How Britain Betrayed the Palestinians’ Demands for Independence and Nationhood

Beverley Milton-Edwards’ book, Contemporary Politics in the Middle East(Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, 2000), has a section on British Rule in Palestine as an example of colonial rule in the region, ‘Case Study: The Palestine Debacle’, pp. 34-39. This section makes it very clear that Britain held out the promise of independence and self-government, not just to the Zionist settlers in Balfour Declaration, but also to the Palestinians. However, it reneged on its promise to them, and in practice generally favoured the Jewish settlers over the indigenous Arab population.

The British had promised the Sharif Hussein independence and nationhood for his people in return for Hussein raising an army against the Ottoman overlords in 1916. The book states

By 1916 the British had succeeded in persuading the Sharif Hussein to raise an Arab army to lead a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. The British, in return for Arab support, had promised that Arab independence would be supported, a promise that was made official in the so-called McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. Yet, the interpretation of so-called promises made in the correspondence were later questioned: ‘Whether anything was actually promised, and if so what, and whether the Sharif’s revolt played a significant part in the allied victory, are matters in dispute, but what is clear is that for the first time the claim that those who spoke Arabic constituted a nation and should have a state had been to some extent accepted by a great power’, remarked Hourani. (p. 22)

Under the Mandate, the peoples of Palestine, including the Zionists settlers, were not granted any political powers by their British rulers. However, Zionist interests were protected against those of the indigenous Palestinians.

The indigenous inhabitants of the country, the Palestinian Arabs and Jews and the newly established Zionist Jewish community, were given no political powers by the British. A curious aspect of the mandate was the extent to which it safeguarded the interests of the Zionists, obliging Britain to ‘be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of a Jewish national home’, while Palestinian Arab political rights to self-determination were complete unacknowledged. (p. 34).

The failure to balance the promises of self-determination and statehood the British had given to both Zionists and Palestinians resulted in the Mandate being a period of conflict, revolt and upheaval.

The Zionists did not believe that the existence of an indigenous population in Palestine was a problem, as the British and French had ignored the indigenous peoples of Kenya and Algeria when colonising those countries. And the wishes of the Palestinians were not consulted regarded Zionist colonisation.

Only one obstacle stood in the way of Jewish aspirations: Palestine’s Arab population. Yet, from a Zionist perspective, writers Gerner, ‘That Palestine had an existing population, with its own history and aspirations, was no more relevant…than was Kenyan history to the British or Algerian society to the French. The Arabs, however, believed that they had been promised Palestine in return for their support against the Turks during the War, and that they felt betrayed at news of Balfour’s declaration in support of the Zionists. The Arabs of Palestine (Muslim and Christian) were not consulted, and their nationalist aspirations went largely unrecognised. Throughout the period of the mandate the British largely supported and allowed the rapid influx of Jews to Palestine. British attempts at supporting the rights of Palestinian Arabs failed. Plans for a legislative assembly were never fulfilled, land-sales to Jews increased and thousands of Arabs were dispossessed. (pp.35-6)

All promises to the Arabs, including those in the Balfour Declaration and the McMahon-Husseini correspondence seemed to evaporate as Britain established the mandate in Palestine. The mandate authorities heralded their era of rule not by establishing power-sharing institutions to prepare the path for Arab independence, but rather by adopting the classic colonial policy of divide and rule between the Jews and the Arabs. (p. 36)

The section describes how British rule in Palestine collapsed as the violence between the Palestinians and Zionists settlers increased, and the election of the post-War Labour government resulted in Palestine being released from British colonial rule and placed in the hands of the UN. Although Palestine was formally divided between Israel and the Palestinians, between 1947 and 1948 the Zionists captured more Palestinian territory. Many Palestinians fled in fear of Israeli massacres, such as a Deir Yassin. The book states

Whether the exodus was voluntary or forcible, the result of Zionist massacre or Arab urging has been subjected to academic and national debate in Israel and the Arab world ever since, with each side blaming the other for the parlous state of affairs that befell the Palestinians. However, what really mattered was the fact that when the war of 1948 was over, Israel prevented the refugees from returning to their homes, lands, farms, shops, schools, churches, mosques and the graves of their forefathers. The Right of Return was extended by the state of Israel to all Jews, but not to those Palestinians who had fled or been expelled from their homes in 1948. (pp. 38-9)

And so the end of British rule in Palestine and the simultaneous declaration of the state of Israel resulted in the exile of the Palestinians to other Arab states, and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis that remains unresolved to this day.

Last year, 2017, was the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the statement that the British government would support a Jewish state in Palestine. However, I certainly have not seen any mention that the British government also held out the prospect of independence and statehood to the indigenous people, the Palestinians. In light of this fact, it seems to me to be very clear that we have an obligation to support Palestinian aspirations for dignity and equality, either through a real, functioning state of their own, or as equal citizens with Jews in Israel. It also adds considerable weight to the comment that if it is prejudiced and anti-Semitic to deny Jews the right to self-determination in their own state, Israel, it should also be racist and anti-Palestinian to deny the Palestinians their own state. But as the critics of the anti-Semitism smear campaign have pointed out, this last point is never, ever raised.

Supporting the Palestinians now would break with British imperial policy in the Middle East, when in general they favoured the Zionists, and in the post-colonial period, when western policy has been to support Israel and Saudi Arabia against the other Arab and Muslim nations in the Middle East, and especially against secular Arab nationalist regimes, which were seen as being too close to the Communist bloc.

The demands that the Labour Party should adopt all of the I.H.R.A.’s definition of anti-Semitism is an attempt to silence criticism of Israel and its vile maltreatment of the Palestinians. Who, as a nation, should be given dignity, equality and civil rights at least, if not the independence and statehood we promised them during the First World War.

One Response to “How Britain Betrayed the Palestinians’ Demands for Independence and Nationhood”

  1. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating!.

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