1920 Nebi Musa riots

Nebi Musa procession, 4 April 1920

The 1920 Nebi Musa riots or 1920 Jerusalem riots took place in British-controlled part of Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (which would shortly become Mandatory Palestine) between Sunday, 4 and Wednesday, 7 April 1920 in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Five Jews and four Arabs were killed, and several hundred were injured.[1] The riots coincided with and are named after the Nebi Musa festival, which took place every year on Easter Sunday, and followed rising tensions in Arab-Jewish relations. The events came shortly after the Battle of Tel Hai and the increasing pressure on Arab nationalists in Syria in the course of the Franco-Syrian War.

Speeches were given by Arab religious leaders during the festival (in which large numbers of Muslims traditionally gathered for a religious procession), which included slogans referencing Zionist immigration and previous confrontations around outlying Jewish villages in the Galilee. The trigger which turned the procession into a riot is not known with certainty - some evidence exists suggesting Jewish provocation, but it is also possible, though unreported, that Arab activities triggered the riots.[2]

The British military administration of Palestine was criticized for withdrawing troops from inside Jerusalem and because it was slow to regain control.[3] As a result of the riots, trust between the British, Jews, and Arabs eroded. One consequence was that the Jewish community increased moves towards an autonomous infrastructure and security apparatus parallel to that of the British administration.[citation needed]

In its wake, sheikhs of 82 villages around the city and Jaffa, claiming to represent 70% of the population, issued a document protesting the demonstrations against the Jews. This condemnation may have been procured with bribes.[4] Notwithstanding the riots, the Palestinian Jewish community held elections for the Assembly of Representatives on 19 April 1920 among Jews everywhere in Palestine except Jerusalem, where they were delayed to 3 May.[5] The riots also preceded the San Remo conference which was held from 19 to 26 April 1920 at which the fate of the Middle East was to be decided.


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.[6]

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.[1] 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.[7] 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,[8] 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!"[9]

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.[1] By the end of March, about 600 were said to be performing military drills daily in Jerusalem.[10] Jabotinsky and Rutenberg also began organizing the collection of arms.[10]

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.[11] It had apparently existed since the time of Saladin.[12] Arab educator and essayist Khalil al-Sakakini described how tribes and caravans would come with banners and weapons.[1] 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.