It goes without saying that Palestinian Arabs were opposed to Zionism. But from the moment they mounted a concerted campaign to fight it, the Palestinians split into two warring camps, much to the benefit of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.
The mainstream camp, led by Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, could not reconcile itself to the Zionist project, whose ultimate goal was Jewish statehood. The accommodationist camp, which was identified with his bitter rival, the Nashashibi family, was pragmatic and open to coexistence with the Zionists, believing that they were simply too strong to be defeated.
This divergence of views had major ramifications. The accommodationists, largely consisting of regional leaders who had forged ties with the Yishuv and resented Husseini’s intransigent leadership, aided the Zionists politically, economically and even militarily. When nation-wide fighting broke out in November 1947 and escalated after five Arab armies invaded Israel in May 1948, two important developments occurred, both of which tilted the balance of power in favour of Jews.
First, relatively few Palestinian Arabs joined the armed struggle to throttle the Yishuv. Second, in violation of national leadership edicts, some Arab villages reached non-aggression pacts with their Jewish neighbours.
Not surprisingly, Palestinian scholars have glossed over this sensitive topic, and strangely enough, many Israeli historians have made light of it. Hillel Cohen, an Israeli research fellow at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University, tackles it head on in a path-blazing book, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration With Zionism, 1917-1948 (University of California Press).
Cohen is familiar with the broad terrain of the subject, having written two related books, The Present Absentee: Palestinian Refugees in Israel Since 1948 and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Service and the Israeli Arabs. Cohen’s current work, based on declassified Zionist, Arab and British archives, illuminates the issue.
As he points out, Zionist diplomacy only seriously began to consider relations with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine following the British occupation in 1917. Until then, the Zionist movement concentrated on cultivating ties with the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine, and currying favour with European powers such as Britain, Germany and France, which had vital interests in the Middle East and might be of help in furthering the Jewish cause in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government on Nov. 2, 1917, galvanized the Palestinians, prompting them to form nationalist organizations, mount anti-Zionist demonstrations and carry out attacks against Jews.
In response, Zionist leaders – spearheaded by Chaim Margaliot Kalvarisky, a land purchaser for the Jewish Colonization Association, and Col. Frederick Kisch, a retired British intelligence officer and head of the Zionist executive’s political department – devised a counter-strategy. Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, was also involved in this campaign.
Underpinned by the naive assumption that an authentic Arab national movement in Palestine did not exist, it sought to create a cooperative Palestinian leadership, deepen already existing fissures in Palestinian society by fomenting conflict between Christians and Muslims, and develop a cadre of Palestinian newspaper writers to laud the advantages of co-operation with Zionism.
The Palestinians who chose co-operation were driven by various motives. Some assumed that the Zionist movement was an arm of the British Mandate and, therefore, should be cultivated. Still other Palestinians, particularly land dealers and job seekers, were animated by personal gain. Palestinians who considered themselves nationalists but who were opposed to the Husseini leadership were also targeted by Zionist strategists. Palestinians who had Jewish friends and who were repelled by the violence of Palestinians also tended to favour co-operation.
With this in mind, Kalvarisky established the Muslim National Associations, a loose network of Palestinian political parties. But the concept did not work, and after more than a decade, he abandoned the idea altogether.
Playing on old animosities, Zionists courted Bedouin tribes, which at first did not identify with the Palestinians. Indeed, some Bedouins regarded the Palestinian national movement as a threat.
Efforts to recruit the Druze of Mount Carmel were undertaken as well. Officially, the Druze community remained neutral, but in practice, Druze fighters drifted into both the Jewish and Arab camps. As for Christians, they played a marginal role in developments.
Zionists tried to shape Arab public opinion by subsidizing Palestinian newspapers in Jaffa and Jerusalem and by recruiting writers who would sing the praises of Arab-Jewish co-operation and brotherhood. But as Cohen suggests, this strategy was only partially successful.
Since land purchase was a key objective of the Yishuv, Zionist agents cast their gaze at Palestinian landowners, such as the Abu Ghosh family, and absentee Arab landlords residing in neighbouring countries.
Palestinian nationalists tried to block these transactions by various means. Yet by 1948, the Zionist movement had succeeded in buying seven per cent of the land in Palestine.
Palestinians bitterly opposed to such transactions did not sit quietly. In 1925, the first fatwa forbidding the sale of land to Jews was issued. But as Cohen observes, it was left to the British to impose effective restrictions on land sales.
On another front, the Zionist movement tried to recruit Palestinian public figures and informers. The first Palestinian Arab accused of collaboration, a village elder from the Mt. Hebron area, was murdered in 1929. The mayor of Haifa, Hasan Shukri, a symbol of coexistence, survived an attempt on his life.
The Zionist movement attempted to forge economic links with the Palestinians, since they constituted a natural market for goods produced in the Jewish sector. But with the 1929 riots, the Arab Executive Committee declared an economic boycott, calling on Palestinian consumers to buy solely Arab products.
Shortly after the United Nations passed the 1947 Palestine partition resolution, the Higher Arab Committee, headed by the Husseini clan, issued a declaration urging Palestinians to continue the boycott and “to consider any connection with (Jews) as a severe crime and a great betrayal.”
Arabs were strongly urged to take up arms and fight for the homeland. Yet during the 1948 war, the majority of able-bodied Palestinian men did not heed that call. In some cases, village elders refused to allow Arab fighters to deploy in their villages.
As the war raged, Arab informers provided Zionist intelligence operatives with valuable political and military information, Arabs turned over British police stations to Zionist forces and Arab merchants sold food to Jews.
It was also not uncommon for Palestinian Arabs to sell weapons to the Zionist side. These arms merchants sold their wares to the Haganah and the more militant Etzel and Lehi militias, their only motive being profit, Cohen says.
Israel won the War of Independence due to a number of compelling factors, notably superior military organization and higher morale.
But as Cohen notes, covert Palestinian co-operation with the Zionist movement was certainly a contributing factor in Israel’s seminal victory.