Historical Notes: Lasting legacy of the British Mandate

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL QUITE recently, most histories of the Arab-Israel conflict written by Jews and Arabs were saturated with propaganda. It could scarcely have been otherwise when the two sides could not even agree on the names of the dominant events of the period or their historical significance. Israel's "War of Independence" was the Palestinian "al-Nakba" (the disaster); the "Palestine" governed by Britain for over 30 years is described as "The Land of Israel" in Hebrew histories - not a name recognised by Palestinians.

At a conference on the British Mandate held last winter at Haifa University and attended by both Israelis and Arab scholars there was a heated debate as to whether the period immediately preceding the British withdrawal in 1948 should be characterised as one of "civil war" - on the face of it a neutral term. The Arab participants argued that such a description was offensive, as Palestine was an Arab state in which Arabs were fighting Jews, not one another.

Both sides are today reassessing the period; Israeli history textbooks have been altered or rewritten, and a Palestinian cultural organisation collects oral history from the refugees and collates it with Israeli testimonies. But the vital role played by Britain in the creation and development of the conflict has not been re-evaluated.

The Balfour Declaration (promising the Jews a "national home" in Palestine) has been applauded or castigated; the retreat from that policy during the 1930s amply documented. But of equal importance was the actual functioning of the Mandate administration; the way in which colonial officials balanced their budgets, the legislation they introduced; and the mental habits acquired over years of service in the colonies, where so many precedents for the governing of Palestine were found. These factors affected the progress of the Arab-Jewish conflict far more directly than British strategic interests, the American Jewish lobby, or the emergence of the newly independent Arab states.

The importance of the latter has been exaggerated in the histories: the Balfour Declaration itself was motivated as much by the belief in illusory "international Jewish power" as by the importance of Suez and the route to India; lobbying outside Palestine would have been less effective had not a Jewish organisation had an advisory role in the Mandate administration; and the Arab states were too uncoordinated, and their soldiers insufficiently trained, to exploit their superiority over an army led by Jews who had been trained and armed by SOE as saboteurs in the event of a German invasion of Palestine - men who had also served in the British army during the Second World War.

The Mandate administration aimed, on paper, at creating what was called a "composite state" of Arabs and Jews under British rule; ultimately it was to become self-governing. In practice, however, the Mandate did little to correct the social imbalance between the semi-feudal Arab population, with its under-educated peasantry, and the immigrant Jews who introduced modern farming methods and ran their own education and health services.

As elsewhere in the colonies, British officials backed tradition, rather than instituting social and land reforms; in legislative terms this meant perpetuating those Ottoman laws which kept ethnic communities apart and rural smallholders in poverty. The hostility of the Arabs to the Zionist enterprise was contained only by spending a major part of the meagre colonial budget on police and prisons, to the detriment of education and welfare. When finally they found themselves under attack by both Arabs and Jews it was natural that British administrators and soldiers alike complained that they could find "no precedent for their situation in all Britain's imperial history".

The British Mandate lengthened life expectancy by eradicating much endemic disease, gave Israel the model of a judicial system and a centralised administration, and influenced the structure and strategies of its army. Among Britain's more questionable bequests were the legalisation of administrative detention (imprisonment without trial) and collective punishment for "rebels". The consequences for the conflict were substantial.

Naomi Shepherd is the author of `Ploughing Sand: British rule in Palestine, 1917-1948' (John Murray, pounds 20)