British Rule


By David Mendelsson


Part of a system created by the League of Nations whereby, "peoples not yet able to stand by themselves," would be administered by "advanced nations." In time, these nations -- principally the Allied Powers -- would transfer authority to the local population. In the history of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael, the Mandate refers to the period 1920-1948, with its borders excluding Transjordan from 1922 onwards.

That Britain would be the power most likely -- and most motivated -- to control the territory of Eretz Yisrael after the Ottoman Empire had been clear to Herzl, Weizmann and others since 1902. However, the transfer of control was to take place as the result of the First World War, from which Britain emerged victorious.

The period began with good will, but moved towards a bitter end, following the escalation of Arab opposition and the the Zionist movement 's increased frustration at being unable to fulfil its purpose of saving European Jewry from annihilation in the Shoah. The process was expressed in the various external documents, Royal Commissions of Inquiry and White Papers brought below.


1915-16 - MacMahon-Hussein Correspondence:

Exchange of letters between Sir Henry MacMahon, British High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sherif Hussein of Mecca during the period 1915-16. MacMahon proposed to the Sherif that -- in return for a rebellion against the Turkish forces -- Britain would stimulate national independence in the Arab speaking world. 
Two important points are:

  • The precise borders of the future Arab state were not agreed upon in particular because Britain was concerned not to prejudice the interests of her ally, France.
  • Palestine was not mentioned by name in the correspondence and its inclusion in the Arab area remains a source of some dispute amongst historians.


1916 - Sykes-Picot Agreement:

Mark Sykes

A secret agreement between the British and French governments, the terms of which were specified in May 1916, concerning the partition of the Ottoman Empire amongst the Allied Powers. Russia was also a party to the deliberations and consented to the terms. At a later stage the Italians also gave their agreement to the accords. Under the terms of the accord, France was to exercise direct control over the greater part of the Galilee, while Britain would control the small territory around the Haifa-Akko bay. The rest of Palestine -- excluding Beersheva and the Negev -- was to be under international administration.


1917 - The Balfour Declaration:

Official statement, in the form of a letter, from Lord Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, dated 2nd November 1917, expressing support "for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine." The British government pledged to "use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object."

Most historians concur that the British declaration was aimed at furthering British military and strategic interests in the area and, in particular, at extrapolating herself from the Sykes-Picot agreement. The major Zionist figure involved in negotiation with the British was Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

The Mandate document as ratified by the League of Nations in 1922 included the text of the Balfour Declaration word for word.


1918-20 - British Military Administration in Palestine:

Following the British conquest of Palestine and its immediate hinterland, the British established a military administration known as Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (O.E.T.A.).

Notwithstanding the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, the British continued to apply Ottoman law in Palestine. It was only after the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and the San Remo Conference (1920) had established the principle whereby Palestine should become a British mandate territory, that the civil administration began operating.


1920-48 - The British Mandate over Palestine:

Britain was awarded the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference in 1920, although its terms of reference were ratified only two year later. Britain was to be responsible for implementing the Balfour Declaration through negotiations with "an appropriate Jewish Agency... by facilitating Jewish immigration ...and encouraging close settlement on the land." The Mandate also recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine.


High Commissioner:

Title given to the head of the British Administration in Palestine between July 1920 and May 1948. There were seven High Commissioners for Palestine, of whom the first was Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew and a Zionist [see also: Churchill White Paper]. The High Commmissioners enjoyed wide ranging authority over almost all spheres of the government of Palestine although ultimate control lay with the British government.

Herbert Samuel's successors were: Lord Palmer, Sir John Chancellor, Arthur Wawchope, Sir Harold MacMichael, Lord Gort, Sir Alan Cunningham.


White Paper:

Official British government policy statement. Each White Paper concerning Palestine became known by the name of the incumbent Colonial Secretary, hence the Churchill White Paper (1922), Passfield White Paper (1930), MacDonald White Paper (1939).


1921 - Haycraft Commission of Inquiry:

In an attempt to calm the atmosphere in Palestine following the Arab riots of May 1921, Sir Herbert Samuel established the Haycraft Commission of Inquiry. Although the commission found the Arabs responsible for the outbreak of violence, it claimed that the roots of the trouble should be traced to Arab anxiety in the face of British pro-Zionist commitments. The Haycraft commission was part of a process that led to the publication of the Churchill White Paper.


1922 - Churchill White Paper:

Policy Paper redefining British interpretation of responsibilities to a Jewish National Home 1922. The paper stated that government did not wish to see Palestine become "as Jewish as England is English", but rather the establishment of "a center in which Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride."

The White Paper confirmed the right of Jewish immigration but stipulated that this should not exceed the economic absorptive capacity of the country. The policy document recommended the establishment of a Legislative Council comprised of twelve elected and ten official members. Despite the association of Churchill's name with the White Paper, its decisive influence came from the High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel.


1929-30 - Shaw Commission:

A commission of inquiry sent to Palestine in late 1929 following Arab riots. The Commission published its report in March 1930, although one of its four members, Lord Snell, wrote a dissenting opinion. The major recommendations of the commission were the demand for an immediate statement of British Palestine intentions, a re-examination of immigration policy, the establishment of a scientific inquiry into land usage and potential, (see: Hope-Simpson report) and a clarification of the Zionist Organization's relationship with the Mandate.


1930 - Hope-Simpson Report:

A one-man committee established upon the recommendation of the Shaw Commission in the summer of 1930, to investigate the economic absorptive capacity of Palestine. Hope-Simpson was particularly concerned with Palestine's potential for agricultural development. He concluded that Jewish land purchase was resulting in a growing population of landless Arabs. He argued, therefore, that Jewish immigration and land purchase should be restricted. The Passfield White Paper adopted these recommendations.


1930 - Passfield White Paper:

British policy statement issued on 21st October 1930, following the Arab riots in Palestine and the recommendations of the Shaw Commission and Hope-Simpson report. Passfield called for a renewed attempt at establishing the Legislative Council, and supported the Hope-Simpson findings on land availability and cultivation. On the critical question of immigration, the sentiments of the paper were against a generous policy towards the Zionists. The Zionist movement mounted a major campaign against the White Paper and in a letter made public, during February 1931, British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, promised Chaim Weizmann what amounted to its abrogation.


1936-7 - Peel Commission:

Royal Commission appointed in August 1936 by the British government to examine the Palestine problem following the outbreak of the Arab Revolt. Earl Peel was the chairperson of the commission but its most influential member was Oxford Professor Reginald Coupland. The commission heard over 130 testimonies from Jews, Zionists, Palestine Arabs and other Arab nationalists. Its report published in July 1937 called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State (along part of the coastal plain, to include the Jezreel valley and most of the Galilee)and an Arab State - to include most of the remaining territory as well as Transjordan - and a British controlled corridor from Jerusalem to the coast at Jaffa. As a method of dealing with the delicate population balance between Jews and Arabs in the proposed Jewish state, the commission recommended the idea of population transfer.

The Partition Plan was rejected by the Arabs, with the exception of Abdullah of Transjordan, and split the Zionist movement. At the 20th Zionist Congress, the movement empowered its executive to improve on the terms of the partition proposal. However, the British government dropped the plans for partition, as evidenced by the Woodhead Commission and the MacDonald White Paper.


1938 - Woodhead Commission:

Officially established to examine the practicability of partitioning Palestine as recommended by the Peel Commission. However, there is little doubt that the investigation was established primarily to placate the growing Arab opposition to British rule both within Palestine (the Arab Revolt had been renewed) and beyond. In its report, published in the fall of 1938, the Commission reached the conclusion that partition was not practical.


1939 - St. James Conference:

The St. James Palace round table Conference in London in February 1939, was officially called by MacDonald, then British Colonial Secretary, to resolve the impasse between the Arabs and the Jews, without resorting to partition. The British, however, were well aware that there was little hope of bridging the gulf between the parties. Illustrative of this was the refusal of the Arab delegation to sit at the table with the Zionist representatives.

Chaim Weizmann led the Jewish delegation. The Arab delegation comprised representatives from five countries and the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael.

The parties talked at cross-purposes:

The Jewish delegation proclaimed the need for greater aliya - Jewish immigration quotas - more Jewish settlements and the establishment of a legal defense force. The Arabs rejected the Balfour Declaration and demanded the prohibition of Jewish immigration and on land purchases by the Jews. When the Zionists found themselves at an impasse, the Colonial Secretary, MacDonald, declared that His Majesty's Government intended to relinquish the mandate and establish a Palestinian state allied to Britain.

Sources concur that the conference was, in fact, part of a calculated plan to enable Britain to present itself as an "honest broker" -- although she was in fact already committed to a conciliatory policy towards the Arabs, in face of the upcoming Second World War. Specifically, Britain knew the Arabs would reject the idea of partition -- and needed a forum to demonstrate that it was an unworkable option before officially relinquishing the option.


1939 - MacDonald White Paper:

Statement of British Palestine policy issued on 17 May 1939. Following the recommendation of theWoodhead Commission that partition was impracticable and the failure of the St. James Palace round table conference held in February-March 1939, a new policy for Palestine was issued.

Known as the MacDonald White Paper, it proposed the creation within ten years of a unitary Palestine state, with its borders from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river. The Paper also outlined a five year plan for the immigration of seventy-five thousand Jews (ten thousand per annum and a further twenty-five thousand refugees) -- but thereafter no further immigration without Arab consent. In a Land Transfer regulations policy paper of March 1940, the British went on to severely restrict land sales.

The Zionist movement saw the White Paper as "an act of betrayal," believing that it would condemn the Jewish population to a minority status in the country as well as ending any hopes of creating a Jewish State.

The publication of the White Paper should be understood within the wider context of the escalation of hostilities prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, as being made irrespective of the dire straits of European Jewry under or threatened by Nazi rule. Under these circumstances it was clear to Foreign policy experts that it would not be in Britain's interests to offend the sensibilities of the Arab and Muslim world. The White Paper remained British policy until 1947 when following the referral of the Palestine question to the United Nations and its recommendation for partition in November of that year, the British announced their intention to leave the country.


1945-6 - The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry:

Following the conclusion of the Second World War and Britain's obvious indebtedness to the United States, the Attlee government was keen to associate America with responsibility for the Palestine question. A committee was established of an equal number of British and American representatives with the official mission of finding a resolution to the Jewish refugee question within the context of the wider Palestine issue.

The committee's major recommendation, as published in April 1946, was a call for the British government to permit the immediate immigration of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine. Amongst its other suggestions was the cessation of the Land Transfer regulations of 1940 and the adoption of a trusteeship for Palestine. The British government rejected these proposals.


1946 - Morrison-Grady Plan:

British proposal for the solution of the Palestine problem on the basis of federalization or cantonization. The plan had been raised by Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister of Britain and Ambassador Henry Grady for the United States during August 1946.


1947 - United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP):

Established in April 1947, following British referral of Palestine question to the United Nations. The eleven member investigatory committee could not reach agreement on a solution to the Palestine question and instead published majority and minority reports. The majority scheme recommended the partitioning of Palestine into two states; one Jewish and the other Arab. It also recommended that Jerusalem become an international city.

It was this report that was placed before the General Assembly on the 29th November 1947 and was adopted as resolution 181. Thirty-three countries supported the plan, thirteen opposed and ten abstained. In a rather unusual moment of history, the United States and the Soviet Union supported the resolution whilst Britain abstained, promising only to evacuate her troops by August 1948. In the event the British departed three months earlier on May 14.


The Termination of the British Mandate

The reasons for the British departure are a matter of considerable debate amongst historians. There are those who believe that the British evacuated Palestine as a result of the acts of violence committed by some or all of the Jewish military organizations. In particular, the bombing of the King David Hotel (July 1946) and the hanging of the two sergeants (July 1947) -- both perpetrated by the Etzel (Irgun) -- are said to have undermined British resolve to remain in the region. There are others who believe that the British left Palestine due to the Haganah's operation of illegal immigration which became a source of considerable embarrassment to the British government.

Yet other historians see Britain's withdrawal from Palestine as part of her rationalization of the Empire, given the dire post-war economic situation. During the period 1945-48, Britain withdrew from considerable portions of her Empire including India -- her "Jewel in the Crown". Britain's economic situation also created a dependence on the US, which afforded her former ally leverage over the issue of Palestine. Within this context, American Jewish opinion had rallied most effectively to the Zionist cause: Truman, who had assumed office as a result of Roosevelt's death, was seeking public support in both Congressional and Presidential elections -- and was therefore responsive to the Jewish lobby.




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10 Mar 2015 / 19 Adar II 5775 0