Nehru's Word: The economic dimension of the Israel–Palestine conflict

"We must remember that Palestine is essentially an Arab country, and the Arabs must not be crushed and suppressed in their own homelands"

India's then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets Palestinian leaders in Gaza, 1960 (photo: National Herald archives)
India's then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets Palestinian leaders in Gaza, 1960 (photo: National Herald archives)

Jawaharlal Nehru

This is the second and concluding part of a piece written by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1933 (and then updated in 1938) on the Israel–Palestine conflict. Nehru points out that a major reason for the Arab–Jew conflict in Palestine is a scramble for economic resources, and that religion is a secondary aspect. He also mentions the excesses on the Arabs by colonial Britishers (the British government controlled the region post-World War I), and highlights the geo-strategic importance of Palestine for imperialist Britain.


In 1928, the different Arab groups again united in the Arab Congress and demanded a democratic parliamentary system of government ‘as of right’… In August 1929, there were big Arab–Jew riots. The real cause was Arab bitterness and fear due to the growing wealth and numbers of the Jews, as well as the Jewish opposition to Arab demands for freedom.

The immediate cause, however, was a dispute about the Wailing Wall, as it is called. This is part of the wall that surrounded Herod’s temple in old times, and is thus sacred to the Jews, who look upon it as a monument of the days when they were a great people.

Subsequently, a mosque was built there and this wall was made part of the structure. The Jews say their prayers near this wall and, especially, recite their lamentations in a loud voice—hence the name the Wailing Wall. The Muslims object to this practice near a part of one of their most famous mosques.

After the riots were put down, the struggle continued in other ways, and the curious part of it is that the Arabs had the full support of all Christian churches in Palestine. Both Muslims and Christians thus joined together in great strikes and demonstrations. Even women took a prominent part. This shows that the real trouble was not religious, but economic conflict between the newcomers and the old residents…

So, Palestine continues to be practically a British colony, and in some ways worse even than a full-fledged colony, and the British are continuing this state of affairs by playing the Jew against the Arab. It is full of British officials, and all the high posts are occupied by them.

As usual with British dependencies, very little has been done for education, in spite of the strong desire of the Arabs for it. The Jews, with their great financial resources, have fine schools and colleges.

The Jewish population is already nearly a quarter of the Muslim population, and their economic power is far greater. They seem to look forward to the day when they will be the dominant community in Palestine. The Arabs tried to gain their cooperation in the struggle for national freedom and democratic government, but they rejected these advances….

Note (October 1938): The triangular conflict in Palestine between Arab nationalism, Jewish Zionism, and British imperialism has continued and grown more and more desperate. The triumph of the Nazis in Germany drove out vast numbers of Jews from central Europe, and the Jewish pressure on Palestine increased.

This intensified the apprehensions of the Arabs that they would be submerged in floods of Jewish immigration and that Palestine would be dominated by the Jews. The Arabs fought against this, and some of them took to terrorist activities. Later, some of the more extreme Zionists retaliated in kind.

In April 1936, the Palestinian Arabs declared a general strike that lasted for nearly six months, in spite of every attempt by the British authorities, through military force and reprisals, to crush it. Huge concentration camps grew up after the well-known Nazi pattern. Failing in this endeavour, the government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into Palestine affairs.

This Commission reported that the mandate had been a failure and should be surrendered, and suggested a partition of the country into three areas—a large area under Arab control, a small one near the sea under Jewish control, and a third area, including Jerusalem, under direct British control. This scheme of partition was objected to by almost everybody, Arab and Jew, but many of the Jews were prepared to work with it.

The Arabs, however, would have nothing to do with it, and their national resistance grew. During the last few months, this has taken the form of a vast national movement, aggressively hostile to British rule and gradually displacing it in large areas of Palestine, which passed into the control of the Arab nationalists. The British government has sent fresh armies for the reconquest of the country, and a state of terror and frightfulness exists there.

The Arabs unfortunately indulged in a great deal of terrorism. The Jews did likewise against the Arabs. The British government has pursued and is pursuing a ruthless policy of destruction and killing, thereby seeking to crush the national struggle for freedom...

I have just read of Arab ‘suspects’ being herded together by the British military forces in huge barbed-wire enclosures called iron cages, each of these cages holding 50 to 400 prisoners, who are fed by their relations, literally like animals in a cage...

These people have committed many wrong and terroristic deeds, but it must be remembered that they are essentially fighting for national freedom and have been cruelly suppressed by the forces of British imperialism. It is a tragedy that two oppressed peoples—the Arabs and the Jews—should come into conflict with each other.

Everyone must have sympathy for the Jews in the terrible trials they are passing through in Europe, where vast numbers of them have become homeless wanderers, unwanted in any country. One can understand them being attracted to Palestine. And it is a fact that the Jewish immigrants there have improved the country, introduced industries and raised standards of living.

But we must remember that Palestine is essentially an Arab country, and the Arabs must not be crushed and suppressed in their own homelands. The two peoples could well cooperate together in a free Palestine, without encroaching on each other’s legitimate interests.

Unfortunately, Palestine being on the sea and air route to India and the East, it is a vital factor in the British imperial scheme, and Jews and Arabs have both been exploited to further this scheme. The future is uncertain... It is certain, however, that Arab nationalism in Palestine will not be crushed, and the future of the country can only be built up on the foundation of Arab–Jew cooperation and end of imperialism.

Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.

More of Nehru's thoughts and writings can be found in our archives here.

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