British Mandate in Palestine

British Mandate in Palestine
British Mandate in Palestine

Although British control of Palestine started on December 11, 1917, the Palestine mandate was not approved by the council of the League of Nations until July 24, 1922, through the Treaty of San Remo. The mandate was formally established on September 29, 1923.

Some of the causes of the delay were uncertainties about the territorial boundaries of the new entity and the issue of the contradictory future obligations of the Mandatory Power. The land's symbolic and political significance by far exceeded its local or even regional importance.

The historical cradle of the Jewish people and the holy land of Christianity, Palestine had for many centuries been inhabited by a mainly Muslim and Arab speaking population. Since the beginning of the 20th century the Zionist movement, established at the congress at Basel in 1897, sought to recreate there the Jewish national home, but up until World War I it still had no international recognition and only limited Jewish support.

During World War I on November 2, 1917, the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, seeking Jewish international support, issued a declaration assuring his government's support for the establishment in Palestine of the Jewish national home.

The Palestine mandate copied the text of the Balfour Declaration, as both Britain and the League of Nations apparently believed that building a Jewish national home and protecting the Arab majority's rights and position were not incompatible objectives.

The Palestine mandate received by Britain in 1920 included the future Transjordan, but this was transformed into a separate territorial unit. The Emirate of Transjordan, never considered part of historic Palestine, was explicitly excluded from the area of Palestine designed as the Jewish national home.

In this framework of the Palestine mandate the Jews enjoyed numerous advantages over the local Arab Palestinian population. With the help of worldwide Jewish communities and the British government the Zionists made enormous progress in developing an up-to-date economic, social, and political system.

Their numbers increased quickly because of growing immigration, from 83,790 in 1922 to 174,606 in 1931, and were estimated at 528,702 in 1944; they grew from 12 percent of the total population in 1922, to about 17 percent in 1931, to about 31 percent in 1944.

In spite of that, the Jewish population remained a minority and would not have achieved their goals and aspirations without constant British military and security guarantees and protection. In practice the British granted considerable autonomy to the various religious groups along the lines of the old Turkish millet system and intended to prevent the development of the national-minded Palestinian Arab ethnic community.

Lack of self-rule institutions and elected representatives deprived the Palestinian population of many political chances in the future. Led mainly by the clan (hamula) and big land-owning families, the Palestinian population in the country by 1936 had increased to about 1 million, primarily as the result of a high birth rate.

The British government started to introduce limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine, but these quotas and the very concept of the absorptive capacity of the country became controversial, particularly in the 1930s and early 1940s.

The situation in Palestine deteriorated largely under the impact of external factors, which included the Great Depression and Hitler's assumption of power in 1933 followed by the Nazi regime in Germany. Legal and illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine increased dramatically, from 9,553 in 1932 to 61,854 in 1935, because of which Arab-Jewish relations became tenser.

Even before that, especially in 1921 and 1929, there had been violent clashes between the two communities. The Jewish Self-Defense Force, Haganah, was formed on June 15, 1920, and eventually evolved into the Israeli Defense force (IDF).

Between 1936 and 1939 there was the great Arab uprising, directed predominantly against the British mandatory power but also against Zionist settlers. The revolt began with a general strike that lasted some six months and soon evolved into a large-scale peasant revolt that mobilized the entire Palestinian Arab population.

Almost 1,000 Palestinians and 80 Jews were killed in the first year, and by 1939 the British military had either killed or imprisoned most of the key Palestinian leaders. The revolt considerably weakened Palestinian political and military organizations and caused the loss of key leaders who might have been effective after World War II in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

The British also tried to find a political solution to the existing dilemma of conflicting Zionist and Palestinian demands for national control over the same territory. In 1936 the Peel Commission was sent to Palestine, and in 1937 it concluded that the mandate was unworkable in its present form.

The Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state, a Palestinian area to be merged with Transjordan, and Jerusalem and its neighborhood remaining under direct British control. The partition plan was opposed by both sides.

In May 1939 the Statement of Policy on Palestine replaced the partition plan with new directives. The British government declared that it wanted to establish "an independent Palestine State." This state was to be established within 10 years.

During that period Jewish immigration would be limited to 15,000 per year during the first five years, after which no further Jewish immigration without Arab consent would be allowed. In 90 percent of Palestine, the transfer of Arab lands was forbidden or restricted.

Predictably, the most negative reaction came from the Zionist and Jewish circles, who dubbed it the "Black Paper." The most radical wing of the Zionist movement, the revisionists, almost immediately initiated violent actions against the British administration and the Arabs.

The smuggling of arms and illegal immigrants into Palestine had begun before 1939, but it continued and intensified after that. Between 1939 and 1943 about 20,000 illegal Jewish immigrants and 19,000 legal ones entered the country.

After World War II several factors, such as U.S. support for the Zionist cause, the decline of British economic and political power, and the impact of the Holocaust on world opinion persuaded the British to submit the Palestine question to the United Nations on April 12, 1947.

On May 15, 1948, the British mandate was terminated, and the British evacuated their troops from Palestine. Caught between conflicting obligations and facing the decline of their own power, the British had no choice but to leave.