Tue Sep 26, 2023
September 26, 2023

Preface to The Revolt of 1936-1939 in Palestine, by Ghassan Kanafani

It is an honor for us to bring to the Brazilian audience this article by the Palestinian revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani. Born in 1936 and assassinated by the Mossad (Israeli secret service) in July 8, 1972 in Beirut, Lebanon, he is best known across the world for his literary works, which revolutionized the Arab novels.
By Soraya Misleh.
Furthermore, Ghassan Kanafani was one of the main leaders of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), which constituted the left wing of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the Arab nationalist movement. Its activities and political thoughts, as expressed in this work, dissipate the myth that Marxism has always been alien to the social struggles in the Arab world. On the contrary, Kanafani is a proof of the significant influence of revolutionary Marxists in the struggle for Palestinian and Arab national liberation. It is no coincidence that the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in Identity Card1 that all men in his village “love communism.”
More than a description of the facts, the reader will witness detailed Marxist analysis of the role played by each social class, Palestinian or not, along key moments of the resistance, and a careful examination of events and reasons that led to the defeat of the 1936-1939 revolution.
Revolt or Revolution?
Kanafani correctly describes the importance of this revolution, little known in Brazil:
In the whole history of the Palestinian struggle, the armed popular revolt was never closer to victory than in the months between the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1939. In this period, the British forces’ control of Palestine weakened, the prestige of colonialism was at its lowest, and the reputation and influence of the revolt became the principal force in the country.2
The roots of the uprising are very well described by Kanafani. The very tough effects of Zionist colonization, which in addition to the daily discrimination, expelled Palestinian farmers from their lands or boycotted the purchase of their products, while extending unemployment and starvation among Palestinian workers in towns and cities, pushed these oppressed classes to struggle.
The situation of Palestinian elite classes was quite different, as well as their stance towards the British and Zionist colonialism. Landowners and local religious elites fought to become the main partners of the British mandate, replacing the Zionist bourgeoisie. Yet the urban Palestinian bourgeoisie was directly associated to Zionist capital during industrialization. So, both segments were enemies of the liberation of Palestine.
Thus began the revolt. Palestinian national committees were formed in all villages and towns, and the five local parties composed the Arab Higher Committee, headed by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who convened a conference in that city that called for a general strike and refused to pay taxes. Due to British repression, Palestinians quickly passed to armed actions.
This process took a break when the Arab Higher Committee, at the request of Arab regimes (and considering their own interests), suspended the general strike in October 8, 1936, and stood before the Royal Commission led by Lord Peel. Commissioned by the British government to seek solutions for Palestine, they stood for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State, which would take the most fertile lands, totaling 33% of the Palestinian territory, and the incorporation of the remaining territory to the kingdom of Transjordan, keeping some enclaves under British mandate. This determination radicalized the Palestinian revolution.
The British, determined to crush the revolution, brought many foreign reinforcements and resorted to aerial bombardment, heavy artillery and tanks. The backlash included the hanging of any Palestinian in possession of weapons, the arrest of thousands in “detention camps”, collective punishment against villages and neighborhoods through houses’ explosion and confiscation of property, as well as prohibition of any Palestinian organization -including the Arab Higher Committee- and the exile of their leaders to the Seychelles. At the same time, they trained and armed Zionist militias to assist them in the brutal crackdown. Nonetheless, several areas of Palestine including the old city of Jerusalem remained under control of the revolutionaries.
Unlike Arab regimes, such as Transjordan, which repressed the Palestinians and their leaders eventually surrendering to the British, the Arab working people were standing with the Palestinians. In September of 1937, a pan-Arab people’s congress held in Syria, as well as two others -Arab women and parliamentarians gathered in Cairo in 1938- expressed their support to the Palestinian demands of ending the British mandate and the Zionist immigration and acquisition of land.
In 1939, on top of violent repression by both British and Zionist forces combined that led the revolt to exhaustion without neither arms or ammunition and suffering great human losses, the publication of the White Paper – the new British policy for Palestine, which limited the Zionist immigration as well as the acquisition of Palestinian lands by Zionists, pointing to a single state in ten years – led the revolution to an end.
The description of events – people’s committees, general strike, guerrilla warfare with mass support – reveals more than an armed revolt or a large rebellion, as called by Walid Khalidi: it was actually an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolution, in which Palestinian oppressed classes, particularly the rural poor people, took in their very own hands the destiny of the country. Despite being on the verge of victory, it was defeated due to its powerful internal and external enemies.
Palestinians have paid dearly for this defeat, which paved the way for the Nakba, Arabic word meaning catastrophe , which refers to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when Zionist forces (ie, advocating the formation of a homogeneous Jewish-only State) destroyed 500 Palestinian villages and expelled around 800,000 Palestinians, about 2/3 of the total local population.
The Three Enemies of the Palestinian Cause
Analyzing the reasons for the defeat, Kanafani identifies the enemies of the Palestinian cause in the first paragraph of his work, in a definition which has become classic and remains relevant until nowadays:
Between 1936 and 1939, the Palestinian revolutionary movement suffered a severe setback at the hands of three separate enemies that were to constitute, together, the principal threat to the nationalist movement in Palestine in all subsequent stages of its struggle: the local reactionary leadership; the regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine; and the imperialist-Zionist enemy.”
The Palestinian Elites
Kanafani describes the two sectors of Palestinian elites and their role in the defeat of the revolution. The first, weaker, is the urban bourgeoisie represented by the National Defence Party:
The Defence Party, led by Raghib Nashashibi, consisted of a small group of urban effendis who chiefly represented the interests of the rising comprador bourgeoisie and had begun to discover that its existence and growth depended on it being linked not only to British colonialism but also to the Zionist movement – which controlled the industrial transformation of the Palestinian economy. Because of this class situation, it is possible to sum up their history by saying that they <cooperated with the occupation authorities in the administrative field and with Zionism in the commercial field, sold lands to the Jews, acted as brokers, disseminated misgivings, impeded nationalist activity, strengthened the link between Abdullah and Hussain and the Zionists in 1923-1924, supported immigration and the Mandate in the 1920’s and partition in the 1930’s, advocated the establishment of a Jewish national home in part of Palestine and the surrender of the other part to Transjordan>… etc.”
“A number of the Defence Party leaders took part in the establishment of what they called <peace detachments>, small mercenary forces which were formed in cooperation with the British, and helped to hunt down the rebels, took part in engagements with them and evicted them from some of the positions they controlled. Fakhri al-Nashashibi was a leader of one of these divisions, arming them and directing their activities… this led to him being killed a few months after the end of the revolt.”
The strongest sector was the landowning, or “feudal-clerical” elite in words of Kanafani. They were represented by the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Arab Party, led by Jamal al-Hussaini. Kanafani reports about them:
The role that the feudal-clerical leadership should fulfill was established: it would be a <fight> for a better position within the colonial regime. But they could not carry this <fight> without gathering behind them the classes that were eager to shake off the yoke of colonization. With this horizon, these leaders drafted a clearly progressive program, adopted mass slogans – which they did not want nor were able to bring to its logical end-, and carried a kind of <fight> that was in contradiction with its own nature.
Still according to his analysis:
The Palestinian feudal-clerical leaders felt that their own interests were also threatened by the growing economic force – Jewish capitalism allied with the British Mandate. But their interests were also threatened from the opposite quarter – by the poor Arab masses who no longer knew where to turn to.”
The Palestinian feudal religious leadership could not tolerate the rise of an Arab labor movement that was independent of its control. The movement was thus terrorized by the Arab leadership. In the early 1930’s, the Mufti’s group assassinated Michel Mitri, President of the Federation of Arab Workers in Jaffa. Years later, Sami Taha, a trade unionist and President of the Federation of Arab Workers in Haifa was also assassinated”, in September 12, 1937, by Mufti’s men.
The role played by the two sectors of Palestinian elites took Kanafani to characterize them as enemies of the Palestinian cause. This situation, as demonstrated under the Ottoman rule (the Palestinians effendis were the representatives of such empire), remains to this days.
Drawing the same lessons, Adam Hanieh, author of two important books on political economy of the Arab world, addressed the disaster that Oslo accords meant to the Palestinian cause. Moving beyond the usual excuses -difficulties of the international context, corruption and Arab leaders’ inability- to explain the treachery of the PLO leaders, he points out the profound changes in Palestinian society, particularly in the West Bank (territory occupied by Israel in 1967). These changes led to a strong dependence of foreign resources and jobs provided by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and developed a social base to support the switch of Palestinian people’s rights for participation in the Israeli colonial drive namely the Palestinian bourgeoisie:
Through the Oslo years, this class came together through the fusion of three distinct social groups: “returnee” capitalists, mostly from a Palestinian bourgeoisie that had emerged in the Gulf Arab states and held strong ties to the nascent Palestinian Authority; families and individuals who had historically dominated Palestinian society, often large landowners from the pre-1967 period, particularly in the Northern areas of the West Bank; and those who had managed to accumulate wealth through their position as interlocutors within the occupation since 1967.
This new three-sided configuration of the capitalist class tended to draw its wealth from a privileged relationship with the Palestinian Authority, which assisted its growth by granting monopolies for goods like cement, petroleum, flour, steel, and cigarettes; issuing exclusive import permits and customs exemptions; giving sole rights to distribute goods in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and distributing government-owned land below its value. In addition to these state-assisted forms of accumulation, much of the investment that came into the West Bank from foreign donors through the Oslo years — infrastructure construction, new building projects, agricultural and tourist developments — were also typically connected to this new capitalist class in some way.
In the context of the PA’s fully subordinated position, the ability to accumulate was always tied to Israeli consent and thus came with a political price — one designed to buy compliance with ongoing colonization and enforced surrender. It also meant that the key components of the Palestinian elite — the wealthiest businessmen, the PA’s state bureaucracy and the remnants of the PLO itself — came to share a common interest in Israel’s political project.” [Adam Hanieh, The Oslo Illusion 20 Years Later]
In his article for Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Capitalists that Have Gone Too Far, Tariq Dana gives some examples of the servility of the Palestinian bourgeoisie:
a) The planned city of Rawabi, north of Ramallah, West Bank, an undertaking of the Palestinian millionaire Bashar Masri, has been denounced by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for contracting over ten Israeli companies as suppliers, besides architect Moshe Safdie, who prepared projects for the Israeli settlement Modi’in Illit, and the acceptance of 3,000 trees provided by the JNF (Jewish National Fund) – historic organization in the process of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people;
b) industrial areas governed by the same rules as the Qualifying Industrial Zones in Jordan and Egypt, which impose compulsory participation of Israeli capital and the employment of both Palestinian and foreign workers without observance of local labor or union rights;
c) Palestinian investments in Zionist companies and settlements (between US$2.5 and US$5.8 billions), higher than the investments in the West Bank (US$1.5 billion);
d) hiring israeli security companies and holding partnerships with Israeli technology companies.
The Arab Regimes
In the meantime, the Arab countries surrounding Palestine were playing two conflicting roles. On the one hand, the Pan-Arab mass movement was serving as a catalyst for the revolutionary spirit of the Palestinian masses, since a dialectical relation between the Palestinian and overall Arab struggles existed; on the other hand, the established regimes in these Arab countries were doing everything in their power to help curb and undermine the Palestinian mass movement. The sharpening conflict in Palestine threatened to contribute to the development of the struggle in these countries in the direction of greater violence, creating a revolutionary potential that their respective ruling classes could not afford to overlook.
This is how Kanafani summarizes the role of neighboring Arab regimes. In addition to seeking reconciliation with British colonialism, Transjordan, for example, “closed the roads to Iraq to prevent any support arriving and restricted the movements of the Palestinian leaders” up to the point of arresting, “in 1939, two Palestinian leaders. One of them, Yusuf Abu Durrar, was handed over to the British whereupon he was executed.
The attitudes of Iraq and Saudi Arabia at that time were not much better than that of the Jordanian regime“, since they were ready “to use their influence with the Palestinian leaders to put an end to the revolt.”
Not much attention is needed to know that little has changed in relation to the Arab regimes. Behind the speeches in favor of the Palestinian cause lies a permanent action to prevent the Palestinian liberation. The key role of the Egyptian regime in the siege against Gaza; the dictatorship imposed against the Palestinians in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, preventing their free self-organization, self-defense and raids against Israeli forces on the borders of occupied Palestine; or the economic and trade cooperation with the Israeli capital are examples of everyday collaboration with the State of Israel.
The Zionist Enemy and Imperialism
There will not be enough space to report all Zionist crimes against Palestinians, which can be summed up into apartheid and ethnic cleansing, aiming to the complete colonization of Palestine.
However, the existence of the State of Israel can only be understood in the context of unconditional support of the United States, the major European countries and many other countries around the world. In addition to the multi-billion dollar military aid, generous trade agreements, unconditional diplomatic support and the wide media campaign to win hearts and minds to Israel, the U.S. government is implementing a comprehensive process of economic normalization, in cooperation with Arab regimes.
These changes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the regional framework of the Middle East. Over the last two decades, and particularly accelerating under the Bush administration, the US has pursued a policy of integrating its bases of support in the region within a single, neoliberal economic zone tied to the US through a series of bilateral trade agreements. This vision is aimed at promoting the free flow of capital and goods (but not necessarily labor) throughout the Middle East region. The region’s markets will be dominated by US imports, while cheap labor, concentrated in economic “free” zones owned by regional and international capital, will manufacture low-cost exports destined for markets in the US, the EU, Israel, and the Gulf.
A central component of this vision is the normalization and integration of Israel into the Middle East. The US envisions a Middle East resting upon Israeli capital in the West and Gulf capital in the East, underpinning a low-wage, neoliberal zone that spans the region. What this means is that Israel’s historic destruction of Palestinian national rights must be accepted and blessed by all states in the region. In the place of real Palestinian self-determination (first and foremost the right of return of refugees), a nominal artificial state will be established in the dependent islands of territory across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” [Adam Hanieh, Palestine in the Middle East: Opposing Neoliberalism and US Power]
The Role of Al-Qassam
Kanafani was not religious. Nevertheless, he did not prevent himself from being one of the first to highlight the role of Sheikh Izz al-Din Al-Qassam in the Palestinian resistance. Born in Syria, he participated in the revolt against French colonialism in Jabal al-Huran in 1919-1920 and was condemned to death. Graduated in Al-Azhar, the traditional Islamic university in Cairo, he defended a clandestine organization and an armed struggle to expel the British and the Zionist. His motto was “to die as martyrs.” Murdered by the British in 1935, his legacy was crucial to the Palestinian uprising. Kanafani wrote:
In any discussion on the 1936-1939 revolt, a special place must be reserved for Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam.
The Qassamist rising, sparked off by Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam, was the real 1936 revolt beginning.
There is no doubt that his movement (12th-19th November, 1935) represented a turning point for nationalist struggle and played an important role in the adoption of a more advanced form of struggle in confrontation with the traditional leadership which was divided and splintered in the face of the mounting struggle.
Until today, the so-called “West” is contaminated by the idea that all Arab struggles, whether class struggles or national liberation struggles, are an expression of deep and irrational Islamic religious fundamentalism of the Arab peoples. This Orientalist perspective -imperialist approach that seeks to portray the “East” as backward and uncivilized for their own colonial goals, as defined by the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said- does not find space in the analysis of Kanafani. Pointing to social exploitation and national oppression as engines of Palestinian revolt, he writes:
Thus, the class struggle became mixed, with extraordinary thoroughness, with national interest and religious feelings… In view of the social and economic oppression which was the lot of the poor Palestinian Arabs in the towns and villages, it was inevitable that the nationalist movement should assume advanced forms of struggle, adopt class slogans and follow a course of action based on class concepts. Similarly, faced with the firm and daily open alliance between the invading society built by the Jewish settlers in Palestine and the British colonialism, it was impossible to forget the primarily nationalist nature of this struggle. And in view of the terrible religious fervor on which the Zionist invasion of Palestine was based, and which was inseparable from all of its manifestations, it was impossible that the underdeveloped Palestinian countryside should not practice religious fundamentalism as a manifestation of hostility to the Zionist colonialist incursion.
The Role of the Communist Party
The contrast between the role of the Palestinian Communist Party and the Qassamist movement is evident. Kanafani briefly describes the role of the PCP at the time:
The Palestine Communist Party remained isolated from the political reality until the end of 1930, which was the year of its Seventh Congress. In the resolutions passed by the Congress, the Party admitted that it had <essentially adopted an erroneous attitude towards the issue of Palestinian nationalism, and the status of the Jewish national minority in Palestine and its role vis-a-vis the Arab masses. The Party has failed to become active among the Palestinian Arab masses and remained isolated by working exclusively among Jewish workers. Its isolation was illustrated by the Party’s negative attitude during the Palestinian Arab uprising of 1929.>
The Communist Party was close to the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Hussaini, whom they viewed as <belonging to the most extremely anti-imperialist wing of the nationalist movement>, while it regarded his enemies as <feudalist> traitors. And this in spite of the fact that Mufti’s group had absolutely no hesitation in liquidating leftist elements who tried to penetrate labour circles.
During the 1936 revolt, the Party split. There was also another essential split in 1948, and another one in 1965, for reasons connected with Arabization; the dissidents advocated a <constructive> attitude towards Zionism.”
The Communist Party played a negative role during key events: it characterized the Palestinian uprising of 1929 as a pogrom (persecution of Jews); it tail-ended the Mufti in 1936-39, and it ended up dividing repeatedly between a largely Palestinian wing and a Zionist wing. Behind their wrong and zigzagging orientation was the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, who during the formation of the state of Israel – the Palestinian Nakba, played a decisive role by providing a large amount of weapons through Czechoslovakia to Zionist militias which promoted a real ethnic cleansing. It is no coincidence that Kanafani himself calls the attention to these news in a Russian newspaper:
Nearly ten years later, on January 22, 1946, Izvestia dared to compare the <struggle of the Jews> in Palestine with the Bolshevik struggle before 1917.”
The absence of a coherent revolutionary party is a fact up to our days. Socialist organizations that were the left wing of the PLO -as the PFLP, the Democratic Front and the People’s Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party)- turned their backs to the revolutions in the Arab world that began in 2010 in Tunisia. Hamas already carries out a capitalist model in Gaza and defends an Islamic State in its founding statement, proposal that plays a divisive role among Palestinians weakening the struggle against the state of Israel. The need to build a coherent revolutionary alternative is still placed and it will have to be forged in the heat of the struggles for the liberation of Palestine.
Against the current of national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa and the overthrow of authoritarian regimes that followed the Second World War (1939-1945), imperialism was able to impose a racist state over the land of Palestine, seizing the world fair commotion around the Holocaust of the Jewish population in the hands of the Nazis and their allies.
The struggle of Palestinian people had another peak with the establishment of the PLO until Oslo accords. This struggle and today’s multifaceted resistance against the occupation, including the important global campaign of BDS, raises once again the matter of Palestine in the international agenda and in the hearts and minds of peoples across the world.
However, Palestinians still face the same powerful enemies that led to a defeat in 1936-9: the Palestinian bourgeoisie, the Arab regimes and the State of Israel and its imperialist sponsors.
At the same time, the true allies of the Palestinian cause are neither few nor weak. First and foremost, it is the Palestinian people who resists tenaciously to all forms of violence and sticks to their land and rights. As in 1936-9, when poor peasants, workers and intellectuals struggled to expel the British and the Zionist, today it’s the Palestinian workers and youth who challenge the Israeli occupation and its collaborators of the NPA [National Palestine Authority]. Second, there are the Arab peoples that carry remarkable revolutions that reinforce the struggle for Palestine and put their regimes -all of them directly or indirectly allied to the United States and therefore standing for normalization with the Zionist state- into question. Third, we have the Youth and working class across the world in struggle for their rights in their own countries, whose solidarity provides a strong support to the Palestinian cause.
I could not conclude without mentioning the anti-Zionist Jews. They are few within Palestine, but they are growing abroad. Among them, there are personalities like the historian Illan Pappé, which brought visibility to the ethnic cleansing carried out by Israel, and Mordechai Vanunu, who exposed internationally the development of nuclear weapons in Dimona in the Naqab Desert [Negev], in occupied Palestine, and converted to Christianity afterwards in prison. Although few, they show to the most exploited and concerned sectors of the Jewish population in the world that the only way to be consistent with the struggle carried out against the Nazi Holocaust on European soil is to oppose in each and every way to the murderous State that falsely promotes the daily massacre of the Palestinian people for over 60 years now, and in their names. A population that oppresses another one can never be free.
We are sure that the reader will enjoy this article by Ghassan Kanafani, and hopefully will join us in the struggle for a secular, democratic Palestine in its entire historical territory, where the Palestinian people can be reunited and live with everyone who accepts to live in peace with them, regardless of creed, race, gender or nationality.

Soraya Misleh

Master in Arab Language, Literature and Culture by University of Sao Paulo

São Paulo, November 29, 2014.

Translation: Fabio Bosco.

1Important poem of Arab Literature: http://www.barghouti.com/poets/darwish/bitaqa.asp

2Our translation.

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