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Prior to and during World War I, the area of Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. This regime imposed many harsh demands on the Yishuv, and was ended in 1918 when Britain occupied the territory, followed by the establishment of the British Mandate in 1922.
The Yishuv was treated badly during the Ottoman regime. Upon the eruption of World War I, the regime severed supply lines to Palestine and caused a severe food shortage. This severing of supply lines also caused economic difficulty and prevented the arrival of donations. On top of these problems, the regime piled up additional difficulties such as war taxes and the confiscation of work animals, tools and food. Other difficulties (either unrelated or not in direct relation to the regime) arose in the form of a locust attack (which the settlers were not equipped to deal with), famine and poverty (the result of donations ceasing), epidemics such as typhus, bank closures and inflation.
The attitude of the Ottoman administration toward the Jews hardened as their situation in the war deteriorated and it made the functioning of the Yishuv much harder. This situation lasted almost four years. First the Ottoman authorities canceled the regime of capitulation (immunity to foreign citizens) and as a result those that arrived from Allied countries (including the majority of the immigrants who originated from Russia) were now considered enemies. There started a sort of a war between the Ottoman authorities and the Zionist movement in Israel. The Ottoman authorities violated the freedom rights of the Jewish population. The Jewish population was not permitted to carry any weapons, to hold any stamps of the Jewish National Fund and to write letters in Yiddish or Hebrew. It became mandatory to learn Turkish in the schools of the Jewish population and the Zionist flag was banned. The peak of the friction was when the Ottoman authorities demanded that some of the people enlist in the Turkish army or leave the country.
The Ottoman authorities even made a number of deportations from the country. In 1915 the Ottomans collected people walking the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa and deported them by ship to Egypt. In 1917 the Ottoman deported the Jewish population of Tel Aviv and Jaffa as a result of the progress of the British front in the south of the country. (The Ottomans feared that the Jewish population in Tel Aviv would assist the British in taking control over the country.) The Ottoman authorities also deported the leaders of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel—David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi were deported from the empire in spite of the Zionist leadership officially declaring their support to the Ottoman Empire.
The relation of the authorities evoke divisions of many opinions among Yishuv leadership. Ben-Gurion, leader of the labor party Poale Zion, said that the enlistment might lead to the sympathy from the Turks. Jewish soldiers were recruited commissions—working battalions performing degrading difficult service jobs. At the end of the war, the Yishuv was at its lowest ebb. Its number fell from 84,000 to 56,000 and it suffered considerable economic difficulties.
Jewish Americans in the United States and even the American government began fundraising and accumulating food which they shipped by boat in order to help the Jewish population in the Land of Israel. They confronted two major problems. First, they needed an agreement from the president of the United States in sending the aid—this was the first time in which the American government operated a pro-Zionist policy. Second, they needed to receive agreement from the Ottomans that the food and the money would be passed on to the Jewish population. The Ottoman authority agreed to this eventually, in exchange for about 45% of the aid shipment.
Three possibilities came upon the Jewish settlers:
The position of the World Zionist Organization was a divided. The majority of the Zionist leaders supported and identified with Germany—it would be able to release Russian Jews from the burden of the czar, and Turkey which was a partner of Germany during the war would hopefully change its mind about the Jewish population in Israel. In contrast with that, supporting the Allies of World War I might give a reason for the Ottomans to eliminate the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Still, identification with Germany during the war might have endangered the millions of Jews in Russia and Poland, and as the Allies of World War I would not agree to the national demands of the Jews. Due to these considerations eventually it was decided on a more neutral policy. This position required the moving of the central offices of the World Zionist Organization out of Berlin, but because this might have been seen by Germany as a betrayal, the offices remained in Berlin, though new offices were built in Denmark, which was a neutral country during the war.
Chaim Weizmann and Ze'ev Jabotinsky supported political activism rather than neutralism. They believed that the Ottoman Empire was weakening and Britain would occupy the Land of Israel and therefore they invested their efforts in finding ways of collaboration with Britain. Ze'ev Jabotinsky offered to establish Jewish fighting units that would be a part of the British army. In return they recognized the moral right of the Jews to live in Israel. In contrast to Jabotinsky, Weizmann requested a political declaration on the rights of the Jewish population in Israel, in the assertion that British have a strategic interest to help to Jewish population, in order to have a hold of that area. He tried to arouse a humane emotion among the British to the suffering Jews. Weitzman tried to convince that it was in the good of Britain to help the Jews, in contrast with Jabotinsky who tried to use cold facts to convince the British. Eventually Weitzman's method worked with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, whereas the method of Jabotinsky only worked partially by the establishment of the Jewish Legion. France, unlike Britain, supported the Christians of Lebanon and not the Jews.
A big coalition of dozens of activists inside of the land of Israel decided to go against the decision of the World Zionist Organization on being neutral and they established the underground Nili organization. The leaders of Nili were Aaron and Sarah Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishinski. The underground acted within the land of Israel and in Syria between 1915 and 1917. The interconnection between the Nili and the British intelligence took place during visits British ships in Atlit, through messengers in Egypt, and pigeon post (when they needed to send announcements fast). Nili was exposed in 1917, and the Turkish authorities started a retaliation against the underground network and against the whole Jewish settlement.