Palestinian youth political socialisation and the British mandate

How can the British Mandate impact Palestinian youth?

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The British mandate and the colonial project in Palestine

In 1922, Palestine was placed under the British Mandate (BM), which controlled its political and economic structure. This facilitated the implementation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine while rejecting the Arab majority’s aspiration for statehood. This shaped Arab Palestinian’s political socialisation and restructured the demographic population, education, and economic infrastructure.

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Demographic control

In 1877, the Jewish population in Palestine was 3%. By the late nineteenth century it reached 9%. The British Mandate’s policies facilitated Jewish immigration, resulting in Jews comprising 30% of the general population by 1946. Due to this increase, Jewish communities developed militia (ie., Haganah) that were responsible for attacks on Arab Palestinans. The British police trained the Haganah to attack Arab villages and to strike down revolts, manifesting in displacement, mass arrest, and collective punishments, especially for villages that aided Palestinian guerrillas.

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This partnership furthered the goal of establishing Jewish communities previously inhabited by Arab Palestinians. These demographic changes raised anxiety among Arab Palestinians that called for resistance including youth. From 1928 onwards, Arab Palestinian boy scout groups were established in local communities. A local newspaper described them as “…to work for the welfare and awakening of the country without submitting to the rules of the imperialist…”.

In addition, Hajj Amin-Hussayni, Grand Mufti, and Head of the Supreme Muslim Council initiated scout troops to galvanise nationalist sentiments in the early 1930s. In 1934, a group of Arab boy scouts marched to a Jewish settlement to monitor illegal immigration but were attacked by Jewish members before reaching the coastline. The boy scout groups ability to engage the Arab Palestinian community led to the outbreak of the 1936 strike and revolt. In the Great Revolt (1936-1939), the old city of Jaffa was levelled and Arab Palestinian political organisations were deemed ‘illegal’. British officials arrested 2,600 strikers and some of which were as young as 14 years old.

Control of educational provisions

The educational system available to Arab Palestinian youth included private, missionary, and public schools. Public school were administered by the British and located in rural areas, where two-thirds of the Arab population resided. Schools were not accessible or affordable for every student; most teachers were not qualified, and the curriculum was built to adhere to the colonial agenda. The British administration controlled students’ access to quality education by creating two educational systems. One based on agriculture for rural youth and another based on vocational training for urban students.. With most rural schools only offering classes until grade 4 and classrooms were overcrowded, multi-age, and multi-grade.

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The British administration invested the bare minimum in elementary schools with villages contributing 50% of the expense compared to nought for urban schools. The Hope Simpson report published in October 1930 detailed that schools in rural areas only served 13% of eligible youth.

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Despite BM agenda schools became the hub of nationalism, as some educators informally integrated local history into their classrooms. Khalil Totah and Al- Borghuthi’s Arab educators wanted to publish a History of Palestine textbook, but officials refused to ensure the dominance of the Zionist perspective. Nonetheless students engaged with multiple political upheavals, and some teachers joined the resistance. By 1936, schools established more than 3,344 Boy Scout troops. These troops often promoted the Arab Palestinian national sentiment by obstructing police and monitoring strikes/boycotts. To limit the Boy Scouts’ community presence, the British denied its troop members the right to wear their uniform in public, “the ban was a recognition that the British authorities had lost control of scouting…”. As well as recognition of how scouting reinvented the British school’s agenda of subservience and the space between school and community.

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Destruction of economic prospects

BM economic policies increased the number of Arab Palestinians living in poverty through restructuring land registration and distribution. People who became landless experienced poverty and displacement, and some joined the resistance. The BM economic structures favoured the Jewish settlements’ plans and discriminated against the indigenous Arab population’s way of life, creating a “two-tiered colonial economy in which the Arab population was supposed to wait for the trickle-down effects of Jewish development”.

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The Arab Palestinian economy was primarily agricultural-based and approximately two-thirds of the Arab population worked the land. Most rural villages had a “joint tenure” or masha land, where a corporate body assigned parcels of land among its members. In 1929 the BM enacted The Land Registry scheme that focused on identifying the landowners and appropriate taxes. This land petition jeopardised impoverished fellaheen who relied on masha corporation or owned small plots due to lack of financial resources to complete the registration and pay taxes. Some fellaheen did not register due to a lack of funds, some registered the land under notables, and others registered a reduced plot. Zionist agents exploited this law by purchasing land. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) focused on absentee landowners with no connection to the land or local fellaheen. One such sale resulted in nine thousand Arab Palestinians becoming landless. The BM reallocated previously occupied lands and deemed them state land. Many of the state lands were sold to the JNF and were considered the “…best land in the country for irrigation agriculture.”

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Furthermore, By the early 1930s, more than 30% of the fellaheen became landless and soughtdaily labour jobs in urban centres and Jewish settlements, which changed the demographics of the urban labour market. On average Jewish employees earned 140-400% higher wages than their Arab counterparts.

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Cities such as Haifa were a hub for fellaheen from different villages who organised resistance against the BM during the Great Revolt. Most rebels were fellaheen with ages ranging from 14 to 70 years old. Youth were instrumental in observing and monitoring the Jewish boycotts by foreign merchants and aiding the Arab society’s political responses.

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The British Mandate’s demographic, educational, and economic policies marginalised the Arab community and shaped the national narrative for children and youth. Arab Palestinian youth challenged colonial policies while witnessing and experiencing displacement and deprivation. These policies favoured Jewish settlements as the foundation for establishing the State of Israel. Thus shaping children’s political socialisation and community engagement to this day. Restructuring children and youth’s political socialisation is connected to achieving justice for the Palestinian community.


Journal Reference 
Dr. Janette Habashi (2023) Orchestrating Palestinian youth political socialization during the British Mandate (1917-1948): policies and community responses, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2023.2171964

Dr. Janette Habashi is a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her research examines children’s socio-political interactions, the formation of children’s agency, patterns of socialization in conflict areas, and their impact on individual development and community engagement. Additionally, she is a member of the research committee for Project ACoRN: Palestine (Advancing Children’s Rights Network), which aims to raise awareness of and capacity for implementing children's rights research and social action. Dr. Habashi is an accomplished author of several peer-reviewed publications and scholarly books. In 2015, she founded A Child's Cup Full, a nonprofit in the West Bank that creates sustainable economic opportunities for Palestinian refugee communities.