Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

British Framing of the Frontier in Palestine, 1918- 1923: Revisiting Colonial Sources on Tribal Insurrection, Land Tenure, and the Arab Intelligentsia

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

British Framing of the Frontier in Palestine, 1918- 1923: Revisiting Colonial Sources on Tribal Insurrection, Land Tenure, and the Arab Intelligentsia

Article excerpt

On 22 April 1920, skirmishes took place between British gendarmes based in the frontier town of Baysan and hundreds of armed tribesmen of the Ghazawiyya - one of the biggest tribes in the region. Several men were killed on both sides. The next day, about two thousand tribesmen from across the Jordan gathered forces and attacked the Jewish colonies near Samakh on the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, a few miles north of Baysan. The British army apparently had military intelligence about these raids and called for support. It is reported that several airplanes and tanks were used to put off the insurrection. Notwithstanding reports of losses in men, military equipment, telegraph and railway lines, the British military could still telegram on 24 April that "situation is in hand." Yet it was also strongly believed that "matters will get worse instead of better, especially when the morning's news about the mandates reaches Syria."1 The events coincided with unconfirmed reports that Amir Faysal's government in Damascus had declared war on the French and began an attack on their forces in Banyas, and that tribal forces were gathering south of the town of al- Qunaytra (both in the Golan region) in preparation for attack on the British to the south. These escalations, however, did not materialize. According to news published by the Egyptian newspaper al-Muqattam and quoted by the Egyptian Gazette on 18 June 1920, Amir Bashir, the leader of one of the tribes which participated in the insurrection asked for permission to discuss the events with the authorities in Jerusalem. Even more telling was that Faysal's government had also sent a deputation to Jerusalem, and that four hundred horsemen have been sent to the Yarmuk Valley (east of Samakh) to arrest the offenders who attacked the telegraph lines there. It was also reported that the Rawala tribe near al-Qunaytra, with a strength of fifteen thousand fighters, was expected to keep quiet and obey Faysal's orders.2

Modern national borders in the Middle East have been subject to ideological contestation, yet they remained highly understudied. The historical literature that refers to their making focuses upon the "diplomatic" affairs between the imperial powers after World War I, without venturing into their social histories. Despite their new invention, the underlying assumption remained that the new borders delimited distinct and pre- given, or in the case of Palestine ancient, spaces. Paradoxically, the national narratives accepted this assumption and reproduced it while contesting the imperialistic and colonial agendas in the region. In this article I shift the focus from discussion of borders to a critical concept of the frontier, where events such as the aforementioned insurrection became central to telling the history of the formation of the modern state geographies and their colonial nature in the region. The article proceeds from an analysis of the colonial archival data on an episode of a tribal rebellion in 1920 in Samakh and the Baysan valley - a place located at the meeting point of three new Mandate territories- to-be: Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan. This analysis links the handling of this revolt and its aftermath and the origins of colonial land policy in Mandate Palestine, especially as regards tribal grazing rights and the Ghawr-Mudawwara Land Agreement (or the Baysan Land Settlement) of 1921. In the process, I will also highlight some of the tensions and complexities of elite nationalist and popular politics in the period.

The Colonial Archival Record

The British military administration reported on the events of the 1920 revolt on three levels of discourse. The first was a discourse of criminality, found most prominently at the level of military intelligence. Military communiqués offered information and indirect causalities and explanations, if any. Using the simple binary of peace/trouble, this discourse completely silenced political agency. For example, one of the military intelligence telegrams reads:

On the morning of 22nd 1 Squadron 2nd Lancers with Deputy Military Governor Beisan went out to round up any of the Ghazawieh tribe found west side of Jordan. …

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