As 1935 ended, violence between Jews and Arabs intensified. In early 1936, the Mufti al-Husseini of Jerusalem formed a Higher Arab Committee, which called a national strike against the British that turned quite violent. The mufti then declared this violent outbreak a sacred one and labeled his forces the Holy War Army. It attracted armed Arab groups from Syria, Iraq and Transjordan to fight the Jews and the British. The Arab Revolt had begun. Hundreds of Jews were wounded and dozens killed.
The British government responded to the Revolt by forming a commission led by Lord William Robert Peel. After spending two months in Israel and meeting with the various groups, both Jew and Arab, he published his report in July 1937. Peel was critical of Great Britain for violating the original meaning of the Mandate by not assisting the Jews in forming their own homeland. Further, he criticized Britain for permitting thousands of Arabs to cross the interior borders unchallenged. Finally, he recommended a partition of the Land into two independent states—Jewish (about 20 percent of the Mandate) and Arab (about 70 percent). He also advocated the transfer of about 300,000 Arabs from the Jewish area and that Jerusalem remain under British control. The Zionists in Israel accepted the idea; the Arabs did not.
The Jewish militia, the Haganah, responded to the Revolt in an aggressive manner. A British military officer, Orde Wingate, an evangelical Christian, became a passionate advocate for the Jews in Israel. In fact, he once declared, “Everyone’s against the Jews, so I’m for them.” In March 1938, the British commander, Sir Archibald Wavell, ordered Wingate to train the Haganah and deploy them as Special Night Forces against the Arab rebels. Montefiore summarizes the importance of Wingate’s efforts:
During the Revolt and later during the Second World War, the British trained 25,000 Jewish auxiliaries, including other commando units led by Yitzhak Sadeh, a Russian Red Army veteran, who became Haganah’s chief of staff. ‘You are the sons of the Maccabees,’ Wingate told them, ‘You are the first soldiers of a Jewish Army!’ Their expertise and spirit later formed the basis of the Israel Defense Forces.
In March 1939, Major General Bernard Montgomery, British divisional commander, condensed the increasingly bitter Arab-Jewish violence into this prophetic statement: “The Jew murders the Arab and Arabs murder the Jews and it will go on for the next 50 years in all probability.”
The Jewish-Arab violence once again exploded and an additional concern emerged for the British—a seemingly imminent conflict with Adolf Hitler’s Germany. To address these concerns, the British Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald published another White Paper on 17 May 1939. MacDonald proposed severely limiting Jewish land purchases, restricting Jewish immigration to 15,000 people annually for five years (after which Arabs would have a veto), and calling for the establishment of an independent Arab state, but no Jewish state. It was an outright repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. Amazingly, the mufti of Jerusalem rejected the British proposal, while the Jews in Israel followed the counsel of David Ben-Gurion, now the undisputed leader of the Zionist cause: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” Thus, nearly 40,000 Jews from Israel volunteered to serve with the British, and, at the behest of Winston Churchill, a Jewish brigade fought in Italy.
When World War II erupted, the situation in Israel changed dramatically. Most Arabs in Israel did not support the British but temporarily ceased terrorist activities against both the British and the Jews. But the mufti of Jerusalem traveled to Germany in 1941 to meet with Hitler, hoping to form a common alliance against their common enemies—the British and the Jews. The mufti willingly embraced not only Hitler’s strategic opposition toward the British, but also his virulent racial anti-Semitism. In his memoirs, the mufti admitted that he was told of the Nazi extermination of at least three million Jews already and he boasted that “if Germany had carried the day, no trace of the Zionists would have remained in Palestine.”
Meanwhile, by 1944-45, the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were becoming clear. Nazi conquest had brought over nine million Jews under their control, and the “final solution” resulted in two-thirds of them being killed—men, women and children. Adding to this unspeakable horror was British policy: The British crackdown on Jewish immigration detailed in the 1939 White Paper meant that British troops were turning back shiploads of frantic Jewish refugees, who could have found refuge from Hitler’s terror. The combination of the Arab Revolt, the “final solution,” and MacDonald’s White Paper led many Zionists to the conclusion that only focused violence would force Great Britain to once again embrace the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. The catalyst for that violence was Menachem Begin and Irgun.
As soon as the War ended, the British people voted Winston Churchill out of office, replacing him with Clement Attlee as Prime Minster, who chose Ernest Bevin as his foreign secretary. Worldwide sympathy for the Jewish plight increased, and pressure on the British to end the immigration blockade mounted. Even the new American president, Harry Truman, appealed to Attlee to allow 100,000 displaced Jews into Israel. He refused. Incredibly, many Jews who had survived Hitler’s concentration camps, now found themselves in Displaced Person camps organized and run by the British. The most famous of these was on the island of Cyprus.
Understandably, violence between the British and the Jews increased. David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah, joined with Begin’s Irgun and a smaller, more radical group called Lehi (or the Stern Gang) to form a United Resistance Command to smuggle into Israel European Jews from the British camps and coordinate attacks on British facilities in Israel. Without the support of Ben-Gurion, Begin and Irgun focused on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the administrative center of the British Mandate. On 22 July 1946, Irgun blew up an entire wing of the Hotel, killing ninety-one people. Ben-Gurion withdrew from the United Resistance Command and the British retaliated severely and ruthlessly.
Defying British law, illegal immigration to Israel continued. The most famous example was the Exodus 1947 ship, which set sail in the summer of 1947 from France filled with Jewish immigrants. British foreign secretary Bevin refused to accept the immigrants and sought to return them to France on prison ships. The immigrants refused to disembark and the French refused to support the British. Bevin then brought them to Hamburg, Germany where the immigrants were forcibly removed. Images of Holocaust survivors being forced off the ship filled the world’s newspapers and newsreels. Worldwide opinion turned decisively against the British and sympathy for the Jews increased. By now, Great Britain had over 100,000 troops in Palestine, but it could not contain the violence or restrict Jewish immigration. The British Mandate was now an unmitigated disaster and had turned into what Churchill called this “senseless squalid war with the Jews.” In April of 1947, Prime Minister Attlee therefore asked the newly formed United Nations to form a Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) to resolve the question of Palestine.
THE CREATION OF ISRAEL AND THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE, 1948-1951
During the summer of 1947, UNSCOP commissioners researched the situation in Palestine, holding meetings with Jewish leaders, but finding no cooperation from Arab leaders.