Charles Glass, writing in the London Review of Books in 2001, reviewed two books looking at the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. It was also published in the Guardian under the tile: The Mandate Years; colonialism and the creation of Israel. Although written 15 years ago it touches on topics that are very little known in the UK today.
One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate by Tom Segev, translated by Haim Watzman. Little, Brown, 612 pp., £25, 11 January, ISBN 0 316 64859 0
Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-48 by Naomi Shepherd. John Murray, 290 pp., £12.99, 28 September 2000, ISBN 0 7195 6322 4
The British army occupied Jerusalem on Sunday, 9 December 1917, and withdrew on 14 May 1948. During its brief imperium in the promised land, Britain kept the promise made in 1917 by its foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, in the Declaration that bears his name, “to favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. While nurturing the ‘national home’, a term as deliberately vague as Palestinian ‘autonomy’ is today, Britain neglected to observe the Declaration’s final clause: “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
Britain erected and for thirty years maintained the scaffolding that the Zionists happily tore down when their house of Israel was ready. Despite the objections of some British military commanders and civil servants in Palestine, His Majesty’s Government protected Jewish immigration, encouraged Jewish settlement, subsidised Jewish defence and protected the Yishuv, as Palestine’s minority Jewish community called itself, from the native population. Without Great Britain, there would not have been an Israel for the Yishuv, or a catastrophe – nakba in Arabic – for Palestine’s Arab majority. It is not surprising that each year Balfour Day is celebrated by the friends of Israel and mourned by Palestine’s Arabs.
Israeli textbooks and propaganda novels, such as Leon Uris’s Exodus, have tended to portray the Zionist pioneers waging a war of independence against the British oppressor. Jon and David Kimche provided a good example of the conventional Israeli analysis of British policy in Both Sides of the Hill: Britain and the Palestine War (1960). “It was a mixture of ignorance, blundering, indecision and local bias against the Jews, encouraged by the known bias of the foreign secretary.”
They were writing about 1947, when Ernest Bevin was foreign secretary and Zionist forces were attacking the British. However, Tom Segev points out that the British army, as it withdrew from Palestine a year later, was careful to hand over its main military bases to the Zionist forces even as it attempted to protect Jaffa’s Arabs from eviction.
For Israel’s new historians, among them Segev and Naomi Shepherd, the Zionist project is part of the saga of white settlement, as in north America and Rhodesia. The settlers declared independence only when they no longer required the mother country’s soldiers to subdue the natives. Presenting Israelis as colonisers, rather than as enemies of imperialism, was once the preserve of Palestinian and Marxist writers.
Many Palestinians, notably Nur Masalaha, have done pioneering work on what Israelis called ‘transfer’, that is, the forced evacuation of Palestinians from their homes and villages, or what in a later context would be called ‘ethnic cleansing’. In 1973, the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson’s book Israel: A Colonial Settler State? required a questionmark in its title that Segev and Shepherd would probably remove. In what he referred to as “an obvious diagnosis”, Rodinson took Israeli statehood to be the “culmination of a process that fits perfectly into the great European-American movement of expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries whose aim was to settle new inhabitants among other peoples or to dominate them economically and politically”.
Between 1948 and 1977, when the Labour party dominated politics and culture, the Israeli left disputed the notion that theirs was a colonial project. Rather, they argued, the settlers brought progress, socialism and ideas of equality to Jews and Arabs alike. The right was less reticent: they admitted their desire for more land and fewer Arabs. With British help, and then despite British interference, the Zionists got both.
The release of Israeli records over the last twenty years has led to a reappraisal of a century of Zionism by a new generation of Israeli historians – among them Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris – whose work is now entering the mainstream. In a sense, by focusing on the Mandate, Ploughing Sand and One Palestine, Complete are considerations of Israel’s debt to the British and Britain’s injury to the Arabs. Shepherd writes that “British rule protected the Zionist beachhead in Palestine during the most vulnerable, insecure period during the 1920s and 1930s. This was, politically, the main legacy of the mandate.” Similarly, Segev concludes: “The British kept their promise to the Zionists . . . Contrary to the widely held belief in Britain’s pro-Arabism, British actions considerably favoured the Zionist enterprise.”
At the fringe of Jewish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Zionist movement lacked popular support, an army and the money to buy significant tracts of land for the purposes of colonisation. To compensate, it sought powerful allies among the gentiles. “The anti-semites will become our most loyal friends,” the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, wrote. “The anti-semitic nations will become our allies.” Segev depicts prominent British gentiles favouring Zionism, not because they hated Jews, but because they assumed that Jews controlled the world. It was as though many British politicians imagined they were enlisting the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to serve the British Empire. (Some of them, like Churchill, read and recommended the Protocols, until the Times exposed it as a fake.) The British ambassador in Constantinople reported that Jews were behind the revolution of the Young Turks of 1908, a complete nonsense. “I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews,” the Foreign Office under-secretary Lord Robert Cecil said. Segev quotes a character in The Thirty-Nine Steps airing the common prejudice that “the Jew is everywhere . . . He’s the man who is ruling the world just now.”
Although Zionist leaders could turn these anti-semitic notions to their own ends, the tactic was not without risk. In 1988, Jonathan Frankel wrote in an article in Contemporary Jewry that “the belief in Jewish power, exaggerated to the level of myth, had permitted Jewish organisations and advocates to intervene at crucial moments and at the highest government levels . . . Few realised just how much this myth, albeit a source of political strength, was still more – given the essential weakness it disguised – a source of danger without limit.”
The myth of Jewish influence led Balfour to believe that Jews could determine policy in Germany, Russia and the United States. In 1902, Balfour succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, as prime minister and introduced the aliens bill, the first piece of modern immigration legislation, in order to prevent east European Jews from finding refuge in Britain. (Echoes of Balfour’s resistance to the eastern hordes persist in Jack Straw’s “bogus asylum seekers”, Tony Blair’s call for the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to be rewritten, and John Townend’s complaint about the “mongrelisation’ of Britain.) Balfour warned parliament that the Jews “remained a people apart, and not merely held a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen, but only intermarried among themselves”. His argument, however pernicious its effect on the Russian Jews who were at the mercy of tsarist pogroms, did not offend the Zionist leadership in Britain. On the contrary, Chaim Weizmann, a Russian-born Jewish immigrant who sought to succeed Herzl after his death in 1904, appeared to sympathise with Balfour’s position.
Herzl had already asked the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, to permit Jewish colonisation in Egypt near El Arish, with a view to a northward expansion into Ottoman Palestine. The British viceroy in Egypt, Lord Cromer, rejected Herzl’s proposal as likely to antagonise Egyptians; and Chamberlain responded with an offer to the Zionists of a national home in Uganda. After debating the issue at the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, they turned him down. In 1905, the year the aliens bill became law, Weizmann was working in Manchester as a chemist. (He would later develop explosives for the British forces in the Great War.) Weizmann, a natural diplomat who became Israel’s first president in 1948, had asked influential friends to arrange an audience with Balfour when the prime minister visited Manchester. When the two men met, Balfour confessed that he had discussed the Jews with Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth and shared “many of her anti-semitic prejudices”. Weizmann replied that “Germans of Mosaic persuasion were an undesirable and demoralising phenomenon.” However, at that meeting and a later one in January 1906 at the Queen’s Hotel in Manchester, Weizmann proposed a new “diagnosis and prognosis” of the “Jewish Problem”.
The illness was exile itself, which Weizmann believed was harmful to Jews and Christians alike, and the cure was to give the Jews a land of their own. They would make Palestine as Jewish as England was English. Balfour supported Weizmann’s proposals to settle Europe’s “people apart” in Palestine. In 1916 he became foreign secretary in Lloyd George’s coalition government and in 1917 made the Zionist prescription British policy. The Declaration went to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917, when British forces commanded by General Sir Edmund Allenby were overrunning Palestine. “Weizmann’s principal achievement,” Segev writes, “was to create among British leaders an identity between the Zionist movement and ‘world Jewry’ – Lloyd George referred to ‘the Jewish race’, ‘world Jewry’, and ‘the Zionists’ as if they were synonymous. He also succeeded in persuading them that British and Zionist interests were the same. Yet none of it was true.”
The only Jewish member of the British cabinet, Edwin Samuel Montagu, the secretary of state for India, argued against issuing the Declaration. Montagu called Zionism “a mischievous political creed” and wrote that, in favouring it, “the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-semitic.” David Alexander, president of the Board of British Jews, Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and most Orthodox rabbis also opposed the Zionist enterprise. They insisted that they had as much right as any Christian to live and prosper in Britain, and they did not want Weizmann, however Anglophile his tastes, telling them to settle in the Judean desert or to till the orange groves of Jaffa. The other opponents of a British protectorate for the Zionists in Palestine were George Nathaniel Curzon, leader of the Lords and a member of the war cabinet, and the senior British military commanders in the Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Walter Congreve and General Gilbert Clayton. The generals contended that it was unnecessary to use Palestine as a route to Iraq’s oil and thought that the establishment of the protectorate would waste imperial resources better deployed elsewhere. Congreve and Clayton were overruled. (Yehoshua Porath, one of the Hebrew University’s most eminent historians, took Segev to task in the journal Azure for omitting to mention Britain’s De Bunsen committee, which recommended that Palestine be held so it could be used as a land route for troop movements from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and India.) After Britain occupied Palestine, the Government replaced Clayton as the Army’s chief political officer in the Middle East. Clayton’s successor, appointed at Weizmann’s urging, was Richard Meinertzhagen, an ardent Zionist and an anti-semitic Christian. “I am imbued with anti-semitic feelings,” he wrote in a diary passage quoted by Segev. A few years later, Weizmann asked Churchill to remove Congreve as well. Churchill complied.
Zionist influence in London annoyed British high commissioners and senior officers alike: they knew that Weizmann had better access to prime ministers than they did. Shepherd writes that Sir Arthur Wauchope, high commissioner in Palestine from 1931 to 1938, co-ordinated his strategy with the local Zionist leader, David Ben Gurion, yet complained to his private secretary: “The thing is I have never met the PM and I don’t suppose I ever shall. Weizmann can go in there when he wants to.” It was an important factor in keeping British officials “on message”, even when they had misgivings about administrative bias against Arabs.
While the Zionists were antagonising fellow Jews like Montagu and finding friends among the anti-semites, Segev argues that they consistently put Zionist requirements ahead of Jewish interests. By the winter of 1917, many of Palestine’s Jews, along with its Arabs and Armenians, were starving. American Protestant missionaries provided the bulk of the relief. (The Turks gave American missions some leeway, because America had not declared war on Turkey in April 1917 as it had on Germany. Woodrow Wilson had taken the advice of America’s military chiefs, who preferred to concentrate their forces in Europe, and the missionary lobby, which wanted to provide more humanitarian assistance to Ottoman subjects.) Henry Morgenthau, the former American ambassador to Turkey and a Jewish anti-Zionist, advised Robert Lansing, the secretary of state, that the Turks desired a separate peace with the US, a settlement which would have had the effect of increasing relief efforts to aid the hungry people of Syria and Palestine. Palestine’s Jewish population was receiving some aid from the American Joint Distribution Committee. Wilson sent Morgenthau to Switzerland to meet Turkish representatives. But American Zionists opposed this move, as Thomas Bryson explained in American Diplomatic Relations with the Middle East 1784-1975 (1977). It seems that the US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis knew the purpose of the Morgenthau mission and told Weizmann, who promptly alerted Balfour. According to Bryson, “the two agreed that the Morgenthau mission should be scotched, for an anticipated British offensive against the Turks in Palestine would do far more to assure the future of a Jewish national home. Brandeis arranged for Felix Frankfurter” – his clerk and later a Supreme Court justice – “to accompany Morgenthau to ascertain that the latter would not make an agreement compromising the Zionist goal. Acting through Balfour, the Zionists arranged for Morgenthau and Frankfurter to meet Dr Weizmann at Gibraltar, where he deterred Morgenthau from his task.”
Although this incident supports his case, Segev does not refer to it. He does, however, describe the journey Weizmann made as head of the Zionist delegation from England to Palestine, stopping in Gibraltar on the way for his meeting with Morgenthau. Having arrived in Palestine in the wake of the British Army, Weizmann was standing outside a tent near the Arab village of Ramle when Allenby passed and invited the Zionist leader to accompany him on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem – an offer he declined. Weizmann later wrote that “something within” had deterred him – no doubt his apprehension that Palestine’s Arabs, many of whom initially welcomed the British, would have understood the portent of a Zionist official walking through the Jaffa Gate with the liberators.
The use of the phrase ‘national home’ was, like Weizmann’s discretion in declining Allenby’s invitation, intended to disguise what the British knew and the Arabs feared: the Zionists intended to create a state for Jews in a province that was more than 90 per cent Arab. At the Paris peace talks in 1919, a French delegate let slip that France would not oppose a Jewish ‘state’ in Palestine. Weizmann cautioned him. He explained: “We ourselves had been very careful not to use this term.”
In July 1920, while the Allies were still debating the future of Palestine and attempting to hold onto their gains in Turkey, Balfour addressed a predominantly Jewish audience at the Albert Hall in London. He reminded them that Britain had freed the Arabs “from the tyranny of their brutal conqueror” – Turkey – during the Great War. “I hope,” he went on, “that, remembering all that, they will not grudge that small notch – for it is not more geographically, whatever it may be historically – that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.”
That same year Britain applied to the League of Nations for a Mandate – a compromise term thought up by General Smuts for what was in essence a colony or protectorate – to administer Palestine and Transjordan. By the time it was approved, on 24 July 1922, Britain was already well established on the ground and colonial officials were grappling with their major preoccupation, the servant problem. Some wives were reluctant to employ chained Arab prisoners to dig their gardens, while others happily taught Palestinian Arab women to make tea cakes. Social life began to gather momentum. There was jackal-chasing with the Ramle Vale Hunt; riding in the Ludd Hunt point-to-point; the usual round of garden parties and fancy dress balls. The treasury made it clear that the Palestine Mandate would be self-supporting, and only a small force was available to police the territory.
The first high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, was Jewish, a Zionist and a friend of Weizmann’s. When the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, run by the Army, handed power to the civil authorities in 1920, Samuel was made to sign a document stating: “Received from Major-General Sir Louis J Bols KCB – One Palestine, complete.’ (One Palestine, Complete was originally published in Hebrew in 1999 under the title Days of the Anemones, after the red berets worn by the British Sixth Airborne Division which was sent to Palestine in 1946 to contain Zionist paramilitaries. There is no reference to the Anemones in the English translation.) Arabs in Palestine feared the worst. Their desire for independence and unity with the rest of the Arab world, expressed in testimony to the American King-Crane Commission which was set up to discover their feelings on the future of former Ottoman lands, was ignored. Under Britain’s aegis, the Jewish community in Palestine began, despite occasional setbacks, to flourish. Gradually, the Zionists revived Hebrew and forced the British to make it one of the three official languages. Theirs was a dynamic society of socialist kibbutzniks and businessmen, artists and politicians, soldiers and rabbis. They excluded Arabs for the most part, and the few who encouraged Arab labourers to demand their rights antagonised both Arab chieftains and Jewish employers. The Zionists opened schools, established trade unions, built settlements and towns and bought land.
The land issue was, after Jewish immigration, the most contentious of the Mandate. Segev writes that most prominent Palestinian families, “patriots on the outside, traitors on the inside”, secretly sold land to the Zionists. This led Weizmann to conclude that they were “ready to sell their souls to the highest bidder”. Jewish Agency purchases – which often involved the British police expelling peasant farmers – included covenants forbidding sale to non-Jews which were later incorporated into Israeli law. Thus, 92 per cent of modern Israel cannot be sold to anyone who is not legally Jewish. (In another state, this would be called apartheid.) The courts were preoccupied with land claims, and lawyers devoted a great deal of energy to proving title to land, much of it held in common under Ottoman rule. Weizmann wrote to a British official: “We don’t desire to turn out Mohammed in order to put in Mr Cohen as a large landowner.” Segev observes: “The Arab was merely ‘Mohammed’, while the Jew was ‘Mr Cohen’.” Weizmann dismissed the Arabs along with their claims. “There is a fundamental difference in quality between Jew and native,” he wrote. Anticipating Ariel Sharon by eighty years, he said of Palestine’s Arabs that “they appreciated only force.”
The administration did little to allay their apprehensions of official pro-Zionist bias. Britain appointed Zionist Jews to important positions: not only Herbert Samuel, but also his son Edwin Samuel (whom Segev describes as a ‘double agent’) to liaise with the Zionist Commission and Norman Bentwich as attorney-general. Weizmann persuaded Balfour, Samuel and Churchill to transfer Colonel Edmund Vivian Gabriel, who was responsible for the military budget. Gabriel’s dismissal prompted Curzon, who had become foreign secretary, to protest. “It is intolerable,” he said, “that Dr Weizmann should be allowed to criticise the ‘type of men’ employed by HM Government.”
Not all was intrigue and violence. Then, as now, friendships, business relationships and culture crossed the communal lines. Segev writes of a Jewish businessman, Alter Levine, and Khalil Sakakini, an Arab whom Levine called “a teacher, Christian and friend”. Both grew up in Jerusalem under Ottoman rule. Before British troops arrived in 1917, Levine sought sanctuary in Sakakini’s house in Jerusalem. The Turks broke into the house, arrested Levine on charges of spying and took him and Sakakini to prison in Damascus. Only the speed of the Allied advance saved the two men from the noose, and they saw each other from time to time in the years that followed. When Sakakini built a house in west Jerusalem, Levine co-signed his loan from the Anglo-Palestine Bank. For a short time, the two were part of a small discussion group on Arab-Jewish co-operation. Levine, who was Palestine’s ‘King of Insurance’, wrote romantic poetry under the name Asaf Halevy. When Levine insisted on talking business, he was scolded – “Be quiet, Alter Levine, and let Asaf Halevy speak.” To which Levine replied: “If Levine did not speak, Asaf Halevy could not sing.” Sakakini resigned from Palestine’s education department when it became clear that the British had no intention of educating the Arabs, and moved for a time to Egypt. He returned to Palestine in 1926 to fight for better Arab schools, and the Khalil Sakakini Centre in Ramallah is named in honour of the man many regard as the father of modern Palestinian education. After many business reverses, Levine hanged himself in 1933, on the tenth anniversary of his daughter’s death. “Poor man,” Sakakini wrote in his diary. “Had the English entered Jerusalem just a little later, both my fate and his would have been to hang. Here this man, who was saved from the Turkish gallows, has hanged himself by his own hand. He fled death but fell dead.” Sakakini lived long enough to have to flee Palestine, after the massacre of fellow Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin in 1947. He died in Egypt in 1953. No one who reads One Palestine, Complete could fail to like these two men, and it is to Segev’s credit that his Palestine is peopled with, well, people.
The Mandate years were marked by occasional outbreaks of mob violence against Jews, all of them ruthlessly suppressed by the British. In 1921, mourners at the funeral of an Arab child killed by settlers attacked six Jews near Jaffa. Samuel responded with air strikes on Arab villages. In the fighting that ensued, 47 Jews and 48 Arabs died. Segev notes that, around the same time, Ukrainian pogroms claimed the lives of anything between 75,000 and 200,000 Jews. Yet the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz appealed to world Jewry: “Do not leave us alone at the front.” Segev comments: “No longer a means of saving the Jewish people, Palestine turned into a national objective in its own right.” The saviours were demanding to be saved.
The Zionists established self-governing – and separate – institutions to prepare the Yishuv for independence. However, when Churchill proposed representative government for all the people of Palestine, Weizmann opposed him because Jews were a minority. Similarly, the Zionists rejected “free immigration” into Palestine out of fear that Arabs would move there. When they demanded special treatment for themselves vis-à-vis non-Zionist Jews and Arabs, Britain gave it. Churchill told Weizmann that he knew the Zionists were smuggling arms into Palestine but would not interfere to uphold the law.
In 1929, Jewish worshippers erected a screen to separate men from women at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Muslims regarded this as an attempt to effect a permanent change at a holy site, something the Ottomans and the British had prohibited in order to avoid communal violence. (Then, as now, Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land guarded their religious sites and symbols to the point of death.) Amid the tension, Arabs carried out a savage massacre in Hebron. Sixty-seven Jews were killed, including women and children. Ben Gurion called it a pogrom, but according to Segev this is a misuse of the term. Pogroms, as in Russia and the Ukraine, were officially sponsored. The motivation was anti-semitism; the Arabs, on the other hand, were reacting to fear of Zionist domination. “Most of Hebron’s Jews were saved because Arabs hid them in their houses,” Segev writes, adding that Zionist archives list 435 Jews who escaped death in this way, a higher number than in European pogroms. When the violence that followed the Hebron massacre subsided, 55 Arabs were convicted of murder and 25 sentenced to death. Two of the 70 Jews tried for murder were convicted and sentenced to death. Their sentences, unlike those passed on most of the Arabs, were commuted.
“On at least three occasions in thirty years,” Arthur Koestler wrote in Promise and Fulfilment (1949), “the Arabs had been promised the setting up of a legislative body, the cessation of Jewish immigration and a check on Jewish economic expansion.” And on each of these occasions, the Mandate authorities broke their promise. The Mandate was marked by outbreaks of violence, government white papers and the Arab population’s loss of ground to Jewish immigrants. The Arab General Strike of 1936 led to an all-out rebellion against British rule. The British took three years to suppress it, during which, according to British records, the administration killed 3073 Arabs (112 of whom were executed). These figures exclude Arabs killed by Zionist organisations or the Jewish Special Night Squads under the command of a British intelligence officer, Captain Orde Wingate. Britain trained the Yishuv’s elite army, the Palmach, and despatched its largest expeditionary force since the Great War – 25,000 troops – to Palestine. During the uprising, British security forces used the standard tactics of anti-colonial warfare: torture, murder, collective punishment, detention without trial, military courts, aerial bombardment and ‘punitive demolition’ of more than two thousand houses. The police commander Sir Charles Tegart (himself a believer in Zionism) built the notorious Tegart police fortresses and an electrified fence along the northern border. Major-General Bernard Montgomery, who arrived in 1938 to command a division, denigrated Arab nationalists as ‘professional bandits’. By the summer of 1939, when Germany was about to invade Poland, Monty reported: “The rebellion is definitely and finally smashed.”
The failed rebellion earned the respect of some Zionists. David Ben Gurion wrote that, if he had been an Arab, he too would have rebelled. He saw the Arabs emerging “as an organised and disciplined community, demonstrating its national will with political maturity and a capacity for self-evaluation”. Britain’s destruction of the Palestinian Arabs’ military capacity left them too weak to pose a serious challenge to the Zionists when the battle for territory began in 1947.
Some Arab leaders were killed. Others escaped or were arrested and deported. Haj Amin Husseini, who had been appointed Mufti of Jerusalem by the British in the 1920s and was the nominal leader of the Arab nationalists, fled to Germany. In Berlin, he made common cause with the Nazis, thus discrediting the nationalist movement. When he returned after the war, he was as interested in fending off rival Palestinian leaders and Arab states – notably Egypt and Transjordan, which had their own designs on Palestine – as he was in fighting the Zionists.
During the second world war, nearly thirty thousand Jewish men of the Yishuv volunteered for the British army. These soldiers would become the core of the Haganah, later the Israel Defence Forces, which defeated the Arabs in 1948. Britain, meanwhile, attempted to limit Jewish immigration in order to contain anti-British sentiment in the Arab world. In 1944, the extremist Jewish militias, the Stern Gang and Irgun, responded with attacks on British soldiers and policemen as well as with terrorist bombs. Ben Gurion regarded the Irgun leader, Menachem Begin, as a Jewish ‘Hitler’. The Jewish Agency helped the British identify the underground fighters – another instance of what Segev calls the longstanding alliance between the Zionists and Britain.
In 1947, Britain handed the ‘Palestine problem’ to the United Nations, which voted for partition into Arab and Jewish states – both halves, as it happened, with Arab majorities. If the Yishuv’s state were to be both Jewish and democratic, more Jews would have to immigrate or many Arabs would have to leave. In 1948, most of the Arabs left, having fled the war or been expelled by the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang.
With statehood no longer in doubt after the war of 1948, Israel prolonged its special relationship with Britain. It erred, however, in relying on the moribund British and French empires in the Suez crisis of 1956. The United States forced a humiliating withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula in 1957, and Israel wisely turned to Washington for the external support without which it could not survive. The United States thus assumed Britain’s dual – and impossible – role as Zionist mainstay and honest broker between the Jewish settlers and the natives.
Edward Said wrote recently that it was “little short of miraculous that, despite its years of military occupation, Israel is never identified with colonialism or colonial practices”. It has taken 50 years for Israeli historians to emphasise that Zionism under the British Mandate was a colonial enterprise. If Israel decolonises in the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis and Palestinians may yet write the history of a war that is finally over.
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