The year 2017 ended with a two-fold recognition. Firstly, of the one hundred year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which sought to establish a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine. Secondly, of President Donald Trump's recognition of Israel's claims of Jerusalem as its capital. These issues, so intimately entwined, have not been settled in the time since Jewish and Muslim independence from the British Empire’s care, accomplished in 1948. It is to that which we look, those final days of the Lion of Judah's Levantine sojourn, before the conflagration became commonly ingrained in the conscious of the present world. It is a relatively understudied time, but one which should help to frame our understanding of the issues presented today.
The war itself had greatly benefitted the Jewish minority in Palestine. With the suppression of their Arab opponents during the uprisings of 1936-1939, the aspirant Israelis were left in a positive position as the great conflict unfolded.1 Planning to avert a possible invasion by the Germans and their erstwhile allies, the British began heavily investing in the region. This was not limited to material, but also to training. Jewish troops had been utilised to war with the Vichy French in Syria, a task which gave them experience for the upcoming decades of discord. While the Jewish forces fought against the enemies of England, they yet viewed the English as interlopers needlessly retarding their own development as a nation. Yishuv, or the Jewish community as a whole in Palestine, "prepar[ed] for an armed confrontation with Britain once Germany was defeated." Veterans from the great conflict would form the backbone of the Jewish resistance and "provided the Haganah with a cadre of trained veterans for fighting against Britain after 1945."2 1944 was a tipping point in Anglo-Jewish relations. On the 1st of February, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the most radical arm of Zionist militarism, publically called upon the populace to overthrow their imperial shackles, saying, “There can no longer be a truce between the Hebrew nation and youth and the British administration of Eretz Israel, which is betraying our brethren to Hitler. Our nation will fight this regime, fight to the end.”3 Using the excuse that Britain had not taken all the steps necessary to save persecuted Jews in Europe, especially in continuing to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine after the White Paper of 1939 (an effort to appease the Arab majority in the wake of the revolts of the 1930s), the fiercest faction of the Zionist movement removed any and all pretense of working with the Empire, instead choosing to inaugurate war.
After an occupation of a quarter century the last British soldiers leave Haifa, Palestine
While the Jewish minority had greatly profited in the war years, their legitimacy in the region was still shaky as of 1945. Not only were they in the minority by population, but also in terms of property. As Jeremy Salt notes, “By 1939 land purchased by the Zionists amounted to 5.7 percent of mandatory Palestine; by 1944 the figure had still climbed to only 6.6 percent. The vast bulk of private property and land remained in the hands of Muslims or Christian Palestinians.”4 Population-wise, Jewish immigration had greatly altered the landscape of Palestine, but still remained in the minority. The population had almost doubled from roughly one million persons in Palestine to two million from the years 1931 - 1946, and the percentage of Jews along with it - 16% in 1931 compared with 31% in 1946.5 The Arab population’s share had dropped from 82% to 67% in the same timeframe. Commenting on the contribution of educational policies in Palestine to heightening alienation, Sir Henry Gurney, the last Chief Secretary of British Palestine, observed, “For years the Jewish educational system has been a watertight machine, breeding a narrow nationalism, with certain militarist features such as a year’s compulsory service at the age of 17, without which the school leaving certificate is not obtained.”6
The Bellum Magnum Secundum may have blossomed into a flower of freedom for some from the Israeli seed, but it became a bitter briar in the Empire of the British. The Jews, previously in a position of weakness, protected as a minority in the Imperial domains, and nurtured by Albion’s blood, were now on the ascendency. British policy had been set on maintaining Palestine as a strategic global point about which pivoted their dealings in Egypt, Iraq, and the Mediterranean. As Sir Miles Lampson and Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, British representatives in Egypt and Iraq, respectively, agreed, “Whittling down of the 1939 White Paper [limiting Jewish settlement], and even more, the establishment of a Jewish state, would mean that Britain would lose its influence in the Middle East and the maintenance of oil and other interests would be endangered. Palestine should be retained as a vital link in Britain’s Defense System.”7 Salt notes the craftiness and treachery the Zionists employed against the Empire:
“From Balfour onwards Zionist colonialism had taken root under British protection, but now that Britain had nothing more it could or would deliver, the Zionists turned on the mandatory power with remorseless ferocity. Soldiers, policemen, and civilians were killed and workshops, railway lines, trains, and bridges sabotaged in wave after wave of well-coordinated assaults…. The hand that had fed was being savagely bitten.”8
Neither is Salt alone in his assessment. Noting the dire history of the previous decades, other writers make clear to distinguish who was ‘rising’ in the post-war years, and the methods they used: “From 1946 on… It was Jews who were in revolt. Attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations by the Irgun prompted one government step after another.”9 Again, William Cleveland states, "Mainstream Palestinian Zionism had gone to war against Britain [as of 1945]. Over the next two years, the combined pressure of Haganah sabotage, Irgun terror (such as the bombing of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946), and US opinion placed Britain in an impossible position."10 The greatest atrocity perpetrated upon the British by the aspirant Israelis was the bombing of the King David hotel on the 22nd of July, 1946, an act which killed 91 people. Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun, directed the attack. According to his own statements, he did so with the full cooperation of the Haganah.11
One policy which the Jews continued to undertake, much to the chagrin of their British masters, was the continued importation of immigrants into Palestine against the wishes of the White Paper of 1939. This created a host of problems for the mandate, ranging from a loss of face in the Arab community to mounting civil unrest in the mandate itself. “The Haganah,” writes one author, “used force to facilitate illegal immigration.”12 So strong was the Israeli position in August of 1946, it was reported that, were the British to attempt to assert their authority in the Jewish stronghold of Tel Aviv, they would either have to “cordon the city and starve it out or…go in with all guns roaring.”13 The policy of flooding the fields with immigrants had worked well to the Jewish advantage, and much to the detriment of the British and Arabs. It also shifted the official British policy.
‘If only one hundred thousand more Jews were allowed into Palestine… the [British] garrisons would have to be reinforced to keep the peace… the incoming… Clement Atlee… regarded the Jewish national home as “a wild experiment that was bound to cause trouble.’ Truman’s announcement that the UN… was ready to take ‘technical and financial responsibility’ for transporting one hundred thousand Jews to Palestine but was not prepared to commit troops to help keep the peace only inflamed British irritation at American intentions. In these circumstances, Atlee made it plain, he was ‘determined to liquidate Palestine as an economic and military liability.’”14
The Jewish distrust of the British deepened as the Second World War receded, illustrated by a particularly tragic event. When an Arab village of some 200 persons was wiped out by the Zionist terrorist group, the Stern Gang (also called Lehi), the Arabs reprised with an attack on a Jewish medical convoy. Colonel Jack Churchill, though he could not convince headquarters to intervene with force, ordered a small armoured convoy to rescue the beleaguered Jews. But, “The passengers refused, preferring to await the arrival of Haganah forces. ‘The Jews were over-confident and endangered themselves,’ Churchill later recalled. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses and patients were killed.”15 In many instances, the nascent nationals would rather die than offer themselves up to British protection. All the while, the killing continued:
“In the last few months of the mandate, when the British were still nominally in charge, the Zionists began clearing Palestine of its indigenous population… according to the Haganah’s own military intelligence, ‘hostile acts’ committed by the Haganah, Irgun, and the Stern Gang had caused the flight of seventy percent of the four hundred thousand people who had fled.”16
Sir Henry Gurney notes in his diary the wanton, anarchical violence that had engulfed Palestine, especially in its final year, “The Lebanese Vice-Consul just down the road was shot on his verandah; the donkey that brings the Belgian consulate’s milk was shot outside his door… One [Christian] was caught by his Jewish friends recently, beaten for 18 hours and then released after he signed a cheque for every penny he possessed in Palestine.”17 Three days later, he would record, “The Belgian Consul-General’s milk donkey is still lying outside his door, and no one can move it for Jewish snipers. A police armoured car is going to have a shot to-morrow. Meanwhile, it is by no means so pleasant a donkey as it was.”18
While the British had stationed 70,000 troops in Palestine as of April, 1948, the month before the end of the mandate, the troops were largely ineffective against their Israeli foe. Working with Jewish leaders especially proved counterproductive for the British. One earlier attempt to destroy the Israeli terrorist network, “Operation Broadside,” was performed in conjunction with the Haganah, which foiled the attempt by alerting the intended targets. “The Hagana,” notes Shepherd, “sometimes provided the government with information about the Irgun but tolerated no treachery within its own ranks.” In one year, seven Haganah informers were executed for relaying information to the British. It was concluded that, “The Army never brought full military force to bear on the Jewish population,” because “[N]either the administration nor the army wanted a confrontation with a majority of the Jewish population.” Judges, like the honourable Ralph Windham, were the targets of kidnappings if they chose to hear cases involving Jewish terrorists. “There were few executions of Jewish terrorists… whether for this reason [of international scrutiny] or for fear of revenge kidnappings by the Irgun.” Flogging was the usual punishment, followed by imprisonment.19
With the 15th of May, 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine had ceased to exist. Its twenty-eight year tenure had seen the inception of a viable Zionism upon its soil, nurtured with British blood and bounty, a movement which would eventually prevail upon its overlord. From King Richard the Lionheart in 1191 to General Edmund Allenby in 1917, Britain had an intimate history with the Holy Land. Assigned by the League of Nations the Mandate of Palestine in 1920, the British had overseen the political and economic development of their ward for over two decades. By the end, the position of Britain in Palestine was marginalised by the international community, hated and attacked by the Zionists, and scoffed at by the Arabs. The lion of the British Empire would leave the land to the lion of Judah, a creature which would show itself to be a much fiercer foe.
Gurney, Sir Henry, The End of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 2009. Pg. 8
Cleveland, William L., A History of the Modern Middle East: Third Edition (Cambridge: Westview Press) 2004. Pg. 262.
Lapidot, Yehuda, “The Irgun: Revolt is Proclaimed,” Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/revolt-is-proclaimed-by-the-irgun>
Salt, Jeremy, The Unmaking of the Middle East (Berkeley: The University of California Press) 2008. Pg. 133
Cleveland, pg. 255
Gurney, pg. 111
Harrison, Robert T., Britain in the Middle East: 1614-1971 (London: Bloomsbury Academic) 2016. Pg. 184
Salt, pg. 136
Kimmerling, Baruch, and Migdal, Joel S., The Palestinian People: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2003. Pg. 146
Cleveland, pg. 263
Dolan, David Holy War for the Promised Land: Israel’s Struggle to Survive, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1991. Pgs. 100-101. Despite his terrorist roots, or perhaps because of them, Begin would later become Prime Minister of Israel in 1977.
Janowsky, Oscar I., Foundations of Israel (Princeton: D Van Nostrand Company, Inc.) 1959. Pg. 82
Shepherd, Naomi, Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) 1999. Pg. 228
Salt, pg. 135
Shepherd, pg. 234-235
Salt, pg. 138
Gurney, pg. 112
---Ibid., pg. 120
Shepherd, pgs. 228-229