Palestine and Britain 1917-1948: Competing Policies, Creative Commemoration

This talk was given at  the Balfour Project  conference in Southwark Cathedral  on 5th November 2016  entitled: ‘How will we mark the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration’

By Dr Peter Shambrook

Context: it is only in the context of the development of the war that all the promises/agreements that the British government made can be understood.  Otherwise their very existence just doesn’t make sense.  If you study any of the promises in isolation, the ducks just do not line up.  The British Government, in August 1914, – had little, if any, desire whatsoever, to promote either Arab nationalism, or Jewish nationalism.

Around Christmas 1914, with stalemate on the Western Front, the British, French and Russians decided to force the Straits, take Istanbul, and knock Turkey out of the war.

The planning of the Dardanelles campaign thus precipitated the first wartime negotiations between the Allies for the partition of the Ottoman Empire.  The Russians said ‘We want Istanbul and the straits’. The French said ‘OK, but in return we want Syria, Alexandretta and Cilicia’; the British said, ‘OK, but we reserve the right to stake our claims to Ottoman territories in due course’…keeping all options open.

This agreement – a series of letters, March/April 1915, is known as the Constantinople Agreement.

However, with the defeat of the Gallipoli campaign, Allied war planners’ fear of jihad among colonial Muslims became even more acute.  One hundred million Muslims lived under British rule.

Following the Ottoman entry into the war, November 1914, both the Turks and the British actively courted the loyalty of the Sherif of Mecca, Ibn Hussein – the highest ranking Muslim official in the Arab world.  Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo – on behalf of the British Government – in his letter to the Sherif of 24 October 1915, offered British support for an independent Arab state (which probably included Palestine), if the Sherif would launch a revolt against the Turks.  In June 1916, on the strength of this promise, the Sherif and his men duly started to attack Ottoman forces.

The British regarded the letters – there were nine in all – as if they were written on a sheet of – ‘water’:  simply a war-time expedient to obtain a strategic, military edge over the Turks.  All other considerations – at the time – were secondary.

The British government was bound to seek French agreement on promises made to Sherif Hussein.  In November 1915, George Picot arrived from Paris, and eventually ended up negotiating, one to one, with Sir Mark Sykes – drafting a mutually acceptable post-war partition of Arab lands. For the Palestinian historian George Antonius, it was an outrageous example of double-dealing, imperial perfidy. For the British and French governments, whose past rivalries had nearly led them to war, it was an essential exercise – for France to define precisely the territories it claimed in Syria and Cilicia, and for Britain to stake its claim in Mesopotamia.

The one area Sykes and Picot could not agree on was Palestine, so they painted it brown on their map, and proposed it be governed by an ‘international administration’.  This, just a month before the start of the Arab Revolt.

The Balfour Declaration, published in the London press on 9 November 1917, was the product of 18 months of intense negotiations between Zionist leaders in Britain and Foreign Office officials, and ultimately War Cabinet officials.

By 1917, the British specifically wanted Palestine, for a mixture of reasons, political, strategic, military – partly to keep the French out, and, to a certain extent, although it’s impossible to quantify, because of the religious, restorationist beliefs of some of the political elite, including Balfour and Lloyd George.

The Great War literally devastated Palestine and the Palestinians. Many civilians – of all communities – were living, and dying, in famine conditions. By 1918, there remained some 800,000 inhabitants – classified by British officials as 650,000 Muslims, 80,000 Christians and 60,000 Jews (including indigenous Jews and the Zionist pioneers).  In terms of education, on paper, there were ninety-five primary schools, and three secondary schools, in Acre, Nablus and Jerusalem.

So, the British occupied the rest of Palestine by September 1918, the borders were fixed in April 1920 by the French and British at San Remo (not the Sykes-Picot borders) and the British Mandate – essentially, the implementation of the Declaration, to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine – came into force in July 1923.

Zionist historiography concerning the 19th and 20th century describes a profoundly moral, heroic, and ultimately successful endeavour to re-create a nation, underpinned by centuries of European Christian persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. Israeli textbooks, and novels such as Leon Uris’s Exodus, have tended to portray the Zionist pioneers waging a war of independence against the British oppressor. That’s one perspective.

Palestinian historiography dealing with the same period describes a nationalist, profoundly anti-colonial struggle to escape the British and then Zionist Iron Cage – their, so far, unsuccessful struggle to create a nation state.  The Palestinian Arabs saw themselves – and to a certain extent still do – as the victims of both duplicitous British imperialism and aggressive, foreign-financed Zionist colonisation.  That’s part of the Palestinian story.

The Balfour Declaration.  For Jews generally and for the State of Israel, it’s the foundational charter – a morally valid gift from a civilised Great Power, for a persecuted, scattered nation-in-exile. For the Palestinians, it was a bill of sale, an immoral and racist Great Power subterfuge which led directly to the loss of their country to Jewish intruders.

Although the Declaration is crucial and absolutely central in the Zionist narrative, pro-Zionist historians are, on the whole, very circumspect about its origins, or its consequences.  For example, in Sir Martin Gilbert’s 700 page tome:  Israel. A History, there is no mention whatsoever of the influence of 19th and early 20th Century Christian-Zionism in Britain, of Chaim Weizmann’s crucial role, of dissention within the British War Cabinet, or of the deep divisions within the British Jewish community on the issue.

Moreover, Gilbert quotes the first, but not the second half of the Declaration which, in fact, is unsurprising.  A major characteristic of Zionist writing concerning the history of Israel/Palestine is the almost complete absence of Arab Palestinian, Muslim and Christian society.

In contrast, pro-Palestinian writers do analyse in detail the origins, the wording, and the consequences of the Declaration, which became a central point of reference for Arab intellectuals, indeed the whole Arab world, after World War I – and up to the present day.  For example, Edward Said, in The Question of Palestine (1979) dwells at great length on the unspoken, racist, orientalist assumptions behind the Declaration.

In Britain itself, opinions about the relative weight of the different factors which led to the Declaration remained sharply divided long after the end of the Palestine Mandate – and remain divided to this day.

My second and final topic: the white hot issue of the War of 1948.  For the Palestinians – and, I would say, for a few Israeli historians – there were two wars: a civil war began to erupt in December 1947, following the passage of the UN resolution i.e. six months before the end of the Mandate.  During this period i.e. from December 1947 onwards, the battle-hardened militias of the Yishuv, unhindered, and sometimes aided by the British, deliberately attacked specific, unarmed, Palestinian villages, following a well-prepared military plan. This led, within a matter of about twelve weeks, to the fall of several cities, scores of villages, and the expulsion and flight of at least 250,000 Palestinians i.e., the die was cast before the British actually left in May 1948.  And before the Arab armies invaded.  The 7% of the land area of Palestine that was Jewish owned was transformed into the state of Israel, covering some 78% of Palestine.

The Zionist story is radically different.  With the expiry of the Mandate in May 1948, and the proclamation of the state of Israel, seven Arab states sent their armies into Palestine with the firm intention of strangling the Jewish state at birth, and expelling all Jews from Palestine. The infant Jewish state, with fewer forces, and initially fewer armaments, fought a desperate, heroic battle for survival – and won.  Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled to neighbouring Arab states, mainly in response to orders from their leaders, and despite Jewish pleas to stay.  A war of complete self-defence. That’s the Zionist perspective.

Until the late 1980s, this official, Zionist version of the events surrounding the birth of the state of Israel was certainly uncontested within Israel, and remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world.

However, in the late eighties, a number of books appeared by Israeli writers, prompted partly by the opening of some of the Israeli state archives, that took a much more critical view of Israel’s conduct in the years 1947-49 and place on her a larger share of the blame for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and the continuing political impasse in the Middle East.

The appearance of the new books has created intense controversy in both Israeli academic and political circles, in particular as they question the very essence of Israel’s moral and political image of herself.

So, two concluding thoughts on historiography:

Both nationalist narratives are valid, both incomplete

The moral high ground is unoccupied

So, where does this leave us, the British in 2016, in terms of our moral and political legacy regarding Palestine?  The British standard narrative, of course, is just as partial and self-serving as the Zionist and Palestinian nationalist narratives, shot through as it is with illusions of British even-handedness, of introducing democracy, of holding the ring in a disinterested fashion.  Do we have anything to acknowledge?

International relations – past and present – are often characterised by deception, rather than transparency.  Britain and Palestine during the Mandate was such a case.  This is a profoundly emotive, moral and political minefield.  In the time allotted to me today I’ll only attempt to tread very carefully into one (of many, overlapping) areas of the minefield – the question of British deception.

The state archives: Cabinet Office, War Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office papers clearly show that successive British governments, post-World War I, deliberately set out to deceive the Palestinian Arabs as to His Majesty’s Government’s true intentions regarding the future of British Mandatory Palestine.

In November 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George, Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour and the war cabinet committed themselves to the (eventual) creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Even before the Declaration was issued, Balfour made it clear to his colleagues that in his judgement, the Jewish national home would become a Jewish state, and the Prime Minister and Balfour informed Chaim Weizmann that in using the phrase ‘national home’ in the declaration, ‘We meant a Jewish state’.

However, both the British government (and the Zionists) then did everything possible to conceal their true intentions. Their joint strategy was simple:  persuade the Arabs into believing that Jewish cooperation, and Jewish immigration, would help them, the Arabs, to fulfil their aim of independence. Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, officially denied in the House of Commons that it had ever been British policy to allow Palestine to become a Jewish state;  Sir Herbert Samuel, our High Commissioner announced, in Palestine, that the British Government had never consented and ‘would never consent’ to the establishment of a Jewish government in Palestine, and so it went on.

Now, one can appropriately bring into the debate, as all historians, politicians and diplomats do, the combination of political and economic imperial realities and the moral imperatives of the period, including the historic persecution, the plight, of world Jewry, the need to answer ‘The Jewish Question’. What I call the ‘We had to’ factor, ‘We had to’.  Nevertheless, whatever the pressures were on the government, and there were many, the State papers/archives reveal, with crystal clarity, that post-World War I, we deliberately, explicitly and persistently deceived the Palestinian Arabs as to our true intentions for more than a decade.  That policy of deception has never been officially acknowledged by any subsequent British government. It was carefully swept under the colonial carpet during the 1930s, and deliberately has never been re-visited since. However, its consequences are still with us today.  I raise this particular issue of deception not because I’m partial to the Palestinian narrative, or because I’m partial to, or indeed reject the Zionist narrative.  I’m partial to – I’m pro – British transparency about our past.  After 100 years, clearing the remaining mess from under the colonial carpet, through official acknowledgement, would be both liberating and creative.

All centenaries should be used as an opportunity to deepen our nation’s understanding of our past.  Using the Declaration’s centenary next year to legitimate our own standard narrative i.e., ‘We have nothing to acknowledge. We did our best in the circumstances’, will simply entrench divisions and harden mind sets.

Acknowledgement of the down-side of previous national policies, or mistakes, or even national crimes – can take many forms:

In 1971, I remember it well – Willy Brandt, Chancellor of Germany, fell to his knees on a cold, wet morning in front of the Warsaw Ghetto.  That gesture, and his trip to Poland, was the beginning of a turning point in German-Polish relations, post-World War II.

At our own national commemoration in 2007 of the bicentenary of Wilberforce’s life and achievement there was no mention, however, by our government of Britain’s major role, or responsibility for, the Slave Trade itself.  It was a national lost opportunity.

Equally significant – and an opportunity taken – was the memorable visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Dublin in May 2011 – the first to the Republic by the monarch.  The significance of her gestures and her words during that visit were deeply moving, and have to be measured in the light of the 700 year turbulent history between the British crown and Ireland.  In Dublin, Her Majesty demonstrated to us all that acknowledgement is a sign of civilisation, not a sign of partiality, nor of weakness.

The centenary of the Declaration in November 2017, will I hope be commemorated appropriately, when the Declaration itself, and its multiple consequences i.e., the salvation and the suffering, will be marked by the British government in a constructive and forward-looking fashion.

So two concluding thoughts:

Creative commemoration requires our transparency
Acknowledgement is a sign of civilisation

Marking the centenary will require a dimension of statesmanship, beyond all domestic party political considerations – and beyond the fears of Foreign Office lawyers. The second of November 2017 is an opportunity not to be missed.

Dr Peter Shambrook

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