The British Occupation of Palestine

I thought that this would be a good time to repeat a previous post of mine about the history of England’s principled role in creating nations, carving up nations and occupying the Middle East:

During WWI, the entire Middle East, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was split into two parts. Half was controlled by France (the French Mandate), the other half by England (the British Mandate).

The French Mandate included the northern part of the Ottoman Empire. The British Mandate included the southern and eastern part of the Ottoman Empire.

It is important to keep in mind that the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle East from the 16th to the 20th century — for some 400 years. During this time, the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. did not exist. The residents in these areas were predominately Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire, living in loosely organized tribal communities.

The British Mandate included the landmass on the West Bank of the Jordan River all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the landmass on the East Bank of the Jordan River, an area known as Trans-Jordan. The British called this whole huge area “Palestine.”

When the British took over the land of Israel, suddenly the dream of a homeland for the Jews became a real possibility.

By this time, there were between 85,000 to 100,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel, of a total population of 600,000. (See “History of the Jews” by Paul Johnson, p. 430.) Most of the Arabs living in the land had migrated there only in the previous thirty years attracted by the jobs created by the Jews who were building and farming. (Note that when Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers in 1882, fewer than 250,000 Arabs lived there.)

A big boost for a Jewish homeland came from Earl Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), then foreign secretary, who in 1917 promised British support for the cause.

Balfour became a friend of the Jewish cause in some measure because of Chaim Weizmann whose invention of artificial acetone, the chief ingredient in gunpowder, enabled the British to mass-produce gunpowder for the war effort. Balfour said that acetone converted him to Zionism.

Balfour’s support for a Jewish homeland became known in history as the Balfour Declaration which was issued in the form a letter to Lord Rothschild on November 2nd, 1917. It stated:

“His Majesty’s government looks with favor upon the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people.”

But talk is cheap, and when it came to the reality of creating such a state, the British had many other considerations and interests to take into consideration.

Despite the support of certain British political figures, the British Foreign Ministry and others were generally much more pro-Arab, and the British government got busy carving out Arab countries from the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Through their efforts the country of Iraq was created in 1921. It was a monarchy with Faisal ibn Hussein, the son of Hussein the Sherif of Mecca, as king. Soon thereafter Iraqi oil started to flow to the West.

Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world (after Saudi Arabia) and it is no wonder the British were interested in having a bond with this country as well as other oil-rich Arab states.

Another country created by the British was Jordan. In 1927, the British installed Abdullah ibn Hussein, another son of the Sherif of Mecca, as emir of the new country called Trans-Jordan, later Jordan. Jordan was confined to the East Bank of the River Jordan and did not include any part of the West Bank.

Why were the sons of the Sherif of Mecca made rulers of these countries?

The British wanted alliances with all the Arab kingdoms. They had shored up support for the Ibn Saud of the Arabian Peninsula, who had fought the Turks alongside them. Ibn Saud got Saudi Arabia.

But when that happened, the British had to pay off the Hussein Sherif of Mecca, who was in charge of the Islamic holy sites. (The Hussein family are Hashemites, the tribe of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and have been traditionally the keepers of the “holy” city of Mecca.)

They had to give him and his children some land, so they gave them Iraq and Trans-Jordan — the land on the East Bank of the River Jordan.

Yet despite all this country-making, and despite the Balfour Declaration, the British could not get around to creating a country called Israel.

Why not?

There was a clear British bias against the Jews as is readily apparent to anyone who has studied the series of White Papers issued by the British government in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reasons for this bias were:

The British had to deal with the issue of an Arab majority living in what was left of Palestine. They came up with all kinds of partition plans all of which were rejected by the Arabs. (Not all Arabs were opposed by-the-way; King Faisal of Iraq signed an agreement with Chaim Weizman calling for peace and cooperation.)

Many members of the British government and military were clearly anti-Semitic and had a romantic/patronizing attitude toward the Arabs.

The Arabs had oil and England needed oil. In the final analysis, the British had to take into consideration what was in their best interest. Looking after their strategic interests and placating tens of millions of Arabs was more important in their eyes than saving a few hundred thousand Jews, even though this went against the conditions of the mandate that they were granted in 1920.

Meanwhile the poor Jews, not knowing that the British were going to back out of their promise, kept migrating to the land.

The third migration or aliyah (between 1919 and 1923) brought 35,000 Jews to the land. The fourth aliyah (between 1924 and 1928) brought 80,000 Jews to the land. The fifth aliyah (between 1929 and 1939 as Hitler rose to power in Germany) brought 250,000 Jews to the land.

The Arabs made it clear that they were not going to sit still for a Jewish state. In August of 1929, due to the instigation of the preachers in the mosques, a series of riots broke out in which many Jews were massacred.

The New York Times in its history of Israel (Israel: from Ancient Times to the Modern Nation, pp. 38-39) writes of this time:

“The riots of August, 1929, were ignited in Jerusalem over a rumor spread by Arab leaders that Jews were going to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most holy shrine. Fighting soon spread throughout Palestine. The worst massacres were in Hebron, sacred to Jew and Muslim alike, where 67 Orthodox Jews – men, women and children – were slaughtered by Arabs and 50 more wounded. Pierre van Paassen, a reporter, described the horror that he witnessed by lamplight in a Jewish seminary in Hebron: ‘The slain students in the yard, the dead men in the synagogue, slashed throats and mutilated bodies.’ By the time order was restored 133 Jews had been killed, 399 wounded.”

The 1930s saw more rioting and more massacres, especially in Jaffa and again in Hebron. In response, the British convened the Peel Commission which almost totally did away with the Balfour Declaration that had originally promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine on both sides of the River Jordan.

In July of 1937, the Peel Commission issued a report which said that all the Jews should be confined to a tiny state that would include a sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast and a small piece in the north abutting the west side of the Lake Kineret (“Sea of Galilee”).

The Arabs greeted the Peel Commission recommendation with a revolt which lasted until 1939.
The Arab Revolt was led by Haj Amin Husseini, who was originally appointed as the Mufti of Jerusalem by the British. It is interesting to note that in addition to hundreds of Jews who were killed by Arabs, some 3,000 Arabs died in this revolt at the hands of other Arabs and at the hands of the British.

For all the British criticism of Israel today, at that time the British were not shy in their efforts to quell the rioting. They introduced the policy of housing demolition and used artillery to shell rebellious towns.
The revolt was finally crushed and the Mufti fled first to Beirut and later to Europe, where he became an ally of Adolph Hitler, organizing a Bosnian S.S. unit to kill Jews in the Balkans.

After the war he was captured but escaped. He was later involved in fomenting violence, including the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951. He was last heard of living as a guest in Saudi Arabia. (Faisal Husseini, who was the PLO’s representatives in Jerusalem and who recently died of a heart attack was a relative of his.)

The British did not keep the promise contained in the Balfour Declaration and neither did they keep the promise contained in the Peel Commission report.

They did enforce one aspect of the Peel Commission report — that which limited Jewish migration to the land to only 12,000 a year for the next five years (1939-1943). By doing so the British doomed the Jews under the control of Nazis — they would no longer be able to find refuge in their homeland.

They did this, knowing full well what the Germans were doing to the Jews — this was after the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht (see Part 60). And still the British closed an escape route that would have saved millions of Jewish lives.

The Jews were desperate and they tried to come illegally. In response, the British set up a blockade to keep them out.

Many Jews managed to circumvent the blockade and it is estimated that 115,000 Jews got through. But 115,000 is a very small number compared to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust and who could not find refuge in the land of Israel.

The British presently show the same callousness in regard to Jewish men, women and children being murdered today, as they did during the British Mandate.

I gratefully acknowledge Aish for their assistance in providing facts contained in this post. You can read the White Paper of 1922, White Paper of 1939, and the Balfour Declaration, here, here, and here.

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