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British security forces searching Arab civilians, April 1920

The 1920 Nabi Musa riots or 1920 Jerusalem riots took place in British-controlled, pre-British Mandate of Palestine between Sunday, 4 and Wednesday, 7 April 1920 in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.

The riots coincided with and are named after the Nabi Musa festival and followed rising tensions in Arab-Jewish relations. The events came shortly after the Battle of Tel Hai and the increasing pressure on Arab nationalists in Syria on the course of the Franco-Syrian War. Among the slogans used to incite the riots were the implications of Zionist immigration and the previous tensions which coincided with attacks on outlying Jewish settlements in the Galilee. Speeches by Arab religious leaders during the festival, in which traditionally large numbers of Muslims gathered for a religious procession, led to a serious outbreak of violent assaults on the city's Jews. Five Jews and four Arabs were killed and several hundreds were injured.[1] In its wake, sheikhs of 82 villages round the city and Jaffa, claiming to represent 70% of the population, issued a document protesting the violence against the Jews.[2]

The British Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA) was the military administration of Palestine, in anticipation of the grant of a League of Nations Mandate. OETA military command was criticised in the Palin Report into the riots, particularly the withdrawal of troops from inside Jerusalem early in the morning of Monday, 5 April and that, once martial law had been proclaimed, it was slow to regain control.[3] As a result of the riots, trust between the British, Jews, and Arabs eroded. One consequence was that the Jewish community increased moves towards an autonomous infrastructure and security apparatus parallel to that of the British administration.

Notwithstanding the riots, the Palestinian Jewish community held elections for the Assembly of Representatives on 19 April 1920, except for Jerusem where the voting took place on 3 May 1920.[4] The riots also preceded the San Remo conference which was held from 19 to 26 April 1920 at which the fate of the Middle East was to be decided.


Anti-Zionist demonstration at Damascus Gate. 8 March 1920

The contents and proposals of both the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Paris Peace Conference, 1919, which later concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, were the subject of intensive discussion by both Zionist and Arab delegations, and the process of the negotiations were widely reported in both communities. In particular, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, led to an undertaking by the victorious powers, predominantly Great Britain and France, to assume a 'holy mission of civilization' in the power vacuum of the Middle East. Under the Balfour Declaration, a homeland for the Jewish people was to be created in Palestine. The principle of self-determination affirmed by the League of Nations was not to be applied to Palestine, given the foreseeable rejection by the people of Zionism, which the British sponsored. These post-WW1 arrangements both for Palestine and other Arab societies led to a 'radicalization' of the Arab world.[5] On 1 March 1920, the death of Joseph Trumpeldor in the Battle of Tel Hai at the hands of a Shiite group from Southern Lebanon, caused deep concern among Jewish leaders, who made numerous requests to the OETA administration to address the Yishuv's security and forbid a pro-Syrian public rally. However, their fears were largely discounted by the Chief Administrative Officer General Louis Bols, Military Governor Ronald Storrs and General Edmund Allenby, despite a warning from the head of the Zionist Commission Chaim Weizmann that a "pogrom is in the air", supported by assessments available to Storrs.[1] Communiqués had been issued about foreseeable troubles between Arabs, and Arabs and Jews. To Weizmann and the Jewish leadership, these developments were reminiscent of instructions that Russian generals had issued on the eve of pogroms.[6] In the meantime, local Arab expectations had been raised to a pitch by the declaration of the Syrian Congress on 7 March of the independence of Greater Syria in the Kingdom of Syria, with Faisal as its king,[7] that included the British-controlled territory within its claimed domain. On 7 and 8 March, demonstrations took place in all cities of Palestine, shops were closed and many Jews were attacked. Attackers carried slogans such as "Death to Jews" or "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!"[8] Jewish leaders requested that OETA authorise the arming of the Jewish defenders to make up for the lack of adequate British troops. Although this request was declined, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, together with Pinhas Rutenberg, led an effort to openly train Jewish volunteers in self-defense, an effort of which the Zionist Commission kept the British informed. Many of the volunteers were members of the Maccabi sports club and some of them were veterans of the Jewish Legion. Their month of training largely consisted of calisthenics and hand to hand combat with sticks.[1] By the end of March, about 600 were said to be performing military drills daily in Jerusalem.[9] Jabotinsky and Rutenberg also began organizing the collection of arms.[9]

The Nebi Musa festival was an annual spring Muslim festival that began on the Friday before Good Friday and included a procession to the Nebi Musa shrine (tomb of Moses) near Jericho.[10] It had apparently existed since the time of Saladin.[11] Arab educator and essayist Khalil al-Sakakini described how tribes and caravans would come with banners and weapons.[1] The Ottoman Turks usually deployed thousands of soldiers and even artillery to keep order in the narrow streets of Jerusalem during the Nabi Musa procession. However, Storrs issued a warning to Arab leaders, but deployed only 188 policemen.

4–7 April 1920, Old City

The Times report of the riots, Apr 08, 1920

Nebi Musa procession—4 April 1920

By 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, 4 April 1920, 60,–70,000 Arabs had congregated in the city square for the Nebi Musa festival, and groups had been attacking Jews in the Old City's alleys for over an hour. Inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric was delivered by Amin al-Husayni from the balcony of the Arab Club. Another inciter was Musa al-Husayni, his uncle, the mayor, who spoke from the municipal building's balcony. The editor of the newspaper Suriya al-Janubia (Southern Syria), Aref al-Aref, another Arab Club member, delivered his speech on horseback at the Jaffa Gate.[12] The nature of his speech is disputed. According to Benny Morris, he said "If we don't use force against the Zionists and against the Jews, we will never be rid of them",[8] while Bernard Wasserstein wrote "he seems to have co-operated with the police, and there is no evidence that he actively instigated violence".[12] In fact, Wasserstein adds, "Zionist intelligence reports of this period are unanimous in stressing that he spoke repeatedly against violence".[12] The crowd reportedly shouted "Independence! Independence!" and "Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs!"[1] Arab police joined in applause, and violence started.[13] The local Arab population ransacked the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. The Torath Chaim Yeshiva was raided, and Torah scrolls were torn and thrown on the floor, and the building then set alight.[1] During the next three hours, 160 Jews were injured.[13]

Khalil al-Sakakini witnessed the eruption of violence in the Old City:

"[A] riot broke out, the people began to run about and stones were thrown at the Jews. The shops were closed and there were screams... I saw a Zionist soldier covered in dust and blood... Afterwards, I saw one Hebronite approach a Jewish shoeshine boy, who hid behind a sack in one of the wall's comers next to Jaffa Gate, and take his box and beat him over the head. He screamed and began to run, his head bleeding and the Hebronite left him and returned to the procession... The riot reached its zenith. All shouted, "Muhammad's religion was born with the sword"... I immediately walked to the municipal garden... my soul is nauseated and depressed by the madness of humankind."[14]

The army imposed night curfew on Sunday night and arrested several dozen rioters, but on Monday morning they were allowed to attend morning prayers and were then released. Arabs continued to attack Jews and break into their homes, especially in Arab-majority mixed buildings.[1]

On Monday, as disturbances grew worse, the Old City was sealed off by the army and no one was allowed to exit the area. Martial law was declared, but looting, burglary, rape, and murder continued. Several homes were set on fire, and tombstones were shattered. British soldiers found that the majority of illicit weapons were concealed on the bodies of Arab women.[1] On Monday evening, the soldiers were evacuated from the Old City, a step described in the Palin Report as "an error of judgment". Even with martial law, it took the British authorities another 4 days to restore order.

The Old City's Jewish community had no training or weapons, and Jabotinsky's men had found themselves outside the walled Old City, and shut out by British soldiers.[1] Two volunteers were able to enter the Jewish Quarter disguised as medical personnel to organize self-defense - using rocks and boiling water.[1]

Five Jews and four Arabs died in the riots. 216 Jews were injured, 18 critically, and 23 Arabs, one critically. About 300 Jews were evacuated from the Old City.[1]

Accusations of British complicity

Musa Kazim al-Husayni, the mayor of Jerusalem, was dismissed by the British after the April riots

It was asserted soon after, by Chaim Weizmann and British army Lieutenant Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, that al-Husseini had been put up to inciting the riot by British Field-marshal Allenby's Chief of Staff, Colonel Bertie Harry Waters-Taylor, to demonstrate to the world that Arabs would not tolerate a Jewish homeland in Palestine.[15][16][17] The assertion was never proven, and Meinertzhagen was dismissed.[18]

The Zionist Commission noted that before the riots Arab milkmen started to demand their customers in Meah Shearim pay them on the spot, explaining that they would no longer be serving the Jewish neighbourhood. Christian storekeepers had marked their shops in advance with the sign of the cross so that they would not be mistakenly looted. A previous commission report also accused Storrs of inciting the Arabs, blaming him for sabotaging attempts to purchase the Western Wall as well. A petition circulated among American citizens and presented to their consul protested that the British had prevented Jews from defending themselves.[1]

After the violence broke out, Ze'ev Jabotinsky met Military Governor Storrs and suggested deployment of his volunteers, but his request was rejected. Storrs confiscated his pistol and demanded to know the location of his other weapons, threatening to arrest him for possessing a firearm. Later, Storrs changed his mind and asked for 200 volunteers to report to the police headquarters to be sworn in as deputies. After they arrived and the administering of the oath had begun, orders came to cease and he sent them away. Arab volunteers had also been invited, and were likewise sent away. On Sunday night, the first day of the riots, several dozen rioters were arrested, but on Monday morning they were allowed to attend morning prayers and were then released.[1] On Monday evening, after martial law was declared, the soldiers were evacuated from the Old City, a step described in the Palin Report as "an error of judgment". After the riots, Storrs visited Menachem Ussishkin, the new head of the Zionist Commission, to express "regrets for the tragedy that has befallen us".

- Ussishkin asked, "What tragedy?"

- "I mean the unfortunate events that have occurred here in the recent days", Storrs said.

- "His excellency means the pogrom", suggested Ussishkin.

When Storrs hesitated to categorize the events as such, Ussishkin replied,

- "You Colonel, are an expert on matters of management and I am an expert on the rules of pogroms."[1]

The Palin Report noted that Jewish representatives persisted in describing the events as a "pogrom", implying that the British administration had connived in the violence.[19]

Palin Commission of Inquiry

The Palin Commission (or Palin Court of Inquiry), a committee of inquiry sent to the region in May 1920 by the British authorities, examined the reasons for this trouble. According to the Survey of Palestine:[20]

Savage attacks were made by Arab rioters in Jerusalem on Jewish lives and property. Five Jews were killed and 211 injured. Order was restored by the intervention of British troops; four Arabs were killed and 21 injured. It was reported by a military commission of inquiry that the reasons for this trouble were:--

(a) Arab disappointment at the non-fulfilment of the promises of independence which they claimed had been given to them during the war.
(b) Arab belief that the Balfour Declaration implied a denial of the right of self-determination and their fear that the establishment of a National Home would mean a great increase in Jewish immigration and would lead to their economic and political subjection to the Jews.
(c) The aggravation of these sentiments on the one hand by propaganda from outside Palestine associated with the proclamation of the Emir Feisal as King of a re-united Syria and with the growth of Pan-Arab and Pan-Moslem ideas, and on the other hand by the activities of the Zionist Commission supported by the resources and influence of Jews throughout the world.

The Palin Report on the April riots was not signed until July 1920, after the San Remo conference and replacement of the British OETA by a High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel.[1] The Report was submitted in August 1920, though never published, and was critical of both sides. The report blamed the Zionists, 'whose impatience to achieve their ultimate goal and indiscretion are largely responsible for this unhappy state of feeling’[21] and singled out Amin al-Husayni and Ze'ev Jabotinsky in particular. The latter, however, was not, as the Court believed, an exponent of 'Bolshevism', which it thought 'flowed in Zionism's inner heart', but rather fiercely anti-Socialist. They had confused his politics with that of the Socialist-aligned Poalei Zion ('Zionist Workers') party, which it called 'a definite Bolshevist institution.'

The report was critical of some of the actions of OETA military command, particularly the withdrawal of troops from inside Jerusalem early on the morning of Monday, 5 April and that, once martial law had been proclaimed, it was slow to regain control.


Over 200 people were put on trial as a result of the riots, including 39 Jews.[1] Musa Kazim al-Husayni was replaced as mayor by the head of the rival Nashashibi clan.[citation needed] Amin al-Husayni and Aref al-Aref were arrested for incitement, but when they were let out on bail they both escaped to Syria.[12] In another version, al-Aref was warned and escaped before being arrested.[22] In their absence, a military court sentenced them to 10 years imprisonment.[12] British soldiers were sent to search Jews for arms at the demand of the Palestinian Arab leadership. They searched the offices and apartments of Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Commission, and Jabotinsky. At Jabotinsky's house, they found three rifles, two pistols, and 250 rounds of ammunition. 19 men were arrested, but not Jabotinsky, who went to the jail of his own volition to insist on his arrest. A military judge released him because he had not been home when the guns were discovered, but he was again arrested a few hours later.[1] Jabotinsky was convicted of possessing the pistol that Storrs had confiscated on the riot's first day, among other things. The primary witness was none other than Ronald Storrs, who said he "did not remember" being told about the self-defence organization. He was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment and sent to Egypt, though the next day he was returned to Acre Prison. Jabotinsky's trial and sentencing created an uproar, and were protested by London press including The Times and questioned in the British Parliament. Even before the editorials appeared, the commander of British forces in Palestine and Egypt, General Congreve, wrote Field Marshal Wilson that Jews were sentenced far more severely than Arabs who had committed worse offences. He reduced Jabotinsky's sentence to a year, and that of the other 19 Jews arrested with him to six months.[1]

The new civilian government under Herbert Samuel granted a general amnesty in early 1921. However, Amin al-Husayni and Aref al-Aref were excluded from the amnesty because they had fled before their convictions had been passed down. Samuel pardoned Amin in March 1921 and appointed him Mufti of Jerusalem. When the Supreme Muslim Council was created in the following year, Husseini demanded and received the title Grand Mufti,[23][24][25][26] a position which came with life tenure.[27] Also, General Storr became the civil governor of Jerusalem under the new administration.[28]

As the riots began, Jewish immigration to Palestine was temporarily halted by the British. Also, feeling that the British were unwilling to defend Jewish settlements from continuous Arab attacks, Palestinian Jews set up self-defense units, which came to be called the Haganah ("defense"). Furthermore, the riots prompted the Arab leadership in Palestine to view themselves less as southern Syrian Arabs and more as a unique Palestinian Arab community.[1]

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 Segev (2001), pp. 127–144.
  2. Tom Segev,'When Zionism was an Arab cause,' at Haaretz, 6 April 2012.
  3. Palin Report conclusions
  4. Palestine Through History: A Chronology (I) The Palestine Chronicle
  5. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine: L'invention de la Terre sainte, vol.1, Fayard, Paris 1999 pp.421-477, esp. pp.462-5.
  6. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, Fayard, Paris, 1999 vol.1 pp.503-4
  7. Laurens, La Question de Palestine, op.cit.pp.502-3,p.506
  8. 8.0 8.1 Benny Morris. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. p. 95. ISBN 978-0679744757. , quoting the official history of the Hagana
  9. 9.0 9.1 Wasserstein (1991), p. 63; extract from a private letter from a reliable source dated 30 March 1920, citing CZA L3/27.
  10. Tewfik Canaan (1927). Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. Jerusalem: Ariel Publishing House. pp. 193–200. 
  11. Yehoshua Porath (1975). "The Political Awakening of the Palestinian Arabs and their Leadership towards the End of the Ottoman Period". In Moshe Ma'oz. Studies on Palestine during the Ottoman Period. The Magnes Press. p. 358. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Bernard Wasserstein (1977). "'Clipping the Claws of the Colonisers': Arab Officials in the Government of Palestine, 1917-48". pp. 171–194. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Sachar (2006), p. 123.
  14. Khalil al-Sakakini, Such am I, Oh World!, quoted by Benny Morris, Righteous Victims
  15. Laurens 1999, pp. 506–512
  16. Segev 2001, p. 140
  17. For an interpretation that follows closely Meinertzhagen's reading of the events as a British army plot, see Sicker 2000, pp. 23ff..
  18. Regarding the whole period preceding the riot, marked by conflicting rumours, Laurens writes:'For several months, the intelligence service Zionists organised in 1918 multiplied warnings about plots by Arab activists. These pieces of information never received any confirmation from the British (or French) intelligence service. Later Arab sources show this quite clearly: no one claimed responsibility for any planning (prémeditation) for the events, even several decades afterwards'. Laurens 1999, p. 506.
  19. Palin Report 1920, British National Archives (FO 371/5121) p.41:'Dr. de Sola Pool gave as his definition of the word that it meant "an attack on the Jews of the city carried out by the lower lawless elements who were given free play by the non-interference of the police and those charged with the keeping of order. Not necessarily with the connivance of the Government, but almost invariably of the lower police officials".'
  20. A Survey of Palestine, 1945–1946, Volume 1, p17
  21. Sahar Huneidi,A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians 1920-1925, I.B.Taurus, 2001 p.35
  22. Eliezer Ṭauber (1994). The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq. Routledge. pp. 95,105. 
  23. Kupferschmidt 1987, pp. 19,78:'Soon after the British began to style Kāmil al-Husaynī as the Grand Muftī (al-muftī al-akbar), a title which had hitherto been unknown in Palestine but which was probably copied from Egypt.This gesture was, in part, meant as a reward for Kāmil’s cooperation with the British, but it may have been intended to substitute some kind of a new hierarchy for the former Ottoman one'.
  24. Elpeleg 1993, p. 11:'He demanded that the title Grand Mufti, which had been granted to his brother by the British for cooperating with them, also be given to him, and that his salary be higher than that of the other muftis. Richmond and Storrs supported this claim, arguing that since, from the spiritual and religious points of view, the status of Jerusalem was superior to that of other regions in Palestine, the Mufti of Jerusalem should be considered head of the country's Muslim community'.
  25. Khalidi 2001, p. 22:'After their occupation of the country, the British created the entirely new post of "grand mufti of Palestine" (al-mufti al-akbar), who was also designated the "mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestine region" (mufti al-Quds wal-diyar al-filistiniyya).
  26. Cohen 1989, p. 69.
  27. Sicker 2000, pp. 32f.:Elpeleg 1993, p. 48.
  28. Xypolia, Ilia (2011). "Orientations and Orientalism: The Governor Sir Ronald Storrs". pp. 24–43. 


  • Idinopulos, Thomas A. (1998). "Weathered by Miracles: A history of Palestine from Bonaparte and Muhammad Ali to Ben-Gurion and the Mufti". Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 1-56663-189-0. .
  • Sachar, Howard M. (2006). "A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time". Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-76563-8. .
  • Segev, Tom (2001). "One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate". Owl Books. ISBN 0-8050-6587-3. .
  • Wasserstein, Bernard (1991). "The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929". Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-17574-1. .

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Coordinates: 31°46′36″N 35°14′03″E / 31.77667°N 35.23417°E / 31.77667; 35.23417

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