Partitioning Palestine: British Policymaking at the End of Empire

Partitioning Palestine: British Policymaking at the End of Empire

by Penny Sinanoglou

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Partitioning Palestine is the first history of the ideological and political forces that led to the idea of partition—that is, a division of territory and sovereignty—in British mandate Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century. Inverting the spate of narratives that focus on how the idea contributed to, or hindered, the development of future Israeli and Palestinian states, Penny Sinanoglou asks instead what drove and constrained British policymaking around partition, and why partition was simultaneously so appealing to British policymakers yet ultimately proved so difficult for them to enact. Taking a broad view not only of local and regional factors, but also of Palestine’s place in the British empire and its status as a League of Nations mandate, Sinanoglou deftly recasts the story of partition in Palestine as a struggle to maintain imperial control. After all, British partition plans imagined space both for a Zionist state indebted to Britain and for continued British control over key geostrategic assets, depending in large part on the forced movement of Arab populations. With her detailed look at the development of the idea of partition from its origins in the 1920s, Sinanoglou makes a bold contribution to our understanding of the complex interplay between internationalism and imperialism at the end of the British empire and reveals the legacies of British partitionist thinking in the broader history of decolonization in the modern Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226665788
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/22/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

 Penny Sinanoglou is assistant professor of history at Wake Forest University.

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Partition's Pathways: Imperial and International Contexts

At a meeting of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, convened in July 1937 to examine the possibility of partitioning Palestine, the former chief secretary of the Palestine Government, J. Hathorn Hall, said that he "did not think that Palestine had ever been a local problem ... A speech in the House of Commons, a resolution at Zurich, often had greater repercussions than anything that might happen in the country itself." Similarly, this chapter argues, partition was the product not just of local but also of imperial and international forces.

Palestine was ruled by those who drew on their experiences in one of Europe's most extensive empires. It was also simultaneously a League of Nations mandate, subject to international oversight, and owing to its religious and ethnonational significance, to unusually high levels of international scrutiny and lobbying. While there were material and political factors specific to Palestine that made partition initially appealing (and ultimately unworkable) for British policymakers, partition was also substantially shaped by myriad extra-Palestinian forces. These included the pressures and currents of British and Zionist popular politics to which Hall referred; British imperial practices and networks; British foreign policy interests, particularly concerning neighboring Arab states; and the textual requirements of the mandate reiterated through discussions of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations in Geneva. These factors and constraints were neither static nor independent, and so in order to understand partition's trajectory we must be aware both of the interrelation of these forces and of the relative importance of particular concerns or pressures over time. To lay the groundwork for a close examination of the rise, fall, and resurrection of partition plans in the following chapters, this chapter maps out the main contexts in which policymaking took place and the key forces that guided partition planners.

Palestine and Partition in the British Imperial Bureaucracy

As a League of Nations mandate, Palestine existed in a conceptually and legally unusual space that, as we shall see, inclined policymakers toward partition. The specific obligations incumbent upon Britain in the Palestine mandate represented a significant divergence from prior imperial experience and practice. Although white settlers populated many areas of the empire, Jewish immigrants to Palestine were distinct from Britain's white settler population in Africa, Australia, and North America in several important ways: their presence in Palestine was due to an explicit scheme to build a "national home," and they constituted not only a nonnative but also a predominantly non-British and nonimperial group. Jewish immigrants to Palestine were largely East European, and, by the mid-1930s, German. Few were British or from other parts of the empire, and though many of the highest-ranking Zionist leaders were English speakers, increasingly the Jewish population in Palestine spoke Hebrew. On many counts, then, the Jewish settlers in Palestine could not be included in the imagined imperial community. As Colonial Secretary William Ormsby-Gore put it, when urging the Mandates Commission to allow Britain to explore the possibility of partitioning Palestine, "Palestine was unlike any other country with which the British empire had to deal ... The task of the mandatory Power in Palestine was unique. The country was unique: the difficulties were unique."

For all Palestine's "unique" attributes, however, it was administratively part of the imperial world. British officials who had worked around the empire from Cyprus to India staffed all the highest and many of the mid- and lower-level positions in the Government of Palestine. British judges headed Palestine's civil courts, and officials in London oversaw Palestine's bureaucracy, approved its laws and regulations, and managed, albeit at a distance, to shape policy and practice in the mandate. To understand where partition came from thus requires, in part, that we understand Palestine as a territory embedded in the bureaucratic networks that bound the British empire together.

As in many other British imperial protectorates and possessions, Palestine was ruled by a high commissioner who was appointed by the British monarch and whose rule, from 1921 on, fell under the purview of the British colonial secretary. Prior to this date, Palestine was under the domain of the Foreign Office, and the transition was neither uncontested nor neutral. In early 1921, the new colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, oversaw the creation of a Middle East department within the Colonial Office. This department, established with Sir John Shuckburgh, formerly of the India Office, as its head, consolidated the administration of territories in the Middle East that previously had been under either the Foreign or the India Office.

This shift was significant from the perspective of future partition planning for Palestine. For a variety of reasons, ranging from jockeying for professional control to advancing deeply held political convictions, Colonial Office bureaucrats were more committed to upholding the Balfour Declaration and less concerned about Arab reactions, both in Palestine and in the Middle East more broadly, than were their counterparts in the Foreign Office. Zionist links to these career civil servants were strong and persistent; the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, referred in 1929 to having "been in intimate contact for the last ten years" with Sir John Shuckburgh. Along with Shuckburgh, a small, stable group of officials, including Cosmo Parkinson and O. G. R. Williams, continued to work on Palestine policy throughout the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, even as governments changed, the department supervising Palestine was sympathetic to the Zionist cause. As the next chapter demonstrates, these close links between the Colonial Office and Zionist leaders also ensured that senior officials were familiar with the ideas of territorial separatism developing in Zionist circles in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, much of the appeal of partition for the Colonial Office was that whatever the objections of a small Zionist fringe, it looked to be a policy that would fulfill the Balfour Declaration and save the Zionist project from being completely obliterated in a unitary state under majority rule.

On the other hand, the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office was by and large focused on regional stability, and thus concerned primarily with Arab anti-Zionist and anti-British sentiment. Although from 1921 the Foreign Office no longer had direct jurisdiction over policy for Palestine, international events in the region in the mid-1930s brought Foreign Office expertise to bear on the territory. After the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and once neighboring Arab states intervened in Palestine during the 1936–39 uprising, the Foreign Office, under the direction of its Eastern Department head, George Rendel, sought to reassert its influence over Palestine policy. The Foreign Office argued that Britain's primary aim should be to pacify Palestine and retain it as a strategic outpost rather than to oversee the creation of a Jewish national home.

Policy was not simply created in London by career officials and politicians. It was also, substantially, developed and debated by those administrators on the ground who struggled in the most immediate ways with the tensions of the mandate. At the level of local administration, the structures and institutions of the Palestine Government would have been familiar to anyone in the British imperial civil service: advised by an executive council consisting of a chief secretary and attorney general, along with a changing set of other executive officeholders, the high commissioner oversaw provincial governors, who were themselves served by a group of district officers. The high commissioner also appointed heads of departments ranging from agriculture to railways. Mandatory rule had many points of resemblance with British rule elsewhere, particularly in its hallmark use of indirect rule, adoption of preexisting bureaucratic, legal, and financial structures, and requirement that the territory pay its own way. Governance was meant to flow through village headmen (mukhtars) in Arab villages, and towns and cities had largely elected (though sometimes appointed) councils, which were the primary points of contact for district officers. While the Muslim segment of the Arab population had a figurehead in the British-appointed Grand Mufti, the Jewish population was represented politically by the Jewish Agency. Most of the Palestine Government's bureaucratic and legal apparatus was borrowed from the Ottomans: courts, tax and banking codes, land registries, and more were all based on Ottoman precedent with British revisions and additions.

British officials who served in the Palestine mandate were drawn from the ranks of the imperial civil service (including the Indian civil service), the diplomatic corps, and at the highest levels, from among the political elite in Britain. As many of the men charged with developing policy in Palestine had broad experience in managing Britain's empire, it is perhaps not surprising that they sought out imperial analogues to guide their policy proposals. Thinking across the empire was second nature to many of them, and they applied familiar practices of surveying land, regulating the post, and providing education, for instance, at the same time as they sought analogues to help untangle tricky political questions of immigration, political representation, and apportioning financial resources. Territorial solutions, including partition, had been tried and tested with remarkable success in other parts of the British world, and combined with the existing inclination to see the populations in Palestine as politically irreconcilable, this imperial orientation drew policymakers to partition.

Senior officials in London, high-ranking members of the Palestine Government, and those civil servants on the ground thus approached partition in ways that were deeply informed by imperial bureaucratic structures and priorities. This did not mean that they all came to the same conclusions about partition, but it does suggest that in trying to understand partition's course, we need to pay attention to practices of imperial secondment and transfer, to imperial careers that developed across multiple territories, and to the knowledge and experience various administrators had of prior British imperial partitions. In other words, while taking seriously Ormsby-Gore's contention that Palestine was unique, we also need to look to the ways in which it was not. Legions of administrators, both in Palestine and in London, thought through the Palestine problem by placing it side by side with other imperial situations that seemed to them similar in critical ways. The broad concept and details of partition in Palestine owe much of their genesis to these men thinking across but also, crucially, working across the empire. Partition planning was a process both intensely local and fundamentally transnational, a product of both abstract thought practices and practical hands-on experience across the British empire.

Partition in the British Empire

Scholars have identified and studied flows of information, people, and ideas aiding both nationalist and nonnationalist anticolonial movements in the British empire, particularly in the period around World War I, when rebellions destabilized British rule in Ireland, India, and Egypt. Some have conceptualized the connections between parts of the empire as forming a network, others a web, and still others a layered set of webs. However one describes their contact, the fact remains that anticolonial leaders drew inspiration from each other, much to the consternation of British imperial administrators, who soon turned to their own imperial networks and knowledge in an effort to halt these movements and exchanges. The formation of the Interdepartmental Committee on Eastern Unrest, which began meeting in 1922 to survey and discuss ways to combat nationalist movements in India, Egypt, and Turkey, as well as pan-national movements such as Bolshevism and Pan-Islamism, is one example of British reactions to a perceived global threat to the empire. In coordinating a wide range of regional and local knowledge, Britain aimed to mirror those networks it set out to destroy. Less well studied are instances in which British administrators drew on their individual and collective imperial experience in an attempt to solve a local problem or to shape forms of governance and administration, rather than simply to put down an insurgency or disrupt a nationalist movement.

Partition planning in Palestine is a case that bridges long-range problem-solving and reaction to short-term crisis. As we will see in the following chapters, British officials began to envision territorial division well before the crisis of the 1936–39 Arab uprising, but the crisis itself galvanized them to turn vague explorations into concrete policy proposals. That they could make this shift in the space of a few years was possible only because partition was not new. It already existed as a set of concepts and practices to which administrators in Jerusalem and London could refer because they had already been tried in different forms in the British empire in the first two decades of the twentieth century. When faced with a particular set of political problems in Palestine that appeared to fall into a familiar pattern of ethnoreligious conflict, British politicians and administrators instinctively turned to what seemed, at least on the surface, to be their analogues in Ireland and India. In the case of Bengal, partition had been implemented, unsuccessfully and therefore temporarily between 1905 and 1911, in order to weaken political agitation and assert imperial control. In Ireland in 1920, Britain sought to permanently align religion, political sovereignty, and territory through partition. By the time it became clear that Palestine was going to be a serious political, moral, and economic problem for Britain, partition had found its place within the range of possibilities to which administrators might turn.

The partition idea in Palestine had initially developed out of a very different set of analogizing impulses, however, as administrators, particularly in Palestine itself, saw the conflict between Arabs and Jews in terms of that between native Africans and white settlers. Drawing on notions of trusteeship, these officials set out to protect Arab cultivators from Jewish settlers by setting up land reserves or cantons and ensuring that Jews would not achieve political dominance in any kind of joint legislature. This impulse to frame what was essentially a political problem in terms of its impact on small agriculturalists dovetailed with the already existing solution of partition by suggesting a territorial answer to the conundrum of Palestine. As Palestinian Arab nationalists asserted themselves through the mid- to late 1930s, British officials turned away from comparisons to Africa, whose natives were assumed to have no nationalist impulses, and made stronger connections to Ireland and India, where policies had been developed to cut off or contain nationalist blocs.

Before turning to Britain's experiments with partition in Bengal and in Ireland in the early decades of the twentieth century, it is worth defining the sort of partition under discussion here, and the purpose and limits of connecting partitions that occurred under British authority. As we have seen in the period immediately surrounding World War I, British officials had the experience of drawing new borders and boundaries in the former Ottoman empire that divided and subdivided territories previously considered unitary. In addition, in their own empire, British officials had been party to partitions that resulted in the creation of two or more areas under new authority or sovereignty and that concomitantly created at least one non-British party claiming such a partition line and its resulting territories to be illegitimate or unnatural. Though the partition of Ireland and the proposed partition of Palestine shared the important characteristic of creating, or intending to create, at least one new independent state, the partition of Bengal is included in this section because its (unstated) aim was to splinter political resistance to British power by encouraging the development of religiously affiliated politics and weakening the possibility of an all-India political resistance. It prefigured the creation of religiously divided constituencies and the eventual partition of India in 1947.


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Table of Contents


One / Partition’s Pathways: Imperial and International Contexts
Two / Before Peel: Territorial Solutions to the Palestine Problem, 1929–1936
Three / The Peel Commission in Palestine, 1936–1937
Four / Negotiating Partition, 1936–1937
Five / The Demise of Partition, 1937–1939

Conclusion: Partition Redux, 1939–1948
Appendix I: Mandate for Palestine
Appendix II: Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations
List of Abbreviations

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