Britain has redefined the problem many times over the last 70 years as calculations on a possible solution have changed
International support for independent statehood for the Palestinians has increased in recent years, though less as an endorsement of their national rights than as a vehicle to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The evolution of the British stance on the issue since 1945 is instructive. It reflects not only changes in the circumstances of the Palestinians, but the changing calculations of British officialdom about the implications of different depictions of ‘the problem’.
When Britain held the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, following the First World War, officials envisaged the emergence of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine. After Israel was established in the war of 1948, and the advent of the Palestinian refugee problem, the British clearly hoped that the refugees would either be allowed to return or be integrated into the surrounding Arab states.
The stages by which Britain came finally to see Palestinian statehood, alongside Israel, as the answer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reveals how the fate of the Palestinians has always been shaped by prevailing norms and power relations.
In 1945, when the British government was still the Mandatory authority in Palestine, the people living there were generally described as either Arabs or Jews and seen as in competition with each other and the British for national independence. In that year a contributor to The World Today, citing a former British High Commissioner, attributed ‘the root of the Palestine problem’ to fear – ‘the fear of the Jews of being forced into the sea and the fear of the Arabs of being edged out of their own country’.
That assessment would still hold today, of course, but 70 years ago the British thought they could contain the problem by limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in accordance with the policy enshrined in the British White Paper of 1939. Yet their hands were tied.
Under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine the British were required to implement the undertaking made by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a champion of the Zionist movement, in 1917 – the Balfour Declaration. The letter pledged British government 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’.
In other words, the British government supported the Zionist cause but thought it could do so without compromising the rights of non-Jews in Palestine. Only later, when the Mandate was established, did the British fully realize the impossibility of reconciling the ambitions of both the Zionists and the Arabs. From the start there were violent clashes between Jewish immigrants and their Arab neighbours, leading the British to try to exert control over both in their quest to build a bi-national state. This caused the Arabs to turn on the British as well as the Jews in the Arab Revolt of 1936, which the British suppressed with a brutality typical of their approach to armed resistance elsewhere in the empire.
A subsequent inquiry, the Peel Commission, proposed the partition of Palestine, but at the time both the Jews and the Arabs rejected the proposed terms – which would have seen the Arab state-in-the-making appended to Jordan and Jerusalem remaining under British control. So, on the eve of the Second World War the British issued the White Paper, imposing limits on the numbers of Jews permitted to immigrate to Palestine.
By its end, and once the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, that recourse was no longer tenable, though British commentators, such as the contributor to The World Today in November 1945, were still persuaded that limiting Jewish immigration was the only viable British option pending ‘handing over the administration of the country to a bi-national body’. The Americans thought otherwise, and pressured the British to allow at least 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine as a matter of urgency.
Militarily overstretched, bankrupt and war-weary, leant on by Washington and under assault from both Jewish and Arab armed resistance, the British effectively lost the will to hang on in Palestine. In 1947 they referred ‘the problem’ to the United Nations.
After an inquiry the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine – in effect a ‘two-state solution’. This time the Jews accepted, though not the Arabs. Not willing to enforce this, the British simply left Palestine to its fate in the war of 1948.
By the finish the Zionists had won their state and Israel was established, but the majority of the Palestinians became refugees, many in the Gaza Strip which came under Egyptian administration and many others in the West Bank that was subsequently annexed by Jordan. Overnight the Palestinian problem became a refugee problem. That at least was how it was framed in British official discourse from 1948 to 1967. In UN Resolution 194 of 1948, which the British helped draft, it was resolved that ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date’. With some exceptions, the majority have not been so permitted, with only a minority gaining full citizenship in the Arab host countries.
The next shift in the British depiction of the Palestine problem came after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. In keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 242 that ended that war, attention turned to persuading Israel to exchange ‘land for peace’ with its Arab neighbours.
In the Israeli peace deal with Egypt of 1979 that formula held. After the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1988 Jordan relinquished its claims to the West Bank and eventually made peace with Israel in 1994. The Palestinians, however, gained only autonomy in areas of the West Bank and Gaza, under the Oslo Accords of 1993. That subsequent negotiations might lead eventually to Palestinian statehood in these areas was mooted, but not specifically called for by the British or other international interlocutors.
Only in 2003, in the context of the second Palestinian Intifada did the idea of a two-state solution gain official international endorsement in the ‘road map’ launched by the Quartet – of the United States, the EU, the UN and Russia – just after the invasion of Iraq.
Since then, the British position has been that Palestinian statehood, alongside Israel and roughly in accordance with the pre-1967 borders, is the best recipe for peace. Their caveat is that this can only be realized by agreement between the parties.
In 2014, the British parliament voted for recognition of Palestinian independent statehood, but the government still says this can only come about once Israel has agreed. One can only assume that the government remains reluctant to endorse what cannot be achieved except by enforcement and which, therefore, would not constitute a solution to ‘the Palestine problem’.
From the archive
Now that the war has been won and Hitlerism eradicated, and when conditions in war-torn Europe return to normal, will there still be thousands of potential [Jewish] immigrants? And is it not fairly certain that at least some proportion of the Central European Jews who fled to Palestine to escape annihilation will wish to return to countries which, despite their horrible associations, they still regard as their homelands, and where, moreover, they will find far greater opportunities than in Palestine?
The Problem of Palestine, November 1945