A talk on Palestinian leadership under the British Mandate

Bassam Abun-Nadi spoke on Palestine’s anti-colonial struggle

The photo shows the city of Palestine Israel. The buildings are condensed and in close proximity to each other. No people can be seen.
The talk was a part of the larger three day event — Palestinian Days at SFU. PHOTO: Amal Abdullah

By: Yasmin Vejs Simsek, Staff Writer

On June 1, SFU’s Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies (CCMS) held an event at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in collaboration with The Caucus. Educator and activist Bassam Abun-Nadi explored the absence of military academies in Palestine and its effect on the country’s anti-colonial struggle. 

The British Mandate for Palestine started after World War I and lasted until 1948. It saw British rule over Palestine after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The British Mandate was “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” When talking about Palestine’s history, Abun-Nadi, explained, there are three antagonists — The British imperial project, the Zionist movement and the Palestinian leadership, being the urban notables.

Abun-Nadi explained the Mandate resulted in the notables (an urban and elite social class) of Palestine becoming parliamentarians — which could be thought of as government officials. This, however, came to an abrupt end with the Nakba — which refers to the displacement and ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from their home country. Following the Nakba, the urban notables became the Palestinian leadership. Abun-Nadi explored the notables’ responsibility in losing Palestine and their anti-colonial struggle.

Being an educator himself, Abun-Nadi focuses on the impact of education on Palestine’s history. He observed the absence of military academies in Palestine, a free school to train men for the Ottoman army. This was important as several of the officers who came out of the academies in other parts of the Middle East went on to become anti-colonial figures and leaders of their home countries. Because Palestine lacked military graduates, the urban notables were forced to adopt leadership. 

There are several reasons there are no military academies in Palestine, according to Abun-Nadi. The first being “the Ottoman Empire did not design its institutions with the collapse of the empire in mind” and therefore did not plan for new borders. 

Secondly, military academies were only located in regional capitals. Holy cities and their surrounding areas were exempt from being drafted, leaving Jerusalem unable to have military academies. “What that meant is that Palestine barreled into the Mandate era without any institutionalized knowledge on how to resist an occupation,” said Abun-Nadi.  

This left the country with no one but the notables and peasants, who had no military training or no education at all, respectively, added Abun-Nadi.  

“In analyzing the anti-colonial struggle of the Palestinians, one would imagine had they had military officers it would have decisively changed the way that they were able to engage with the British empire,” said Abun-Nadi. The absence of military academies, and therefore officers, left the notables in charge. 

“The urban notables were not incompetent. They were not. The urban notables were supremely competent in all the wrong things.” The notables’ lack of leadership training may have enabled the occupation, but it was not a fault of their own. 

“The game had changed in such a way that the tools they had at their disposal just didn’t work anymore. They were playing chess while everyone else was playing rugby,” said Abun-Nadi.

Abun-Nadi ended with encouraging people to forgive each other and the urban notables for their share of the responsibility of Palestine’s past in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.  

Abun-Nadi is an SFU alumni and the founder and president of the grassroot organization RECLAIM, which works “to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims through education.” This talk marked the first of three Palestine Days at SFU, hosted by CCMS, MENA film festival, Institute for the Humanities, and other groups, at SFU. The Palestine Days lasted from June 1–3 and included film screenings, lectures, and workshops all surrounding Palestine and its peoples.

You can learn more from Abun-Nadi on his podcast “PreOccupation: A Not-So-Brief History of Palestine” and attend the next Palestine Days events. A Sky with no Stars will be available soon on CCMS’ Youtube channel.   

For more information on the Palestinian occupation, visit Amnesty International’s website or United Nations’ Human Rights Comission’s website.