An immediate outcome of the Nakba was the death of Mandate-era national based politics. The major parties that had been operating in Palestine – al-Difaʿa, al-Istiqlal, and al-Hizb al-ʿArabi al-Filastini – disappeared. Now scattered across the borders of several Arab states, Palestinians instead became directly engaged with broader Arab movements, while the dispersal of their population strengthened their involvement in regional politics. This was equally the case with Palestinians who remained, or sought refuge, in the West Bank (which was annexed to Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (placed under Egyptian administration).
This period witnessed a rapid growth in the activities of transnational parties and movements. Whereas the mandate period was dominated by national parties whose scope of action was restricted to the boundaries of Palestine, political energies were now rechannelled into parties that operated on the level of the Arab Mashriq as a whole. Almost immediately after the Nakba, these parties – advocating internationalist, Islamist, or Arab nationalist positions – were joined by a generation of younger Palestinians.
The foremost internationalist organisation was the Communist Party, which had existed as a small group prior to the Nakba. In 1943, its Palestinian members split from the Palestine Communist Party (which included both Arabs and Jews), forming the National Liberation League. Following the Nakba, the party reconstituted itself into three separate organisations operating in the Jordanian West and East Banks, the areas that fell in 1948, as well as Gaza.
In the Islamic arena two major movements developed. The larger of these was the Muslim Brotherhood, with a small presence in Palestine since at least 1937. It grew substantially after the Nakba, initially attracting youth as a result of the participation of Muslim Brothers from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq in support of Palestine during the 1947-49 war. In Jordan and the West Bank, the Muslim Brothers operated as part of the Jordanian branch of the movement, while they formed a separate organisation in Gaza. A smaller Islamic movement that attracted some young Palestinian members during this period was Hizb al-Tahrir, founded by Sheikh Taqi al-Din al-Nabahani, who had previously served as a judge in Jerusalem, and had taught in the Islamic Scientific College in Amman between 1950 and 1952. This party’s solution to the Nakba was the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. Its small membership was initially composed of religious figures but it eventually managed to recruit energetic younger members outside the West Bank. While these movements were active in the early years after the Nakba, their political appeal declined significantly in the mid-1950s, partly due to their preference for spreading social conservative principles over political action.
The strongest political currents were pan-Arabist, as opposed to communist or Islamist. Palestinian cadres joined the Baʿath party in substantial numbers, and they effectively established its largest competitor, the Movement of Arab Nationalists. Believing that genuine Arab political independence and unity was the key to the liberation of Palestine, they played a prominent role in these structures, and acquired an anti-colonial intellectual and material culture on the Arab regional level as a result. Bahjat Abu Gharbiya’s memoirs illustrate how young Palestinians, alongside their Jordanian comrades, were engaged in mass mobilisation in Jordan, participating in all the political battles of the 1950s including opposition to the Baghdad pact, the fight to abrogate the 1948 Anglo-Jordanian Treaty and end British control over the armed forces, and solidarity with the Algerian revolution.
Young Palestinian political organisers were also exposed to advanced political and organisational theory in national gatherings as well as in local branch meetings. For one of the major parties of the time, the Baʿath, Abu Gharbiya describes how the annual party conferences were attended by delegates from local branches, acting as a school where members “educated themselves intellectually and organisationally”. Cadres were expected to demonstrate serious ideological engagement, and all of the major parties fielded their own theoreticians and publications. This vibrant production and dissemination of ideas attracted new members and furthered the political education of those already committed.
This was certainly in line with the outlook of the major parties. The founder of the Baʿath, the Syrian Michel ͑Aflaq, spoke and wrote extensively on the connection between political organisation and the Palestinian cause. In a piece authored before the Nakba, he argued that popular grassroots mobilisation for Palestine was the only antidote to the cynical rejection of politics, or the naive acceptance of pronouncements from colonially controlled Arab rulers. He made a resolute plea for organised party engagement.
This became a mass vision in the aftermath of the Nakba. Along with the Communists, who were pioneers in this regard, the Movement of Arab Nationalists and the Baʿath organised clandestine cell structures and established a method for recruiting and absorbing cadres. The transformative impact of party membership on the everyday lives of cadres can be seen in Bayan Nuwayhad al-Hut’s account, which details her early political experiences. Significantly, her generation witnessed a rapid growth of female membership in organised political movements. This was one of the key changes in political culture the 1950s brought to the Arab world as well as globally. Some female cadres encountered parties in secondary and post-secondary educational institutions; others like Abla Taha of the Movement of Arab Nationalists, were approached by political parties at the behest of family members who had secretly joined before.
Cadres were expected to read and disseminate party literature, a genre that proliferated throughout the 1950s, reflecting an exposure to major international currents in political thought. Arab anti-colonial causes in general (and the Palestinian cause in particular) underlined universalist themes. This can be illustrated by an influential work of the period, Munif al-Razzaz’s Features of the New Arab Life (1953), which counterposed the current Arab predicament with the potentialities of the future. This text is replete with second-generation Fabian influences articulating a reformist brand of socialism, and a belief in the inexorable nature of progress. The ultimate goal was the realisation of individual liberty within an egalitarian society that was entirely freed from colonialism. Al-Razzaz argued that the battle was to overcome geographic division, colonial domination, economic backwardness, and the yawning gulf that existed between “the rulers and the ruled” in the Arab world. The future of the region would be determined by the struggle between three forces: first, progress, concerned with “regeneration” and the future; next, the constraining force of the recent past, characterised by the local elites with roots in the Ottoman period; and finally, the power of colonialism, which was “pushing backwards from the front,” by putting obstacles in the path of the forces of progressive change.
Palestinian cadres, particularly on the left, viewed this battle for progress in universalist terms: at the time their thought was deeply connected with international trends and relied on a language shared by global movements, particularly of a socialist variety. The poems of Muʿin Bseiso, a communist leader from Gaza, illustrate this with his famous poem The Battle, published in January 1952, which used images and concepts shared by communists worldwide, defining a heroic revolution against “the monstrous enemies of life”. This poem continues to be one of the foremost examples of Arab revolutionary literature in its power and simplicity.
A generation of Palestinians, joined to the forces of progress and fighting for regional change, was therefore brought into direct collision with the regional status quo throughout the 1950s. The very idea of organising along party lines was viewed with immense suspicion by ruling authorities, and in the case of Jordan reflected the anxieties of British colonial structures, as well as the local monarchical order. The two Foreign Office documents here illustrate an increasing awareness by the colonial power of local and regional political mobilisation in the early years following the Nakba.
While the British were resigned to the inevitable emergence of Arab nationalist parties, they hoped these would take a mild and ‘moderate’ form rather than a radical anti-colonial one. As their report shows, it was clear by the mid-1950s that this hope was unattainable, and the British began to encourage the Jordanian government to restrict the activities of parties who were deemed too radical, such as the Baʿath. They also ensured, with full cooperation from the Jordanian government, that any form of communist organising would be suppressed – in Jordan from 1948 (and up to 1989), a law was promulgated punishing communist political activity with fifteen years of imprisonment. The Communist party (the oldest ideological party in Palestine) was immediately affected, as its cadres, together with their comrades from the East Bank, had responded to the new realities of the Nakba by forming the Jordanian Communist Party in 1951. Over the course of the 1950s many of its members, including the historic leader Fuʾad Nasser, were arrested and placed in the infamous al-Jafar prison in the desert of southern Jordan.
The largest political arena for Palestinians was Jordan (including the West Bank) but it was by no means the only one; Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and various other Arab countries all had a large Palestinian organised presence. One account here shows how Damascus operated as a centre for Palestinian organising, and describes the links between between it and the Palestinians in the Gulf region.
Political organising also re-emerged in the areas under direct Israeli control in 1948, largely carried out by the Israeli Communist Party. Even more intense political activity was witnessed in Gaza, in which all the main parties had a long history of mobilisation. At a time when Palestinians were searching for suitable ideological and organisational models for liberating their lost lands and returning to them, it was not unusual to experiment with various parties, moving from one to another with rapidity and fluidity. This wide degree of versatility can be seen in the memoirs of ʿAbd al-Qadir Yassin, who began his political life as a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood before switching to the Communist Party in Gaza.
Some Palestinians focused their energies outside of the parties, or more commonly combined their party membership with other forms of association. For instance, the experience of working class organising, which had a substantial pre-Nakba heritage, was transmitted by Palestinians to surrounding Arab countries, in particular Jordan. This is discussed in detail in the memoirs of the pioneering Palestinian labour unionist, Husni Salih al-Khuffash. Here he recounts the continuation of the workers movement, under the banner of the Arab Palestinian Workers Association, up until its closure and the confiscation of its assets by the Hashemite authorities in 1951. He also details how veteran union members that had previously led the pre-Nakba labour struggles in Haifa, Jaffa, and Nablus, formed the General Union of Jordanian Workers in Amman. This collective work did not come without a huge cost. Indeed, many leading labour organisers, including al-Khuffash himself, were imprisoned or exiled for their political activities throughout the 1950s.
Besides their involvement in these political and social structures Palestinians actively sought military training. Excerpts from the memoirs of ʿAbd al-Razzaq al-Yahya describe the graduation of the first cohort of trained Palestinian officers during the context of the Nakba, and their subsequent incorporation into the Syrian army in 1949. This was the first of multiple cohorts of Palestinian officers who served in various regional armies over the following years, and many were to invest these military skills into launching the Palestinian armed struggle.