How Britain stirred the cauldron of conflict in Palestine
Having ousted the Ottomans from Palestine in 1917, Britain administered a territory that was already a tinderbox of tensions between Arabs and Jews. Matthew Hughes explores the bloody end of the Palestine Mandate and the emergence of the State of Israel
Early in the morning of 31 July 1947, two unusual shapes were spotted swinging from eucalyptus trees near Netanya. Recognising them as human bodies, the authorities in this coastal town in northern Palestine soon found notes pinned to the corpses identifying them as Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice.
These British Army Intelligence Corps sergeants had been kidnapped by insurgents of Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation), a nationalist Jewish paramilitary unit. The Irgun had held them in a sealed, soundproof bunker, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to save the lives of three Jews sentenced to hang by the British for their part in a mass prison break – a crime punishable by the death penalty. For 17 days, Martin and Paice were held in a tiny, airless cell; then, after the three Jews were executed, the British men were also hanged – executed, the notes stated, for “criminal anti-Hebrew” activities.
When a British captain cut down Martin’s body, it fell onto an explosive booby-trap – blowing apart that corpse, damaging Paice’s and injuring the officer. The incident enraged the media in Britain, where the Daily Express ran photographs of the hanged men alongside the headline: “Hanged Britons: Picture that Will Shock the World.” There were antisemitic riots across the UK, and British soldiers attacked Jews in Tel Aviv.
This was just one of many violent incidents during British rule of Palestine, which ended in 1948. Gaining a broader picture of that turbulent period, especially the context and legacy of the British Palestine Mandate, is crucial to interpreting the forces that shaped the modern State of Israel – which marked the 75th anniversary of its foundation in the spring of 2023 – and to understanding the roots of the Palestinian situation today.
When did the British take control of Palestine?
Why were Jewish Irgun fighters in Palestine killing British soldiers who, a few years earlier, had fought the Nazis? To answer this question, we need to rewind to 1917, when British-led troops advanced from Egypt, defeated Ottoman forces – who were fighting on the side of the Central Powers – and occupied Palestine, part of the Ottoman empire’s territory in the Middle East.
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On 11 December 1917, British general Edmund Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem’s old city, symbolically establishing British control of Palestine. (Ironically, Britain had never wanted Palestine, preferring weak Ottoman rule: colonial administration was burdensome and expensive.)
What was the Balfour Declaration?
The turmoil of the Mandate and the modern era had its roots in the Balfour Declaration, issued on 2 November 1917. In its 67 words, British foreign secretary AJ Balfour announced vaguely that Britain would “view with favour” a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, without “prejudice” to existing Palestinian inhabitants. Jews had been buying land and settling in the region since the 19th century, particularly since the publication in 1896 by Austro-Hungarian Jew Theodor Herzl of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish state), a pivotal text in the political development of Zionism – the nationalist movement striving for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
British foreign secretary AJ Balfour announced vaguely that Britain would “view with favour” a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, without “prejudice” to existing Palestinian inhabitants
British rule, though, boosted numbers of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. In 1922, the League of Nations passed the Palestine Mandate – colonial rule under nominal League auspices – to Britain, which agreed formally to “facilitate” Jewish immigration. The world’s greatest imperial power now supported Jewish migration to Palestine, which at that point meant British-governed territory west of the river Jordan (the territory to the east was Transjordan, now Jordan).
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How quickly did the Jewish population in Palestine grow?
Arab Palestinians, with their growing national identity, resisted Jewish immigration and settlement. The expanding Jewish community (or Yishuv, ‘settlement’) fought back, while the British tried to keep the peace. Jewish land purchases from absentee Arab landowners dispossessed Palestinian peasant farmers, so loss of land was central to the fight, as was the changing demography: Palestine’s Jewish population roughly quadrupled from about 8 per cent of Palestine’s population in 1918 to a third by the late 1930s.
After riots between Jews and Arabs flared in 1929, London permanently garrisoned two infantry battalions in Palestine, additionally ‘surging’ troops into the territory during heavy unrest. Jewish immigration shot up after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, with more than 60,000 arrivals in 1936 alone, prompting a full-scale Arab revolt that was brutally repressed by British security forces. British police had tracked down and killed the committed Palestinian resistance leader Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam in a gun battle in 1935.
In a lull in the Arab Revolt in 1937, the British Peel Commission proposed partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. That mission failed, with Palestinians rejecting the loss of land that would ensue. In the 1930s, British soldiers trained Jewish forces to fight Palestinian insurgents, and the paradigm of the tough ‘Jewish warrior’ was forged. Future Israeli leaders such as Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin served in Jewish paramilitary units such as Haganah (‘The Defence’) and Irgun.
How the Second World War change the situation in Palestine?
The looming war in Europe turned the situation on its head. Britain – keen to appease the Arab and Muslim world and ensure its backing in the new conflict – executed a political U-turn. In May 1939, the British government issued a White Paper that effectively ended Jewish immigration to Palestine.
This scuppered the Balfour Declaration, prompting Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion to write of the 1939 White Paper: “A more evil, foolish and short-sighted policy could not be imagined… Satan himself could not have created a more distressing and horrible nightmare.” Britain was no longer a friendly power.
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Antisemitism before 1939 had forced European Jews to migrate, with many heading to Palestine, the geographic focus of the Jewish Zionist national movement for a state since the late 19th century. During and after the Second World War, Jews fleeing the Holocaust and concentration camp survivors left in ‘displaced persons’ camps across Europe looked for a home in Palestine, and Zionist activists supported the mass movement of these refugees. Britain was now the enemy, stopping Jews reaching Palestine.
By that time, resistance and repression had exhausted the Palestinians. The Yishuv, meanwhile, was well organised politically, powerful militarily and economically, and ready for its chance to seize power from the British and create a Jewish State of Israel. Led by men such as Ezra Danin, a fluent Arabic-speaker, the Yishuv initiated an excellent intelligence service, SHAI (Sherut Yedi’ot, or Information Service), itself superseded in 1948 by new Israeli intelligence services including Shin Bet and Mossad.
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What happened in the Jewish revolt?
Jewish dissidents started attacking British targets. In 1944, splinter-group terrorists in LEHI – a Hebrew acronym for ‘Freedom Fighters for Israel’ – killed British colonial official Lord Moyne in Egypt. (LEHI was also known as the ‘Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern, who had been shot dead by British police in 1942 while “trying to escape”, prompting accusations that he had been killed in cold blood. His extremist insurgent group fought on.)
The Jewish revolt had begun. Supporters in the US helped the insurgency, and Jewish resistance fruitfully combined helping Jewish immigrants coming from Europe on refugee boats with purely destructive acts of terror against British and Palestinian targets. Yet Jewish terror attacks alone did not defeat Britain. Where Britain’s interests made it stand fast, it fought the long war, as it did later in Malaya and Northern Ireland.
How did the British react?
But in Palestine, London had no political solution to the intractable conflict caused by its earlier decision to promote Jewish immigration. Moreover, as the Cold War began in earnest, Britain was rejigging strategic bases in the region while looking to maintain strongpoints elsewhere in a world of greatly weakened imperial power.
At first, the British fought the insurgency and, in 1945, enacted draconian emergency legislation. Soldiers executed huge cordon-and-search military sweep operations of Jewish neighbourhoods, with codenames such as ‘Agatha’, ‘Shark’, and ‘Elephant’. British paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division, who had landed in Normandy in 1944, were deployed in Palestine to fight another ‘end of empire’ counter-insurgency. Soldiers who arrived with sympathy for the Jews were “mystified” by Jewish hostility, by the chants of “Gestapo!” and “English bastards!”, by Jewish children taunting them.
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Soldiers with metal detectors searched Jewish settlements for weapons caches known as slicks (a slickerit was a Jewish woman hiding weapons). They screened thousands of Jews caught in cordons, checking names against wanted lists with black-and-white mugshots. However, British military intelligence lacked reliable Hebrew-language officers, and very few British police officers spoke Hebrew, limiting intelligence gathering; Jews targeted and assassinated those who did.
Soldiers who arrived with sympathy for the Jews were 'mystified' by Jewish hostility, by the chants of 'Gestapo!' and 'English bastards!', by Jewish children taunting them
Where it had succeeded against the Palestinians in 1936–39, Britain now failed with the Jewish insurgency. Insurgent leaders stayed hidden, continuing the violent fight, while Haganah encouraged illegal immigration to increase the Jewish population.
What other successes did the Jewish insurgency have?
There were major Jewish terror successes. In 1946, Irgun men disguised as Arabs rolled explosive-filled milk churns into the basement of the luxury King David Hotel, which housed British Army headquarters in Jerusalem. The resulting explosion demolished an entire wing, killing 91 soldiers and civilians, including 17 Jews. Such outrages increased pressure on Britain.
When the British legally flogged a captured Jewish insurgent, Irgun men seized and whipped a British officer, sending him home in his underwear, and publicly lashed two other soldiers in a park. Such abuse elicited harsh British reprisals, but it stopped British floggings of Jews. Jewish operatives also blew up the British officers’ club in Jerusalem. Palestine had become an armed camp, with fields of barbed wire surrounding military bases. Jewish restaurants and bars were off limits to soldiers, and British newspapers ran headlines asserting “It’s Time We Get Out” and “Rule or Quit”, and asking: “Must Our Boys Die?”
Timeline: the British in Palestine
2 November 1917
The Balfour Declaration, a letter from Britain’s foreign secretary, AJ Balfour, vaguely declares support for a Jewish “home” in Palestine. British troops soon oust Ottoman forces from the region, and on 11 December, General Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem’s old city, marking the start of British administration.
24 July 1922
League of Nations articles 4 and 6 for Mandate Palestine codify the Balfour Declaration and establish the Jewish Agency as the official Jewish body in Palestine. They also restate the goal of a Jewish “home” in Palestine, and commit Britain to “facilitate” Jewish immigration and “settlement” there.
20 October 1930
British colonial secretary Lord Passfield’s White Paper notes the damaging economic and social effects of Jewish settlement on Palestinians, and suggests restricting Jewish immigration. This reflects the fact that Britain has reconsidered its support for Zionism after riots in 1929.
13 February 1931
Following Zionist protests, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald writes to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, and announces to the House of Commons that British policy remains to support Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Lord Peel’s Commission to Palestine is the first official inquiry to suggest partition into Jewish and Arab Palestinian areas. The plan is rejected by Arabs, while the Jewish leadership equivocates over the extent of their territory. This partition is not enacted.
The Palestinians rise up in April 1936 in a popular uprising known in Arabic as al-Thawra al-Kubra (‘the Great Revolt’) that battled against British Mandate rule in Palestine and Jewish immigration to the country. Its suppression required a huge deployment of British troops, along with house destruction, detention, hangings, finings and curfews.
23 May 1939
Following the Arab Revolt and a London conference in February–March 1939, a British White Paper rejects partition and restricts Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine. Zionist Jewish representatives reject it, as do some Arabs.
29 November 1947
After deliberation by the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the UN issues Resolution 181 recommending partition and the end of the British Mandate. The mainstream Jewish Agency accepts the partition boundaries, while Arab representatives reject the plan.
14 May 1948
At 4pm, David Ben-Gurion, speaking in the Tel Aviv Museum (now Independence Hall), declares the establishment of the State of Israel. The war that follows that declaration expands the new nation’s territory beyond the 1947 UNSCOP partition borders, an event that comes to be known by Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’ – catastrophe.
30 June–1 July 1948
Following the formal end of the British Mandate at midnight on 14/15 May 1948, the last British troops leave Palestine from Haifa harbour.
A civil war inside Palestine before May 1948 becomes an international war with the formation of Israel, as the new Jewish state fights armies from Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria. By 1949, well-organised Israeli troops have pushed out Arab forces and advanced to capture what would become the town of Eilat on the Red Sea. For Israelis, this is an independence war.
What were the British soldiers’ attitudes to the Arabs and Jews?
Arabs and Jews alike complained of British bias, each seeing the occupying administration as acting against their own community while favouring the other. In fact, Constable Sydney Burr’s claims that local Arabs and Jews were all “ugly specimens” seems to have summed up rank-and-file sentiment: the imperialist British liked and disliked Arabs and Jews in equal measure. Some British servicemen, though, decried the “boorish, ill-mannered” Jews, preferring the “gentlemanly, easy going” Palestinians.
“Quite honestly we found it fun,” one soldier recounted of his experience fighting Palestinians, very different to the war against the Jews who “played a dirty game”, adding that “one understood the Arabs in a way. He wasn’t as merciless as the Jew could be.” That British veteran concluded that the Jews “ran rings around us” and “pulled off the most fantastic coups”. Angry rank-and-file British soldiers called out “pigs” or “bloody Jew” and shouted “Heil Hitler” at passers-by.
Did the British send the special forces?
Colonial officials bemoaned hearing “not a word of thanks” from the Jews for what Britain had done for them in Palestine. In an effort to get a grip on the Jewish insurgency, they called in Second World War special forces veterans such as decorated SAS major Roy Farran. He and his squad set out to give the insurgents a “bloody nose” – and they were not the only unit to do so. They operated in civilian clothes but lacked fluent Hebrew speakers, so were spotted by Jews.
Jewish operatives had infiltrated the police, and Farran could not rely on its detectives. So, with tacit official backing, Farran’s men launched a covert, dirty war. The campaign backfired – sensationally. After Farran and his men seized Alexander Rubovitch, a Jewish teenager caught putting up LEHI posters, the young man disappeared, never to be seen again. It was suggested that Farran’s men had beaten Rubovitch to death and disposed of the body – Farran’s initialled hat having been found at the abduction site.
They called in Second World War special forces veterans such as decorated SAS major Roy Farran. He and his squad set out to give the insurgents a 'bloody nose'...
The Jewish community protested to the British authorities, who denied the presence of black ops units and moved to court-martial Farran. Threatened with prosecution, he fled to Syria, ending up in a brothel in Aleppo. Ultimately, Farran escaped prison, but a year later LEHI terrorists sent a letter bomb to his family home in the UK, killing his brother who opened it by mistake.
When did the British decide to leave Palestine?
By late 1947, anxious to escape the Palestine quagmire, Britain cut its losses and passed on the seemingly intractable problem to the newly formed United Nations. In the autumn of 1947, the UN Special Committee on Palestine once more recommended partition into Jewish and Arab territory, but now with a much bigger Jewish area. Though accepted by Jewish groups, this proposal also failed when Palestinians refused to give up their lands.
Events on the ground quickly outpaced the UN’s goodwill as Jews, Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states went to war. While British troops left in waves, killings proliferated. There were massacres on both sides, including the slaughter of more than 100 Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin in April 1948 by Irgun-LEHI men, and of Jewish medical convoy personnel heading to a Jerusalem hospital by Arab forces.
When was the state of Israel formed?
On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the new State of Israel and became its first prime minister. The British were responsible for law and order until that midnight, when they passed power to the Jewish Agency. That body had a precise list of the various colonial government departments to appropriate, from the auditor general to statistics, surveys and urban planning.
British imperial ruling mentalities, rather than sympathy for Zionism, was behind the transfer of power to Jewish officials as Israel came into being. If the Arabs had had a government-in-waiting, as the Jews did, things might have gone differently. As it was, war immediately broke out between Palestinians and the new state. British troops were still in the process of quitting the territory, with the ignoble departure of the last soldiers from Haifa port on 30 June a stark contrast with the glory of Allenby’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem three decades earlier.
What happened after the British left?
When the first Arab-Israeli war ended in 1949, Israel had won, expanding its territory to include all of British Mandate Palestine except Gaza – occupied by Egypt – and the West Bank and the old city of Jerusalem, both under Jordanian rule. Israel would conquer these territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War.
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The state that became Israel picked up the day-today running of the country. Britain’s Mandate moment in Palestine was short, but it was profound in the way in which it laid the foundations for a Jewish state and a Palestinian refugee crisis. It also marked the start of the end of Britain’s global eminence. The Soviet Union and the US became the key international players, and the Cold War replaced the British imperialism that had laid the foundations for the Arab-Israeli conflict that continues, in one form or another, to this day.
Matthew Hughes is professor of military history at Brunel University London, and author of Britain’s Pacification of Palestine (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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