The creation of Palestinian citizenship under an international mandate: 1918-1925

An internationally-recognised citizenship of the Arab Middle East designed during the era of mandates by the British came out of exclusively colonial processes, despite the fact that the British were meant to be an international trustee in Palestine.  This article explores what happened.

Lauren Banko
6 November 2012

The British civil administration of Palestine began in 1920 under High Commissioner Herbert Samuel with a very clear policy plan for the facilitation of Jewish immigration and the creation of a national status for Jewish immigrants - but little else was clear in terms of how to carry out the proper legislative processes, especially for the latter, once the League of Nations ratified the Palestine Mandate.  The entire process of inventing a legal Palestinian citizenship in the crucial early 1920s raised huge questions over the status, sovereignty and civil rights of subjects as opposed to nationals or citizens in a mandated territory. British notions of citizenship were finally imported into Palestine after approval by His Majesty’s Government (HMG) in London, and blended with existing Ottoman-era legislation, Palestinian municipal law and international laws of state succession. 

In particular, the British came to Palestine with extensive experience in the governing of ‘oriental races’ in Egypt and India, and this shaped colonial officials’ perception of 'subject races'. The mandate text required the British to create a law for the acquisition of Palestinian nationality for the Jews.  This nationality would give certain rights and obligations not only to the Jewish immigrants, but also to the majority Arab population, since the mandate also stipulated that the Jewish national home policy could not prejudice the civil or religious rights of the existing majority population.  Hence, the British had to walk a fine line in their legislation on nationality and citizenship, acting as a colonial power rather than as a trustee in order to draft a colonial citizenship that gave only limited civil and political rights. 

The British mission to shape an apolitical status of citizenship for the Arabs was served by their previous experience of colonial concepts of citizenship in the empire.  Some of this inspiration came from Lord Cromer in Egypt, whose bureaucracy featured racial distinctions and procedures designed to separate Europeans from local natives.  In the case of Palestine, the procedures to acquire nationality and citizenship status separated Jewish immigrants from the local Arab majority population.


Palestine - Egypt border in the 1920s. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

The British feared granting explicit liberal citizenship rights along with citizenship status, such as an independent legislative or executive body made up of representatives and proportional voting rights. Since Palestine’s population was ninety-three percent Arab at the time the British arrived, these types of rights would essentially allow the Arabs to have control of Palestine and its government.  The League of Nations’ mandate system was set up as an international trusteeship meant to facilitate eventual self-government in the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The British had initially promised a legislative council, municipal councils, voting registers and other measures of self-rule.  After the ratification of the mandate, they realized that these proposed democratic measures severely challenged the foundation of British policy in Palestine – the facilitation of a Jewish national home through unrestricted immigration and land sales as promised by the Balfour Declaration.  Therefore, Palestinian citizenship had to be created in such a way that it would not allow for any civil, political or social rights or practices which threatened the Balfour Declaration as enshrined in the mandate.

The Palestinian counter-discourse

The Palestinian Arabs’ own popular discourses and practices of citizenship contradicted the British conception of the Palestinian citizen and ‘counter-created’ a set of behaviours associated with nationality and citizenship. From the beginning of the British occupation of Palestine in 1918, the inhabitants and their popular leadership and social organisations had actively lobbied the British and the newly-created League of Nations with their demands for ‘natural and civil’ national rights.  This was done through conferences, protest letters, petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and the press.  In this way, the concept of the Palestinian national, embodied with certain rights and duties by right of his native birth in Palestine, was one which the urban and rural classes became at least familiar with throughout the first decade of the mandate. 

Palestinian leadership viewed the British legislation of citizenship, codified by an order of HMG in 1925, as a product of colonialism due to the involvement of the Zionist Organisation in the draft of the order and the fact the Palestinians were neither informed of the wording of the draft nor able to voice concerns with it.  By contrast, the Palestinians and indeed the Arabs of the former Ottoman provinces felt that nationality was a primordial status received by right of birth and language, which came with the right to self-determination.  The Ottoman Law of Nationality, passed in 1869, had affirmed citizenship conferred by means of both jus sanguinis and jus soli and the Palestinian national movement expected a Palestinian nationality law to allow for the same.

At no other time, except between 1925 and 1948, did a Palestinian citizen exist, yet even today the citizenship laws of the successor states of Palestine (Israel, the West Bank under Jordanian administration, Gaza under Egyptian administration, and the current Palestinian Authority) have included some elements of Ottoman nationality legislation and Palestine Mandate citizenship legislation. 

The British administration in Palestine, 1918-1925 

The British set up their military administration in Palestine in December 1917.  The military administration decided in 1918 to keep the status quo of Ottoman laws until bureaucratic measures could be undertaken upon the arrival of the first High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in July 1920.  During these two years, and for quite some time after, the most pressing issue was that of sovereignty in the area that became Palestine. The Zionist movement led by Chaim Weizmann had a disproportionately large influence on the discussions regarding the nationality of inhabitants of Palestine.  Weizmann, after seeing the earliest draft mandate, made several proposals regarding nationality to the British Colonial Secretary in early 1919.  He and other Zionists suggested that Jews should receive preferential treatment and that Jewish citizens were to be distinct from other citizens of Palestine.  The British responded by noting that the potential difficulties of such a measure included the Arab demands for the same subject status and the impossibility of maintaining a suitable mandate with such a provision. 


Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner to Palestine, walking into Jaffa 1921.
Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The actual specifics of who these ‘citizens’ were came in further clauses of the draft mandate.  The drafters of the mandate stated that all Ottoman subjects of Palestine would become Palestinian citizens at the date of the ratification of the peace treaty and thereby lose their Ottoman nationality unless an individual notified the government within twelve months of his desire to keep Ottoman nationality and leave Palestine.  Clause Twelve of the draft further specified that Ottoman subjects who usually reside in Palestine and who were absent on the date of ratification of the peace treaty would become citizens if they returned to Palestine within twelve months and took up permanent residence.  Meanwhile after ratification, Jewish immigrants who took up residence in Palestine would become Palestinian citizens after two years.  The ratified mandate and the draft stipulated that the government must enact an official nationality law for the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship for Jews within two years after the final approval of the mandate. 

A second important clause of the draft, later to be intensely debated, stated that the foreign relations of the Palestine government were to be undertaken by Great Britain, and the citizens of Palestine were entitled to British protection when outside of Palestine.  The extent of protection offered for native Ottomans before a peace treaty was signed remained questionable.  The draft laid out very few points that could be used to construct a proper nationality law and indeed did not differentiate between nationality and citizenship or the status of Palestinian nationals vis-à-vis Britain.  Colonial officials discussed the issue of citizenship at length in the years before the mandate was officially given to the British in 1923, but a complete order on the topic did not appear in the 1922 Order-in-Council or elsewhere until HMG introduced the citizenship order-in-council in 1925. 

Imperial protection, British nationality or citizenship? 

Amid the confusion and the competing opinions over sovereignty, the discussions of Palestinian nationality centered on the status of the Palestinians. Were they meant to be treated as British-protected persons, Ottoman subjects, foreigners, or nationals of an 'A' mandate? Furthermore, what did these statuses mean outside of Palestine?  What was to be the status of non-Ottoman Jewish immigrants to Palestine?  Dependent on their country of origin, these immigrants were subjected to different consequences when they arrived in Palestine and applied for provisional certificates of nationality.  British-protected persons, Jews or otherwise, were not considered colonial subjects or naturalized citizens of the power whose protection they were under.

A practical issue for the British over privileges was the benefits accrued by former Ottoman subjects under the jurisdiction of Egypt’s Mixed Courts.  Under a British mandate, if the Palestinian Arabs received British protection, they could be tried in Mixed Courts by British or French judges.  At the very least, this would affirm their status as British-protected persons and at most it would indicate the Palestinians were akin to British subjects.  Curzon suggested that the British government was entitled under the mandate terms to provide British protection and attempt to withdraw ‘selected individuals’ from the Native Courts and place their trials in the Mixed Courts.  The phrase ‘selected individuals’ had a specific meaning: Curzon clarified that the ‘better-educated’ Palestinian Arabs and Jews would not receive an ‘adequate standard of justice’ in the Egyptian Native Courts.  To further prove whom he meant to receive capitulatory privileges, he added that the British protectorate government in Egypt assumed the Levantine Arabs to be ‘on a lower plane of civilisation than the average Egyptian, and, generally speaking, at the present time the statement would appear to be correct’.  This correspondence shows the colonial officials’ perception of two distinct nationalities in Palestine: the native non-Jewish Arabs and the native and immigrant Jewish inhabitants.  The documents also reveal that the pre-mandate national identity of the inhabitants of Palestine determined which privileges became part of their identity under British administration. 

Nationality legislation

After the ratification of the Palestine Mandate in September 1922, Great Britain immediately finished its draft constitution and legislative council election orders.  Both were ratified by the King, as was the case in colonies and protectorates.  The Palestine Order-in-Council of 1922 served as the first constitution of the Palestine government.  Once the 1922 Order-in-Council came into force, the British began to dismantle some Ottoman laws but did not repeal the 1869 Ottoman Nationality Order.  The British passed an important second piece of legislation: the 1922 Palestine Electoral Order-in-Council, which set the regulations for elections to the future Legislative Council. 

The electoral order decreed that voting rights, the first political right of citizenship given to Palestinians, would be on the basis of communal identity defined by religion – an important concept for British rule in Palestine.  Since the Ottoman Empire had attempted in the second half of the nineteenth century to do away with the millet system in favour of secular nationality, this voting division by religious communities did not reflect any emerging trend toward an equal citizenship.  The perception of Palestine as based on religious communities is an example of the key role played by orientalism in the British interpretation of Ottoman and mandate citizenship status: colonial officials applied this type of imperial thought through the provision for voting rights based on religion.  Through the mentality of orientalism and separation of religions in Palestine, the British officials in London in 1922 took full control in the process of ‘inventing’ identity by their definition of what constituted both a foreigner and a citizen.

Despite the ratification of Lausanne in September 1924, internal differences of opinion within the British government continued to have an impact on the status of Palestinians.  The Foreign Office wrote to the Home Office that Palestine did ‘not bear the slightest resemblances to an independent state’ and its citizens had no such status as belonging to one in international law. The status of the mandate as a British trusteeship rather than an outright colony or protectorate had little precedence. 

The King of England passed the Palestine Citizenship Order-in-Council one year after the Lausanne Treaty and its provisions officially came into force on 1 August 1925.  This was the only such citizenship order enacted by Great Britain in any of their mandates or territories at that time; in Iraq and Transjordan, local Arab authorities enacted nationality legislation and had their own official representation to the British mandatory.  In Britain’s African mandates, inhabitants remained British-protected persons.  Just like the other imperial orders, the Citizenship Order was enacted by the British Government, not by the Government of Palestine. 

It is interesting to note that until the middle of 1924, the order-in-council draft to regulate Palestinian citizenship was titled the Palestinian Nationality Order-in-Council.  Only in May did colonial officials recommend this be changed to the Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council to avoid complications.  By July, the draft order had ‘nationality’ crossed out and replaced with ‘citizenship’.  Only shortly before the order passed, the Colonial Office changed ‘subject’ to ‘citizen’ in all places and made a note that ‘national’ in the Treaty of Lausanne meant both subject and citizen in the Citizenship Order.  A short article written fifteen years later by the former Attorney General of Palestine Norman Bentwich (who drafted much of Palestine’s citizenship legislation through 1930) offered an explanation grounded in orientalism. Bentwich noted that citizen and citizenship replaced national and nationality in the final order because of the ‘Oriental’ difference of the terminology.  In oriental countries, citizenship marked the allegiance to a state whereas membership of nationality was a matter of race and religion.  Both Arabs and Jews were equally Palestinian citizens, wrote Bentwich, but they both claimed to have separate Arab or Jewish nationality. 

The activation of Palestinian citizenship: reactions and problems

The Palestinian Arab Executive leadership unanimously rejected the citizenship legislation on the basis that it denied citizenship to native-born Palestinians while privileging Jewish immigrants, and that it neglected provisions for natural civil and political rights.  The press, especially Issa Bandak’s newspaper Sawt al-Sha’b, became the main medium through which discussions on the citizenship order and letters from the diaspora were published.  In periodicals as well as in protest memorandum, Palestinians referred to the order as the ‘nationality law’ (qanoon al-jinsiyya or haq al-jinsiyya) and generally used the Arabic term for ‘nationality’ (jinsiyya) in reference to the more legalistic and perhaps modern ‘citizenship’ (muwatina).  Popular leaders and newspaper editors wrote to the British and League to decry the denial of citizenship to thousands of Palestinians who emigrated or lived abroad.  In 1926, Bandak established the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Arab Emigrant Citizenship Rights which lobbied tirelessly into the 1930s against the citizenship order and its amendments.

The Palestinians argued that the order was unlawful because it was not enacted by a parliament elected by the people.  Indeed, the Palestinians were never allowed to see any drafts of the order.  If the Palestinians accepted the legitimacy of the enactment ‘of this controversial law,’ the order remained illegal and benefited what was then still only a small minority of Jewish immigrants.  Bandak concluded that many world governments enacted strong barriers to the facilitation of nationality of foreigners who sought the same livelihoods as their own native populations.  In Palestine, the establishment of a Jewish national home, strengthened by the nationality order, would annihilate Arab national control of the country’s facilities, take land from Arab hands and deplete Arab financial wealth.  This condition would continue despite the existence of a nationality law, Bandak argued.  He pledged that the Palestinians would work to stop the law unless they could enact a new law ‘legitimately by constitutional means’ (‘The law prejudices the rights of the Arabs’, 1925). 


The Palestine citizenship order did not grant Palestinian citizens the rights they agitated for as citizens: control over their own government or rights to their borders, treaties, educational affairs, public works, election laws, taxation and tithe rates or trade laws. 

Confusion and questions over the order and its implementation, amendments and inequalities in application between the Jews and Arabs continued to be discussed by the Palestinians well into the 1930s especially due to the denial of citizenship to thousands of native-born Arab emigrants.  Because the mandate was run as a colony and not a trusteeship, the voice of the Palestinian citizens themselves was silenced.  Throughout the time of British administration, laws, regulations and decrees were handed down by British colonial officials or the government in London only.  Despite the British liberal notions of citizenship, only an orientalist conception existed in Palestine.  The British ruled over subject races through the principle of exception (as in Egypt and India) rather than a liberal model of bureaucracy, and officials created nationality distinctions through a dual administrative system to serve the purposes of the mandate and the Jewish national home policy.

The British amended the order several times before the end of the mandate, but the amendments reflected the problems the law posed for the Jewish immigrants - the amendments rarely benefited the Arabs.  In the 1930s, the British made changes to their legislation that effectively allowed all native Palestinians to obtain naturalization provided they returned from abroad and resided permanently in Palestine.

Citizenship in Palestine came only as a legal certificate of status and did not convey Great Britain’s own liberal, republican or ‘occidental’ citizenship.  Nationality remained in sharp contrast with legal citizenship in the discourses of the Palestinians.  What was clear to the Palestinians was that the ultimate power to decide on their legal identity lay with the British Empire. The only solution - the exit of the British from Palestine in 1947 – came in exchange for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the cancellation of any internationally-recognised Palestinian citizenship.


This article is an edited extract of ‘The creation of Palestinian citizenship under an international mandate: legislation, discourses and practices, 1918–1925’ which appeared in the Citizenship Studies 2012 special issue ‘Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project’. The referenced and complete essay can be found here. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249379.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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