England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

British colonialism’s bloody role in Israel-Palestine

By Andy Moxley, Socialist Alternative London

“The national aspirations of Jew and Arab alike are callously utilised for the protection of the interests of the British bourgeoisie, which plays one against the other in order to keep both enslaved. The problem of Palestine is one that can only be solved by the victorious socialist revolution.”

– Workers’ International League (forerunner to Socialist Alternative), June 1939

The current slaughter carried out by the Israeli state in Gaza has posed, moreso than any other time in recent history, the question of the genesis of the situation in Israel-Palestine. This is driven in the main by the desire of millions that have hit the streets across the world, to see not just an end to the current stage of the war, but to seek a fundamental solution resulting in peace for all, the liberation of the Palestinian people and security for ordinary Israelis.

While the role of US imperialism is clear in enabling the occupation regime in the post-World War II period, what may be more obscured is the blood on the hands of the British state. The British state not only enabled, but were architects of the decades of carnage that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians and ordinary Israelis. Cynically using both the national aspirations of Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish desire for protection from persecution and then the Holocaust, British imperialism, putting its own interests first, had the main role in creating the bloody situation that exists today, and that under capitalism will never be fully resolved. They promised freedom, land and security for both peoples and provided nothing but broken promises.

Britain sells out Arab liberation

During World War I, much of the Middle East was controlled by Britain’s rival, the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in 1916, the Ottomans were faced by a mass uprising across the region in the ‘Arab Revolt’ – fighting for liberation from Ottoman rule and the establishment of a single, united Arab state. Seeing the military value in the revolt weakening the Ottoman Empire in the imperialist conflict, Britain alongside French imperialism pledged support for the Arabs in the form of supplies, arms and personnel.

The British government, itself then still at the head of an expansive empire, had no intention of genuinely supporting the aims of the Arab Revolt. Knowing the strategic importance of the region, in particular the Suez Canal and the oil production, and the type of signal a successful anti-colonial struggle resulting in a new Arab state would send to millions of those oppressed by British colonialism, it struck a secret deal with French imperialism to carve up the region between them after the war. This deal, named Sykes-Picot after the respective foreign ministers, was made public when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and found in the archives of the Tsar

The Arabs, with British military backing, were successful in expelling the Ottoman Empire from much of the region. In 1918, a new government was set up by the Arab forces. However it quickly collapsed over the next couple years under pressure as Britain withdrew its support and France presented it an ultimatum to disperse or be crushed.

Balfour Declaration: Jewish people as political pawns

This was accompanied in 1917 by the infamous Balfour Declaration. This was a statement adopted by the British government that expressed explicit support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Thus Palestine was now contradictorily promised to Arab Palestinians, Jews and the British Empire (through its deal with France) all at once.

This declaration was a cynical move by British imperialism to garner support, particularly among Jewish people in the US, to bring their country further into the war effort. British imperialism aimed to once again exploit the genuine desires of a historically oppressed people to further its long-term interests. As then-Prime Minister Lloyd George said at the time:

“The Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise” that “they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause… if the British government were to declare their sympathy for a Jewish administration of Palestine.”

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, the idea of what would become the Israeli state was not much rooted in reality. In 1917, Jews only made up about 9-10% of the population of Palestine. The creation of an explicitly Jewish state there would thus require a mass displacement of the overwhelming Arab majority population – something that was not yet seen to be really on the cards.

The ideology of Zionism, that of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, had garnered popularity among much of the middle class in the Jewish diaspora, particularly in response to rising antisemitism and pogroms in Europe in the late 19th century. The utopian idea was that the creation of a specifically Jewish state in Palestine could essentially serve as a fortress against exploitation and attract Jews from around the world to join the project.

However, despite what may be said now in justification of the ideology among supporters of the Israeli state regime today, these ideas were not universally accepted among all Jews. Even many of those that supported the idea of a Jewish state opposed its creation in Palestine, realising it would become what Marxists would later term a ‘bloody trap’ for both Jews and Arab Palestinians.

Much of the Jewish proletariat and peasantry rightfully saw their hopes of liberation most fully realised in the successful Russian Revolution of 1917, which had thrown out hundreds of antisemitic laws, undertook successful land reform and more. In April 1917 almost half of the members of the Petrograd Soviet were Jewish. The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party at the time of the October Revolution was over 40% Jewish – including one of the two main leaders of the revolution, Leon Trotsky. 

This level of Russian Jewish support for the revolution would grow during its first few years. It was, in fact, early-on supporters of the ideology of Zionism, reflecting their own class interests, who would oppose it. This was not lost on British imperialism, who, like other capitalist governments globally at the time, feared the spread of workers’ revolution to their own shores.

Mandatory Palestine: An unworkable lie

In its own interest, British imperialism had been talking out of both sides of its mouth and telling the truth from neither. It had at the same time promised Arabs their own state containing Palestine while also promising Palestine to Jews as a “national home” to serve as the basis for their own future state. Such a situation would lead to over a century of horrific bloodshed.

As part of the imperialist carve-up of territory after the First World War, Palestine came under British control, becoming ‘Mandatory Palestine’ in 1920. One of many ‘mandates’ was established by the League of Nations (post-World War I equivalent to the UN established by the victorious Allied imperialist powers). This required British oversight of the formerly Ottoman-controlled region until the Balfour Declaration could be fully implemented, with a capitalist Jewish state established in Palestine, despite the Declaration itself being somewhat ambiguous on the question of what ‘national home’ meant.

The plans for Mandatory Palestine were obviously not popular among the native Arab Palestinian population, not because of inherent antisemitism, but because it meant once again coming under the boot of a foreign colonial power and the implied displacement of the existing population. At the Third Palestine Arab Congress in 1920, a resolution was adopted which called the British administration of Palestine illegal, called for the convocation of a representative assembly to form a national government and opposed the establishment of an explicitly Jewish state in Palestine.

Divide and rule

In order to maintain their rule, the British state sought to drive as much division between the Jewish and Arab Palestinian populations as possible. Despite opposing these conflicts in words, it directly benefited British imperialism to stoke the anger of the Arab masses towards the Jews to present itself as an arbitrator between the two and give the impression to the Jewish population that only Britain could protect them. It was classic divide and rule policies.

In August 1921, then-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, baldly admitted the British state’s approach: “in the interests of the Zionist policy, all elective institutions have so far been refused to the Arabs.” Arab Palestinians were deliberately discriminated against in employment, housing opportunities, and the farming population was increasingly forcibly pushed into urban centers as British imperialism tried to further develop and expand the basis for capitalist exploitation in Mandatory Palestine.

This also set up a precarious situation for Jews emigrating to the region, which significantly increased in this period, with fascism coming to power in Germany in 1933. The Jewish population increased up to 27% by 1935. Despite their crocodile tears, US and British imperialism showed their true stripes in this period through the end of World War II.

Both countries implemented significant restrictions on the number of Jewish refugees allowed in, despite fleeing Nazi death camps. This is in part what drove the immigration to Mandatory Palestine instead, though the British administration implemented limits there as well, which were routinely defied by immigration operations run by Jewish groups in the region.

By 1936, the untenable situation for Arab Palestinians began another ‘Arab Revolt’ initiated by a general strike in April which lasted for six months. The massive strike was eventually crushed by repression with the support of regional Arab kings, themselves British allies. In response, the British government set up the Peel Commission, which proposed the partition of Palestine into separate states – a Jewish state, an Arab state and a ‘neutral zone’ containing the holy sites, the advocacy of which had been avoided up to this point by the ambiguous language of Balfour. This ‘solution’ satisfied neither Jews nor Arab Palestinians and would ultimately be rejected by the British government in 1939.

The Arab Revolt continued to 1939, with British forces working with Zionist paramilitary organisations like Haganah to brutally crush it. It is estimated that 10% of Arab Palestinian men were killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled during this period. This resulted in the government’s White Paper of 1939, which officially rejected the Peel Commission’s partition plan, instead putting forward the policy of “establishment of a Jewish national home in an independent Palestinian state within 10 years”.

Joint general strike and the ‘Nakba’

By the end of the Second World War, the British administration began to face uprisings and violent revolts against their rule from both Jews and Arab Palestinians. At one point, up to 100,000 British soldiers were stationed in Palestine. Even US imperialism began to intervene to help its wartime ally and establish its own power in the region via the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry.

In April 1946, the British occupation saw its most formidable opposition in a joint general strike involving both Palestinian and Jewish workers, who had a history of working together in some industries. This strike involved up to 30,000 workers and paralysed the British administration, forcing it into significant concessions on wages and living standards which they had long opposed. Notably, it was also undertaken in spite of opposition from some of the leaders of the Zionist labor organisations.

All of this, particularly the strike, frightened the British government and it sought to get Palestine off its hands once and for all. It was becoming more trouble for them than it was worth. They saw the potential this united struggle posed, not only to win bigger concessions but to ultimately undermine the occupation and capitalism as a whole in Palestine. Imperialism needed to bring back divide-and-rule to protect its own neck.

The question was taken to the newly-founded United Nations, which in 1947 came up with a partition plan. The imperialist plan also had the support of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship. This plan would give Jewish people, only about one-third of the population, 56% of the land for the creation of the state of Israel and would require the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians. This displacement, which would become known as the Nakba, saw hundreds of thousands displaced, hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed and Palestinian villagers attacked and even killed.

Today

It is no surprise that both the Tories and Labour Party leadership this autumn opposed a ceasefire in Gaza. They both continue a long legacy of British imperialism’s bloody policy in the region, against the interest of the masses.

Only by overthrowing capitalism and imperialism in the Middle East through mass struggle for socialist change can genuine peace, liberation and equality, including the right of self-determination for all national groups, be achieved. 

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