A short history of the modern state of Israel: Part 3 (Palestine under British Rule)

The British Mandate

In 1921, after four years of British military rule in Palestine, Britain established its authority as a Mandatory of the League of Nations.  Samuel Herbert, a member of the pre-war British Government and a Jew, was appointed High Commissioner, with instructions to enable the Jews to build their national home, primarily through land purchase and immigration, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of the majority Arab population.

The Third Aliyah

By 1923, 30,000 more Jews arrived in Palestine with the third Aliyah.  The continuing Jewish immigration aroused protest and violence among the Arabs of Palestine so Herbert suspended immigration for several months to placate them.  Among those whose boat was turned back as a result was Golda Meir’s; she arrived six months later.

Winston Churchill and Transjordan

The British Colonial Secretary responsible for the Mandate in 1921-22 was Winston Churchill.  He established the rule that the Jews were in Palestine ‘of right, and not on sufferance’ and he actively encouraged Jewish immigration to the limit of the country’s ‘economic absorptive capacity’.  He was distressed at the intensity of Arab hostility against Jewish immigration  and in order to diffuse the situation he severed predominantly Arab Transjordan from the area designated for the Jewish national home.  About a year later the League of Nations approved the change so 77% of the territory mandated to Britain, which could have been used for Jewish settlement was kept for Arab settlement. 

Arab attacks and the Haganah

As Arab attacks became a feature of life in Palestine, in 1921 the Haganah (Defence) organisation, operating without the approval of the British Mandate authority and because the British were reluctant to undertake it, set itself the task of defending Jewish towns and villages.  Later, when Britain began to impose restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Haganah set up an organisation (Aliyah Bet, or Immigration B) to find ships, hire crews and bring the immigrants ashore without British knowledge.

Hebrew University

A turning point in the history of the Yishuv (Jews of Mandate Palestine) was the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925.  It was attended by Lord Balfour, just eight years after the Balfour Declaration had made a Jewish National Home under the jurisdiction of the British a realistic goal.  But Balfour's presence at the opening ceremony provoked a protest strike by Palestinian Arabs. 

The university had as its goals to educate the Jews of Palestine and all Palestinian Arabs who wished to attend (many did) to the highest possible standard and to provide a centre of excellence and vigorous debate for Jews from all over the world.  It was hoped that Jewish secular and religious values would be linked and enhanced at the university.

New Jewish towns and increased Arab violence

New Jewish towns were built in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Sports, agriculture, science and self-defence all flourished.  Arab violence increased, and in 1929 a massacre took place of 67 Jews in Hebron, followed by a week of violence in which 133 Jews were killed.  The British High Commissioner warned the British Government that ‘the latent deep-seated hatred of the Arabs for the Jews has now come to the surface in all parts of the country’.

Lord Passfield's White Paper (1930)

Lord Passfield produced a White Paper in 1930 which severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine,  in contravention of  one of the key obligations of the Mandate.  At the time there were about 400,000 Arabs and 80,000 Jews in Palestine.  It was envisaged that the Jews would migrate into the under-populated territory east of the Jordan.  The White Paper asserted (falsely) that there was not enough land for the Jews in Palestine and recommended that migration and ownership of land should be severely curtailed. 

Adolf Hitler

Then, in 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.  Palestine was suddenly seen as a haven of refuge for Jews who had up until then been content to live peaceably in other nations.  With the rise of Nazism anti-Semitism increased rapidly, and Jewish refugees flooded into Palestine, welcomed by the Palestinian Jews.

The influx of German Jews to Palestine provoked more Arab protest, now aimed as much against the British as against the Jews.  The Arabs demanded an end to any further Jewish immigration and any promise to the Jews of any kind of statehood to be null and void.

Vladimir Jabotinsky and the New Zionist Organisation

In response to the Arab uprisings, in 1935 Vladimir Jabotinsky left the ZO to found the smaller, rival group, the New Zionist Organisation.  He believed in reprisals and carried them out, whereas Ben Gurion rejected violent reprisals.  The British used force against the Arab insurgents.   

The Peel Commission (1937)

In light of the continuing Jew/Arab conflict, the British began to seriously re-examine the basis of the Mandate.  A Royal Commission of enquiry was set up in 1937 by Lord Peel.  The Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with the British controlling the buffer zone between Jaffa and Jerusalem.  It was rejected by both Arabs and Jews and the idea was abandoned but further legislation restricted immigration still more, and land sales to Jews.  Leaders of the Jewish community decided not to cooperate with the British but to settle the land in accordance with the provisions of the Mandate.  Every few weeks new Jewish settlements were established on land purchased by the Jewish National Fund.

Britain appeases the Arabs

Britain appeased Arab opposition to Jewish settlers, because she was afraid the Arabs might join the Nazis against Britain.  Transfer of any land to Jewish inhabitants was forbidden other than lands in which Jews had already settled.

Captain Wingate

By 1938 Arab violence had increased still more against Jews and the British.  An alliance developed between the British and the Haganah.  The latter came to include a series of countrywide courses to train Jewish officers in defence techniques.  In this they were aided by Captain Wingate.  As the violence escalated, Wingate introduced ‘active defence’.  His Special Night Squad (SNS) patrolled the northern frontier.  Wingate, a committed Christian, was pro-Jewish (unlike the majority of British) and an outstanding military leader. 

Britain reneges on the Balfour Declaration and the Macdonald White Paper (1939)

War with Germany became a strong possibility.  A British cabinet committee on Palestine met, resulting in reneging on the Balfour Declaration.  Colonial Secretary, Malcolm Macdonald was present.  Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary, warned that the government would have to decide between commitments to the world of Jewry or the world of Islam.  The result was the Macdonald White Paper in 1939, aimed at restricting immigration to a total of 75,000 over the next 5 years; 25,000 immediate entries with a further 10,000 per year over the next 5 years. 

The White Paper stipulated no immigration without the agreement of the Arabs after the five years.  It also saw the establishment of an independent Arab state with a 2/3 Arab majority by 1949.  The White Paper became the policy of the British government as the Nazi holocaust descended on Europe.  It was a direct invitation for the Arabs to make trouble and all Jewish hopes for the last 20 years were dashed.  The Jews called this White Paper the ‘Black Paper’ and appealed people of goodwill in Britain to re-open the gates of Palestine. 

The beginning of the Second World War

But within four months, Germany attacked Poland and Britain declared war on Germany.  Germany occupied Western and Central Poland, bringing 2 million more Jews under Nazi rule; 136,000 Palestinian Jews volunteered for the British war effort.  The Jews of Palestine knew what horrors would result if Germany was victorious.  David Ben Gurion announced that the Jews of Palestine will ‘fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.’ 

More to come . . .

David Ben Gurion announced that the Jews of Palestine will ‘fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and will fight the White Paper as if there were no war'

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