Some cycles of violence seem to be underpinned by the actions of one individual. Such is the case, for instance, with Adolf Hitler in World War 2 or Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine. Would these wars and their untold suffering have happened if these people were never born or if there had been a successful assassination attempt?
We don’t tend to think in these terms in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps to attribute so much blame to one person could never do the subject justice.
But if I had to put my money on one person, it would be Hajj al-Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948, the most powerful man in Palestinian politics until Yasser Arafat, and a resolute Nazi collaborator.
The history of the unsuccessful peace process between Israelis and Palestinians has always been afflicted by, among other painful things, an anti-pragmatic tendency on the Arab side, of which Husseini is an original architect.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
April 1921, Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine:
“I saw Haj Amin Husseini and discussed with him […] the political situation and the question of his appointment to the office of Grand Mufti,” wrote Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner of Palestine. Samuel had recently pardoned Husseini for his conviction relating to his role in inciting the Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem in 1920, following the announcement of the Balfour Declaration. Five Jews were killed and another 216 were injured.
Samuel’s letter continued: “He [Husseini] gave me assurances that the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility in Jerusalem and felt sure that no disturbances need be feared this year.”
Then, with considerable unease, the British proceeded to appoint Husseini to the office of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Assurances notwithstanding, a few weeks after he took office, he ignited a new round of riots which resulted in the massacre of 43 Jews.
This pattern of incitement continued through the 1920s and into the 1930s, reaching new deadly heights in 1936 when Husseini played a central role in inciting the Arab revolt of 1936 to 1939.
By the 20th century, European and Islamic antisemitism were obviously nothing new, but Husseini’s novelty was that he was able to fuse the two and deploy the rhetoric to create massive destabilizing demonstrations. He combined European antisemitism, in which Jews are seen as deceitful, dangerous, and responsible for the world’s misfortunes, with the worst images of Jews in the Muslim world, in which Jews are contempt-worthy, and relegated to perpetual second-class citizenship.
In a speech given in 1937 at a conference in Blutan, Syria, called “Islam and the Jews” (which was read in Husseini’s absence because he was, at this point, on the run from the British), he wrote, “Just as the Jews were able to betray Mohammed, they will betray the Muslims today…” He warned attendees of the “Jewish lack of character and their malicious, mendacious, and treacherous behavior…” According to historian Jeffrey Herf, the speech became “a founding text of the Islamist tradition.”
As the drums of war in Europe beat, Husseini’s political aspirations began to depend exclusively on his budding alliance with Nazi Germany. He put all his eggs in the basket of the Axis powers winning the war and became convinced, even more so than before, that there was no need to compromise and negotiate. All or nothing.
After being convicted (again) by the British, this time for his role in inciting the 1936-1939 revolt, Husseini fled Palestine and made his way to Berlin where he would spend the war years spreading Nazi propaganda across the Middle East.
The Husseini-Nazi alliance was strong not only because of realpolitik. It thrived because Husseini and Hitler were “ideological soulmates.” Both radical nationalists, both vigorously antisemitic, they converged on most views, foremost on their hatred of Jews. The Nazis supplied Husseini with weapons and money and promised to help him exterminate the Jews in Palestine as soon as the Wehrmacht conquered the Middle East. In return, Husseini continued to disseminate antisemitic propaganda and incite against the Jews and Allied interests in the region.
But then Germany lost the war. Husseini lost the big bet. There would be no crushing of his enemies in Palestine by the Nazis.
After being detained by the French on war crime accusations by the United States and Yugoslavia but somehow convincing his captors to let him go, Husseini fled to Cairo, where he tirelessly continued his struggle against the establishment of a Jewish state.
When the 1947 UN resolution to divide Palestine between the Jews and Arabs was presented, Husseini and his radicals, who were still the most powerful force in Palestinian politics, flatly rejected it.
The Arabs went to war (first the Palestinians and then the Arab states) against the Yishuv and were resoundingly defeated. The loss of this second big bet was a turning point for Husseini. And though he continued to incite Jew hatred and agitate against Israel into the 1950s and 1960s, after the Arab defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war his influence started to gradually fade as he was increasingly ostracized for his disastrous decision-making. Husseini eventually settled in Beirut, where he died of natural causes in 1974.
How the Mufti shaped the Middle East
“There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” This is a quote from the founding charter of Hamas. Though particularly extreme, it exemplifies the radical, rejectionist, anti-pragmatic tendency that Husseini worked so hard to implement.
Of course Hamas and Husseini do not represent Palestinians or Arabs in general. But it is important to realize that the rejectionist ideology espoused and enforced by Husseini in his day lives on and over the last century has entrenched itself into the political reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Husseini was an ideologue, not a pragmatist. He did not engage in diplomacy with his sworn enemies (the British and the Zionists) nor did he tolerate dissenting opinions from moderate Arab oppositionists. He enforced his guidelines through campaigns of murder and intimidation. One notable victim was Fakhr al-Nashashibi, leader of the al-Nashashibi clan, Husseini’s most prominent Palestinian political opponent who was willing, in many cases, to negotiate with the Zionist leadership or Arab moderates.
Husseini made bad decisions at most of the critical junctions of policy formation in the decades leading to the establishment of the Jewish state. If he would have compromised a little, worked with the British government, the Zionists, and Arab moderates, it would likely have been a short path, with British support, to fulfilling Palestinian national aspirations.
Even candid Husseini apologists, such as the historian Philip Mattar, acknowledge this fact: ““Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni’s policies […] were failures and unwittingly contributed to the dispossession of the Palestinians.”
For example, the Arab Higher Committee (effectively, the Palestinian government, established and chaired by Husseini) rejected the partition plan of the Peel Commission when it was proposed in 1937, which would have given the Arabs 80% of the land and the Jews 20%. Zionist leadership was divided over the details of the partition but there was an implicit consensus of acceptance.
Husseini had no intentions of diplomacy with the Zionists but he could have wielded the situation to his advantage – even using the newly forged Palestinian state as a base to attack tiny Israel. Counterintuitively, the radical voices silenced those of the Arab pragmatists and Husseini instead continued to agitate against the British and the Zionists and develop his alliance with Nazi Germany.
Husseini’s antisemitism and his collaboration with the Nazis embittered the Zionist leadership. As World War 2 ended in an Axis defeat and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war approached, he was open about his intentions. He said the Arabs and the Jews were locked in a conflict in which either side “can only exist in the ruins of the other,” and that the Arabs must “attack the Jews and destroy them as soon as the British forces have withdrawn.”
The 1948 war would likely have unfolded very differently if Husseini wasn’t in the picture, especially in terms of the tragic displacement of people which gave rise to the Palestinian refugee crisis – an issue at the heart of today’s conflict and which obstructs the road to peace. “Arab expulsionist and annihilationist, or perceived annihilationist, intentions towards Zion’s Jews triggered expulsionist Yishuv attitudes towards Palestine’s Arabs.” wrote the historian Benny Morris on this point.
The mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war has other factors, no doubt. There were strategic and tactical considerations that compelled Israeli forces to expel Palestinians. In other cases, they were expelled without clear reason. In others still, they were not expelled at all, some left because of the fear of battle or due to economic hardships brought on by war, and many stayed. But the seeds of expulsionism that were planted by Husseini had taken root in the psychological landscape of the conflict.
Furthermore, it is even possible that if Husseini was never part of the equation, there may have been no war in the first place, no Nakba, and no enduring refugee crisis. Though all Arab political factions and governments rejected the UN partition plan, behind closed doors, some Arab leaders expressed support, such as King Abdullah of Transjordan or Abd al-Rahman Azzam of the Arab League, but openly expressing such views was too dangerous. By 1947, the antisemitic propaganda Husseini (and his fellow radicals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood) had disseminated over the years had become ascendant in Arab political culture – not just in Palestine, but also in the Arab states. There was no stopping the momentum of the “Arab street” and no one stood up to the belligerent political figures at the top.
Scholars are still divided on the question of whether or not the 1948 Arab-Israeli war was inevitable. What is certain is that the war and its outcomes paved the way for the subsequent Israeli-Arab wars and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore it was no exaggeration when Jeffrey Herf wrote “The impact of Husseini the ideologue is as important and destructive as Husseini the political figure.”
Highlighting the destructive and enduring impact of one man does not absolve others of responsibility in the conflict. The history is nuanced and bad decisions have been made on both sides. Palestinians continue to suffer under occupation and the Gaza blockade and Israelis continue to suffer under the constant threat of terrorist attacks and rocket fire. But coming to terms with Husseini’s legacy would be a step in the direction toward uprooting – however utopian this may sound – the radical ideology that haunts Israel and the rest of the Middle East.