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