By Raja Shehadeh
The brief history I present here about the relations between Britain and Palestine is selective. I focus on events in which my father, Aziz Shehadeh, played a role. Much of what I will cover in this talk is taken from my new book, which is about my father and his political involvements, due to be published by Profile books next year.
How often have I heard father exclaim, in reference to the loss of Palestine: it was all the fault of the English. He blamed the English, through their policies in Mandate Palestine, for sewing enmity between Arabs and Jews in pursuit of their divide and rule strategy.
My father was born in 1912, during Ottoman rule over Palestine. During his younger years, from 1917 to 1920, he lived under British military rule. Then, from 1922 to 1948, Palestine was ruled under a British Mandate, set up by the League of Nations. After qualifying to practise law in 1935, Aziz wrote a short book, which he called The ABC of the Arab Case in Palestine. In it, he offered the novel opinion that the terms of the mandate did not serve only the Jewish population. He supported this by quotes from the articles of the mandate.
On page 20, he wrote of what he thought of the mandate government: “The Palestine government is serving five masters. It tries to please all at the same time, the Arabs, the Jews, the Colonial Office, the Permanent Mandates Commission and the questioning members of the British Houses of Parliament. It is thus one of the most perplexed governments in the world. It has no heart or will of its own. Normally, it is supposed to follow the dictates of the Colonial Office, but it easily becomes swayed by questions which Jewish MPs or Zionist sympathisers ask in the House of Commons; finally, coming up against what the Permanent Mandates Commission may approve or disapprove.”
With some modification, this might still represent the way it is today with the British Government’s policies towards Israel and Palestine. My grandfather, Dr. Saleem Shehadeh, a graduate of Cornell University, in New York State, was a district court judge with the mandate government. Both my father and grandfather knew well the government they lived under and had no illusions. But my grandfather was the more realistic about the ultimate plans of the British for the region and the determination to betray the Palestinians.
After my father delivered the speech on behalf of the Ramallah refugees congress at the Jericho conference on December 1 1948, challenging the unconditional annexation of the West Bank by Transjordan, his uncle wrote to him from Beirut, where he had taken refuge after being forced out of Jaffa. He wrote: “There is no hope in the second front, meaning the Palestinian state. The future of Palestine is with King Abdullah alone.” My father on the other hand refused to submit and until his death fought for the establishment of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.
A deal across the River Jordan
According to the UN partition plan of 1947, Jaffa was to be part of the Arab state in Palestine. This encouraged Aziz to believe that he would be able to continue living in Jaffa after the war. That was why he did not want to leave the city. But the terror attacks launched by the Irgun on the evening of April 28 1948, which followed other Jewish terrorist attacks, convinced my father that it would not be safe for him, with a two-year-old child, to remain in the city.
He could see that the British Army was failing in its duty of protecting the civilian population. On May 14, the army withdrew. Britain has never been held accountable for its criminal negligence in failing to defend the UN partition plan for which it had voted. But it did not stop there. The initiative of the Jaffa refugees to return to their city that summer was blocked by General John Bagot Glubb, “Glubb Pasha”, the commander of the Arab Legion in Jordan. Glubb arrested the leaders of the Jaffa initiative and foiled their plan.
This was followed by another betrayal, again by Glubb, of the people of Lydda and Ramle, who called for help from the Arab Legion in their struggle to stay in their cities. In July 1948, the second round of fighting by the 4,500 strong Arab Legion took place along the route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but Glubb decided to withdraw his forces from the area that had been designated part of the Palestinian state under the UN partition plan.
This left the cities of Lydda and Ramle undefended and allowed the Israeli Army to force the inhabitants at gunpoint to leave the cities. There were mass demonstrations in Jordan to protest against Glubb’s abandonment of the Palestinian Arabs, but to no avail. Unbeknown to my father, secret negotiations between Britain and the Hashemites had already been taking place as early as 1947. The British were exploring the possibility that the Arab parts of Palestine that they believed would be unviable as a Palestinian state on their own would be fused with the Hashemite kingdom of Transjordan, established in 1946. At a secret meeting in London in February 1948, Ernest Bevin, the UK Foreign Secretary, gave King Abdullah of Jordan the green light to take part of Palestine provided the King’s forces stayed away from those parts allotted by the UN partition plan to the Jews.
After the 1948 war, Israel had not only expelled the Palestinians from their country, but it had also frozen all their bank accounts. It deprived the refugees of their properties and took over their country, then pursued them across the border and deprived them of the means to live in the countries where they were exiled. Israeli officials were working on the principle of no money, no country. They wanted to turn the Palestinians into beggars and this was exactly what happened to a large number of them.
A shady decision by shady British regime
When Israel declared itself a state, it inherited all the institutions existing in Palestine. Under the British mandate, Palestine and Transjordan had the same currency and were treated as a single currency area for the purposes of exchange control. The Palestinian pound was equivalent to the pound sterling.
In February 1948, the British Treasury announced with no prior notice or explanation that it would, “exclude Palestine from the sterling area and henceforth suspend the free convertibility of Palestinian pounds into pounds sterling”
It also stated that the Palestine currency board would no longer, “after May 14 1948, continue to issue Palestinian pounds.” In other words, upon the termination of the mandate, the Palestinian currency would no longer be legal tender. What has been described by the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi as the shadiest regime in British colonial history was ending without attending to the most basic needs of the majority of the inhabitants of the land.
For the hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinian refugees who had by then forced to flee to other countries, this meant that they were unable to exchange their Palestinian pounds into pound sterling or any other Arab currency before they left, nor could they withdraw money from their accounts in other currencies once they arrived. Arab clients of the Jaffa branch of the Ottoman Bank, now refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, were asking the bank to pay them their balances in Amman and elsewhere. But these requests were refused.
Heart-wrenching letters were being written to the banks; some also to the British Government, others to the Bank of England only to get the insulting perfunctory responses that British officials were experienced in drafting from a long colonial history, in which they shucked off all responsibility,as if the livelihoods of their erstwhile clients were no concern of theirs. The fate of these assets was left to the state of Israel, which proceeded to order all commercial banks operating within its territory to, “freeze the accounts of all their Arab customers and to stop all transactions on all Arab accounts.”
The Israeli Government gave the banks one month to comply with this order and threatened to revoke the licence of any bank found to be in non-compliance. By the end of December 1948, every bank operating in Israel had obeyed the order. Two years later, the custodian of absentee properties in Israel, who was custodian in name only, withdrew a large amount from the Arab banks’ frozen accounts at Barclays bank and explained to the local manager that, “the reasons for the substantial withdrawal of funds was to finance an irrigation scheme.” Israel was irrigating the orchards it had stolen from the Palestinians using Palestinian funds for the upkeep, with no intention of returning these orchards to the rightful owners.
In 1950, the Arab bank submitted a case in London against Barclays Bank that went all the way up to the House of Lords, which in 1953 issued a judgment in favour of Barclays Bank. A year later, my father took a case in the Jordanian courts against Barclays Bank, which had also refused to pay its clients who had accounts at the bank’s Israeli branches. He won the case, forcing the bank to pay up. Having won that case, he had plans to take up other cases against Israel in the courts, but this was not in line with British plans for the future and would have gone against Jordanian Governments appeasement policies, which were supported by the British.
In 1954, when parliamentary elections were declared in Jordan, Aziz and other independents decided to run as candidates and to try to bring changes through parliament. But the regime used all kinds of means to ensure father’s failure. Glubb, with much power in the country, would not allow parliamentary democracy to flourish in Jordan, because this would complicate his mission of controlling the policy of the country to the advantage of Britain. After the elections, my father was put in prison along with other candidates. It now became clear to him that it was necessary to work on ousting Glubb, if democracy was to have a chance of flourishing in Jordan. He knew that King Hussein did not like Glubb, who had been imposed on the young King by the British; yet he could not get rid of him, even though the Englishman was doing so much damage and treating the country like his personal playground, arresting people and allowing the prisoners to be tortured , as my father himself had experienced.
The plot against Glubb Pasha
He suspected that the government in London did not know what was being done in its name and that if it was briefed it would take action to stop it. So he was determined that on his next visit to London he would lobby against Glubb. As soon as he was released from prison he travelled to London to negotiate with Barclays the release of the safe deposit boxes of his Palestinian refugee clients.
While in London, he learned that Glubb had issued an order for his arrest for negotiating with Israel, when he had done nothing of the sort. He remained in exile unable to return home for 27 months. While in London, Aziz and his colleague Mohammed Yahya drafted a memorandum dated June 23 1955 to the British Parliament. This covered a range of subjects relating to the refugees and expressed their belief that the statement by the Jordanian foreign minister, that the two Palestinians had negotiated with Israel, could not have been made without the knowledge and approval of the British Embassy in Jordan. They added, we need not stress the point that although the Jordan Government is considered as an independent state, such influence is felt daily by the citizens of Jordan.
He then gives an example of the recent parliamentary elections and accuses Glubb Pasha of the forgeries and harsh measures that were adopted during the elections there. We have first-hand information about what had taken place. As I read this, after I secured the copy from the archive of St Antony’s College, Oxford, I marvelled at my father’s audacity and courage in complaining to the British government about Glubb. Though the Englishman exercised such great power over him and his family, truly he was fearless. But perhaps he was overly optimistic that the British would lift a finger to help him or his cause. With all he knew of the British and their unprincipled behaviour during the mandate, when they tortured prisoners, demolished homes and hanged the rebels during the 1936 uprising and afterwards, how could he have expected justice from them? Why would they want to change their policies in the region?
So, indeed, the British did mobilise their agent Glubb in Jordan, just because of these accusations of wrongdoing that Aziz Shehadeh and Mohammed Yahya had presented. My father was arrested again in 1958. (By then Glubb had been removed, on March 1st, 1956.)
This time the arrest took place in the wake of a coup in Iraq that toppled and killed King Feisal. Aziz was sent to the Jafar desert prison, established by none other than Glubb. On his way there, Aziz noticed the remnants of railway tracks. At first, he wondered what these could be, then he realised that they must be part of the Hejaz railway line, that much heralded line that once linked Berlin with Baghdad and ultimately the Hejaz with branch lines to Jerusalem, Amman, Baysan and Haifa. (Another line, to Nablus, was never completed.)
A British legacy of terrible practices
What had been the promise of great connectedness between the various parts of the Middle East and Europe ended in partition and the loss of Palestine. The shattering of that dream had begun with the dynamiting of these tracks by no other than an Englishman, T. E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, during World War One, at best for military reasons. Nonetheless, in the wake of that terrible war, Britain and France carved up the region into small states, giving the ambitious Abdullah his statelet, which he proceeded to enlarge at the expense of Palestine with British backing. With Palestine lost, my father and others were now reduced by the Jordanian regime to the status of common criminals, feet shackled, banished from society, away from their wives and children, herded into the desert like cattle without explanation or justification other than a British-made law on administrative detention.
But the detrimental role of the British in our life and the deprivation of our freedom did not stop there.
After 1967, I realised, as my father had done, that the English bequeathed us a legacy of terrible practices and legislation that the Israeli occupation has found extremely useful. The Israelis y continue to use them to this day. I only mention here one example, the defence emergency regulations of 1945, issued by the British Mandatory authority, which has since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of 1967 been deployed by Israel to justify such egregious human rights violations as house demolitions and indefinite administrative detention orders. We really have much to thank the British for.
Over the years and as long as Britain was in the EU, it continued to block policies that could bring justice to the Palestinians and often acted as defender of the interests of Israel’s right-wing government. And it continues to refuse to recognise Palestine as a state. In today’s world, Britain is considered one of Israel’s right-wing government’s staunchest allies.
But what has been true of the English as a government has not been the case of the English as a people.
My life has been greatly enriched and influenced by many English and Scottish men and women whom I have known and worked with over the years. They have supported me in a number of ways and promoted both my human rights work and my writing. The number is large. Here, I would only like to highlight the work of one of them, Peter Coleridge, who died in June 2019. In addition to his pioneering work for the promotion and protection of disability rights as Oxfam representative in the West Bank and Gaza in 1981, he was the first to lend Oxfam support to the work of Al-Haq, when Palestinian human rights work was deemed untouchable.
By doing so, he encouraged other organisations to go along with him and his organisation’s support. This initial backing during the organisation’s early days proved crucial to ensuring that it continued its work. And Peter is but one of many Britons who have stood with and supported justice for Palestine. In contrast to the position of their government, their work for the promotion of Palestinian rights and the cause of peace in our region continues to proceed at a greater pace than ever. I would like to end by thanking the Balfour Project for the lobbying work it is doing to further justice in Palestine and for providing me with this opportunity to speak about Britain and Palestine from the perspective of my own family.
This is a slightly edited version of a talk Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian writer and human rights activist, gave via Zoom to a Balfour Project webinar in January 2023.