Arab-Jewish Conflict under the Mandate
The history of the mandate period is one of tension and conflict between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine and between them and the British. Each community believed that it had the right to the entire territory and had been so promised by the British government and its World War I Allies, yet neither got it as the British retained control.
The efforts of the Jewish community to build a country for themselves primarily through Jewish immigration and land purchases were opposed by the Arabs and led to unrest, in 1920 and 1921, that continued to escalate.
Violence erupted again in the late 1920s. In 1928 and 1929, there were disturbances and riots associated with the Western, or Wailing, Wall, and Jews were killed in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed, with more injured there and elsewhere. A tenth of the Jewish community in Hebron was massacred, and the remainder left the city.
The British government established a commission in September 1929 to investigate the cause of the anti-Jewish riots and to suggest policies that might prevent such occurrences in the future.The Shaw Commission report suggested that the disturbances resulted from Arab fears of Jewish domination of Palestine through Jewish immigration and land purchases.
It recommended that the British government issue a clear statement of policy on the meanings of the mandate provisions and on such issues as land ownership and immigration. The British continued to debate the issue of immigration and land purchases in the early 1930s but reached no definitive policy. Nevertheless, for several years Palestine remained relatively calm.
In November 1935, the Arabs in Palestine petitioned the British authorities to halt land transfers to the Jews, to establish a form of democratic leadership, and to terminate further Jewish immigration until there was an evaluation of the absorptive capacity of the country.
Their demands were rejected, and in April 1936, the Arab Higher Committee, which consisted of representatives from the major Arab factions or groups in Palestine, called for a general strike. The Arab revolt soon escalated into violence as marauding bands of Arabs attacked Jewish settlements and Jewish paramilitary groups responded. After appeals from Arab leaders in the surrounding states, the committee called off the strike in October 1936.
The British government appointed a commission under Lord Robert Peel to assess the situation. The Peel report, published in July 1937, noted that because the British had made promises to both the Arabs and Jews during World War I and in return had gained the support of both, each party had drawn its own expectations from those promises.
Although the British had believed that both Arabs and Jews could find a degree of compatibility under the mandate, this belief had not been justified nor would it be in the future. However, Britain would not renounce its obligations; it was responsible for the welfare of the mandate and would strive to make peace:
In the light of experience and of the arguments adduced by the Commission . . . [the British government is] driven to the conclusions that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the aspirations of Arabs and Jews in Palestine, that these aspirations cannot be satisfied under the terms of the present Mandate, and that a scheme of partition on the general lines recommended by the Commission represents the best and most hopeful solution to the deadlock.
Cantonization (the division of Palestine into cantons, or territories) was examined as a possible solution and found not to be viable because it would not settle the question of self-government. The commission suggested the partition of Palestine into three zones: a Jewish zone, an Arab section, and a corridor that went from Tel Aviv–Jaffa to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which was to be under a continued British mandate. The drawbacks of partition, it was believed, would be outweighed by the advantages of peace and security.
The mandate would thus be dissolved and replaced by a treaty system identical to that of Iraq and Syria. Access to and the protection of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be guaranteed to all by the league of Nations. The principle guiding the partition of Palestine was the separation of Jewish areas of settlement from those completely or mostly occupied by the Arabs.
The partition plan proposed by Peel, the first recommendation for the partition of Palestine, was a reversal of British policy on the mandate and the Balfour Declaration. Anger and protest from both the Arabs and the Zionists ensued. The Arabs did not want to have to give up any land to the Jews, and the Zionists felt betrayed in their pursuit of all of Palestine as a national home.
Britain endorsed the Peel plan. After reviewing the Peel Commission report in July/August 1937, the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva objected to the partition. The Jewish Agency accepted the plan even though it was not happy with the exclusion of Jerusalem and with the amount of territory allotted to the Jewish state. The Arab Higher Committee rejected the plan and the division of Palestine, and a new and more violent phase of the Arab revolt began.
yet another commission was established. The Woodhead Commission published its findings in October 1938, which held that the Peel Commission’s proposals were not feasible, primarily because it would leave a large Arab minority within the boundaries of a Jewish state, which also would be surrounded by other Arab states. The Woodhead Commission concluded that there were no feasible boundaries for self supporting Arab and Jewish states in Palestine but suggested a number of partition plans.
The British government responded on November 9, 1938, noting that partition was not feasible: “His Majesty’s Government . . . have reached the conclusion that . . . the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.”
On February 7, 1939, the British government convened the St. James Conference in London to see if a solution could be developed through negotiations with the Arabs and the Jews.
The failure of the conference led to a White Paper of May 17, 1939, that called for severe restrictions on Jewish immigration: “His Majesty’s Government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country.”
It called, therefore, for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in an independent Palestinian state. Jewish immigration would be restricted, as would be land transfers. The White Paper foresaw an independent Palestinian state within 10 years.
The House of Commons debated the White Paper on May 22, 1939, and it was approved. The House of Lords also approved it. The response was outrage in both Arab and Jewish communities. The Arabs wanted an immediate end to all Jewish immigration and the review of all immigrants who had entered Palestine since 1918.
The Zionists felt that the British had backed away from previous commitments to work toward a Jewish homeland and that this policy was a breach of faith. Peace in Palestine seemed improbable, as both the Arabs and the Jews rejected the White Paper.On the eve of World War II, the British realized they could not end the conflict in Palestine and that their role in the country was over. The animosity and the violence between Jews and Arabs had become unmanageable.