Prof. Ami Ayalon and Dr. Nabih Bashir

From the early-sixteenth century to the last year of World War I, the Land of Israel\ Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, which also ruled most of the other Arabic-speaking lands. In 1917-1918, British forces seized control of the country and imposed British rule on it, first under a military regime and from July 1920 onward as a civilian authority mandated by the League of Nations. This collection covers the latter years of the Ottoman era — from the 1908 Young Turk Revolution until the empire's demise — and the three decades of British rule.

Several factors contributed to the late emergence of Arabic periodical publications in the region, relative to their European counterparts, and to their slow development after their inception. Most important was the late adoption of printing by the Ottoman Empire. Various cultural and political considerations kept the sultanate and its subject society from embracing the printing press until around the mid-eighteenth century; and only from the mid-nineteenth century did the technology become a means of mass text production. The uncertain progress of modernization in the empire, notably in the field of education, compounded by heavy government censorship, subsequently hindered the emergence of Arabic printing industry and printed media.

The Arabic periodical press was born in Egypt during the first half of the nineteenth century (the first newspaper appeared in 1828). It began to advance more dynamically during the second half of that century, owing both to private initiatives and to the Egyptian rulers' interest in developing the medium. In the Lebanon area, the first newspapers were established after 1850 by and under the inspiration of European and American missionary organizations. Arabic newspapers also appeared here and there in other Ottoman provinces, at a slower pace. Daunting obstacles were strewn before all printing endeavors, journalistic and otherwise, following the accession to the sultanate of Abdul Hamid II in 1876. Egypt and the Lebanon, where the press had already struck roots by then, remained the only two loci of media production in the region, until the Young Turk Revolution in 1908. Save for some official Ottoman publications, local periodicals did not appear in Palestine, or in its other neighboring provinces, until after the onset of the twentieth century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Arab population of Palestine was mostly rural. There were a number of urban communities — Jerusalem (with around 40,000 residents at the end of the century) Jaffa (some 30,000), Gaza (20,000), Nablus, Hebron, Acre, and Haifa — but the majority of the Arab populace lived in roughly 800 large and small villages. (The Jewish community, with ca. 25,000 people at the time, was concentrated primarily in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron and Safed.) Literacy among the country's Arabs was low, apparently reaching a single-digit percentage rate. Like in other societies of the region, this dearth of reading skills stemmed from cultural reasons, embodied in the limited scope and kind of knowledge that was deemed worthy of preservation and transmission, and hence in the limited role of education and study. These factors created an environment that was not conducive to mass writing or printing endeavors.

Against this backdrop, it was not until 1846 that the first Arabic work was printed in the Land of Israel\ Palestine. The pioneers in this field appear to have been the Jerusalem-based Franciscan monks, who established the country's first press to print in Arabic. Over the next few decades, Christian organizations, including missions, opened a few more presses, all of them in Jerusalem, as far as we know. Not surprisingly, most of their output was of a religious nature.

In all likelihood, the first newspaper in Arabic (and Turkish) to appear in the country was Quds-i Şerif / al-Quds al-Sharif, founded in 1876. As the official mouthpiece of the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, its principal objective was to disseminate government ordinances and edicts. There are no known extant copies of this periodical, which seems to have been short-lived. A few sources also mention another fleeting paper, al-Ghazal, presumably established in that same year. After these papers died out, the void they left remained unfilled until the next century. In 1903, the lackluster al-Qudsal-Sharif reappeared on a weekly basis, and for several more years remained the only journalistic venture in Palestine. 'Ali al-Rimawi was in charge of its Arabic section, while the Turkish part was edited by 'Abd al-Salam Kamal. Yet, despite the absence of local media outlets, the country's Arab populace was not cut off from its surroundings: Members of the small educated class read newspapers, journals, and books that were published in Egypt and Lebanon, and some of them even participated in the lively discourse in print that evolved across the Arabic-speaking Ottoman provinces.


The Young Turk Revolution in the summer of 1908, which upended the political reality in Istanbul and throughout the Empire, ushered in a boom of publishing initiatives all over the Ottoman realms. Like its neighboring provinces, Palestine immediately responded with an outburst of journalistic activity. By December, no less than fifteen Arabic newspapers and journals were established in the country; another twenty popped up by the outbreak of World War I. Most important of these were Najib Nassar's weekly newspaper al-Karmil (Haifa, 1908), and the cousins 'Issa Da'ud al-'Issa and Yusuf Hanna al-'Issa's semi-weekly Filastin (Jaffa, 1911). Both were Christian-owned and both would become cornerstones of Palestine’s Arabic political journalism in the decades to come. Other noteworthy periodicals were Jurji Habib Hananiya's al-Quds (Jerusalem, 1908); Iliya Zakka's al-Nafir (Jerusalem and Haifa);  and Khalil Baydas's al-Nafa’is (a Haifa-based literary journal, 1908). Several other periodicals appeared during this time, devoted to cultural, religious, and political issues, but most of them folded before long. These infancy years of the Palestinian Arabic press were characterized by a great deal of hardship, meager products, and a paltry market. By one estimate, the total circulation of the country's Arabic periodical press on the eve of World War I was about 5,000 copies, a low figure for an Arab population of some 650,000 at the time, whose consumption of the media was at its inception.

The trying circumstances of World War I paralyzed the Arabic press throughout the region. With the cessation of hostilities, a new and tumultuous period began in Palestine, which was punctuated by often-violent encounters between a medley of different players, foreign and domestic. In the Arab community, public initiatives of new kinds emerged: political movements and parties, religious bodies, organizations for women and children, and more. The challenges facing society were unprecedented in scope and nature, and for the first time leaders, movements, and parties wielded the media as a weapon. A spirited discourse evolved in the Arabic press over the pressing issues of the day, most prominently the struggle against Zionism and against foreign rule. Simultaneously, intra-Palestinian political strife, both on the municipal and country-wide level, played itself out on the pages of the press. Given the community's prevalent illiteracy, the British authorities placed little significance on these outlets and permitted them to operate freely until around the mid-1930s. All told, some 200 Arabic journalistic titles came out between 1919 and 1948. The majority of these periodicals were fleeting papers of negligible import, but some of them turned into formidable tools for portraying as well as shaping the historic events in Mandatory Palestine.

The annals of the Palestinian press under British rule can be divided into two sub-chapters, whose demarcation line is the bloody riots of summer 1929. Until this point, the two main centers of journalistic activity were Jaffa and Jerusalem, with some intermittent activity in Haifa, Gaza, Acre, Bethlehem, and Tulkarm. The leading newspapers were the above-mentioned Filastin and al-Karmil, both of which remerged after World War I to take up the banner of the national struggle once more. Other notable Arabic papers were now Bulus Shihada's Mir’at al-Sharq (Jerusalem, 1919), Sheikh 'Abdallah al-Qalqili's Islamic-oriented al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Jerusalem, 1924), and al-Jami'a al-'Arabiyya — the organ of the Supreme Muslim Council (Jerusalem, 1927) edited by Munif al-Husseini. During these years, none of the Palestinian newspapers were published on a daily basis, and they all made do with an issue or two per week. This was indicative of the relative calm that prevailed in the public and national spheres, compared to what laid ahead. It also reflected the Arab public’s limited interest, at least for the time being, in these sorts of publications. At that stage, the Arab readership primarily derived from the urban educated class.

During this early stage, the Palestinian media gave voice to the full spectrum of dilemmas, views and sentiments that would preoccupy its audience throughout the British Mandate: the suspicion and animosity towards Zionism; rage at the British government; and the growing rivalry between the Husseini-led camp (the majlisiyyin, or "supporters of the [Supreme Muslim] Council"), and the opposition faction led by the Nashashibi family. Under the tense circumstances, papers scarcely articulated a consistent political line congruent with the platform of either of the two factions. Rather, the majority of them adopted a flexible posture and often adjusted it to suit the changing needs. This state of affairs would persist until the end of the Mandate.

Filastin was Palestine’s most prominent and best-selling newspaper during the first decade and-a-half of the Mandate. Headquartered in Jaffa and owned by 'Issa Da'ud al-'Issa, its circulation reached about 3,000 copies per issue in 1929. However modest, this figure was at least double that of Filastin’s nearest competitor. The combined circulation of leading Arabic newspapers in Mandatory Palestine for that year was an estimated 12,500 copies, representing a 250% increase over 1914. Still, this was a modest consumption scale compared to Lebanon, for example, which had a population similar in size to that of Palestine but a total newspaper circulation of 68,000.  At this juncture, then, the Palestinian press was still at an early stage in its development.

The violence that shook the country in 1929 constituted a turning point in its history. It signaled the beginning of a tense period in the relations between the three main protagonists — the Arab populace, the Zionist-Jewish Yishuv, and the British authorities. This hostility culminated in the Palestinian strike of 1936 and the ensuing Arab Revolt, which lasted until 1939. Developments in the press reflected this shift. As early as September 1929, with the ebbing of that summer’s bloodshed, some of the leading Palestinian newspapers moved from a weekly or semi-weekly frequency to daily appearance, and increased the number of pages per issue. In April of 1934, a new Jaffa-based paper, al-Difa', entered the stage and soon challenged the standing of Filastin as the country's top daily. Before too long, the ambitious new publication equaled and then surpassed Filastin’s circulation (in part thanks to its owner, Ibrahim al-Shanti, being a Muslim as distinct from the established Christian identity of its rival). The competition between these two papers was a mark of Palestinian public life until the end of British rule. It contributed to the steady improvement in the technical and journalistic quality of both dailies, as well as an upswing in sales. By the mid-1930s, each of the two papers was already reaching between 4,000 and 6,000 copies a day.

In addition to Filastin and al-Difa', Jaffa produced another important, if less popular, newspaper — al-Jam'ia al-Islamiyya (1933). Under the ownership of Sheikh Suleyman al-Taji al-Faruqi, this daily advocated a pan-Islamic ideology. As the hometown of these large papers and several other journals, Jaffa became the capital of the country's Arabic media industry. Jerusalem was a second hub, which also boasted several dailies, the most important of which was al-Liwa' (1933), edited by Jamal al-Husseini and serving as mouthpiece of the Husseini camp.  Other periodicals entered the arena during these years, some of them immersed in politics while others were devoted to issues such as education, culture, literature, and cinema. There was even a sports magazine, al-Hayat al-Riyadiyya (Jaffa 1938).

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During this period, the political discourse in the Arabic press continued to revolve around the two familiar issues: the struggle against Zionism and British rule; and the internal rivalries among the different parties and factions. The escalating Arab-Jewish tensions were mirrored in increasingly radicalized attacks on Zionism and its putative British supporters in the Arab press. Palestinian newspapers played a key role in setting the objectives of the “great strike” of April 1936 and the ensuing revolt, mobilizing the public, informing it about steps of the struggle, and promoting a spirit of solidarity and volunteering. The Arab community was divided over what the national goals should be and the means for their attainment, and their cause was shackled by deep-seated feuds, political and otherwise. Besides reporting news, the papers continued to serve as tools within these internal conflicts. The British, alarmed at the belligerent tone of the Palestinian press, now abandoned their laissez-faire approach toward it and resorted to a firmer line. In January 1933, they replaced the long-standing Ottoman press law with a new set of rules, which they amended several times in later years. The authorities imposed more restrictions on free expression,  shutting down or suspending newspapers with greater frequency than hitherto.

By this point, the local Arab population had grown accustomed to receiving information and commentary from newspapers. Demand for them in Mandatory Palestine continued to rise even after the inauguration of Palestine's radio in 1936, reaching new peaks during the years of the revolt. Still overwhelmingly illiterate, the country's Arab population fell back on the time-honored practice of reading out loud in groups in public venues, such as coffee houses, neighborhood squares, and mosques. These gatherings, which were widespread in both city and village, significantly expanded the press’s reach.

The ruinous implications of the three-year revolt for Palestinian society and its political structures, and the ensuing World War II, all but paralyzed the country's Arab media. As soon as war was declared, the British authorities shut down all Arabic newspapers except for Filastin, al-Difa', and al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, which were left open as channels of communication and control vis-à-vis the local populace. Only a handful of new periodicals were permitted to appear during the war, including a few non-political journals as well as al-Ittihad (Haifa), a communist mouthpiece. Established in 1944 by Emile Touma (its long-time editor), al-Ittihad was the organ of the Arab Workers’ Congress, a labor federation in Haifa, for many years and continues to serve the Arab public to this day.



After the war, as the Arab community was trying to recover from the traumas of recent years and brace itself for the existential challenges ahead, the country's Arabic press experienced another bout of prosperity. Filastin and al-Difa' remained the two leading dailies until 1948. Both of these papers boasted a circulation of 6,000-to-10,000 copies per issue, with al-Difa' apparently holding a slight edge over its rival. Two other dailies operated at the time, the veteran al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, and al-Wahdah, the latter which was established by 'Abd al-Salam al-Husseini in June 1945. Several weekly or bi-weekly newspapers — both politically-affiliated and otherwise — were launched during this period. For the most part, these came out on an irregular basis, had low circulation, and were short-lived. In aggregate, the country's Arabic press between 1945 and 1948 circulated at an estimated 20,000-to-25,000 copies.

The Arabic press of Palestine during the years of the Mandate offers a credible and colorful reflection of the era’s political life and national struggles. On close inspection, these papers also shed light on other important facets of the Arab population’s experiences in the decades leading up to 1948. The media influenced its audiences’ daily life in manifold ways. It served as a platform for public discussing of everyday matters and a channel for disseminating economic and business information. It advertised consumer goods and services, carried legal notices, and presented announcements on upcoming events, cultural and otherwise. Writers employed it to offer advice on educational, domestic, and family issues. Last but not least, the papers ran personal notices, announcing joyous occasions and deaths. The Palestinian public, which had made do without newspapers and journals until the twentieth century, acclimated itself to these foreign imports and gradually came to depend on them for a wide range of services. The periodicals that comprise this rare collection thus afford readers a dynamic portrait of Arab society in Palestine during the first half of the twentieth century. An in-depth look at these compelling sources promises to yield much more than first meets the eye.

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