Charles Anderson received his PhD from the joint program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at NYU in September 2013. This year he is a Jamal Daniel postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where he is working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, which is a study of the Great Revolt in Palestine (1936-39) and its social origins.
Rethinking the history of Palestinian dispossession: the Mandate and the decline of the rural social order
For good reason, the story of Palestinian dispossession has long focused on the shattering experience of the 1948 war and nakba. The uprooting and dispersion of some three-quarter million Palestinians and the destruction or usurpation of their former villages, locales, and urban centers, along with the conversion of those not displaced into a precarious minority within the new state of Israel, has shaped almost every aspect of the Palestinians’ history as a people since. Less well known and understood is the history of dispossession that preceded the trauma of 1948 and weakened Palestinian society before its most fateful hour.
When viewed critically, the British Mandate has commonly been attributed with implanting capitalism within Palestine to the detriment of the Arabs, and especially with facilitating the expropriation of Palestinian land by the Zionist movement (T. Asad; E. Zureik; R. Khalidi; S. Farsoun and N. Aruri). Recent work by A. Nadan takes the British regime to task for misunderstanding the utility and efficiency of indigenous institutions and practices (such as musha‘) while illustrating that the pre-1939 period was devoid of aggregate growth in the Arab rural economy. In this paper I will argue that such approaches to the question of rural change under the Mandate generally misunderstand or underestimate the scale and dynamics of the crisis of the Arab countryside prior to the 1936-39 uprising. By surveying a host of policies concerning land tenure, taxation, credit, and trade I will demonstrate that the British regime greatly accelerated preexisting tendencies towards debt, bankruptcy and dispossession. The growing tide of dispossession – which encompassed some 43% of the rural population by 1931 alone – had manifold consequences, destabilizing Arab society, its politics, and Mandatory rule.
Most immediately, the rapid growth of dispossession stimulated proletarianization, migration to expanding urban slums, and a chronic unemployment crisis. The decline of the rural order helped catalyze a growing popular movement in the 1929-35 subperiod against the Mandate, the state’s economic policies, and the preferential treatment given to Zionist interests. In turn,
the state responded to rural resistance with collective punishments, in the process increasingly identifying the Palestinians as a hostile alien mass, devoid of legal protections and residually deserving of collective sanctions and discipline. This dynamic of resistance and repression was dramatically intensified during the Great Revolt, during which an additional fissure opened up between the impoverished peasants and former peasants and the Arab upper classes. Peasant rebels and their allies first depended on Arab elites to fund the revolt and later launched an abortive social revolution amidst the uprising, helping to ignite an organized counterrevolution (the “Peace Bands”) allied with the British and the Zionist movement. The rebel movement’s failed bid to seize political sovereignty and to rectify the quandary of dispossession, combined with the massive violence entailed in the insurgency’s suppression, critically undermined the Palestinians. At the end of the revolt not only were they left bereft of unity and leadership at the elite level (as commonly suggested), but their popular movement was almost entirely liquidated as the constituencies that had drawn together in the 1930s were fragmented and dispersed, while society as a whole was drained of much social cohesion.
In this paper I will reframe the question of dispossession under the Mandate, focusing primarily on elucidating the origins and extent of the crisis before 1936 and explaining why the existing scholarship’s concentration on land transfers alone is unduly myopic. I will also limn, in brief, the broader consequences of the growth of dispossession, as outlined here, in order to underscore and explicate the centrality of this issue to the politics and history of the Mandate as a whole and to the making of the nakba in 1948.