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The Myth of Palestinian Nationalism

Over the decades, as the nineteenth-century Palestinian Jews were reinforced by successive waves of Jewish refugees, anti-Jewish violence erupted spasmodically in the Holy Land. Observers labeled these outbreaks as "European anti-Semitism," "Ottomanism," and later, "anti-Zionism."

British officials attributed the violence-so-called "disturbances" -- to the manifestation of "Arab nationalism." The British, however, were never able to discover any manifestation of such nationalism on the part of the Arabs in Palestine.  They did not try to set up a government or any other nationalistic institutions.  Even when the notorious Nazi, the Grand Mufti returned from Berlin after WWII in 1948 to briefly set up a "Palestine Government" in Gaza, it was ignored.* The only mode of expression of nationialism before 1948 was the oppression and intolerance shown toward Jews. 

This narrowly based "nationalism" of violence continued to grow as the Jews continued to struggle out of dhimmi (subservient) status toward freedom and equality. British investigators were eventually forced to concede, and officially to note, that "Arab nationalism in Palestine has been artificially puffed up.... Only a little firmness is needed to deflate it."1 Unlike the "insurgent nationalip elsewhere,"

in Palestine Arab nationalism is inextricably interwovern with antagonism to the Jews.2
Yet by so perverse a rationale was a movement of enmity dignified and the legend of Palestinian nationalism initiated.

For example, in 1848 about four thousand armed peasants and "numerous Bedouin allies acted as gangs for "two great chiefs," and lawlessness spread. Hebron's local governor was overthrown by an oppressive chief whose brutal tactics earned him the admiration of Jerusalem Is Pasha and the award of the "robe of honour." In Hebron, one of the holy Jewish cities, Jews were still "helpless" and "plundered" and the new ruler managed to confiscate booty of those trying to flee by sending agents to rob travellers on the road."3

In the following few decades (1848-1878) scores of incidents involving anti-Jewish violence, persecution, and extortions filled page after page of documented reports from the British Consulate in Jerusalem. A chronology would be over-whelming, but perhaps a few extracts from those complaints will show the pattern of terror that continued right into the period of the major Jewish immigration beginning about 1878.

May, 1848. I have the honor to report that after the disturbance in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Easter Eve, in beating the Jew who had imprudently entered there -- The Prussian Acting Consul here, informed me that he had been told by the Pasha, and also by the Greek Patriarch, that a Firman exists, which allows Christians to beat Jews if found within that Church, or even if passing along the street in front of it -- and which declares that in case of a Jew being killed under such an infliction, the price of blood should be rated at only ten paras -- value about three farthings.4

March, 1849: Reporting the complaint of a Jew ... of being assaulted and stabbed by a soldier, while his house was searched and his females beaten .... 5

September, 1850. Last month I visited Hebron to do what I could for the protection of the Jews.... Abderahhman [a "brigand chief"] vexes them with irregular extortions, but in return he keeps them in security from other oppressors, however He has had himself enrolled on the books of the Jewish Treasury, as a pensioner for 100 piastres a month, and always sends for his pension two days before the day of due.

During my last visit there I had a Moslem summarily bastinadoed in the open street, for pulling a Jew's beard -- the Mutesellim in his eagerness to satisfy me, inflicted the punishment with his own hands, to my great astonishment. Abderrahhman was absent at Dura but one of his sons was present at the scene. This. forms a strange contrast to the fact of the Austrian Jewish Agent being frequently beaten in the streets there... 6

July, 1851: It is my duty to report to Your Excellency that the Jews in Hebron have been greatly alarmed by threats of the Moslems there at the commencement of Ramadan -- For several days my Cancelliere staid there with two Kawasses and obtained from the Governor Abderrahhman the punishment of some offenders: but others were released from prison on the self-same night of their condemnation.

The Cancelliere reports that the old feuds between the partisans of Abderrahhman and his brothers still exist -- that the partisans of the latter steal cattle by force of arms during the night from Hebron itself, and that they did so close to his tent -- also that in one day the vines were cut down from twenty feddans of vineyard -- but that such proceedings are sure to cease instantly on every approach of Abderrahhman himself, which however is not frequent.

The Jews having complained that a freed slave named Saad Allah was more obnoxious to them than any other person in Hebron, -- and that Abderrahhman had released him almost immediately after sentencing him to imprisonment....

... the enormous avarice of Abderrahhman is peculiarly oppressive to them."7

December, 1851: ... the murder of a Jew named Gershon ben Abraham, under English Protection, in Jerusalem....

... the victim was extricated from the well ... he was found to be stabbed in the throat, heart and ribs, besides injured in a horrible manner for the mere purpose of torture....

A Moslem (he whose house I had examined in the morning) named Mohammed Damiatti, was immediately arrested on suspicion of having perpetrated the murder....

The distress of the bereaved family is very great -- it is not too much to expect that Moslems will prefer claims and swear falsely in matters of debt and credit, as the poor man carried his ledger about with him, and this has not been found -- and it is remarkable that his father was some years ago murdered in a Moslem house in Saloniki, and his only brother killed in Jerusalem two years ago by a fall from a scaffold.8

December, 1851: the Samaritans of Nablus ... consist of about thirty-five taxable men, with a synagogue and sacred books ....

They have probably for many generations, and especially within the last century, been exposed to cruel persecutions from the dominant Moslems-and Nablus is always noted as an especially fanatic town....

They generally contrive to have the cleverest man belonging to them employed as government Secretary for the district, by which means they have warded off much of fiscal oppression, just as Jews do in other countries, and Copts in Egypt -- but even this has not been able to protect them from violence, murder and spoliation in their houses or streets in past times....

I am informed by a Christian in Nablus that there is too much reason to fear evil consequences from the loss of their Secretary, as the Moslems are reviling them in the streets with menaces for the future.9

May, 1852. I proceeded to Hebron and lodged there in a Jewish house. The Jews were all so alarmed ... that they would tell me nothing of news: they protested that Abderrahhman had done no harm to any one, no houses had been rifled &c. and one of the leading Rabbis implored me not to inform Abderrahhman if he should visit me, that I had come to protect the Jews, as he would inevitably punish them the more for it after my departure....

As for the accusations preferred by Abderrahhman against the Effendis here - I cannot tell how true they are - but I know that these personages are constantly taking bribes in other cases, the sums however which are laid against each seem incredibly large. I should rather imagine that much of the bribery money was spent in Damascus and Beyroot.10

November, 1852. - Having learned that the peasantry levy of 4000 men from the Nablus district had committed excesses in the houses of British protected Jews in Tiberias I repaired thither, to induce the commander to keep better order.

... Remonstrance was made against petty thefts "and of their having brought their horses and asses during the rain into the Jewish Synagogues."11

July, 1853. . . . The Christians and Jews of Jerusalem were in a state of absolute terror, and especially on the preceeding day had been announcing to each other house to house that the Moslems were to massacre them after the prayers at noon. Persons shut themselves up in their houses, and shops were closed, and some persons are still ill in bed from the effect of that day's fear.12

October, 1853. The Jews in their Quarter of the city have had to suffer many insults of late from town's people of which I only hear some time after their occurence, as the subjects of the violence are afraid to acquaint me with the circumstances, lest they should draw upon themselves greater injuries by way of revenge after the Consul has obtained redress.13

December, 1853: [Regarding] the Algerine Jews of Caiffa [Haifa] ... I beg to represent to Your Lordship that the blessing of British Protection is a boon of inestimable valul, -- to these people. It would be a blessing to be exempted from Turkish oppression at any time, and peculiarly so at the present period, when fanaticism is liable at any minute to break out into violence and when the local governors are endevouring to extort money by every possible means. And these people fear that if left to Turkish rule they will be required to pay arrears of taxes for all the past years of their residence in this country....

A similar renunciation of Algerine Jews has been made in Safed, Tiberias and Shefa Amer as shown in Enclosure No. 2....

A peculiarity of the French Consulates as far as they have come within my observation, is that they always show a strong desire to get rid of Jewish Subjects. I have had frequent evidences of this in Jerusalem, where that desire has been often expressed to me -- and in Caiffa I regret to add that the Jews have complained of direct persecution from the French and Turkish authorities combined.14

July, 1858: I have the honour to report that in consequence of a series of disgusting insults offered to Jews and Jewesses in Hebron, I obtained such Orders as I could from the Pasha's Agent in this city, during His Excellency's absence -- which I sent by my Dragoman Rosenthal and a Kawass....

The streets of the town were paraded by fanatic Durweeshes -- and during my stay there a Jewish house was forcibly entered by night, iron bars of the window broken, and heavy stones thrown from invisible hands at every person approaching the place to afford help.

One of the Members of the Council affirmed that they were not obliged to obey Orders from the Pasha's Deputy -- and another declared his right derived from time immemorial in hisfamily, to enterJewish houses, and take toll or contributions at any time without giving account.

When others present in the Council exclaimed against this he said -- "Well  then I will forbear from taking it myself, but things will happen which will compel the Jews to come and kiss my feet to induce me to take their money."15

November, 1858: . . . although the thief had previously confessed to the robbery in presence of Jews, the Kadi would not proceed without the testimony of two Moslems -- when the Jewish witnesses were offered, he refused to accept their testimony -- and the offensive term adopted towards Jews in former times (more offensive than Giaour for Christians) was used by the Kadi's servants.

I have no doubt of being able to set all this to rights (except perhaps the matter of Jewish testimony in that Court) but such circumstances exhibit the working of the present Turkish government in Jerusalem.16

May, 1863: . .. Galilee, comprising the modern towns of Nazareth, Safed and Tiberias, in which two latter places there are living upwards of 600 Jews in the enjoyment of British protection. The existence of so many protected subjects in these retired spots, residing as they do in the midst of a Moslem population, naturally gives rise to numerous questions with the local Governors who are prone to oppress them unless their interests are constantly cared for. My predecessor was required to make an Annual tour to those towns, in order that his appearance from time to time amongst our protected subjects there might keep within proper bounds the ill-concealed aversion which their presence never fails to excite amongst their Moslem neighbors...17

March, 1864: . . . the circumstances attending the death of the British subject Peter Meshullam, and to try Abdalla Abu Kakoora, the individual charged with his murder.... they declare, as the result of their enquiry, that P. Meshullam died in consequence of the fall from his mare, and, consequently that Abdalla is innocent of charges preferred against him.

I confess I was hardly prepared for such a finding and verdict....  I  addressed to His Excellency a reply conveying my entire dissent from the decision of the Commission ... 18

June, 1864: . .. Her Majesty's Gobernment have little doubt that Mr. MashulIan's death was caused by violence and not by a fall from his horse... 19

The tradition of contemptuous "fraternity" continued -- a tradition that illuminates what measure of credibility may be gifen to modern promises concerning a "Palestinian Arab state," which would "value people, independent of race and religion."20

* During the years that Jordan occupied the West Bank, from 1948-1967, the cause of "Palestinian Nationalism" was unheralded. Until 1970s, the PLO only focused on Pan-Arab issues.

1. Palestine Royal Commission Report, p. 144.

2. Ibid., p. 131.

3. Ma'oz, Ottoman Reform, p. 120, quoting Consul James Finn; F.O. 78/705, Finn to Palmerston, No. 7, Jerusalem, 5 February 1847; F.O. 78/755, Finn to Palmerston, No. 22, Jerusalem, 17 July 1848.

4. James Finn to Viscount Palmerston, Jerusalem, 2 May 1848, F.O. 78/755 (No. 19), Consulate, 1, p. 106.

5. James Finn to Sir Stratford Canning, Jerusalem, I March 1849, F.O. 78/803 (No. 8), abstract, ibid., 1, p. 110.

6. James Finn to Viscount Palmerston, Jerusalem, 27 September 1850, F.O. 78/839 (No. 20), abstract, ibid., 1, 168-169. Hyamson adds: "Abdeffahhman el Amer, a chief of the neighbouring village of Dura, for many years terrorized the inhabitants of Hebron, Jews as well as others, of which town he was for periods de facto ruler at times, despite the Government. He first appeared there on the expulsion of the Egyptians in 1840 when, murdering the local Egyptian governor in the street, he proclaimed the Sultan of Turkey, and appointed himself governor of the town." Also see James Finn, Stirring Times, 1, pp. 236 et seq., 250 et seq., and 392 et seq.; and Vol. 2, pp. 33 et seq.

7. James Finn to Sir Stratford Canning, Jerusalem, 15 July 185 1, F.O. 78/874 (No. 10), ibid., 1, pp. 171-172. 

8. James Finn to Viscount Palmerston, Jerusalem, 29 December 1851, F.O. 78/874 (Consular No. 21), ibid., 1, pp. 183-184. 

9. James Finn to Viscount Palmerston, Jerusalem, 29 December 1851, F.O. 78/874 (Political No. 10), ibid., 1, p. 185.

10. James Finn to the Earl of Malmesbury, Jerusalem, 29 May 1852, F.O. 195/369 (Political No. 2), ibid., 1, p. 198-202.

11. James Finn to the Earl of Malmesbury, Jerusalem, 18 November 1852, F.O. 78/913 Political No. 13), abstract, ibid., 1, p. 211.

12. James Finn to the Earl of Clarendon, Jerusalem, 19 July 1853, F.O. 78/962 (No. 9), ibid., 1, p. 215.

13. James Finn to Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, Jerusalem, 13 October 1853, F.O. 195/369 (No. 32), ibid., 1, p. 216.

14. James Finn to the Earl of Clarendon, 28 December 1853, F.O. 78/963 (Political No. 33), ibid., 1, pp. 218-219.

15. James Finn to the Earl of Malmesbury, Jerusalem, 8 July 1858, F.O. 78/1383 (Political No. 12), ibid., 1, p. 260.

16. James Finn to the Earl of Malmesbury, Jerusalem, I I November 1858, F.O. 78/1393 (Political No. 34), ibid., 1, p. 261.

17. Thomas B. Sandwith, Vice Consul, Caiffa, to Noel Temple Moore, Caiffa, 20 May 1863, F.O. 78/1775 (No. 18), ibid., 2, pp. 311-312.

18. Noel Temple Moore to the Honorable E.M. Erskine, Jerusalem, 3 March 1864, F.O. 195/808 (No. 6), ibid., 2, pp. 330-331.

19. Earl Russell to Noel Temple Moore, Foreign Office, I I June 1864, F.O. 78/1816 (No. 1), ibid., 2, p. 332.

20. Ibrahim Abu Lughod, address at Palestine Human Rights Committee Meeting, November 1980, Chicago.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
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