The Intifada That Raged More Than 10 Years Before Israel Was Established

The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 urged the Jewish community in British Palestine to prepare for Israel’s War of Independence a decade later.

A riot in Jaffa during the Arab Revolt, 1936.
AP

The Khazan family has suffered a lot. The family immigrated from Salonika, Greece, in 1932 with the hope of a better future in a safer environment for Jews. But only four years later the father, Israel Abraham Khazan, was murdered.

Seven later his wife Bienvenida, who had remained behind in Salonika because of an illness, was murdered in the Holocaust. Their eldest son Abraham met the same fate. He had come to Israel with his father but returned to Greece.

In 1953, Israel’s grandson Eliezer (Alik) Khazan, a pilot in the Israel Air Force (“the first Sephardi pilot,” says the family proudly) was killed in a training accident.

It’s now 80 years since April 15, 1936, when the family’s long history of bereavement began. It was the day the Arab Revolt against the British colonial authorities broke out.

Israel Khazan, who was 70, lived in Tel Aviv and worked in a poultry store in south Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. That day he and another poultry trader, Zvi Dannenberg, rode in a truck all over the country, distributing their wares.

Israel Abraham Khazan
David Bachar

When they reached the Arab city of Tul Karm, they were robbed and shot by an “Arab gang,” as the newspapers put it at the time. Khazan was killed on the spot, while Dannenberg died five days later.

Another man who happened to be there, a German Templer from that protestant community’s Sarona colony, was released unharmed. “Go in peace, for Hitler’s sake,” he was told by the Arabs as reported by Arabic-language newspapers.

“They ambushed him,” Rami Khazan, a 64-year-old resident of Herzliya and Israel’s great-grandson, told Haaretz this month. He knows the family history, which has since become part of Israeli history.

“He was stopped at a roadblock, and out of pride enough to be considered irresponsibility he stood facing the rioters in defiance and told them: ‘Here I am, what can you do to me?’ So they did something and shot him,” Khazan says.

The Khazan family
David Bachar

The family photo album, now in the home of 80-year-old granddaughter Chava Chen, features a picture of Israel Khazan as an older, serious-looking man wearing a suit and hat. On the back of one picture is handwritten: “Murdered by Arabs.”

Featured alongside him in the album is a young smiling man, Alik, his grandson. On his lapel he proudly wears a pilot’s wings. Another photograph shows Alik receiving his wings from the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff at the time, Yigael Yadin.

On the next page we see his military funeral. There are no pictures of his grandfather’s funeral, though. “Back then, in 1936, not everyone had a camera,” explains Chen's daughter Sigalit.

Acts of theft and murder

But the events were well recorded; the Haaretz archive contains articles and photos documenting the funeral. The murder had a major impact on the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine was known.

Haaretz reporting on the killing of Jews in Jaffa at the start of the Arab Revolt, April 1936.
Haaretz archive

“The acts of theft and murder astonished and shocked the Hebrew Yishuv,” Haaretz wrote in its editorial after the killing. “We have learned from experience in this land and are far from self-delusion concerning the cultural level of part of the population. The moral-psychological distance between some of the ‘cultured’ communities of this land and the desert is no greater than the geographic distance between them.”

Haaretz’s editors expressed fears of an escalation stemming from incitement by local Arab leaders. “The atmosphere surrounding us these days is electrically charged. The spirit of the masses has been poisoned by untrammeled demagogic propaganda, for which all means are justified,” they wrote.

“This electricity could be discharged at any moment and time, whether in ‘small’ criminal acts such as that two days ago, or in acts of mass atrocity.”

Khazan was buried in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv on April 17. The leaders of the Greek Jewish community attended the funeral, as did the Greek consul.

“All the stores in the city were closed. The factories also stopped work during the funeral. The public automobiles and private cars, and vehicles in general, were delayed for a time,” Haaretz wrote.

“Inside the human chain, on both sides of Allenby Road, the funeral advanced. Many young people shouted out against the authorities .... The boos and noise roiled the atmosphere, and from the windows and balconies many watched the procession.”

The leaders of the Yishuv tried in vain to calm things down. A member of the Tel Aviv City Council, Zvi Lavon, gave an emotional speech. “Not eye for eye, but only building, building and more building,” he declared.

The municipality published a special announcement. “At this serious time, great responsibility has fallen on the residents of our city, which demands from everyone complete calm, discipline and abiding by the law,” it wrote. “We are turning to the entire public and asking you to restrain your emotions and continue, everyone, with his work and not be led astray by actions not of our nature.”

Temporary gains for the Arabs

But there was no calm in Tel Aviv over the next few days. A demonstration ended with violence by Jews protesting the British Mandate government’s helplessness against the Arab terror. Shots were fired in the air, stones, bottles and other items were thrown in all directions, and dozens were injured.

A wave of violence and killings inundated Tel Aviv, Jaffa and other cities over the next few days, heralding the beginning of the revolt. The day after the killing of Khazan, Jews killed two Arabs in revenge near Petah Tikvah.

On April 19, Arabs killed nine Jewish passersby in Jaffa. “Tel Aviv is accompanying its holy martyrs” to burial, Haaretz reported the next day. “Yesterday, from horror to horror” was the headline.

The revolt and riots continued for three years. Hundreds of Jews, hundreds of British and thousands of Arabs were killed before the British repressed the revolt with the help of the Jewish community, which then strengthened in preparation for the War of Independence.

But the revolt brought temporary gains for the Arabs. The British closed the gates to Jews fleeing Europe and Hitler with the White Paper of 1939, which sealed the fate of many Jews forced to remain in Europe before the Holocaust.

Col. (res.) Yigal Eyal considers the Arab revolt the “First Intifada” the title of his Hebrew-language book. He describes the British methods to quell the violence, including live fire at rioters, the blowing up of homes, and mass convictions in military courts followed by hangings. The British also deported the people behind the incitement, confiscated property, and used other methods of collective punishment.

Sir John Shuckburgh, a high official at the Colonial Office, wrote in 1938 that the conditions in Palestine were similar to those in Ireland of yesteryear, where the British faced enemies they considered gangsters and murderers.

Haaretz’s editors did not play things down. “Blood, not the blood of others that a nation spills for lust of conquest, but the blood of its own sons, the blood of a covenant of building, people and homeland, is good glue between a people and their land.”

Haaretz readers were called on to accept that “the Land of Israel is acquired only through suffering and sacrifice.” The paper discussed the “tragic necessity” that the Jews would return to “the land of our fathers not just in love, righteousness and justice, not just through the sweat of our brows and the efforts of labor, but also in the sacrifice of lives and the blood of our sons, our builders.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff published a special announcement. “We will fight in peace until the final victory,” he wrote. “Every drop of blood spilled on this land doubles and triples our strength and will. We swear to continue our work ... until the complete redemption of the people and the land.”

The Zionist leadership joined with its own message: “No sacrifice will move us from our steadfast decision to create anew in this, our land, a free and secure homeland for our dispersed and prosecuted people in exile.”

Later, after the battles ebbed, two of Israel Khazan’s grandsons, Israel and Alik (the pilot) joined the right-wing Irgun underground. But great-grandson Rami says there's no political extremism in his family.

“The murder of my great-grandfather did not influence, as far as I know, the family’s political direction,” he says. “The family was a simple family, not particularly educated and not involved in matters of the Yishuv and politics.”