Forgotten lessons: Palestine and the British empire

While the conflict that is the legacy of British involvement in Palestine daily captures world headlines, Britain's foster-role is too often ignored. Such an omission is all the more tragic, James Renton argues, since mandate era misjudgements are being readily repeated.

In a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on 21 May 2009, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, argued that the future of the west’s relations with Muslim-dominated countries lay in the building of broad coalitions based upon consent among citizens—not just ruling elites. Prior to making his case, he acknowledged the elephant in the room of Anglo-Muslim relations:  Britain’s colonial record in the middle east and south Asia, and its legacies. As part of this rare confession of culpability, he noted ‘the failure – it has to be said not just ours - to establish two states in Palestine’.

This admission, as rare as it may be, gives only a very partial picture of what is a largely unacknowledged story. With a mandate from the league of nations, Britain governed the Holy Land from the end of the first world war until 1948. During this time, the political landscape of Palestine was completely transformed. Whilst Arabs and Jews played a fundamental role in the unfolding drama of mandate Palestine, the driving force was imperial Britain. The old myth that Britain was merely ‘holding the ring’ — trying to keep the peace between two irrational, warring parties — is a gross misunderstanding of history.

In November 1918, Palestine did not exist as a political entity. What became mandate Palestine was carved out of four districts of the Ottoman empire, which had ruled the roost since 1516. In the Jewish world, only a small, though growing, minority were members of the Zionist movement by the end of the Great War. Many Jews were virulently opposed to the idea, though most were indifferent to what was viewed as a utopian movement. In 1918, approximately 10% of the population of the Holy Land were Jewish, of whom many were not Zionist. Amongst the Arab population, there was a growing sense of Palestinian identity before 1914. But this was just one of many competing loyalties at the time. Just after the war, the predominant aim of Arab nationalists in Palestine was to establish independence for Greater Syria—incorporating today’s Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan.

But by the end of British rule in May 1948 there had emerged a powerful Zionist movement. It had succeeded in forging the institutions for statehood and independence. Palestinian nationalism had also become deep-rooted in Arab society. But the Arab population suffered from under-development, debt, widespread illiteracy, disillusionment, and the after effects of Britain’s decimation of the Palestinian Uprising of 1936 to 1939. These seeds of Zionist victory and Palestinian defeat were the direct outcome of Britain’s drafting, interpretation, and implementation of the league of nations mandate for Palestine.

On the rare occasions when Britain’s record in Palestine is discussed critically outside of academic circles, many emphasise the mistake of issuing the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. It often has been thought that this statement committed Britain to supporting Zionism, come what may. As a result, the British were forced to make the best of a bad job. They could not abandon Zionism, as it would undermine Britain’s honour and prestige—the perceived beating heart of imperial authority. But this version of events lets the British empire off the hook. It suggests that the Balfour Declaration, the act of a short-sighted government embroiled in the Great War, was the only problem. The Declaration, however, committed Britain to doing very little in Palestine.

The text of the Declaration stipulated that the British government viewed with favour, and would ‘facilitate’, the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. This statement was followed by the caveat, ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’. As I argue in a forthcoming book edited by Rory Miller, Palestine, Britain and Empire: The Mandate Years, there was no attempt by the government to define what was meant by these promises. There was no serious consideration by the cabinet or the foreign office as to what was meant by the term ‘national home’, or how exactly Britain would ‘facilitate’ its establishment. Also, no thought was given to how the rights of the so-called ‘non-Jewish communities’ might be affected by the ‘national home’, or how they would be protected.

The principal reason for this oversight is that the government was not focused on the future of Palestine when it issued the Declaration. Their primary objective was to rally world Jewry behind the Allied war effort, especially in Russia and the United States. This policy was pursued because of a mistaken belief in Jewish power and commitment to Zionism.

By the end of the war, the government had failed to clarify its policy in Palestine. As Britain struggled to cope with the immediate challenges of the post-war peace, the inertia on Palestine continued. The chief concerns were to avoid further alienating the Palestinian Arabs, whilst also satisfying the imagined bogey of Jewish power. Into this policy vacuum stepped the Zionists. With their own plans for Palestine, they persuaded the government to go further than the vague Balfour Declaration. The text of the league of nations mandate for Palestine was based on Zionist proposals. The preamble stated Britain’s obligation to put the promise of the Declaration into effect. It also recognised the Jewish people’s historical connection with Palestine, and the ‘grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country’. The articles of the mandate went much further. As a legally binding document, it obliged Britain to secure, not facilitate, the establishment of the Jewish national home. To that end, the British administration was to cooperate with, and be advised by, the Zionist Organisation. In addition, the British had to facilitate Jewish immigration and settlement. There were also commitments to safeguarding the rights of all inhabitants, not just Jews, and to develop self-governing institutions.

The mandate for Palestine did not clarify, however, what the Jewish national home would look like. Nor, like the Balfour Declaration, did it state how the rights of the Arab majority were to be protected. There was no clear picture crafted in Whitehall as to what the outcome of British rule in Palestine would be. Neither was there consideration of how self-governing institutions for all of Palestine could be developed, whilst also establishing a Jewish national home.

This lack of planning was, in large part, due to the British intention to stay in Palestine for as long as possible, so as to protect strategic interests in the middle east. As a result, no exit strategy was developed by the British. This was despite the fact that the declared aim of the mandate system in the middle east was to help nations to become independent.

Instead of a carefully defined strategy for the future of Zionist-Palestinian relations, the British relied on a series of flawed assumptions that shaped their governance of the Holy Land. First, it was thought that Zionist development, as quasi-European development, would benefit the Arab population, and thus bring them round to the idea of Zionist settlement. Second, the government wrongly believed that the moderate Zionist leadership, as they were viewed, were not interested in the creation of their own state, or dominance of Palestine. Third, the Palestinian Arabs were not thought to constitute a nation. They were seen as a motley crew of religious communities. Finally, those responsible for the administration of Palestine considered that the Palestinian Arab population could be managed by co-opting the Palestinian elite. If these individuals could be kept on side, then they would moderate Arab society.

In reality, the Palestinian political elite favoured by the British were placed in an impossible position. They had to satisfy the British of their commitment to moderation and peace, and their willingness to play the game of liberal international politics. They could not push the British too hard for substantive changes to the status quo. If they did, they would have been considered dangerous extremists. But at the same time this elite had to assuage the Palestinian masses, who increasingly demanded an end to British support for Zionism. With the Empire’s continuing backing of Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, much of the Palestinian elite focused on the liberal path of advocating constitutional change. The constitutional path failed, however, in March 1936, after a Legislative Council, which was to include significant Arab representation, was defeated by a pro-Zionist majority in the house of commons. The Palestinian population erupted, and the first intifada began.

This uprising finally led to a British plan for an endgame to the conflict. The Palestine royal commission reported in July 1937 that the only solution was the partition of the Holy Land into two separate, sovereign states (though areas of strategic interest were to remain in British hands). For fear of alienating the Arab world with an impending war, this option was, however, shelved by the British government. Instead, they attempted to pacify the Arab population with a combination of violence and political concessions. Using tactics such as house demolitions and collective punishments, they crushed the uprising with tremendous force. Most of the Palestinian leadership was arrested or went into exile. In an effort to sweeten the pill, in May 1939 the military campaign was followed by sharp restrictions on Jewish immigration and the prospect of Palestinian independence with an Arab majority in ten years time. But these promises could not mitigate the effects of the violence that had preceded them—nor were they meant to. The Palestinian national movement, which had tried to resist colonial rule, had been fatally wounded. And the Palestinian leadership was no longer viewed by the British as a viable partner. Even in the partition proposals of 1937, the suggested Arab state was to come under the authority of the reliably pro-British King Abdullah of Transjordan.

As with its rule of Palestine, Britain’s response to Palestinian resistance was driven by a number of flawed assumptions. If the Palestinian elite would not accede to British demands, then it would have to be replaced by a more pliant party. In addition, resistance had to be crushed before any conciliatory steps could be made. Britain’s reputation as a tough actor in the region had to be protected at all costs.

There was little consideration of the long-term effects of these policies on the sentiments of the general Palestinian population. The main concern was with political elites, especially those in strategically significant countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. Unsurprisingly, there was little enthusiasm for Britain amongst Palestinians after 1939. There was certainly no acceptance of Britain’s past support for the Zionist project.

The two-state solution of 1937 was the one proposal offered by the British government that it was believed could be acceptable to both Palestinians and Zionists. But even here, there was blatant disregard for its impact on the average Palestinian. The Palestine royal commission had suggested that there should be a substantial transfer of Arabs from the Jewish state.

The partition idea, without population transfers, was taken up in 1947 by the United Nations, after Britain had handed it the Palestine problem. This plan promised independent Jewish and Palestinian states. But a bruised and battered Palestinian population had no incentive to accept this agreement, which was decided upon by the UN general assembly. Neither were the Zionists, in the aftermath of the holocaust, about to give in to a defeated Palestinian population, who were opposed to a Jewish state. As a result, Britain’s departure was preceded by the outbreak of a civil war in Palestine, and was followed by the first Arab-Israeli conflagration.

The assumption that state-sponsored violence followed by agreements between political elites can make peace lives on to this day. It betrays the old assumptions of British colonialism — that a reputation for being firm must be maintained at all costs, that colonial state violence prevents future anti-colonial violence, and that peace can be achieved by elites re-drawing maps, and making constitutional agreements.

The British government did not understand, nor did they want to understand, the concerns of the average Palestinian. Neither did they comprehend the post-holocaust sensibilities of rank and file Zionist Jews. But suffering cannot be undone by academic agreements crafted by politicians and officials. And it is precisely the experiences and expectations of regular people, be they Palestinian or Israeli, that will make or break peace in the long-term.

About the author

James Renton is Senior Lecturer in History at Edge Hill University and the author of The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918

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