The history of Israel goes back more than three decades before its official inception in 1948. It is well worth examining how the British were instrumental during the period from 1915 to 1947 in facilitating the establishment of a national home for the Jews.
"Palestine," an interesting 1934 book by Norman Bentwich — a British Zionist Jew of the early 20th century — provides a telling glimpse into the important background events leading up to the creation of modern Israel.
It is a history lesson about foreign powers and their combined use of military violence, political stratagems and economic influence to inflict generations of injustice, destruction, misery and death on a native people living in the path of their plans.
Bentwich was given key positions in Palestine by the British government, which included being in charge of Palestinian property, issuing laws to facilitate Jewish immigration, and giving the Jewish Agency large areas of land on which to build settlements and expand agricultural production. He was later appointed Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Bentwich in turn reported to another high-ranking Zionist Jew, Sir Herbert Samuel, the British high commissioner to Palestine.
In his book, Bentwich introduced Samuel as "the first Civil Governor, a Jew who had held high office and been in the Cabinet in England and, on the other hand, had played a prominent part in persuading the Cabinet about the Palestine policy, and had warm sympathies with the Jewish National Home."
In his foreword to "Palestine," H.A.L. Fisher, a British Cabinet Minister and later professor at Oxford, wrote that: "[Bentwich] an Anglo-Jewish Professor [tells] the remarkable story of the first thirteen years of British rule in Palestine and has witnessed the realization of a dream cherished through so many centuries by his ancient race."
Before 1914 – when Jewish immigration to Palestine was still illegal –” this territory was part of the province of Syria in the Ottoman Empire. And "between 1914 and 1918 Palestine was a battleground between the power ruling in Egypt [the British] and the power ruling in Syria [the Turkish]," Bentwich noted.
In May 1916, the Allies divided "the spoils of war" and Palestine was made part of England’s share, but as early as 1915 "Sir Herbert Samuel … laid before the Cabinet a plan for a British Palestine and Jewish autonomy in it; and the subject was intermittently considered by the Allied as well as the British War Councils."
Palestine was under direct British military occupation from 1916 to 1922 (a period known as the British Mandate) and Herbert Samuel was appointed its first Governor.
At that time, says Bentwich, "Sections of the Anglo-Jewish community were strongly opposed to the Jewish claim for a national home, and wanted only recognition of equal civic rights for the Jews in the Holy Land. The British Cabinet, however, sensing the enthusiasm of the great bulk of the Jewish people for a national centre, adopted, in principle, the Zionist proposals."
In July 1917, Lord Rothschild, president of the Zionist Federation in England, submitted a draft declaration which proposed "the reconstitution of Palestine as the National Home for the Jewish people."
On November 2, 1917, the day after the British army captured Gaza, the Government published a letter written by Foreign Secretary (and former Prime Minister) Arthur James Balfour in response to Rothschild. In it, he stated that the Zionist Federation’s draft declaration had been submitted to the Cabinet and received approval. The result was that "His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object[ive] …" His name went down in history as the author of the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917, which officially supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Bentwich offers the interesting comment that, "The [government-approved] declaration, it may be noted, varied the Zionist draft by referring to ‘the establishment in Palestine of a National Home,’ instead of ‘reconstitution of Palestine as the National Home’…" but Balfour’s letter nevertheless served as "a trumpet-call to the Jewish people throughout the world …"
Bentwich stated that the population of native Palestinians in 1931 stood at more than three-quarters of a million. But the numbers of Jewish immigrants quickly multiplied and they were well-armed besides.
About the well-trained Jewish Legion that accompanied early settlers, Bentwich writes: "It had fought with the allies in the Second World War and arrived in Palestine fully equipped." And yet more weapons were shipped to the Jews through ports controlled by the British forces according to Kamel Al-Sherif, a Palestinian leader in 1948 who later served as a cabinet minister in Jordan.
At the same time, any Palestinian caught owning even an old rifle could be fined or imprisoned.
It is time for the British to apologize for past wrongs towards the natives of Palestine.