The Historiography of Anglo-Palestinian Relations since the 1960s

By Charlotte Kelsted

Between 1914 and 1939, Britain played a crucial role in what has been described as “one of the longest enduring… and most destructive and dangerous conflicts in modern history”: the Israel-Palestine conflict.[1] Prior to 1914, Palestine was part of the extensive Ottoman Empire, having been under Muslim rule for almost 700 years. A return of the Jews to Palestine was accordingly seen as a “remote” ideal at the start of the twentieth century.[2] When the Ottomans entered World War One on 5 November 1914, however, everything changed. If the Allied powers proved victorious, the Ottoman Empire would surely collapse and its former lands would be divided among the triumphant European powers. On 2 November 1917, in a letter to Lord Rothschild, Arthur Balfour pledged the British Government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.[3] This contradictory promise, subsequently known as the Balfour Declaration, was to form the basis of the British Mandate for Palestine which lasted from 1920 until the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948.

Historians have debated the nature of Anglo-Palestinian relations between 1914 and 1939 at great length since the 1960s, with three significant shifts discernible. First, although Leonard Stein argued in 1961 that the Balfour Declaration was motivated by the British Government’s desire to both secure Zionist support for the war and increase British influence in the Middle East, this interpretation was challenged in the 1970s and 1980s by Mayir Vereté and David Vital, who argued that Arthur Balfour’s promise was not a consequence of the government’s concern to secure Zionist support for the war, but of the government’s wish to further British imperial ambitions in the Middle East.[4] Over the last twenty years, however, historians’ interpretations of the Balfour Declaration have shifted again, with historians now of the belief that the government’s promise was indeed intended to secure Zionist support in the war.[5] Second, it was not until the release of official records in London and Jerusalem in the 1990s that historians began to realise the long-term implications of Sir Herbert Samuel’s policies as High Commissioner of Mandatory Palestine. Prior to the 1990s, historians had paid little attention to Samuel’s time as High Commissioner, but in the 1990s both Bernard Wasserstein and Sahar Huneidi argued that Samuel’s administration was the formative period in the mandate.[6] Third, although historians including Elizabeth Monroe and Jacob Hurewitz have traditionally assumed that the Arab revolt of 1936-9 was fully supported by Palestine’s Arab community, Matthew Hughes has recently used Hebrew, Arabic and previously untapped local British regimental sources to prove this assumption wrong, bringing to light examples of collaboration between the colonial authorities and pro-British, anti-rebel Arabs during the second phase of the revolt, from September 1937 until 1939.[7]

Firstly, there has been extensive debate among historians since the 1960s as to why the British Government pledged its support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine in November 1917. In The Balfour Declaration, published in 1961, Leonard Stein claimed that this was for two reasons: to secure Zionist (and thereby Russian and American) support for the war; and to expand imperial influence in the Middle East.[8] According to Stein, in 1917 the British Government believed the Zionists to be “a powerful element in Russian life”, wielding matching influence in the United States.[9] The British Government thus concluded that an avowal of support for the Zionist movement would increase the likelihood of obtaining Russian and American assistance in the war.[10] Stein alleged that the Balfour Declaration was due in equal part to the British Government’s desire to increase its imperial influence in the Middle East.[11] Control of Palestine would help safeguard Egypt from attacks from the North and a public declaration of British support for the creation of a national home for the Jews would prevent France from annexing Palestine, thereby ensuring that Great Britain remain the dominant sea-power in the Mediterranean.[12]

The credence of Stein’s argument was called into question, however, by the opening of the archives for the period in the late 1960s. In 1970, Vereté used recently released official and private documents in England and Israel to challenge Stein’s claim that the Balfour Declaration was in part attributable to the government’s desire to secure Zionist backing for the war.[13] According to Vereté, the Balfour Declaration was primarily due to the British Government’s concern to increase British influence in the Middle East: “had there been no Zionists in those days the British would have had to invent them”.[14] Not only was Palestine a “convenient point of communication with the Persian Gulf”, but it would also provide an invaluable buffer to Egypt in the likelihood of an attack from the North.[15] A British claim to Palestine would additionally prevent the French from increasing its influence in the region – a prospect that British officials “could scarcely tolerate”.[16] In 1987, Vereté’s argument was complemented by David Vital’s Zionism: The Crucial Phase.[17] Vital similarly argued that the Balfour Declaration was primarily a result of the British Government’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East. According to Vital, Prime Minister Lloyd George – in contrast with his predecessor Herbert Asquith – was keen for the “further expansion of Britain’s overseas interests and responsibilities” in 1917, which led to an “explicit (but secret) determination to establish fully-fledged British control over Palestine”.[18]

Interpretations of Anglo-Palestinian relations in 1917 have shifted once again over the last twenty years, with scholars now attributing Arthur Balfour’s declaration to the British Government’s concern to gain Zionist (and thereby Russian and American) support for the war. In The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of The Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918, published in 2007, James Renton states that recently historians have placed “greater emphasis … on the British intention to gain the support of Jewry for the war through the Balfour Declaration”.[19] Indeed, Efraim and Inari Karsh’s Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923, published in 1999, argues that by 1917, “Whitehall officialdom” was thoroughly convinced by “the international power of the Jews” and therefore believed that by incurring the favour of American Jewry, the chances of securing American assistance in the war were far greater – “American Jews were believed to wield considerable influence over both public opinion and the administration, whose political and financial goodwill the Entente Powers were anxious to buy”.[20] Tellingly, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was the leader of the American Zionists, was known to be a “close friend” of President Woodrow Wilson.[21]  Similarly, Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, published in 2001, argues that the Balfour Declaration “was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests” but a product of the belief that “the Jews controlled the world”.[22] Furthermore, in 2007, James Renton argued that “the decision to issue the Balfour Declaration was not driven by British strategic interests in the Ottoman Empire”.[23] Rather, “those behind the Balfour Declaration imagined Jewry to be a hostile international power”, whose support was instrumental in obtaining American and Russian assistance in the war.[24]

Secondly, it was not until the release of official records in London and Jerusalem in the 1990s that historians began to realise the long-term implications of Sir Herbert Samuel’s tenure as High Commissioner of Mandatory Palestine. Prior to the 1990s, few historians had examined Samuel’s time in Palestine in any detail. In Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-56, published in 1963, Elizabeth Monroe devoted two chapters – each of considerable length – to British policy in the Middle East between 1919 and 1945, but failed to examine Samuel’s policies as first High Commissioner of Mandatory Palestine.[25] Likewise, in The Struggle for Palestine, published in 1976, Jacob Hurewitz claimed that events in Palestine between 1939 and 1945 were “understandable only in relation to the earlier history of the mandate”, yet dedicated only one page to events in Palestine between 1920 and 1925.[26] Furthermore, Simha Flapan’s Zionism and the Palestinians of 1979 only mentioned Sir Herbert Samuel in passing, while Frank Hardie and Irwin Herman’s Britain and Zion: The Fateful Entanglement, published in 1980, only briefly explored Samuel’s influence on Anglo-Palestinian relations.[27]

In the early 1990s, however, the release of official records in London and Jerusalem meant that the documentary sources for Samuel’s term as High Commissioner of Palestine became available to historians for the first time. Bernard Wasserstein used these recently released sources, Samuel’s private papers and the private papers of “all of Samuel’s major contemporaries” to argue that Samuel was “clearly a major figure” who demanded “serious critical assessment”.[28] According to Wasserstein, Samuel’s policies as High Commissioner continued to influence Anglo-Palestinian relations for the duration of the Mandate. Samuel’s inability to secure Arab participation in the elections for a Legislative Council in May 1922 and his subsequent failure to follow through with the Arab Agency scheme in the Summer of 1923 meant that the High Commissioner’s administration was “little more than an umpire between two parallel governments” in 1923, which led to “a gradual process of institutional partition… a decade before the country’s territorial partition began to be seriously discussed”.[29] Not one of the six proceeding British High Commissioners between 1925 and 1948 was able to bring about cooperation between the Arabs and the Jews, and the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine were to remain entirely separate, both politically and economically, until the British withdrew from the region and the state of Israel was created in 1948.[30]

In A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, published in 2001, Sahar Huneidi likewise emphasised “the importance of studying this period”, arguing that what happened after Sir Herbert Samuel’s departure from Palestine in 1925 was “only an unfolding of what had been securely established during the first crucial years”.[31] Huneidi employed many of the same sources as Wasserstein to reach this conclusion, including material from the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, War Office and British Cabinet, as well as the private papers and published memoirs of the “principle British actors” during Samuel’s time as High Commissioner.[32] But Huneidi also used contemporary Arabic newspapers and the unpublished archival material of the Palestinian national movement to strengthen his argument. According to Huneidi, by 1925 the Arab community in Palestine had lost their faith in the British Government: despite repeated assurances that the Balfour Declaration would not lead to the “establishment of a Jewish state”, the Palestine Arab community believed the British Government to be following a “pro-Zionist” policy, “regardless of the consequences for the Palestine Arabs”.[33] Arab cooperation with the British administration was therefore highly unlikely after 1925.[34]

Lastly, although historians have traditionally assumed that the Arab revolt of 1936-9 was fully supported by Palestine’s Arab community, Matthew Hughes has recently used Hebrew, Arabic and previously untapped local British regimental sources to challenge this assumption, revealing the extent of Anglo-Palestinian collaboration in the second phase of the Arab revolt, from September 1937 until 1939.[35] In Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, published in 1963, Elizabeth Monroe claimed that the Arab revolt of 1936-9 had the support of the whole of Palestine’s Arab community and that this was why the revolt was so hard for the British to suppress: “the British increased their garrison, but numbers are seldom the answer when a resistance movement has the support of a whole population”.[36] Likewise, in The Struggle for Palestine, published in 1976, Jacob Hurewitz claimed that the Arab revolt was wholeheartedly supported by Palestine’s Arab population.[37] When Hurewitz outlined the various measures implemented by the British to suppress the revolt (such as making the discharge of firearms and the carrying of bombs or other unlicensed weapons punishable by death, setting up military courts in November 1937 for trying offences against law and order, and blowing up buildings which were housing known rebels), he did not mention any collaboration between Palestinian Arabs and the colonial authorities.[38]

Recently, however, Matthew Hughes has challenged this assumption. In his 2016 article, ‘Palestinian Collaboration with the British: The Peace Bands and the Arab revolt in Palestine, 1936-9’, Hughes argues that the British administration used two methods to crush the Arab revolt. The first method combined “heavy troop deployments, legal sanctions, official and unofficial violence, torture, collective punishment, mass detention and diplomacy” and the second involved collaboration with the Palestinian Arabs.[39] Hughes used Hebrew and Arabic language material alongside local British Army regimental archives from the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives to bring to light these previously overlooked pro-British, anti-rebel Palestinian Arab ‘peace bands’ who were employed by the British in the second phase of the revolt, from September 1937 onwards. According to Hughes, these ‘peace bands’ were supported by the Palestinian Nashashibi family and worked with the colonial government and British Army to weaken the rebel groups who were led by the Nashashibi family’s age-old rivals: the Husaynis.[40] Members of these ‘peace bands’ were paid £P6 per month by the British and worked with the colonial authorities to divide and defeat the Arab rebels.[41] They informed the British of “villagers suspected of being rebels”, “spreading confusion and distrust among the Palestinians” and fought alongside British troops in attacks on Arab villages.[42] They also helped the colonial authorities to track down notorious Arab rebels such as Abd al-Rahim Al-Hajj Muhammad in March 1939 and worked with the British to “gradually bring villagers to the government side”.[43]

In conclusion, since the 1960s there have been three notable shifts in the historiography of Anglo-Palestinian relations between 1914 and 1939. The first of these has concerned the British Government’s motive for pledging its support for the creation of a Jewish national home in November 1917. In 1961, Leonard Stein suggested that the Balfour Declaration was due in equal part to the government’s desire to secure Zionist support in the war, and its concern to increase British influence in the Middle East.[44] However, the opening of the archives for the period in the late 1960s led Mayir Vereté and David Vital to challenge this thesis.[45] Vereté and Vital argued that the Balfour Declaration was a product of British imperial ambition: Palestine would prove a “convenient point of communication with the Persian Gulf”; an invaluable buffer to Egypt in the case of an attack from the North; and British acquisition of Palestine would prevent the French from gaining influence in the region.[46] Over the last twenty years, however, this argument has been challenged by Efraim and Inari Karsh, Tom Segev and James Renton, all of whom have argued that the Balfour Declaration was actually a result of the British Government’s assumption that a statement of support for the Zionist movement would increase the chances of securing American and Russian support in the war.[47] The second shift in the historiography of Anglo-Palestinian relations has concerned Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner of Mandatory Palestine, and the long-term implications of his policies as High Commissioner. Prior to the 1990s, few historians had examined Samuel’s contribution to the Palestine conflict in any detail. This changed, however, with the release of the documentary sources for Samuel’s time in Palestine in the early 1990s. In 1992, Bernard Wasserstein convincingly argued that Samuel’s failure to bring about cooperation between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine ultimately led to the creation of Israel in 1948.[48] This argument was reinforced by Sahar Huneidi in 2001, who used contemporary Arabic newspapers and the unpublished archival material of the Palestinian national movement to show that Palestine’s Arab community had lost its faith in the British Government by 1925, rendering future cooperation with the administration almost impossible.[49] The third shift has concerned the British handling of the 1936-9 Arab revolt. Whereas historians have traditionally assumed that the revolt had the full support of Palestine’s Arab population, Matthew Hughes has recently used Hebrew and Arabic language material alongside local British Army regimental archives to challenge this assumption.[50] Hughes’ research has shed light on the previously overlooked pro-British, anti-rebel Palestinian Arab ‘peace bands’ who worked alongside the colonial government and British Army from September 1937 onwards to divide and defeat the Arab rebels. These three shifts promise a bright future for the study of Anglo-Palestinian relations between 1914 and 1939. Not only are historians engaging with new source material as previously inaccessible sources become available, but they are also using previously untapped archival sources to cast new light on old debates. This vitality in the historiography of Anglo-Palestinian relations between 1914 and 1939 is particularly important in this centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which is sure to engender extensive debate on the historic role of Britain in Palestine.

 

[1] H. Faris, The Failure of the Two-State Solution: The Prospects of One State in the Israel-Palestine Conflict (London, 2013), p. 1.

[2] H. Samuel, Memoirs (London, 1945), pp. 139-140.

[3] Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, 2 Nov 1917 (Israel State Archives) SAM/H/2.

[4] L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration (New York, 1961); M. Vereté, ‘The Balfour Declaration and Its Makers’ Middle Eastern Studies 6 (1970), 48-76; D. Vital, Zionism: The Crucial Phase (Oxford, 1987).

[5] E. Karsh and I. Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge, 1999); T. Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (London, 2001); J. Renton, The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918 (Basingstoke, 2007).

[6] B. Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel: A Political Life (Oxford, 1992); S. Huneidi, A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians (London, 2001).

[7] E. Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (Baltimore, 1963); J. Hurewitz, The Struggle for Palestine (New York, 1976); M. Hughes, ‘Palestinian Collaboration with the British: The Peace Bands and the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-9’ Journal of Contemporary History 51 (2016), 291-315.

[8] Stein, The Balfour Declaration.

[9] Ibid, p. 544.

[10] Ibid, p. 544.

[11] Ibid, p. 53.

[12] Ibid, p. 54.

[13] Vereté, ‘The Balfour Declaration’, 49.

[14] Ibid, 50.

[15] Ibid, 51.

[16] Ibid, 51.

[17] Vital, Zionism.

[18] Ibid, pp. 209-211.

[19] Renton, The Zionist Masquerade, p. 2.

[20] Karsh and Karsh, Empires of the Sand, p. 250.

[21] Ibid, p. 250.

[22] Segev, One Palestine, Complete, p. 33.

[23] Renton, The Zionist Masquerade, p. 5.

[24] Ibid, p. 3.

[25] Monroe, Britain’s Moment, pp. 50-94.

[26] Hurewitz, The Struggle for Palestine, p. 3.

[27] S. Flapan, Zionism and the Palestinians (London, 1979); F. Hardie and I. Herman, Britain and Zion: The Fateful Entanglement (Belfast, 1980).

[28] Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. xi.

[29] Ibid, p. 226.

[30] Ibid, p. 226.

[31] Huneidi, A Broken Trust, p. xiii.

[32] Ibid, p. ix.

[33] Ibid, pp. 236-7.

[34] Ibid, p. ix.

[35] Hughes, ‘Palestinian Collaboration’.

[36] Monroe, Britain’s Moment, p. 87.

[37] Hurewitz, The Struggle for Palestine, p. 68.

[38] Ibid, p. 83.

[39] Hughes, ‘Palestinian Collaboration’, 292.

[40] Ibid, 293.

[41] Ibid, 298.

[42] Ibid, 303-10.

[43] Ibid, 300.

[44] Stein, The Balfour Declaration.

[45] Vereté, ‘The Balfour Declaration’; Vital, Zionism.

[46] Vereté, ‘The Balfour Declaration’, 51.

[47] Karsh and Karsh, Empires of the Sand; Segev, One Palestine, Complete; Renton, The Zionist Masquerade.

[48] Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. 226.

[49] Huneidi, A Broken Trust, p. ix.

[50] Hughes, ‘Palestinian Collaboration’.

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