Assistant Professor of History, Western Washington University
The defeat of the Great Revolt (1936–1939) in Palestine has commonly been attributed with causing the downfall of Arab Palestine a decade later in 1948, and has even been called “the first nakba.” While certainly a heavy shadow to cast, that commonly made link has sometimes obscured more careful attention to the dynamics and events of the revolt itself. This paper revisits the suppression of the Palestinian rebellion of the 1930s, and the movement for freedom and indigenous rights it represented, by examining the destruction of everyday life in Arab Palestine at the hands of counterinsurgent forces and the colonial state. From Oslo forward, critical analysis of the occupation has often underscored its disintegrative effects on everyday life—especially through the disaggregation of space and the “racialized time” that has been imposed on Palestinians in the 1967 lands. As with so many of Israel’s tactics for controlling and containing the Palestinians, the roots of its policies affecting and disassembling everyday life stretch back to the Mandate and Britain’s destructive influence and example.
Recent scholarship in English has disclosed the dirty war tactics and ambient brutality and cruelty that characterized the counterinsurgency during the Great Revolt. This paper supplements our understanding of how the counterinsurgency operated by highlighting the ceaseless manner in which it targeted the everyday existence of the Palestinian population at large. The colonial regime converted schools and hotels into military bases, seized crops and livestock, and invaded, assaulted, and demolished homes, villages, and urban quarters. Quotidian and ritual activities like praying at a mosque or going to school were made contingent on docile behavior or random circumstance; even funerals were prohibited as potential “disturbances.” While some of the myriad disruptions Palestinians experienced were incidental, ultimately the colonial state’s attack on everyday life flowed from a counterinsurgent strategy based in collective punishments. The recourse to collective punishments itself reflected the military’s inadequacies – notably, its chronic difficulties in locating elusive rebel forces and in distinguishing friend from foe in the countryside. The colonial state’s answer to this strategic dilemma was to apply collective punishments to the public in order to discourage support for the rebellion and encourage cooperation with the suppression campaign. This began in 1936 with curfews, collective fines (on villages and urban centers), house demolitions, and village and urban “search” operations (read: punitive raids) during which everything from household furniture to foodstuff stockpiles was routinely destroyed. During the second phase of the revolt (1937–1939), the colonial state was progressively militarized and the array of collective punishments steadily expanded. These came to include the semi-destruction of villages (blowing up half their houses, for example), forced labor in military camps or on infrastructure projects, rounding up hostages for use as human shields on the roadways or in patrol duties, (temporary) mass incarceration of entire village populations, and movement controls and pass laws that threatened to choke the last life out of already depressed Arab commerce. After the formal subordination of the civil government to the military brass in 1938, the colonial state was even more unvarnished in its bare-knuckles approach to breaking the insurgency, threatening the food security of the population, shutting down freedom of movement, declaring regular 24-hour curfews, and otherwise penalizing income generating activity in an effort to use economic siege warfare against the body politic.
Although a combination of factors turned the tide against the rebel movement, the assault on everyday life, and particularly the threats to economic livelihood represented by the movement controls imposed in late 1938, took a toll on the insurgency, and compounded the damage done by two decades of colonial neglect that had already deeply destabilized Palestinian society. This paper attempts to suggest that everyday life was contested terrain during the Great Revolt, with rebels determined to build an alternative sovereignty and an alternative public realm that would incorporate the Palestinian population, and the colonial state intent on destroying that project, denying the rebel movement its vital relation with Arab society, and using tools of punishment and control that revoked any hope of normalcy and tore asunder the basic elements of daily life.
Charles Anderson is assistant professor of history at Western Washington University. He earned his Ph.D. from NYU’s joint program in MEIS and history in 2013 and has previously taught modern Middle Eastern history at Rutgers, Bard College, and Georgetown as well as NYU. His first book project is a history from below of the Great Revolt (1936–1939) in Palestine and its social roots. He is currently writing an essay comparing the Mandate-era origins of using “human shields” in Palestine with the practice’s more recent history—and claims made around it—from the second intifada forward.