council.

Five thousand Palestinians were killed in the revolts of 1935 to 1939 and more than 15,000 were wounded.

Although the uprising did not achieve its goals, it is credited with signifying the birth of the Arab Palestinian identity, which is based on achieving independence within a free, powerful and united Arab homeland.

Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916

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