The origins of the Iron Wall: Zionist settlers during the mandate

In the third part of his series on Palestine Neil Rogall looks at the influx of the Zionist settlers and the politics that they developed.

Read part 1 of this series, The Origins of Zionism, here.

In 1922 the British received a ‘mandate’ to govern Palestine from the newly created League of Nations. This was simply colonialism with a ‘modern’ name. The British government now encouraged Zionist emigration into the territory it administered. The Balfour Declaration was being implemented.

Jabotinsky with Betar commanders
Jabotinsky with Betar commanders

Between 1922 and 1939 the Jewish population of Palestine grew dramatically. From a figure of 90,000 in 1922, it rose to 460,000 in 1939. The Jewish population grew from just under 10% in 1922 to just over 30% on the eve of World War Two.

Table 1: Population of Palestine 1881-1939


Date Total Population Jews Muslims Christians
1881 457,000 13-20, 000 (2.8-4.4%) 400,000 42,000
1918 747,000 59,000 (7.9%) 618,000 70,000
1922 910,000 90,000 (9.9%) 820,000
1931 1,063,000 175,000 (16.5%) 888,000
1939 1,530,000 460,000 (30.1%) 1,070,000


Jewish emigration into Palestine varied over time. The average number of ‘official’ Zionist emigrants to Palestine hovered around the four to five thousand mark in the years 1929 to 1931. It then increased dramatically with 30,000 arriving in 1933 following Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor. Clearly many of these were German Jews. This rose to 42,000 in 1934 and 62,000 in 1935. But then immigration slumped dramatically as a result of the Palestinian revolt in 1936, falling to ‘only’ 10,000 in 1937. (Benny Morris, Righteous Victims).

The Zionists under the British Mandate

Jewish settlement in Palestine was a colonial enterprise. But it had some unusual features. The settlers did not have political power. That was in the hands of the British. Of course the settlers had to co-operate with the British in order to advance their position and to marginalise the indigenous population. But the Zionists’ long-term aim was to replace the British as rulers and create a Jewish state in Palestine.

Palestinian reaction to growing Jewish emigration was increasingly hostile, culminating in the uprising of 1936 mentioned above and which will be discussed in detail in my next article. Before discussing Palestinian resistance we need to look at the organisation of the settler community in the Mandate.

The settlement, the Yishuv in Hebrew functioned as a state within a state. The World Zionist Organisation, (founded by Herzl in 1897), set up the Palestine Zionist Executive in 1921, renamed the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929. This acted as the government of the settler community in Palestine. Its official purpose was to co-operate with the British under the mandate, and the British government often treated it as if it was a government in waiting.

The Jewish agency ran its own schools for the children of the colonists and organised its own taxation system. The proceeds of this, the Jewish National Fund were used to buy land to set up Jewish enterprises, particularly agricultural ones.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli propaganda portrayed the country as ‘socialist’ and ‘progressive’. The Labour Party, Mapai, which governed Israel until the late seventies was seen as no different to the British Labour Party or the Social Democrats in Germany.

This notion that somehow the settler society was ‘leftist’ began before the 1920s. The dominant force within the Jewish Agency was ‘Labour Zionism’. This reflected the fact that in Europe, Jewish workers were heavily influenced by socialist ideas. The Zionists had to adapt to this in order to win a hearing from their co-religionists.

Yishuv propaganda poster
Yishuv propaganda poster

Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) was formed in 1906 in Ottoman Palestine by a group of settlers. This eventually became Mapai, the Labour Party in 1930. The leader was David Ben-Gurion, who became the first Israeli prime minister in 1948. It was a rather odd racialised version of a Labour party. Its aim was to achieve not ‘socialism’ but Jewish statehood through immigration and settlement. It was a wing of a colonial settler movement not a party of the working class, whatever its members might publically claim. ‘Labour Zionism’ dominated the Yishuv and then Israel until well into the 1970s.

Zionism and Fascism

Labour Zionism was not the only political force in the Yishuv. There was also the Revisionist Movement, founded in 1925 by Vladimir Jabotinsky. ‘Revisionist’ in this case refers to the fact that Jabotinsky wanted to revise the terms of the British Mandate to include the east bank of the Jordan River, what was then Transjordan as well as the west bank. The Zionists adhering to the ‘revisionist tradition’ have always been much more open about their intentions in contrast to the mealy-mouthed disingenuous Labour Zionists. The Likud, Netanyahu’s party in present day Israel is the inheritor of the Revisionist’s mantle.

Here is Jabotinsky outlining his views about the Palestinians:

“Colonization itself has its own explanation, integral and inescapable, and understood by every Jew and Arab with his wits about him. Colonization can have only one goal. For the Palestinian Arabs this goal is inadmissible. This is in the nature of things…..

Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs”.

That, whatever the Labour Zionists might say was the reality of the colonial process and later of the Israeli state. The Iron Wall of course was initially provided by British bayonets but when the Zionist enterprise became stronger it replaced those arms with its own. Today watching Israel, with its separation wall and its destruction of Gaza, we can see ‘The Iron Wall’ in all its horror.

Jabotinsky admired Mussolini and sought assistance from Rome. The revisionist’s youth organisation, Betar, which operated in Europe as well as Palestine, wore black shirts and many of its young members were trained in fascist Italy. In 1936, Il Duce himself reviewed his Zionist wards, and in conversation with the chief Rabbi of Rome, referred to Jabotinsky as “your fascist”.

But when it came to Fascism the record of the Labour Zionists was no better. In the months after Hitler became German Chancellor in January 1933, a boycott of German goods began first in the USA, and then elsewhere. This was the initiative of both Jewish and ‘left’ organisations. However it suffered a massive blow when the German Zionists and the Jewish Agency concluded a deal with Hitler’s government in August 1933:

“Known as the Haavara (‘transfer in Hebrew’), it authorised German Jews emigrating to Palestine, and these Jews alone, to transfer part of their assets there in the form of goods imported from Germany” (Gilbert Achar, The Arabs and the Holocaust)

Of course the 3rd Reich kept chunks of the capital for itself. This was a real coup for the Nazis. It broke the growing isolation of the regime and put paid to the international boycott of German goods.

A very strange trade union – the Histradut

Labour Zionism’s key creation was the Histradut, the Zionist ‘trade union’ formed in 1920. This was not a normal union. It’s slogan was not ‘workers of the world unite’ but ‘Jewish land, Jewish labour, Jewish produce’. Here is David Hacohen, leader of the Histradut in the 1930s and 40s reminiscing about earlier days

“When I joined the socialist student’s club (in London) there were English, Irish, Jews, Chinese, Indians and Africans – all under English domination. Already at that time I had to fight with my close comrades around the issue of Jewish socialism, to justify the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my union, the Histradut, that we urged Jewish households to not buy anything at Arab stores, that we organised guards around the orchards to keep Arab labourers from working there, that we tossed gasoline on Arab tomatoes and broke Arab eggs in the baskets of women who bought them” (

This violence was part of a strategy. The settlers needed to build a closed Jewish economy if they were going to achieve their aims of a ‘Jewish’ state. If there was competition for jobs between immigrant and Palestinian labour, employers even Jewish ones would hire the cheaper Arab workers. Wages would then be pushed down even in Jewish owned enterprises. If this occurred why on earth would Jewish workers from Europe used to a much higher standard of living than Arab workers be prepared to emigrate to Palestine?

The Histradut didn’t always have its own way. There were instances of working class unity across the divide. Haifa was the most important industrial town in Palestine. In 1920 Palestinians, Jews and Arabs from Egypt and Syria formed the first trade union there in the workshops of the railways and postal services. Faced with long hours, poor pay, appalling housing and vicious treatment from their British employers they united. But workers’ unity horrified the Histradut. Their local leader at the time, David Hacohen reminded Jewish workers “…the mission of the Hebrew workers…is not to be bothered by mutual assistance to Arab workers, but to assist in the fortification of the Zionist project on the land” (Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine).

So instead of a trade union organising both Jews and Arabs there were now two rival unions, a Zionist one and a Palestinian one. Nonetheless there were other examples of labour unity across the growing divide. In 1931 there was a successful joint strike of Palestinian and Jewish truck drivers demanding the lowering of road tax. And there were bi-national strikes in the oil industry, the cigarette factories bakeries and the railways. However in the end the Histradut convinced Jewish workers to put their interests as Zionists before their interests as workers.

Women training in the Haganah
Women training in the Haganah

Clearly, the Histradut was a ‘state building’ operation not a trade union. It was the key institution of the Yishuv. By the 1930s it owned industries, agricultural enterprises, the Zionist health service and controlled the armed militia of the Jewish Agency, the Haganah.

The Haganah founded in the early twenties grew continuously throughout the mandate years reaching an estimated 36,000 members by 1944. It was not the only Zionist paramilitary organisation however. In 1931 supporters of Jabotinsky’s revisionists split to form the Irgun Z’Vai Leumi (National Military Organisation). It was the Irgun who were to blow up the King David Hotel in 1946, and along with another paramilitary group, the Stern Gang massacred the inhabitants of Deir Yassin during the Nakba.

The Land

The final aspect of colonial society that I want to deal with is land. This was central to Zionist ideology and strategy. The Jewish Agency in Palestine used the Jewish National Fund to buy land. This was then used to set up Kibbutzim, co-operative settlements which could only be worked by the settlers.

Below Table 2 shows the progress of Zionist agricultural settlements.

Table 2: Progress of Zionist Agricultural Settlements

Total land area of Palestine = 27 million dunams

1 dunam equals 1,000 square metres (Dunam is an Ottoman measure)

Year Number of Jewish settlements Area in dunams (1 dunam = roughly a quarter of acre) Jewish agricultural population
1922 71 584,000 14,140
1931 110 1,058,500 37,240
1939 1,533,400
1941 231 1,604,800 111,250

(Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah)

By 1941 Jewish settlements owned just under 5 million dunams of land, about a sixth of the country. But how did the settlers get hold of the land? Who sold it to them?

The simple answer was that they mainly bought the land from the big landlords and then evicted the tenants. In particular they bought land from absentee landlords, wealthy men, who owned more than 20% of private land in the country but did not live in Palestine. One such figure was Abdul Rahman Pasha, “The largest landlord in Palestine … who lived in Damascus and owned 200,000 dunams”. (Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine). But they also bought it from landlords who lived in Palestine as well. Table 3 illustrates this:


Table 3:Distribution of Jewish landed property according to its previous owners (1920-36)


Period of Purchase % Of land bought from absentee landlords % Of land bought from big resident landlords % Of land bought of land sold by Fellahin(peasants)
1920-1922 75.4 20.8 3.8
1923-1927 86.0 12.4 1.6
1928-1932 45.5 36.2 18.3
1933-1936 14.9 62.7 22.5

(Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah)


The relative increase in peasant and big resident landlord sales to the settlers in the first half of the1930s reflects the disastrous situation in the countryside. Colonial policies allowed outside market forces to exploit the villages to breaking point. The growth of commercial agriculture, encouraged by imperial trade links, the Zionist drive for land and the sheer greed of ‘the notables’, (the big landlords) left rural Palestine in ruins. This was where 60% of the Palestinian population lived. The result was a growing exodus of the Palestinian poor to the urban centres of the mandate.

This growing impoverishment and land loss exploded in 1936 in the general strike and uprising of 1936. But this, what many call the First Intifada was not the beginning of resistance to Zionism and the British. This had begun as far back as the 1880s. The growth of Palestinian resistance, the 1936 uprising and its consequences will be the subject of my next article.

Part one of this series, The Origins of the Zionism, is here.

Part 4: The birth of Palestinian resistance and the 1936 uprising


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