The Palestinian National Revival: In the Shadow of the Leadership Crisis, 1937-1967

The Palestinian National Revival: In the Shadow of the Leadership Crisis, 1937-1967

by Moshe Shemesh


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Former Israeli intelligence officer Moshe Shemesh offers a fresh understanding of the complex history and politics of the Middle East in this new analysis of the Palestinian national movement. Shemesh looks at the formative years of the movement that emerged following the 1948 War and traces the leaders, their objectives, and their weaknesses, fragmentation, and conflicts with their neighbors. He follows the formation of the Sons of Nakba, the establishment of Fatah, the reframing of Jordan as analogous with the Palestinian cause, and the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its new expression of nationalism until the 1967 War. With unprecedented access to Arabic sources, Shemesh provides new perspectives on inter-Arab politics and the history of the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253036599
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/12/2018
Series: Perspectives on Israel Studies
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Moshe Shemesh is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute. He is author of Arab Politics, Palestinian Nationalism, and the Six Day War: The Crystallization of Arab Strategy and Nasir's Descent to War, 1957-1967.

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En Route to a Crisis of Leadership

The 1930s through World War II

Characteristics of the Crisis — 1937 to 1948

A core issue in discussions of the role and influence of Palestinians in relation to the crisis between Israel and the Arab states during the years 1948–49 is the absence of a Palestinian leadership with the authority and political sway necessary to advance and steer the Palestinian cause. There was no leadership capable of making executable decisions in all matters relating to the future of the Palestinian problem and Palestinian territories or recognized by Arab states and the inter- national community as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Where was the Palestinian leadership during the critical crisis of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (hereinafter, the 1948 war) and the regional crisis that occurred in its aftermath, when the term "Filastin" (Palestine) disappeared from the geo- political map of the Middle East? How did this leadership lose its standing to such an extent that it had no discernable influence on even the most crucial matters relating to the future of the Palestinian cause and fate of the Palestinians? How did it happen that decisions regarding the Palestinian people and Palestinian territories were in fact made by Arab states?

One cannot understand the circumstances and standing of the Palestinian leadership during and even before the 1948 war without first reviewing the crises it underwent beginning in the early 1930s, which were actually Mufti Haj Amin al-Husayni's glory days as leader of the Palestinian national movement. This was a leadership in a perpetual state of crisis, although it appeared to be stable because it was headed by the Husayni family, with the mufti at the helm.

The Arab states — first and foremost Egypt and Jordan — began to play an increasingly important role in shaping the struggle of the Palestinian national movement and, after World War II, in determining the composition of its leadership and the future of the Palestinian territories that remained under the control of Arab states. As a consequence, the Palestinians had no role in the armistice agreements between Arab states and Israel (with Egypt — February 3, 1949; Lebanon — March 23, 1949; Jordan — April 3, 1949 and Syria — July 20, 1949). This absence of Palestinian representatives from the armistice talks made it easier for Israel to conduct negotiations with Jordan regarding the future of territories under the latter's control and a possible agreement under which the West Bank would be annexed by and become part of the kingdom of Jordan. Indeed, at the time there was no Palestinian leader or institution with the authority and legitimate standing to participate in negotiations with Israel.

Arab States' Commitment to Resolution of the Palestinian Problem

In contrast to the prevailing opinion among Western and Palestinian researchers, which holds that Arab states appropriated the Palestinian issue from the Palestinians, Arab involvement in shaping the Palestinian cause steadily increased because, in fact, the Palestinian leadership itself requested and encouraged it. The leadership's need for Arab involvement stemmed from its own weakness and inability to cope with challenges posed by the Zionist movement and British government and from crises triggered by its chronic state of division. The ever-increasing Arab involvement generated a parallel process of commitment to provide assistance to the Palestinians, a process that culminated in the Arab military invasion of the newly established state of Israel on May 14, 1948. This process was described by Bayan al-Hut as a transformation of the Palestinian problem into an Arab problem ('urubat al-ma'raka wa 'urubat al-qadiyya), as manifested after 1948 when the Palestinian problem became a facet of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas previously it had been an Arab-Palestinian versus Jewish-Zionist issue.

The origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict, accordingly, lies in the Arab involvement with and commitment to Palestine that actually preceded the 1948 war and benefited the Palestinian national movement. The 1948 Palestinian exodus known as the Nakba was, in fact, an Arab Nakba just as much as it was Palestinian, and long after 1948 it continued to be perceived as such. Indeed, the Arab commitment to resolution of the Palestinian problem grew stronger with the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict after the Nakba and the transformation of the Arabs into a primary and active party to this conflict. Nothing could substitute for this Arab support, and it became an integral aspect of the evolution of the new Palestinian national movement that emerged in January 1965 in the form of fida'i (guerrilla) organizations.

The Dominant Husayni Influence on the Leadership of the Palestinian National Movement

From its emergence in the 1920s through the end of the British Mandate era, the Husayni family, headed by Haj Amin al-Husayni, was the manifestly dominant influence in the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. This leadership remained in place despite the decline in the mufti's status after he fled the country in 1937, and its standing remained generally intact despite the crises it faced beginning in the 1930s. Consequently, and given the weakness of the opposition, the continuity and decisive influence of the Husaynis' leadership succeeded in forestalling the emergence of an alternative, rival leadership, even with the mufti's absence from Filastin during 1937–1946. This prolonged crisis of leadership was one of the main reasons that the Palestinian movement failed to achieve its aims. The crisis enabled King 'Abdulla to annex the West Bank to his kingdom, thereby also sealing the fate of the Gaza Strip — that part of Filastin that remained under Egyptian control.

The Palestinian Leadership's Expectations and Demands versus Its Ability

A vast gap existed between the expectations and demands of the Palestinian leadership, on the one hand, and its ability to achieve them, on the other. Specifically, the Palestinians demanded that the Balfour Declaration be revoked, that Jewish immigration to Palestine be halted, that independent Palestinian rule be established over the entire territory of the mandate, and that the sale of lands to Jews be ceased.

The Palestinian leadership operated with a sense of frustration and disappointment, including vis-à-vis Arab states. Thus, paradoxically, it became even more entrenched in its extremist positions, which were characterized by absolute rejection of any compromise or accurate portrayal of political reality. With the support of Palestinian opposition, Arab states made efforts to soften the mufti's position, even as a tactical matter, but these efforts bore no fruit. The extremism of the leadership's positions became more than a means to achieve the national objectives of the Palestinian national movement; it became an end in itself: "The negative [stances] would inevitably lead to a decision that would result in confrontation and entrenchment (mujabaha wa-sumood)." Consequently, armed confrontation (with the British and with the Jewish population of Palestine) became unavoidable.

Frustrated and unable to achieve its national objectives through political means — in contrast to the successes of the Zionist movement and the British government's adherence to the objectives of the mandate — the Palestinian national movement across nearly all of its factions turned toward violent, armed struggle, at times infused with a religious Islamic dimension, in pursuit of its objectives. This Palestinian struggle peaked with the 1936–39 revolt.

The Nakba gained historic significance when the state of Israel was founded despite expectations of the Palestinian leadership and Arab states. It grew in significance when the new state succeeded in militarily defeating the Arab states that had forcibly tried to prevent its establishment.

The Absence of Palestinian Governing Institutions

During the British Mandate era, the Palestinian leadership, in contrast to the Zionist movement, never established any governing entities that could serve as institutions for a state in the making. The leadership opposed on principle the formation of institutions for self-government in cooperation with Jewish representative bodies operating on the basis of the Balfour Declaration and the charter of the mandate. For example, the Palestinian leadership objected to the establishment of a legislative council as proposed by the British government in 1923 and later in 1935. In October 1923, the British high commissioner recommended to a delegation of Palestinian leaders headed by Kazim al-Husayni, chairman of the Palestinian Executive Committee, that an "Arab Agency" be established along the lines of the Jewish Agency. Kazim al-Husayni categorically rejected the proposal, arguing against "setting up an Arab Agency in the model of the Jewish Agency, [which would] make our status equal to that of the Zionists, by giving us this present." Palestinian negotiators had already rejected proposals for a legislative council and an advisory council that would have had much greater authority than the proposed agency and whose composition would have reflected the Arab majority in Palestine. Evidently, the Palestinian leadership was concerned that acceptance of this proposal would be interpreted as recognition of the Jewish Agency and legal approval of its existence, and therefore as recognition of the Jews' rights over Palestine. In contrast, the leadership of the Palestinian national movement did have institutional bodies that served as representatives of the Arab-Palestinian population before the British government and directed the movement's struggle.

The Mufti Joins the Axis Powers

The mufti's affiliation with the Axis powers and his strong interest in assisting Nazi Germany in its war against the Allies played an important part in shaping the attitude of Arab states toward him and in determining his standing in the international arena during the critical years of the Palestinian struggle after World War II. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the entry for Muhammad Amin al-Husayni in the Palestinian encyclopedia (Al-Mawsu'a al-Filastiniyya) completely ignores the period of the mufti's stay in Nazi Germany as well as his ties with it during World War II.

The mufti's collaboration with Nazi Germany was, in effect, a gamble whose negative impact could not be prevented by the Palestinian national movement or its leader. At the same time, the Palestinian public, who were in general politically opposed to the Allies, did not penalize the mufti or view his activities as a reason to depose him. Indeed, the public waited eagerly for the German army to arrive in Palestine, and it cheered for Rommel when he reached the outskirts of Egypt.

The Arab League and the Mufti: A Severe Crisis of Confidence

The mufti returned from exile in 1946 to lead the Palestinian national movement, at a time when the Filastin problem had become the central issue on the agenda of the newly formed Arab League, established in 1945. Its establishment granted Iraq and Jordan special importance with respect to the Palestinian issue, as Article 7 of the Arab League Charter gave each Arab state the right to veto its resolutions. Thus a Hashemite front was created, which opposed the mufti and played a decisive role in discussions regarding the Filastin question. This front further compounded the hostility of the Arab League toward the mufti and the league's nearly automatic rejection of any demand he posed. As the Filastin problem became increasingly central, so too hostility toward the mufti increased and with it the need for greater Arab involvement.

Opposition to the mufti and objection to the Palestinian national movement on the part of Jordan and Iraq had the effect of weakening the Palestinian leadership and undermining its importance and standing, in particular the status of the mufti. In fact, the mufti was not actively included in any political or military process undertaken by the Arab League regarding the Filastin question during the years following World War II. Consequently, the mufti's status also declined significantly in the international arena.

Institutions of the Palestinian National Movement: 1920–34

Until the collapse of King Faysal's government in Damascus (July 24, 1920), political activists in the Arab community of Palestine tended to view Filastin as part of Syria, specifically as "southern Syria." Palestinian figures even participated in the Syrian General Congress that took place in Damascus in 1919 as representatives of southern Syria. The collapse of Faysal's government and abandonment of the idea of southern Syria, alongside establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine, obliged local political activists to begin setting up Palestinian institutions to lead the national struggle, while also relying on existing institutions, salient among which were the Muslim-Christian Associations founded in 1918.

During the mandate era there were four national institutions through which members of the Palestinian leadership operated and in whose name most political resolutions relating to the Palestinian national movement were officially published: the Palestinian Arab Congress (al-Mu'tamar al-'Arabi al-Filastini); the Executive Committee (al-Lajna al-Tanfidhiyya), which was elected by the congress; the Arab Higher Committee (AHC; al-Lajna al-'Arabiyya al-'Ulya), which replaced the Executive Committee; and the Arab Higher Hay'a ("Authority"; al-Hay'a al-'Arabiyya al-'Ulya). This book uses the term "Arab Higher Hay'a," or "hay'a," in order to distinguish it from its predecessor, the Arab Higher Committee, or AHC.

Another important institution was the Supreme Muslim Council (al-Majlis al-Islami al-A'la), headed by the mufti. This council did not succeed in becoming a countrywide leadership body, as it was a government body appointed and funded by the high commissioner. Indeed, it was a tool in the mufti's hands to reinforce his standing.

In all, a total of seven Palestinian Arab congresses were held, with the last one taking place in June 1927. The First Palestinian Arab Congress (al-Mu'tamar al-'Arabi al-Filastini al-'Awal) took place in Jerusalem from January 27 to February 9, 1919, with twenty-seven delegates representing various regions and cities of Filastin. The congress was held in the framework of the concept of "Filastin– southern Syria."

With respect to the Second Palestinian Arab Congress, there are a number of versions regarding its timing and actual occurrence. 'Izzat Darwaza writes in his memoirs that it was "decided to hold the second congress in Jerusalem in May 1920 to protest the confirmation of the British Mandate over Palestine and the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration in the instrument of the Mandate at the San Remo Conference [in April 1920]. However, the Palestine government forbade its convening." Yehoshua Porath accepts this version, which was further affirmed by Bayan Nuwayhid al-Hut. Her conclusion was that the British authorities succeeded in erasing all traces of what was supposed to be the second congress.

The Third Palestinian Arab Congress took place December 13–19, 1920, in Haifa. A total of thirty-one delegates participated in the first session, out of forty-six expected participants. The congress was presented as the representative body for the entire Palestinian population in Filastin, and Amin al-Husayni participated actively in its discussions. Musa Kazim al-Husayni was elected as chairman of the congress.

The congress decided that every time it convened, it would elect an Executive Committee composed of nine members and tasked with implementation of the congress's resolutions. Additionally, Kazim al-Husayni was elected as chairman of the Executive Committee, which in turn became the leading body of the Palestinian national movement and struggle.

The congress also approved a charter for Filastin based on "rejection of the Balfour Declaration, rejection of Jewish immigration, rejection of the sale of land to Jews, and the establishment of an independent constitutional national government." It demanded that the British government "establish a native (wataniyya) government responsible to a representative assembly (majlis niyaabi), whose members would be chosen from the populace that was Arabic-speaking and had resided in Palestine before the [First World] War." Muslih concludes, "The Palestinian Arab nationalist movement had for the first time defined its objectives, from both an ideological and organizational perspective, in distinct Palestinian terms."


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Copyright © 2018 Moshe Shemesh.
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Table of Contents


Aims and Scope

Part I

The Leadership Crisis of the Palestinian National Movement, 1937–1963:

The Decline from Power of Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husayni

  1. En Route to a Crisis of Leadership: The 1930s through World War II

  2. Return of the Mufti and Increased Arab Involvement in the Filastin Issue

  3. The All-Palestine Government, September 1948: Historical Failure of Leadership or Default Option?

  4. The Palestinians in the Absence of Leadership, 1949–1963

Part II

National Revival:

The 1950s as the Formative Years of the New Palestinian National Movement

  1. The Nakba Generation

  2. The "Sons of the Nakba" Generation: Emergent Leadership of the New Palestinian National Movement

  3. Manifestations of the Palestinian National Awakening: The Arab Nationalists Movement, Fatah, the Ba'th Party, and the General Union of Palestinian Students

  4. The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip under the Egyptian Government

Part III

The West Bank Palestinians under Hashemite Rule:

The "Palestinization" Process in the Shadow of Egyptian Subversion and Influence

  1. The Palestinians under the Hashemite Regime

  2. First Crisis: Aftermath of the IDF Raid on Qibya

  3. Second Crisis: In the Shadow of Egyptian Subversion – December 1955–April 1957

  4. The Crisis of April 1963: West Bank Palestinians and the Revival of a Palestinian Entity

  5. The Palestinians of Jordan, 1965–1966: Between Shuqayri, Husayn, and the Emergence of Fatah

  6. The Crisis of November 1966: The Aftermath of the IDF Raid on Samu'

Part IV

Ahmad al-Shuqayri: Between the Arab Hammer and Palestinian Anvil, 1964–1967

A Predictable Failure of Leadership and the Peak of a Leadership Crisis

  1. Ahmad al-Shuqayri's Path to PLO Leadership

  2. The Struggle over Leadership of the PLO: Emergence of Fatah and Decline in Shuqayri's Status, 1965-1966

  3. The Leadership Crisis Escalates: June 1966–May 1967

  4. Shuqayri: The End of the Road – June–December 1967




What People are Saying About This

Donna Robinson Divine

"The web of relationships woven by Palestinians—leaders and ordinary subjects of regimes that felt embattled and weak---was extraordinarily complicated and often changed as swiftly as did the regimes. Moshe Shemesh unravels these complexities and all students of the Middle East, no matter their background, will benefit."

Avi Shlaim

"This impressive book reflects a lifetime of immersion in Palestinian history, and as a result, throws a great deal of new light on many aspects of Palestinian society and politics. Moshe Shemesh adds new facts and insights to virtually every major episode in the forty-year period he covers."

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