For most of the Nineteenth Century, the British were considered to be one of the staunchest defenders of the autonomy of the Ottoman empire where Palestine would have been considered a key central province of this sprawling empire. Britain's only real direct political involvement with the area was in the 1830's and only then as a result of French diplomacy. Mohammed Ali of Egypt temporarily displaced Ottoman rule in the area with the tacit agreement of the French. The French used Ottoman treatment of christians in the holy lands as an excuse to extend their influence over the area. However, Britain and Russia came to the diplomatic rescue of the Ottomans and compelled Mohammed Ali to withdraw from the area. Partly to placate the French, special agreement was made with the Ottomans to allow the French to protect Catholic citizens and the Russians to protect Orthodox citizens of the Ottoman empire. British (and other European) citizens in the area were granted extraterritorial legal status. With the exception of this incident, official British involvement in the area was extremely limited throughout the Nineteenth Century. As usual, the British government preferred not to interfere in areas that they did not need to do so. Unofficially, the Holy Land proved a powerful draw and influence to many British scholars, artists and upper class travellers.
Establishment of Formal Relations
The Great War was to unexpectedly turn the imperial spotlight onto this part of the world. As the Ottomans had thrown in their hand with the Germans, it was inevitable that the British would want to defend their strategic connection with India through the Suez. And, in 1915 they would even try to force a way through to the Russians through the Dardanelles. Palestine was suddenly thrust into an active theatre of war. At this period of time the most important indigenous group that the British had to work with was the Arabs. The number of Jews in Palestine were less than 60,000 at the outbreak of the war. Therefore, initial British contacts were, almost exclusively, aimed at the Arabs. The most important advance at this time was when the British High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, tried to co-opt the help of the Sharif of Mecca, in the fight against the Ottomans. He did this through a series of correspondence known as the Hussein-McMahon letters. This correspondence seemed to promise the Arabs their own state stretching from Damascus to the Arabian peninsular in return for their aid in fighting the Ottomans. However, not only was the correspondence deliberately imprecise but the status and ability of the Sharif of Mecca to speak for all of the Arabs was itself in question. Despite these problems, the Sharif of Mecca formally declared a revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916. Britain provided supplies and money for the Arab forces led by the Sharif's sons; Abdullah and Faisal. British military advisers were also detailed
from Cairo to assist the Arab army that the brothers were organizing. Of
these advisers, T.E. Lawrence was to become the best known.
To complicate the diplomatic waters, the British entered into an agreement with the French and Russians to divide the entire Middle East into areas of influence for each of the imperial powers but leaving the Holy Lands to be jointly administered by the three powers. This was a secret arrangement that was known as the Sykes Picot agreement of 1916. It directly contradicted many of the promises made to the Sharif of Mecca.
Indeed, the waters were even further muddied by a third commitment entered into by the British in 1917. The British government made a promise to prominent Jews in Britain that the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine would be looked on with favour by the British. The reason for this pledge is not exactly clear, but it seems to have been made for two reasons. The first was to secure financial support from prominent Jewish financiers in Europe. The second seems to have been a way of breaking their own secret arrangement with the French and Russians by promoting their own influence into Palestine at their supposed allies' expense.
Whatever the reason for this diplomatic chicanery, the diplomatic timebomb of these conflicting promises was about to explode as a direct result of the Russian revolution. The newly formed Bolshevik government took great pleasure in releasing the imperialistic designs of the British and French governments by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement publicly and in full. The idea was to expose these capitilastic nations as morally bankrupt in their prosecution of the war and these secret agreements seemed to confirm that fact.
The publication of the Sykes-Picot agreement was not to be as politically devastating as feared for the simple fact that, at this point in time, the Arabs were advancing swiftly and assuredly against their Ottoman enemies. The Arabs felt that if they could make even further gains against the Ottomans that they would have more leverage in dealing with the imperial powers after the fighting had finished. The British were also advancing steadily through Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in December 1917. The British decisively defeated the Turks at Megiddo in September 1918, although the Arabs did manage to enter Damascus before the British were in a position to do so. The Ottomans capitulated soon after which left all of their previous dominions up for grabs.
The Versailles peace conference was used to impose allied plans and ideas on the defeated Central Powers, amongst whom was the Ottoman Empire. Both the Arabs and the Jews had delegations represented there. But, it was the victorious allies who virtually dictated all of the relevant terms and divisions of the lands. The Arab delagation was unsuccessful in promoting Arab independence, but had some success in persuading a border commission that Jewish immigration was not a good idea. Unfortunately, by this time, the British had already been declared as holding the mandate over Palestine and they had independently reaffirmed the Balfour declaration opening the way for a Jewish homeland.
The intense rivalry and competition between the Jews and Arabs was to afflict the British administration for virtually their entire period of governance. Unfortunately, the Zionists and the Arabs had mutually exclusive goals. The Zionists wished to create a Jewish homeland in their Holy Land. Whereas the Arabs were equally adamant that they should not lose their autonomy and rights in their own homeland. At this stage, the Arabs still massively formed the majority of the population. But what the Zionists lacked in numbers they more than made up for with political influence in the West and a zeal to succeed that bordered on fanatacism.
The fact that the British mandate included references to the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of a Jewish homeland was a severe blow to the Arabs. Partly to try and mollify this disappointment, the British split the Palestine mandate into two distinct areas, using the Jordan River as a natural boundary. The British claimed that Jewish immigration would be confined to the West of the river. The East of the river, which represented three quarters of the whole mandate area was to be reserved for the Arabs alone. The Hashemite Abdulla was to become the ruler of what was to become Transjordan. Most Arabs still felt ill at ease with this British plan. They regarded Transjordan as little more than an arid, empty desert. Besides, the principle of any Jewish homeland anywhere in Arab lands was still completely abhorrent to them.
Arab intransigence and unwillingness to work with the Jews was demonstrated almost immediately as the British tried to set up a legislative council and a constitution.
The council was supposed to have ten of the seats allocated to the Arabs and only two to the Jews. The Arabs refused to cooperate on the basis that two seats for so few Jews meant that they were relatively over represented. They also resented the comments and concessions made to Zionism in the constitution. This failure meant that the British had no choice but to continue ruling Palestine directly themselves.
Over the next few years, the British made repeated attempts to include both communities in the day to day running of the mandate. Time and time again, Arab intransigence resulted in an absolute refusal to cooperate in any way. Conversely, the Jews were happy to work and cooperate with the authorities and thus gained a legitimacy and administrative experience far and above that which the size of their community merited. The best example of this was the creation of a Jewish agency in 1929. Arabs flatly refused to do the same.
In fact, 1929 saw the birth of the first real instance of communal ugliness. It would set off a trend that would keep rearing its ugly head for nearly as long as the British were in control of the mandate. The Wailing Wall incident was when Arabs and Jews clashed over a stretch of wall that was regarded as religiously important to both religions. Arabs tried to make access to this wall for the Jews as awkward and difficult as possible. In the end, fights broke out which flared into riots around the country. Some 133 Jews were killed (mostly by British authorities) and 116 Arabs died.
The most important outcome of the Wailing Wall incident was the establishment of the Shaw commission. This commision reported that the Arabs were very concerned about Jewish expansion and that steps should be taken to redress these feelings. The resulting Passfield white paper recommended that Jewish immigration should be stopped and that Jews should not be able to acquire new land. It also suggested a new legislative council which was biased more towards the Arabs. Once again, Arab intransigence failed to take advantage of the situation offered to them. When the Arabs refused to take part in a conference at which Zionists were present, the council lapsed.
The Passfield recommendations were not fully implemented. A combination of Zionist pressure, British official ambivalence and the accession of Hitler in Germany all allowed some immigration to continue. And, when the British failed to fully prevent sales of land to Jews, the Arabs decided to implement a non-cooperation policy and a boycott of British goods. Jews were also unhappy at the idea of these restrictions, even if they weren't fully implemented, and more riots and protests resulted.
Increasing militancy and organisation by the Arabs resulted in the formation of the Arab High Committee in 1936. This virtually coordinated whole-scale attacks and riots directed towards Jews over the next three years. Another commission was put together under Lord Peel in 1936. Yet again, Arab intransigence led to their boycotting of its procedures until just before it left. The almost inevitable conclusion that the committee reached was that there was impossible for the Arabs and Jews to live and work together. It therefore recommended partition - despite the population relocations and upheavals that would be necessary.
The Arabs responded to the commission with yet more riots and violence. The British felt compelled to disband the Arab High Commission and deport its leading members. Meanwhile, they also appointed yet another commission to examine the Peel commission report. The Woodhead report felt that the Peel commission was too generous to the Jews in terms of land to be set aside, but that the principle of partition was still maintained. All be it on a much smaller scale for the Jews. This had the effect of losing the support of the Jews, who thought that it was still inadequate, and yet didn't reconcile the Arabs who were against any partition.
As it happened, international events were eclipsing the luxuries of negotiated settlements in Palestine. The rise of Hitler inevitably cast the Jews into the camp with the British, who were unquestionably the lesser of two evils. The Arabs however, also needed to be coaxed into submissiveness so that the Suez Canal could be maintained in relative tranquility. With this in mind, the British published yet another White paper which was heavily biased in favour of the Arabs. It stated that there would be no partition of Palestine and that Jewish immigration would be limited to 75,000 a year for the next five years and that the Arabs could veto any immigration after that period. Jews had no option but to throw in their lot with the allies and most of them cast aside concerns for their dreams of a homeland in order to concentrate on the destruction of the virulently anti-semitic German Reich. Arabs were similarly pacified by these concessions to them. Palestine settled down to a relatively quiet time during the Second World War. The major concern being the approaching Italians and Germans who advanced towards the Suez. The battle of El Alamein removed any real threat to Palestine in this period.
Economics of Empire
Despite the massive upheavals and difficulties between the two competing communities, economically, Palestine was a surprisingly successful colony. And this was despite the fact that the colony had virtually no natural resources. Even the farmland was not that great. In fact, the main reason for success of Palestine was probably a strange combination of the competition between the Arabs and Jews and the synthesis that they also provided for each other. In competitive terms, both communities wanted to prove themselves better and more abler than the other. They both realised that economic success for their community would probably be the clinching factor in demonstrating their ability to govern themselves. The synthesis came about in matching the economic and technical sophistication of the Jews with the hardworking and relatively cheap Arabs who had an excellent understanding of the local terrain and economy. They both could offer qualities that the other community could utilise.
The economic success of the colony was inevitably curtailed with the worldwide depression of the 1930's. Although, relatively, it did not suffer as badly as most other colonies and countries did. A more serious challenge to the economic success of this colony was the terrorist campaigns that were conducted with increasing severity following the end of the Second World War. Both communities were involved, although the Jews were much more the active of the two. Although the terrorists principally aimed at military targets, the fact that this was a directly ruled colony meant that the local authorities would force the colony to try and pay for any damage done anywhere. This put a serious strain on the budget of the colony. In fact, the costs of this campaign were so high that the colony had to try and get money from an exhausted Britain. The difficulty that both Palestine and Britain had in covering the costs of this campaign were to be a major reason for the British to withdraw so quickly and completely.
In many ways, Palestine was an accidental acquistion. More a spoil of war than an activley sought after colony. It's only real strategic importance to the British was the fact that it was near the Suez canal. This seemed as if it might become important during the Second World War with the Axis powers nearing Cairo - but in the end proved superfluous.
Other than that, there was no particular reason for Britain to have control over it. Limited attempts were made at using it as a stop over base for communications to Asia. Roads linked Palestine to Transjordan and Syria and on into Iraq and the Persian gulf. Attempts were made at refuelling planes and seaplanes on their way between India and Britain. None of these schemes proved to be outstandingly significant or important. It felt more as if the British were trying to find reasons to justify its existence as a colony. The best thing that could be said about the colony was that it was relatively self-sufficient.
The rise of Mussolini's Italy with aspirations to recreate a Roman Empire in the Mediterranean did see Britain redouble its commitment to the region. The rise of Fascism meant that Britain had a delicate path to walk between appearing to be strong without provoking a war. Goodwill visits by the Royal Navy in to friendly ports such as those on the Eastern Mediterranean were all part of that balancing act.
As the Second World War came to a close, the Jews felt that it was time to redress the imbalances of the 1939 White Paper. A number of factors contributed to giving them the diplomatic initiative. The first was the fact that so many Jews had fought so loyally with the Allies against the Germans and that the Jewish Agency had done so much to help the Allied war effort within Palestine itself. Another, was the guilt felt by the Allied powers as they uncovered the full extent of German designs against the Jews at concentration camps throughout Central Europe. Equally important was the fact that the Americans were becoming increasingly sympathetic to their claims and disproportionately powerful in Post-War Europe. Another more sinister development was the fact that the most important Jewish terrorist groups had all come together into a coalition. Thus, they could present a concerted military front for the first time. This they used to increasingly destructive means as they turned their terrorism against a war weary British military establishment.
The Labour Party's granting of independence to India in 1947 pulled the rug from any strategic value in holding colonies such as Palestine. British soldiers who wished to be demobilised increasingly resented being posted to Palestine to hold the line between Arabs and Jews who sought advantage over one another whilst not worrying about striking the forces of Law and Order in between. Jewish terrorist groups in particular saw British soldiers and police as an obvious soft target representing the regime denying them free entry after the horrors of the Second World War had laid bare the extent of their suffering in Europe.
The British entered into yet another commission, although this time together with the Americans. The Anglo-American commission published a paper heavily in favour of the Jews. It recommended an immediate end to restrictions on land purchases, on immediately allowing admission to 100,000 European Jews and the creation of a bi-national state under United Nations tutelage. This last option was a new one for the British and one that they took advantage of just as soon as they could. Economically tired and war weary the British were in no mood to fight to maintain a mandate that was proving so troublesome and irksome. The relatively anti-imperial Labour government was keen to cut these imperial knots and indeed was already planning to lose the most important of all British colonies; India. Therefore, Britain leapt at the opportunity of off-loading this problem to the United Nations and invited a UN commission (UNSCOP) to examine the problem whilst they hastily made preparations to withdraw.
UNSCOP found little that was new other than the feeling of urgency. Yet again, the Arabs boycotted the proceedings which gave the Jews an excellent opportunity to plead their case. It recommended to the General Assembly that partition was the only option that could work for both parties, although it was to be mitigated by an economic union. The British, relievedly, had completed their withdrawal of forces by 1948. Not long after this the Jews were to declare independence to which various surrounding Arab countries responded by invading the new Israel. The highly motivated Jews not only withstood the onslaught of the Arabs but actually turned them back and captured many areas that were not designated to them by the United Nations. A new nation had been formed out of the imperial mandate.
Palestine: Britain's Crown of Thorns Christopher Sykes gives an account of Britain's Mandate years and how, despite Palestine's economic successes, it was unable to reconcile the Arabs and Jews into living in the same space.
Palestine Railways and Ports J. Y. Vatikiotis, who used to work on the Palestine Railway, explains just how quickly and extensively the British modernized the railway and port network of their Palestine Mandate in the 1930s and 1940s helping to enable the colony to become one of the most profitable in the Empire.
Jerusalem Lost Dr Robert Carr examines Britain's relationship with the Jewish Zionists from World War One to the Cold War. He tracks the deterioration of a relationship that got off to such a promising start in 1917.
Britain goes to war with Ottomans. Jews help British.
Shariff Hussein initiates Arab revolt against Ottomans.
Balfour declaration promises a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Allenby enters Jerusalem.
Hashemite Emir Faisal enters Damascus.
Versailles discusses mandates.
San Remo conference validates Balfour declaration. Haganah formed.
British persuade Abdullah to take over administration of Transjordan.
Cairo conference specifies Palestine's borders.
League of Nations formally confers mandate of Palestine to Britain. British attempt to create a joint Arab and Jew legislative council in Palestine. Arabs unwilling to cooperate with Jews.
State of Transjordan declared by British.
Arab League formed
Wailing wall incident: The first large scale attack by Arabs on Jews.
Shaw commission reports that Arabs concerned about Jewish expansion. Resulting Passfield white paper recommends that Jewish immigration be stopped and that Jews should not be able to acquire new land.
Irgun Zval Leumi formed
British failure to fully implement Passfield recommendations leads to Arab non-cooperation with British and boycott of British goods. Jews protest and riot.
Arab High Committee formed to unite Arabs against Jews. Armed struggle begins between Arabs and Jews. Lord Peel Commission begins - Arabs fail to make case until just before commisssion leaves.
Peel commission publishes recommendations that Jews and Arabs can never be reconciled with each other and so recommends the partition of Palestine.
Woodhead report proposes smaller allocation of land to Jews in Palestine.
White paper published to mollify Arabs in time of international tension. It denies intention to create a Jewish state and limits Jewish immigration for 5 years after which the Arabs would choose immigration levels.
Biltmore Declaration with its demand that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth
Anglo-American commission recommends revoking of immigration quotas and withdrawal of restrictions on land purchases. Britain doesn't implement recommendations. Jews step up military campaign. Treaty of London ends British mandate over Transjordan