Chapter 2: The British Mandate Period
- “The British helped the Jews displace the native Arab population of Palestine.”
- “The British allowed Jews to flood Palestine while Arab immigration was tightly controlled.”
- “The British changed their policy after World War II to allow the survivors of the Holocaust to settle in Palestine.”
- “As the Jewish population in Palestine grew, the plight of the Palestinian Arabs worsened.”
- “Jews stole Arab land.”
- “The British helped the Palestinians to live peacefully with the Jews.”
- “The Mufti was not anti-Semitic.”
- “The bombing of the King David Hotel was part of a deliberate terror campaign against civilians.”
“The British helped the Jews displace the native Arab population of Palestine.”
Herbert Samuel, a British Jew who served as the first High Commissioner of Palestine, placed restrictions on Jewish immigration “in the ‘interests of the present population’ and the ‘absorptive capacity’ of the country.”1 The influx of Jewish settlers was said to be forcing the Arab fellahin (native peasants) from their land. This was at a time when less than a million people lived in an area that now supports more than nine million.
The British actually limited the absorptive capacity of Palestine when, in 1921, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill severed nearly four-fifths of Palestine—some 35,000 square miles—to create a brand new Arab entity, Transjordan. As a consolation prize for the Hejaz and Arabia (which are both now Saudi Arabia) going to the Saud family, Churchill rewarded Sherif Hussein’s son Abdullah for his contribution to the war against Turkey by installing him as Transjordan’s emir.
The British went further and placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in what remained of Palestine, contradicting the provision of the Mandate (Article 6) stating that “the Administration of Palestine . . . shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency . . . close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not acquired for public purposes.” By 1949, the British had allotted 87,500 acres of the 187,500 acres of cultivable land to Arabs and only 4,250 acres to Jews. 2
Ultimately, the British admitted the argument about the absorptive capacity of the country was specious. The Peel Commission said: “The heavy immigration in the years 1933–36 would seem to show that the Jews have been able to enlarge the absorptive capacity of the country for Jews.” 3
“The British allowed Jews to flood Palestine while Arab immigration was tightly controlled.”
The British response to Jewish immigration set a precedent of appeasing the Arabs, which was followed for the duration of the Mandate. The British placed restrictions on Jewish immigration while allowing Arabs to enter the country freely. Apparently, London did not feel that a flood of Arab immigrants would affect the country’s absorptive capacity.
During World War I, the Jewish population in Palestine declined because of the war, famine, disease and expulsion by the Turks. In 1915, approximately 83,000 Jews lived in Palestine among 590,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs. According to the 1922 census, the Jewish population was 84,000, while the Arabs numbered 643,000. 4 Thus, the Arab population grew exponentially while that of the Jews stagnated.
In the mid-1920s, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased primarily because of anti-Jewish economic legislation in Poland and Washington’s imposition of restrictive quotas. 5
The record number of immigrants in 1935 (see table) was a response to the growing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. The British administration considered this number too large, however, so the Jewish Agency was informed that less than one-third of the quota it asked for would be approved in 1936. 6
The British gave in further to Arab demands by announcing in the 1939 White Paper that an independent Arab state would be created within 10 years, and that Jewish immigration was to be limited to 75,000 for the next five years, after which it was to cease altogether. It also forbade land sales to Jews in 95 percent of the territory of Palestine. The Arabs, nevertheless, rejected the proposal.
Jewish Immigrants to Palestine 7
By contrast, throughout the Mandatory period, Arab immigration was unrestricted. In 1930, the Hope Simpson Commission, sent from London to investigate the 1929 Arab riots, said the British practice of ignoring the uncontrolled illegal Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria had the effect of displacing the prospective Jewish immigrants. 8
The British Governor of the Sinai from 1922–36 observed: “This illegal immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Transjordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery.” 9
The Peel Commission reported in 1937 that the “shortfall of land is . . . due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.” 10
“The British changed their policy after World War II to allow the survivors of the Holocaust to settle in Palestine.”
The gates of Palestine remained closed for the duration of the war, stranding hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe, many of whom became victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” After the war, the British refused to allow the survivors of the Nazi nightmare to find sanctuary in Palestine. On June 6, 1946, President Truman urged the British government to relieve the suffering of the Jews confined to displaced persons camps in Europe by immediately accepting 100,000 Jewish immigrants. Britain’s Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, replied sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Palestine “because they did not want too many of them in New York.” 11
Some Jews were able to reach Palestine, many smuggled in by way of dilapidated ships organized by members of the Jewish resistance organizations. Between August 1945 and the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, 65 “illegal” immigrant ships, carrying 69,878 people, arrived from European shores. In August 1946, however, the British began to intern those they caught in camps in Cyprus. Approximately 50,000 people were detained in the camps, 28,000 of whom were still imprisoned when Israel declared independence. 12
“As the Jewish population in Palestine grew, the plight of the Palestinian Arabs worsened.”
The Jewish population increased by 470,000 between World War I and World War II, while the non-Jewish population rose by 588,000. 13 In fact, the permanent Arab population increased 120 percent between 1922 and 1947. 14
This rapid growth of the Arab population was a result of several factors. One was immigration from neighboring states—constituting 37 percent of the total immigration to pre-state Israel—by Arabs who wanted to take advantage of the higher standard of living the Jews had made possible. 15 The Arab population also grew because of the improved living conditions created by the Jews as they drained malarial swamps and brought improved sanitation and health care to the region. Thus, for example, the Muslim infant mortality rate fell from 201 per thousand in 1925 to 94 per thousand in 1945 and life expectancy rose from 37 years in 1926 to 49 in 1943. 16
The Arab population increased the most in cities where large Jewish populations had created new economic opportunities. From 1922–1947, the non-Jewish population increased 290 percent in Haifa, 131 percent in Jerusalem and 158 percent in Jaffa. The growth in Arab towns was more modest: 42 percent in Nablus, 78 percent in Jenin and 37 percent in Bethlehem. 17
“Jews stole Arab land.”
Despite the growth in their population, the Arabs continued to assert they were being displaced. From the beginning of World War I, however, part of Palestine’s land was owned by absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. About 80 percent of the Palestinian Arabs were debt-ridden peasants, semi-nomads and Bedouins. 18
Jews actually went out of their way to avoid purchasing land in areas where Arabs might be displaced. They sought land that was largely uncultivated, swampy, cheap and, most important, without tenants. In 1920, Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion expressed his concern about the Arab fellahin, whom he viewed as “the most important asset of the native population.” Ben-Gurion said “under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them.” He advocated helping liberate them from their oppressors. “Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement,” Ben-Gurion added, “should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.” 19
It was only after the Jews had bought all of the available uncultivated land that they began to purchase cultivated land. Many Arabs were willing to sell because of the migration to coastal towns and because they needed money to invest in the citrus industry. 20
When John Hope Simpson arrived in Palestine in May 1930, he observed: “They [Jews] paid high prices for the land, and in addition they paid to certain of the occupants of those lands a considerable amount of money which they were not legally bound to pay.” 21
In 1931, Lewis French conducted a survey of landlessness for the British government and offered new plots to any Arabs who had been “dispossessed.” British officials received more than 3,000 applications, of which 80 percent were ruled invalid by the Government’s legal adviser because the applicants were not landless Arabs. This left only about 600 landless Arabs, 100 of whom accepted the Government land offer. 22
In April 1936, a new outbreak of Arab attacks on Jews was instigated by a Syrian guerrilla named Fawzi al--Qawukji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army. By November, when the British finally sent a new commission headed by Lord Peel to investigate, 89 Jews had been killed and more than 300 wounded. 23
The Peel Commission’s report found that Arab complaints about Jewish land acquisition were baseless. It pointed out that “much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased. . . . there was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.” 24 Moreover, the Commission found the shortage was “due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.” The report concluded that the presence of Jews in Palestine, along with the work of the British Administration, had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living and ample employment opportunities. 25
“It is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in useless wailing and weeping” (emphasis in the original).
— Transjordan’s King Abdullah 26
Even at the height of the Arab revolt in 1938, the British High Commissioner to Palestine believed the Arab landowners were complaining about sales to Jews to drive up prices for lands they wished to sell. Many Arab landowners had been so terrorized by Arab rebels they decided to leave Palestine and sell their property to the Jews. 27
The Jews were paying exorbitant prices to wealthy landowners for small tracts of arid land. “In 1944, Jews paid between $1,000 and $1,100 per acre in Palestine, mostly for arid or semiarid land; in the same year, rich black soil in Iowa was selling for about $110 per acre.” 28
By 1947, Jewish holdings in Palestine amounted to about 463,000 acres. Approximately 45,000 of these acres were acquired from the Mandatory Government; 30,000 were bought from various churches and 387,500 were purchased from Arabs. Analyses of land purchases from 1880 to 1948 show that 73 percent of Jewish plots were purchased from large landowners, not poor fellahin. 29 Those who sold land included the mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem and Jaffa. As’ad el--Shuqeiri, a Muslim religious scholar and father of PLO chairman Ahmed Shuqeiri, took Jewish money for his land. Even King Abdullah leased land to the Jews. In fact, many leaders of the Arab nationalist movement, including members of the Muslim Supreme Council, sold land to Jews. 30
“The British helped the Palestinians to live peacefully with the Jews.”
In 1921, Haj Amin el-Husseini first began to organize fedayeen (“one who sacrifices himself”) to terrorize Jews. Haj Amin hoped to duplicate the success of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey by driving the Jews out of Palestine just as Kemal had driven the invading Greeks from his country. 31 Arab radicals were able to gain influence because the British Administration was unwilling to take effective action against them until they began a revolt against British rule.
Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, former head of British military intelligence in Cairo, and later Chief Political Officer for Palestine and Syria, wrote in his diary that British officials “incline towards the exclusion of Zionism in Palestine.” In fact, the British encouraged the Palestinians to attack the Jews. According to Meinertzhagen, Col. Waters-Taylor (financial adviser to the Military Administration in Palestine 1919–23) met with Haj Amin a few days before Easter, in 1920, and told him “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world . . . that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine, 1919–20] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force, 1917–19, then High Commissioner of Egypt] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home. Waters-Taylor explained that freedom could only be attained through violence.” 32
Haj Amin took the Colonel’s advice and instigated a riot. The British withdrew their troops and the Jewish police from Jerusalem, allowing the Arab mob to attack Jews and loot their shops. Because of Haj Amin’s overt role in instigating the pogrom, the British decided to arrest him. Haj Amin escaped, however, and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in absentia.
A year later, some British Arabists convinced High Commissioner Herbert Samuel to pardon Haj Amin and to appoint him Mufti. By contrast, Vladimir Jabotinsky and several of his followers, who had formed a Jewish defense organization during the unrest, were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. 33
Samuel met with Haj Amin on April 11, 1921, and was assured “that the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.” Three weeks later, riots in Jaffa and elsewhere left 43 Jews dead. 34
Haj Amin consolidated his power and took control of all Muslim religious funds in Palestine. He used his authority to gain control over the mosques, the schools and the courts. No Arab could reach an influential position without being loyal to the Mufti. His power was so absolute “no Muslim in Palestine could be born or die without being beholden to Haj Amin.” 35 The Mufti’s henchmen also ensured he would have no opposition by systematically killing Palestinians from rival clans who were discussing cooperation with the Jews.
As the spokesman for Palestinian Arabs, Haj Amin did not ask that Britain grant them independence. On the contrary, in a letter to Churchill in 1921, he demanded that Palestine be reunited with Syria and Transjordan. 36
The Arabs found rioting to be an effective political tool because of the lax British response toward violence against Jews. In handling each riot, the British prevented Jews from protecting themselves, but made little or no effort to prevent the Arabs from attacking them. After each outbreak, a British commission of inquiry would try to establish the cause of the violence. The conclusion was always the same: the Arabs were afraid of being displaced by Jews. To stop the rioting, the commissions would recommend that restrictions be placed on Jewish immigration. Thus, the Arabs came to recognize that they could always stop the influx of Jews by staging a riot.
This cycle began after a series of riots in May 1921. After failing to protect the Jewish community from Arab mobs, the British appointed the Haycraft Commission to investigate the cause of the violence. Although the panel concluded the Arabs had been the aggressors, it rationalized the cause of the attack: “The fundamental cause of the riots was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy. . . .” 37 One consequence of the violence was the institution of a temporary ban on Jewish immigration.
The Arab fear of being “displaced” or “dominated” was used as an excuse for their merciless attacks on peaceful Jewish settlers. Note, too, that these riots were not inspired by nationalistic fervor—nationalists would have rebelled against their British overlords—they were motivated by racial strife and misunderstanding.
In 1929, Arab provocateurs succeeded in convincing the masses that the Jews had designs on the Temple Mount (a tactic still used today). A Jewish religious observance at the Western Wall, which forms a part of the Temple Mount, served as a pretext for rioting by Arabs against Jews that spilled out of Jerusalem into other villages and towns, including Safed and Hebron.
Again, the British Administration made no effort to prevent the violence and, after it began, the British did nothing to protect the Jewish population. After six days of mayhem, the British finally brought troops in to quell the disturbance. By this time, virtually the entire Jewish population of Hebron had fled or been killed. In all, 133 Jews were killed and 399 wounded in the pogroms. 38
After the riots were over, the British ordered an investigation, which resulted in the Passfield White Paper. It said the “immigration, land purchase and settlement policies of the Zionist Organization were already, or were likely to become, prejudicial to Arab interests. It understood the Mandatory’s obligation to the non-Jewish community to mean that Palestine’s resources must be primarily reserved for the growing Arab economy. . . .” 39 This, of course, meant it was necessary to place restrictions not only on Jewish immigration but on land purchases.
“The Mufti was not anti-Semitic.”
In 1941, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, fled to Germany and met with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim Von Ribbentrop and other Nazi leaders. He wanted to persuade them to extend the Nazis’ anti-Jewish program to the Arab world.
The Mufti sent Hitler 15 drafts of declarations he wanted Germany and Italy to make concerning the Middle East. One called on the two countries to declare the illegality of the Jewish home in Palestine. He also asked the Axis powers to “accord to Palestine and to other Arab countries the right to solve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries in accordance with the interest of the Arabs, and by the same method that the question is now being settled in the Axis countries.” 40
In November 1941, the Mufti met with Hitler, who told him the Jews were his foremost enemy. The Nazi dictator rebuffed the Mufti’s requests for a declaration in support of the Arabs, however, telling him the time was not right. The Mufti offered Hitler his “thanks for the sympathy which he had always shown for the Arab and especially Palestinian cause, and to which he had given clear expression in his public speeches. . . . The Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely. . . . the Jews. . . .” Hitler told the Mufti he opposed the creation of a Jewish state and that Germany’s objective was the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere. 41
In 1945, Yugoslavia sought to indict the Mufti as a war criminal for his role in recruiting 20,000 Muslim volunteers for the SS, who participated in the killing of Jews in Croatia and Hungary. He escaped from French detention in 1946, however, and continued his fight against the Jews from Cairo and later Beirut.
“The bombing of the King David Hotel was part of a deliberate terror campaign against civilians.”
British troops invaded the Jewish Agency on June 29, 1946, and confiscated large quantities of documents. At about the same time, more than 2,500 Jews from all over Palestine were placed under arrest. A week later, news of a massacre of 40 Jews in a pogrom in Poland reminded the Jews of Palestine how Britain’s restrictive immigration policy had condemned thousands to death.
As a response to what it viewed as British provocations, the Irgun decided to target the King David Hotel. Besides guests, the hotel housed the British military command and the British Criminal Investigation Division and was the place where information about Jewish Agency operations, including intelligence activities in Arab countries, was taken.
Irgun leader Menachem Begin stressed his desire to avoid civilian casualties. In fact, the plan was to warn the British so they would evacuate the building before it was blown up. Three telephone calls were placed, one to the hotel, another to the French Consulate, and a third to the Palestine Post, warning that explosives in the King David Hotel would soon be detonated.
King David Hotel after the bombing
On July 22, 1946, the calls were made. The call into the hotel was apparently received and ignored. Begin quotes one British official who supposedly refused to evacuate the building, saying: “We don’t take orders from the Jews.” 42 As a result, when the bombs exploded, the casualty toll was high: a total of 91 killed and 45 injured. Among the casualties were 15 Jews. Few people in the hotel proper were injured by the blast. 43
In contrast to Arab attacks against Jews, which were widely hailed by Arab leaders as heroic actions, the Jewish National Council denounced the bombing of the King David. 44
For decades the British denied they had been warned. In 1979, however, a member of the British Parliament introduced evidence that the Irgun had indeed issued the warning. He offered the testimony of a British officer who heard other officers in the King David Hotel bar joking about a Zionist threat to the headquarters. The officer who overheard the conversation immediately left the hotel and survived. 45
1 Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), p. 172; Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 146.
2 Moshe Auman, “Land Ownership in Palestine 1880–1948,” in Michael Curtis, et al., The Palestinians, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 25.
3 Palestine Royal Commission Report (the Peel Report), (London: 1937), p. 300. Henceforth Palestine Royal Commission Report.
4 Arieh Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession, (Tel Aviv: Hidekel Press, 1984), p. 28; Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918–1929, (London: Frank Cass, 1974), pp. 17–18.
5 Porath (1974), p. 18.
6 Cohen, p. 53.
7 Yehoshua Porath, Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: 1929–1939, vol. 2, (London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1977), pp. 17–18, 39.
8 John Hope Simpson, Palestine: Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development, (London, 1930), p. 126.
9 C. S. Jarvis, “Palestine,” United Empire (London), Vol 28 (1937), p. 633.
10 Palestine Royal Commission Report, p. 242.
11 George Lenczowski, American Presidents and the Middle East, (NC: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 23.
12 Cohen p. 174.
13 Dov Friedlander and Calvin Goldscheider, The Population of Israel, (NY: Columbia Press, 1979), p. 30.
14 Avneri, p. 254.
15 Curtis, p. 38.
16 Avneri, pp. 264; Cohen p. 60.
17 Avneri, pp. 254–55.
18 Moshe Aumann, Land Ownership in Palestine 1880–1948, (Jerusalem: Academic Committee on the Middle East, 1976), pp. 8–9.
19 Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War, (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 32.
20 Porath, pp. 80, 84; See also Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008).
21 Hope Simpson Report, p. 51.
22 Avneri, pp. 149–158; Cohen, p. 37; based on the Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine by Lewis French, (December 1931, Supplementary; Report, April 1932) and material submitted to the Palestine Royal Commission.
23 Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), p. 27; Sachar, p. 201.
24 Palestine Royal Commission Report (1937), p. 242.
25 Palestine Royal Commission (1937), pp. 241–242.
26 King Abdallah, My Memoirs Completed, (London, Longman Group, Ltd., 1978), pp. 88–89.
27 Porath (77), pp. 86–87.
28 Aumann, p. 13.
29 Abraham Granott, The Land System in Palestine, (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1952), p. 278.
30 Avneri, pp. 179–180, 224–225, 232–234; Porath (77), pp. 72–73; See also Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008).
31 Jon Kimche, There Could Have Been Peace: The Untold Story of Why We Failed With Palestine and Again With Israel, (England: Dial Press, 1973), p. 189.
32 Richard Meinertzhagen, Middle East Diary 1917–1956, (London: The Cresset Press, 1959), pp. 49, 82, 97.
33 Samuel Katz, Battleground-Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, (NY: Bantam Books, 1977), pp. 63–65; Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 97.
34 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 438.
35 Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 52.
36 Kimche, p. 211.
37 Ben Halpern, The Idea of a Jewish State, (MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 323.
38 Sachar, p. 174.
39 Halpern, p. 201.
40 “Grand Mufti Plotted To Do Away With All Jews In Mideast,” Response, (Fall 1991), pp. 2–3.
41 Record of the Conversation Between the Fuhrer and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on November 28, 1941, in the Presence of Reich Foreign Minister and Minister Grobba in Berlin, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, Series D, Vol. XIII, London, 1964, p. 881ff in Walter Lacquer and Barry Rubin, The Israel-Arab Reader, (NY: Penguin Books, 2001), pp. 51–55.
42 Menachem Begin, The Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), p. 224.
43 J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin’s Press), p. 172.
44 Anne Sinai and I. Robert Sinai, Israel and the Arabs: Prelude to the Jewish State, (NY: Facts on File, 1972), p. 83.
45 Benjamin Netanyahu, ed., “International Terrorism: Challenge And Response,” Proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism, July 2-5, 1979, (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1980), p. 45.