Ninety years ago last month, the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations, approved the Mandate for Palestine, out of which Israel was to emerge in 1948. Israel’s neighbors have been in varying states of war and hostility with it from that date to this. As this conflict has flared up across the decades and is even cited, persistently but wrongly, as the root cause of regional and even global turbulence, its origins repay attention.
On July 24, 1922, all 51 member states of the League affirmed in the Mandate, conferred upon Britain, that “recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” This reflected Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, which “viewed with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Palestine was then sparsely populated — fewer than 700,000 people at the end of World War One (512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews and 61,000 Christians). It had scant history of local nationalism — a new, imported concept. The former Muslim overlords, the Ottomans, had been defeated and evicted. Britain and France, who had done the evicting, were preparing neighboring lands for Arab statehood. Surely Zionism in the biblical Jewish homeland, too, could be sponsored to the general good?
Admittedly, there were obstacles. Establishing a Jewish National Home in a territory where Jews were still a minority with a view to its evolving into an eventual Jewish state was always likely to incur majority opposition. Muslims were accustomed to centuries of undisputed and arbitrary rule over docile Christians and Jews, Arab nationalism was developing, and the old certitudes of Ottoman rule had vanished: a combination bound to produce suspicion, hostility and inflexibility towards Zionism.
Much depended on the British to steer a steady course. They failed.
Indeed, they were failing even before the Mandate was approved. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann’s 1918 agreement for a Jewish state alongside a greater Syrian Arab state with Feisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, proved abortive after France drove out Feisal’s forces from Damascus. This was the first and last time an Arab-Jewish agreement was to occur. The British military administration in Palestine didn’t like Zionism and Weizmann, and frankly said so, including to Arab leaders. When, in April 1920, riots broke out in Jerusalem against Jews, orchestrated by a young rabble-rouser, Haj Amin el-Husseini, the British responded by suspending Jewish immigration, as they were to do again when more bloodshed occurred in Jaffa in May 1921. This incentivized further Muslim opposition. The Arabs came to believe that Britain could be stampeded out its declared policy by pressure and violence — ordinarily, the last expectation an administering power could wish to foster.
Britain tried co-opting the opposition. The first High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, was persuaded by an anti-Semitic official, Ernest Richmond, to pardon Haj Amin for the 1920 violence and appoint him to the previously unimportant post of Jerusalem Mufti, though he was qualified neither by age nor experience for the job and had received the fewest votes in the traditional electoral college. This meant that the vast resources of the traditional Islamic institutions were placed without oversight into Haj Amin’s hands, who was styled “Grand Mufti,” with life tenure.
Britain also tried to reassure Arabs that only a portion of Palestine would become an Arab state. Much was made of the fact, including by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, that the Jewish National Home was not to be “Palestine” but “in Palestine.” To that end, Transjordan was excised from the Mandate and Jewish settlement confined to Palestine west of the Jordan. It availed nothing: Haj Amin’s Arab Higher Committee opposed all Jewish immigration and rejected proposals in 1922 and again in 1931 for a legislature in western Palestine, even though they would at that stage have easily outnumbered Jews in the proposed assembly. The Muslim leaders insisted on sole, despotic dominion and those who did not were assassinated or, like Raghib Al-Nashashibi, fled Palestine for long periods rather than share a similar fate.
Having placed Palestine’s Arabs in the hands of a Muslim supremacist and fanatic, the British ended up, not with a territorial dispute, but a religious conflict. All that was required to ignite it was the match of jihad.
In 1928, religious Jews innocently introduced a partition for the sexes at prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall at the foot of Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, upon which the Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques, also stand. The Mufti alleged a violation of the status quo and sympathetic British officials removed the screen, causing Jewish resentment. The Muslims were emboldened to resort to violent provocations in succeeding months, which went unpenalized. The, in August 1929, orchestrated rumors circulated that Jews were planning an assault on the mosques. Others alleged Muslims had already been assaulted. The British did nothing to disabuse the Muslim public of these groundless, explosive falsehoods and anti-Jewish pogroms erupted throughout the country, claiming the lives of 133 Jews at Arab hands and 110 Arabs at the hands of British forces belatedly quelling the disorders. A subsequent British commission of inquiry ignored police evidence of the Mufti’s orchestration and blamed high levels of Jewish immigration (which in fact had been tapering off since 1926), setting the stage for the next phase of the conflict.
Under the Mandate, Jews were to be encouraged to settle up to the “economic absorptive capacity of the country.” Now, however, following the Shaw commission of inquiry into the violence and the Hope-Simpson commission that followed it, it was a matter of what one observer called “political absorptive capacity.” Jews were to be restricted on tactical grounds, regardless of the state of the economy (which generally thrived on Jewish immigration). The British tendency to appease Arabs in the coin of Jewish liberties was now entrenched, a policy that was never likely to induce Arab-Jewish accommodation. It also marked the start of a British tendency to speak of the Mandate as an onerous charge imposed by the League of Nations, whose terms Britain had actually framed. Under political pressure at home for breach of faith, however, the British government stepped back from slowing Jewish immigration, for the moment.
With the rise of Hitler, however, Jewish arrivals jumped into the tens of thousands: a record 61,854 in 1935. An Arab revolt orchestrated by the Mufti erupted the next year and took two years to suppress, during which Jewish immigration was reduced. In 1937, the Peel Royal Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, under which 20% of the Mandate would have been awarded to the Jews, the rest to the Arabs, who were to be amalgamated with Transjordan. The Zionists were encouraged at the concept albeit lukewarm, even alarmed, at the prospect of a small, indefensible state, but were prepared to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations. The Arabs, under the Mufti, in hiding in the Al-Aqsa mosque before fleeing to Lebanon, were implacably opposed and violence resumed for some months. The British government of Neville Chamberlain, fearful of antagonizing the Arab Middle East as recurrent crises presaged war on the Continent, backed away from partition under cover of the subsequent Woodhead Commission.
Instead, Britain sought negotiations with both Arabs and Jews. But as Palestinian Arabs would not sit in the same room as the Jews, these proved abortive; nor did the Arab states, now called in by Britain into the dispute, offer any new ideas. With an agreement out of reach, the British completed the circle of foreclosure on the Jewish National Home by issuing a White Paper in May 1939 which limited Jewish immigration to a mere 75,000 over the five-year period of March 1939 to March 1944 at the very moment Jews were desperately fleeing Europe. After the latter date, no further Jewish immigration was to be permitted beyond that number. The League of Nation’s Permanent Mandates Commission ruled the White Paper a breach of the Mandate but, with the outbreak of war, the matter eluded deliberation and the League never reconvened. Inheriting the prime ministership from Chamberlain in May 1940, Churchill repudiated the White Paper he had denounced in opposition, specifically, its March 1944 cut-off of further Jewish immigration, but found he had no Cabinet majority to overturn it.
This institutionalized a Jewish one-third minority in Palestine. An Arab majority state beckoned. The land once earmarked for the Jewish National Home, in which Jews were to reside by right, not on sufferance, and to which Britain, in the words of the Balfour Declaration, had pledged “its best endeavors to facilitate,” had become a country in which Jews could neither freely settle, nor (after February 1940) freely purchase land.
Appeasement failed to deflect Arabs from the Axis cause. The Mufti spent much of the war in Berlin, collaborating with the Axis in undermining Britain in the Middle East, recruiting Bosnian Muslims to the Nazi banner and preventing the escape of Jews from Europe. Churchill sought Saudi agreement for the creation of a Jewish state after the war, but it was not forthcoming and in July 1945, Churchill was swept from office.
The putative National Home became an armed camp, with Jewish dissident groups and waging guerrilla war on the British administration, leading to reprisals and counter-reprisals. It remained for the new United Nations to ponder the problem afresh and recommend partition, which was accepted by Jews but again rejected by Arabs. The British announced their intention to depart Palestine, after which the contest between Arabs and Jews was put to the test of the sword.
On May 14, 1948, the last High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, left Government House in Jerusalem for the last time and proceeded under heavily armed escort in an armored car for Haifa port where he boarded HMS Euryalus, bringing to an end three decades of British rule in Palestine. The next day, at a meeting convened in Tel Aviv’s Museum of Modern Art, the head of the Jewish community in Palestine, David Ben Gurion, announced the formation of the new state of Israel, to which American and Soviet recognition was forthcoming within hours. Later that day, Arabs armies invaded, Tel Aviv was bombed from the air, and Ben Gurion’s first prime ministerial address to the nation was delivered from an air raid shelter.
The Jews prevailed, Arabs fled the war zone in large numbers and refugee camps housing their burgeoning communities became a permanent fixture in neighboring countries. Arabs have since plumbed every resource of counter-offensive, military, diplomatic, and psychological, to demoralize and destroy the country which has grown despite searing adversity into a powerhouse of innovation and development. The Jewish National Home has been a state for 64 years, but its existence remains contested to this very day.
British governments and officials at times acted to honor the Mandate’s terms, secured the national home in the 1920s at a time when Britain was militarily and financially stretched, introduced Hebrew as an official language, established, at first, a liberal Jewish immigration policy and developed the country’s infrastructure. But in the end, they entrenched a conflict that might have been deflected onto less bloody paths and ensured that Israel, when it did emerge, did so under fire, which has rarely subsided since, fueled by a refugee problem the international community has connived in keeping alive. It need not have been the outcome. A strong and lawfully established Jewish state had been an option, a firm British ally would thereby have emerged and Britain might even have maintained the military and naval facilities it had so fretted about losing during much of the Mandate. Certainly, such an alliance is likely to have endured longer and stronger than the gerry-built British treaties with Egyptian and Iraqi autocracies that imploded into blood-letting and overthrow within a matter of a few years. Instead, attempting to appease implacable Arab opposition to Zionism invigorated conflict and ensured an ignominious British departure. The British Mandate was a missed opportunity.