Britain’s Role Revealed

By Roger Owen

In the vast — and largely ideological — literature produced by the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Britain’s responsibility for the events of 1948 is not often directly discussed, neither polemically nor from a more academic point of view. It was thus something of a novelty to attend a whole conference devoted to the subject of "Palestine, Britain and Empire" at King’s College, London, in mid-May. It was also a great pleasure to observe how much dispassionate, archive- based research is being conducted by young scholars whose commitment to old passions and the rehearsal of stale arguments is much less pressing than that of many of their older colleagues.

Three new lines of argument seemed to me of particular interest. One was the role played by the international mandate for Palestine itself, a subject often dismissed as being of trivial significance compared with the more obvious importance of Palestine as a quasi colony. However, as a paper on "The powers and uses of the mandate system" amply demonstrated, the fact that the Balfour Declaration was written into the mandate document itself enormously reduced Britain’s power of manoeuvre, particularly in the mid- 1930s when it was becoming clear that Palestine contained two irreconcilable communities unable to agree on almost anything.

Here is a clear example of imperial hubris at work, with Britain starting off in the 1920s imaging that it could manipulate both the Palestine mandate and the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations to its own advantage, only to find them becoming something of a millstone round its neck, the more so when key members of the commission became strongly identified with the Zionist position in the next decade.

Britain’s complicity in the division of Palestine was also made obvious in a second paper on "The Peel Commission’s inquiry and partition proposal, 1936- 1938" when the members of this high level body sent out to investigate the causes of the 1936 Palestinian revolt found how little had been done to try to create a sense of a common Palestinian-ness among Palestinians and Jews, leaving partition — they believed — as the only realistic option. It did not help that, in the language of that time, the Palestinians were always referred to as "Arabs", and assumed a loyalty not to the state of Palestine but the larger Arab community beyond its borders and so, in the commission’s proposal, not to be given their own mini-state but one shared with that of Trans-Jordan.

Third, three papers on the Palestine police and the methods used to put down the 1936-39 revolt showed not only the importance of the often brutal counter- insurgency methods imported from imperial experience in Ireland in 1922 and elsewhere, but also the extent to which armed Jewish auxiliaries were employed on the British side, some 18,000 in all, a process which contributed substantially to the development of the not-so-secret underground army, the Hagannah.

A key figure in all this was the commander of the northern of two British divisions that were brought in to put down the revolt, General Bernard Montgomery, who used the occasion to elaborate some of the methods he had first seen at work in Southern Ireland, including the encouragement of so-called "night squads", often containing both British soldiers and Jewish auxiliaries, whose role was to set up ambushes, to engage in hot pursuit of Palestinian irregulars, to take hostages and, on occasions, to launch pre-emptive attacks on villages deemed dangerous and disloyal.

No doubt academic research of this kind has been much stimulated by a more general interest in imperial policing stemming from the present war in Iraq. Moreover, in Palestine, as in Iraq, every effort was made to prevent knowledge of the more unpleasant aspects of what was going on filtering back to the public at home. Not only did Montgomery effectively ban the media from entering the field of his military operations, but also journalists were specifically forbidden from taking photographs of the houses of Palestinian militants, or alleged militants, blown up as a warning to others.

Only by returning to the subject 60 or so years later, and by combining use of British archives with the records of the soldiers and police involved, it is possible to understand such tactics in their proper imperial context. Only in this way, too, can one explode the still powerful myth surrounding the supposed originator of the night squads, Major Orde Wingate, which in Zionist discourse at least makes him the one British officer who was on the Jewish as opposed to the Palestinian side.

The conference papers, if and when published, will add greatly to general understanding of the British role in the Palestine Mandate. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of work still to do to provide a full explanation of what a recent historian of empire in the Middle East, David Fieldhouse, has described as Britain’s "most ignominious [Imperial] failure". One highly relevant question which I raised myself was what efforts were made between the UN partition resolution of November 1947 and the final scuttle of British troops in May 1948 to hand over the various assets of the Palestine government to representatives of one or other of the two warring sides. While it is clear that Israel inherited the vast bulk of these assets, most notably government ministries and all their records, the processes by which this took place remain more or less unknown, and its consequences rarely spelled out.

Could the outcome have been different, particularly after the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933? Not insofar as I could judge the opinions of the majority of those present at the conference, which were that either the simple proclamation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 or its incorporation in the League of Nations Mandate in 1922 made a division of the new Palestine more or less inevitable. As for the origins of the Balfour Declaration itself, one interesting paper suggested that it be put in the context not just of straight imperial interest, but also of the emerging consensus among soon-to-be victorious great powers at the end of 1914-18 war on a world containing groups of unified peoples with unitary goals — the Poles, the Armenians, the Irish and the Jews — whose aspirations could only be satisfied by a process of national self-determination. Given this larger international obsession, the Palestinians, known to the British and other great powers only as Arabs, were not going to have a much of a chance.

– The writer is the A J Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University. (Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly – – 3 – 9 July 2008, Issue No. 904)

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