Britain’s Role in the Palestinian Nakba

David Cesarani, The Guardian
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2008-06-11 03:00

The comment surrounding Israel’s 60th anniversary mostly focused on the character of the Jewish state in its sixth decade and its apparently unending struggle with the Palestinians. Little attention was paid to Britain’s role in the emergence of Jewish statehood and its responsibility for the nakba, the Arab catastrophe in 1948. Yet if there was ever an appropriate moment for historical self-reflection, surely this is it.

After Britain was awarded the mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations, in 1922, colonial policy in Palestine was to oversee the development of both the Jewish and the Arab sectors, as cheaply as possible or at a profit. Yet the two sides were not evenly matched.

The worldwide Zionist movement poured investment and immigrants into Palestine. During the 1920s neither arrived in impressive quantities. But after the Nazis took power in Germany the trickle of impoverished immigrants from Poland turned into a flood of comparatively well-off German Jews. By the 1930s the Jewish sector of the economy, fortified by exclusive practices, was overwhelming the Arab one.

Palestinian farmers were blighted by undercapitalization and hampered by a patronizing colonial administration that believed in preserving their “picturesque” way of life. When they saw the demographic balance tilting, the Arabs attempted to seize the levers regulating immigration, but they were no match for the Zionist politicians and their allies in London. Having lost faith in the political process and British good will, they turned to armed revolt. Between 1936 and 1939, the British security forces crushed the Arab rebellion in Palestine. Social and economic decay was now compounded by defeat.

Ironically, at just this moment, with Europe on the brink of war, Britain conceded everything the Palestinian Arabs had demanded short of immediate independence. A white paper in 1939 decreed that Jewish immigration would be limited to paltry numbers and after five years the population, inevitably comprising an Arab majority, would determine the country’s future.

The war changed everything. Palestinian Jews volunteered in large numbers for the British army; thousands received training and combat experience. Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, was pro-Zionist and edged British policy back toward partition. Attitudes toward Zionism were transformed by the mass murder of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe.

After the war the Labour Party was swept into office. Traditionally it was pro-Zionist, but Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, were impressed when the military said they needed Palestine for strategic reasons. And with the British economy drained by six years of warfare, Bevin wanted to avoid anything that would antagonize the oil-producing states.

So the white paper was retained and the Royal Navy ordered to prevent the survivors of Nazi genocide reaching Palestine. Jews around the world were enraged by what seemed a heartless policy. It made no difference to them if Attlee and Bevin sincerely believed that the refugees from the ghettos and camps would be better off living securely in the countries from which they had been kidnapped by the Nazis.

Bevin also believed that Britain and the US had to cooperate in world affairs. Yet President Truman repeatedly deferred to the electoral calculus that gave American Jewish voters a say in foreign policy. If Britain had acceded to Truman’s call to admit 100,000 Jews from Europe into Palestine in 1945 it would probably have had to put down a few Arab riots, but might still have been there a decade later. Instead, Attlee and Bevin tried to get American loans and help to stay in Palestine while at the same time placating the Arabs. This policy was doomed and merely provoked an armed Jewish uprising that the police and army were ill-equipped to suppress.

Jewish terrorists tormented the security forces. Sniping, roadside bombs, mines and massive explosions, such as the King David Hotel bombing, drove the troops mad. In reprisal, police and soldiers repeatedly attacked innocent Jews, most viciously, in August 1947, after the Irgun hanged two British sergeants in revenge for the hanging of three of their fighters. (There were anti-Jewish riots in England, too.) While a political solution seemed as elusive as ever, senior officers in Palestine warned Whitehall that they were loosing control of their own men.

Britain’s role in Palestine may have been conveniently forgotten because it was a diplomatic and military defeat of immense proportions, ending in squalid acts of vengeance. Recently released documents in The National Archives confirm Jewish suspicions, denied at the time, that in February 1948 British Army deserters used truck bombs to blow up a stretch of Ben Yehuda Street, in Jerusalem, killing 52 people.

However, the Palestinians were the chief victims of British policy. After the UN announced the partition of Palestine in November 1947, Bevin ordered the army and the administration to remain strictly neutral. He had made it clear that the British would not enforce any solution, least of all one they thought was unfair to the Arabs. Unfortunately, this policy had the opposite effect to what was intended.

Bevin may have hoped the Arabs would overwhelm the Jews in the communal war that raged for the next six months. But the Palestinian Arabs lacked any national organization. Their fighting forces were village-based militias. They could cut roads and isolate Jewish settlements, but they were never a real threat to incipient Jewish sovereignty. Moreover, by maintaining the status quo, the British effectively defended the Jews when they were at their weakest.

As a result, the Jews were able to consolidate the territory assigned to them by the UN and expel most of its Arab population. After Israel declared its independence in May 1948, civil war was superseded by invasion. British even-handedness now took the form of an arms embargo. Yet it hurt the Arabs more. The Israeli forces were being equipped mainly from the Soviet bloc. The armies of Egypt and Jordan depended on British supplies and, in the latter case, British officers. Britain in effect contributed to Israel’s survival by hobbling the armies that were attempting to wipe it out at birth. The Arab invasion proved to be half-hearted and ineffectual, yet it gave Israel wholly reasonable grounds for seizing more territory and displacing more Arabs.

Bevin was occasionally bothered by these developments. But he withheld recognition from Israel more out of sheer spite. The two countries nearly came to war when Israeli Spitfires shot down several RAF planes patrolling over the Egyptian border in January 1949. This aerial humiliation capped a disastrous chapter in the end of the British Empire. We may think it is best forgotten, but by refusing to enforce a settlement that the British government did not like it condemned the Palestinians to a far worse fate. And that is something to think about.

Main category: 
Old Categories: