Ghada Karmi, a research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, told Arab News that she was convinced Israel would not exist today had it not been for the Balfour Declaration. “Without Balfour, Israel as we know it today would never have existed,” she said.
The victory of Britain and the Allies in World War I ushered in the British mandate period, which ended with Britain withdrawing from Palestine on May 15, 1948. On the eve of that date, Israel declared its independence and its underground Jewish armed groups carried out the cleansing of much of Palestine through killings and terrorizing of unarmed Palestinian Arab population, in what has been referred to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Susan Akram, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Boston University School of Law, told a roundtable of experts at the Columbia Global Center in Amman on Oct. 28 that the Balfour Declaration endorsed by the British Cabinet became the reference point for all laws and regulations enacted in Palestine thereafter.
“The nationality law, for example, allowed Britain to codify Balfour in international law,” she said.
Akram said the nationality law gave all 827,000 former Turkish citizens residing in the area in 1922 Palestinian citizenship. “But that law also allowed foreigners who were not Turkish citizens the ability to apply for and become Palestinian citizens. Akram said that 38,000 mostly new Jewish immigrants applied for and received citizenship in the new Palestinian mandate state in 1922.
Anis F. Kassim, a Jordanian-Palestinian lawyer in Jordan and the editor of the Palestine Yearbook of International Law Encyclopedia, told Arab News that one of the most dangerous decisions that the newly established powers in Palestine enacted had to do with land. “Until the British mandate was set up, and during Ottoman rule, any transfer of land ownership had to be done at the Land Registry, but the British allowed for land ownership to be transferred using irrevocable powers of attorney.” This change opened up the opportunity for all kinds of acts of forgery and provided Zionists with a perfect instrument to acquire land using force, intimidation and bribery.
Johnny Mansour, an academic researcher from Haifa, said in an interview with Arab News that much of the current legal and administrative infrastructure in Palestine is part of the British legacy in those crucial years between 1917 and 1948.
In a 2001 review of two books published about this crucial period, Charles Glass wrote in The Guardian that “despite the objections of some British military commanders and civil servants in Palestine, His Majesty’s Government protected Jewish immigration, encouraged Jewish settlement, subsidized Jewish defense and protected the Yishuv, as Palestine’s minority Jewish community called itself, from the native population.”
Glass also noted that the release in the past two decades of Israeli records has led to a rethinking and a new look at Zionism by a new generation of Israeli historians — among them Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris — whose work is now entering the mainstream. Glass said that by focusing on the mandate period, books such as “Ploughing Sand: British Rule 1917-1948” and “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate” reflect what he calls “Israel’s debt to the British and Britain’s injury to the Arabs.”
In her book “Ploughing Sand,” Naomi Shepherd writes that “British rule protected the Zionist beachhead in Palestine during the most vulnerable, insecure period during the 1920s and 1930s. This was, politically, the main legacy of the mandate.”
Similarly, Israeli historian and author Tom Segev concludes in his book “One Palestine, Complete” that the “British kept their promise to the Zionists … Contrary to the widely held belief in Britain’s pro-Arabism, British actions considerably favoured the Zionist enterprise.”
While historians and legal experts correctly point to the fact that the British mandate largely favored the Zionists, it is difficult to deny that the British mandate period left a positive impact on Palestinians in the areas of education, health and culture. Schools and hospitals were set up largely in Palestinian Arab areas with a strong Palestinian Christian population, many of whom were hired to benefit from these institutions both as beneficiaries and employees.
Mansour told Arab News that well-run hospitals in Nazareth, Nablus and Gaza are a testimony to the efforts of the British in the field of medical care, while schools in Jerusalem and Nazareth and opportunities provided for Palestinian Arabs to follow up their higher education in the UK have produced an entire generation of well-educated and articulate Palestinian Arabs, many of whom have been among the leaders of the Palestinian national movement. Mansour also said Britain was to be credited for introducing new skills and professional employment opportunities, including auditing and accounting, developing the legal system and courts, improving land, air and sea transportation and introducing cultural institutions such as theater and cinema.