They Give Me Five Years. Five Years

I hope you do what you said when you swore you’d make it better.

A great irony is that when a people finally throws of the tyranny of a ruling empire, they so often find that it was their imperial masters that had been keeping them from killing each other.

By the time the Ottoman Empire was broken apart, it had long been seen as a system in decline. After their defeat in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Empire no longer threatened Europe with its expansion. After the loss of the Russio-Turkish War in 1774, the European powers saw the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Empire as an inevitability, and began jockeying for control over the eventual spoils. In the mid-1800s, the term The Sick Man of Europe was coined to describe the Ottoman Empire. Compared to its counterparts in the West, it had lower wealth and a lower quality of life. Non-Muslims were accorded a second-class citizenship status but, even within this system, non-Muslims and particularly Christians were better educated and thus developed an economic gap relative to the Muslim majority.

As the Empire continued to decline, nationalist independence movements caused internal stress. Where armed conflict ensued, one might wonder whether my thesis applies. In the Levant, however, despite a multi-cultural population as well as a rising sense of Arab-nationalism independent from Turkey, there was relative peace. Movements for more autonomy tended to focus their efforts in the political arena rather than through violence. This was the period where the Zionism movement was taking form, but it too expressed itself mostly within the confines of civil government.

The final nail in the Ottoman coffin came from backing the Germans in the First World War. In the Middle East, the British had since 1882 occupied Egypt despite it technically remaining a province of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt became a focus of the British war effort early on, both as a base of operations for the Gallipoli campaign as well as to protect the Suez Canal. Eventually, the British took to the offensive in the Sinai and then Gaza, as a way to provide additional pressure on the Ottomans.

In 1917, the British army captured, from the Turks, Jerusalem and the lands that were to become the modern state of Israel. At the end of the war, occupation of the Levant portion of the Middle East was formalized by the Treaty of Versailles. The rule of London replaced the rule of Constantinople.

While the Arab portions of the Ottoman empire were not immune to nationalistic movements, pre-WWI Arabs under the Turks tended to see themselves as part of a Muslim nation. The advent of WWI and centralization of power in Constantinople, following a January 1913 Ottoman coup d’état, resulted in the Sharif and Emir of Mecca declaring an Arab Revolt in June of 1916. It bears considering that this revolt came after the British were at war with the Ottoman Empire. While many reasons were given for the Revolt, including Arab Nationalism and a lack of Muslim piety on the part of the Committee of Union and Progress (the party of the Young Turks and the Three Pashas installed of the aforementioned coup), Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi had made agreements with the British in response to their request for assistance in fighting the Central Powers.

Such understandings contributed to Arab unrest post-WWI, as pre-war promises of Arab Independence differed from the disposition of captured Ottoman territory after the war. It didn’t help with Arab sentiment that Britain, now in possession and control of Palestine, had issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which supported the concept of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. While modern Zionism had been an issue for decades, under Ottoman rule it was largely relegated to the political sphere. With the end of the supremacy of a Muslim power in Palestine, Arabs likely felt a more direct protest was necessary to assert their position in Palestine. Arab nationalism was also reinforced by anti-French sentiment in Syria, brought to a head by the March 7, 1920 declaration of Faisal I (son of Hussein bin Ali and a General in the Arab Revolt of 1916) as King.

Events of early 1920, and a lack of response from the ruling British Authorities, caused Jewish leaders to look to their own defense. By the end of March militia groups had trained something like 600 paramilitaries and had begun stockpiling weapons.

Jerusalem Riots

Sunday morning, April 4th 1920 found Jerusalem in a precarious state. Jewish visitors were in the city for the Passover celebration. Christians were there for Easter Sunday. Additionally, the Muslim festival of Nebi Musa had begun on Good Friday, to last for seven days. In excess of 60,000 Arabs were in the streets for the festival, and by mid-morning there was anti-Jewish violence occurring sporadically throughout the Old City. Arab luminaries delivered speeches to the masses, wherein they advocated for Palestinian independence and the expulsion, by violence if need be, of the Zionists among them. By mid-day, the violence had turned to riots, with homes, businesses, and temples being vandalized and as many as 160 Jews injured.

The British military declared, first a curfew, and then martial law, but the riots continued for four days.  Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a co-founder of the Jewish Legion, along with 200 volunteers tried to work with the British to provide for the defense of the Jewish population. The British ultimately prevented such assistance and, in fact, arrested 19 Jews, including Jabotinsky, for the possession of arms. Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years in prison, although his sentence was eventually reduced, along with all of those (Jews and Arabs) convicted as a result of the riots. The total number put on trial was approximately 200, with 39 of them being Jews.

By the time peace was restored to Jerusalem, five Jews and four Arabs were dead. Over 200 Jews were injured, eighteen of them critically and 300 Jews were evacuated from the Old City. Some 23 Arabs were also injured, one critically.

The aftermath of the riots left the British occupiers on everyone’s wrong side.

Among the Arabs, the feeling was that they had been wronged by the lack of independence after being separated from the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, in the Balfour Declaration they saw that ultimately the British would replace their own rule with a Jewish one. The riots also were the beginnings of a unique Palestinian nationalism, separate from Pan Arabism or the Syrian independence movements.

On the other hand, the Jews suspected British complicity as a cause of the riots in the first place. In addition to some unproven conspiracies, the British had several missteps which allowed the riots to escalate. For example, Arabs arrested during Sunday nights curfew were released on Monday morning, only to see the riots continue through Wednesday. The British halted Jewish immigration to Palestine, punishing the Jews for Arab aggression. The inadequacy of Britain’s defense of the Jewish population lead directly to an organized Jewish defense force called the Haganah (“defense”), which would later become the core of the Israeli military.

The incident surely tipped-off the United Kingdom that she had entered into a situation from which there was no easy way out. Nevertheless, for the next few decades she persevered in bringing enlightened British rule to a difficult region.

It would take more than 19 years before the British partially walked back the Balfour Declaration by halting Jewish Immigration to Palestine. It would be almost 27 years, in February of 1947, before British parliament voted to terminate the Palestinian Mandate and hand the issue over the the United Nations.

 

One thought on “They Give Me Five Years. Five Years

  1. Pingback: Ain’t she a beautiful sight? | A Plague of Frogs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *