The British Mandate for Palestine was a League of Nations mandate (essentially, a territorial transfer) for British administration in Palestine following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The mandate was assigned to Great Britain in April 1920 and became effective from 1923-1948. Transjordan (now Jordan) was added to the mandate shortly thereafter.
The period of the British Mandate was increasingly bloody. With the influx of Jewish immigration, most fleeing violence in Europe and elsewhere in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa, as well as Zionist aspirations for statehood, the Arab majority in Palestine grew more and more hostile to the Jews, both new immigrants and Jews whose families had lived in Palestine for millennia. Under the influence of the virulently antisemitic (and later Nazi SS member) Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Arabs periodically massacred the Jewish population. Right-wing and extremist Jewish militias — namely the Irgun and Stern Gang — carried out retaliatory attacks against the Arab population.
Both Jews and Arabs accused the British of aiding the other.
In 1939, the British passed what is known as the White Paper, essentially putting the final nail on the coffin of Jewish refugee immigration to Palestine. Among numerous restrictions on Palestine’s Jewish population, the White Paper also limited Jewish immigration to up to 75,000 people within a period of five years (remember: Europe was on the brink of war and Jews, not just in Germany but elsewhere in Europe, were desperate to escape). The White Paper stated that any further immigration would be subject to the approval of the Arabs.
The Jewish Agency for Palestine issued a statement saying that the British were denying Jews their rights in the “darkest hour of Jewish history.”
Following the Holocaust, the British were useless in the face of Arab-Jewish violence. Jewish paramilitaries carried out clandestine Jewish immigration operations and engaged in a violent insurgency against the British. All of this — plus a public relations disaster — contributed to the British decision to leave Palestine once and for all in 1948.
Due to the changing geopolitical landscape of the Middle East (e.g. the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the United Kingdom and France) and the influx of Jewish immigrants and refugees into Palestine, local Arab leaders began escalating Arab-Jewish tensions. In March of 1920, a widespread demonstration against the Jews of Palestine resulted in the looting of businesses and Arab attacks against Jews. Rioters carried antisemitic slogans, including “Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!” and “de@th to Jews!”
On April 4th, during the Nebi Musa festival, 60,000-70,000 Arabs congregated in Jerusalem and some began attacking Jews. Amin al-Husayni, the British-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, delivered a virulently antisemitic speech. A riot broke out, with Arabs completely ransacking the Jewish Quarter and desecrating and burning Torah scrolls. Jews were raped and murdered, and the British were extremely slow to respond, only restoring order 4 days later. In the end, 4 Jews were killed and 216 were severely injured. 300 Jews had to be evacuated from the Old City. Jews immediately accused the British of complicity, some going so far as to claim that the British had encouraged the Mufti to incite the violence.
In August of 1929, the left-wing Jewish militia known as the Haganah offered protection to the Jewish community of Hebron, a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi community. The community, largely religious and apolitical, refused, as they believed that the Arabs would only target Zionists. Unfortunately, the opposite happened, and 67-69 Jews were brutally massacred. Historian Hillel Cohen considers the 1929 Hebron Massacre the true beginning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marking the point of no return in the complete disintegration of Jewish-Arab relations. Riots and pogroms spread to other cities, including Jerusalem and Safed. Overall, 133 Jews were killed.
On April 15, 1936, followers of an antisemitic Syrian preacher shot 3 Jewish men, with only one surviving. In response, members of the Irgun shot two Arabs. By the 17th of April, violence between the Jews and the Arabs escalated. On April 19th, the unfounded blood libel that “many Arabs had been killed by Jews” resulted in an Arab attack against the Jews of Jaffa. A mob attacked Jewish businesses, and Jews were killed in the streets.
Jews were mercilessly stabbed and beaten. Jewish businesses were destroyed. The rioting lasted 3 days until it was suppressed by the British military. 9 Jews were killed. 12,000 Jews fled Jaffa; many then had to stay in refugee camps. As a result of the violence, the Jews of Jaffa demanded that their neighborhoods be incorporated into Tel Aviv, which would offer them greater protection.
Historians mark this event as the beginning of the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine. In May of 1936, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem called for a general strike against the Jews, calling Zionists terrorists and comparing them to Nazis (an odd comparison, considering the Mufti was an actual Nazi SS member). Throughout the course of the revolt, Arabs killed some 500 Jews.
During the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, 70 armed Arab rioters entered a Jewish neighborhood in Tiberias and slaughtered 19 Jews, including 11 children. The Jews were virtually protection-less, with only 15 Jewish guards protecting a neighborhood of over 2000 people. Two of the guards were killed during the pogrom.
A British representative stated: "It was systematically organized and savagely executed. Of the nineteen Jews killed, including women and children, all save four were stabbed to death. That night and the following day the troops engaged the raiding gangs.” 25 days after the pogrom, local Arabs murdered the Jewish mayor of Tiberias.
As the situation worsened and Jewish-Arab relations deteriorated, the British struggled more and more to control the violence, which had quickly become a thorn in their side.
Jewish immigrants and refugees did not arrive to Palestine with a rifle in hand. The Zionist militias — the left-wing Haganah, right-wing Irgun, and extremist/terrorist right-wing Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) — formed in response to Palestinian Arab violence, kidnappings, and massacres of Jews.
After the 1920 and 1921 Arab riots, during which over 50 Jews were massacred, the Jews in Palestine realized that the British had no interest in protecting Jews from Arab violence. As such, the left-wing militia known as the Haganah formed. After the 1929 Arab pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) — including the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when Palestine’s most ancient continuous Jewish community was decimated — the Haganah became much more structured and well-armed. In 1931, the right-wing Irgun split from the Haganah over the Haganah’s policy of “restraint,” as the Irgun believed the best defense was good offense.
In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee — the Palestinian Arab leadership during the period of the British Mandate — called for a general strike and a boycott of Jewish products. This quickly escalated into violence and terrorism, resulting in the murder of 415 Jews and hundreds of British. The British, in a desperate attempt to put an end to the riots, ended up murdering thousands of Arabs. Due to their colossal inadequacy in protecting Jewish civilians, the British reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the Haganah, though they stopped short of official recognition.
During World War II, the Irgun temporarily halted its operations against the British. In 1940, the Lehi broke off from the Irgun over this decision.
The Jews of Palestine responded negatively to the 1939 White Paper. In 1944, the radical Jewish paramilitary group, the Irgun, launched a rebellion against British rule.
Irgun leader and future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin announced the revolt in February of 1944: ““There can no longer be an armistice between the Jewish Nation and its youth and a British administration in the Land of Israel which has been delivering our brethren to Hitler…Our nation is at war with this regime and it is a fight to the finish.”
The Haganah, which was under the jurisdiction of the officially recognized Jewish leadership in Palestine, remained mostly cooperative with the British, while putting pressure on them to open up Jewish refugee restrictions. After the end of World War II, however, the Haganah began cooperating with the Irgun and Lehi against the British.
Perhaps most infamous of all Irgun operations was the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, where the British held administrative quarters. Begin had warned the British of the bombing in advance, giving them ample time to evacuate their staff and hotel guests, but they didn’t listen. In the end, 91 people were killed in the bombing.
Following the bombing, the Irgun and Lehi continued attacking British police and military targets. In retaliation, the British imposed a number of restrictions on the Jewish population of Palestine, such as martial law, military curfews, random searches, and mass arrests. Tensions grew between the Haganah — which condemned the bombings — and the Irgun and Lehi.
The insurgency exhausted the British, and remaining in Palestine became an increasingly unpopular position, as it was not only financially costly, but had cost the lives of many British servicemen.
Aliyah Bet is the code name for the wave of Jewish illegal immigration and illegal rescue missions to Mandatory Palestine between 1920-1948, and particularly after 1939, after the British passed the 1939 White Paper.Aliyah Bet happened in two phases: phase one (1934-1942/1944) and phase two (1945-1948).
The rescue missions were carried out by a network of Zionist organizations. Some 62 missions were carried out between 1937-1944, the majority of them unsuccessful and often ending with catastrophic results. In 1938, the Haganah established Mossad L’Aliyah Bet (“Organization for Illegal Immigration”) to facilitate these rescue missions. It received funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and operated independently from the Jewish Agency, though the Jewish Agency had been involved in its creation.
Some 70,000 Jews, aboard 62 or 66 vessels (sources differ), attempted to reach Palestine via ship during World War II. Only ~15,000 made it safely, as most were unable to penetrate the British blockade. Five ships sunk, resulting in nearly 1,600 casualties.
After the war, in a poll of 19,000 Jewish Displaced Persons [Holocaust refugees], 97 percent of them stated they wanted to go to Palestine. When asked for a second choice, many said “crematorium.”
The Haganah continued its illicit operations, now smuggling Holocaust survivors out of Europe. A major turning point was the plight of the SS Exodus (see last slide), which was highly publicized in the world media and turned into a major public relations scandal and embarrassment for the British.
The Haganah continued its illicit operations, now smuggling Holocaust survivors out of Europe. A major turning point was the plight of the SS Exodus (see last slide).
Overall, some 70,000 Jews arrived to Palestine in over 100 ships throughout the course of Aliyah Bet. This was a modest number considering the high number of Jews that attempted to travel to Palestine unsuccessfully. However, Aliyah Bet was successful in creating kinship between the Jewish community of Palestine and the Holocaust survivors desperate to leave Europe.
It also heavily embarrassed the British. On the one hand, they were trying to appease the Arab Higher Committee, which decried Jewish immigration. On the other hand, the world saw the British as cruel, keeping Holocaust survivors trapped in detention camps and banning them from Palestine.
By the late 1940s, numerous politicians, led by Winston Churchill, were calling to end the costly mandate.
After two Irgun fighters were arrested and sentenced to death, the Irgun announced its plan to retaliate by killing British officers.
In May 1947, the Irgun orchestrated a mass escape of prisoners from Acre Prison. The British managed to capture five Irgun fighters; two of them were minors so they weren’t eligible to be executed by British military law. Sensing that the other three would be sentenced to death, the Irgun immediately sought British hostages, capturing two British military policemen. They British policemen eventually managed to escape, and the Irgun fighters were sentenced to death. Eventually, the Irgun captured two British sergeants, Corps, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, who the kept as hostages.
From then, an unsuccessful search to rescue the sergeants ensued. On July 27, the British decided to go through with the executions, even though they knew the Irgun would retaliate. On July 29, the Irgun members, Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar were executed.
The British issued a military curfew, but the Irgun hung the two sergeants anyway. The bodies were moved and hung in a booby-trapped eucalyptus grove in Netanya. When the bodies were found, the booby trap injured a British officer.
In retaliation for the entire affair, British soldiers went on a rampage in Tel Aviv, attacking the Jewish community and killing five Jews. In Great Britain, the outraged population rioted against the Jewish community, many carrying signs with messages such as “Hitler was right.”
American historian J. Bower Bell described the Sergeant’s Affair as the “straw that broke the Mandate's back,” leading to the British consensus that it was time to evacuate Palestine.
In 1946, the Haganah purchased a ship — which was later renamed the SS Exodus, after the story in the Torah — from an American company. The ship was in terrible condition, so carrying Holocaust survivors would be risky. The Haganah believed that this would compel the British to let them pass through the blockade in Palestine. It was also taller than the British destroyers, which would prevent the British from boarding it.
Exodus left the shores of France in the early morning hours of July 11, 1947, displaying a Honduran flag and claiming to be en route to Istanbul. It carried over 4500 Holocaust survivors — including 1700 children — making it the largest clandestine immigration mission to Palestine. It was manned mainly by American Jewish volunteers and carried enough supplies to last two weeks. From the first night of their voyage, a British destroyer tried to communicate with them, but the crew ignored it. They were followed by 1-5 British destroyers through the entirety of their journey.
On July 18, the British boarded the ship some 20 nautical miles away from the shore of Palestine. The passengers and crew resisted, but the British continued anyway. A Jewish volunteer crewman was clubbed to death and two refugees were killed by gunshot. Some 10 passengers were treated for serious injuries, and another 200 for illnesses related to the violence. No British died.
Prior to Exodus, intercepted Jewish refugees were detained in British concentration camps in Cyprus. However, the Exodus refugees were sent back to Europe, as the British wanted to send the message that “whatever they sent to Palestine would be sent back to them.” After two weeks in the port of Haifa, the refugees were shipped to Germany, where they were disembarked by British police and 200 soldiers. The passengers resisted, calling the British “Hitler commandos,” “fascists,” and “sadists.” They also accused the British of using excessive force, though the British denied the charge, only conceding that one Jew was “dragged down the gangway by the feet with his head bumping on the wooden slats.”
The Exodus tragedy — particularly the use of excessive force and the fact that the British shipped Holocaust survivors back to Germany — resulted in a huge public relations scandal for the British, overshadowing even the Sergeant’s Affair.
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