The British Mandate for Palestine was a unique constitutional framework. It constituted a kind of iron cage for the Palestinians, specifically designed by its British architects to exclude national self-determination for the Arab majority. One cannot deny that there was a racist dimension to this British policy.
The British issued two reports in 1930, in response to the violent clashes of 1929, in which 133 Jews died – and 116 Palestinian Arabs, mostly by the British military. The second report in particular emphasised that there was no additional land available for agricultural settlement by Zionist immigrants. The British government immediately issued a White Paper accepted the findings of both reports and advocated additional restrictions on Jewish immigration. However, following Dr Weizmann’s protests, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald agreed to retract the 1930 White Paper, which convinced the Palestinians that their claims could always be annulled by the exercise of Zionist political influence in London.
Throughout 1933, and for the following decade, British Foreign Office and Colonial Office officials received a growing tsunami of daily and weekly reports about the increasingly horrific conditions of Jews in Rumania, Poland and Germany – any analysis of British decision-making on Palestine must take this significant factor into account. Moreover, Dr Weizmann, who was on speaking terms with many senior British government officials – and his Zionist colleagues – were extremely energetic in their constant lobbying, to keep the government in London, of whatever political persuasion, to its Mandatory promise to develop a Jewish homeland, and ultimately a sovereign Jewish State.
we British… were officially responsible for law and order during the early phases of the expulsion of the indigenous population
As increasing numbers of Jews fled to Palestine – between 1931 and 1936, the proportion of the Jewish population rose from 17.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent – Palestinians despaired and their leaders again warned the British authorities that the situation could explode.
So, in December 1935 in a last-minute attempt to allay Palestinian fears, the British administration in Palestine suggested the formation of a local Legislative Council composed of twenty-eight members, fourteen of whom would be Palestinians. Although the Palestinians then constituted 70.5 per cent of the total population, they reluctantly accepted the proposal, which was indeed a nod in the direction of the creation of a representative institution, but fundamentally it was a British strategy to ‘de-revolutionise’ the Palestinians. And when the British House of Commons proceeded to debate the matter, the government was forced to withdraw the Legislative Council proposal because of vehement opposition by pro-Zionist members of Parliament, who argued that it would hinder the development of the Jewish national home.
The pressure on Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and president of the Supreme Muslim Council, to act now intensified. On May 8 1936, he summoned a nation-wide conference in Jerusalem which called for civil disobedience and a general strike to protest British pro-Zionist policies.
The British responded to the outbreak of the Palestinian Rebellion by announcing that they intended ‘to suppress all outbreaks of lawlessness’, which they endeavoured to do. Later that month the government announced that a Royal Commission would be set up to investigate the causes of unrest – the famous, or infamous – commission chaired by Lord Peel.
Dr. Weizmann appeared on a number of occasions before the Commissioners, as did Haj Amin al-Husseini, who appeared before the Commission with other Arab leaders. Each eloquently pleaded their case.
Now one point I do want to stress is the importance of the imperial ‘mindset’ factor in British decision-making. This mindset was clearly demonstrated when Lloyd George and Winston Churchill was questioned by the Commissioners, back in London.
Churchill told the Commissioners that even when the Jewish Home ‘will become all Palestine’, there would have been no injustice done to the Arabs…the injustice is when those who live in a country leave it to be desert for thousands of years’.
The Arabs, he said, had come in to Palestine after the Jews. It was the great hordes of Islam who smashed Palestine up. Churchill insisted that ‘where the Arab goes it is often desert’.
Towards the end of the session, Commissioner Rumbold asked Churchill when he would consider the Jewish home to be established, and Britain’s undertakings fulfilled. When, Churchill replied, ‘it was quite clear that the Jewish preponderance in Palestine was very marked, decisive, and when we were satisfied that we had no further duties to discharge to the Arab population, the Arab minority’. Such was the mindset, in 1936, of the man who became Colonial Secretary in 1921. It was Churchill’s and the Colonial Office’s hard work, supported by Lord Balfour in Geneva, who supervised the details of the writing of the Mandate Document, and who ensured its formal acceptance by the League of Nations.
As we all know, the Peel Commission’s report recommended the partition of the country into a Jewish state, a Palestinian state to be incorporated by Transjordan, and enclaves reserved for the Mandatory. A report more or less accepted by the Zionists, but emphatically not by the Palestinians. The Jewish state would acquire about 33 per cent of the total area of the country at a time when Jewish ownership did not exceed 5.6 per cent of Palestine.
So it was the British air force, tanks and heavy artillery – against rebels with rifles. Thousands of Palestinians were thrown into detention camps. Military tribunals passed summary sentences, including death by hanging, for the possession of arms, and collective punishment was imposed on towns and villages.
The ongoing rebellion in Palestine created a fresh debate in government circles in London, in part between the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office. The Colonial Secretary, Ormsby Gore, a convinced Zionist supporter, continued to support partition, and argued that it was the continuance of ‘the present uncertainty’, that was the cause of increasing Arab intransigence and rebellion.
The Foreign Office by this time had a different perspective. Sir George Rendel’s mind was focused on Britain’s Empire priorities, including potential unrest in India. Palestine must remain a single country, he wrote, and reassurance must be given to the Arabs ‘that they will no longer be in danger of becoming a minority in their own country, or of finding practically its only fertile portions taken from them and handed over in full sovereignty to alien immigrants’. This memo – at the end of 1937 – marked the beginning of Britain’s new policy on Palestine.
At the same time as they were systematically disarming and crushing the Palestinian rebels, the British built up Jewish military strength. In cooperation with the Jewish Agency’s secret army, the Haganah, they organised, trained, and armed a special force called the Jewish Settlement Police (JSP), which by early 1939 was 14,000 strong.
In 1938 alone the number of Palestinians killed in action by the British was about one thousand, while 54 Palestinians were executed by hanging, and 2,463 Palestinians were detained. But, in spite of all these measures the Palestinian rebellion continued unabated during 1938, and several areas of the country, including the Old City of Jerusalem, fell under rebel control. The British were now faced with a massive struggle to regain control of the country.
The final phase of the rebellion lasted until the summer of 1939. However, as early as April 1938, they dispatched another commission of enquiry, under the chairmanship of Sir John Woodhead, which concluded that partition was not practicable. At the same time, the British brought in massive new reinforcements and transferred the administration of the country to military commanders. By the time the rebellion was suppressed, a further fifty-five Palestinians had been executed by hanging, and at least twelve hundred Palestinians killed in action by the British.
With the publication of the Woodhead report (November 1938), the British government also announced its intention to hold a Round Table conference on the future of Palestine in London.
The aim of the conference, which lasted from 7 February – 27 March 1939, was to maintain the status quo until the situation in Europe was clear. But the two sides were too far apart for any substantial agreement to emerge.
Following the conference, the British Government published a new White Paper in May 1939. It stated that Britain’s obligations to the Jewish national home had been substantially fulfilled; within the next five years, 75,000 more Jews would be allowed to enter into the country, after which Jewish immigration would be subject to ‘Arab acquiescence’; and an independent unitary state would be established after ten years conditional on favourable Palestinian-Jewish relations.
Many Palestinians were positively impressed with the White Paper, but decided that it didn’t go far enough. For their part, the Zionists accused the British of ‘appeasing’ the Arabs. The Jewish community in Palestine continued to wage its own kind of rebellion, a clandestine operation of illegal immigration and the formation of paramilitary units, helped by sympathetic British officers such as Orde Wingate.
The 1939 MacDonald White Paper – known henceforth to the Jews as the Black Paper – marked the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Zionist entente ushered in by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and it increased the Zionist leadership’s determination to create its own fully independent state – and eventually to turn to towards the USA for support.
During the war the British continued to hold thousands of Palestinian activists in detention camps, and persevered in their campaign to disarm the Palestinian population.
In the middle of the war, David Ben Gurion travelled to the United States, where in May 1942 a conference, attended by leading American Zionists, was held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. The Biltmore Conference called for the establishment of all Palestine as a Jewish State. By 1945, the Zionists were no longer militarily dependent on the British.
Then, with the end of the war, the new Labour Government, led by Clement Atlee, with Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary, decided to maintain the White Paper policy.
The end of the war also saw the Zionists escalating their confrontation with the British, through diplomacy, military attacks, and propaganda. On the diplomatic level, the Zionists found a powerful ally in President Truman. He called in August 1945 for the immediate unconditional admission into Palestine of 100,000 Jewish immigrants, thus altogether undermining the 1939 White Paper.
In sharp contrast to Zionist strategy, there was a total absence on the Arab side of any military preparedness or planning. The British, reluctant to crush the Zionist rebellion, and unable to implement either the 1939 White Paper policy (because of Zionist opposition) – or partition (because of Palestinian and Arab opposition), were rapidly reaching the end of their tether. The British press began to urge partition, and a British withdrawal.
From January to mid-February 1947, the Cabinet held a series of meetings to discuss the future of Palestine. The Cabinet was divided: Foreign Secretary Bevin argued for an independent unitary state, with special rights for the Jewish minority; Arthur Creech Jones, the Colonial Secretary, said the Jews would accept nothing less than a Jewish national state; Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor, supported partition; The Minister of Defence (A.V. Alexander) emphasised that ‘it was vital for us to retain the goodwill of the Arab world’. Britain now had more soldiers in Palestine than on the Indian subcontinent, and the number of British casualties had also risen, mainly due to a terror campaign waged by Zionist extremists.
So, in mid-February 1947, the British Cabinet – exhausted and wanting to wash its hands of the whole Palestine problem – agreed to submit the problem to the newly formed United Nations, which then sent its own commission of inquiry to Palestine.
On 29 November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, based on the Zionist-inspired plan, as endorsed by President Truman, recommending the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state, a Palestinian state and a special international regime for Jerusalem and its environs. The Palestinians and other Arabs were stunned, the Zionists jubilant. Following the vote, fighting escalated dramatically in Palestine.
Now, the events of 1948 are outside the remit of this paper, partly because I wanted to focus in enough detail on the 1930s, and partly because 1948 is an absolutely crucial year in the history of Palestine, and requires a conference by itself.
Nevertheless, to take you briefly to end of the British occupation in May 1948 – here are 4 very brief points:
One: In March, two key events took place. Firstly, Dr Weizmann managed to secure a meeting, a secret meeting, with President Truman at the White House on 18 March 1948. At this meeting, Truman gave the green light to Weizmann that the United States would support the creation of a sovereign Jewish State in the imminent future. Music to Weizmann’s ears – and a great reassurance to Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv.
Two: In the same month, March 1948, the Zionist military campaign began in earnest. Plan Dalet, a military blueprint prepared by the Haganah (now some 62,000 strong), was launched. The Arab Palestinians, following the suppression of the pre-war rebellion, were basically without effective leadership – or arms.
Three: By the time the British left, two months later, one third of the Palestinian population had already been evicted. We British need to remind ourselves that we were officially responsible for law and order during the early phases of the expulsion of the indigenous population.
Fourthly, and lastly, on the morning of May 14, the last British High Commissioner (Sir Alan Cunningham) left Jerusalem. Britain’s thirty year rule was at an end. That same afternoon, in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the Jewish state. Of the 37 signatories to the document of independence, only one had been born in the region. Ten minutes later, in Washington DC, the President of the United States recognised the State of Israel. No mention was made of a Palestinian state or what the status or future of the Palestinian people would be.
In 1948, the Zionists transformed their status by conquest from a European minority, partly ghetto community into a sovereign, majority community and independent state. The Palestinians were not annihilated but they were dispossessed. Those that remained were effectively ghettoised. The British allowed the Zionist forces to take possession of the key to the Iron Cage. The Palestinians have been struggling to get out from under the Zionist Iron Cage ever since.
We British have a case to answer. There is an unbroken, direct causal relationship, an explicit link, between the contradictory promises we made during the First World War, including our promise to the Jews in 1917, and the dispossession, suffering and ongoing discrimination of millions of Palestinians, both within present-day Israel and on the West Bank and Gaza, to say nothing of the millions in surrounding countries.
Equally important, Britain’s legacy of deceit is not confined only to the contradictory promises made during WWI. Throughout the first decade of the Mandate, for instance, successive British governments explicitly and officially reassured the Palestinian Arabs over and over again that the Mandatory Power had no intention whatsoever of allowing the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, when in fact that was the main purpose and thrust of British policy from November 1917.
If I may conclude on a more personal, less academic note:
Absolute justice is probably not to be seen this side of heaven. A country like Britain, which claims to uphold universal values, which claims to be reasonably civilised, cannot help to heal the wounds of history, or to be an effective partner in promoting pragmatic justice, unless it is seen to be reasonably trustworthy, reasonably disinterested, and with reasonably clean hands. Successive British governments since World War I – and up to today – have demonstrated few, if any, of these attributes. An acknowledgement of our past – accepting responsibility for our past – would be a useful first step on the road towards Britain making a more beneficial contribution to what is currently a deadlocked, ‘sham’ of a peace process. Thank you.
Paper presented at an international conference ‘The Impact of WWI on Palestine’, London, Nov 2014
Peter A. Shambrook, is the author of ‘French Imperialism in Syria: 1927-1936’ Ithaca Press, 1999