Monday, August 13, 2007

PALESTINE: The roots of conflict.

The Palestine Mandate:
"Lucky Tommy: in the middle again."

by Sidney Allinson.

America's current experience of bloody resentment by many of the Iraqi people they liberated from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship has a close resemblance to Britain's problems in Palestine over half a century ago. Recalling those historical events may help to better understand the origins of present-day strife in the Middle East.
Until December 1917, Palestine had long been part of the Turk­ish Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany in World War One. This rule was finally broken by the conquest of Jerusalem by British and Australian troops under the command of General Allenby.
In 1922, the League of Nations presented Britain with the Palestine Mandate to administer the region. Terms of the Mandate included founding a new Jewish state in the territory, set out in the Bal­four Declaration of 1917. This was sent in a letter from Arthur Balfour, Britain's Secretary of State, addressed to Baron Lionel Rothschild, stating:
'His Majesty's Government 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 will be done which may prej­udice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.'
If more attention had been paid to the old boy's stricture, the Levant could have become a more peaceful region than it is today. As things turned out, the number of Jews immigrating rapidly increased their population from 60,000 to 600,000 during the next two decades. Those 26 years were turbulent, to say the least, with increasing violence between Arabs and Jews, fighting over land occupation and political influence.
Though there was a small garrison of Imperial troops, the bulk of peacekeeping duties was the job of the Pales­tine Police. Mainly British, these civilian police also included a large number of Arabs and Jews, who managed to carry out their duties with remarkable impartiality. Their unbiased fairness only drew violent enmity from both opposing sides, and today the only monuments to the 'Pal Police' are 320 long-forgotten graves.
During the early 1930s, guerrilla warfare became so prevalent that units of the British Army were brought in to combat both camps of extremists. It was an all-too-familiar role for "Tommy Atkins," the affectionate nickname for British soldiers. Used to handling peace-keeper jobs in foreign lands, they resignedly accepted being once more, "Lucky Tommy - in the middle again". Their thankless position then in Palestine is strikingly similar to the Coalition Forces’ present entanglement in the Persian Gulf region now.
The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 flared because of Palestinian Arabs' resentment against the growth of Jewish immigration, but the violence soon turned against the British as well, because of their firmness in combating the uprising. During the three years it took to finally put down `The Arab Troubles', there were 236 Jews killed by Arabs, 435 Arabs killed by Jews, plus 1,200 rebels killed by police and military action. The British cost came high, too; nearly 200 dead policemen and soldiers.
In World War Two, Britain's Eighth Army defended the Middle East from Germany's Afrika Korps, and Gen. Montgomery's victory at El Alamein saved Palestine's Jew­ish population from becoming victims of the Nazi's Final Solution. But after WWII's end in 1945, the hideous ordeal of the Holocaust made world Jewry unwilling to settle for anything less than the establishment of an independent State of Israel within Palestine, and demanded that Britain relinquish control there. The deadly earnestness of Zionist extremists was first signalled by their assassination of Lord Moyne, British Minister of State, in Cairo, November 6, 1944.
The Arabs, who then still formed most of the local population, were just as adamant that Palestine must be entirely controlled by them. Britain's newly-elected Labour government led by Prime Minister Clement Atlee strongly sympathized with Zionism's goal, yet hoped to remain friendly with the Arabs also.
Parliament cited the Balfour Declaration's original terms to support concerns that too rapid an increase in new­comers could further alienate the local Arab population and destabilize the entire Middle East. Britain's prediction of serious consequences from unlimited immigration was viewed by America and other members of the United Nations Organization as mere colonialism – or even disguised racial discrimination.
Opponents of British concerns could not see the nigh-inevitable tragic results of a destabilized Middle East for generations to come. So the UK government was pressured into the nigh-hopeless role of trying to arrange a compromise political solution agreeable to Jews and Arabs alike.
Meanwhile, in what became a public relations nightmare, Britain imposed a sea blockade to limit the numbers of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. It caused a devastating impression of a callous Britain, shown world­wide in cinema newsreels of Royal Navy vessels turning back ships crammed with refugees. Repeated images of burly Tommies flailing pick-­handles at emaciated concentration camp survivors to prevent them from landing in the Promised Land had a ruinous effect on the UK's reputation. Those scenes made most of the world unsympathetic to Britain at the same time Zionist partisans began a wide campaign of violence to support demands for a separate Jewish state. It was carried out by two insurgent groups: LEHI known as the 'Stern Gang,' under operations chief Yitzk Shamir, and the Irgun Zwei Leumi led by Menachem Begin -- both of whom later became prime ministers of Israel.
Though Winston Churchill had been a staunch supporter of the Zionist cause throughout his political life, the events in Palestine brought this comment from him, "A race that has suffered the virtual extermination of its national existence cannot be expected to be entirely reasonable. But the activities of terrorists, who tried to gain their ends by the assassination of British officials and soldiers, were an odious act of ingratitude that left a profound impression."
Facing international hostility at the UN, and hotly debated in Parliament, the government still continued to send military reinforcements to the Holy Land. These included many peacetime draftees, 19-year-old British males conscripted for their period of compulsory National Service, who formed a large part of the 100,000 troops stationed in Palestine. These units were kept under orders to behave with restraint despite being targeted by increasingly ruthless Jewish guerrillas.
Individual British Army soldiers and Royal Air Force personnel began to be picked off from ambush, often while unarmed and off-duty, easy targets for assassins who ran scant risk of being caught. Troop trains were machine-gunned, mined and derailed; tented camps, airfields, and police stations were attacked, with steadily mounting casualties. One example was the deliberate murder of seven soldiers of the Royal Artillery, shot whilst sleeping in their tents. In perhaps the most infamous incident, two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervin Paice, were kidnapped in Tel Aviv and hanged from orange trees, their bodies booby-trapped with explosives.
Civilians were not exempt as victims, either, often from car-bombs left in Arab marketplaces. On 22 July, 1946, Irgun saboteurs blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, with great loss of life; 91 British, Arab, and Jewish men and women being killed, none of whom were soldiers. The heads of the Jewish Agency hastened to denounce the explosion by expressing "our feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals." The death toll among British servicemen and civilian bystanders from increasingly ruthless terrorist attacks continued. Letter bombs were sent to army officers' families in the UK, causing deaths and injuries to civilian relatives.
Understandably, this pressure began to affect the morale of troops. They could see no point to doing their peacekeeping job among people who resented them, or worse. Many Tommies felt their hands were tied by political priorities and regulations that forbade them from combating the attackers more aggressively. Back home in a Britain already weary from WWII, young soldiers' mothers began to question a government that was sending their sons to die in an unappreciated cause. During the Jewish Insur­gency from August 1945 to August 1947, British casualties totalled 141 killed and 475 wounded.
Faced with these mounting casualties and the political and financial costs of maintaining order in Palestine, Britain turned over responsibility to the UN for establishment of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state under United Nations trusteeship. On 14 May 1948, the last British soldier sailed from Haifa, and the Palestine Mandate ended. On that same date, the new State of Israel was born, and continues its battle for survival to this day.
Army Quarterly & Defence Journal.

Copyright Sidney Allinson (revised) 2007.

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