Being British, the 500-year-old British Empire story fills me with a mixture of pride – and pain and shame. Regarding the events of 1948, locating truth is extremely challenging, given the irreconcilable national narratives. So I come at this as a student of imperial history, and as a still-often puzzled, searcher for truth.
Post-World War II, Britain’s strength was more apparent than real. An economic crisis, increasing difficulties in India, fragile treaties with Egypt and Iraq, the advent of the Cold War, perceived Russian designs on the Middle East – and a firm commitment to build a welfare state – were all formidable challenges to a Labour Government and a country exhausted by the war.
Palestine was increasingly seething with unrest, where thirty years previously, Britain had committed itself to the creation of a Jewish national entity. Facing British troops were the indigenous Arab Palestinians, disarmed and effectively leaderless, following the suppression of their revolt (1936-39), and who had been calling, without success, for some modicum of democratic self-government since 1920 – and the Jewish community, still a minority in terms of population (33%) and land-holding (7%), but relatively well-armed, well-trained, ideologically bound to nationalism, and who claimed the whole of Palestine as theirs by divine right, by recent settlement, and – according to Chaim Weizmann – by memory.
How does one explain the contradictions of British policy in Palestine?
“Palestine presents a unique situation, which inevitably excludes numerical self-determination. We are definitely building for a Jewish numerical majority in the future”.
So said Foreign Minister Balfour privately to Justice Brandeis, a U.S. Zionist leader in June 1919. This quote begins to get to the heart of the matter, revealing as it does, Britain’s sustained policy of ‘double-speak’ between 1918 and 1948, concerning its mandatory responsibility (a ‘Sacred Trust of Civilisation’) to establish self-government, at the same time as it supported the creation of a Jewish homeland.
Throughout 1946, the number of British casualties, military and civilian, rose alarmingly, mainly due to a terror campaign waged by Zionist extremists. In February 1947, the Cabinet decided that as Britain was unable to find a solution acceptable to both parties, it had decided to hand over the future of Palestine to the United Nations.
Following the UN partition resolution (November 1947), Britain decided that its chief priority was to safeguard its evacuation i.e., to keep British casualties to an absolute minimum, and to protect all British facilities, including the port of Haifa.
Since the mid-1930s, the Zionist leadership under David Ben Gurion had been actively planning to take over most of Palestine – and, in their minds, a large-scale eviction (‘transfer’ in Zionist parlance) of the Palestinian Arab population was essential in order to create a viable Jewish state.
From the middle of March 1948, Plan Dalet, the Zionist military offensive campaign, unfolded with devastating cumulative impact. The British military forces, some 75,000, largely stood aside. By the time the British left eight weeks later, on 14 May, at least 200,000 Palestinians had been evicted from villages and the major towns.
The Palestinian irregulars and a few thousand Arab volunteers were out-gunned before the British departed, and the Arab armies similarly so, between that date and July 1949, during which time a further half million Palestinians were expelled, mostly into neighbouring countries. The Jewish Agency successfully neutralised the only serious military opponent by making an agreement with King Abdallah that he would take the West Bank, and the Zionists would take the remaining 80% of Palestine. This is what happened, except that Gaza remained under Egyptian military control.
British withdrawal was politically and morally shameful
Having handed over the future of Palestine to the United Nations in February 1947, the British abstained in the partition vote in November 1947, the British insisted on maintaining de jure administrative control until May 1948, the British refused to allow the United Nations authorised committee (authorised to implement the partition resolution) to enter Palestine at the beginning of 1948, and then allowed law and order to break down. On the 24th February 1949, David Rees-Williams, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies declared in the House of Commons “On 14th May 1948, the withdrawal of the British administration took place without handing over to a responsible authority any of the assets, property or liabilities of the Mandatory government”.
The manner in which the British withdrawal took place was not only unprecedented, it was politically – and morally – quite shameful.
This talk was presented at Britain Palestine Israel – 70 years on in Kings College, London May 31st 2018