Britain foresaw a turbulent Palestine in 1948, secret documents reveal

Predicted predicament:Palestinians march with raised hands during the surrender of the town of Ramle, in May 1948.— Photo: AP

Predicted predicament:Palestinians march with raised hands during the surrender of the town of Ramle, in May 1948.— Photo: AP  

The British government knew, from the moment it planned to withdraw its forces from Palestine ore than 60 years ago, that partition of the territory and the founding of the state of Israel would lead to war and defeat for the Arabs, secret documents released on Friday made clear.

The documents, which have a remarkable contemporary resonance, reveal how British officials looked on as Jewish settlers took over more and more Arab land.

In the weeks leading to the partition of Palestine in 1948, when Britain gave up its United Nations (U.N.) mandate, Jewish terrorist groups were increasing attacks on United Kingdom (U.K.) forces and Arab fighters, Colonial Office papers show. The papers, released at the National Archives, show how in reports to London, British officials in Jerusalem described a steady build-up of tension as Britain, the U.S., the U.N. and Zionists moved towards the partition of Palestine.

As early as October 1946, U.K. officials warned London that Jewish opinion would oppose partition “unless the Jewish share were so enlarged as to make the scheme wholly unacceptable to Arabs”.

British officials warned the colonial secretary, George Hall: “The Jewish public ... endorsed the attitude of its leaders that terrorism is a natural consequence of the general policy of His Majesty’s Government”, including turning away ships carrying “illegal” Jewish immigrants.

Zionist lobby in U.S.

The next U.K. intelligence report referred to “effective pressures which Zionists in America are in a position to exert on the American administration”.

After an increase in violent attacks by the militant Zionists of the Stern group and Irgun, British officials reported later in 1946: “Arab leaders appear to be still disposed to defer active opposition so long as a chance of a political decision acceptable to Arab interests exists.”

But they warned: “There is a real danger lest any further Jewish provocation may result in isolated acts of retaliation spreading inevitably to wider Arab-Jewish clashes”.

A report dated October 1947 refers to Menachem Begin, commander of Irgun, stating in a press interview that “the fight against the British invader would continue until the last one left Palestine”.

Begin was later elected Prime Minister of Israel and signed a peace treaty with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat in 1979, for which the two were awarded the Nobel peace prize.

By early 1948, British officials were reporting that “the Arabs have suffered a series of overwhelming defeats”. They added: “Jewish victories ... have reduced Arab morale to zero and, following the cowardly example of their inept leaders, they are fleeing from the mixed areas in their thousands. It is now obvious that the only hope of regaining their position lies in the regular armies of the Arab states.”

London was warned: “Arab-Jewish violence is now diffused over virtually all of Palestine”. A few days later, British officials spoke of “internicine [sic] strife” and the “steady influx of Arab volunteers” from neighbouring countries.

The papers show that two years earlier, British intelligence officials were reporting “disturbing indications of a revival of political interest and activity among the rank and file of Palestinian Arabs ... The decision to admit Cyprus deportees [Jews deported to camps on the island] against the immigration quotas, the impression that concessions have been made by His Majesty’s Government in deference to Jewish pressure and terrorism ... have been instrumental in arousing Arab public feeling”.

Syria, then as now, was a concern for western powers. “Arab nationalism is moving towards another crisis. This is especially noticeable in Syria,” said a report drawn up during the Second World War. The wartime report said Arab nationalism had a “double nature ... a rational constructive movement receptive of western influence and help [and] an emotional movement of revolt against the west.

“The conflict between these two tendencies will be decided in the present generation. The first aim of the policy of the western powers must be to prevent the triumph of the second tendency.”

The state of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948. The following day, the last remaining British troops withdrew and the first Arab-Israeli war began. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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