After the end of World War I, Palestinian Muslim and Christian associations met in Jerusalem at the beginning of 1919. This ‘First Arab Palestinian Congress’ demanded independence for Palestine in a ‘national charter’, and rejected the Balfour Declaration as well as British rule over Palestine. A majority sought the incorporation of Palestine into an independent Syrian state. As a consequence, the delegates also denounced French claims to a mandate over Syria. The congress referred to the former American president Woodrow Wilson’s principles of the right of self-determination of subject peoples.
The following year, delegates from Palestine attended a Syrian congress in Damascus in March, where independence was proclaimed and Emir Faysal, son of Husayn ibn Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, was elected king of a united Syrian-Palestine nation. However, a month later at the Peace Conference of San Remo in Italy, the Allies divided the former territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Syria and Lebanon were mandated to France, Palestine to Great Britain. By July, the French had forced Faysal to give up his claims to the throne of a united Syria and Palestine.
The Arab Palestinian Congress met again in Haifa in December 1920. This time the delegates elected an executive committee, the Arab Executive, led by Musa Kazim al-Husayni, a member of a leading Jerusalem family (see also Escalation and revolt in Occupied Palestinian Territories). Al-Husayni had been removed by the British as mayor of the city after anti-Zionist riots had broken out in the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem in April of that year, in which five Jews and four Palestinians had been killed and scores had been wounded. The congress of Haifa declared Palestine an autonomous state and rejected any rights of the Jews in Palestine. Between 1919 and 1921 more than 18,000 Jewish immigrants entered Palestine, while the Jewish National Fund, established in 1901, continued its land purchases.
The next congress took place in May 1921, shortly after fierce riots in Jaffa, with tens of deaths on both sides. The Arab Executive decided to send a delegation to London led by al-Husayni, to change British policy, which was deemed pro-Zionist. The delegation remained in London during July 1922 and had some impact. In the Churchill White Paper of June 1922 the British government tried to clarify the meaning of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
‘Unauthorized statements,’ the White Paper said, ‘have been made to the effect that the purpose in view is to create a wholly Jewish Palestine. Phrases have been used such as that Palestine is to become “as Jewish as England is English.” His Majesty’s Government regard any such expectation as impracticable and have no such aim in view. They would draw attention to the fact that the terms of the Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded “in Palestine”.’ The document continued by stating that the Jewish immigration in Palestine ‘cannot be so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals’.
The Arab Executive was dissolved in 1934. In the meantime, Palestinian political parties had been formed. Two years later, a new coordinating body saw the light: the Arab Higher Committee.