Seminar on Israel
State, Society and Politics

Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate
Tom Segev

The Great War that shoved Europe into the 20th Century changed the status of Palestine as well. For more than 700 years the land had been under Muslim rule. In 1917, as part of the British push into the Middle East, it passed into Christian hands; indeed, many of the conquering British soldiers compared themselves to the Crusaders. However, even as the British took control of Palestine the tide was going out on their empire; when they left the country 30 years later Britain had just lost India, the jewel in the crown. Palestine was little more than an epilogue to a story that was coming to an end. In the history of empire, then, Palestine was an episode devoid of glory.

It was an odd story from the start. Altogether, the British seemed to have lost their bearings in this adventure. They derived no economic benefit from their rule over Palestine. On the contrary, its financial cost led them from time to time to consider leaving the country. Occupying Palestine brought them no strategic benefit either, despite their assumptions that it did. Many top army officers maintained that Palestine contributed nothing to the imperial interest, and there were those who warned that rule over the country was liable to weaken the British. There were early signs that they were getting themselves into a political problem that had no solution. These were reason enough not to take over the country. But the Holy Land elicited a special response; its status was not determined by geopolitical advantage alone. “Palestine for most of us was an emotion rather than a reality”, one official in the British administration commented.

At first, the British were received as an army of liberation. Both Arabs and Jews wished for independence and assumed they would win it under British sponsorship. Confusion, ambiguity, and disappointment were present at the very beginning. Before setting out to war in Palestine, the British had gotten themselves tangled up in an evasive and amateurish correspondence with the Arabs, who believed that in exchange for supporting the British against the Turks, they would receive Palestine. Just before the conquest of the country, however, his Majesty’s Government announced, in the famous words of the Balfour Declaration, that it would “view with favour” the aspiration of the Zionist Jews to establish a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine. For all practical purposes, the British had promised the Zionists that they would establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The promised land had, by the stroke of a pen, become twice-promised. Although the British took possession of “one Palestine, complete,” as noted in the receipt signed by the high commissioner, Palestine was riven, even before His Majesty’s Government settled in.

For the most part, the British kept their promise to the Zionist. They opened up the country to mass Jewish immigration; by 1948, the Jewish population had increased by more than tenfold. The Jews were permitted to purchase land, develop agriculture, and establish industries and banks. The British allowed them to set up hundreds of new settlements, including several towns. They created a school system and an army; they had a political leadership and elected institutions; and with the help of all these they in the end defeated the Arabs, all under British sponsorship, all in the wake of that promise of 1917. Contrary to the widely held belief of Britain’s pro-Arabism, British actions considerably favored the Zionist enterprise.

In standing by the Zionist movement, the British believed they were winning the support of a strong and influential ally. This was an echo of the notion that the Jews turned the wheels of history, a uniquely modern blend of classical anti-Semitic preconceptions and romantic veneration of the Holy Land and its people. In fact, the Jewish people were helpless; they had nothing to offer, no influence other than this myth of clandestine power.

The British pretended, and perhaps even believed, that the establishment of a national home for the Jews could be carried out without hurting the Arabs. But, of course, that was impossible. The truth is that two competing national movements consolidated their identity in Palestine and advanced steadily toward confrontation. “To be a Palestine nationalist hardly left any room for compromise with Jewish nationalism and its backer, the Western powers,” wrote historian Isa Khalaf. From the start there were, then, only two possibilities: that the Arabs defeat the Zionists or that the Zionists defeat the Arabs. War between the two became inevitable.

And Britain was caught in the middle. High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope compared himself to a circus performer trying to ride two horses at the same time. Of these two horses, he said, one cannot go fast and the other would not go slow. For a time the British clutched at the hope of creating a single local identity in Palestine, common to both Jews and Arabs, and in this context they even spoke of the “people of Palestine.” These were empty words. The British were fooling the Arabs, the Jews, and themselves, Chaim Weizmann once commented. He was right. It is a fascinating story, but not always a laudable one. As with national revolutions elsewhere, both peoples in Palestine tended to put nationalism above democracy and human rights. The leader of the Arab national movement even made common cause with Adolf Hitler.

The colonial method of government, wrote District Commissioner of the Galilee Edward Keith-Roach, was “totalitarianism tempered with benevolence." Many of the British brought with them imperialistic arrogance and a powerful sense of cultural superiority. Some saw their dominion as a destiny and a mission. Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner, proposed that his government conquer Palestine in order to “civilize” it. When he eulogized one of his men who had died, Samuel honored his with the warmest praise he knew: “as head of the civil service staff he bore the brunt of the work of building up almost from the foundation the structure of a modern state.”

There were those in the British administration who identified with the Jews and those who identified with the Arabs. There were those who found both repugnant. “I dislike them all equally,” wrote General Sir Walter Norris ‘Squib’ Congreve. “Arabs and Jews and Christians, in Syria and Palestine, they are all alike, a beastly people. The whole lot of them is not worth a single Englishman!” This was a common sentiment. Police officer Raymond Cafferata put it more politely: “I am not anti-Semitic nor anti-Arab, I’m merely pro-British.” So felt many, perhaps most, of those who served in Palestine.

The British had found an underdeveloped country when they arrived, and they left behind much progress, especially among the Jews. But they also left behind much backwardness, especially among the Arabs. Just before leaving the country one senior official estimated that the British had never in fact had a policy for Palestine, “nothing but fluctuations of policy, hesitations… no policy at all. He was right. Commissions of inquiry came one after the other, studied the Arab-Jewish situation, and left. The British government generally adopted their recommendations, then changed its mind and sent more commissions. “If all the books of statistics prepared for the 19 commissions that have had a shot at the problem were placed on top of one another they would reach as high as the King David Hotel,” wrote Henry Gurney, the last of the Mandatory government’s chief secretaries.

During the 1920s, Jews and Arabs came into contact predominantly through the Jews’ efforts to buy the country from its owners. And the Arabs were willing to sell. Generally, more land was available than the Zionist movement could afford to buy. Some of the landowners lived outside Palestine: some of the sellers were land agents, and some were farmers offering their property directly to prospective buyers. Among the homeland’s traders were leaders of the Arab national movement-pots on the outside, traitors on the inside.

The Arab leaders’ willingness to sell land to the Jews heightened the contempt Zionist figures felt for the Arab national movement. After a meeting with Arab dignitaries, Chaim Weizmann concluded, “They are ready to sell their souls to the highest bidder.” The compact Weizmann reached with Prince Faisal in 1918 had also been based on the assumption that the prince would make money off his peace with the Zionists. One of Faisal’s aides had received a down payment of £1.000 and then demanded more. This experience contributed to the Jews’ conclusion that the national consciousness of the Palestinian Arabs could be bought. Indeed, politicians and petty thieves, dignitaries as well as hoodlums-all offered the Zionists their services in espionage and sabotage, in rumor-mongering, defamation, extortion, and all kinds of intimidation; the supply often outstripped the demand.

Twenty years after the British conquest, the Arabs rose up to throw them out. By 1939, the Arab rebellion had brought the British to the verge of a decision to go home. It would have been better for them had they left then, but it took them nearly ten more years to act. In the meantime, World War II broke out, and after the war British forces were hit by Jewish terrorism as well. Thousands of them paid for the adventure with their lives.

While the British were suppressing the Arab Revolt, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, war in Europe had become more and more likely. British officials in the Middle East began sending warnings to London. In the framework of preparations for war, they cautioned, the Arabs should be taken into account.

Despite Britain’s success in defeating the Arab rebellion and the White Paper, the British had a growing feeling that there was nothing left for them to do in Palestine. Montgomery observed that, “The Jew murders the Arab and the Arabs murder the Jew. This is what is going on in Palestine now. And it will go on for the next 50 years in all probability.” The British were stuck in a dead end, and they knew it.

“If we must offend one side,” Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, “let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.” As war approached, statesmen were inclined to think that holding on to Palestine and Egypt and preserving the link with Iraq were vital. The Jews had no alternative other than to support Britain; the Arabs, in contrast, could choose to support the Germans.

For many years thereafter Israelis conducted an agitated and sensitive debate over the question of who had really gotten rid of the British. Former members of Etzel, Lehi, the Haganah, and the Palmach vied with each other to claim credit for ‘ejecting’ the British; all invested considerable energy in the argument, enlisting historians and educators, journalists and other shapers of memory and myth. The political stakes were high, the assumption being that whoever had expelled the British had thereby won the moral and national right to lead Israel’s government. All the warring parties completely ignored the role played by the Arabs in sending the British packing.

The Arab rebellion of the late 1930s had been cruelly suppressed, but it had brought home to the British that compromise between the Arabs and the Jews was impossible. Only war would decide the issue; whoever won would control the country, or as much of it as they could conquer. The British had drawn the right conclusion. Once the Zionist movement came to Palestine with the intention of creating an independent state with a Jewish majority, war was inevitable. All indications pointed toward a long war that would end without a clear victory. This projection greatly reduced the country’s strategic value and increased the risks to the British themselves. With hindsight they could-justly-say to themselves that they had erred in allowing the Zionist movement to drag them into this adventure. Twenty years after the Balfour Declaration, they could even claim that they had kept their commitment: at least the foundations of the Jewish national home were in place.

The Arab rebellion had made the British sick of Palestine. World War II had delayed their exit, but during the war they continued to discuss how to rid themselves of the country when the war ended. Terrorism and illegal immigration only served to intensify a feeling that had crystallized among many of the British by the end of the 1930s.

After three decades of Zionism in Palestine, there was still no clear timetable for the Jewish state, but no doubt remained that Jewish independence was on the horizon. The social, political, economic, and military foundations of the state-to-be were firm; and a profound sense of national unity prevailed. The Zionist dream was about to become reality.

There is therefore no basis for the frequent assertion that the state was established as a result of the Holocaust. Clearly, the shock, horror, and sense of guilt felt by many generated profound sympathy for the Jews in general and the Zionist movement in particular. That sympathy helped the Zionists advance their diplomatic campaign and propaganda.

In February 1947, the British government had decided to turn the Mandate over to the successor of the League of Nations, the United Nations (UN). The UN set up its own commission; surveys and reports were prepared and witnesses were summoned and their comments recorded, producing yet more impressive documentation of positions and historic claims set down in meticulous detail. Finally, the commission decided, by a majority, to recommend to the UN General Assembly that Palestine be partitioned. This decision prompted a worldwide diplomatic campaign involving pressure, threats, promises and bribes. The Jewish Agency budgeted a million dollars for its own campaign of bribery; in official parlance the money was allocated to “irregular political activity”.

Until the actual vote in the UN there was no way to be certain how the General Assembly would decide. But on 29 November 1947, the UN voted to divide Palestine into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs; Jerusalem was to remain under international control.

The Arabs were as unprepared for battle as the Jews, and thus also had an interest in the continuation of British rule. But they may have believed that ultimately they would win. In any case, still hostage to the rejectionist position they had adopted in 1917, they opposed partition and continued to demand independence in all of Palestine, promising to respect the rights of the Jewish minority. The partition boundaries proposed by the UN assigned the Jewish state almost twice much territory as the British partition plan of ten years prior, and the Arabs had turned down that proposal as well. “They refused at any time to sign their own death warrant,” Anwar Nusseibeh wrote. However, in rejecting the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs missed a chance to gain time to prepare for war. They had made a tactical error.

The Zionists’ plans for the new state were based on the assumption that a large Arab minority would remain. But the tragedy of the Arab refugees from Palestine was a product of the Zionist principle of separation and the dream of population transfer. The tragedy was inevitable, just as the war itself was inevitable. The number of refugees reached approximately 750,000. Some planned their departure, some fled, and about half were expelled. “People left their country,” Sakakini wrote, “dazed and directionless, without homes or money, falling ill and dying while wandering from place to place, living in niches and caves, their clothing falling apart, leaving them naked, their food running out, leaving them hungry. The mountains grew colder and they had no one to defend them.” As always, Sakakini did not shrink from self-criticism. “What breaks our hearts is that the Arab countries see and hear and do nothing,” he said. Luckily and in some ways catastrophically-they had places to flee to, which weakened their resolve. Possibly, the lives of many Arabs were saved because they fled their h, but the mass flight destroyed their national fabric for many years to come.

The war caught the Arabs unorganized and leaderless. They had not recovered from their defeat during the rebellion, they had fewer combatants than the Jews, and those they had were inadequately equipped.

After 30 years of ruling Palestine, the British had still not instituted compulsory school attendance. Education standards differed for city and village children and for boys and girls, and only three out of every ten Arabs went to school. The other seven, mostly in the villages, grew up illiterate. They were a lost generation. The result of this loss for the Arab community was catastrophic. A nationwide system of education would have forged national cohesion. But the War of 1948 found the Arabs rent by regional, social, and economic divisions, with profound differences between city dwellers and villagers. The Hebrew education system, by contrast, formed the Jews into a national community, prepared them for their war of independence, and led them to victory. Had Britain limited its support for Zionism to nothing other than perpetuating Arab illiteracy, His Majesty's Government could still claim to have kept the promise enshrined in the Balfour Declaration.

The British had come with good intentions and has set the country on a course to the 20th Century, Chief Secretary Gurney claimed. Palestine had become rich. It had first-class roads and water supplies, schools, hospitals, and electric power. There were agricultural research stations, ports, and railways. There was a judicial system unique in the Middle East for its freedom from corruption. "In spite of mistakes we have done an extremely good job," said one Member of Parliament. High Commissioner Cunningham had only to look out his window to see what had been accomplished in Jerusalem in the last 25 years. He regretted, however, that out of a yearly budget of £24 million he had had to spend £8 million on security, and he never stopped thinking about what might have been done with this money for the betterment of the country. Chief Secretary Gurney believed that the problems in Palestine were more fundamental. From the outset, the British edifice had been built on sand. "I thought today," he once wrote, "if Palestine has to be written on my heart, must it be written in Arabic and Hebrew?"