Big Trouble in Little Palestine: Britain’s Rough Three Decades in the Holy Land

In 1948, Mandate Palestine was in better shape than when Prince William’s ancestors arrived after World War I, but the British-Arab-Jewish triangle of animosity had only worsened with time

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British machine gun patrols gathering in the streets of Jerusalem during the Mandate era.
British machine gun patrols gathering in the streets of Jerusalem during the Mandate era.Credit: © Underwood & Underwood / Corbis
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

It was probably inevitable that no one who lived through the period of the British Mandate would remember it with fondness.

For the Jews of Palestine, the mandatory government, even at its most benevolent, could never live up to their dreams and expectations. For the Arabs, meanwhile, no amount of reassurances could allay their all-too-realistic fears that they were now destined to become guests in their own homeland.

However many practical improvements British rule – and Jewish immigration – might have introduced to the country, for the Arabs the mandatory period was one of dispossession, humiliation and a realization that there was no way they could hold their own against the Zionists.

It didn’t matter that a majority of the civil and military employees carrying out the work of the mandatory government had more sympathy for the Arabs – who knew, after all, how to behave like colonized subjects – than for the Jews, who acted like they were the equals of the occupying power, and who never were satisfied.

You might think that at least the ruling power would have found the way to squeeze some benefit out of being handed Palestine on a plate by the League of Nations – Palestine was at a strategic crossroads, close to both the newly crucial oil fields of the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal through which much of the oil would be transported. Most British would probably agree, though, that the main thing they got for their efforts in Palestine was tzures – Yiddish for “trouble."

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The relationships that developed over the three decades of mandatory rule can only be described as a triangle of animosity, with Jews, Arabs and British sharing mutual antipathy that only worsened with time. As the private secretary of the British high commissioner described it in 1933, Palestine was a country with “more hatred to the square mile than in any other country in the world.”

A decade later, writing with no apparent irony, one English schoolteacher stationed in Palestine noted how “it could be such a lovely country if only the people in it were different.”

And yet, the British were high-minded about their mission. Today we might call them arrogant, condescending, even mildly racist. But they had little doubt that they represented a superior civilization, which they were morally obligated to share with the less-advanced locals. (Speaking generally about the colonial enterprise, a decade before the occupation of Palestine, Lord Cromer suggested that Britain could be counted on to make decisions selflessly, “mainly with reference to what, by the light of Western knowledge and experience tempered by local considerations, we conscientiously think is best for the subject race, without reference to any real or supposed advantage that may accrue to England as a nation.”)

And indeed, though it is undeniable that the residents of the Holy Land were on the eve of a devastating civil war when the British abandoned them hastily in May 1948, it is also true that in many other ways, the occupying power left the country in better shape than it had been three decades earlier.

The population of Palestine, depleted after World War I, had grown from 757,000 in the 1922 census to nearly 2 million by 1945, depending on estimates. Notably, the majority-minority ratio narrowed from 88 percent Arab and 11 percent Jewish in 1922 to 67 percent Arab and 32 percent Jewish 23 years later.

During the two and a half years that the country was under a military regime (1917-1920), the British repaired much of the damage sustained during the war. They established a regular water supply for Jerusalem, dealt with several epidemics, repaired damaged roads, laid new ones and did the same with the country’s railroad lines. And they significantly improved both telegraph and postal services.

To this day, Jerusalem’s architectural landscape owes a significant debt to the British, who created the green belt that encompasses the walls of the Old City, and under whom such landmarks were erected such as the Rockefeller Museum and Government House (today the headquarters of the UN Truce Supervision Organization), both designed by Austen St. Barbe Harrison, as well as the YMCA and the King David Hotel built opposite one another on what was then called Julian’s Way. (It is that same King David Hotel where Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will be staying during his official visit to Israel this week.)

Some 50 neighborhoods were built during that period, many of them so-called garden neighborhoods, with central planning and services. Under the supervision of Sir Ronald Storrs, the military governor from 1917 to 1920, a dilapidated Dome of the Rock also underwent a conscientious and culturally sensitive renovation. It was also Storrs who decreed that no tin or stucco was to be used for the facades of buildings in Jerusalem, determining the use of stone-facing that to this day gives the Israeli capital much of its physical character.

‘White man’s burden’

What did it mean the “British Mandate”? With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Great Powers divvied up the Turks’ former holdings, and in the semi-enlightened, semi-idealistic atmosphere characterizing the years following that war, granted self-determination to peoples that seemed ready to run their own affairs, and imposed protectorates of varying severity on societies less prepared for independence.

Edwin Samuel, the son of the first high commissioner, could not have been more direct about matters when he stated that, “There’d been a war, the Turks had been defeated, the Middle East was divided up between France and England and it was the white man’s burden.”

The British assumed responsibility for the southern section of the former Ottoman province of Syria, and what they encountered should have sent them packing immediately. The Zionist movement was fully animated, with small numbers of highly motivated Jews ready to suffer great physical privation in order to “return” to their ancestral homeland and create there a model society.

Only the most perceptive of the Zionists took serious notice of the indigenous residents already present. For Palestinian Arabs, however, even if theirs was a largely agricultural and decentralized society, their intellectual class was not immune to the wave of yearning for independence that was sweeping across the former empires of the postwar world, and in particular to what Lebanese-born historian George Antonius referred to as the “Arab Awakening.”

If the British knew what they were getting themselves into, they were quiet about it. In July 1920, Lord Balfour (author of the eponymous declaration when he was foreign secretary) spoke before a largely Jewish crowd at the Albert Hall in London. How much he was indulging in wishful thinking is unclear, but he expressed his hope that the Arabs, in gratitude to the United Kingdom for having liberated them “from the tyranny of their brutal conqueror” – that is, the Ottoman sultan – “will not grudge that small notch – for it is not more geographically, whatever it may be historically – that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.”

What Britain did, with the consent of the newly established League of Nations, was undertake to provide a “national home” to the Jewish people in Palestine. In the White Paper that accompanied the start of the mandatory government, and in which His Majesty’s Government elaborated on the intentions of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British declared that the Jews were to be present in Palestine “as of right and not on the sufferance.”

Hence, it was clear from the beginning that Jews would be coming to Palestine and, although it was the mandatory power that decided on the number to be admitted each year, based on the country’s “absorptive capacity,” this was done in consultation with the Zionist movement, which also was in charge of choosing candidates for visas depending on their place or origin and their professional skills.

Although it is commonly believed that the British held back immigration even as the Jews were clamoring for additional permits, “there was nothing that scared [the Zionists] more than uncontrolled and unplanned population growth,” writes Tom Segev in his 1999 book, “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate.” Segev quotes a 1920 Zionist Organization memo warning that, “If we were to grant entry permits to workers in excess of demand, we would not be enriching the country, but leading it into an economic crisis.”

The period of the British Mandate was a train wreck in the offing. But being who they were, the rulers tried to make the best of it. Initially, some of them even enjoyed themselves.

Early in the mandate, C.R. Ashbee, an architect who served as a town planner during the early years of the mandatory government, wrote home to his family: “You’ve no idea of all the interesting things that are going on. In the morning yesterday I was picking flowers in the Garden of Gethsemane after rereading St. Luke. In the afternoon, it being the Fourth of July, I was the guest of the American Colony.”

In the 1930s, the British set up three golf clubs, the most felicitously named being the Sodom and Gomorrah Golfing Society, on the shore of the Dead Sea. As for other recreations, Michael J. Cohen, in his 2014 book “Britain’s Moment in Palestine,” summarized some of the ways that those serving tried to recreate the pleasures of home: “At the initiation of a police officer who missed his fox hunting back home, a hunting club was established near Ramle. Palestine had no foxes so they made do with jackals, which were chased on horseback across cactus-strewn fields; members could buy especially tailored red coats, complete with buttons emblazoned with the insignia ‘Ramle Vale Jackal Hounds.’” Cohen reports that there were also polo matches and even the occasional grouse hunt, the latter on the grounds of Government House.

Gardeners in shackles

Other adjustments were required by the newcomers. Helen Bentwich, wife of the British attorney general in Palestine, Norman Bentwich, set up her family in a nine-room house in Jerusalem’s German Colony, a building that had been evacuated by its German owners during World War I. Her status entitled her to put local prisoners to work at her home, for example in the garden.

“An Arab policeman would bring them from the jail, those sentenced to death came dressed in red,” writes Segev in “One Palestine, Complete.” So far so good, until one day the prisoners were also required to carry out their domestic duties in shackles. At that point, Mrs. Bentwich, whose impressions are collected in an anthology of her letters from Palestine, decided to forgo the use of prisoners.

Segev also cites the evening when the Bentwiches were expecting guests for dinner, only to have their cook arrested. Helen Bentwich described being “panic-stricken” until the police agreed to release the cook to prepare the meal, on condition that he come right back to jail after dinner.

As the years passed, tensions rose. The numbers of Jewish immigrants increased, particularly in the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany, and the British authorities would not agree to Arab demands that they stop the inflow. The Palestinians responded with riots and disturbances in 1920, 1929, 1933 and in 1936-39. In 1938, Britain’s colonial secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, estimated that he spent 50 percent of his time dealing with the problems of Palestine, even though it was only one among the country’s 50 colonies or protectorates. By 1947, the year before their departure, the British had more than 100,000 troops and police in place to try to keep order.

In their private correspondence, much of which is collected in A.J. Sherman’s 2001 book “Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948,” public servants and their spouses could be quite candid about what they were experiencing. Bridget Blackburne, whose husband was a political officer for the mandate, wrote to her mother in March 1938 about how, “A terrific battle is in progress all round the Safed hills, the aeroplanes have been passing back and forth all day do hope they’ll get another good haul – one can’t help feeling that the more A’s that are killed the better!’”

The following month, Brian Gibbs, a young British officer in the Galilee also quoted by A.J. Sherman, wrote to his fiancée about how he and his colleagues had decided “we would start a little frightfulness against the villagers” – by which he meant blowing up four Arab-owned houses, before expressing his regret about “all the things one used to be able to do here before things went bad – picnics and riding and midnight bathing parties at the Dead Sea and at Jaffa.”

Around the same time, Gibbs also revealed his plan to visit a friend in Nazareth before heading west to Haifa to sleep, “as there is an execution in Acre tomorrow morning,” before reflecting to his fiancée how, “It’s a pretty grim state of affairs, isn’t it, when our principal relaxation is a night in Haifa before a hanging!”

High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor confessed to his son in 1929 that he couldn’t think of anyone who could do his job well, “except God,” whereas Ivan Lloyd Phillips, an officer in the Colonial Administrative Service, wrote to his father in 1938 how “I am inclined to think that [Roman Emperor] Titus was the only man who ever made a show at governing this country, though his methods were summary.”

Finally, in May 1948, the British threw up their hands and sailed off into the sun as it set over the British Empire. Their attempts to mediate between Jews and Arabs, in hope of finding a mutually agreeable compromise that would reflect the reality of the situation, had failed totally, and with their departure, the warfare just continued. And has continued to the present day.

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