Opinion

Britain and Palestine: a question of colonialism

Ignorance of Britain’s role in Palestine’s past is symptomatic of wider social amnesia of Britain’s colonial crimes committed until well within living memory
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On June 16, 1936, British soldiers made up to 6,000 Palestinian men, women and children homeless when they dynamited an entire neighborhood in Jaffa. It was far from the only atrocity Britain committed in its three-decade occupation of Palestine, but it was amongst the most vindictive. Between 220 and 240 houses were blown up after 9 p.m.; their residents were only informed that morning after a plane dumped leaflets warning them to leave. Some were left with only the clothes upon their backs. When the British Chief Justice in Palestine expressed his indignation at this vicious action of his own country, he was sacked. 

The official reason the British gave was to improve health and sanitation. The real reason stemmed from the demands of Britain’s colonial presence in Palestine. The Arab uprising had commenced two months earlier, and in late May, Palestinian workers and students began a general strike against British rule; this included 1,500 dockers and sailors from Jaffa’s seaport. From the perspective of the British authorities, this outbreak of resistance would have to be quickly shut down – and what better way to do so than by destroying family homes? It is a colonial tactic that the Israeli military continues to use in the occupied Palestinian territories to this day.

The maze-like alleyways of Arab cities have always been viewed with suspicion by colonial powers, from the French in Algiers to the Americans and British in Baghdad. As Franz Fanon described the colonial mindset, “the colonized’s sector, or at least the ‘native’ quarters, the shanty town, the Medina, the reservation, is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. […] It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together.”

Unknown British military group during mandate of Palestine in court of Holy Sepulchre Church. Library of Congress. (Photo: PICRYL)
Unknown British military group during mandate of Palestine in court of Holy Sepulchre Church. Library of Congress. (Photo: PICRYL)

For those for whom, as Edward Said put it, “the sense of Western power over the Orient is taken for granted as having the status of scientific truth,” the wholesale destruction of such “disreputable places,” whether for “sanitation” or “security,” has always been a self-evident solution.

Britain’s colonial entanglement in Palestine did not begin with the entry of General Allenby into Jerusalem on December 18, 1917 after its capture from the Ottoman Empire, on which occasion Allenby proclaimed “Only now have the Crusades ended”; nor with the Balfour Declaration issued on November 2, 1917, in which the British government promised Palestine as a “national home for the Jewish people” to the Zionist movement. Its roots go back to the era of high imperialism in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1870s and 1880s, British travelers in what was known in the West as the “Peaceful Crusade,” were acting and writing as if they were already Palestine’s colonial masters.

Twenty-one years' work in the Holy Land ... June 22, 1865-June 22, 1886. Published for the Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund. [By W. B. i.e. Walter Besant.]The British Library. (Photo: PICRYL)
Twenty-one years’ work in the Holy Land … June 22, 1865-June 22, 1886. Published for the Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund. [By W. B. i.e. Walter Besant.]The British Library. (Photo: PICRYL)

The “explorers” (for its indigenous inhabitants, Palestine needed no exploration) of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), founded in London in 1865, were key in the reimagining of Palestine as a future colony, administered by Britain but populated by Jewish immigrants. Charles Warren, who led the Fund’s first archaeological expeditions in Jerusalem in the 1860s, dreamt of a body like the East India Company, “to govern and farm Palestine for twenty years.” Warren continued:

“Let this be done with the avowed intention of gradually introducing the Jew, pure and simple, who is eventually to occupy and govern this country. Let the Jew find his way into its army, its law, its diplomatic service. Let him superintend the farming operations, and work himself on the farms.”

-Charles Warren

This was a plan for Zionist settler colonization, twenty years before Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State.” Meanwhile, Warren’s PEF colleague Claude Reignier Conder imperiously wrote of the Palestinian peasantry that “even the least ignorant know scarcely anything, while the cow-herds and goatherds are very little better than brute beasts.” (Conder’s anti-Arab racism did not translate into positive feelings towards Jews; he also wrote that “the Ashkenazim [European Jews] must be the dirtiest people on the face of the earth.”)

Several years later, the British diplomat and novelist Laurence Oliphant toured the Eastern Mediterranean, supported by the British government, looking to establish a Jewish colony. While Palestine was too densely inhabited for an agricultural colony to be founded – Oliphant recorded that “the few fertile spots which exist are already under cultivation by the resident population” – he selected a large region in present-day Jordan. As this area too was inhabited, Oliphant concluded that it would be necessary to keep “a firm hand upon the Arabs,” and to expel them from the area if necessary: “if they were driven back to the Arabian deserts from which they came, there is abundant pasture in its oases for their camels and goats.” While nothing came of Oliphant’s plan, in the 1880s he settled in northern Palestine, and provided advice and money to early Zionist settlers, who eagerly absorbed his idea of the “transfer” of the indigenous population.

Today, the names of these nineteenth-century would-be colonizers are largely forgotten, as are the actions of the British Mandate officers who laid the dynamite in Jaffa. If taught in schools at all, the “Arab-Israeli conflict” is presented not as a situation of colonialism or occupation but as a conflict of equals, in which Britain had an impossible task and was itself victimized by both sides. The truth of the matter, as Israeli historian Tom Segev asserts, is that “British actions considerably favoured the Zionist enterprise.” Britain continued its alliance and close coordination with the Haganah, the militia of the Labor Zionist movement and the prime instrument of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, “until the very last day of the Mandate.”

Palestine disturbances 1936. Incendiary of a Jewish lumber yard in the Shamma's Qt. i.e., Quarter.  G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. The Library of Congress. (Photo: PICRYL)
Palestine disturbances 1936. Incendiary of a Jewish lumber yard in the Shamma’s Qt. i.e., Quarter. G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. The Library of Congress. (Photo: PICRYL)

Ignorance of Britain’s role in Palestine’s past is symptomatic of wider social amnesia of Britain’s colonial crimes committed until well within living memory (and many would argue, until today). As Priyamvada Gopal notes, university students still come “to class with very little knowledge of what the Empire was or how it lived on in the present”; she states that “some form of reparative history was desperately needed in the British public sphere which is still subject to a familiar ritual where politicians of various stripes will periodically announce that ‘Britain has nothing to apologise for’ or call for active ‘pride’ in the legacies of the Empire.” While decolonization movements have sprung up on numerous campuses and increasingly hit the headlines in recent years, a racist backlash on some campuses shows there is still far to go.

In wider British society, the situation is no better. The virulent five-year campaign by the media, political figures and pro-Israel lobby groups against the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn relied on the fallacious argument that Corbyn’s long-term support for Palestinian human rights – which, like that of the U.S. Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, has never gone an inch beyond the two-state framework and commonly-accepted international law – somehow equates with antisemitism. Off the back of its win, boosted by these divisive and inaccurate claims, the Conservative Party government has hinted that they will pass laws that begin to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign for Palestinian rights, and has failed to condemn Trump’s woeful deal of the century. Using Britain’s considerable diplomatic weight to advance the cause of justice for Palestinians until Britain can face its colonial past.

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Zionism had other allies whose motivation, though often cloaked in religion, was more earthly: imperialism. One was Lord Palmerston who served as Britain’s foreign secretary (1830-34, 1835-41, 1846-51) and prime minister (1855-58, 1859-65). He saw a strategic advantage in creating a Jewish state in Palestine that would be pro-British and provide a barrier against Arab nationalism as well as Britain’s colonial competitors, Russia and France (i.e. to use the modern term, “a strategic asset”).     British control… Read more »

It is important to remember that the first Zionists weren’t Jewish. They were Christian. Not just Oliphant, Warren and the PEF and Palmerstone, but Lord Shaftesbury, George Elliot, Napoleon and so on. The idea of a Jewish settler state adjacent to the Suez Canal was very attractive.

One question: I don’t get the last sentence; it seems it would make better sense if it said “advance injustice.”
I also note the chronological convergence, circa 1840, between Lord Palmerston’s era and the major spurt of Christian Zionist perversion of Scripture that Darby spawned with his Empire-worshipping doctrine of Dispensationalism.

In the wake of the First World War, Britain would have preferred the mandate for Palestine be taken up by the US. However, the US Senate would not allow Wilson to bring the US into the League of Nations. And, in the event, Wilson’s special advisers (King-Crane Commission) had a jaundiced view of a US military presence in the Middle East.

  Zionism’s Gentile Friends   Political Zionists had non-Jewish allies who favoured the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine for religious reasons. These “gentile Zionists” first appeared in 18th century England as an outgrowth of Chiliasm, a belief held by some Christians that Jesus would return and reign for a thousand years following the “restoration” of the Jews to Palestine and their conversion to Christianity. Chiliasm was reinforced by an upsurge in the number of… Read more »