The Zarnuka Incident and Petition of 1913: a Harbinger of Things to Come,
including the Desolation of Gaza
Petitions sent by Palestinian Arabs to the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul reveal the
complexity of early encounters between local villagers and European Jewish immigrants.
by Nir Hasson
In the history of Zionism, the Zarnuka incident of 1913 has gone down as one of
the first violent encounters between Jewish settlers and the local Arab
The clash, which left two Jews and one Arab dead, broke out between Rehovot
settlers and residents of neighboring Zarnuka. It appears that members of "Hashomer,"
the newly founded Jewish defense organization, confronted two villagers who were
stealing grapes from a vineyard belonging to Rishon Letzion settlers. The
confrontation led to a mass brawl and ensuing acts of revenge.
The Halutzim naturally wrote their version of events: "One day, during the grape
harvest, two Zarnuka thugs, sons of wealthy families, passed through the
vineyards of Rishon Letzion, on their heavily loaded camels, and on their way,
reached out to harvest some of the grapes," author Moshe Smilanski wrote. "One
of Hashomer guards, from Jerusalem, a new 'green' recruit, confronted them.
Realizing he was no hero, the Arabs ridiculed him, and even took his gun and
beat him up."
As in so many incidents that enfolded in the early years of Zionism, often
researchers have only had access to the version of events written by the Jewish
side. At times, one could find another narrative—the official account of
events as recorded by the local Ottoman administration. Still, a new document
referring to the Zarnuka incident was discovered recently by researcher Yuval
Ben Bassat, in the Istanbul Archives, a petition written to Sultan Mehmet V by
heads of families in the area.
The petitioners present themselves as, "We, the residents of villages
neighboring with the Jewish colonies of Daran [Rehovot] and Lun Kara [Rishon
Leztion]," and complain that the Jews "wanted to strip the camel owners of their
clothes, money and camels, but these men refused to give their camels and
escaped from Lun Kara with their camels, protecting each other [to seek refuge
with] men of the law… The above mentioned Jews attacked our villages, robbed and
looted our property, killed and even damaged the family honor, all this in a
manner we find hard to put in words."
The villagers continue to voice their grievances about the Jewish attitude, the
amassing of forbidden arms in the Jewish colonies, and even of bribery: "By
payments they do whatever they want, as if they have a small government of their
own in the country."
The Zarnuka petition is but one of thousands of petitions sent from Palestine to
Istanbul at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. A reading
of this correspondence sheds light on the way rural Arabs viewed the first
Zionist settlements, as well as irreconcilable differences between the local
population and the new European immigrants.
A huge gap is evident concerning the concept of land and property. As far as the
Jews were concerned, purchasing the land from its owners—usually landowners
who lived elsewhere—gave them full control of all rights concerning the land.
The local Fellaheen and Bedouins saw things differently, however. They believed
that the fact that they had lived and cultivated the land for centuries granted
them rights on the land.
Thus, for example, in 1890, a Bedouin tribe who cultivated the lands that would
later be Rehovot, wrote: "Lately, the supreme government has sold the place to
certain people of the land. We did not protest since the new owners of the land
clearly knew that the place was cultivated and handled by us for many centuries …
but, still in this condition, the land was suddenly sold to a group of foreign
Jews [Asralin] who arrived with funds … They began to expel us from the land we
lived on … the farm, which was ours since the times of our fathers and
grandfathers, was forcefully taken from us by the strangers who do not wish to
treat us according to the accepted norms among tillers of the soil, and
according to basic human norms or compassion.
"In short, they will not accept us, even as their slaves."
The tribe requested
that the sultan issue a decree allowing them to remain on their lands, or,
alternatively, allocate other land for them.
The petitions were discovered by Ben Bassat in the Istanbul archive as part of
the research for his Ph.D at the University of Chicago, which focuses on the
relations between the Ottoman Empire rule and the Arab population of Palestine.
The petitions were a common means of voicing grievances to the rulers. As modern
times set in, with the invention of the telegraph and the improvement of the
mail delivery system, petition became ever more accessible. "This is a
deep-rooted ancient Islamic method," says Ben Bassat, "But if once, you had to
approach the ruler by yourself or send a delegation, people discovered they
could simply go to the post office and send a letter. That discovery vastly
increased the volume of the requests."
Ben Bassat found thousands of petitions from Palestine during the Ottoman rule,
the vast majority dealing with other issues, apart from the conflicts with the
Jews. Most petitions protested taxing, abuse by governmental clerks, and
complaints against other Arab groups. Ben Bassat, who now teaches at Haifa
University, is soon to publish a book based on the study of these petitions.
The petitions were formulated by professionals, the "azrohalajes," who had
knowledge of the proper style for writing such petitions and boasted the
rhetorical means of getting the message across to the regime. Ben Bassat says
that, for the first time, the professional writers gave a voice to a practically
In contrast to the Jewish settlers, the vast majority of local villagers did not
read or write, and after their villages were destroyed in 1948, and they
dispersed, only few oral accounts remained. In the first decades of Zionist
settlement there was little Arabic-language press. These petitions—or rather
their translation to Turkish in the Empire Archives—are an almost sole witness
of life under the Empire as perceived by Ottoman Palestine Arabs.
The petitions reveal that in contrast to present concepts, the rural Arab
society was more cohesive and organized than previously thought. Thus, for
example, only four days after the violent incident at Zarnuka, dozens of
Mukhtars, leaders of villages, came together to sign a petition to the sultan,
revealing networks for passing information and cooperation between the villages.
"This is the first time we see how they describe things from their point of
view, "Ben Bassat says." It's not a matter of being for or against Zionism—it
simply shows how complex this meeting was, and that can't be learned anywhere