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The British Mandate


Palestine in the inter-war years

The Middle East was taken from the expiring Ottomans in WW1 by the British and French, who split the region into small countries and drew lines across the map for borders. In doing so they introduced the very European idea that different ethnic groupings would gain security by living in separate independent nations – except they didn’t consider carefully the groupings they threw together or forced apart. Really the new borders reflected colonialist priorities and control agendas more than natural ethnic areas or local need. They aimed to stop a united Arab nation rising from the ashes of the Ottoman empire.

Before WW1 different ethnic groups had coexisted successfully in the provinces of the Ottoman sphere, taking on interlocking social roles and niches within a multi-ethnic society. But the British and French gave power and advantage to certain minorities chosen as middlemen to keep majorities under control – Jews in Palestine, Maronite Christians in Lebanon, Awalites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq and Bedouin in Jordan. This is where the trouble of subsequent decades was really seeded, setting people against each other and fostering minority elites.

Palestine went through three decades of British rule during which its economy was modernised and trade expanded. It received more attention than under the Turks, but with mixed results. A new influence was arriving, playing a part in that modernisation: European or Ashkenazi Jews. About 30,000 had come in the 1880s and 1890s, in the first aliyah or ‘return’. They bought available land and houses, mainly from absentee Ottoman landowners, and local Arabs accepted them, with reservations, since Jews had lived in the region throughout history. Numbers grew by another 40,000 by 1914, many of them business-oriented townspeople and socialist idealists, founders of the communal kibbutzim and the moshav collectives. Both their impact and Arab reservations grew incrementally at this time.

Then came the Brits in WW1. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It came about as a fluke, a return favour for a valuable military invention made in WW1 by Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry professor in Manchester, England, and an early Zionist. Other Brits had qualms about the Balfour Declaration, and this foreign policy dualism has continued up to the present day – actually a tripartite friction between Jewish, business and Arabist influences in the British diplomatic world.

Even so, the 1920 Mandate enabling British rule, made by the League of Nations, stated that, with the establishment of a Jewish homeland, “Nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. That bit was to become problematic: Jewish immigrants were being told by Zionists back in Europe that this was ‘a land without people waiting for a people without a land’, as if theirs for the taking and now a disjunction of interests was taking shape.

Zionism, propounded by Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and others, was a nationalist belief in promoting Jewish rights and identity in Europe which developed into an urge to found a state of Israel. Religious Jews at the time opposed this, since a set of prophetic preconditions had to be fulfilled first, but many Zionists were modern Europeans who saw such ideas as an obstacle and national self-determination as an emerging right. Originally Zionism’s advocates had a variety of leftist, secular, humanist and utopian leanings. Many decades later, by the 1980s, Zionism leaned rightwards, by then informed by a mixture of territorial expansionism, business and military agendas and Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Jewish immigration to Palestine increased in the 1920s and 1930s as pressures and persecutions escalated in Russia, Poland and Germany. The Zionist movement, spearheading this migration, grew in momentum, aiding and financing the relocation and buying up land for settlement. European Jews brought with them urban ways, money, lifestyles and values, settling mainly around Haifa and Tel Aviv. Jewish economic growth was about 13%, largely urban-centred, while Palestinian growth was around 6%, largely agricultural.

Roads, railways and infrastructure were developed by the British. Palestine was pulled into the westernised 20th century. Palestinian society was by now changing, with some Palestinians joining the ‘march of progress’, others not. Frustrations and frictions grew and Zionists began discreetly planning the founding of a Jewish state. Jews elbowed Arabs aside, Arabs started attacking Jews, and Jews started fighting back. Arabic unease over social issues, colonial injustices and the scale of Jewish immigration caused the British to increase repression of Palestinians – which naturally favoured the Jews.

This led eventually to an Arab Revolt in 1936. Palestinians were upset over loss of land and influence and the inadequacies and cruelties of British rule. Increasingly they sought self-determination. The British used repressive measures, effectively decapitating Palestinian society by removing its leaders by killing or exile and by using ‘divide and rule’ methods.

Meanwhile, by 1938, Jews formed militias such as Haganah, Lehi and Irgun, nominally in self-defence, supporting British rule and staging retaliatory attacks on Palestinians. Conflict intensified, emotions flew, skirmishes and outrages took place, and the British further suppressed Arabic opposition to their rule. There was an increasing separation of Palestinians and Jews. To pacify Palestinians, the British promised them independence by 1949 – though here the idea of partitioning the land was already forming.

The Zionist thinker Ze’ev Jabotinsky had mapped out an ‘iron wall’ policy in which Jews should use superior force to contain and oust Palestinians, bring advantage to Jewish interests and lay the ground for a state of Israel. The idea grew that, for the Jews to achieve a majority and self-determination, the Palestinians would have to be cleared or ‘transferred’ from what were to become Jewish lands. However, Jabotinsky also stated that a day would come when force would have to stop, and Israel would need to befriend its neighbours if the state were to survive longterm. This advice was later ignored and Zionism increasingly became a Jewish supremacist belief, not just a liberation movement, a programme for further colonising Palestinian lands and asserting muscle in the Middle East, whatever the cost.

In WW2 the Palestine Jews sided with the British. They opposed Nazi persecution, the Holocaust in Europe and the threat of a German invasion of the Middle East – the Germans sought oil and to seize Iraq and the Suez Canal. Palestinians were divided, some opposing British rule in Palestine and some implicitly supporting them by fighting against the Germans in Bosnia and Albania to protect fellow Muslims there. The British restricted further Jewish immigration, seeing trouble coming, and seeking to encourage Palestinian acquiescence to their rule.

Then Rommel’s panzer divisions scorched through North Africa, scaring Jews in Palestine. By 1942 it looked as if the British were losing the war. They trained and recruited Jewish fighters, but Jews were losing faith in the British. The 1930s Jewish approach of retaliating against Palestinians morphed in the 1940s into a secret plan, Plan Dalet, to eliminate the Palestinians – though, in the context of the Holocaust in Europe, Jews saw themselves as protecting their own survival, which was partially true, but it jeopardised Arabs. In later years this self-defence rationale was used to justify aggression, gradually becoming something between a myth and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It continues today.

By 1944, as the war turned against the Germans, Jewish factions plotted to get rid of the British, whose control of Palestine was loosening. The British sought to reduce Jewish immigration to keep things under control, offering destinations such as Uganda or Mauritius for Jewish refugees. But it was too late, the Jews were determined: they just needed to go home and home was Palestine.

In 1947, planning to withdraw, Britain handed Palestine’s future to the new United Nations. Naively, the UN voted to divide Palestine into two states, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be internationally-controlled. It failed to realise that substantial ethnic cleansing of Palestinians would result and war would break out. The Arab state was to have 43% of Palestine, mainly in the highlands, and a Jewish state was to have 56%, mainly in the coastal lowlands and the Negev Desert in the south. At the time, Palestine’s population was 67% Palestinian and 33% Jewish. Something wasn’t right in the calculations.

The international community, while officially standing in the role of mediator, was siding against the Palestinians – mainly out of sympathy for the Jews, who had suffered so much in Europe, but also because newly-decolonialised Arab countries weren’t good persuaders.

Palestinians turned down the UN deal, since partition was unthinkable for them, the calculations were all wrong and they stood to lose too much. Internationally this was seen as obdurate uncooperativeness – the world wanted a quick fix. Things were moving fast and the world’s attention lay with a plethora of other global crises, so the UN plan prevailed and the Palestinians failed to gain support for their case. They had little leadership or support.

In 1947, the Jews started effecting their plans to ‘transfer’ Palestinians out of the promised Jewish areas. Most Palestinians simply could not believe such a thing could happen, and at first failed to defend themselves. The Zionist plan was secret, unknown even to many Jews and, of those who knew, some opposed it, some overlooked it, some disbelieved it and others simply went along with it.

By 1948 open war developed, in response to Jewish massacres and clearance of Palestinian villages and urban quarters. Palestinians were uprooted and sent packing to the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Things became desperate: to the Palestinians, this was the Nakba or disaster. Newly-independent neighbouring Arab countries were quite unprepared for conflict. It was Iraqi troops who were the most effective in protecting Palestinians, but the Jews had military superiority and total resolve.

By the end of the war the state of Israel was declared by David ben Gurion – far larger than the Jewish portion allocated by the UN. The international enclave around Jerusalem and Bethlehem never came to pass, 530 villages were systematically destroyed, thousands of people, mostly Palestinians, were killed and wounded, and half of Palestine’s Arab population was uprooted.

The British, who shamefully withdrew without intervening, nevertheless secretly supported the annexation of the West Bank by the new state of Transjordan and of Gaza by Egypt, to protect the Palestinians. The British, together with the new Arab states, had voted against the UN partition plan, but they applied insufficient diplomatic pressure to prevent it. At least 700,000 Palestinian refugees fled or were driven from what became Israel, following shocking atrocities. Most expected to return but, when some tried, they found their homes and villages occupied or destroyed.

There followed an enormous population transfer. In the three years after 1948, 700,000 Jews immigrated from Europe and others (Misrahi or Sephardic Jews) came mainly from around the Middle East, where they were by now unpopular or threatened. 10,000 Jews lost their homes in Palestinian areas, moving to Israeli areas. By the end of the 1948 war Israel controlled 78% of Palestine, not the 56% they had been allocated. The UN drew a ceasefire line, the Green Line, to formalise a new boundary reflecting this. The Jews now had a nation and the Palestinians didn’t.

Some old Palestinians still regard the British Mandate, though a foreign military occupation, as a lesser evil than what followed. But patterns had been set during British rule which determined later actions. Nevertheless, British visitors are largely welcomed today. I had a long discussion with an old gentleman historian who showed me some inter-war British Palestinian passports issued by His Britannic Majesty, with a stamp inside stating ‘Not eligible for residence in Britain’. As a Brit I am not proud of this period of history. The British played a double game, and Palestinians paid the price. The price the Jews paid was that Israel was born under a shadow of blood, theft and injustice.

NEXT: Sixty Years of Triumph and Disaster

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at

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