The destruction of Palestine was the inevitable result of the most ill-conceived and destructive settler-colonial European project in the history of colonization. Britain played the major part of its creation and Israel developed it into the most articulated racist regime in existence today.
Previous colonial projects had a somewhat different trajectory. European colonization started in the 15th century; its zenith was conquest of vast areas of the Americas and Australia. These were sparsely populated areas with little or no recorded history. The colonization took many years to develop; the colonizers had been diverse groups with no pre-meditated master plan. The colonized people are still in their land.
The British rule in India (1617-1947) had been motivated primarily by trade interest. There was no mass ethnic cleansing or mass theft of property. The massacres that took place were in the course of quelling riots. Indian culture was kept intact, even if officially neglected.
The French colonization of Algeria (1830-1962) exploited the land and the people and treated the Algerians brutally. Their romantic notion was to make Algeria an extension of France and convert Algerians into Frenchmen.
The Dutch colonization of South Africa (1652-1994) created the infamous Apartheid system, which granted privileges to the colonizers, with Bible in hand and gun in the other, and denied these privileges to the colonized. Again, the native population were exploited, abused but not expelled en masse.
In all previous cases of colonialism, the common theme was to exploit the land and the people, but to keep the people to serve the colonizers’ purposes.
The Zionist colonization of Palestine had unique features not found in any other colonial project. Firstly, Palestine was not intended to be a colony at all. At the end of WWI, Palestine’s modern development and the welfare of its people were entrusted to Britain as the Mandatory Power by the League of Nations as the fulfillment of the “Sacred Trust of Civilisation”; that is, to bring freedom and democratic government to the people of Palestine. Instead, it was converted into a colonial project through British betrayal.
This colonization project was planned outside Palestine by powers which had then no control of the country. Unlike any other colonization project, it eventually ended up by the expulsion of the majority of the population, the confiscation of their land and property, the destruction of their landscape and the erasure of their geography and history. It was the most dramatic event in Palestine’s 5000-year history.
There is nothing like it in the history of colonialism or Mandate guardianship. The element of conspiracy is very clear. In 1916, while the Allies planes were dropping leaflets on the Arabs in WWI exhorting them to fight the Turks and gain independence and freedom, the British Mark Sykes and the French Georges Picot sat in a closed room with a map of the Middle East, and planned to carve it between them.
One year later, Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s foreign minister, concluded a secret agreement with rich European Jews to facilitate the establishment of “a Jewish national home”, not a state, in, not of, Palestine. He kept this agreement under lock and key, while British forces attacking Palestine were defeated at Gaza gates twice.
On the evening of October 31, 1917, Allenby forces captured Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the east. The gates of Palestine were open. Allenby sent a cable to London on November 1st, “We captured Beer Sheba. Jerusalem will be your Christmas present”. Balfour opened his drawer and made public his secret agreement on November 2nd, 1917. This started a century of death and destruction.
If that was political betrayal, there was also geographical deception. The Zionist Organization submitted its draft resolutions to colonize Palestine for consideration by the Paris Peace Conference on 3 February 1919, accompanied by a map of Palestine marked as “Nomad Land”, barely good enough for sheep grazing, reinforcing the myth that Palestine was “a land without people”.
The two colonial powers concerned with the issue in the Paris Peace Conference, Britain and France, knew very well that that was a deliberate deception and that the map is a forgery. From 1865 until the First World War, Britain, through Palestine Exploration Fund, had thoroughly surveyed Palestine. The result of the survey was published in 26 maps and 10 volumes, showing about 1,000 Palestinian towns and villages, mainly of them 2,000 years old, and 9,000 place names. It was not a “Nomad” country. The French too had in the previous 60 years sent priests, officers and travelers who toured the country. A notable French scholar was Victor Guerin, who described the Palestinian towns and villages in seven volumes.
Why then pretend that Palestine was barren and that it was “a land without people”?
The reason is the same that of early colonizers when they described the conquered territory as “terra nullius” a land belonging to no one, because the people in it do not matter. That is what prompted Balfour to speak these words, which would be criminalized today, “For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes (not rights) of the present population of the county”. If these were expedient political statements, which could have been annulled or forgotten, the subsequent British actions in Palestine put these words in action.
The first act was to select a Zionist British minister, Herbert Samuel, to be the first High Commissioner of Palestine, whose official task was to bring to Palestine independence and a working government. If a ‘national home’ for Jews was to be established somewhere in Palestine, it was to be without prejudice to the existing Arab Palestinian majority.
Samuel did the opposite. He created the roots for the destruction of Palestine and the rise of Israel. In his tenure (1920-1925), he created the foundations of the future state of Israel, only to be declared by Ben Gurion in 1948. In his short tenure, he promulgated dozens of laws which created: facilities for Jewish acquisition of Palestinian land; Hebrew as an official language; independent Jewish banking system, educational system, labour union (Histadrut), Public Works (Soleh Boneh), power generation company (Rosenberg). But the most critical laws for dismembering Palestine were the creation of a separate Jewish legislative council and separate Jewish armed forces (Haganah) which eventually conquered Palestine.
The remarkable fact is that Samuel issued many of these laws without authority, neither from the League of Nations, which approved the Mandate only on 24 July 1922, nor on authority from the Colonial Office in London which often rejected Samuel’s formulation. It was a case of crude transplanting of Israel in the heart of Palestine. Needles to say this was without the consent, or frequently the knowledge, of the majority of the country’s population, the Palestinians.
The flood of Jewish European settlers to Palestine reached its peak about the middle of the 1930’s. At the end of 1936, the total Jewish immigrant population rose to 384,000 or 28% of the whole population (from 9% at the beginning of the Mandate). This ignited the Palestinian Arab Revolt (1936-1939).
The Revolt was met with utmost British brutality. The RAF bombed villages indiscriminately. The rising casualties of civilians enraged the population and increased the number of those who joined the ranks of the rebels (called “bandits” by the British). Land forces attacked the villages, destroyed their supplies and held the men in cages for two days on end without food or water. Collective punishment was applied widely. Political parties were dissolved. Leaders were imprisoned or deported.
Reading the military reports written during this period, one is surprised to see no sympathy for the Palestinians, who were merely fighting for their survival in their own country, nor see any recognition of the British betrayal of Palestinians.
The British forces at this time (25 to 50 thousand soldiers) were assisted occasionally by Jewish armed forces, notably 20,000 Jewish policemen, supernumeraries, and settlement guards in addition to providing intelligence information.
A minimum estimate of Palestinian casualties was: 5,000 killed, 15,000 wounded and a similar number jailed. More than a hundred men were executed, including leaders such as the 80 year-old Sheikh Farhan al Sa’di, who was hanged while fasting in Ramadan on 22 November 1937. Thus, about 50% of all male adults in the mountainous region of Palestine, corresponding roughly to the West Bank today, where the Revolt was particularly active, have been wounded or jailed by the British.
By 1939, the Palestinian society was dismembered, defenseless and leaderless . The year 1939 can be identified as the British-inflicted Nakba. Almost ten years later, Ben Gurion carried out the Zionist-inflicted Nakba of 1948.
The Second World War years were an ideal prelude for the Zionists to prepare for bouncing on defenseless Palestine and to get rid of the British whose role for the Zionists had become obsolete.
The Zionist Biltmore conference, held in New York in May 1942, clearly exposed the Zionist aims by demanding “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth”. In the same year, the Haganah, the Jewish army, accelerated its intelligence efforts and collected detailed intelligence for a project known as “the Village Files”. The Village Files, based on field reports of spies posing as Boy Scouts, contained full information about the village, including the names and views of key people, number of men of bearing arms age, weapons they possess, land ownership, houses construction, water sources, access roads, economic conditions, current political views, relations with Jews… etc. The aim clearly was to plan the attack on these villages and the expulsion of its population. To achieve this objective at the end of WWII, the British, the Zionists’ first and foremost benefactor, must be pushed to leave Palestine, to clear the way for the Zionist conquest of Palestine.
Immediately at the end of WWII, the Zionists started a terror campaign against the British forces in Palestine. They bombed the British HQ in King David hotel, derailed railways, attacked police stations, hanged British soldiers, kidnapped a judge and sent letter bombs to British figures in London. Jewish actions were described as “terrorism” by the UN Security Council in its resolution no. 57, 1948, in connection with the assassination of UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte.
Yet the British turned a blind eye to the roots of terror, namely the creation of the Zionist colonial project, and explained these atrocities against them as the work of a minority of bad Jews against the peaceful majority of good Jews.
The Partition Plan of November 1947 (UNGA Resolution-181) was the fig leaf which the Zionists used to provide the legitimacy of conquering Palestine. The Partition Plan was only a suggestion, has no binding value; it was rejected by the Palestinians because it proposed sovereignty over 55% of Palestine for the recently arrived Jewish colonists, who did not control, even with British collusion, more than 6% of Palestine.
The UN and US realized that the Partition was a mistake. In March 1948, the UN and the US dropped their support for the Partition and proposed UN Trusteeship on Palestine, replacing Britain as the Mandatory Power.
If implemented, this spelled disaster for the Zionists. In early April 1948, Ben Gurion immediately implemented Plan D to conquer as much as possible of Palestine, using his well trained army of 60,000 soldiers, which increased to 120,000 within the year.
In the fateful 6 weeks from 1st April to 14th May 1948, the date when the state of Israel was declared, the Zionists depopulated 220 Palestinians villages, whose population made half of all Nakba refugees. The British were still in Palestine. What did they do?
They did not intervene. Nor did they intervene when three dozen massacres were committed against Palestinian villages. Dayr Yassin was the most notorious, not the ugliest. The British Chief of Police in Jerusalem was a few kilometers away, but he did nothing. The expulsion of Palestinians from Tiberias was assisted by the British providing transport for the expelled population. In the massive evacuation of Haifa’s Palestinian population, the British forces did not defend the population, but assisted their departure. The fall of Haifa speaks volumes about the failure of General Stockwell to discharge his duties and protect the population. The charges against him and his “cooperation” with the invading Zionists remains to this day a black spot on his record.
The handwritten book of signals between the British patrols along Jaffa-Jerusalem axis and their HQ in the critical period of April-May 1948 is a damning record of the British collusion and failure to honor their obligations.
In the wireless Log (No. 129) of Duty Troops (April and May 1948), there are frequent entries showing the refusal of the British Army to rescue Palestinian villagers when attacked by Jews. The army was ordered to watch, report and not to interfere. When Jews asked for help, the troops were ordered to rescue them.
In one entry dated May 10, the Jewish attack on, and bombardment of, the village of Beit Mahsir, west of Jerusalem, was reported by the hour from dawn to sunset by the British patrols to their HQ while the village houses were being destroyed and some of its inhabitants killed. At no time did the HQ ordered the army patrol to save the inhabitants or to stop the attack. This is in spite of the fact that the Jewish forces acted like a regular army and their officers were addressed as such by the British. The Palestinian defenders were only a dozen or so volunteers with old rifles.
If you were a Jewish employee of the Health Department of Palestine Government, and went to work on the 15th of May 1948, the first day after the declaration of Israel, you would find your office, your records, your telephone, all intact, except for one thing: the desk of your Palestinian colleague was vacant. In all likelihood, if not killed, he became a refugee, and you, in Israel, had an instant state. The Palestinian citizen, the natural inhabitant of the country, is the only one absent. The immigrant-settler became the only recognized citizen.
The unceremonious departure of the British left the country in a state of chaos, largely of their own doing. The last High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Alan Cunningham, left Palestine with no word of goodbye from the losing Arabs or the winning Jews.
He told Chatham House in July 1948, “In the end, the British were blamed for not handing over to anyone, whereas, in point of fact, there was nobody to whom to hand over”. He is right in a way. The settlers took over the country and the Palestinians were expelled.
The Zionists seized the land and property of the Palestinians, private and public, and also all their records of land ownership, education, health, banking, transport and survey maps. Besides seizing the physical space, they inherited the British legal legacy. There were hardly any laws, formulated by the British Mandate against the Palestinians, especially those used to crush the Revolt, that were not used by the new Israel with vengeance, and refinement to the exclusion of Jews. Collective punishment, mass arrests, blowing up of homes, destroying of supplies, detention without trial, extra judicial killing, deportation and many other practices were widely used by Israel, to this day.
Israel has expanded the practice to include major war crimes of ethnic cleansing, large scale massacres and wholesale confiscation of land and property. While Britain gave measured consideration to international law at the United Nations, Israel flaunted almost every article in international law with impunity.
But in spite of Jewish terrorist attacks against the British, especially in the years 1945-1948, Britain defended Israel’s conquest of Palestine by signing the Tripartite (UK, USA and France) Declaration of 1950 against any attempt by the Arabs to reverse the Israeli conquest.
At no time, before or after Israel’s establishment, did Britain call for an independent free democratic Palestine as required by its obligation under the Mandate (Class A). At no time, after 1948, did Britain pressure Israel, under the pain of sanctions, to abide by international law, to withdraw from occupied territory since November 1948 (according to Security Council resolutions), to reverse ethnic cleansing or to allow the return of the refugees.
In the history of conflicts, there is hardly any other case in which a crime against a people, committed deliberately and continuously over decades, was continued to this day with vigour and without remorse or reparation from the parties that committed it.
As the various contributions in this volume show, there are many other facets of British dereliction of duty in Palestine. The records will show in the future the extent of the permanent damage to Palestine and Palestinians due to actions and inactions of the Mandatory Power, Britain.
It is true that Israel has by far surpassed its tutor and protector in brutality and war crimes. But Britain has not atoned for its sins, made no amends or reparations and continued to support the criminal.
Perhaps the day of reckoning of British deeds and misdeeds may yet come.