After a long period of escalation over the Wailing Wall dispute, anti-Jewish riots broke out on 23 August 1929, when incited masses of Arabs attacked Jewish towns, settlements and neighborhoods all over Palestine. The attacks began in Jerusalem, Hebron and the surrounding areas. Further outbreaks occurred in the vicinity of Tel Aviv and Jaffa and spread to the south of the country. Next the violence broke out in the north, hitting the areas of Haifa, Acre, and Safed. It wasn’t until 4 September—almost two weeks later—that the British Government managed to overcome the rioters and impose some degree of law and order.

The Government’s delay in subduing the violence was due to the small number of British forces that were in place to defend the Yishuv. As there had been no large-scale violence since the riots of 1921, the British Government had drastically reduced its armed manpower in Palestine. As of 23 August there were only 171 British policemen in the whole of the country, while the military forces comprised no more than 9 officers, 79 soldiers, and 8 armored cars. The situation was compounded by the absence from the country of Sir John Chancellor, the British High Commissioner, and of the senior members of the Zionist Executive who were attending a congress in Zurich at the time.

Brigadier Dobbie, the British commander in charge of Palestine, realized that the scant forces he had were not nearly sufficient to overcome the Arab uprisings. At his request for reinforcements, half a regiment was sent from Cairo to Palestine on 24 August, and the other half arrived the next day. The soldiers hastened to Jaffa and Jerusalem, but the rioting was spinning out of control and more forces were sent from Cairo, this time to defend Haifa. Four days later the British were still unable to control the attacks, and two warships and a squadron of armored cars were sent to help, as well as another regiment from Malta. On 4 September the attacks were subdued and the emergency forces gradually left.

The lack of Mandatory forces and the need to wait for reinforcements took their toll. During the twelve days of fighting, the rioters had damaged 70% of all Jewish settlements. They had set fire to houses, partially destroying some while completely demolishing others. They had ruined whole crops and had stolen animals as well as equipment. Jews living in Arab neighborhoods in Jaffa and Jerusalem, as well as in Arab towns such as Ramla, Acre, and Gaza, completely abandoned their settlements. Other Jews left their houses temporarily, fearing another violent outbreak.

Heaviest of all was the toll in human life- on the Jewish side 133 died and 339 were injured, while the Arab side sustained 116 dead and some 232 injured. The worst attacks by far were on two “old Yishuv” (pre-1882) communities- Hebron, the oldest Jewish community in Palestine, lost 66 of its members; and in Safed, also a long-standing town, 20 Jews were killed. All in all, the 1929 riots were unprecedented in duration, geographical scope and damage. As a result of these heavy losses, the Jews of the Yishuv understood that they must work towards self-defense and no longer rely on the British forces.


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