Into the quicksand

Ploughing the Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948

Naomi Shepherd <em>John Murray, 290pp, £20

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 Britain was given control of Palestine as a mandated territory by the League of Nations. The 30-year mandate was one of the most significant historical interludes in the 20th century; from it, in 1948, emerged the state of Israel. Without the British mandate, which, in Naomi Shepherd's words, "protected the Zionist beachhead in Palestine" in the 1920s and 1930s, Israel could not have come into existence. The debt of the Jewish national homeland to British Palestine is incalculable. The Israeli army learnt much of its craft from the British, and Israel adopted most of the legal and administrative structure of the mandate. It is odd, then, that to date there has been no comprehensive and accessible history of the Palestine mandate. That gap has now been filled by this superb volume.

With mastery of the multitudinous sources, Shepherd throws light on every single aspect of the 30-year British interregnum, including potted biographies of the seven high commissioners appointed by Whitehall to Palestine and of all the principal officials. There are lucid sections on public health, the fight against tropical disease (which saw smallpox, cholera, typhoid and trachoma largely tamed) and the less successful struggle in the ports against rat-borne bubonic and pneumonic plagues.

Necessarily, though, much of the text concentrates on matters of high politics. The usual problems of colonial administration were compounded in Palestine by a duality of subject peoples and a duality of insoluble social problems. The British had to govern two different communities, the Jews and the Arabs, who were bitterly and irreconcilably divided by politics, religion, culture, language, economic and social organisation and even political expectations and ambitions. Fuelled by the 1917 Balfour declaration, the Jews expected the British to further the goals of Zionism, while the Arabs expected London to make good the promises made when Allenby, T E Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and others encouraged them to throw off the Turkish yoke.

The two insoluble social problems were land and immigration. On the land issue the British attempted the impossible by retaining Ottoman land law as at 1914 while attempting reform. The tug of war between continuity and change was especially absurd since Ottoman land law was so recondite that few Turkish lawyers understood it, and for that reason Ataturk drew up a new code in Turkey. One entirely inter-Arab case in 1940 was so complex that it required research in French and Turkish archives to resolve the dispute. But the British, unwilling to offend the susceptibility of neutral Turkey, did not want to ask Ankara for documents, while the French ones were by this time in Nazi-occupied Paris. Peasant debt was the principal problem. Land reform required money that the British had to spend on police and security. To escape the burden of debt the Arab fellahin were often tempted to sell to Jewish settlers. Shepherd makes the point that the sale of land to Jews was the consequence of indebtedness of the Arab peasants, not its cause, as in later Arab propaganda. Besides, by 1947 only 8.5 per cent of the territory that would later comprise Israel was owned by Jews.

Jewish immigration in the pursuit of the new Zion naturally inflamed Arab opinion in Palestine. The problem became acute in the 1930s as a result of Nazi persecution in Europe. During the incumbency of the fourth high commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope (1931-38), 200,000 Jews entered Palestine, whereas in the entire period 1917-31 there had been only 100,000 Jewish immigrants. Arab-Jew conflict, first seriously manifested in the Wailing Wall riots of 1929, eventually found expression in the Arab rising of 1936, directed at Jews and British alike.

For a long time the authorities lost control of significant portions of Palestine; only in early 1939, after the arrival of a further division of front-line troops from Britain's crack regiments, was the rebellion finally put down.

Both Jews and Arabs habitually accused the British of favouring the other side. Shepherd shows how nuanced the entire situation was, with the Jewish community far from monolithic, some Zionist, some collaborationist, and with similar factions among the Arabs; some British officials, meanwhile, were anti-Semitic but others favoured the Jews against the supposedly incorrigible and backward Arabs. The second world war made the Jews natural allies in the struggle against fascism, but by arming and training the Hagana militia to a high standard of military effectiveness, the British made a rod for their own backs after the war. The British decision to cut and run in 1947, under extreme pressure from the US, is a well-known story on which Shepherd wastes little space, but her essential fair-mindedness comes through in her contemptuous attitude to the fanatical thugs of Irgun and the Stern Gang, whose atrocities included blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1945.

Although British officials at every level in Palestine did their best, theirs was a mission impossible, and they were additionally hampered by the limitations of an essentially middle-class public school ethos, cultural bewilderment and linguistic incompetence. Why, then, did the British accept this bed of nails in the first place, given that there were no vital economic interests for them in Palestine and only a limited market for their goods? Shepherd suggests a number of reasons: Whitehall felt constrained by the Balfour declaration to puts its money where its mouth was; it wanted to achieve hegemony in the Middle East at the expense of France; it considered Palestine a vital staging-post on the way to India and the oilfields of Iraq; it thought that if Jews were not converted to Zionism they would opt for communism; and it believed there was such a thing as international Zionism and that all Jews automatically supported it. But the decision to accept the mandate was one Britain later came to regret bitterly. It was not so much a question of ploughing the sand as of sinking into the quicksands of Arab-Israeli conflict, which even today still threatens to engulf the west.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture