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Political Background to the Mandate

Oil tanks at Haifa
Photo: Matson Collection
Bombing of Haifa Oil Terminal
Photo: Press wire photo

"In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. " Balfour memo, 11th August 1919. (So much for any notion of democracy.)

Britain takes on the Palestine Mandate - a poisoned chalice

General Allenby, 1917
Photo: Matson Collection

The Ottomans had ruled over a huge area which included Palestine, present day Lebanon, Jordan and Israel (all being part of Syria), for more than 600 years. Today's borders take no account of cultural or tribal groups, and destroyed the traditional nomadic life of those who wandered in search of grazing for their animals. The result is all too clear. At the end of WWI, because they had sided with Germany, the Ottoman Empire was broken up and the French and British took over most of the Middle East. The British wanted the Palestine Mandate for strategic reasons (safeguarding the route to India and oil supplies) and to satisfy influential Zionists, but it was to prove a very bitter pill. British influence, however, was such that the League of Nations gave them the Palestine Mandate which came into effect in 1923. Subsequently, whilst providing a vital base in WWII, administration became impossible as the Palestinian Arabs, fearful of dispossession, and the determinedly colonizing Zionists were irreconcilable.

In 1920 (before the Mandate was approved) Sir Herbert Samuel, a keen Zionist, was controversially appointed High Commissioner and warning protests from people like General Allenby were disregarded. Sir Herbert did, however, have a reputation for integrity and even-handedness. Then as now British politicians and others were divided over Zionism. Some supported it because they thought Jewish influence, modern methods, enthusiasm and money would bring advantages to both Jews and non-Jews in Palestine. These fundamental disagreements led to indecisive policies which had terrible consequences: relentless conflict, expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, and the current situation.

"I defined the Jewish national home to mean the creation of an administration which would arise out of the national conditions of the country - always safeguarding the interests of non-Jews of the country - with the hope that by Jewish immigration Palestine would ultimately become as Jewish as England is English. Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error." Zionist quotes (Overlooking the fact that 'English' is a nationality, not a religion.)

Before the First World War Christians, Arabs and Jews in Palestine had lived in reasonable harmony; produce and labour were exchanged between Arab villages and Jewish colonies, and Ottoman rule was mostly tolerant. Everyone was a 'Palestinian'. However, Arabs were promised independence if they sided with Britain against the Germans and Ottomans (the McMahon Agreement). Chaim Weizmann, an early Zionist leader and a chemist developed an efficient way of manufacturing acetone (used in the manufacture of cordite) in 1915 for the UK Government and was one influence for the Balfour letter promising British support for a Jewish homeland. What 'homeland' actually meant was not defined. Also, political party funding depended on wealthy donors who, like today, expect a return on their cash. The wishes of the Palestinian Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, who already lived in their homeland, Palestine, were not considered. These two promises were obviously incompatible. To complicate matters, there was the secret Sykes Picot agreement of 1916 arbitrarily carving up the entire area between Britain and France with no regard to the ethnic nature of the population. At the time the future of Palestine was a minor consideration compared to the immediate and desperate fighting in Europe. Britain needed allies. The current Balfour Project examines and seeks a solution to these issues.


Growth of Zionism

Zionism is a secular nationalist ideology originating in the nineteenth century in eastern Europe. It was particularly strong in countries with a history of institutionalised violence against Jews and it rejected the possibility of the assimilation common in the West. Zionists claimed that all non-Jews were anti-semitic and believed that only a Jewish state could guarantee security. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews. Originally immigration to Palestine was slow but was given a boost by the promise of a 'homeland'. Jewish immigration also increased rapidly with the rise of Nazism. Many would have preferred to go to the US but that was virtually impossible unless they had a relative there or were wealthy. Some Jews died because they stayed on in hope of getting to the US and lost their chance to get out of Germany. Zionists only assisted travel to Palestine and the organization of Jewish immigration to Palestine became well established.

Some Jews said God had given them Palestine and those Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible also claim this even though the Old Testament is an arbitrary collection of ancient writings and reworked myths such as those in Gilgamesh. If God exists She is unlikely to have made such a gift. Sadly, there is much 'smiting' in the Old Testament but little 'love thy neighbour'. Jerusalem itself is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews and is the focus of many spiritual claims, traditions, and myths—all conflicting. The discovery of oil in the Middle East and the strategic military importance of the region are the real reasons that have made foreign interference the norm as is evident today.

During the Mandate

In 1929 the Jewish Agency was established and was in effect the governing body of the Yishuv (the Palestinian Jews) and was recognized as such by the Mandate authorities. The Agency controlled the Jewish population and set about creating the mechanics of a state: labour, education and health systems, defence and tax. Many refugees came from autocratic societies so perhaps saw this level of control as normal. A Jewish National Fund had been set up to acquire land, much of which was purchased at inflated prices from absentee Palestinian Arab landowners who had been happy to exploit their tenants, and were equally keen to exploit Jews. Some of these same families later became Palestinian leaders. Tenant farmers found themselves turned off since one of the conditions for leases to Jews was that only other Jews could be employed.

The colonies (kibbutzim) that were set up were socialist/communist in nature though ironically they were often established with assistance from millionaire capitalists like the Rothschilds—they were, in fact, so communistic in ethos that members could be refused a US visa. Some Zionists may have believed that the saying 'a land without a people waiting for a people without a land' was indeed true; others knew it was nonsense but thought that an influx of money and expertise would be welcomed by the Arabs as being of benefit to everyone.

Zionist opposition from the 1920s to all mixed or cooperative educational systems defeated repeated attempts by the Mandate Department of Education to use schools to build bridges between the European Jewish colonies and Jewish Agency, and the indigenous Palestinian communities. If the Jewish National Council had its way, no Jewish boy or girl would have been in the British government, European or American missionary schools. This ensured separation of communities and that children were thoroughly educated in Zionism.


Arab Disturbances/Revolt 1936-1939

Punch cartoon, 1936

Arab opposition to Zionism grew in the 1920s with anti-Zionist riots and attacks on Jewish colonies leading to the formation of armed defence groups which became the Haganah and ultimately the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). From the beginning of the British Mandate thousands of Jews were permitted to immigrate to Palestine from all over the world and the Palestinian Arabs realized that the immigration was not benign and their homeland was threatened. By 1936 there was serious violence against both Jews and the British which was ruthlessly repressed—Wingate's notorious Special Night Squads being part of this. House demolitions, collective punishment and administrative detention were all used against the Arab Palestinians—measures continued by the Israelis.

Arab protest was vociferous and violent but badly organized. They boycotted the endless commissions, etc, leaving the way open for the Jews to favourably present their case unchallenged. Although they did some damage to both Jewish colonies and the Mandatory authorities, they ended by being completely defeated, having lost many lives and most of their weapons and leaders. However, by 1939 efforts were being made by Britain to limit the flow of immigrants.

The revolt also established efficient Jewish fund-raising and propaganda as the Jewish Agency sent emissaries abroad to win more friends and raise money to buy arms to defend the settlements. The network grew rapidly and proved invaluable later.

The Mandate proved a good training ground for troops before the Second World War as they became accustomed to violence all around them.

"My job, apart from keeping a lot of maps up to date, would be to reconnoitre every town and village in southern Palestine, to make myself known to the headmen, to assess each village's capacity for billeting, to make a rough sketch-map of each, and to report on every track: its probable "going" in dry or rainy season, and its potential sites for ambushes, whether laid by us or for us. I saw myself, as did so many young officers in those days, as a pseudo-Lawrence." The Trumpet in the Hall, Bernard Fergusson.

This type of survey would be echoed in very much more detail by the Zionists as preparation for Plan D, the depopulation of Arab land, in 1948. It's an efficient tool of control and today IDF enter Palestinian West Bank homes in the night to take details and photographs of those, including children, living there.

World War II

With the outbreak of war control of oil supplies was vital as they couldn't be allowed to fall into enemy hands. This became a real possibility when France fell in June 1940 and French Foreign Legion troops in the Middle East chose to transfer their loyalty to the Vichy Government in Syria. This somewhat forgotten war ended with the Allies entering Damascus in June 1941. The pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa and the refinery still had to be protected from frequent attack.

Defences on Mount Carmel
Photo: Michael Gottschalck

From 1940 to 1941 the Italians made a number of bombing raids on Palestine, particularly on Haifa and Tel Aviv, causing many deaths and some damage on the oil installation at Haifa. By late 1941 the Germans were pushing south to Palestine and had fought across the Western Desert to within 70 miles of Cairo. In fact, they considered victory certain and it was said that officers were booking accommodation in Cairo - General Rommel apparently reserving a suite at Shepheards Hotel. This caused panic and many civilians fled to Palestine or South Africa; shopkeepers changed signs into German. A successful pincer movement would secure Middle East oil, the Suez Canal and cut the Allies' route to India and the Far East. In Palestine the army was preparing for a last-ditch stand which included blasting and digging trenches on Mount Carmel's stony slopes. Jewish immigrants could expect no quarter from the Germans and a number left. The situation looked bleak but then came the Battle of El Alamein and the Mount Carmel defences were promptly abandoned and forgotten until a local historian, Michael Gottschalck, fell in one and began to excavate defences his father, Rudolf, had helped dig. He hopes to create a Mandate Park there though his work is currently banned by officialdom.

For the rest of World War II Palestine returned to relative peace; Wilfrid Paine, Army Postal Service, who was there from 1941 to 1946 told me that for him it was like one long holiday.

(This is merely a skim along the surface; for a detailed picture, Nicholas Bethel's, 'The Palestine Triangle', is still one of the most readable and best books.)

Conical tents, old vehicle in foreground
Military Camp, Ludd, 1917
Tent life
Punch cartoon, 1925
Officers' Club, Haifa, 1933
Antiaircraft guns, Ludd, 1917.
open passport in name of
British Palestine Passport
replaced Ottoman document
Indian Moslem guard
Photo: Matson Collection
Opening of Allenby Bridge
Photo: Matson Collection
Road from Deir Yassin
Photo: Matson Collection
Herbert Samuel arriving, Jaffa
Photo: Matson Collection
Arab demonstration
Photo: Matson Collection
Armoured car, Damascus Gate
Photo: Matson Collection
Submarine traps, Haifa
Photo: Press wire photo
palm trees on a  bay