IV - HISTORY OF PALESTINE

Arthur James BalfourThe British Mandate, 1917-1948 CE

In December 1917, Jerusalem surrendered to British forces, bringing four centuries of Ottoman-Turk rule to a close. It was through the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration two months earlier on November 2, 1917, that gave the Zionist movement its long-sought legal status. The qualification that: nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine seemed a relatively insignificant obstacle to the Zionists, especially since it referred only to those communities': civil and religious rights, not to political or national rights. The subsequent British occupation gave Britain the ability to carry out that pledge and provide the protection necessary for the Zionists to realize their aims.

In fact, the British had contracted three mutually contradictory promises for the future of Palestine. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 with the French and Russian governments proposed that Palestine be placed under international administration. The Husayn-McMohan Correspondence, 1915-1916, on whose basis the Arab revolt was launched, implied that Palestine would be included in the zone of Arab independence. In contrast, the Balfour Declaration encouraged the colonization of Palestine by Jews, under British protection. British officials recognized the irreconcilability of these pledges but hoped that a modus vivendi could be achieved, both between the competing imperial powers, France and Britain, and between the Palestinians and the Jews. Instead, these contradictions set the stage for the three decades of conflict-ridden British rule in Palestine.

Initially, many British politicians shared the Zionists' assumption that gradual, regulated Jewish immigration and settlement would lead to a Jewish majority in Palestine, whereupon it would become independent, with legal protection for the Arab minority .The assumption that this could be accomplished without serious resistance was shattered at the outset of British rule. Britain thereafter was caught in an increasingly untenable position, unable to persuade either Palestinians or Zionists to alter their demands and forced to station substantial military forces in Palestine to maintain security.

The Palestinians had assumed that they would gain some form of independence when Ottoman rule disintegrated; whether through a separate state or integration with neighbouring Arab lands. These hopes were bolstered by the Arab revolt, the entry of Faysal Ibn Husayn into Damascus in 1918, and the proclamation of Syrian independence in 1920. Their hopes were dashed, however, when Britain imposed direct colonial rule and elevated the yishuv to a special status. Moreover, the French ousted Faysal from Damascus in July 1920, and British compensation-in the form of thrones in Transjordan and Iraq for Abdullah and Faysal, respectively-had no positive impact on the Arabs in Palestine. In fact, the action underlined the different treatment accorded Palestine and its disadvantageous political situation. These concerns were exacerbated by Jewish immigration: the yishuv comprised 28 percent of the population by 1936 and reached 32 percent by 1947 (click here for Palestine's population distribution per district in 1946). The British umbrella was critically important to the growth and consolidation of the yishuv, enabling it to root itself firmly despite Palestinian opposition. Although British support diminished in the late 1930s, the yishuv was strong enough by then to withstand the Palestinians on its own. After World War II, the Zionist movement also was able to turn to the emerging superpower, the United States, for diplomatic support and legitimisation.

The Palestinians' responses to Jewish immigration, land purchases, and political demands were remarkably consistent. They insisted that Palestine remain an Arab country, with the same right of self-determination and independence as Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq. Britain granted those countries independence without a violent struggle since their claims to self-determination were not contested by European settlers. The Palestinians argued that Palestinian territory could not and should not be used to solve the plight of the Jews in Europe, and that Jewish national aspirations should not override their own rights.

Palestinian opposition peaked in the late 1930s: the six-month general strike in 1936 was followed the next year by a widespread rural revolt. This rebellion welled up from the bottom of Palestinian society-unemployed urban workers, displaced peasants crowded into towns, and debt-ridden villagers. It was supported by most merchants and professionals in the towns, who feared competition from the yishuv. Members of the elite families acted as spokesmen before the British administration through the Arab Higher Committee, which was formed during the 1936 strike. However, the British banned the committee in October 1937 and arrested its members, on the eve of the revolt.
Only one of the Palestinian political parties was willing to limit its aims and accept the principle of territorial partition: The National Defence Party, led by Raghib al-Nashashibi (mayor of Jerusalem from 1920 to 1934), was willing to accept partition in 1937 so long as the Palestinians obtained sufficient land and could merge with Transjordan to form a larger political entity. However, the British Peel Commission's plan, announced in July 1937, would have forced the Palestinians to leave the olive- and grain- growing areas of Galilee, the orange groves on the Mediterranean coast, and the urban port cities of Haifa and Acre. That was too great a loss for even the National Defence Party to accept, and so it joined in the general denunciations of partition.

During the Palestine Mandate period the Palestinian community was 70 percent rural, 75 to 80 percent illiterate, and divided internally between town and countryside and between elite families and villagers. Despite broad support for the national aims, the Palestinians could not achieve the unity and strength necessary to withstand the combined pressure of the British forces and the Zionist movement. In fact, the political structure was decapitated in the late 1930s when the British banned the Arab Higher Committee and arrested hundreds of local politicians. When efforts were made in the 1940s to rebuild the political structure, the impetus came largely from outside, from Arab rulers who were disturbed by the deteriorating conditions in Palestine and feared their repercussions on their own newly acquired independence.

The Arab rulers gave priority to their own national considerations and provided limited diplomatic and military support to the Palestinians. The Palestinian Arabs continued to demand a state that would reflect the Arab majority's weight-diminished to 68 percent by 1947. They rejected the United Nations (U.N.) partition plan of November 1947, which granted the Jews statehood in 55 percent of Palestine, an area that included as many Arab residents as Jews. However, the Palestinian Arabs lacked the political strength and military force to back up their claim. Once Britain withdrew its forces in 1948 and the Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, the Arab rulers used their armed forces to protect those zones that the partition plans had allocated to the Arab state. By the time armistice agreements were signed in 1949, the Arab areas had shrunk to only 23 percent of Palestine. The Egyptian army held the Gaza Strip, and Transjordanian forces dominated the hills of central Palestine. At least 726,000 of the 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs fled from the area held by Israel. Emir Abdullah subsequently annexed the zone that his army occupied, renaming it the West Bank.

Dispossession and the State of Israel, 1948

Chaim Weizmann taking oath of office at the founding of the nation of IsraelAfter World War II, Britain was unable to maintain control over Palestine and transferred responsibility to the United Nations (UN). The UN decided that the only means of resolving the escalating conflict between Jews and Arabs was to partition the land into two states. Although Jews constituted only one-third of the population and owned less than 7 percent of the land, the UN partition plan assigned 55 percent of Palestine’s territory to the Jewish state. In March 1948, Zionist forces launched major operations throughout Palestine. Their attacks were brutal. Through terror, psychological warfare, and direct conquests, Palestine was dismembered, many of its villages destroyed, and many of its people expelled as refugees. By the time the British withdrawal had been completed, Palestinian resistance had been largely broken. British evacuation and the Zionist leaders’ proclamation of the Israeli state on 15 May 1948—forcibly created beyond the area allotted to the Jewish community in the UN partition plan—prompted military intervention by the neighboring Arab states, precipitating the first Arab-Israeli war.

Palestine was divided into three parts. The 1949 armistice agreements gave Israel control over 78 percent of the territory of British Mandate Palestine. Jordan occupied and annexed East Jerusalem and the hill country of central Palestine, thereafter known as the “West Bank” of the Jordan River. Egypt took temporary control of the coastal plain around the city of Gaza, later referred to as the Gaza Strip. Both Jordan and Egypt held on to these respective territories until the 1967 war, during which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Arab state provided for in the United Nations partition plan was never established.

(Source: http://www.palestineremembered.com; http://www.palestinecenter.org/)

Introduction