If I were in your place I would be a Zionist, and if you were in my place you would be an Arab nationalist like me.
- Aouni Abd-al Hadi to David Ben-Gurion
One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, by Tom Segev
A man was riding on his donkey and saw another man walking. He invited the man to ride with him. Mounting the donkey, the stranger said, “How fast your donkey is!” The two rode on for a while. When the stranger then said, “How fast our donkey is!” the animal’s owner ordered the man to get off. “Why?” the stranger asked. “I’m afraid,” said the owner, “that you’ll soon be saying, ‘How fast my donkey is!’”
- Khalil al-Sakakini, a Christian Arab, to Dr. Judah Leib Magnes, president of the Hebrew University
In the aftermath of World War One, with the formerly Ottoman Middle East carved primarily between British and French interests, the British held the mandate for Palestine. Given the contradictory wartime promises made by the British to the Arabs who populated the land and the Jews who hoped to populate it, it seems just that Britain was stuck with this mess of its making.
Talks between the Arabs and Jews were fruitless – each wanting something the other was unwilling to give. Push came to shove (you will not get a more complex analysis than this from me); from 1936 to 1939 the Arabs revolted, marked traditionally as beginning in Jaffa on April 19, 1936.
Initially, Arab terrorism was primarily aimed at the British; it was the British that held the authority, it was the British allowing the immigration.
Inevitably, Jews were on both the receiving and giving end of the violence; like the Arabs, Jews were both victims and perpetrators. Ben-Gurion, while writing in his diary that he never felt hatred for the Arabs or desire for vengeance, still would note:
The destruction of Jaffa , the city and the port, will happen and it will be for the best. When Jaffa falls into hell I will not be among the mourners.
Segev’s book covers the entire Mandatory period. In this post, I will look at one specific aspect: the British response to the Arab revolts. You will note that tactics when dealing with “the other” have changed little.
After a decade-and-a-half of the Mandate, the British attempted to rid themselves of this entire mess. The Peel Commission was formed in 1936, returning its report in July 1937. The Commission was formed in response to the Arab Revolt.
The Commission recommended partition – a two-state solution. The Arabs were fully against any Jewish state of any size in the region. The Jews were torn on this. Some were not satisfied with any Arab portion, others saw it as an opportunity to gain a permanent foothold; more could be claimed or taken later.
Ultimately the plan was rejected by the British government; it would involve the forced mass transfer of Arabs, something the British would not do. For the Jews that supported the plan, the idea of a forced mass migration was seen as a blessing – the British would be the ones doing the dirty work. It was not to be.
In Old Jaffa, in the summer of 1936, the British destroyed something between 300 and 800 homes – the lower estimate British, the upper estimate Arab. It was said that this area provided cover for stone throwers and snipers. The residents were given 24 hours to leave; alternative housing was not provided.
As the rioting continued, enter Charles Tegart. He was a colonial police officer, transferred from his station in India. He was brought in to quell the Arab revolts. He was not moderate in his tactics.
He built a security fence along the northern border of Palestine in order to prevent infiltration by terrorists and the transport of supplies; he built dozens of police fortresses around the country and concrete pillboxes along the roads. He imported Doberman dogs from South Africa and established a training center in Jerusalem – training interrogators on the use of torture.
Suspects underwent brutal questioning, involving humiliation, beating and severe physical mistreatment, including the Turkish practice of hitting prisoners on the soles of their feet and on the genitals. Jerusalem police chief Douglas Duff described the interrogation methods in his memoir. Beatings often left marks, Duff wrote; the “water can” method, however, left no traces. The police would lay the suspect down on his back, clamping his head between two cushions, and trickle water into his nostrils from a coffee pot.
Under military law, prison sentencing was swift; in two years, the number of detainees increased ten-fold, to over nine thousand. More than one hundred Arabs were sentenced to death, and thirty were executed. A few executions were described – botched hangings that did not bring a swift end, but instead an agonizingly slow death.
Entire villages, neighborhoods and even cities were held accountable for terrorist acts. “The guiding principle was that everyone was guilty until proven otherwise and everyone was to be punished.” Villagers were chosen at random for execution – the price to be paid…collectively…and without evidence.
First, a plane would fly overhead to drop leaflets announcing a curfew. This was followed by the arrival of soldiers. The residents would wonder, for each episode: was the purpose humiliation or interrogation or punishment? All were possible.
The men of the village were detained in cages; while held in the pens for days in the heat and sun, dozens would die – lacking food and water. The houses searched – more like ransacked: breaking down doors, smashing furniture, stealing items of value, and emptying the contents of pantries onto the ground. Drunken rampages by the British soldiers were not unknown.
They would spill the contents of the food cans, on the suspicion that weapons were hidden inside. But this didn’t explain why they would mix the flour and oil and then pour the now useless mix onto the beds.
One Dr. Forster, a British doctor, recorded such events in his diary, suggesting that the British could probably teach Hitler something he did not know about running concentration camps.
Rationalizations were offered: the hot sun in the middle of summer was described as if it was a workplace accident; as the Arabs were tribal, collective punishment seemed appropriate; the Turks did the same types of things.
Villages were overtaken by the soldiers – sometimes for months at a time. Homes were destroyed – perhaps up to 2000 between 1936 and 1940.
The villagers were caught in a dilemma – a life and death dilemma: if they gave cover to terrorists, the British would extract dreadful punishment; if they turned in a terrorist, the comrades would extract revenge. Yet, the villagers would note, of the two – terrorist and soldier – the latter were the greater criminals.
Soldiers could be tried for abuses; when found guilty, sentences were light. This, too, was rationalized: as Arabs don’t really care about murder, why should British soldiers be harshly punished? As Arabs didn’t care much about murder, extreme measures by the soldiers were deemed “necessary” – the story went; mild responses by the British would not be understood by Arabs so lacking in the understanding of right and wrong. Such were the rationalizations.
The beginning of World War Two settled things down. Just as during the Great War, Britain once again needed the Arabs. The Arabs could join with Hitler just as easily as with Britain; the Jews had no such alternative. Better to make peace with the Arabs.
The White Paper of 1939 was issued – in response to the Arab Revolts and in anticipation of the coming World War. Although never formally approved, it was the basis for governing policy in Palestine for the duration of World War Two.
In many respects, the White Paper was in contradiction to the Balfour Declaration. One need not understand the details of the White Paper – merely the reactions: the Arabs accepted it, the Zionists rejected it. Acts of terrorism by the Zionists then increased.
One noteworthy item from the White Paper and subsequent British policy: the British reduced the allowed immigrations of Jews into Palestine as appeasement to the Arabs; this during events in Central Europe during World War Two.
World War Two came and went. In 1946, Zionists bombed the King David Hotel, killing over ninety and wounding over forty. The hotel was the administrative headquarters for the British in Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations voted on a partition plan; the British left Palestine.
Then war. Seven hundred thousand Palestinians, mostly Arab Muslims but also Arab and non-Arab Christians, fled the country as refugees, to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Ten thousand Jews were displaced.