John McHugo on Why Britain has a Special Responsibility to the Palestinian People Today

A talk given online on 30th June 2020.

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John McHugo is a trustee of the Balfour Project and a board member of CAABU, The Council for Arab British Understanding. This paper is the edited text of a Balfour Project talk he gave on 30 June 2020, and is a development of what he wrote about the Palestine Mandate in his book A Concise History of the Arabs. He is also the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is and Syria: A Recent History.         



On 25 May, George Floyd was killed in America. Since then, the statue of a slave trader in Bristol has been pulled down and an Oxford college has decided to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes, who was a generous benefactor to that college. If the mantra “Global Britain” is to mean anything at all beyond governmental spin, it must mean acknowledging and coming to terms with our global past, and not painting over the dark side. Let us hope that there will now be a much overdue focus on teaching the history of the British Empire in schools, a topic that is in danger of being airbrushed out of our national narrative.

It is at one of the more uncomfortable chapters of that history that I am looking today. For thirty years, from the final months of the First World War, Britain had direct rule over an Arab country, Palestine – what British officials sometimes termed “crown colony” rule. When Britain first occupied it, it had been a relatively peaceful part of the Ottoman, Turkish Empire. True, during that war it suffered tremendously from famine, the brutality of the ruling Young Turk junta with their executions and deportations, and of course from being turned into a battlefield between warring armies. As we shall see, Britain had a duty to safeguard the people of Palestine’s wellbeing and development, and to prepare them for independence as a sovereign state. Britain solemnly committed itself to do this. Yet when Britain abandoned Palestine in 1948, it left Palestine without a government and in a state of vicious civil war with no light at the end of the tunnel. In a sense, that civil war still continues. Britain abandoned the people of Palestine to a future that would be catastrophic. British policies had also unwittingly sown distrust and hatred between Arabs and Jews that persist to this day.

This was one of Britain’s greatest failures in the dismantling of its empire. Britain’s failure in Palestine had consequences that are with us still: not just the sufferings of the Palestinian people over so many decades, but a major contribution to the instability of today’s Middle East. In recent years, it has provided organisations like Al Qaeda and so-called ISIS with tools to recruit and radicalise. This country has a historic responsibility which we should acknowledge and accept.  

What did Britain leave behind in Palestine, and why did it go there in the first place?

On 14 May, 1948, the last day of the British Mandate over Palestine and the day on which David Ben Gurion read out the declaration of the independence of the state of Israel in Tel Aviv, a senior legal adviser in the British Foreign Office sent a telegramme to the British mission to the United Nations in New York. It included the following statement:

If the Jews claim to set up a state in the boundaries of the Jewish areas as defined by the United Nations Resolution of November 29th [1947] and the Arabs claim to set up a state covering the whole of Palestine, there would be nothing legally to choose between these claims.” [Emphasis added] [i]

Consider the enormity of the situation which the adviser had been asked to consider. Britain was washing its hands. How had it come to this? Britain had requested the right to rule Palestine in a moment of imperial hubris three decades earlier. Britain asked for this privilege for three reasons.

The first was the imperial pride and prestige of becoming the guardian of the Christian Holy Land.

The second was the wish to put into effect a wartime, political  commitment to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. What that might mean was kept deliberately vague, at least in public. This had the dangerous consequence that different people could read into those words whatever suited their own objectives, which was a recipe for storing up future conflict. It had not been thought through.

The third reason was strategic: to gain a naval base at Haifa and a land bridge to the British operated oilfields of Iraq.

Sadly, a desire to foster the well-being and development of the people of Palestine, and to guide them to full independence, was not on this wish list. Rather, those were the obligations Britain realised it would have to assume as the price for staying in Palestine.

But, as we have seen, in 1948 Britain was abandoning its obligations to the people of Palestine; most crucially, it was abandoning its obligation to ensure their security. Within hours of the legal adviser’s telegramme,  the Union Flag would be lowered for the last time – and no one could say what flag would replace it. The probability was that the ongoing violence would intensify, sucking in outside forces,  and when the guns fell silent different flags would replace it in different parts of Palestine.

The UN  partition resolution for the proposed Jewish and Arab states in Palestine was illustrated with a map. This shows the Jewish and Arab areas to which the legal adviser was referring. The proposed Jewish areas are coloured blue and the proposed Arab areas light brown. What he was saying was that the proclamation of a Jewish state “in the boundaries of the Jewish areas” as defined by this map would be no more legal, and no less legal, than an Arab proclamation of a state covering the whole of Palestine – including the territory “within the boundaries of the Jewish areas”. In other words, Palestine was left by Britain in state of complete chaos. 

The UN General  Assembly partition resolution to which this map was attached was never put into effect and was not a legally binding document, save for the fact that it terminated Britain’s Mandate. It did not, therefore, give the Jewish community in Palestine a title deed to establish the state of Israel. Nor, for that matter, did it give the majority, Palestinian Arab community a title deed to a state.

The UN Partition Plan was never implemented

Israel is a sovereign state today. It was admitted as a member state of the UN on 11 May 1949. Since then its existence as a state has been incontrovertible. Some people may wonder whether the view of the legal adviser I have quoted was controversial when he wrote his advice a year earlier. It was not. His advice reflected the position in international law at the moment when the sun was setting on Britain’s rule over Palestine for the very last time.

I discovered the quotation in Victor Kattan’s  book From Co-existence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1891-1948 [ii].If you want to find essentially the same legal reasoning on this point argued from an impeccably Zionist source, I would direct you to the late Sir Elihu Lauterpacht’s Jerusalem and the Holy Places [iii]. The main thrust of Lauterpacht’s argument – that Israel has a legal claim to sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem – has been thoroughly discredited, but one of his building blocks in constructing that argument is that the partition plan was of no legal effect, save to terminate the British Mandate. On that narrow point, he is right.

I could also draw your attention to the examination of the establishment of Israel in James Crawford’s The Creation of States in International Law [iv] – the standard academic work on how sovereign states come into existence. In Crawford, too, you will find essentially the same reasoning as in Kattan and Lauterpacht, although neither Lauterpacht nor Crawford quotes the legal adviser’s telegramme.

So, on the last day of British rule, Palestine was in a state of civil war. Both Jews and Arabs had already been pitilessly massacred by the other side in cold blood. British soldiers were now chiefly concerned with protecting themselves as they travelled to Haifa docks for embarkation.  It had been like that for months, whilst Jewish militias battled it out with much less organised Arab groups.  It is now generally accepted by historians that at least 300,000 and possibly as many as 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had already lost their homes in the violence before 14 May 1948, either driven from them or prevented by Jewish militias from returning. Those refugees would never be allowed back to their homes. To put that in context, there were approximately 1,400,000 Palestinian Arabs and approximately half a million Jews in Palestine at the time.

Britain knew full well what was happening, and its soldiers stood idly by instead of enforcing security – something reminiscent, perhaps, of the periods of inactivity of the British authorities in India during the nightmare of the partition of that country a year before. Britain’s legacy in Palestine was ethnic strife that has lasted to this day. I have already alluded to the role this has played in radicalisation. More generally, it has also provided copious fuel to what Bernard Lewis called as long ago as 1957 a clash of civilisations[v]. As I have already said, it added immensely to the instability of a part of the world that faces many other challenges.  

What was meant by a “mandate”?

So how did Britain’s rule come to this shameful end? Let’s look at how Britain’s Palestine Mandate came into existence – for that is where the contradictions arose. At the end of the First World War Britain and France hoped to acquire colonial territories from Germany and Turkey, the defeated powers, as compensation for the losses they had sustained in the fighting. Yet, largely as a result of the influence of President Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, it was decided not to allow them to annex territories of the Turkish Empire in the traditional fashion. Instead, a novel concept known as a “mandate” was developed, and was  inserted into the Covenant of the League of Nations. This new international organisation was established in the hope of avoiding wars in the future, and was a forerunner of the United Nations. Its covenant was made an annex to the Treaty of Versailles which ended the war with Germany and was signed on 28 June 1919. Article 22 of the Covenant sets out the mandate system.

The word “mandate” means “authorisation”. Under its League of Nations Mandate, Britain was authorised to rule Palestine. But there was small print that set out and restricted Britain’s powers. The small print was contained in two documents: Article 22 of the Covenant of the League, and the Palestine Mandate document which was largely drafted by Britain itself.

Article 22 of the Covenant begins by setting out the concept of a mandate:

“To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation…” [Emphasis added]

The language is patronising, but it is the language of the time – and reflects the attitudes of the time, those of the victorious powers in the First World War. But if a “sacred trust of civilisation” is not a very strong, formal obligation, I do not know what is. Britain’s obligation was to ensure the well-being and development of Palestine’s people. That meant guiding them to sovereign independence. Everyone knew at the time that this is what those words meant. 

Article 22 continues:

“The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who…can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League [of Nations]…”

“Tutelage” means “instruction” or “guidance”. Britain would be the “advanced nation” selected as the Mandatory. It would have the responsibility to provide instruction and guidance to secure the well-being and development of the Palestinian people and prepare them for independence.

It continues:

Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development  where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory… [Emphasis added]

In fact, the wishes of these communities were not honoured, because Britain and France decided between themselves who would have which mandate and over what territory. They made absolutely sure that the people of Palestine and Syria were not given any choice in the selection of the “Mandatory” that would rule them. But it’s interesting to note that their “existence as independent nations” was intended to be “provisionally recognised“.

Let’s look finally at one other paragraph of Article 22: 

“The degree of authority, control, or administration to be exercised by the Mandatory shall, if not previously agreed upon by the members of the League, be explicitly defined in each case by the Council [of the League of Nations]…”

This meant that a legal document would be drawn up setting out the terms of the Mandate.

Britain and France shared the cake

There were a total of three mandates over former Turkish territories: Britain’s Mandate over Palestine (which included what is now Jordan); Britain’s Mandate over Iraq; and France’s Mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Here is a map showing the three mandates. You will note that many of the boundaries of the states that now exist on these lands were inherited from the mandates. Save for the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan  and various pockets in northern Syria, Arabic was overwhelmingly the majority language virtually everywhere.

The area west of Iraq had been known since time immemorial as Bilad al-Sham and issometimes called Greater Syria or “Syria within its natural frontiers”. Britain and France wished to partition it. Yet there was strong resistance to this among its people. There was abundant evidence that this was the case: not just the report of the King-Crane Commission[vi] in 1919 which looked into the question and was suppressed by the British and French governments, but also the observation of the British commander in the region, General Allenby[vii]. It is even mentioned in the semi-official British history of the peace conferences at the end of the First World War[viii]. By splitting Syria and Palestine to satisfy the wishes of Britain and France, the two powers were breaking the provision in Article 22 that the wishes of the people should be “a principal consideration in the selection of the mandatory.” How else could France have the mandate over Syria and Britain that over Palestine?

I am not making any political statement here about how Syria and Palestine should have developed subsequently. That should have been left for them to decide. Yet by imposing their mandates, Britain and France frustrated the development of an Arab constitutional monarchy under the Amir Faysal , with a democratic legislature, that would have covered both countries. It was envisaged as a decentralised, federal state. We can never know whether it would have remained as a unitary state or whether its two major units, Syria and Palestine, would have grown into separate states with separate capitals in Damascus and Jerusalem. There was a growing consciousness of a specifically Palestinian identity, and today Palestine and Syria each have strong national identities. But we should never forget that this embryonic constitutional monarchy, which Britain colluded with France in strangling at birth, was probably the best chance the peoples of the area ever had to develop their own, functioning democracy. 

This imperial division of peoples who had wanted to stay united was tolerated by the League of Nations, despite the fact that it was inconsistent with Article 22. Even worse, the League gave Britain and France complete discretion to decide the boundaries between Syria and Palestine, subject only to the rubber stamp of League ratification. That was not consistent with Article 22, either.

The frontiers of the mandates bear no resemblance to the previously existing Turkish administrative boundaries. The new entities of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon[ix] and Iraq had no previous existence as political entities before the establishment of the mandates. The territory of modern Jordan, for instance, had been part of the province of Syria, or Damascus, which extended from the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs in the north to Aqaba in the south, but did not include the region round Aleppo or anywhere on the Mediterranean coast. Jordan was split off from that province and added to Palestine. Palestine itself had previously been divided between the province of Beirut (which extended far to the north into what is now Syria) and the separate district of Jerusalem.

Neither the Turkish administrative boundaries, nor the mandate boundaries, were chosen by the “peoples” referred to in Article 22. But those peoples existed, and the mandate boundaries ought to have reflected their existence – and been chosen by them.  They did not, and were not. Instead, the boundaries were straitjackets imposed on the peoples for the convenience of Britain and France, like the mandates themselves. They were much like many colonial boundaries drawn by European powers in Africa thirty or forty years before, often with disastrous consequences.

Britain’s Palestine Mandate and why it led to conflict

I have not yet mentioned that crucial document, the Balfour Declaration. The reason is that it was just a statement of intended future British government policy when it was written on 2 November 1917. It had no international status. That was still the case in 1919 when Article 22 was agreed and became binding. It now becomes relevant, however, as we turn to the other small print document: the Palestine Mandate itself. This was agreed in 1920, and incorporated the Balfour Declaration. The Palestine Mandate was approved by the League on 24 July 1922, but did not legally come into force until 1923 when the peace treaty with Turkey took effect or, it could be argued, 1924, when that treaty was ratified. Yet Britain ignored this and implemented the Palestine Mandate with effect from 1 July 1920.

In the discussions at the San Remo conference that drafted the Palestine Mandate, the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, was fully involved. Although he did not get his way on everything, he had a major say – perhaps the major say – in what it contained. On the other hand, there was no input – repeat, no input – by anyone representing the Palestinian Arabs or the Syrians, and no attempt to consult them. That, like so much else that I have already covered about the creation of the Palestine Mandate, was utterly disgraceful behaviour on Britain’s part.

Now to the Palestine Mandate itself.

The first paragraph of the preamble does not define Palestine beyond stating that the Mandate

applies to the territory of Palestine, formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire, within such boundaries as may be fixed by [the Principal Allied Powers]“.

 It deliberately avoids defining the area of that territory, and effectively authorises Britain and France to do so in whatever way will suit their purposes best. The preamble states that the Mandate’s purpose is for Britain, as the mandatory, “to give effect to the provisions of” Article 22. The next paragraph of the preamble goes  on to state that Britain shall simultaneously be responsible “to put into effect” the provisions of the Balfour Declaration:

the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that  nothing shall be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…

The reference to the “non-Jewish communities” appears deliberately designed to mask the fact that about ninety per cent of the population of Palestine was Arab. If you include the Arab Jews, which would have been perfectly legitimate in 1917, it was more like ninety-five per cent.

Article 2 contains a formal obligation on Britain to “place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the national home“, as well as to “secure…the development of self-governing institutions” (Art. 2). No self-governing institutions such as a national parliament, or at least a directly elected legislative council, were ever established by the British in Palestine. This is a striking contrast with Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon: the other Middle Eastern territories under a mandate apart from Palestine. There is very little else in the Palestine Mandate aimed at fulfilling Britain’s obligations to ensure the well-being and development of the Palestinian Arabs and to lead them to independence. On the other hand, there is a great deal that is specifically aimed at facilitating the establishment of the Jewish national home. This included the recognition of a Jewish agency as a public body entrusted with carrying this out and representing the Jewish community in Palestine – whether they wanted this or not. (Art. 4).

The Palestine Mandate was an ambiguous document that was bound to lead to conflict. When Weizmann showed it to Cardinal Gasparri, the Vatican secretary of state, in 1922 in the hope of enlisting his support, the response he received was that some of its provisions were in breach of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League. It was subsequently described by a British Royal Commission as “an elaborate, yet not very lucid, legal document.”[x] It does not state whether or not the intention is that the Jewish national home will eventually become a sovereign state or that Jewish immigration, which is to be encouraged – including the encouragement of “close settlement by Jews on the land” (Art. 6) – is intended to lead to a Jewish majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Reading it today, it is easy to see why Britain is accused of making contradictory promises to Arabs and Jews. Israel emerged as a sovereign state at the end of the Mandate, but Britain failed utterly in its obligation to prepare the Arabs of Palestine for independence.  It is also easy to understand why the Palestinian Arabs resented the Balfour Declaration so deeply, and why Arthur Balfour is today a hate figure in Arab countries. Like the Vatican secretary of state, they repeatedly pointed out that the declaration appeared incompatible with Article 22, as well as with the promises Britain had made to the Arabs of the region in the Hussein-MacMahon letters. They demanded time and again that Britain abandon it. One of the saddest legacies of Britain’s rule in Palestine was how those three decades sowed mistrust and hatred between Arabs and Jews.     

Why Jordan is not part of Palestine

It is sometimes asserted that Britain did fulfil its obligation to the Palestinian people by creating Jordan as a Palestinian homeland. This is just not so. There are essentially two arguments brought forward to that effect, and it is important to show why they are both fallacious and mischievous.

Article 25 of the Palestine Mandate allowed Britain to withhold the provisions of the Mandate concerning the establishment of the Jewish national home

from the territories between the Jordan and the eastern boundary [of the Mandate] of Palestine as ultimately determined“.

“Ultimately determined”, of course, meant ultimately determined by Britain and France – as they might decide in accordance with their own interests, not those of the people who lived there. The area east of the Jordan is now the sovereign state of Jordan which, like Israel, is a member state of the UN. I mention this because you sometimes find it alleged that “Jordan” was part of Palestine, and that Article 25 removed it from the area for Jewish settlement – as though this provides some kind of moral justification for Israel expanding into the West Bank, or even up to the Jordan, as compensation for the fact that the Zionist movement had lost its claim to colonise Jordan. Chaim Weizmann, for instance, frequently made this kind of argument.

But it is absolutely wrong. The Balfour Declaration was no more than a statement of proposed British government  policy until the Palestine Mandate became legally operational which, as I have said, actually only happened in August 1923 at the earliest, even though Britain applied its provisions from 1 July 1920. The lands east of the Jordan were thus never, ever, covered by the provisions concerning the Jewish national home – it is not as though they were removed from an agreed plan for the establishment of the national home. To suggest the contrary is just plain wrong and, quite frankly, pernicious. Britain’s separation of those lands from Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean was not some equitable partition of the lands of the Palestinian people that satisfied Britain’s obligation towards them under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League.

The Faysal-Weizmann Agreement

There is another canard to be mentioned at this point. This is the Faysal-Weizmann Agreement of 3 January 1919. A rather similar argument is sometimes built on this still-born agreement. According to this argument, so it runs, the Amir Faysal, acting on behalf of the Arab kingdom of Hejaz, agreed with Chaim Weizmann, the President of the Zionist Organisation, that the Balfour Declaration would be implemented in Palestine. Now there are a number of different problems with the agreement but the crucial point is that it was made between the Zionist Organisation, represented by Weizmann, and the Kingdom of Hejaz, represented by Faysal. The kingdom of Hejaz had no status to make any agreement affecting the people of Palestine. Nor had the Zionist Organisation. The agreement could not, therefore, take away any rights from the Palestinian people, and was not an international treaty. In fact, it was a legal nullity. It follows that nothing written in it can detract from the sacred trust of civilisation for the well-being and development of the Palestinian people that was  incumbent on Britain by virtue of Article 22.

Conclusion – Britain’s lost honour

To conclude. Britain’s hubris led this country to demand the right to rule Palestine. It took on obligations to the Palestinians. It then failed to fulfil those obligations to a truly catastrophic extent, and to Britain’s shame. The consequences are with us still. Think, to take just one example, of the misery endured today by the people of Gaza, and how that can be traced directly back to Britain’s failure in 1948. Britain has to acknowledge its historic responsibility. The way to achieve that is by taking measures to ensure that the rights of the Palestinian people in international law are enforced, alongside those of Israel. Measures are needed, not just words. There is no other way for Britain to salvage some shred of its tarnished honour.

[i]  Telegramme No. 2062, Sir O. Sergeant, FO minute, 14 May 1948, to UK delegation in New York and Washington FO 371/68664, para. 9(a), quoted in Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest, International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1891-1949, 2009, p. 189.

[ii]  Kattan, p. 189.

[iii] E. Lauterpacht, Jerusalem and the Holy Places, Anglo-Israel Pamphlet No 19, 1968, pp. 13-19.

[iv] J. Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law, 2nd. edition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2006,pp.425-434.

[v] B. Lewis, The Middle East in World Affairs, reprinted in From Babel to Dragomans: interpreting the Middle East, 2004, p. 293.,

[vi] For the recommendations of the King Crane Commission, see; for the entire text, go to Both retrieved 29 June 2020.

[vii] J. Grainger, The Battle for Syria, 1918-20, 2013, p. 229.

[viii] H.W.V. Temperley, A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, 1921-4, Vol. VI, p. 143.

[ix] By Lebanon, I am referring to the modern state of Lebanon set up by the French at the beginning of their mandate and which they sometimes called Le Grand Liban. This was very different from the much smaller Ottoman sanjak of Mount Lebanon set up for predominantly Maronite areas after the events of 1860..   

[x] Peel Commission Report, Chapter V, para. 50.


Diana Safieh

Thank you so much for that, John. We’ve had some questions coming in, in advance of this talk as well as some coming into the chat box as you’ve been speaking. So I will start off with one that came in at advance from Mike Joseph, he says “my MP visited Israel in 2017, after which he said, ‘we met one of the Palestinian ministers, who stubbornly refused to even countenance that there was a desire for peace on the Israeli side. You cannot fail to be impressed by Israel as a beacon of freedom and liberalism. And yes, we will celebrate the Centenary of Balfour with pride’ – Stephen Crabb MP, chair, Conservative Friends of Israel. As one of his constituents, what should I ask him in order to encourage a rethink?”

John McHugo:

I would say ‘educate yourself.’ That’s the way to encourage a rethink. The history is actually quite clear. People often say that everything is so complicated and then they give up on it all and say, “Oh, I’ll go and look at something else instead”. But as I mentioned, the tragedy of Palestine is linked to many other problems in the Middle East today, which makes it very important to understand it. He suggests there’s a failure on the Palestinian side to acknowledge a desire for peace on the Israeli side. I’d say two things here. The first is that there are many, many Israelis who really and truly desire peace and know what that entails. But I think there are many other Israelis who get seduced by the kinds of arguments like the ones I mentioned about how Jordan is really Palestine, or that the Amir Faysal handed Palestine to Chaim Wiezmann in the Faisal-Weizman Agreement. These arguments are wrong, as I have said, but some Israelis believe them and see a justification for Israel not looking into its own past. Now both sides have to look into their own pasts, but the suffering of the Palestinian people today is palpable.

As he is your MP, you could suggest that he contacts Martin Linton and Sarah Apps, who run a very good, high level service for visiting Palestine and seeing what the Palestinians actually have to live through. They organise trips there for politicians and others. Because it is very easy to go and just see one side of the story; you should see both.


Yes, I think that will be very interesting for quite a few people who have told us that they’ve tried to get in touch with MPs and been disappointed with responses that they’ve had.

This one’s from Lawrence Joffe. He says hello. “Did Britain’s mandate for Palestine differ in form from its similar mandate or tutelage over Iraq and TransJordan?


Right. The Palestine mandate covered both what we think of as Palestine and Trans-Jordan. It was a single document. It had the status of an international treaty but it was a document that emanated from the League of Nations. Britain’s mandate for Iraq was of a completely different legal form which showed a certain ingenuity and, possibly, creativity that we might call a legal fiction. The mandate with Iraq took the form of a treaty between His Britannic Majesty and His Majesty, the King of Iraq. Britain had gone down a number of false paths with regard to Iraq, like originally thinking they could rule Iraq as though it was part of British India. But then they came to the conclusion that Faysal, who I’ve mentioned in my talk and was driven from Syria by the French, would make an excellent King of Iraq.

Actually Faysal’s reputation is highly controversial, but I’m something of a fan. He didn’t get everything right, but I think he was one of the many moderate Arab politicians over the last hundred years who have tried to do the right thing but were very badly let down by Western powers.

But anyway, the British installed him as King of Iraq; in order to do so, they had to grant Iraq a constitution. It was a less developed country than Palestine by the standards of the day, incidentally. Palestine was never given its own constitution, but Iraq was given a constitution and then Britain was given the right of tutelage under the treaty that contained the mandate. In reality, it was a “special treaty relationship”. Now, many parts of the British Empire were ruled indirectly by Britain through these special treaties. The “native states” of India, are one very good example. The Emirates of the Persian Gulf are another.

Under these treaties, the ruler would retain his sovereignty, but he would delegate various aspects of that sovereignty, crucially foreign affairs, to Britain. All the colonial powers did this sort of thing. The format of the Iraqi mandate is rather different because of this. But it is quite interesting that if you compare the mandate of Iraq, as well as the French mandate of Syria and Lebanon, with that of Palestine, you will find they all have various provisions in common. The clauses about the protection of minorities and the clauses about the preservation of antiquities are identical in all three of them. It was cutting and pasting the same wording, and adding particular  provisions relevant to each country.


I’m going to batch two questions together now because they follow on from each other. It’s about King-Crane and Woodrow Wilson. So Nigel Mohammed says “Woodrow Wilson sent two men named King and Crane to Palestine on a reconnaissance mission. They strongly urged against an exclusively Jewish States. This is known as the King-Crane Commission. Why was this ignored?”

And then following on from that, we’ve got a question from Andrew Whitley who says “why did Woodrow Wilson propose and enact the King-Crane commission? What were his motivations and why did he not pursue the Commission’s recommendation with the British government?”


Right. To answer Andrew Whitley’s question first, I don’t know. I don’t know quite what inspired President Woodrow Wilson’s thinking on this point. But, of course, Woodrow Wilson had come up with the idea of the self-determination of peoples. The King-Crane Commission was dispatched by the U S government to establish the wishes of the people in those areas would go under the mandates of Syria and Palestine. I’m not sure if it also covered Iraq.

Originally the idea was that the commission would be sent by the Principal Allied Powers acting together, namely Britain, France, United States, and Italy. But then Britain, France and Italy thought: we don’t really want this Commission going off and producing its report. It might be embarrassing and go against what we want to do.

So they didn’t take part in it, The USA, to its credit, went ahead and produced the report unilaterally. It was presented to the other Allied Powers, but they buried it. So it was not made public until all the mandates had been sewn up. Then the Americans, who were no longer really involved in the question of the mandates, inadvertently published it a couple of years later. Then everybody said, “Oh, that was interesting, but it’s not really relevant now because we’ve all moved on.”


We’ve got a question from John Quigley. “Can the Palestine Mandate be seen properly as a document of the League of Nations? Did the Council ever consider its contents or express approval of a Jewish national home?”


The Council of the League of Nations approved the mandate in July, 1922. So it approved what was in the mandate. Yet I’m not sure I have answered your question, because  you could ask: what was meant by the Jewish national home that was approved? As I said in my talk, that wasn’t clarified. But whatever was in the document setting up the Palestine Mandate was approved by the Council of the League. And then, on a regular basis, the Council of the League would consider an annual report on the Mandate.


Vincent Fean is joining us and he asks if you could you say a word about the Peel Commission and its effect on British government policy.


The Peel Commission report was written in 1937 and was the first document that called for the partition of Palestine. It’s a very, very interesting document. It appears to be very thorough. It goes on for about 423 pages. I actually read it while preparing to give this talk. And it’s a very, very good source, actually, if you want to find out about Palestine at the time, including the way in which everything was happening in the country. And one of the things that comes out very clearly from it is how by 1936/37, Jews and Arabs had moved so much apart.

Now, I mentioned at the time when I was discussing the Balfour Declaration that the population of Palestine was at least 90% Arab in 1917. And you could legitimately include the Arab Jews as Arabs at that time, in which case it becomes 95% – because, of course, you could be both Jewish and Arab at the same time.

But by 1937, things had changed. As the research of Menachem Klein shows – and I’d really recommend his book Lives in Common to anyone who hasn’t yet read it – a wedge had been driven between the Arabic speaking Jews of Palestine and the other Arabic speakers. This happened really between the time of the Balfour Declaration and the riots in Hebron and Jerusalem in 1929. This wedge forced the Arab Jews apart from the other Arabic speakers and forced them to band together with the European Zionist incomers, the settlers.

The Peel Commission Report also shows the way in which the Arab population was falling behind the Jewish population in terms of opportunities, education, etc. In many ways it was being excluded by the Jewish immigrants and cut out from many things relevant to the future of the country.

Now that is why the Commission ended up recommending partition. Partition was, from the point of view of the indigenous Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians of Palestine, an absolutely dreadful recommendation for it to make. I think it should be stressed at this point that the area suggested for the proposed Jewish state would contain very, large numbers of Arabs, some of whom, the Report said, would have to be transferred elsewhere.

So the recommendations of the Peel Commission were controversial, but they illustrate the problem that had arisen during the period of British rule. Its conclusion, its recommendation of partition, led to a vast explosion of anger across rural Palestine and in the cities. This is what is often called the Palestine Rebellion or the Arab Revolt . A very good military history of it has just come out by Matthew Hughes  which I would recommend, and which I also read when preparing this talk. It is quite shocking actually to notice how the British authorities were quite prepared to use tactics we would now definitely call war crimes, provided the violence served what they saw as a useful purpose.

But anyway, that rebellion showed that the plan to partition Palestine was unworkable. This then led to the 1939 White Paper which decided against partition and committed Britain to make Palestine independent 10 years later with restrictions on Jewish immigration in the meantime. If that had worked, there would have been a predominantly Arab state with a Jewish minority that had a recognised status. This never happened. As I’m sure everyone knows, the White Paper was rejected by Hajj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. Many people think he made the wrong call on this, as he did on so many other occasions.


Nicolette Baker says, “thank you for the fantastic talk. You mentioned the patronising tone and language of the mandate document and how it was representative of the attitudes at the time. To what extent do you think this perception of certain states as advanced nations has persisted into modern international relations policy? How can we navigate this cautiously when taking measures and acting on our historic responsibility?”


Well, the only thing I think I can say in response to that is that we have to look at it all with a degree of humility. The best book on the international law at the time concerning matters such as the creation of the mandates and the special treaty relationships I mentioned to Lawrence Joffe in reply to his question is contained in a book published in 1925 called The Acquisition of Backward Territory in International Law. How politically incorrect can you get? But it happens to be a very good legal textbook if you want to know what the law at the time said.

 And so we can’t get away from the fact that such language was used at the time.  These were the concepts and to understand the concepts, we have to know what the people at the time thought. The concept of advanced nations of course was definitely also very self-serving. I think the person who came up with it all was the South African Jan Christian Smuts, who was one of the great advocates of the British Empire at that stage.

I don’t know the answer to your question, Nicolette. We just have to go with what we’ve got, but think carefully about what language we use now. I think, in a way, it’s related to a topical question of this moment: do you tear down statues, or do you try for a more nuanced approach? I am, generally speaking, in favour of a more nuanced approach. But I think it’s a question we should all be turning our minds to much, much more.


I have a question that’s kind of a follow on question from Chris Greenwood. “Has the UN ever offered any critique of the mandate’s wording or implementation?”


Not to my knowledge, but I haven’t looked at what all the General Assembly resolutions on Palestine have said since the UN was established. The point is, as I said, these were legal texts, so they are there and you have to live with them and do the best you can with them.

Of course, you might be able to amend them. And on some occasions, I think proposals were made to amend the text of the Palestine Mandate. I don’t know if they ever got to the stage of actually being put to the League of Nations. This is the time of the League of Nations, of course, before the United Nations. But the point was they never got anywhere because the Mandates Commission in Geneva would always uphold the letter of the text of the mandate.

This was often very convenient for Britain, and also for France in Syria. In Syria, the Syrians wanted a democratic constitution and produced one. When they gave it to the French, they received the reply, “we can’t agree to all of this because it might imply terminating the mandate, and we can’t do that legally because we’d then be in breached of our international obligations.”

In the same way, the British politicians and civil servants would refuse requests made to them by Palestinian leaders on the grounds that to do so might involve breaching their obligations under the mandate. So as I said, the mandates became a straight jacket that were imposed on these countries with disastrous consequences.


Paul Timberley asks “can I enter dangerous territory, especially regarding the Balfour Declaration? What part did the banking system play in its creation? I ask as I’ve seen Theodore Herzl’s diary where he explicitly offered to arrange to reschedule the Ottoman Empire’s debt. I will understand if you prefer to avoid answering a question on this subject at the present moment.”


I’ve no problem with your question. No one should try to hide historical fact. With regard to your last remark, it is absolutely true that Theodor Herzl made an offer to the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid II, to discharge Turkish debts in exchange for a kind of charter over Palestine, which would allow Jewish colonisation. Interestingly Herzl made this offer without having the money to back it, because Herzl did not get on terribly well with the Jewish bankers he approached like the Rothschild family and I think Baron de Hirsch in Brussels. There was an element of the conman in Theodor Herzl. He basically thought, “if I can get the poor old Sultan to agree to this I can then go away and sway other people to agree to provide the money I have promised him to give him.” And of course he had absolutely no authority from anyone to make any such promises.

You’ve touched on a very dark area actually, which I think we should all be discussing a bit more than we do. This story about what Herzl did fits in so easily with anti-Semitic tropes, doesn’t it? There was a particularly vicious sort of anti-Semitism that had developed in Western Europe, and of course in, in czarist Russia, that was absent in the Middle East. And when you look into it, you can find people like French anti-Semites bringing European-style anti-Semitism to the Middle East. And I think Theodor Herzl may have unwittingly contributed to this.

There is something that follows on from this. If you look at the motives of the British politicians who drafted the Balfour Declaration and pushed it through, they weren’t necessarily very keen on Jews from Russia, that is to say the Jews who were really oppressed at that time, coming to live in Britain. They thought it far better for them to go somewhere else. And of course the Balfour Declaration was issued in the depths of World War 1, in truly dark days for Britain just after Russia had been knocked out of the war. Well, some of these British politicians were perfectly willing to believe conspiracy theories, and I’m afraid there were some people in the Zionist movement who were very happy to go along with that if it suited their purposes.


John, thank you so much. And thank you everyone for joining us today.

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