The British Mandate of Palestine was a swathe of territory in the Middle East, formerly belonging to the Ottoman Empire, which the League of Nations entrusted to the United Kingdom to administer in the aftermath of World War I as a Mandate Territory.
Establishment of British League of Nations mandate
Prior to the end of World War I, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. The British, under General Allenby, defeated the Turkish forces in 1917 and occupied Palestine and Syria. The land was administered by the British for the remainder of the war. The British military administration ended starvation with the aid of food supplies from Egypt, successfully fought typhus and cholera epidemics and significantly improved the water supply to Jerusalem. They reduced corruption by paying the Arab and Jewish judges higher salaries. Communications were improved by new railway and telegraph lines.
The United Kingdom was granted control of Palestine by the Peace Conference of Versailles which established the League of Nations in 1919 and appointed Herbert Samuel, a former Postmaster General in the British cabinet who was instrumental in drafting the Balfour Declaration, as its first High Commissioner in Palestine. During World War I, the British had made two promises regarding territory in the Middle East. Britain had promised the local Arabs, through Lawrence of Arabia, independence for a united Arab country covering most of the Arab Middle East, in exchange for their supporting the British and Britain had promised to create and foster a Jewish national home as laid out in the Balfour Declaration, 1917.
The British had, in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence previously promised the Hashemite family lordship over most land in the region in return for their support in the Great Arab Revolt during World War I.
In 1920 at the Conference of San Remo held at San Remo, Italy, the League of Nations mandate over Palestine was assigned to Britain. This territory at this time included all of what would later become the State of Israel, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, a part of the Golan Heights, and the Kingdom of Jordan. The population of this area was approx. 750,000 (11% Jewish). It was multi-ethnic but spoke mainly Arabic and was largely Muslim in faith. Because of their European origin most Jews spoke Yiddish rather than Hebrew. It contained a significant Bedouin population (approx. 270,000), and substantial groups of Druze, Syrians, Sudanese, Circassians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Hejazi Arabs (many of them were of the 1,000,000 refugees who fled west after the Hashemite Hejaz - Saudi Nejd war).
In June 1922 the League of Nations passed the Palestine Mandate. The Palestine Mandate was an explicit document regarding Britain's responsibilities and powers of administration in Palestine including: "secur[ing] the establishment of the Jewish national home", and "safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine".
The document defining Britain's obligations as Mandate power copied the text of the Balfour Declaration concerning the establishment of a Jewish homeland:
- "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Many articles of the document specified actions in support of Jewish immigration and political status. However, it was also stated that in the large, mostly arid, territory to the east of the Jordan River, then called Transjordan, Britain could 'postpone or withold' application of the provisions dealing with the 'Jewish National Home'. A government under the Hashimite Emir Abdullah who had just been displaced from ruling the Hejaz was soon established in 'Transjordan'. In September 1922, the British government presented a memorandum to the League of Nations stating that Transjordan would be excluded from all the provisions dealing with Jewish settlement, and this memorandum was approved on 11 September. From that point onwards, Britain administered the part west of the Jordan as Palestine, and the part east of the Jordan as Transjordan. Technically they remained one mandate but most official documents referred to them as if they were two separate mandates. Transjordan remained under British control until 1946.
In 1923 Britain transferred a part of the Golan Heights to the French Mandate of Syria, in exchange for the Metula region.
Palestinian Arab opposition to Jewish immigration
During the 1920s, 100,000 Jewish immigrants entered Palestine, and 6,000 non-Jewish immigrants did so as well. Jewish immigration was controlled by the General Federation of Jewish Labour , which selected between applicants on the grounds of their political creed. Land purchased by Jewish agencies was leased on the conditions that it be worked only by Jewish labour and that the lease should not be held by non-Jews.
Initially, Jewish immigration to Palestine met little opposition from the Palestinian Arabs. However, as anti-Semitism grew in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigration (mostly from Europe) to Palestine began to increase markedly, creating much Arab resentment.
There was violent incitement from the Palestine Muslim leadership that led to violent attacks against the Jewish population. In some cases, land purchases by the Jewish agencies from absentee landlords led to the eviction of the Palestinian Arab tenants, who were replaced by the Jews of the kibbutzim. The Arabic speakers prior to World War I had the status of peasants (felaheen), and did not own their land although they might own the trees that grew on that land. When Jews, who grew up with European laws, purchased land they did not always realise that the villagers on that land owned the trees. This was often a source of misunderstanding and conflict. The olive tree is particularly important as it can remain productive for over one thousand years.
The British government placed limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine. These quotas were controversial, particularly in the latter years of British rule, and both Arabs and Jews disliked the policy, each side for its own reasons. Tensions led to widespread violent disturbances on several occasions, notably in 1921, 1929 and 1936-1939. The 1929 disturbances were primarily violent attacks by Arabs on Jews (see Hebron). In response to numerous Arab attacks on Jewish communities, the Haganah was formed on June 15, 1920. Beginning in 1936, several Jewish groups such as Etzel (Irgun) and Lehi (Stern Gang) conducted their own campaigns of violence against British and Arab targets.
Main article: Great Uprising
In 1936, the British proposed a partition between Jewish and Arab areas that was rejected by both the Arabs and the Zionist Congress .
In 1936-1939 the mandate experienced an upsurge in militant Arab nationalism that became known as the Great Uprising. The Arabs felt they were being marginalized in their own country, but in addition to non-violent strikes, they resorted to terrorism, leaving hundreds of Jews dead. The Jewish organization Etzel replied with its own terrorist campaign, with marketplace bombings and other violent acts that also killed hundreds. Eventually, the uprising was put down by the British with the help of the Jewish self-defence organization, Haganah.
The British placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in the remaining land, allegedly contradicting the provision of the Mandate which said "the Administration of Palestine... shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency... close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not acquired for public purposes." According to the Israeli side, the British had by 1949 allotted over 8500 acres (34 km²) to Arabs, and about 4000 acres (16 km²) to Jews.
As in most of the Arab world, there was no unanimity amongst the Palestinian Arabs as to their position regarding the combatants in WWII. Many signed up for the British army, but others saw an Axis victory as their best hope of wresting Palestine back from the Zionists and (as they saw it) their British protectors. Some of the leadership went further, especially the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini (by then expelled from Palestine), who on November 25, 1941, formally declared jihad against the Allied Powers and spent much time thereafter in what was then Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, recruiting Bosnia's Muslims and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians into Nazi SS-run volunteer units. About 20,000 Bosnian Muslim served in the 13th Armed SS Mountain Division "Handzhar" and several thousand in the 23rd Armed SS Mountain Division "Kama". . Even though Arabs were only marginally higher than Jews in Nazi racial theory, the Nazis naturally encouraged Arab support as much as possible as a counter to British hegemony throughout the Arab world.
Arabs who opposed the persecution of the Jews by the hands of the Nazis included Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, and Egyptian intellectuals such as Tawfiq al-Hakim and Abbas Mahmoud al-Arkad (Source: Yad Vashem)
The Holocaust—the killing of approximately six million European Jews by the Nazis—had a major effect on the situation in Palestine. During the war, the British forbade entry into Palestine of European Jews escaping Nazi persecution, placing them in detention camps or deporting them to other places such as Mauritius. Avraham Stern, the leader of the Jewish Lehi terrorist gang, had advocated an alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, believing these ties would assist the nationalist effort in Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish Irgun gang were implicated in the assassination in Cairo on 6 November 1944 of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State. Fighting Jewish terrorists on one hand and the Germans in North Africa on the other did not endear the British to the Jews in Palestine at this critical stage of the war.
The British considered it more important to get Arab backing, due to their important interests in Egypt and other Arab lands. The influx of Jewish refugees had already caused severe problems in Palestine, and the British did not wish to further exacerbate the situation. The British authorities were also concerned about the possibility of German agents entering Palestine on a refugee boat.
Opposing this policy, which continued after the war's end, and as a result of their general opposition to British control of Palestine, Irgun in 1946 blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the British administration, killing 92 people. In a more tempered move, the accepted Jewish leadership decided to begin an illegal immigration (haa'pala) using small boats operating in conditions of secrecy. About 70,000 Jews were brought to Palestine in this way between 1946 and 1947, and a similar number were captured and imprisoned by the British while sailing.
Seeing that the situation was quickly spiraling out of hand, the British announced their desire to terminate their mandate and to withdraw by May 1948. This decision threw Palestine into the middle of civil and ethnic unrest.
Division of Palestine by United Nations
Main article: 1947 UN Partition Plan
The United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, attempted to solve the dispute between the Palestinian Jews and Arabs. The UN appointed a committee, the UNSCOP, composed of representatives from several states. None of the Great Powers were represented, in order to make the committee more neutral. UNSCOP considered two main proposals. The first called for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, with Jerusalem to be placed under international administration. The second called for the creation of a single federal state containing both Jewish and Arab constituent states. A majority of UNSCOP favoured the first option, although several members supported the second option instead and one member (Australia) said it was unable to decide between them. As a result the first option was adopted and the UN General Assembly largely accepted UNSCOP's proposals, though they made some adjustments to the boundaries between the two states proposed by it. The division was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal.
The partition plan was rejected out of hand by the Palestinian Arabs, although much of the land reserved for the Jewish state had already been acquired by Jews, had a Jewish majority, or was under state control. Most of the Jews accepted the proposal, in particular the Jewish Agency, which was the Jewish state-in-formation. Numerous records indicate the joy of Palestine's Jewish inhabitants as they attended the U.N. session voting for the division proposal. Up to this day, Israeli history books mention November 29 (the date of this session) as the most important date in Israel's acquisition of independence.
Several Jews, however, declined the proposal. Menachem Begin, Irgun's leader, announced: "The partition of the homeland is illegal. It will never be recognized. The signature by institutions and individuals of the partition agreement is invalid. It will not bind the Jewish people. Jerusalem was and will for ever be our capital. The Land of Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever". His views were publicly rejected by the majority of the nascent Jewish state. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, claim that this publicly expressed acceptance was mainly propaganda for the consumption of Western nations, and that Begin's statement more accurately reflected the real intentions of the founders of the State of Israel.
On the date of British withdrawal the Jewish provisional government declared the formation of the State of Israel, and the provisional government said that it would grant full civil rights to all within its borders, whether Arab, Jew, Bedouin or Druze. The declaration stated:
- We appeal ... to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
Thus, upon creating the state - any inhabitants inside the newly formed State of Israel, whether Palestinian Jews or Palestinian Arabs, became Israeli.
Palestinians consider a far more accurate statement of the intention of the founders of Israel to be that of Chaim Weizmann, who reportedly said:
- [Our intention is to] finally establish such a society in Palestine that Palestine shall be as Jewish as England is English, or America is American.
Population of the British Mandate of Palestine
In 1922 the British undertook the first census of the mandate. The population was 752,048, comprising 589,177 Muslims, 83,790 Jews, 71,464 Christians and 7,617 persons belonging to other groups. The 1922 figures may refer to both banks of the Jordan river, at least for the non-Jews. After a second census in 1931, the population had grown to 1,036,339 in total, comprising 761,922 Muslims, 175,138 Jews, 89,134 Christians and 10,145 people belonging to other groups. There were no further censuses but statistics were maintained by counting births, deaths and migration. Some components such as illegal immigration could only be estimated approximately. In 1945 a demographic study showed that the population had grown to 1,764,520, comprising 1,061,270 Muslims, 553,600 Jews, 135,550 Christians and 14,100 people of other groups.
Total Muslim Jewish Christian Other
1922 752,048 589,177(78%) 83,790(11%) 71,464(10%) 7,617(1%)
1931 1,036,339 761,922(74%) 175,138(17%) 89,134(9%) 10,145(1%)
1945 1,764,520 1,061,270(60%) 553,600(31%) 135,550(8%) 14,100(1%)
For further reading
- AJ Sherman. Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948. Thames & Hudson, 1998.