Britain in Palestine: Summary of the Story
The links on the right lead to the detailed narrative, broken down into separate sections.
For more than three hundred years before the First World War, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and under Turkish control. The vast majority of its population was Arab, with a small Jewish population scattered among four towns. In the 19th century, as far as the West was concerned, it was seen mainly as the Holy Land, the source of three major religions. The idea that the British government would one day turn this Arab country into a Jewish state was literally unthinkable.
In 1914, war broke out between the Allies – principally Britain and France – and Germany and its allies, including the Ottoman Empire. The inhabitants of Palestine were bystanders at the beginning of the War, but the Allies had their eyes on the Middle East, and started to plan how it should be divided up if they won the War. Both Britain and France had interests in Palestine and Syria. Meanwhile, in Britain, the Zionist movement, which was committed to turn Palestine into a Jewish state, started lobbying British politicians to share their aims and agree to allow a Jewish nation to be formed in Palestine in any eventual peace settlement. This pressure resulted in a notorious letter, called the Balfour Declaration, which led to Palestine being turned into a Jewish state.
In November 1918, the War ended. The British were already in military control of Palestine, and now the Allies faced the need to decide what should happen to the territories formerly under enemy control. France had its eyes on Syria, and Britain wanted control of Palestine, for various strategic reasons. This would also put it in a good position to promote the aims of the Zionists, as Balfour had promised.
But before any of these aims could be achieved, there had to be a formal peace agreement with the former enemies, including Turkey. During the Peace talks Britain manoeuvred to make sure that any agreement over Palestine included special rights for the Jews of the world to go and live in the country.
Palestine had been run by a military administration since the end of the War in the Middle East, and the British government now switched to a civil government run by the Colonial Office in London. The ruler would be a High Commissioner, appointed by Britain, and he would have the task of running a country trying to recover after years of war.
In spite of attempts to conceal or deny the Balfour Declaration’s promises to Jews, Palestinian Arabs began to suspect that Britain would not be evenhanded between the small population of Jews and the Arab majority. Their suspicions were confirmed when Britain appointed as its first High Commissioner for Palestine a leading British Jew.
As the British government set to work to govern Palestine, the Zionists in Britain used their influence to ensure that the Jewish ‘National Home’ mentioned in the Balfour Declaration was imposed on Palestine. This was reinforced by official statements that ignored the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. The dawning realisation of Britain’s intentions, led to riots in Palestinian cities, and a high-level delegation of Arabs travelled to London to make their case for self-government, but each of the points they made was dismissed by the British government.
In spite of the efforts of Zionists from the beginning of the 20th century to paint a picture of Palestine as an empty land, the country had a varied and multi-class population, from peasants to professionals, across three religions, and with access to modern facilities such as newspapers, education, transport, cultural activities, and the everyday pursuits of any complex society. Those Jews who recongized that there was already a significant population, 90% of whom were Arab, argued that an influx of Jews could bring ‘civilization’ to the country.
In spite of the requirement of the League of Nations that countries under the Mandatory system should be brought to independence under the supervision of the mandatory power, Palestine was excluded from self-government. The British government tried to pay lip service to the idea, with plans for Advisory or Legislative Councils which were always weighted in favour of the Jews who formed 10% of the population. The Palestinian Arabs refused to accept these plans, and when they were made fairer to the Arabs, the Zionists turned them down.
The biggest impediment to self-government for Palestine was the immigration of tens of thousand of Jews to the country, as part of a programme whose ultimate aim was to increase the Jewish population to such high levels that it could legitimately claim to become a Jewish state. The new immigrants took land and jobs from the indigenous inhabitants, and sought to control aspects of the administration of Palestine by being granted special favours by the government. Attempts were made to make it easier for immigrant Jews to become citizens – and therefore vote – than immigrant Arabs. And the growing demands of religious Jews for privileges they had not had under the Turks began to alarm Moslems.
An incident at the Wailing Wall, which lay at the foot of the Haram as-Sherif where Moslems worshipped, ignited protests, street fighting and rumours, leading to the massacre of Jews in Hebron and tit-for-tat attacks by Jews, formed into militias, on Arabs. There were voices of moderation on both sides, but these were largely ignored. A British government inquiry ascribed some of the blame to the failure of the government to safeguard Arab rights in Palestine and called for a re-examination of immigration policy.
It was becoming clear to the British that favouring the Jews as called for by the Balfour Declaration was leading to increasing levels of tension and difficulties in governing the country. An attempt to reconsider how the Mandate was operated in Palestine led to a White Paper which set out to be more even-handed. It generated a huge backlash by Zionists in Britain, and the government beat a hasty retreat and disowned some of its own recommendations. In Palestine, this volte face, accompanied by increased levels of immigration led to riots and attacks on government buildings and sowed the seed of what became known as the Arab Revolt.
A cycle of attack and counterattack between Arabs and Jews led to an uncontrollable rise in violence and a repressive clamp-down by British police and soldiers. In protest against the harsh government measures, the Arabs called a general strike which lasted six months. After it ended the government set up yet another Commission under Lord Peel, but fighting continued between Arab militias and the British. When Peel reported, his conclusions pleased no one.
After hearing views from all parties, Peel decided that no truly representative government of the whole country was possible. The Jews were still in a minority but wouldn’t accept being partners in a national government with a majority of Arabs. And the Arabs would not accept unrestricted immigration of Jews until they became a majority. In an attempt to solve the problem, Peel suggested dividing the country into two separate states or – as the Arabs saw it – taking away half their land and giving it exclusively to Jews.
The major effect of World War II on the situation in Palestine was the pressure to step up Jewish immigration, caused by the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Using the sympathy of the world for victims of the holocaust, Zionists demanded that Palestine be used as a safe haven, even though many surviving Jews wanted to go to America, Canada or Britain. Illegal immigration increased and Britain was equated with the Nazis for turning away boatloads of immigrants who had no permits and were outside the official quota. American Jews were in the forefront of protests, and encouraged the growth of Jewish resistance to the British administration in Palestine.
As the plight of Europe’s Jews caught the world’s attention, Jewish militias in Palestine, aided by illegal terrorist cells, carried out a series of attacks designed to get the British to leave Palestine. No holds were barred as soldiers, policemen and civilians were attacked and buildings blown up with the sole aim of terrorising the British and the Arabs. This Jewish terrorism was a major factor in Britain’s decision finally to wash its hands of the Mandate.
In 1947, the British government announced that it was going to relinquish control of Palestine in May 1948, and handed the problem to the United Nations, the successor organisation to the League of Nations. The UN sent its own inquiry team to Palestine, which came back and wrote a report with a majority recommendation for partition. When this recommendation was debated in the UN General Assembly, it was clear that the majority needed to pass it might not be forthcoming. But with the help of the US government and US Jews, a sufficient number of countries were threatened, blackmailed or bribed to change their votes and ensure that the motion was passed. Against their will and with no consultation, the Arabs of Palestine were told they must give up more than half their land to create a Jewish state.
On May 14th, 1948, the Zionists declared their area of the UN partition plan to be the independent state of Israel. But the problem was, about 50% of population of the new state was Arab, and the Jewish armies and militias set about reducing that proportion with a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As Arabs were expelled or terrorised and fled the new state to neighbouring Arab countries, steps were taken by the UN to deal with the worsening humanitarian situation. But nearly 70 years after the events, the legacy of Britain’s thirty years of interfering in the affairs of Palestine is a turbulent Middle East, millions of displaced descendants of the Palestinian refugees, and the fortress state of Israel, alone in a sea of hostile neighbours and reliant on American support.