The Awakening: The British Government Looks Back on the Mandate

In Echoes in the Darkness, Joseph Wambaugh says that victims of confidence games often report a dreamlike quality when they look back at actions taken while they believed in the scam. While they were being fooled, everything seemed so logical...

In mid May of 1948, when the British were leaving Palestine, the Jewish Agency was about to declare the birth of the independent state of Israel, and the Nakba had been going on for weeks, the British government published a review of the British Mandate in Palestine - their perspective of Palestine's preceding thirty years.1 The British themselves had left under a barrage of terrorist acts perpetrated by the Zionists, and for months, Zionist armed force had been turned against Arab Palestinian civilians - more than 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had already been driven out of about 225 of the cities and towns of Palestine.2

This short history provides one view of the process that led from World War I to the creation of Israel, and concurrently, led to the Middle East conflict that continues to the present day. It's also the story of a kind of gradual awakening, as the British watched the potential contradiction in the Balfour Declaration - to create a Jewish homeland, without predjudicing the existing population - substantiate into some very grim realities.

The Start

The review begins with a recitation of the legal basis for the Mandate: the Supreme Allied War Council in 1920 awarded the Mandate to Britain, it was approved by the League of Nations, and took effect in 1923, when the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Powers was formally ended by the Treaty of Lausanne. Palestine was, in effect, part of the spoils of World War I - one of the bits of the Ottoman Empire that fell to Great Britain.3

As a moral justification for the Mandate, the review quotes Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations:

Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.4

The review goes on to point out the obligations imposed on Great Britain by the authorization for the Palestine Mandate. The Preamble required that a Jewish homeland be created without prejudice to the existing population; Artice 2 required that economic and political conditions be created that will secure the establishment of this Jewish homeland; Artice 6 required that Jewish immigration be facilitated (again without prejudice to Palestine's Arab inhabitants), and that Jewish settlement on the land be encouraged.5

Improvements and Successes

The review cites a number of improvements in the standard of living of the Arab Palestinians. There were agricultural innovations including new types of seeds and livestock, ways of fighting diseases in livestock, reforestation, and improvements in education. Standards of health were greatly improved, as well as water supplies, and malaria was eradicated. The Arab population doubled between 1922 and 1945, mostly due to a decline in infant mortality.6

The Jewish Homeland

The optimism in the beginning of the report reaches enthusiasm when it talks about progress toward a Jewish homeland. Mostly through immigration, the Jewish population grew from 84,000 in 1922 to 640,000 in 1948. Three hundred Jewish agricultural settlements and small towns were created, and (the report gushes a bit here) Tel-Aviv grew from a village to a "wholly Jewish" "modern" city.7

Jewish innovation and capital created both hydroelectric and fuel power generating stations, industries with a gross profit of forty million pounds, extensive medical services, and a comprehensive educational system, including Hebrew University in Jerusalem.8

What the report doesn't mention are joint Palestinian Arab-Palestinian Jewish economic ventures, bridge building between the communities, or friendly ties. The two communities seem to have had a kind of teflon-like, non-stick interface, at best. During the 1920's and 1930's, a Jewish homeland was being built, but it wasn't connected to who and what were there already. It was isolated: built by the Zionists, for the Zionists.

Arab Recalcitrance

Somehow the Arabs wouldn't get on board with the whole Jewish homeland deal. They just didn't see how an international body could come in and rearrange their country. The British review of the mandate reports that, "the existence of Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish homeland was apparent even before the mandate began."9

The report notes outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in 1920 and 1921, and more serious outbreaks in 1929, and laments that the Arabs refused to take part in any form of government that implied acceptance of the idea that Palestine should be a Jewish national home.10

British police in David Street in Jerusalem's Old City during the 1929 riots
From the Matson Collection

British police stationed in David Street, in Jerusalem's Old City. The photo was taken during the 1929 Arab riots.

Arab protest meeting in the Rawdat Al Ma'aref Hall during the 1929 riots.
From the Matson Collection

An Arab protest meeting in the Rawdat Al Ma'aref hall during the 1929 riots.

In 1933, there were Arab riots whose focus was the British authorities themselves, who were accused of favoring the Jews, and from 1936 to 1939, there was an outright Arab rebellion, which the review states involved sabotage, terrorism, and guerilla warfare, and was directed at both Jewish and British targets. It took a commission of inquiry, in 1937, to state the obvious: the Arab Palestinians wanted independence, not a mandate, and definitely not a Jewish homeland. The commission made another obvious discovery: "the terms of the mandate were mutually irreconcilable." You can't have Arab self-government and a Jewish homeland. The commission recommended that either Palestine be partitioned, or Jewish immigration be drastically reduced.11

The review never seriously considered the option of there not being a Jewish homeland, any more than the British authorities had back in 1937. The Jewish homeland was what was on the menu - it had been ratified by the (soon to be defunct) League of Nations, had all kinds of backers, and had been promised by the British themselves back in 1917.

The White Paper of 1939

The review mentions The 1939 White Paper as a watershed. The British had decided that partitioning Palestine just wasn't possible, so they went back to the drawing board for a way to reconcile Jews and Arabs. The White Paper explained Britain's intentions:

The objective of His Majesty's Government is the establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine State in such treaty relations with the United Kingdom as will provide satisfactorily for the commercial and strategic requirements of both countries in the future. The proposal for the establishment of the independent State would involve consultation with the Council of the League of Nations with a view to the termination of the Mandate. The independent State should be one in which Arabs and Jews share government in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded.12

The White Paper stated that Jewish immigration would be limited, and would end within a fixed period of time, and the Arabs would retain a majority population. Not only that, but in order not to create a sizeable landless Arab population, transfers of Arab land to the Jewish population would also be restricted.13

The White Paper was bitterly protested by the yishuv, and also decisive in motivating the Irgun leadership to fight the British, according to the Irgun website.14 From their point of view, the White Paper was a betrayal by the British: a Jewish homeland should be all or mostly Jewish. They wanted unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine, and no restrictions on land transfers.

Jewish protest march against the 1939 White Paper.  May 18, 1939.
From the Matson Collection

Jewish protest march against the provisions of the 1939 White Paper. May 18, 1939.

The British vision was of a Jewish homeland situated in an Arab country - a place where at least some of the world's Jewish population could maintain their historical connection to the land. The collective vision of the yishuv was probably a completely Jewish state, and the provisions of the 1939 White Paper made this impossible, as long as the British remained.

1939, obviously not coincidently, also saw the beginning of large-scale, illegal Jewish immigration.15

The Jewish Revolt

During World War II, illegal Jewish immigrants were sent to the Mauritius, as a precaution against Axis attempts to enter Palestine. The review blames immigration as the cause of Jewish terrorism, which diminished at the beginning of the war, but continued unabated after 1942. Beginning in 1942, "Jewish extremists" carried out acts of political assassination, robbery, and sabotage. Meanwhile, Hagana, which the review describes forthrightly as under the control of the Jewish Agency, began stealing the arms and ammunition that would later be used against the Palestinian Arabs.16

With the end of the war, Jewish terrorism directed at British targets increased, as a larger segment of the Jewish population, including the Haganah assisted by the Jewish Agency, became involved. Government buildings and trains were blown up, and Britons, Arabs, and even moderate Jews were murdered or kidnapped.17

Partition

During 1945 and 1946, there were a number of proposals put forward - by the British, by a joint Anglo-American commission, and by Jewish and Arab Palestinians, but there was never enough common ground to begin negotiations. The Arabs wanted an independent Palestine with a permanent Arab majority, the Jews wanted, if not a Jewish Palestine, an independent Palestine in which there would be no restriction on Jewish immigration or land ownership.18

By 1947, the British had had it. They punted. They submitted the problem to the new United Nations, a special committee was formed to examine possible solutions, and the majority of this committee opted for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. On November 29, 1947, a partition resolution passed the UN General Assembly. The partition scheme would be implemented by a five member commission, unsupported by any military force. The British themselves wouldn't be there. They announced they were withdrawing completely from Palestine.19

The Bill

The review totaled up the cost to Great Britain. In the three years since the end of World War II, 338 British citizens had been killed in Palestine, while the cost in pounds was a hundred million.20

It was noted that 84,000 troops, "who received no cooperation from the Jewish community," weren't enough to maintain law and order. Their efforts were defeated by a campaign of terrorism by well-equipped and highly organized Jewish forces.21

1 "Text of the British Statement on Palestine, Chronicling History and Policy of the Mandate," The New York Times , May 14, 1948, 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
2 Rosemarie M. Esber, Under the Cover of War , (Alexandria, VA: Arabicus Books & Media, 2008), 382
3 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
4 The Covenant of the League of Nations, widely available on the web, example: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp
5 Authorization by the League of Nations for the British Mandate in Palestine, widely available on the web, example: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/palmanda.asp
6 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
7 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
8 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
9 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
10 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
11 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
12 The British Whitepaper of 1939, available on the net, example: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/brwh1939.asp
13 The British Whitepaper of 1939
14 Irgun site, Opening statement, Accessed June 29, 2016, http://etzel.org.il/english/index.html
15 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
16 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
17 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
18 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
19 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
20 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948
21 British statement, The New York Times , May 14, 1948

D.G.