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1920-1947: The British Mandate Period


Excerpted from Palestine and the Palestinians (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1997), by Samih K. Farsoun with Christina Zacharia, pp. 72-86.

The terms of the British Mandate over Palestine set up irreconcilable and contradictory goals of self-rule for the native Palestinians and a national home not specifically defined by Britain for European Jews. For the Zionists Jews, the national home meant quite simply a “Palestine that was as Jewish as England is English or Canada is Canadian,” as the Jewish Chronicle wrote on 20 May 1921. Britain provided for the establishment of a Jewish agency to be, in its official language, “recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish population in Palestine.” The facilitation of the immigration of Jews to Palestine, and “the close settlement by Jews on the Land.” The Mandate agreement was thus framed largely with clauses that favored the Zionist cause over Palestinian self-determination.

The Zionist project was fraught with discontinuities, contradictions, and conflicts with the Palestinian natives and occasionally the British Mandate administration, but in the final analysis its implementation was quite successful.

Factors that led to this success include:

In-Migration and Demographic Transformation
Land Acquisition
Separate Jewish Economy
Jewish Labor
Separate Social and Political Institutions
Creation of a Jewish State within a State

In-Migration and Demographic Transformation: Palestine in 1882 had a small, native, and migrant religious Jewish community of roughly 24,000 among a Palestinian population of nearly 500,000. There were several waves of politically inspired immigration into the country. The first occurred between 1882 and 1903 and totaled about 25,000. The second, between 1904 and 1914, brought in around 35,000 immigrants, which resulted in a total Jewish population of 85,000. The third wave between 1919 and 1923 brought another 85,000 immigrants, mostly Polish and middle class. The December 1931 British census of the country showed that of the 1.04 million people, 84 percent were Arab and 16 percent were Jewish. While the increase in the Jewish population was due largely to in-migration, the Palestinian population increased naturally at 2.7 percent per year. Because of the rise of Nazism, 174,000 Jews migrated to Palestine between 1932 and 1936. Suddenly the Jewish population in Palestine rose to an estimated 28 percent of the total inhabitants. This radical change, occurring in a brief span of only five years, must certainly be recognized as an important cause of the Palestinian Arab rebellion of 1936 against British Mandate authorities. Both legal and illegal Jewish immigration (according to Mandate authorities) into Palestine increased during World War II and its aftermath. By the end of 1947, Palestine Mandate government estimates indicate that of a total population of 1.9 million, Jews made up only 31 percent. Thus, only a year before the state of Israel was unilaterally declared, the Jewish population constituted less than one-third the total inhabitants. Nevertheless, the Jewish minority in Palestine became a powerful community.

Land Acquisition: Despite their contention that Palestine was a land without people, Zionists discovered that Palestinian land was not uninhabited nor was it readily available. Palestine was densely populated and intensively cultivated. Moreover, the land tenure and ownership system was complex. Available land was expensive and became more so with the rising demand of a population growing as a result of both natural increase in-migration. With the establishment of the Palestine Mandate, Zionist hopes that state land—perceived as vast and potentially accessible—would serve as a basis for land acquisition also turned out to be unrealistic. From the data, it is possible to discern three periods of land acquisition by Zionists and Jews. While Jews in 1922 owned 3 percent of the land of Palestine, the additional land purchased by 1947 raised the total owned by the immigrant Jews to 7 percent of the whole area of the country. The British Mandate government classified Palestinian land as good, medium, and poor. After the general armistice of the 1948 war, Israel had captured over 77 percent of Palestine and more than 95 percent of the “good” soil. The newly sovereign state of Israel also expropriated 80 percent of privately owned Palestinian land and confiscated at least 40 percent of properties held by Palestinian Arabs who remained on the land and became citizens. The total losses of Palestinians are estimated at a staggering 7.43 billion Palestinian pounds (equal then to the British pound).

Separate Jewish Economy: The roots of Jewish separatism within Palestine extend from the first decade of the Mandate. British policy of economic development in Palestine, and specifically, of granting Jewish settlers monopolistic concessions and industrial protectionism facilitated the building of an exclusive Jewish economy, little connected to the overall Palestinian economy. British Mandate government policy advantaged Jewish industry at the expense of Palestinian industry. The result of this situation for Arab industrial development was that Jewish-owned industry grew in light industries in which Arabs were trying to make headway. Thus, the Jewish sector came into direct competition with the Arab sector. Although Palestine has a primarily agricultural economy, especially in the Palestinian Arab sector, the Jewish community acquired only 7 percent of its food from the Arab sector in 1939 and 6 percent in 1944.

Jewish Labor: The initial Zionist project of redemption of the land with Jewish labor quickly transformed during the Mandate period into the development of an urban and industrial Jewish economy and labor force. As in the development of an exclusive Jewish economy, institutions, and land base, the British colonial government of Palestine contributed to the creation, protection, and unemployment relief of exclusive Jewish labor. The British did not, however, extend the same policy to the Palestinian Arab labor force. Further, the British facilitated the creation of a two-tier wage structure of Palestinian Arabs and Jews in both the private and public sectors. These discriminatory labor policies handicapped Palestinian labor in wage levels and working conditions. The principal means through which the Zionists succeeded in building a separate and privileged labor force was the Histradrut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor, established in 1920, which also owned construction, consumer, banking, and marketing cooperatives.

Separate Social and Political Institutions: The Histadrut was perhaps one of the most developed Jewish social institutions in Palestine. Among many activities of this unique union were health insurance programs, training and education programs, job placement and pension programs. Like other practices of Zionists, these social institutions were exclusive to Jews. One of the most important factors in recreating the Jewish national identity was their educational system. In the Mandate agreement, Zionists won from the British and the League of Nations the recognition of Hebrew as an official language, along with Arabic and English. They also acquired British consent and support for a separate and exclusive private Jewish school system. Zionists gained autonomy over the curriculum, which was imbued with Jewish nationalism. The British Mandate government denied these freedoms and financial support to the Palestinian Arabs. Palestine’s educational system for the two communities under the Mandate was separate and unequal in terms of quality, financing, levels of education, and delivery. Separation of the two communities was promulgated in 1926 by the British Mandate government’s Religious Communities Organization Ordinance. It granted the Jewish settler community in Palestine a juridical personality and the power of taxation for charitable and educational purposes.

Jewish State-within-a-State: The British authorized the establishment of the Jewish Agency to represent, lead, and negotiate on behalf of the Jewish settler community in Palestine on all aspects of British policy. In turn, the Jewish Agency established various social, economic and political agencies, institutions, and organizations—including military and intelligence. These organizations were the nucleus of an emerging autonomous Jewish political authority within the Palestine Mandate government. The Palestinian Arabs had no such centralized political agency, nor did the political leaders have the capacity to mobilize the population effectively on a national level. It was this well-organized, well-financed, and well-armed state-within-a-state political authority that defeated the Palestinian resistance an Arab expeditionary forces and conquered most of Palestine in 1948. In 1948, the Zionist movement unilaterally declared the state of Israel. The majority of the Palestinians became stateless refugees.

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