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Excerpt from A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, 1920-1925, Sahar Huneidi, Library of Modern Middle East Studies 15, I.B. Tauris, 2001.

herbert_samuelThe Wahhabi Movement In Palestine (1922-1925)

During the latter part of Samuel’s administration, some Palestinian leaders began to turn for help to the Wahhabi Ikhwan movement coming from Najd. Samuel frequently referred in his dispatches to the ‘Wahhabi threat’. At the beginning of 1922 the Wahhabis began to push outward from Najd in all directions,53 a movement which alarmed Samuel because of its potential consequences for the future of the Jewish national home. The earliest mention of Wahhabism in Palestine came in the high commissioner’s ‘Political Report’ for February 1922. Samuel wrote that the Muslim population were showing increasing interest in the affairs of Egypt, Transjordan, Mecca, Iraq and India, as well as the question of the caliphate. The rumours that Medina held a favourable attitude to Ibn Sa’ud’ did not escape their notice’. There was even ‘reason to believe that a missionary movement of the peaceful penetration sort is going on in Palestine in favour of Ibn Saud’, adding that any considerable success of his in Central Arabia or the Hijaz would naturally have ‘profound repercussion in Palestine’.54

By June 1922, the Wahhabi movement was more frequently discussed in Palestine, with approval in some quarters, and apprehension in others. The tone of the Arabic press was increasingly anti-British, and Samuel reported that after repeated warnings, the paper Lisan al-‘Arab, which supported the movement, had been suspended for a month.55 In July 1922, after a two-day visit to Amman, Samuel informed the secretary of state for colonies that Ibn Sa’ud had just despatched one hundred camels to Jawf, an area which was the subject of dispute between Ibn Sa’ud and Amir ‘Abdallah of Transjordan. He added- ‘Danger to Palestine if Wahibism [sic]spread to Trans Jordania needs to emphasis from me…the movement is being closely watched.’ Further more, he urged the colonial secretary to ‘clearly’ inform Ibn Sa’ud that his sphere of influence ‘must not embrace Trans-Jordania’.56 The governor of Jaffa also reported in July 1922 (following Churchill’s White Paper) that Wahhabi tendencies were penetrating the country and that Ibn Sa’ud was ‘regarded as one to whom the people can look for help in the future’.57 Another secret cable from Samuel, on 15 August, informed the Colonial Office that Wahhabis had attacked two villages in Transjordan and that ‘Abdallah had begged for immediate assistance. Samuel gave instructions to his generals to take immediate action any time on receipt of a request from Transjordan.58 One month later, in a secret despatch on the political situation, he wrote to Churchill that the most important political event in Transjordan was the Wahhabi raid of 15 September.

In the same context, he reported that Kamil al-Budayri, ex-editor of the Palestinian paper al-Sabah, had been to Najd, passing through Amman, Kerak and Ma’an, and that he apparently considered himself, and was generally considered, as ‘an emissary of the Palestine Arabs to Ibn Saud for the purpose of inducing the latter to support them in their efforts to bring about the breakdown of the Zionist policy in Palestine’. According to the same report, Budayri did not see Amir ‘Abdallah or any of the top ranking officials, but he did succeed in persuading Awda Abu Tayih 59 to despatch a threatening letter to King Hussein of the Hijaz, to the effect that if the latter and Amir ‘Abdallah’ coud not help the Palestine Arabs, these would turn to the Wahabis for help’. Kamil al-Budayri was further reported to be in communication with the Arab Executive Committee. The high commissioner concluded that the matter had been ‘wisely’ settled by Amir ‘Abdallah, who had arrested Abu Tayih and brought him to Amman on a charge of ‘insubordination and disloyalty’. Samuel added- ‘The action taken in this case by His Highness appears to afford good evidence of the correctness of attitude which His Highness has hitherto assumed towards questions directly or indirectly affecting the political situation in Palestine.’60

More reports on the Wahhabi question followed from other sources. A secret report prepared in September 1922 by W.F. Stirling, governor of Jaffa District, revealed that there had recently been much discussion going on among ‘sincere’ Muslims as to the political advantages that could be gained by ‘preparing the minds of the people of Palestine to accept the Wahabite Creed’. Although it was accepted that the rigid principles of this creed would not be willingly accepted among the people of Palestine, Arab leaders, who were anxious to seek ‘some way out’, advocated Wahhabism in order to ‘avoid European domination and the imposition of the hated Balfour Declaration’. Two solutions presented themselves to the Arab leaders- either to seek help from the victorious Turkish Army, or from Ibn Sa’ud, ‘who with his fanatical followers may be considered the spearhead of Pan-Islamism’. According tot eh same report, a certain Adib Sarraj, a teacher, had been preaching in the Jaffa mosque a doctrine ‘closely resembling that of Wahabism’, and attracted a ‘very large following’ especially among the lower classes. Stirling had ordered him to return to his native Jerusalem.61 At the end of 1922, Ibn Sa’ud, the traditional enemy of the Hashemites, threatened Faisal iin Iraq, and ‘Abdallah in Transjordan. Consequently, the British met at the port of al-‘Uqayr and imposed upon Ibn Sa’ud a frontier agreement defining boundaries between Saudi Arabia and Iraq (and Kuwait).62

However, in 1923, Wahhabi attacks were resumed, threatening Amman at one point with a big force of camel mounted warriors.63 Samuel thus strongly urged the colonial secretary to seek an immediate settlement of the disputed frontiers between Ibn Sa’ud and Amir ‘Abdallah. He feared that Ibn Sa’ud, and the Wahhabi influence which he represented, was coming nearer and nearer to Palestine. The Wahhabis were now firmly established in Jawf, and were pushing gradually up the Wadi Sirhan to Kaf, posing a serious threat to Transjordan, and hence to Palestine.64 But the colonial secretary, the Duke of Devonshire, was reluctant to take any ‘pre-mature action’ with regard to boundary questions, unless there was an immediate threat of armed invasion on the part of Ibn Sa’ud; it was furthermore preferable, in his opinion, to postpone discussion of the Najd-Transjordan frontier until the political situation in Arabia became more clear. Devonshire wrote to Samuel that the spread of Wahhabi influence was likely to proceed ‘independently of political frontiers’, and noted that no political settlement would be effective in controlling the religious opinions of the nomad tribes.65

Throughout 1923 and 1924, the Wahhabi menace continued to preoccupy the mandatory authorities. In May 1923, E.T. Richmond, the assistant political secretary, wrote a brief note to the chief secretary, Wyndham Deedes, entitled ‘Wahabi Movement’, in which he raised a number of questions, without giving any comments. Among other questions, he asked- ‘Are the Wahabis successfully proselytizing? Has Auda abu Taiyeh turned Wahabi? Is his tribe going that way? Is there a large concentration of Wahabis north of Jawf? Is there any real probability of Wahabi hostilities?’66

More than a year later, it appears that the Wahhabit threat was still causing Samuel considerable anxiety. A secret dispatch from the Air Ministry to the under secretary of state for the Colonial Office reported that the high commissioner for Palestine had telegraphed tot eh Air Ministry, commenting on the fact that ‘H.M. Government have not rebuked the Sultan of Nejd for the attack upon Trans-Jordan in August last.’ The Air Council concurred that a protest should be made to Ibn Sa’ud.67 Ronald Storrs reported in October 1924 that it was ‘rumoured’ that a number of politically minded young Arabs had ‘betaken’ themselves to Ibn Sa’ud, and that they were well received by him.68

In October 1924, G.F. Clayton, chief political officer in Palestine, wrote from Jerusalem that Sultan Ibn Sa’ud ‘has been warned that any unprovoked attack on Trans-Jordan will be repelled, as was the recent raid upon Amman’. The sultan was also informed that the British government regarded Transjordan territory as extending as far as Mudawwara in the south.69 Throughout 1924-25 the movement seems to have been checked. From Samuel’s despatches for the same period there is no evidence that eh Wahhabi threat to Palestine continued much beyond 1924.70 This was despite the continued advance of Ibn Sa’ud inside Arabia and his final conquest of the Hijaz in December 1925.

The Arab Agency

In the political reports for the period 1924-5, the district governors, in sharp contrast to earlier documents often remarked that there was little or nothing of political interest to report.71 In his own annual report Samuel wrote in January 1924 that the Arabs were subsiding toward ‘their usual attitude of placid acceptance’ while the Jews forged ahead with enormous energy.72 Between 1920 and 1925 the Jewish community in Palestine doubled its size, and the number of settlements rose from 44 in 1918 to 100 in 1925.73

On the British side, the Arab Agency advocated by the Cabinet Committee on Palestine in July 1923 was the last measure the British government was willing to take which would offer the Arabs a means to ‘participate in the country’s development’, albeit subject to the control of the administration.74 In October 1923, Devonshire wrote to Samuel that the numerous representations made on behalf of the Arab community showed that he special position accorded to the Jewish Agency, recognized under Article 4 of the mandate, was a general object of complaint. He added, to the extent that it was possible to argue, that ‘the existing arrangements fall short of securing complete equality between the differing communities’, and to remove this feeling, that the alternative was ‘to accord similar privilege to an Arab agency’. Devonshire went on to say-

His Majesty’s Government are accordingly prepared to favour the establishment of an Arab agency in Palestine, which will occupy a position exactly analogous to that accorded to the Jewish agency under Article 4 of the Mandate, i.e., it will be recognized as a public body, for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the interests of the non-Jewish population, and subject to the control of the administration, of assisting and taking part in the development of the country. As regards immigration (Article 6 of the Mandate), the Arab agency will have the right to be consulted as to the means of ensuring that the rights and position of other (i.e. non-Jewish) sections of the population are not prejudiced. With regard to public works, it will be entitled to be consulted by the Administration in the same way as the Jewish agency is to be consulted under the terms of Article 11 of the Mandate.

The question of immigration was of ‘primary importance’- on the one hand, a Jewish national home was to be established by making facilities for the admission of jewish settlers, while, on the other, the proper regulation of immigration and ‘its strict correlation to the exonomic capacity of the country to absorb new inhabitants’, were matters of ‘vital concern’ to the people of Palestine as a whole. For this reason, he wrote, the previous government had recognized that the matter was one in which the views of the Arab community ‘were entitled to special consideration’, in which the views of the Arab community ‘were entitled to special consideration’, and accordingly he proposed that the high commissioner should be required to ‘confer on all matters relating to immigration with a standing committee of elected members of the Legislative Council (the majority of whom would be Arabs)’ and that in the event of any differences of opinion the question should be referred to the secretary of state. Provision to this effect was formally embodied in Article 84 of the constitution of Palestine (the Palestine Order-in-Council 1922). But since no legitimate council had been elected, and the committee never came into existence, it was proposed that the Arab Agency should ‘take its place for the purposes of the functions indicated in article 84 of the order’. The composition of the Arab Agency, Devonshire added, was to be left to the discretion of the high commissioner. He would nominate suitable persons, both Muslim and Christian, in consultation with local leaders. The colonial secretary authorized Samuel to take such steps as were necessary to approach the representatives of the Arabs of Palestine and to invite their acceptance of the policy outlined above.75

When, on 11 October 1923, Samuel invited twenty-six notables to Government House and formally presented them with the proposal for the Arab Agency, Musa Kazim al-Husseini, after a brief interval for consideration, spoke on behalf of all present, and informed Samuel that they could not accept the proposal as it fell short of demands of the Arab population.76 Although the Arab Agency was to be nominated by the high commissioner (needless to say, the Jewish Agency was not nominated by him), and although it was made clear that the immigration policy would only be discussed subject to an ‘agreed settlement to which both parties are prepared to adhere’, in retrospect, the Palestine Arabs may have lost an opportunity of having at least some say in the policy of the Jewish national home. The Zionists themselves were suspicious of the proposal for the Arab Agency and gave no encouragement to it. Moreover, Samuel had already hinted that if his idea was accepted in principle, he was ready to discuss the possibility of electing the members rather than nominating them.77 Nevertheless, the Palestine Arabs were by that time highly suspicious of Samuel and made the worst assumptions about his motives, and they were in no mood for compromise. The Colonial Office instructed Samuel, on 12 October 1923, to break off negotiations with the Arabs and to administer the country without their consent or ‘assistance’.78

Darwazeh wrote that the Arab Agency was another attempt on Samuel’s part to ‘set a trap’ for the Arabs. The idea of placing the Palestine Arabs on the same footing as the Jews by merely providing them with an Arab Agency was seen as a ‘new trick’ on the part of the administration. To them, accepting the Arab Agency would have meant, according to Darwazeh, that they, who formed the vast majority of the population, had accepted a minority status, and being treated as a minority group in their own country. It has often been alleged that the negative attitude of the Arabs towards the administration, and their rejection of the Legislative Council, the second Advisory Cou8ncil and the Arab Agency caused them to lose many opportunities to obtain a say in their own affairs. Darwazeh writes that these allegations had been made as early as 1922 and had weakened the Arab movement by causing dissension in its ranks. He pointed out that British-Jewish propaganda played a significant part and thus contributed to the weakening of the movement. He explains-

The Arab nationalist movement was then very strong, while the Zionist movement was weak; barely able to pull itself together. The Legislative and the Advisory Councils were based on the Balfour Declaration and on the Mandate, and possessed to real powers in the spheres of legislation and administration. They had no right to discuss any subject that would even question the basis of their policy, and so it was impossible, under the circumstances, to accept such a setting. The legislative Council was also a useless body in terms of subject and scope.79

Some recent scholars have agreed with this point of view. McTague, for instance, notes that it was often argued that the Palestinians were ‘obstinate’ and did not try to work within the administration, and that if they had agreed to the Palestine Order-in-Council they would have obtained a say in the government. He concludes that this is a ‘silly’ line of reasoning because it completely ignores the composition of the Order-in-Council- it was drawn up so as to exclude the possibility of the Arabs gaining control of the policy of the administration. Had they cooperated with the administration, the result would have been mass resignation and frustration, and, under the circumstances, the Arabs’ course of action ‘was the best one they could have chosen’.80 Moreover, the Arab leaders feared that accepting the Arab Agency would be interpreted as a recognition of the status of the Jewish Agency in the mandate, the article in the mandate which recognized the Jewish Agency being one of the articles most hated by the Arabs.81 The governor of Jerusalem reported in October 1923 that rejection of the Arab Agency was so widespread that the Arab Executive Committee had in fact ‘derived very little credit or prestige from its rejection’.82

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