Note: This is a paper that was written for a Modern Middle East undergraduate history course. The paper was supposed to be five pages long, but I went a little overboard. Even so, I don’t think I even came close to fully covering the topic, not that I really could in a semester, or in one short research paper. Nonetheless, this paper received an A.
At the end of World War I, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the entire Middle East was in a state of flux. What used to be a single sovereign entity was carved up into modern nation states by the victorious European powers. At a conference in San Remo in 1920 Britain and France, according to an arrangement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), drew the borders for four new states: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. In 1922, Palestine was further divided into Palestine and Transjordan. These new countries were legitimized as mandates of the League of Nations, states that would be protectorates of European powers and eventually gain independence. Thus, Britain retained control of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan and France retained control of Syria and Lebanon, directly and indirectly.
Over the following decades, each of the mandate states threw off the shackles of colonialism and won independence, with the exception of Palestine. The pursuit of national independence for Palestinians has been impeded by a series of complications, starting with the Balfour Declaration of 1917:
His Majesty’s Government [of England] view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The Balfour Declaration is a letter that was issued by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. British government officials believed that the Jewish ‘vote’ needed to be won to ensure victory in World War I. If the British didn’t secure Jewish backing, the Germans would “buy them” and use them to influence Russia into signing a separate peace treaty with Germany, allowing the Germans to focus on the western front. The Balfour Declaration was a response both to the fear of the supposed power of world Jewry and the sympathetic nature of some British government officials to the Zionist cause. Zionist leaders did their best to encourage these feelings, resulting in the inclusion of the wording of the Balfour Declaration in the League of Nations sanctioned British mandate for Palestine in 1922.
Contrary to the popular idea that Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land, the area was well populated. At the beginning of the Zionist influx into the Palestine Mandate area, there were approximately 450,000 Arab and 20,000 (Arab) Jewish residents. Direct British rule and British efforts to fulfill the obligations of the Balfour declaration combined with the influx of European Jews created a volatile situation that retarded the national development of Palestine. Instead of developing modern governing institutions like other newly formed Middle Eastern nations, Palestine’s residents spent the mandate period in conflict and constant competition between British, Jewish and Arab interests.
The major conflict between the two groups was based on the meaning of the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist interpretation of the Balfour Declaration was that it intended the creation of a Jewish state that, as Chaim Weizmann (Chair of the Zionist Commission and later first president of Israel) said, would be as Jewish as England is English. Critics of the Zionists interpreted the Balfour Declaration’s goal as the creation of a Jewish cultural center inside an independent Arab state. The ambiguity was introduced into the document to give the British room for diplomatic maneuvering, but in the end, all it did was complicate their position in Palestine. They were never able to resolve the contradiction inherent in their promise.
The confusion in policy created by the Balfour Declaration led one senior British official to say, just prior to leaving the country, that Britain had “nothing but fluctuations of policy, hesitations…no policy at all.” The British alternately supported Jewish development of a national home and Arab national aspirations in a precarious balancing act intended to maintain the status quo. This remained true until their withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, twenty five years later. When the last British High Commissioner departed Haifa, there was no formal transfer of powers to a new local government because there was no government in Palestine. When the mandate ended, the Jews and Arabs were left to struggle for supremacy.
The internal struggle for power in the years and months leading up to the end of the British mandate for Palestine and the subsequent war that started on May 15th, 1948 with the end of British mandatory rule between Jewish and Arab irregular forces from the surrounding nations saw the birth of the state of Israel and the failure of the Palestinians to establish a nation. The reason for the success of the Jews over the Arabs boils down to three key differences: unity, external support and military power. The Jews entered Palestine with a unified goal, if not a unified ideology. They enjoyed wide support from Jewish and Christian communities around the world, as well as the backing from Britain guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration. They also took advantage of their ties to Europe to advance their military prowess, which proved decisive in the 1947-1948 conflict with the Arabs, also known as the first Arab-Israeli War. The Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, were completely unprepared for the task ahead of them.
During the early years of the mandate, the Arab notables felt it was only natural that they should govern the land they had lived on for centuries. They were convinced that at some point the British would come to their senses and stop supporting the Jews. In the meantime, the Arab notables in Palestine did what they could to maintain their social status, including working with the British mandate authorities, who supplied them with positions of authority. For example, the British created the office of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and assigned al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni to the role. Later the British created the Supreme Muslim council, which Husayni headed.
The reliance of Arab leadership on the British caused them to mostly work with, rather than against, the mandate government, which also meant that they were indirectly supporting the Zionist occupation of what they considered to be Arab land. The Arab notables attempted to negotiate with the British privately while condemning British support of Zionism publicly, all the while working to ensure there would be no disruptive mass political demonstrations that could destabilize their social and political positions. The need to stay on good terms with the British undermined the authority of the Arab notables in the eyes of the public. Further complicating the Arab political atmosphere in Palestine was the constant rivalry between the two prominent families in the region: the Husaynis and the Nashashibis. Their attempts to create rival power bases in Palestine prevented Arab unity. The inter-Arab rivalries and reliance on the British, together with the need to suppress popular movements to maintain their positions, caused the Palestinians to never be capable of forming a unified front, which effectively neutered the Palestinian political body and Palestinian aspirations of nationhood. It would be fair to say that the goals of the Arab leadership (to maintain their positions) did not match the goals of the Palestinians, but due to the Ottoman top-down power structure, the average Palestinian had no way to directly influence the decision making process until later in the mandatory period, when guerilla leaders like al-Qassim began to rally popular support.
Compounding the problem was the lack of any meaningful external support for the Palestinian Arabs. To start with, none of the Arab political institutions formed in mandate Palestine were recognized by any international authority, not even by the Arab states, who took it upon themselves to speak for the Palestinian Arabs. But, their motives weren’t entirely pure either. Throughout the mandate period, the surrounding Arab states had, despite repeated requests, failed to supply the Palestinian Arabs with arms, food, or any financial support. The Arab states each had different agendas in terms of what they wanted to accomplish in Palestine, but the rights of the Palestinians themselves probably ranked very low on their list of priorities. Most of the surrounding states were solely interested in land grabs to increase the power of their respective states in terms of inter-Arab regional politics.
By the time hostilities broke out in Palestine after the November 1947 announcement of the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs felt a distinct sense of abandonment. They had no effective leadership and they had been isolated by the surrounding Arab states. According to Rashid Khalidi,
The Palestinians entered the fighting which followed the passage of the UN Partition Resolution with a deeply divided leadership, exceedingly limited finances, no centrally organized military forces or centralized administrative organs, and no reliable allies.
According to a Haganah Intelligence Service – Arab Division executive, the average Palestinian had come to the conclusion that they could not hold their own against the Jews. HIS – AD further reported that most of the Arab public would be willing to accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan and lacked a desire to engage in a war with the Jews because of a lack of weapons and internal organization. Many were unwilling to fight because if they died, there would be no compensation for their widows and/or orphans.