Why did India not support Israel in Jerusalem?


Thomas Philipp

To person

Prof. Dr. Thomas Philipp has held the professorship for politics and contemporary history of the modern Near and Middle East at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg since 1988. He studied at the Free University of Berlin and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and did his doctorate on Arab nationalism. In his research he deals with Arab historiography, Arab nationalism and the Arab countries in the early modern period.

After the end of the First World War, Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire. With the victory of the British over the Turkish troops in 1917, Palestine fell under British rule. But what politics did the British pursue and what role did the Arab population play in their politics?

A burning question of the history of Palestine at the time of the British mandate, which is still intensely discussed by all those involved, is that of the reasons for the transformation of the Arab-speaking population in Palestine [1] into a reduced and displaced minority or refugee society, from which neither the name of the land still remained for the population. At the end of the mandate and after the first Arab-Israeli war, 78% of the British mandate became the new state of Israel, a small stretch of coast was administered by Egypt and known as the Gaza Strip, and the rest of the area became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In 1918, according to census by the British military government, 573,000 Arabs (approx. 10% Christians) and 66,000 Jews (approx. 10.3% of the total population) lived in Palestine. In 1936, following massive immigration due to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the ratio had changed in the following way: 955,000 Arabs (approx. 12% Christians) and 370,000 Jews (27% of the total population). Even on the eve of the first Arab-Israeli war, the Jewish population of 600,000 constituted only a third of the total population. In the following, we will mainly take a look at the internal constitution and development of the Arab population of Palestine, i.e. the Palestinian society under the British mandate, in all necessary brevity.

Palestine under Ottoman rule

Old City of Jerusalem during the Ottoman Empire. (& copy National Photo Collection Israel)
Neither under Mamluk nor under Ottoman rule had there ever been an administrative district "Palestine". Parts of this coastal region belonged to the Damascus province, others to the Vilayet Tripoli or Sidon and later Beirut. In the 19th century, Jerusalem became an independent district that was directly subordinate to Istanbul. It was not until the British military administration established an administrative district "Palestine" at the end of World War I, which originally also included areas of the Syrian Desert east of the Jordan. With the separation of Transjordan in 1921 and the adoption of mandate status for the area in 1923, the borders of Palestine were established. These, like all other mandate limits, were called "artificial" by the Arabs, i.e. they were determined by the interests of foreign powers without any consideration of the wishes of the population or the local economic, cultural and geographical conditions. The "artificial" character of the borders should not hide the solidification of such borders: on the Hamas logo, of all things, the borders established by the British are used to define the territory of the - according to the Hamas charter - "Islamic Waqf [pious foundation]" Palestine, which has always existed and will remain so until the Day of Resurrection ".

The British mandate

The mandate system was a political construct that was intended to achieve a compromise between the "peoples' right to self-determination" called for by President Wilson and the imperialist ambitions of the European powers in the Middle East. In principle, the right to self-determination was recognized by all those involved, but its implementation was postponed to an indefinite future due to the "insufficient political maturity" of the peoples concerned. The mandate contracts obliged the mandate powers to bring the populations to the necessary level of "political maturity" in order to give them independence. The Mandate Treaty for Palestine does not mention this goal, but in the preamble of the treaty the mandate power undertakes British support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people in Palestine", which was assured in the Balfour Declaration published in November 1917 do the deed. This obligation is also detailed in Articles 2, 4, 6 and 11. The majority population is addressed in the preamble, where in connection with the obligation for the "national homestead" it is stated that "nothing should be done that affects the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities". The promotion and protection of the Zionist project became the official reason for the British presence in Palestine through the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the Mandate Treaty. Accordingly, the British worked closely with the yishuv in establishing political, social and security institutions, while the majority Arab population was not addressed as a political entity or at least a problem.

During World War I, Britain made contradicting promises that could hardly be reconciled. These included the Husain-McMahon correspondence of 1915/1916, which promised Arab independence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which laid down the division of territory between France and Great Britain, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which gave the Jews the creation of a " national homestead "promised.

During the mandate, the British often followed a seemingly contradictory course, and long after the mandate ended, both the Palestinians and the Zionists accused the British of supporting the other side during their rule. However, British policy in Palestine was by no means fickle or one-sided. It pursued one goal in a straight line: to maintain British control over the land and water connections (Suez) between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean - that is, the "imperial highway" to India - as cheaply as possible. Often this was best accomplished in cooperation with the Zionists.

On certain occasions, however, support from the Arab side was more necessary to assert the real interests of Great Britain. For example, after the Arab unrest of 1920, the so-called "Churchill White Paper" was published, in which the extent of Jewish immigration was made dependent on the country's "capacities" for the first time.

After the Arab riots in 1929, the British government published the so-called "Passfield White Paper" a year later, which recommended limiting Jewish immigration and Zionist land purchases. However, in response to Jewish protests, this white paper was withdrawn in a letter from the British government to Chaim Weizmann (called the "Black Letter" by the Arabs).

Division plan of the Peel Commission from 1937. (& copy Beck Verlag)
The dramatic increase in emigration from National Socialist Germany to Palestine led to new unrest in the 1930s. After the Arab boycott began in 1936, the Peel Commission published its report in July 1937. This report was the first to speak of a division of the country into a Jewish and Arab state. After heated discussions, the World Zionist Congress accepted the partition proposal. The Palestinian Arabs rejected it - just like the whole concept of the mandate before it - immediately. This led to further violence, the arrest of various Palestinian leaders and the flight of Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husaini.

After three years of Palestinian unrest and on the eve of World War II, the British government re-published a white paper in 1939. It determined that in 10 years an independent state of Palestine would be established in which Arabs and Jews would be equally represented and involved in government and administration. Immigration should be limited to 75,000 Jews over the next 5 years. Illegal immigrants would be withdrawn from it. Land sales to Zionists should be restricted. Both the Jewish and Arab sides rejected the white paper.

The mandate power failed to find a solution to the Palestine question. Great Britain emerged from WWII weakened, and when India lost its independence and the "Imperial Highway" lost its function in 1947, the British government gave its mandate back to the newly founded UN.

The Arab population under the British mandate

The Arab population of the newly constituted Palestine Mandate found itself in a difficult political, social and economic situation from the start. The four hundred year political frame of reference given by the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan had broken down. A just emerging, self-defining, political Arab nationalism demanded the freedom and independence of all Arabs and refused to recognize the division of the territory by the Europeans. Traditionally, parts of the population of the region now called Palestine had politically oriented towards Damascus (today's West Bank to Jaffa and eastern Galilea) others had to deal with the governor of Tripoli, Sidon or Akko. Jerusalem had remained an irrelevant small town (approx. 10,000 inhabitants) until the middle of the 19th century. The construction of a political and territorial unit of Palestine had no historical models to refer to. The question of national identity (Arabs or Palestinians) and political loyalty (Damascus or Jerusalem, which has recently become the capital of Palestine) was therefore completely open and led to many divisions.

The political conflict was also shaped by a multitude of old and new world views and ideologies. In addition to traditional, religiously legitimized patriarchal models of rule, a political Islam emerged; Pan-Arabism coexisted with Arab, territorial nationalism; Socialism, secularism, belief in progress, demands for political participation and democracy existed side by side and against each other. This conflict stood in sharp contrast to the relative, political homogeneity of the yishuv. However, it by no means reflected the entire spectrum of the Eastern European Jewish community prior to World War I. The Zionists were a vanishingly small group whose ideas were not shared by the great mass of Jews. Of the approximately 2.2 million Jewish emigrants from the Tsarist Empire up to World War I, only about three percent went to Palestine. Indeed, these shared a decidedly nationalist and socialist worldview; they were educated and young.

A group of the Arabs, recently called Palestinians, could easily come to terms with the circumstances of the mandate: the notables in Jerusalem, who were now on the verge of rising from the elite of a minor city to the elite of an entire country. The political relationship between the Arab population and the British mandate government nevertheless remained extremely problematic. In the mandate treaty only the Zionists were mentioned as a political community, otherwise there was talk of a "non-Jewish population" whose rights should not be curtailed, but for whom no political plan existed either. In practice, the mandate government saw itself as the highest authority over the two communities, the Jewish yishuv and the Arab population, and promoted the idea that the two communities would develop their own educational systems, security services, health insurance, trade unions and economy under neutral British supervision and direction. The Jewish yishuv enthusiastically availed itself of the recommendations of the mandate government and cooperation with it in order to expand all functions of a pre-state society.

The Palestinian side feared that such institutional cooperation would mean recognizing the legitimacy of the British mandate over Palestine and thus implicitly recognizing the claims of the Zionists and the Balfour Declaration. Not only did the above-mentioned inner turmoil in society deprive the Palestinians of the possibility of systematically building and organizing their own national polity, but also the fundamental rejection of cooperation. Nevertheless, at the same time there was an actual collaboration between the British and traditional notables and elite families, who believed it would benefit themselves, but were often manipulated by the British for their own interests.