THE PEEL COMMISSION PARTITION PROPOSAL, 1937
The 1929 Hope Simpson Commission of Inquiry had explicitly pointed to the incapacity of the economy and demography of Palestine to be further destabilized by Zionist immigration and settlement. Its recommendations were echoed by those of the 1930 Shaw Commission of Inquiry, named after Sir Walter Shaw, sent to investigate incidents of violence, which had peaked in a series of localized uprisings in 1929. The Shaw Commission stated that, “[a] continuation, or still more an acceleration, of a process which results in the creation of a large discontented and landless class is fraught with serious danger to the country.” The Commission urged the British government to urgently assess its immigration policy and to address the “meaning of the passages in the Mandate which purported to safeguard the interests of the non-Jewish communities.” The British ‘Passfield’ White Paper of October 1930 adopted these findings and ordered most land transfers frozen, while limiting immigration. However, PM McDonald, under pressure from Zionist leaders, revoked these clauses in February 1931 with the so-called ‘Black-Letter’, wherein he issued his personal assurances to WZO head Weizmann, going so far as to praise “the constructive work done by the Jewish people in Palestine [and their]... beneficial effects on the development and well-being of the country as a whole.” [i]
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians were becoming increasingly frustrated with British policy, as the likelihood of their achieving their right to self-determination under the Mandate appeared to evaporate. In October 1933 nationwide strikes and demonstrations against Zionism and British collusion were met with force, leaving at least 12 Palestinians dead and fuelling outrage at Britain’s strong-arm tactics.
By 1936, seven years after the Hope Simpson Commission, the Jewish population had risen by more than a further 150%, an additional 62 settlements had been created and nearly 1.5 million dunums of Palestinian land was the property of the Zionists. [ii] The Zionists saw the settlements as “[t]he guardians of Zionist land,” and recognized early on that “patterns of settlement would to a great extent determine the [future Jewish] country’s borders.” [iii] JA Executive Chairman, David Ben-Gurion, called the settlers, “the army of Zionist fulfillment.” [iv] In mid-April 1936, a series of Arab-Jewish clashes in the Jaffa area proved the inevitable trigger, as Palestinian National Committees sprang up across the country in support of a call for a general strike issued by the Palestinian representative leadership, the Arab Higher Committee (AHC). The AHC was banned soon after by the British, but despite the arrest of its leaders and the nationwide imposition of curfews, the uprising surged and from April 1936 until October the Arab Revolt swept Mandate Palestine. [v]
The extent of the revolt and its support throughout the region worried the British, who requisitioned additional troops in September to put down the uprising. [vi] Fearing domestic instability and under pressure from their British benefactor, regional Arab leaders eventually provided the necessary mediation to bring about a lull in the uprising, while Britain again dispatched an investigative commission.
Arriving in November 1936, the Palestine Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, set out to assess the feasibility and future of the Mandate. Published in July 1937, the Peel Commission’s report concluded that, “the Mandate for Palestine should terminate and be replaced by a Treaty System...” The proposed treaty envisioned a partition of Palestine, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem retained under a separate Mandate, reaching to the port at Jaffa. The part allotted the Palestinians was to be united with Transjordan and the resulting Jewish state made to pay a subsidy to the Arab state, to which Palestinians within the area allotted the Jewish state would be compelled to move. The Peel Plan, with its twin premises of partition and ‘population transfer’, was to become the point of reference for most future schemes to solve the Palestine Question.
The Palestinians flatly rejected the notion of a Zionist state on nearly 33% of Palestine and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands that this would entail. [vii] Encouraged by the legitimization it granted their program, but not content with the scale of conquest, the Zionist leadership accepted ‘in principle’ but rejected ‘in detail’ the partition plan, while Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement rejected the idea outright and by September 1937 had commenced a violent campaign against Palestinians and the British, marking the resumption of violence and resurgence of the Arab Revolt. [viii]
[ii] Populations & settlements: McCarthy, The Population of Palestine, p. 224 & p. 219.
Land acquisition: A Survey of Palestine Vol. 1, p. 376 & notes.
[iii] Segev, One Palestine…, p. 249.
[iv] Ibid. p.255. (Quoting Ben-Gurion’s memoirs.)
[v] The Arab Higher Committee was formally established in April 1936, with Haj Amin Al-Husseini elected its Pres. on the 25th of that month. Its members were: Jamal Husseini, Hussein Fakhri Al-Khalidi, Yaqoub Al-Ghossein, Fuad Saba, Ragheb Nashashibi, Ahmed Hilmi Abed Baqi, Ahmed Latif Saleh, Alfred Rock and Awni Abdul Hadi - all of whom would remain at the forefront of the Palestinian national movement throughout the Mandate period and beyond.
[vi] On 22 September 1936 additional troops were requisitioned. Palestinian historian Abdelaziz Ayyad attributes a part of the urgency of the regional leaders in exerting efforts alongside and on behalf of the Arab Higher Committee to gain a cessation of the Revolt to this news.
Yehoshua Porath attributes lasting significance in terms of the development of the pan-Arab movement to the support for the Palestinian Arab Revolt throughout the region, but also notes the economic necessity for the Palestinians to ‘deescalate’ the revolt due to the vital citrus harvest season and the dire state of the rural economy.
Ayyad acknowledges the role though of the many Muslim Youth and other less pan-Arab groups in mobilizing support, finance and volunteers at the same time. In all, Porath’s assertion that the period represented a formative moment in the development of the Palestinian cause in the face of Zionism as a bedrock of Arab solidarity is born out by most commentators, Ayyad included. Yoav Gelber, among others, points out the many recurring elements of secretive collusion and twin-channel maneuvering which characterized the political strategies of the regional governments at the time, attributing to the period formative patterns of betrayal and manipulation that have persisted throughout the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ayyad, Abdelaziz, Arab Nationalism and the Palestinians 1850-1939, Jerusalem: PASSIA, 1999, p. 161; Porath, Yehoshua, In Search of Arab Unity 1930-1945, London: Frank Cass, 1986, p. 162; Gelber, Yoav, Jewish-Transjordanian Relations 1921-1948, London: Frank Cass, 1997, pp. 83-103.
[vii] Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora, pp. 189-193.
[viii] PASSIA, 100 Years of Palestinian History, pp. 57-58. Ben-Gurion accepted the proposal after judging its shortcomings vis-à-vis Zionist territorial ambitions to be outweighed by the immense value of a non-Zionist plan which endorsed the concept of “forced transfer.” He wrote of the Peel Plan in his diary: “This will give us something we never had, even when we were under our own authority, neither in the period of the First Temple nor in the period of the Second Temple… forced transfer.” Segev, One Palestine…, p. 403.