Palestine Disturbances of 1929
By: Sir Walter Sidney Shaw
Date: March 1930
Source: Report of the British Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929.
About the Author: Sir Walter Shaw, a retired chief justice of the British Straits settlements, headed a four-member commission to inquire into the causes of unrest in Palestine in August 1929.
The violence that erupted in Hebron, Palestine, in August 1929 had its roots in at least three developments—although Jewish-Muslim enmity in Palestine had predated these developments for centuries.
The first development occurred in 1917, when British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour made a pledge (the Balfour Declaration) to the Zionist Federation that after World War I (1915–1918) the British government would provide a secure homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, which Britain had occupied during the war. The second development was the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and provided for the formation of the League of Nations. The league designated Palestine as a British mandate, leaving the region under Britain's administration. The third development occurred in June 1922, when the League of Nations passed the Palestinian mandate, a document that specified Britain's responsibilities in Palestine, particularly to "secure the establishment of the Jewish national home," but also to safeguard "the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine," including those of Muslims.
Although tensions simmered beneath the surface and rioting broke out in 1920 and 1921, Jews and Arab Muslims lived side by side in Palestine in relative peace through most of the 1920s. That changed in August 1929, when a longstanding dispute between Muslims and Jews over access to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem erupted in violence. On August 14, thousands of Jews in Tel Aviv staged a demonstration in which they chanted, "The Wall is ours." On August 15, hundreds of Betars, members of a Zionist youth movement, demonstrated at the wall. Rumors were rife within the Muslim community that Jewish activists were preparing to seize holy places in Palestine and that Muslims should prepare to defend them. Demonstrations and riots occurred on August 16 when inflamed Muslims burned Jewish prayer books and notes left in the Western Wall.
Meanwhile, in Hebron, the Haganah, a Zionist defense organization and the predecessor to today's Israeli army, offered to protect Jews in the city. Jewish leaders declined the offer, believing that the city's Arab leadership would protect them. Then on August 23, rumors circulated among the Arab community that Jews had murdered two Arabs. In Jerusalem, Jews were attacked and the violence quickly spread to other parts of Palestine. The British, who had fewer than 300 policemen and 100 soldiers in Palestine, were helpless to stop the violence. By the next day, 24 Jews had been killed.
The worst of the violence took place in Hebron, where the British had only one policeman. Sixty-seven Jews in Hebron were eventually massacred, many in horrific fashion or with their bodies mutilated. Many more Jews were wounded. Survivors hid with sympathetic Arab friends and neighbors and many were later evacuated, but only after the violence subsided. In all, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs lost their lives in the August violence. Hundreds more were wounded.
Although motivated by religious intolerance and hatred, the massacre occurred within the context of ongoing separatist terrorism. Jewish citizens banded together for tighter security. Following the massacre, Jews began leaving Hebron and by 1936, no Jews were left in the city.
In 1929, Great Britain appointed Sir Walter Shaw to head a commission to investigate the unrest. He and the other three members of the commission arrived in Palestine in October. They issued their report, generally referred to as the Shaw Commission report, in 1930, fixing the blame for the rioting and murders primarily on the Arab community. Excerpts from the report appear below.
- The outbreak in Jerusalem on the 23rd of August was from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews for which no excuse in the form of earlier murders by Jews has been established.
- The outbreak was not premeditated.
- [The outbreak] took the form, in the most part, of a vicious attack by Arabs on Jews accompanied by wanton destruction of Jewish property. A general massacre of the Jewish community at Hebron was narrowly averted. In a few instances, Jews attacked Arabs and destroyed Arab property. These attacks, though inexcusable, were in most cases in retaliation for wrongs already committed by Arabs in the neighbourhood in which the Jewish attacks occurred.
- . . . The Mufti was influenced by the twofold desire to annoy the Jews and to mobilize Moslem opinion on the issue of the Wailing Wall. He had no intention of utilizing this religious campaign as the means of inciting to disorder.... The Mufti, like many others who directly or indirectly played upon public feeling in Palestine, must accept a share in the responsibility. . . .
- . . . In the matter of innovations of practice [at the Western Wall] little blame can be attached to the Mufti in which some Jewish religious authorities also would not have to share. . . . No connection has been established between the Mufti and the work of those who either are known or are thought to have engaged in agitation or incitement. . . After the disturbances had broken out the Mufti co-operated with the Government in their efforts both to restore peace and to prevent the extension of disorder.
- The fundamental cause . . . is the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future. . . The feeling as it exists today is based on the twofold fear of the Arabs that by Jewish immigration and land purchases they may be deprived of their livelihood and in time pass under the political domination of the Jews.
In our opinion the immediate causes of the outbreak were:
- The long series of incidents connected with the Wailing Wall. . . . These must be regarded as a whole, but the incident among them which in our view contributed most to the outbreak was the Jewish demonstration at the Wailing Wall on the 15th of August. . . .
- Excited and intemperate articles which appeared in some Arabic papers, in one Hebrew daily paper and in a Jewish weekly paper. . . .
- Propaganda among the less-educated Arab people of a character calculated to incite them.
- The enlargement of the Jewish Agency.
- The inadequacy of the military forces and of the reliable police available.
- The belief . . . that the decisions of the Palestine Government could be influenced by political considerations.
In the aftermath of the violence, 195 Arabs and 34 Jews were convicted for crimes. Two Jews and 17 Arabs were sentenced to death, but the sentences of all but two Arabs were later commuted to life imprisonment. Further, fines were imposed on 25 Arab villages.
Although the Shaw Commission laid the blame for the unrest principally on the Arab community, its references to Jewish immigration to Palestine led to further action on the part of the British, much of it perceived as largely pro-Arab. Those actions were often cited as a spur to Zionist separatist terrorism over the next two decades. In 1930, the Hope-Simpson report, echoing the Shaw Commission report, recommended a halt to Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine until the country's agricultural capabilities could be increased, primarily through a better irrigation system.
That same year, to the dismay of the Zionist separatist movement, the Passfield-White Paper asserted that the rights of Arabs in Palestine were coequal with those of the Jews. When Britain proposed division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas in 1936, militant Arabs, as well as Zionists, rejected the proposal and engaged in three years of terrorism against Jews (1936–1939) known as the Great Uprising. In 1939, the White Paper limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 15,000 people a year for five years, effectively trapping many Jews in Europe during the Nazi Holocaust.
The British mandate in Palestine ended in 1948. Many observers in the twenty-first century regard the British mandate, with its shifting and inconsistent policies toward both Jews and Arabs, as a factor fostering separatist violence in both communities and furthering ongoing violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians.
Gavish, Dov. A Survey of Palestine during the Period of the British Mandate, 1918–1948. Routledgecurzon Studies in Middle Eastern History. London: Routledge, 2005.
Shepherd, Naomi. Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine, 1917–1948. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.