The 1920 Jerusalem riots – Arab fears, Zionist pressures, faulty security cited in British Palin inquiry

By Mike Scott-Baumann

The Report of the Palin Commission (or Court) of Inquiry, 1920

The Commission was established in May, 1920, to examine the reasons for the Jerusalem [‘Nebi Musa’] riots of April, 1920, and “the extent and causes of racial feelings that at present exist in Palestine”. Its three members were all senior military officers.

The Commission’s Report is clear, logically ordered and at pains to examine the views of all the main parties: the Zionists, the Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) and the British Administration. The Commission sat for 52 days and examined 152 witnesses.

The British Administration referred to throughout the report is the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA) which had been established in April 1918.

The report starts with ‘the more remote causes’, examining both the ‘Arab Case’ and the ‘Jewish Case’, on the grounds that this will lead on to ‘the gradual unfolding’ of events which led to the riots.

‘The Arab Case’

The report notes that ‘Turkish’ [not ‘Ottoman’] rule had not been onerous, that it had been carried out ‘through the leading Arab families’ and that the ‘three sects’ (Muslim, Christian and Jew) lived in ‘amity’.

The Commission endorsed the official British view that Palestine was not one of the areas which Sir Henry Mc Mahon, High Commissioner of Egypt, in 1916, had acknowledged should be independent after the end of the First World War but it notes that the Arabs were encouraged by the Allies’ declared policy of self-determination for ‘small nations’.  Nevertheless, the Balfour Declaration was ‘undoubtedly the starting point of the whole trouble.’ In particular, the vagueness of “A National Home for the Jewish People” had led to ‘loose interpretations’ and ‘outspoken statements of the Zionist extremists’.

The Commission believes the Declaration led to the ‘bitterness of the awakening’ amongst the Arabs and to hostility towards the British Administration. The Arabs had ‘a deep-seated fear of the Jew’ and of ‘the Jew as a ruler’ [British officials frequently spoke of ‘Jews’ when they were referring to Zionists]. The Arabs’ greatest fear was of economic competition, of ‘extensive Jewish immigration’ backed by the ‘physical force of a great Imperial Power’. The Arab farmer was filled ‘with panic fear’, believing that ‘room can only be made for the Jew in their country by their own subjection or eviction’.

The report’s authors believe that whatever the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land (whether there is sufficient undeveloped arable land to sustain Jewish settlement on the land), ‘all immigration should be carefully regulated and admitted very gradually’. Yet Arabs see it as ineffectively controlled.

The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann is seen as a moderating influence but the ‘loose language of the Jewish extremists’, who talk of expelling Arabs and placing them in a ’position inferior to that of the Jews’, and Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, referring to a “Jewish State”,  ‘ has  led to panic’.

The report’s authors highlight the pressure which the Zionist organisation exerted on the Government in London, particularly evident in the terms of reference granted to the Zionist Commission, which was to advise the British authorities in Palestine ‘in all matters relating to Jews or which may effect the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people’. The Commission, which arrived in Palestine in April, 1918, went on to secure recognition of Hebrew as an official language and the agreement that all Jewish candidates for police be assessed by the Commission which, in turn, led to ’divided loyalty’ especially as the Administration allowed the Commission to subsidise all Jewish officials in the police and elsewhere.

The Zionist Commission was reported to be looking like an ‘independent administration’ which duplicated ‘every department’ of official administration and exploited channels that enabled it to learn of ‘the most secret [British] official documents’, all this ‘at a time when the Mandate has not yet been given.’

While some of the demands of the Zionists were rejected (e.g. for more participation in the Military Administration), all show pressure on the Government in London and a Zionist attitude towards the Administration of “We want the Jewish State and we won’t wait”. The Zionists were reported to be determined to ‘force the hand of an Administration bound to respect the “Status Quo” and to commit it, and thereby future Administrations, to a policy not contemplated in the Balfour Declaration’.

The report says that Zionist intelligence knew ‘a great deal more of the inner working of the Administration’ than vice versa and that the Zionist Commission’s interference ‘convinced’ Arabs of the power of the Commission and irritated those in the Administration who wished to govern in ‘the best interests of all’.

Zionist influence is reported to have led to the dismissal of the Arab Mayor of Jerusalem by the governor, Ronald Storrs, and the appointment of David Yellin, a Jew, as Deputy Mayor, so that Arabs viewed the Civil Administration as ‘the mere puppet of the Zionist organisation’. 

The Court of Inquiry recognised that the ‘native population’ was supposed to have been reassured by the Balfour Declaration’s guarantees on civil and religious rights but that when Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a Zionist elder and leader, stated that the ‘Temple area and the whole of the Mount are bound in the end to revert to us’ and the Zionist Commission referred to the Wall as ‘property of Israel’ and expressed confidence that ’our Holy Temple will be rebuilt’, doubts were increasingly entertained by both Arab public and British government officials.

In what is effectively an intermediate conclusion, the report found ‘the native population, disappointed of their hopes, panic-stricken as to their future, exasperated beyond endurance by the aggressive attitude of the Zionists, and despairing of redress at the hands of an Administration which seems to them powerless before the Zionist organisation.’

For these reasons, the report found the Arabs prey to anti-British agitation, especially following the declaration, by Emir Feisal of ‘United Syria’, which included Palestine and which Muslim-Christian Associations supported as a way of foiling Zionist aspirations and countering the Balfour Declaration.

The Report then goes on to examine:

‘The Jewish case’

Zionist witnesses were reported to have been particularly bitter. They described the riots as a ‘pogrom’, if not because of the connivance of the Government then of ‘lower police officials’. Furthermore, they alleged that the Administration had displayed bias, shown disloyalty to the policy of the Balfour Declaration and been unprepared for the attacks of which they had been forewarned.

The report stresses the need to recognise that the Administration is ‘a military organisation acting under a Chief Administrator who takes orders from the Commander-in-Chief’, Lord  Allenby. As such, the Chief Administrators always followed Military Law for occupied enemy territory, above all the requirement to maintain the Status Quo. However, this proved difficult because the military administration, which was meant to be transitory, lasted a ‘few years’ owing to the ‘protracted [post-war] peace negotiations’ while Zionist pressure on the Foreign Office resulted in proclamations, such as that introducing the Hebrew language, which were clearly at variance with the Status Quo. The Zionists were abusing ‘their influence at home with the British government leading to ‘harassment’ of the Administration in Palestine.

The report then turns to Zionist allegations of bias in the Administration, firstly in the form of personal comments by government personnel and unfair discrimination. However, it finds comparatively little evidence of such and the senior judicial officer, Lieutenant Norman Bentwich, who is Jewish and is said be an ardent Zionist, did not detect a general bias and thought the ‘Jews are a little out to seek offence’. The evidence of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, recently the Chief Political Officer, who saw widespread British ‘dislike for the Jew’, is given less credence as believed to be sweeping and contradictory. The report concludes that there had been only a couple of cases of unfair discrimination and that these had led to dismissals.

 In response to Zionist accusations that the Administration’s dealings with Emir Feisal indicated a disloyalty to the British Government and encouraged the Arabs to attack the Jews, the report acknowledges that the British did consider recognising Feisal as’ ruler of an Arab state including the English provinces of Mesopotamia and Palestine’, as it might end French intrigue and pacify Arab states. However, it did not agree that this constituted ‘disloyalty to the Government Policy or distaste for Zionist aims’ but ‘a hopeful and possible solution of the grave difficulties which were then afflicting the near and middle East.’   

The report points out ‘the occasional failure of liaison between the OETA. and the Governate of Jerusalem and the defective intelligence system which resulted in their being ignorant of the Zionists’ duplication of Government’ and of ‘the daily drilling of “Jabotinsky’s army” [see below] when that proceeding was the common talk of the town’.

In conclusion, the Court recognised no general bias, only a few individual cases and in difficult circumstances, and that the Administration ‘loyally carried out the policy laid down for it’, holding the balance between ‘the warring sections’.

‘Circumstances which gave rise to the disturbances’

The Report judged that Arab hostility to the Zionists and to the British Administration contributed to a widespread feeling that a ‘storm was beating up’ in the weeks before Easter.

The Administration allowed two demonstrations to go ahead before Easter (providing a ‘safety valve’) despite objections by Zionist leaders. The first was manageable, the second followed Faisal’s declaration of himself as ‘King of Syria and Palestine’ and the temper was ‘decidedly nasty’ and the speeches ‘violently political’, although the police maintained control.

In Easter week, Christian, Jewish and Muslim festivals all coincided. The Muslim festival of Nebi Musa involved a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the tomb, believed by Muslims to be that of Moses, near Jericho. The report states that ‘subsequent events’ suggested that ‘firebrands’ and ‘agents provocateurs’ were present but that there was ‘no evidence of any definite plan on the part of an organised body of rioters’.

Traditionally, the Turks had 2-3,000 troops on standby in case of clashes between the ‘wrangling sects’ at this time. The British expected some ‘trouble’ on the Friday before Easter when Muslim pilgrims from the ‘nearer villages and Jerusalem itself’ assemble and process to the Haram al Sharif. However, only eight police officers and 188 men were available (‘totally inadequate’ in numbers and in training) and Allenby forbade the use of troops. In the event, the ceremony passed off peacefully, perhaps instilling a ‘false sense of security.’

Then, on the Sunday, after the arrival of pilgrims from Hebron, some highly political speeches were made and a portrait of the Emir Feisal elicited cries of “King of Syria and Palestine”. In the midst of a ‘highly inflammatory’ atmosphere, an explosion occurred, quite possibly ‘fired by some agents provocateurs raising the cry of an insult to the banner by a Jew.’ This led to the stoning and looting of some Jewish shops and assaults on Jews. Although there were ‘some incidents in which groups of Jews attacked the police and Arab looters’, the Jews were judged to be ‘the sufferers’, with ‘the majority of the casualties being old men, women and children.’

Troops were brought in and ‘the trouble appears to have been practically over by midday’, but ‘no less than 118 cases’ were treated at one hospital alone.

The report, however, is clearly critical of the police for having ‘drifted into a condition of helplessness’ so that, by the Sunday, ‘they had practically ceased to have any value as a force.’ Furthermore, the failure to prosecute Arabs ‘arrested during the riots for offences and Arab policemen charged with misconduct’ was ‘unsatisfactory.’

The Jews in Jerusalem were said to be in ‘complete panic’ while the Zionist Commission blamed the Administration for all their troubles. The Jews showed ‘a strong desire to assist, but in their own way and as usual to work under their own chiefs rather than assist the Administration’. On the Sunday, ‘Mr. Jabotinsky and Mr. Ruthenberg [sic]’ offered the assistance of their ‘volunteer bands’. These had been ‘openly drilling’ although the Administration claimed not to know, a fact attributed to ‘the curious defects in the intelligence system’. They also asked for Arab police to be disarmed. Three days later  Vladimir Jabotinsky was arrested and was prosecuted (he had arms in his house), a decision which the report found ‘ungenerous’, especially given his ‘record as the organiser of the Jewish Battalions for the service of the British Army’ during the War.

Whatever plans were made for keeping order at this stage (and the Court reported a ‘conflict of evidence’ from senior military officials), they did not prevent the murder of ‘several’ Jews and the looting of Jewish property on the Monday. The removal of troops from the centre of ‘the walled city’ that day was deemed to be ‘a very serious error of judgement’.

On the Tuesday, the military were ‘in control’ although one military witness reported that looting and shooting continued ‘in the absence of both police and soldiers.’ Despite the imposition of martial law, the Court concluded that ‘it was undoubtedly too long a time before effective control was attained.’

‘The extent of racial feeling in Palestine’

In a penultimate, short section, the report concludes: ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the position erected in Palestine by the various misunderstandings and indiscretions narrated in the foregoing report. On the one hand we are faced with a native population thoroughly exasperated by a sense of injustice and disappointed hopes, panic stricken as to their future and as to ninety per cent of their numbers in consequence bitterly hostile to the British Administration…

On the other hand we have the Zionists, whose impatience to achieve their ultimate goal and indiscretion are largely responsible for this unhappy state of feeling, now bitterly hostile to the British Administration… They are ready to use their powerful foreign and home influence to force the hand of this or any future Administration. If not carefully checked they may easily precipitate a catastrophe, the end of which it is difficult to forecast’.

In its ‘Conclusions’, the Report lists ‘the considered opinions submitted by the Court’ in a 500-word summary. In its final words, it observes: ‘That the situation at present obtaining in Palestine is exceedingly dangerous and demands firm and patient handling if a serious catastrophe is to be avoided’.


In mid-April, Major-General Sir Louis Bols, the last military administrator, wrote to British military Headquarters in Cairo to recommend abolition of the Zionist Commission. It was impossible to please people, he wrote, ‘who claim nothing more than a National Home but in reality will be satisfied with nothing less than a Jewish State’. Sir Louis’s recommendation was ignored and the Zionist Commission was recognised as the official ‘Jewish Agency’, mentioned in the Mandate, a year later. 

The military administration was replaced by a civilian one in July, 1920, and Sir Herbert Samuel became High Commissioner. The report was presented in August, 1920. General Allenby advised that it should be published, partly to ‘clear’ the military, who were not ‘in any way to blame’. However, in anticipation of Zionist objections, it was decided, on Sir Herbert’s advice, only to convey the gist of the report verbally to a ‘responsible’ Zionist leader. The contents were not made public.

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, Mike Scott-Baumann taught history for 35 years and is the author of Palestinians and Israelis: A Short History of Conflict which was published by The History Press in 2021. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Balfour Project.

Further Reading

Palin Report

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