British security forces searching Arab civilians, April 1920
Anti-Zionist demonstration at Damascus Gate, 8 March 1920
The contents and proposals of both the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Paris Peace Conference, 1919, which later concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, were the subject of intensive discussion by both Zionist and Arab delegations, and the process of the negotiations were widely reported in both communities. In particular, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, led to an undertaking by the victorious powers, predominantly Great Britain and France, to assume a 'holy mission of civilization' in the power vacuum of the Middle East. Under the Balfour Declaration, a homeland for the Jewish people was to be created in Palestine. The principle of self-determination affirmed by the League of Nations was not to be applied to Palestine, given the foreseeable rejection by the people of Zionism, which the British sponsored. These post-World War I arrangements both for Palestine and other Arab societies led to a 'radicalization' of the Arab world.
On 1 March 1920, the death of Joseph Trumpeldor in the Battle of Tel Hai at the hands of a Shiite group from Southern Lebanon, caused deep concern among Jewish leaders, who made numerous requests to the OETA administration to address the Yishuv's security and forbid a pro-Syrian public rally. However, their fears were largely discounted by the Chief Administrative Officer General Louis Bols, Military Governor Ronald Storrs and General Edmund Allenby, despite a warning from the head of the Zionist Commission Chaim Weizmann that a "pogrom is in the air", supported by assessments available to Storrs. Communiqués had been issued about foreseeable troubles among Arabs, and between Arabs and Jews. To Weizmann and the Jewish leadership, these developments were reminiscent of instructions that Russian generals had issued on the eve of pogroms. In the meantime, local Arab expectations had been raised to a pitch by the declaration of the Syrian Congress on 7 March of the independence of Greater Syria in the Kingdom of Syria, with Faisal as its king, that included the British-controlled territory within its claimed domain. On 7 and 8 March, demonstrations took place in all cities of Palestine, shops were closed and many Jews were attacked. Attackers carried slogans such as "Death to Jews" or "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!"
Jewish leaders requested that OETA authorise the arming of the Jewish defenders to make up for the lack of adequate British troops. Although this request was declined, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, together with Pinhas Rutenberg, led an effort to openly train Jewish volunteers in self-defense, an effort of which the Zionist Commission kept the British informed. Many of the volunteers were members of the Maccabi sports club and some of them were veterans of the Jewish Legion. Their month of training largely consisted of calisthenics and hand to hand combat with sticks. By the end of March, about 600 were said to be performing military drills daily in Jerusalem. Jabotinsky and Rutenberg also began organizing the collection of arms.
The Nebi Musa festival was an annual spring Muslim festival that began on the Friday before Good Friday and included a procession to the Nebi Musa shrine (tomb of Moses) near Jericho. It had apparently existed since the time of Saladin. Arab educator and essayist Khalil al-Sakakini described how tribes and caravans would come with banners and weapons. The Ottoman Turks usually deployed thousands of soldiers and even artillery to keep order in the narrow streets of Jerusalem during the Nebi Musa procession. However, Storrs issued a warning to Arab leaders, but deployed only 188 policemen.