Opinion Articles

Britain in Palestine: time to apologise?

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The Palestinian Return Centre [PRC] in London is campaigning for an apology from the British Government for British colonial rule in Palestine, from 1917 to 1948. Those behind this campaign will have been galvanised by the Government's recent expression of regret for colonial abuses committed in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. The call for an apology for Palestine is certainly warranted; the British Government played a crucial role in the establishment and evolution of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. But the PRC, and the UK Government in its response, must strive to go beyond the simplistic mythology that for the last 90 years has dogged public and scholarly debate about Britain's time in the Holy Land.

Over the next four years, the PRC plans an international programme of public education and publicity, aiming to obtain one million signatures in support of an apology in time for the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. This document stated that the British Government viewed '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'.

But what exactly was the nature of the Anglo-Zionist relationship, and what should the present British Government apologise for? Since the 1920s, complaints against British policy in the Holy Land have tended to fall into two camps: Zionists accusing Britain of betraying their promise to establish a Jewish state in order to appease the Palestinians, and Palestinians arguing that Britain colluded with the Zionists to rob them of their patrimony and hand the land to the Jews. Public and academic debate over Britain's role in Palestine has followed the same pattern.

But the truth of Britain's impact on the conflict is much more complicated. In November 1917, the British Government did not intend to create a Jewish State. In fact, the Cabinet did not define the meaning of the Jewish national home that they publicly endorsed. Their support for Zionism was very limited and primarily designed to win the support of Jews around the world for the war against Germany and its allies. Despite their apparent public endorsement of Zionism, British policy makers wished to control the Holy Land themselves for the foreseeable future, to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal, which was vital to the security of the British Empire.

The intention to keep Palestine in British hands did not, however, stop the new British administration in 1918 from promoting widely its backing both for Zionism and, crucially, for Arab nationalism. As well as mobilising the imagined weapon of Jewish power, Britain wanted to rally the Arab world behind them in the First World War, gain support within Palestine for its administration, and appear to be in tune with the new cause of the moment in international politics: national self-determination.

British policy makers thought that they could promote two nationalisms in one land because they completely misunderstood Palestinian Arab and Zionist society. Both were judged to be backward populations, who would never seriously seek real political independence. The received wisdom in Whitehall was that mainstream Zionism was not a political, statist movement, and that the Arabs of Palestine were not a national community in their own right. These assumptions were completely wrong and the British promise of national freedom led to a new expectation of national independence among both Zionists and Palestinian Arabs. This transformed the politics of Palestine, and led to the start of the war for national sovereignty in the Holy Land from late 1918.

Although British actions fed expectations of national independence and the war for national sovereignty, the Government failed to see it as such until at least 1937. Once the quagmire of the Palestine conflict became clear, many British officials and politicians saw themselves as outsiders whose job was to 'hold the ring' in line with British interests. A key strategy was to enlist 'moderate' or mainstream Zionists and Palestinians: those who professed to comply with British objectives. This created cleavages and power struggles within the Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements, while their failure to set out and enforce a specific endgame for Palestine sowed confusion and left a wide space for conflicting ideas about the future. Within this context, the recognition of the Jews' right to a national home encouraged a belief among Zionists that the British identified with them to a greater extent than was the case. Meanwhile, the original British promise of Arab independence during the First World War, and the professed commitment of the international community to national self-determination after 1918, encouraged the Palestinian nationalist movement to hold firm.

Many of the old assumptions and strategies of British rule in Palestine are alive and well in international politics today: the perception of an internecine conflict, separate from the outside world; the focus on policies to control or contain the conflict; and the hunt for 'moderates' on both sides, are all hallmarks of much of the international community's engagement with the Israel-Palestine question.

The powerful influence of this colonial legacy makes its history vitally important. For this reason alone, an apology for, or at least recognition of, the British contribution to the conflict should be pursued. The Government is not likely to admit liability for one of the world's most controversial and persistent conflicts. Even so, a high profile public campaign could encourage debate in global civil society. It is crucial, therefore, that those responsible for the PRC campaign go beyond the politicised mythologies of the past, and do justice to the complexity of the story of Britain's moment in the Holy Land.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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