Pappe reassesses legacy of Palestinian dynasty

Asa Winstanley | The Electronic Intifada | Thursday, September 8, 2011 – 15:51

Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and dissident living in semi-voluntary exile in the UK. He is most famous for The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, a seminal work which, although based on his own research, was more original for the sweep of its historical narrative rather than any groundbreaking new findings. It was a widely influential work in that it convinced people around the world that “ethnic cleansing” is the phrase that most accurately describes what Zionist militias did to the Palestinians in the course of the 1947-48 Nakba (Catastrophe).

Pappe’s latest book The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty, only appeared in this English translation last year; it first appeared in Hebrew in 2002.

The Rise and Fall is a political biography of the Husaynis: an aristocratic Palestinian family that dominated the Palestinian political scene in both the Ottoman and British Mandate periods. While Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the leader of the Palestinian national movement during the Mandate period, is probably the most famous, there are a host of other interesting figures here. They include Jamal al-Husayni, foreign minister in the “All-Palestine Government,” the first ever declared “state of Palestine” in October 1948 (340); Musa Kazim al-Husayni, Ottoman functionary and mayor of Jerusalem from 1918-20; and Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, the famous Palestinian guerrilla warfare leader and son of Muza Kazim.

In explaining the renown of Abd al-Qadir in Palestinian collective memory, Pappe quotes the following highly poetic account of his birth from a work in Arabic titled The Mother Palestine and her Noble Son Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini: “The sun entered the alleys of Jerusalem and lighted its streets, and in that month in 1910, in the neighborhood of the Husaynis, was heard the cry of a newborn baby. It filled the air of the holy city and blended with the ringing of church bells and the muezzins’ musical call — it was the voice of the heroic warrior Abd al-Qadir Musa al-Husayni” (145).

A primary strength of the book is Pappe’s fluency in Arabic, which allows him to make wide use of original sources, along with Palestinian and other Arab historiography — especially from the Ottoman era. The sections on the various Palestinian peasant uprisings against the Ottoman Empire (1824) and later Egyptian rule (1834) make for highly enjoyable reading (pp 60-77).

Effects of Zionism go unexplained

The pace sags somewhat during the account of the Ottoman reform period. A bigger problem here is a lack of explanation as to what Zionism meant for Palestinian peasant farmers (the fellahin) in practice during the late 19th century.

Pappe does analyze the duplicity of some of the notable Palestinians, including some Husaynis, who sold land to the Zionist movement (e.g. Rabah al-Husayni, 118). But the reader learns nothing about the all-too-common reality of such transactions. As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has described, the fellahin often had “long-standing traditional rights of tenure.” Yet the Zionists would often remove them by force (Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp 98-9).

At the end of the 19th century, such Ottoman-Zionist collaboration led to the Palestinian fellahin embarking on the earliest protests and even armed uprisings against their displacement or disenfranchisement.

Pappe’s book is a history of the Husaynis, not a history of the Palestinians as a whole, but a passing mention of this reality would have improved the chapter. This lack of context diminishes later sections of the book. For example, Pappe writes of Palestinian demonstrations and armed resistance in the Mandate period: “Wherever young urban and country men were frustrated in their search for employment and housing, political bitterness came to the fore” (218). This begs the question of why they were unemployed in the first place. If he had pointed out the simple fact that many of the fellahin (in a predominantly agricultural society) were unemployed precisely because Zionism had displaced them from the land by force, this passage would have made a lot more sense.

Reconsidering Mufti’s legacy

The pace of Pappe’s narrative picks up significantly during the British Mandate period, reflecting the fast-moving regional events of the time. The Husayni notables, always primarily interested in maintaining their class interests, tried their best to cozy up to the new British occupier and to pacify the wider population. In contrast to the common Israeli demonology of the mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, Pappe makes this key point quite well: “The calm [of 1921-29] was achieved thanks mainly to the creation of the Supreme Muslim Council” (222). The British created the Supreme Muslim Council and co-opted Hajj Amin to lead it: “With an annual budget of 50,000 to 65,000 Palestine pounds (drawn mainly from the religious properties), al-Hajj Amin was able to increase his influence throughout Palestine” (223). It seems this was done partly to undermine the more nationalist Palestine Congress — based on the nationwide Muslim-Christian associations — to which 27 delegates were first sent in January 1919 (175).

Ultimately, the British were not enthusiastic about the old notables. As the late Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani put it in his brilliant study of the 1936-39 uprising, the formal Palestinian leadership had in the past eulogized Ottoman imperialism and praised the way it had treated them as compared with British imperialism. They had been the bulwark of the Sultan, but British imperialism removed them as chief agent, because it found a more highly organized agent in the Zionist movement.” (“The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine”, Committee for a Democratic Palestine, New York, 1972).

The Rise and Fall in general naturally shows that its original target audience was Israelis — Pappe was clearly seeking to provoke his society and make them rethink certain things. Often, figures and groups that would be familiar to an informed Israeli audience are dropped into the narrative with little or no explanation for the less familiar leader. For example, key Zionist leader (and future first president of Israel) Chaim Weizmann appears claiming to Kamil al-Husayni in 1918 that “the Zionists had no intention of taking over the country … Weizmann later wrote in his diary that Kamil had been polite but disbelieving — and for good reason” (173). Even the Balfour Declaration, under which Britain promised to set up a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, is dropped into the story without explanation.

History from below?

The Rise and Fall also suffers from a severe lack of direct quotes. The most damning evidence against Zionism often comes from their own archives, and critical Israeli historians like Pappe have been central in bringing these to light. But, for some reason, this book often lacks direct quotes, tending to prefer reported speech. For example: “[Menahem] Ussishkin was the paragon of the new Zionist leader. Unlike some of his colleagues, he openly discussed Zionism as a colonialist project and declared on more than one occasion that any indigenous resistance to the Jewish colonization of Palestine would have to be met with force, coercion and even expulsion” (172). Here, the reader would benefit from an example of what Ussishkin said in his own words.

One final point must be made. Since this book was likely being completed at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, Pappe’s aim to publish in Hebrew a more realistic historical approach to the extensive (and often hostile) literature on Hajj Amin was admirable. And his approach of looking at the wider family rather than an undue focus on the mufti alone is highly successful. However, compared to leftist Palestinian studies like Kanafani’s, I couldn’t help but think that his analysis is a little optimistic in places. He concludes the final chapter saying that at one point in history, notable families such as the Husaynis had “enable[d] social transformation in a moderate fashion” (341). For me, the wider findings in the book itself do no show that. That’s not to say Pappe is uncritical, by any means: there is a decent section on Hajj Amin’s failed attempt to work with Nazi Germany during the 1940s, when he was in exile and marginalized from the Palestinian national movement.

I do recommend this book to those interested in the topic, but as supplementary reading, alongside other more basic outlines of Palestinian history of the periods in question. Despite Pappe’s characteristic effort to orient the book as much as possible to a “history from below” approach (7), this is ultimately the history of the predominant aristocratic family in Palestinian history up until 1948: those who Kanafani refers to as the “feudal religious” leadership of the national movement.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is