Mandate Mismanagement in Palestine After WWI

The mandate for Palestine proved to be an exceptional case of ambiguity, duplicity, and mismanagement on the part of British administrators sent from London. Attempts had been made for Emir Faisal in January of 1919 to recognize the Balfour Declaration and consent to Jewish immigration in exchange for economic development in Palestine. The Faisal-Weizmann agreement was, with the reoccupation of Syria by French forces, “rendered void”[1] and so recognition of Zionist inroads into Palestine was never formally made by the Arabs. It was in this climate of illegitimacy and suspicion that Great Britain was awarded the mandate for Palestine at the San Remo conference in 1920 (though embodied in the treaty of Sevres). Great Britain, in part from the successful lobbying efforts of Zionists in London, appointed Sir Herbert Samuel as the Civilian High Commissioner of Palestine in that same year. Not only was he Jewish himself, Samuel was a confessed Zionist, interpreting “his task as facilitating the establishment of the Jewish national home”[2] The administers of Palestine were not impartial, clearly siding with the designs of Zionists, yet the Balfour Declaration pledged to uphold the rights of the 85 percent majority of Arab-Palestinians already living on the land. For twenty-eight years of Mandate rule, British policymakers attempted to find a way to facilitate a Jewish homeland without infringing on the rights of the Arabs.

Throughout much of the 1920’s, the White Paper of 1922 guided British policy, illustrating the difficulty of creating a Jewish national home without imposing Jewish nationality. The Mandates essential goal was to create the conditions for a transition to national independence. British civilian administration, rather than military government, was to aid in this development, yet what kind of nation it would be was fiercely contested. Samuel, partly in realization that Palestine was not an empty quarter pleading for immigration, supported a unitary state, believing Arab political participation to be essential, as a ploy to legitimize Balfour, co-opt provincial notables, and a sincere belief “…that Jewish-Arab cooperation would improve the Arab standard of living.”[3] Arab rejection of a legitimizing tool like a legislative council integrating all the religious sects forced British administrators to govern alone.

British governance was not unbiased in its respect for community organization in Palestine. The Jewish Agency among other Zionist organizations were decidedly more organized than and respected above their Arab counterparts, such as the Supreme National Council. Zionists, having a clear goal (Jewish Statehood), a community governance apparatus, and trained paramilitary organizations, had the ability to go on the offensive against Palestinians, with violence if necessary. They also had funding, able to buy out land from Arab and non-Arab landholders alike through “Keren Hayesod, the key financial institution for financing projects in Palestine, and the Jewish National Fund, which sought to purchase land that would then become inalienably Jewish.”[4] The Zionists hoped that British security would keep the Arabs in check as they were colonized them through waves of immigration, land buyouts, and terrorist operations led by Zionist agents like Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion.

The British did in the later years of mandate rule enforce limitations on Jewish immigration with the Peel Commission, in the aftermath of the 36-39 riots, which were put down violently by British and Jewish forces. Yet it was always clear that Great Britain sided with Zionists more so than Arabs. They frequently played off the prominent Arab families like the Nashashabis and the al-Husaynis, in full knowledge that dividing the Arabs would make them more susceptible to management. They recognized no Arab institutions as a governing apparatus, despite frequently empowering and cooperating with Jewish organizations. The Zionists sought to quell Arab resistance and legitimize their Jewish state when the British were ready to leave. It was the British task to manage expectations of Zionists so a marketable deal could be made for both sides. In this respect they failed, quietly fleeing Mandate Palestine in 1947 and followed the next day by the declaration of a Jewish state, with no Palestinian authority yet operable to speak for the Arabs, and certainly no unitary government.

[1] William L Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 5th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2012), 226.

[2] Ibid, p. 228.

[3] Ibid, p. 228.

[4] Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: a History with Documents, 8th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 1.

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