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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Crime in the Mandate: British and Zionist criminological discourse and Arab nationalist agitation in Palestine, 1936-39

  • Author(s): Kelly, Matthew Kraig
  • Advisor(s): Gelvin, James L
  • et al.

This study examines British strategies for social control during the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936-39. It focuses specifically on the British discourse of criminality vis-à-vis the Arabs, and the ways in which this discourse related to British and Zionist representations of Arab Palestinian nationalism. Its primary finding is that British imperial discourse in the 1930s necessitated that nationalist movements such as that for Arab Palestinian independence be criminalized in a particular manner. London tended in the nineteenth century to regard the nationalist movements within its colonial domains as essentially criminal enterprises. Given the terms of the post-WWI mandates system, however, the British were poorly positioned to suggest that Palestinian nationalists in general were criminally inclined. After all, the entire justification for the British presence in the Middle East was the shepherding of its peoples across the threshold of national autonomy. Thus, while the British undoubtedly practiced a form of colonialism in Iraq and Palestine/Transjordan, they did so on an anti-colonial pretext. When the movement for Palestinian national independence threatened their traditional colonial prerogatives in 1936-39, the British could neither plausibly deny the existence of Palestinian nationalism nor suggest that it amounted to mere criminality. In consequence, while privately acknowledging that they faced a nationalist uprising in the mandate, British officials publicly presented the rebellion as the work of a criminal minority masquerading as a national army. In this, they had the full support of mainstream Zionist opinion, both official and popular. By presenting the rebellion as a crime wave, both parties attempted to marginalize what the revolt sought to foreground: the Arab majority's case for national autonomy in Palestine. In neglecting to narrate the events of 1936-39 within this political context, previous histories of the Palestinian Great Revolt have often reproduced uncritically aspects of the British and Zionist criminological framing of the rebellion.

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