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British Mandate for Palestine

British Mandate for Palestine - In 1922, the British were given a Mandate by the League of nations to develop Palestine as a Jewish National Home, by assisting in close settlement of Jews on the land.

The British Mandate for Palestine refers to:

A- The international authorization for British rule in Palestine between 1922 and 1948.

B - The document that created the mandate under the League of Nations in 1922 - See The British Mandate for Palestine for the original document.

The primary formal significance of the mandate today is that gave recognition in international law to Jewish rights in Palestine and to the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. It was the formal fulfillment of the goal of Zionism enunciated at the first Zionist Congress, to gain a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured in international law. Therefore, claims that Israel is an "illegitimate state" have no basis in international law. The goal of Political Zionism was achieved. But that was not enough, as events proved, to guarantee a safe have for the Jewish people.

The primary historical significance of the mandate is that it enabled settlement of Palestine legally (until 1939) and on a much larger scale than had been possible under the Ottoman state. This settlement movement, the implementation of Practical Zionism, laid the foundation for the state of Israel by building a large Zionist community in Palestine. This community (Yishuv) rapidly became the real center of the Zionist movement.

Because of Arab opposition to the mandate, and British appeasement of the Arabs, the mandate period became unfortunately, a time of strife for the Jewish Yishuv, fighting both against Arab attacks and later against British policy that had violated the terms of the mandate.

Realization of the Jewish national home by Jewish settlement of Palestine was also hampered initially by objective facts and by the tragic indifference of much of the world Jewish community. Palestine, always a poor country, had been devastated by World War I. Large scale investments were required to repair the depredations of the Turkish government during the war, and to generate an agricultural and industrial substrate that could support large number of immigrants. At the same time, large numbers of motivated immigrants were needed. Both were initially lacking. Jewish philanthropists were sparing in their donations to the various Zionist Palestine development institutions. The Jewish National Fund lacked money to purchase land in the 1920s, when such land was still freely available, and the Zionist organization could not produce immigrants to settle the land. As conditions worsened in Europe, and despite Arab violence, immigrants began to come in far larger numbers, and investment funds and charitable donations increased as well. However, it was too late. By 1939, the British White Paper had slammed the doors of Palestine shut on European Jews forever. Most of them would be murdered in the Holocaust. The White Paper and subsequent emergency regulations also greatly curtailed land sales.

Following World War II, Jewish underground movements in Palestine began a desperate struggle against the British immigration policies, resulting ultimately in the termination of the mandate and partition of Palestine.

Inception and Basis of the British Mandate for Palestine

Following World War I, the victorious allies apportioned the lands of the Ottoman Empire as well as former colonies of Germany and Italy to different victors. However, in keeping with the principle of self-determination advocated by Woodrow Wilson, most of the governments were to be mandates, a form of trusteeship, that would prepare the areas in question for self government. Most of the Middle East was assigned to Britain. Syria and Lebanon were assigned to France. The Palestine Mandate was assigned to Britain under the terms of the The Balfour Declaration, the wording of which was incorporated into the mandate. Accordingly, unlike the other territories, Palestine, or a part of it, was to be prepared as a national home for the Jewish people, and the British people were to ensure conditions for Jewish immigration and colonization. Though it has been claimed otherwise, there was agreement that this was the intent of the Balfour declaration and the mandate and it is incorporated unambiguously in the wording of the mandate. In a 1919 memorandum, Balfour noted that the mandates did not all strictly fulfill the letter of the League Covenant commitment to self government for native inhabitants, and particularly so in the case of the mandate for Palestine:

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission [evidently the King Crane Commission]  has been going through the forms of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion, that is right.

Balfour was an ardent supporter of Zionism (See: Arthur Balfour: Introduction on Zionism) . In the above quote, however, he was neither focusing on upholding or denigrating the Palestine mandate. Rather, he was trying to use the British Mandate for Palestine as an example to show that the mandate system was not intended in general to be solely an expression of the rights of the indigenous inhabitants. 

With the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, the Zionists had ostensibly achieved the goal set out in the First Zionist Congress in 1897: a national home in Palestine that was guaranteed in international law.

Removal of Transjordan and Golan from the British Mandate for Palestine

Britain ruled Palestine or parts of it from November 1917, under military rule. The mandate government did not take effect until 1922. By that time, the British Foreign Office was under some pressure from Arabs and their supporters and was having second thoughts about the national home for the Jews. Britain's first act was to split off 78% of the land from the mandate without consulting the League of Nations and to create Transjordan, as shown at right. Another bit of the mandate was removed in 1923, in an agreement with France that gave the entire Golan heights to mandatory Syria.

At the same time Winston Churchill issued the  Churchill ("Command") White Paper which can variously be interpreted as reaffirming British commitment to a Jewish national home in a "part" of Palestine, which is how Churchill liked to present it to his Jewish constituents, or as more or less an attempt to renege on the commitment.

Britain was bankrupt. The British mandate for Palestine was therefore to finance itself from taxes and donations. Zionist immigration and land purchases and development would of course have to be funded from the resources of the Zionist movement. European Jewish financiers were not notably interested in funding the project. The Russian revolution soon effectively slammed shut the gates on the largest European Jewish population that might want to immigrate to Palestine. During the 1920s therefore, Jewish emigration to Palestine was slow, especially during the first years when Palestine was reconstructing after the ravages of World War I. However, with the world depression beginning in 1930, and increasing anti-Semitism in Poland and Germany, Jewish immigration increased.

High Commissioners of the British Mandate for Palestine

The end of military rule was signaled by the appointment of Herbert Samuel as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine. Samuel was a Jew and a Zionist, but he was cautious about implementing the Jewish national home. He devised a system of limiting immigration and appointed an Arab radical, Hajj Amin El Husseini, to be Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, over the wishes of most of the Palestinian Arab community. Samuel took office in 1920, as the first civil administrator of Palestine, before the mandate system was officially instituted in 1922. 

The British High Commissioners were:

Sir Herbert Louis Samuel 1920–1925
Sir Gilbert Falkingham Clayton (acting) May–December 1925
Herbert Onslow Plumer 1925–1928
Sir Harry Charles Luke (acting) 1928
Sir John Chancellor 1928–1931
Sir Mark Aitchison Young 1931–1932 (acting)
Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope 1932–1937
William Denis Battershill 1937–1938 (acting)
Sir Harold MacMichael 1938–1944
John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort 1944–1945
Sir Alan Cunningham 1945–19488

Economic success of the British Mandate for Palestine

During the British mandate, both Arab and Jewish populations increased. Jewish population rose from around 85,000 to 600,000 by 1948, while Arab population increased from about 670,000 to 1.8 Million in 1948 (See Population of Palestine). The economic growth and increase in standard of living for both populations was impressive as well. Palestine had been the most backward of the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I, but it had  become considerably more prosperous than its neighbors by 1948. The economic growth was due primarily to Zionist investment. Britain was nearing bankruptcy and insisted that the mandate must pay for itself. Additional outlays were made only for security following Arab riots in the 30s. Arabs and Arab countries had no interest in investing in Palestine. Though Arabs benefited from the Zionist investment as well, refusal of the Arabs to unionize and other factors produced a growing disparity in income between Jews and Arabs, so that by the 1930s, each Jew was earning (and paying taxes in proportion) 3-4 times as much as each Arab in Palestine. A second factor in Palestinian prosperity was British investment in the port of Haifa, beginning in 1931, and British use of the port of Haifa and facilities in Palestine during World War II. To build the port, the British allowed the in-migration of large numbers of Arab workers, particularly from the Houran, in Syria. It is not known how many of these remained. Different sources claim a net Arab immigration of about 110,000, mostly illegal and undetected by the British.  

Arab Jewish Strife in the British Mandate for Palestine

The British ruled Palestine under the mandate from 1922 until 1948. Increasing Arab agitation against a Jewish state led them initially to remove Transjordan from the mandate territory and then to limit Jewish immigration in order to assuage ire. Arab riots in 1929 sparked an initiative to curtail immigration, on the theory that Jewish land purchases were dispossessing Arabs.

The British reaction to the Arab riots of 1929 was to draw up the Passfield White Paper of 1930, limiting Jewish immigration to virtually nothing. The British developed the thesis, first advanced by Churchill in 1922, that Jewish immigration to Palestine must depend on its economic absorptive capacity. In practice, they added an additional and cynical insistence that Palestine had a fixed population capacity owing to limited land and water resources. In fact, Jewish (and Arab immigration) would continue, and the prosperity of the inhabitants of Palestine would be enhanced in subsequent years.

The League of Nations protested that this policy violated the terms of the mandate, and Zionist protests soon forced the British government to rescind the Passfield White paper. (see Letter of Ramsay MacDonald to Haim Weizmann Rescinding the Passfield White Paper)  

The economic disparities between Jews and Arabs  were skillfully exploited by  Hajj Amin Al Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and others. In 1936 an Arab general strike and revolt broke out (See Arab Uprising), consequent to the death of the Syrian agitator Izz ad-Din al-Qassam who had moved to Palestine and preached Jihad against the British from Haifa. Husseini took charge of the revolt. Despite British efforts at compromise, the revolt continued for three years, evidently with the aid of funding and arms from the Axis powers, organized from Damascus with the connivance or passive acquiescence of the French. The Mufti and his allies used the revolt as a means of establishing dominance, slaughtering numerous Palestinian Arab clans and thereby depleting Arab Palestinian leadership. Some 5,000 Arabs are estimated to have perished in the revolt, mostly at the hands of the Mufti and his men. British repression was also fierce. The Zionist Haganah, which had been organized in 1920, was a small underground defense force. It was reorganized and expanded, but originally remained strictly on the defensive. The Irgun, an organization of the breakaway Zionist revisionists, began reprisal operations against Arab civilians, including bombings in public markets. In 1938 the Haganah was given semi-official recognition by the British, and under the leadership of  Orde Charles Wingate undertook reprisals and patrols against the Arab guerillas, who had been engaged in sabotaging the TAP oil pipe as well as in attacks on Jewish civilians and British targets. The Haganah had also organized its own units that brought the battle to Arab towns and  villages that harbored supporters of the insurgent. Like the Irgun, these units often attacked civilian targets. 

In the autumn of 1937, Hajj Amin El Hussein was forced to flee Palestine, as he was implicated in the murder of the British Commissioner for the Northern District. He fled first to Lebanon and then to Iraq, where he helped to organize a coup against the British supported Iraqi government of Nuri as Said (See Iraq Axis Coup). When that failed, he fled to Nazi Germany, where he broadcast for the Nazi government, organized an SS division and  ensured that no Jews would be rescued from Nazi death camps or given visas to neutral countries. Disputed testimony claimed that the Mufti was an active advocate of the extermination of European Jewry. Following World War II, the French government, still trying to foil British policy in the Middle East, released the Mufti from captivity, while he was awaiting trial for war crimes. He made his way to Cairo where he organized opposition to the Zionists. (see the notes in Iraq Axis Coup and also see Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini )

Following the inception of the revolt in 1936, the British got the Arabs to agree to a truce, during which the Peel Commission proposed to partition Palestine into a minuscule Jewish state, a small British administered area in Jerusalem and a large Arab state (see The  Peel Commission Report and Partition Plan Maps ). The Arab side, led by the Mufti, rejected this and successive partitions. The Zionist executive reluctantly accepted the Peel partition, as by this time it was foreseen that the Jews of Europe were threatened with catastrophe by the rise of Nazism and urgently needed a shelter, even if it was only a small land area. By 1939 it was clear to the British that they were facing a World War in Europe. The foreign office concluded that the Jews would be less troublesome than the Arabs, particularly as the Arabs controlled the petroleum reserves that fueled the British Navy. King Saud had expressed his negative opinions of Jewish statehood and of the Jewish people in the most frank and outspoken terms. (See  King Saud's Views on Palestine and Partition).  Therefore, the British issued the British White Paper of 1939 limiting Jewish immigration to 15,000 per year and stopping it thereafter, as well as severely limiting the purchase of land by Jews or the Zionist organization. The League of Nations, which had governed the mandate, no longer existed and therefore could not declare the policy illegal. The Arabs, under the leadership of the Mufti from exile, rejected this British policy as well. It is unlikely that the Mufti would have accepted any British offer. He had told his nephew Jamil Husseini that he did not want to settle with the British, and preferred the Axis. It is possible that Axis agents had instructed him to reject any British offer.

The British pursued the immigration ban with a vengeance. The Zionist organization and the revisionist Zionists both organized illegal immigration from Europe, but the British would not let them enter Palestine. Boatloads of Jewish immigrants escaping Nazi persecution were caught and the immigrants interned at various destinations. Some of the boats sank. A Soviet submarine sank one boat, the Struma, in the Black Sea, after the Turkish government had turned it away and it could not continue to Palestine. Apparently, this was done in connivance with the British. By 1942, illegal immigration activities had ceased, because it was no longer possible to operate in any of the European countries under German rule or allied to Germany.  In 1944, Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State for the Middle East, and responsible for enforcing the ban on immigration, was assassinated by the LEHI underground. Moyne was a close personal friend of Prime Minister Churchill, and the assassination was thought to have turned Churchill against Zionism.

Throughout World War II, the official Zionist organization and the Haganah cooperated with the British. Large numbers of Palestinian Jews, and a smaller number of Arabs enlisted in the British army. The Haganah also sent paratroopers into occupied Europe, both to carry out British intelligence missions and to attempt to rescue Jews or at least make contact with Jewish resistance groups and ghetto organizations. When Lord Moyne was assassinated, the Haganah cooperated with the British in tracking down members of the Irgun and Lehi during a period known as the Sezon. However, in 1942, the Zionists also began to lay plans for postwar policy. It was apparent that they could no longer rely on British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine and therefore, at a meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, the Biltmore Conference, they formulated the The Biltmore Program, calling for a Jewish state in Palestine as part of the post war peace settlement.

Dissolution of the British Mandate for Palestine

The allies knew that the Nazis were systematically exterminating the Jews of Europe since the beginning of 1942. Following World War II,  the extent of the Nazi massacre of European Jewry in the Holocaust became fully evident. The Jews demanded a state, or at least immigration for the 250,000 surviving Jews in the Displaced Persons camps scattered throughout Europe. The British government was now controlled by the Labor party. Labor had promised to back a Jewish state in 1944. Once in power, they reneged on their promise and tightened up the ban on immigration. The Jewish underground cooperated for a period in numerous attacks on British personnel and installations. This cooperation ended following the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun in 1946.

The constant attacks on British soldiers created pressure in Britain against continuation of the mandate. The Americans pressed Britain to allow at least 100,000 Jewish refugees to emigrate to Palestine (see President Truman and United States Support for a Jewish State) but the British government deemed that this would alienate the Arabs. The British announced that they would be leaving Palestine and returning the mandate to the United Nations.

A United Nations commission (UNSCOP) was sent to investigate conditions in Palestine. Some of its members witnessed as British troops boarded the illegal immigrant ship Exodus and forced it to return to Hamburg, Germany. The commissioners were also impressed by Zionist development efforts and by the impossibility of forming a unitary state in Palestine due to irremediable enmity of the Arab and Jewish populations. They recommended partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The UN voted for partition in UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. The USSR supported the resolution in order to combat British imperialist influence in the Middle East.

The British and others had understood that partition would likely result in civil war. They had assessed that the Arabs would have the upper hand, and they wanted to create, according to one theory, a Jordanian ruled state that would include the West Bank, the Gaza strip and a portion of the Negev, and which would provide them with a Mediterranean base to replace Haifa. The British were convinced that the Jewish state would be pro-Soviet or at least anti-British. This conviction was shared by the United States State department, whose officials were of the opinion that most Jews and especially most Zionists were communists.

Fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out immediately following the partition resolution. When the British left Palestine on May 15, 1948, the Zionists had declared an independent state of Israel (see Israel Declaration of Independence). The armies of several Arab states, including Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, invaded. The Jordanians confined themselves to Jerusalem, which was to be internationalized and to areas that were to be part of the Palestinian Arab state. The Egyptians and Syrians invaded territory that was to have been part of the Jewish state as well. The war was carried on sporadically with many cease fires and resulted in a victory for the Israelis, who had conquered about half the territory that had been allotted to the Palestinian Arab state. (see The first Arab-Israel War )


Ami Isseroff

October 30, 2009


Synonyms and alternate spellings: 

Further Information:   

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

Definitions of Zionism  General History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel   History of Israel and Zionism   Historical Source Documents of Israel and Zionism

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