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9-08-2015, 22:25

BRITAIN, ISRAEL AND THE ARABS, 1945–9

Military victory in 1945 sustained the illusion of Britain’s imperial dominance a decade longer. But the rising tide of nationalism in Turkey, Egypt and throughout the Middle East since the 1920s should have served as a warning signal. Now, after the Second World War, popular British support for empire was rapidly ebbing away, especially now that it could be seen to involve unacceptable financial burdens. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, faced a difficult task defending the remaining outposts for what were perceived as strategic or economic reasons. The two came together in Iran. When the war ended, the Russians were reluctant to move out. Oil was now the lifeblood of the West, and Britain and the US were determined to retain the Middle East as a Western preserve. In 1946 the Russians at last bowed to the pressure on them exerted through the United Nations and withdrew their troops. The Russians did not threaten Palestine. But the future of this land, with its special significance to great cultures and religions, was once more heading towards bloody conflict. Here the Anglo- American alliance was most strained immediately after the war. Both Arabs and Jews claimed it as their homeland. At the end of the war Britain faced challenges throughout the Middle East. In Iran and Iraq nationalism attacked foreign control of oil resources; in Egypt it was Britain’s military occupation of the country and its control of the Suez Canal. The ferment of the Middle East was due not only to struggles against foreign powers but also to the rivalries of the Middle Eastern nations among themselves and to the social conflict between the ruling elites, the emerging middle classes and the masses of poor. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Britain played a decisive role. Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary in the Labour government of 1945, was clear about the choice facing his country. He resisted arguments that Britain’s post-war weakness would force it to give up a dominant role in the Middle East. He knew that Middle Eastern societies were backward and feudal and that social upheavals in the long run were likely. He was a socialist at home and an imperialist abroad. Britain’s standard of living was dependent on Arab oil, and what mattered was the immediate future. Britain should not, therefore, withdraw. But there was a solution: imperial dominance might be made more palatable by creating a framework of Anglo-Arab partnerships. If this meant partnerships with feudal princes and kings, so be it; British interference in the internal affairs of Arab nations would otherwise only arouse the Arab cry of imperialism. Not everyone in the Cabinet agreed. The prime minister Clement Attlee believed that imperialism, even when cloaked by Bevin’s palliatives, would prove impossible to sustain. Would it not be better for Britain to retire with goodwill ahead of time, as it had agreed to do in India? The West faced a fundamental problem in the Middle East: how to ensure the future stability of the region, and how best to meet the needs and wishes of its peoples without jeopardising the West’s vital strategic and economic interests. In Iraq, at least, British interests appeared secure in 1945. In the prime minister, Nuri-es- Said, London believed it had a firm pro-Western friend. A new Anglo-Iraqi alliance treaty was concluded in January 1948 which established Iraqi control over British bases in Iraq in peacetime, but provided for military assistance in war, which meant, in effect, that Britain could then reactivate the bases. It was ironic that British socialists should make a deal with politicians like Nuri, who represented the interests of the wealthy landowning class opposed to social reform. He had underestimated the anti-British feelings in Iraq, which were whipped up into a frenzy immediately after the conclusion of the treaty. Britain’s influence became more precarious though it persisted for another decade. Britain favoured agreement between the Arab states, which was to be further enhanced by a regional grouping. In March 1945, with Britain’s blessing, the Arab League was founded. Despite the yearning for greater unity in the Arab world, however, the ruling elites were not able to provide it. Abdullah, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan, despised the backward Egyptians. Nor was there any love lost between the Hashemites and the rival and victorious dynasty of Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia. Other Arab nationalists looked down on poverty-stricken Transjordan as a client state in British pay. The Arabs were deeply split. Egypt and Iraq eyed each other with hostility, both laying claim to leadership of the Arab world. The Arabs, including the Egyptians, had been largely hostile spectators during the Allied struggle against Germany. Although Egypt was nominally independent, the British troops swarming throughout Cairo and Alexandria, and guarding British bases along the Suez Canal during the war, gave every appearance of moving about in an occupied country. The end of the war did not essentially alter the situation. The Suez Canal and the Suez bases remained under foreign control. Meanwhile, Britain’s post-war economic plight required that expenditure be avoided wherever possible. Bevin was prepared to make extensive concessions to Egyptian national feelings, but insisted on ironclad treaty guarantees that the Suez Canal would never fall into hands hostile to Britain. In May 1946 the Attlee government accepted the principle of a complete military evacuation in times of peace. Eventually in October of that year a draft treaty was agreed against a background of mounting Egyptian violence in the streets. Britain undertook to withdraw its forces by September 1949, but Egypt had to agree to invite the British back to their Suez bases and to cooperate with Britain if any conflict threatened ‘against countries adjacent to Egypt’. Yet the new treaty was never concluded; what wrecked the negotiations was Egypt’s claim to sovereignty over the Sudan, which Britain was not ready to accept. By then, Britain’s difficulties there were overshadowed by the crisis in Palestine. Both Arab and Jew in 1945 considered that British rule in Palestine was destined to end soon. The growth of both Arab and Zionist nationalism meant that foreign rule could be maintained only by an increasing use of force. But what form would a Palestine state take? The Nazi slaughter of more than 6 million Jews during the Second World War, while the rest of the world looked on, entirely changed Jewish attitudes. Yet many Arabs, in their hostility to British colonialism, had sympathised with the Nazi rather than the Allied cause during the war. Support for Zionism and a Jewish state in 1945 became overwhelming among the Jews both of Palestine and in the rest of the world. Never again would mass murder be permitted; Jews were ready to fight to prevent it, to create their own nation, to guarantee the future survival of Jews everywhere. That the creation of Israel would involve injustice to the Arabs in Palestine was an inevitable consequence, because the territory of a viable Jewish state would contain almost as many Arabs as Jews. What followed between 1945 and 1949 was a bloody struggle between the Jews, the British and the Arabs. The British despaired of finding any solution to which both Arabs and Jews could agree. Partition was the only practicable policy. In the last resort the Jews would have accepted it, but the Arabs were ready to resist it by force. Thus in the end military arms would decide the issue; to enforce partition Britain would have been drawn into fighting the Arabs. But its interests were overwhelmingly involved in maintaining goodwill with the Arab nations. Bevin solved the dilemma by handing responsibility over to the United Nations. Meanwhile, as long as Britain continued to station its troops in Palestine and to be responsible for law and order and for the administration, it was exposed to both Jewish and Arab hostility. The position of the Jews in Palestine was precarious. They faced catastrophe if the British should depart before they could sufficiently mobilise to augment their own armed defence force, the Haganah. The Zionist leader David Ben Gurion tried to persuade the British to delay their departure, appealing to Bevin as late as February 1947. He offered to root out Jewish terrorism against the British, provided the British troops stayed. Bevin believed that the Ben Gurion offer was just a tactic to build up a Jewish majority under cover of the Mandate. The acceptable face of Zionism was represented by Chaim Weizmann, who more than anyone had been responsible for securing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and by David Ben Gurion; the Haganah was the tolerated armed wing of the Jewish Agency. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, who eventually became prime minister of Israel in 1977, belonged to the unacceptable face of Zionism, and the Stern Group was even more extreme. Begin and Stern were ready to fight the British, who were (in their eyes) accomplices of the Nazis in their failure to take all possible steps to rescue the Jews from the Holocaust. Begin was a Pole, a member of the East European Jewry whose homelands had become one great graveyard. In the struggle for Israel’s survival, both the Irgun fighters and all Jews able to bear arms would be needed once the British had left, so the breach between Ben Gurion and Begin could never be total. Jews of all political complexions in Palestine were ready to help outwit the British authorities to make it possible for the Jewish survivors, sailing in their ramshackle boats from the displacedpersons camps in Germany, to land secretly in the Holy Land. From the beaches, where men and women were waiting for them, they were smuggled into the Jewish agricultural settlements – the kibbutz. In material terms these refugees were no great catch: penniless men, women and children, the sick and the old predominating over the ablebodied. For them Palestine was a haven – it was what the ideal of a Jewish state was all about. The ‘illegal’ immigration did not always succeed; the Royal Navy had the unenviable task of intercepting and boarding the boats and forcing the refugees to new camps in Cyprus. The seizure of one such ship, the Exodus, led to worldwide condemnation of Britain, especially when the refugees were shipped back to Hamburg, to the country responsible for the Holocaust. It was a gift for Zionist propaganda. For Britain the option of remaining in Palestine became increasingly less attractive. The price that was being paid for the strategic base was too high: 100,000 British troops were being tied down in Palestine to try to keep the peace, which they increasingly failed to accomplish. British conscripts were being killed in raids carried out by the Irgun and its splinter groups, the Lehi. The Irgun’s answer to a massive military and police action to round up suspects and disarm Jewish irregulars was to blow up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British army and secretariat headquarters, on 22 July 1946. Menachem Begin later claimed that part of the plan had been to avoid loss of life and that sufficient warning had been given by telephone. But the time allowed between the telephone call and the explosion was far too short; part of the hotel collapsed and ninety-one people were killed. An attempt was also made to plant a bomb in the Jerusalem railway station, but this was fortunately frustrated in time. In all, between August 1945 and September 1947, some 300 people lost their lives as a result of terrorist action, nearly half of them British; seven captured Jewish terrorists had been executed, two awaiting execution had committed suicide, and another thirty-seven were killed fighting. It was the manner of the loss of these lives as well as their actual number that caused such revulsion. The decision to withdraw from the thankless task of governing Palestine had broad British public support. The British government was not prepared to enforce partition on the Arabs by military force. Nor, for all its criticisms of British policy, was the Truman administration willing to do so. The Jews were to be left to fight for their own national survival, a decision that came as no surprise to Jewish leaders like Begin. In February 1947, the British Cabinet decided to give notice to hand the Palestine problem to the United Nations by mid-May 1947. The last vain hope was that this deadline would bring Arabs and Jews to the conference table. The United Nations appointed a Special Committee on Palestine, though it was boycotted by the Arab political leadership. In August 1947 the committee reported that Palestine should be partitioned into an Arab and a Jewish state, but that the economic unity of Palestine should be maintained; the committee also suggested that for another two years Britain should continue to administer Palestine under the auspices of the United Nations and that during this transitional period 150,000 Jews should be admitted. The possibility that the transitional period might be extended was also envisaged. Thus the UN committee had reached much the same conclusions as the British Peel Commission ten years earlier. Did it stand any better chance of winning acceptance in the face of Arab hostility? The US and the Soviet Union, moreover, would both need to give the UN plan their backing if sufficient votes were to be cast to provide the necessary two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. In the event, both the US and the USSR, though the Cold War was at its height, voted in favour of the UN partition plan. Hitherto the Soviet Union had always opposed Zionism as an ideology likely to inflame Jewish Soviet citizens. One can only conjecture about the reasons for Russia’s change of front. Possibly the Soviet leadership calculated that the creation of Israel would undermine Western relations with the Arab states and thus provide for the Soviet Union a means of entering the Middle East. The American State Department and the British Foreign Office were well aware of these dangers and were doubly anxious now that Middle Eastern oil was becoming a crucial factor in Western industrial development. They wanted to avoid a policy that was bound to arouse Arab hostility. At this critical stage President Truman’s attitude was probably decisive. It was credited with sympathies for Zionism, the electoral advantage of appealing to the American-Jewish vote was a bonus in supporting a UN partition plan that would create a Jewish state. With the US and the Soviet Union organising support at the UN, the required two-thirds majority in favour of partition was achieved when the vote was called in the General Assembly on 29 November 1947. The intervening months were among the worst time for the dying British administration and the British troops. In a vain attempt to save Irgun terrorists from execution, two British sergeants were kidnapped by Irgun and found hanged on 31 July 1947. There was an outcry and revulsion in Britain. The British Cabinet now concluded that Britain’s total withdrawal had become inevitable. The months between the end of November 1947 and 14 May 1948, when the last British soldier left and the State of Israel was proclaimed, were extraordinary. The British would not cooperate with the UN on the partition plan and when fighting between Arabs and Jews began in December 1947 they increasingly confined their authority to military camps and police stations. The Jewish Agency emerged as the effective Jewish government and made desperate preparations to fight for the Jewish state against the expected Arab assault. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was also mobilising Palestinian Arabs, and sporadic fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs. Beyond Palestine the Arab League began planning to raise ‘volunteer’ armies against the day the British departed. Their mission was to overrun the Jewish state while it was still in its infancy. By April 1948, even before the British had left, the Arab threat to isolate Jerusalem completely, with its large Jewish population, as well as other Jewish settlements, had become very real indeed. The fighting spread. The Jewish leadership saw its only chance of salvation in declining to wait for the coordinated Arab attack. In April and May the Haganah seized the initiative and undertook a number of offensive operations. They succeeded in checking the Arabs. The first Arab–Israeli War created a particular problem that was to fester and provoke unrest in the Middle East to the present day: the Palestinian refugees. In the territory assigned to Israel by the UN in 1947 lived some 510,000 Arabs and 499,000 Jews. The majority of these Arabs fled in fear of their lives, leaving their land and possessions to be taken over by the Israelis; half of them had already left before the British Mandate had ended. They had genuine cause for terror; many panicked, caught in a war between Jews and the Arab invaders. Arab villages presented a special threat to the Israelis; when they supported Arab military units they were attacked. The ordinary Arab, however, who had lived on the land for generations was caught in the crossfire of war, just like the Jews. Jew and Arab were exposed to the danger of falling victim to atrocity. Irgun’s 2,000 fanatical fighters joined in the struggle, cooperating with but not subordinating themselves to the Haganah. The most horrific of Israeli attacks, which were intended to intimidate and drive out the Arabs, undertaken during the night 9 and 10 April 1948 was by the Irgun on Deir Yassin a village close to Jerusalem, where 245 men, women and children were murdered. Though the Israeli government and the Haganah repudiated the Irgun’s savagery, the memory of Deir Yassin stained the foundation of Israel. After Deir Yassin tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled from the territory under Israeli control into Arab-controlled Palestine on the West Bank, into Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Egyptian Gaza Strip. Unable to return to Israel these unfortunate people became pawns in Middle Eastern politics and the seedbed for the recruitment of militant Palestinian political, military and terrorist organisations. The Arabs also retaliated with terror to Deir Yassin, killing seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses in a convoy on their way to Mount Scopus. The Jewish Agency, during the early weeks of conflict, was desperate for arms. Once more Soviet support was critical. The Czechs were encouraged to transport weapons and an airlift was begun which delivered them just in time. In a tricky operation in April 1948 the Haganah organised a convoy of supplies to the 30,000 beleaguered Jews in Jerusalem. Once the Haganah took the offensive, the disunited Arab war effort began to crumble. After David Ben Gurion had declared Israeli independence on 14 May 1948 renewed fighting between the various Arab forces and the Haganah and Irgun broke out all over the country. The Jews astonished the world by winning the first round, despite their apparently hopeless position confronted by the Arab world. The Arab armies proved less formidable than their rhetoric. It was, nevertheless, a desperate struggle at all points of the compass against greater numbers. The Israelis did not possess a single warplane or any heavy military equipment. But the Arab armies of five states, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan and Egypt, were totally uncoordinated. Abdullah, king of Transjordan, was far more concerned to seize the West Bank of the River Jordan and to add this, as well as Jerusalem, to his kingdom than he was to destroy Israel. He had no intention of creating an independent Arab Palestine state. The Egyptians and Syrians too were intent on serving their own national interests. Responding vigorously and daringly the Israelis halted the Lebanese and Syrian attack in the north, and the attack was not pressed. Much more serious was the advance of the Egyptian army along the coast to Tel Aviv, which stopped short just a few miles from the city. The Egyptians had also advanced to the suburbs of Jerusalem, which was also invested by Transjordan’s Britishled and -trained Arab Legion, a first-rate fighting force. The struggle for Jerusalem was the most bitterly fought of the war. The Arab Legion captured the Old City; despite bombarding the New City and causing heavy civilian casualties (1,400), they failed to take that from the Israelis. Arab forces also sat astride the main Jewish supply route, the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In one of the most celebrated episodes of the war, the Israelis managed to construct a new road to the beleaguered city. At least part of Jerusalem was saved for the new state. At the United Nations, meanwhile, a resolution was approved that authorised the enforcement of a truce on the exhausted belligerents. The truce came into force on 11 June 1948. Both sides, using what turned out to be no more than a breathing space to strengthen their military positions, ignored the truce provisions. A renewal of fighting was regarded as certain. While the Arabs increased their regular troops to 45,000, the Czechs and French sent large quantities of arms to the Israelis, including fighter planes. On 8 July 1948 fighting resumed. The Israelis went on the offensive; a second UN truce on the 18th was soon broken. Count Bernadotte charged by the UN with brokering a permanent peace, was gunned down in Jerusalem in September, probably by a group of extremists. The Israeli government now proceeded to imprison members of the Stern Group (Lehi). Israel’s lack of control over murderous extremists had become a serious handicap in its international relations at a time when it desperately needed friends. In mid-October 1948 fighting was once more renewed between the Israelis and the Egyptians, who continued to hold parts of the Negev that had been assigned to Israel by the original UN partition plan. The fighting ended in the defeat of the Egyptians in January 1949. Egypt’s Arab allies, far from helping, took advantage of the catastrophe. King Abdullah of Transjordan, who had already stopped fighting on 1 December 1948 and arranged a ceasefire with the Israelis, declared the union of Palestine and Transjordan, annexed the West Bank and henceforth called his kingdom Jordan. This wily Arab ruler, alone among the Arab leaders, had greatly profited as regards territorial expansion from the Arab–Israeli War and drew upon himself the especial hatred of the Egyptians. Under the auspices of the UN, Israel in the spring of 1949 concluded armistice agreements with all its neighbours, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Lebanon, but not with Iraq. It was not peace, because the Arab nations would not accept a permanent peace treaty with Israel, and the Arab refugee question continued to fester as the refugees lived mainly in makeshift camps sustained by the UN Relief Organisation. In the aftermath of the war, over the next decade, the centuries-old tradition in some Muslim Middle Eastern nations of tolerating Jewish communities in their midst was broken. Almost half a million Jews were driven out but, unlike the Arab refugees, they had a new home waiting for them in Israel. The influx enormously strengthened Israel, which as a result of the war had already gained considerable territory in the north, part of the West Bank and land in the south. Israel’s territory had become more integral, instead of being divided into three parts connected only by two narrow land bridges. The Arabs felt humiliated by the victory of the Jews, whom they saw as Western imperialist intruders, and the British as the once dominant Middle Eastern power were blamed for the debacle. Some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs deprived of their farms and property became penniless refugees. Hopes for a Palestinian Arab state were thwarted, and the Palestinian Arabs nursed a burning sense of injustice. The Palestinian question and hatred of Israel and Zionism also became powerful and emotive weapons in the political struggles of the Arab states themselves. The Arab–Israeli War also showed up the rivalries of the Arab states and their competition for land, leadership and influence. In the war itself they were more intent on gaining their own objectives than on helping each other or the Palestinian Arabs. The rivalry and bitterness between them was never submerged for long. Their disunity, their general military backwardness and the traditions of their societies in which the poor were exploited for the benefit of the rich landowners left them no match for an Israeli state, ardent, nationalist, modern and progressive, in which all Jews felt they had a stake and whose continued strength and existence they felt was their only guarantee against a second Holocaust.

 

 

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