Palestinian Arab Congresses

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seven congresses convened by palestinian arab politicians between 1919 and 1928 to oppose pro-zionist british policies and gain independence.

The first Palestinian Arab congress (al-Muʾtamar al-Arabi al-Filastini) met in Jerusalem from 27 January to 9 February 1919. Organized by local Muslim and Christian associations, its thirty participants framed a national charter that demanded independence for Palestine, denounced the Balfour Declaration (and its promise of a Jewish national home), and rejected British rule over Palestine. A majority sought the incorporation of Palestine into an independent Syrian state, and the delegates strongly denounced French claims to a mandate over Syria. The congress expressed its request for independence in the language of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson's principles supporting the right of self-determination of subject peoples.

Scholars disagree about the second congress. Muhammad Muslih argues that the British prevented it from being held, but other scholars view the Arab congress held in Damascus in March 1920 as the second congress. It proclaimed Syrian independence under Amir Faisal, son of Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca.

The third congress was held in Haifa in December 1920. The forty-eight delegates elected an executive committee (the Arab Executive), with a permanent secretariat based in Jerusalem; Musa Kazim al-Husayni headed it. The scion of a leading Jerusalem family, he had been removed by the British as mayor after riots in the spring of 1920. The congress and executive committee were dominated by middle-aged men from ranking Muslim and Christian landowning and merchant families, but younger, more radical politicians also participatedthose who had returned home from Damascus in July 1920, after the French had overthrown Amir Faisal and established their mandate over Syria. In Palestine, a civil administration was established under Herbert Samuel, a British Zionist. The congress's resolutions omitted references to unity with Syria, but maintained firm opposition to Zionism, insisting that Palestine gain its independence as an Arab state. The resolutions appealed to the British sense of justice and fair play, in the hope that the pro-Zionist policies could be modified.

The fourth congress met in May 1921 in the wake of widespread riots in Jaffa. It resolved to send a delegation to London, headed by Musa Kazim alHusayni, to alter British policy. The delegation remained in London through July 1922 and had some impact on British thinking: The Churchill White Paper of June 1922 indicated that the government might place some limits on Jewish immigration and promote a degree of Palestinian self-rule.

At the same time, a special assembly was convened in June 1922. It was more militant than the previous congress, and the participants voted to hold a peaceful two-day demonstration in mid-July against the establishment of the British mandate. That militancy increased in the fifth congress, held in Nablus in August 1922, with more than seventy-five delegates attending. They rejected the Churchill White Paper and launched a boycott of elections for the legislative council. Soon afterward, a second delegation went to Istanbul, Lausanne, and London in a futile effort to persuade the Turkish government not to sign a peace agreement without taking into account the interests of its former Arab provinces, which were being ruled by British and French forces.

The sixth congress met in June 1923 at the insistence of local Muslim and Christian societies who feared that Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca would sign a treaty with London that would recognize the British mandate over Palestine, rather than demand independence for Palestine. The 115 delegates resolved to send a third delegation to London to monitor the negotiations. Moreover, the resolutions stiffened the Arabs' rejection of representative institutions that did not grant policymaking authority to the Palestinian community, and the delegates even proposed such steps toward noncooperation as withholding taxes. However, the large landowners objected to that step, fearing that the British would seize their property in retaliation, and so action on those proposals was shelved.

The British mandate became effective in 1923, and the seventh congress convened from 20 to 22 June 1928, ending five years of tension and division among the Arab politicians. In the intervening years, the Nashashibi family of Jerusalem had withheld its participation in the institutions associated with the Arab congress, founded the National Party (1923), and contested with the Husaynis and their adherents in elections for the Supreme Muslim Council (1926) and local municipal councils (1927). New groups also had emerged among young educated Muslims and pan-Arab activists. The seventh congress sought to unite such factions behind the demand for a representative council and parliamentary government, which would help them attain their national goals. Since Jewish immigration had dipped in 1926 and 1927, the delegates had become less fearful of the Zionist movement than they had been in the past, and they hoped that a gradualist approach to self-government would attain their ends. Their resolutions also emphasized socioeconomic needs such as reopening the Ottoman-period agricultural banks so that farmers could obtain loans, increasing the allotment to education in the government's budget, and reducing the authority of the Greek priests in the Orthodox Christian community. The congress elected an enlarged Arab Executive whose forty-eight members included twelve Christians. The various factions were balanced: Musa Kazim al-Husayni retained the presidency, but both vice presidents (including a Greek Orthodox) favored the Nashashibi camp. The three secretaries were the young radical Jamal al-Husayni, the pro-Nashashibi Protestant lawyer Mughannam Ilyas al-Mughannam, and the pan-Arab, independent-minded lawyer Awni Abd al-Hadi.

The new Arab Executive immediately pressed the British to grant representative institutions, but its efforts coincided with renewed ArabJewish tension centered on conflicting claims to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The riots of August 1929 undermined the cautious negotiating efforts of the Arab Executive; its members were swept up in the growing militancy of the Arab community. The fourth delegation to London in the spring of 1930 presented maximalist demands, including the immediate formation of a national government in which the Arabs would have the majority. The Arab Executive also supported the demonstrations and protests launched by youthful activists in the fall of 1933, as Jewish immigration and land purchases again escalated.

Following the death of Musa Kazim al-Husayni in March 1934, the Arab Executive held its final meeting in August. That meeting permitted the formation of political parties, but resolved to convene an eighth general congress in 1935. The eighth congress never met: By then, politicians were preoccupied with forming their own parties and contesting municipal council elections. When the Arab general strike began in Palestine in April 1936, a new coordinating bodythe Arab Higher Committeewas constituted from the heads of the political parties. The Arab Executive then faded away. Although the Arab Executive had limited effectiveness, it had served as an informal voice for the Palestinian community for more than a decade. The congresses had provided an essential forum for Palestinian Arab politicians to debate fundamental policies and articulate their demands.

see also arab higher committee (palestine); balfour declaration (1917); churchill white paper (1922); husayni, jamal al-; husayni, musa kazim al-; mandate system; nashashibi family.


Ingrams, Doreen. Palestine Papers, 19171922: Seeds of Conflict. New York: George Braziller, 1973.

Lesch, Ann Mosely. Arab Politics in Palestine, 19171939: The Frustration of a Nationalist Movement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

McTague, John J. British Policy in Palestine, 19171922. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.

Muslih, Muhammad Y. The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Porath, Y. The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 19181929. London: Frank Cass, 1974.

Porath, Y. The Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion, 19291939. London: Frank Cass, 1977.

ann m. lesch
updated by philip mattar

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Palestinian Arab Congresses

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Palestinian Arab Congresses