Supporters of Israel among Britain’s ruling elite tend to recite mantras about the two nations sharing the same values.
If theft and plunder were regarded as values, the mantras would have a ring of truth to them.
Expecting full honesty and transparency from Theresa May’s government would, however, not be realistic. So it comes as little surprise that one of her cabinet colleagues has wished Israel a happy 70th birthday, while trumpeting its commitment to “justice, compassion, tolerance.”
The greeting – from Gavin Williamson, Britain’s defense secretary – was delivered at a time when unarmed protesters were being massacred in Gaza.
Omitted from the discourse on shared values is that Israel and Britain have a shared culpability. While Zionist troops were directly responsible for the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine – their crimes were enabled and, in some cases, abetted by the British authorities.
The first important point is that the Haganah – the main Zionist militia at the time – was, to a large extent, trained by Britain while it ruled Palestine between the two world wars.
Although the Haganah was illegal, the British relied on it when conducting ambush operations against a Palestinian revolt during the 1930s. The Haganah provided thousands of men who joined the “supernumerary” police force that the British assembled while trying to crush that revolt.
Haganah commanders were also brought into the “special night squads,” led by Orde Wingate, a notoriously violent British officer.
Wingate worked closely with Yitzhak Sadeh, later a key military figure during the Nakba and a founder of the Israeli army. The 1930s cooperation has been credited by Yigal Allon, a general who became a high-level politician, with pulling “the Haganah out of its trenches and barbed wire into the open field, making it adopt a more active kind of defense.”
This means Wingate – a maverick who nonetheless enjoyed support from his superiors at a crucial period – helped shape the tactics and thinking of the men who forcibly dispossessed the Palestinians the following decade.
The relationship between Britain and the Zionist movement is admittedly complicated.
Through the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain assumed the role of imperial sponsor to the Zionist project.
A series of measures were subsequently implemented to boost colonization efforts in Palestine. Yet the pace of events was not sufficiently fast for the more hardcore elements in Zionism.
Unhappy that their coveted Jewish state had not yet been established, two armed groups – the Irgun and the Lehi – began to wage a guerrilla war against Britain in the 1940s. The ensuing turmoil and a more general weakening of its empire led Britain to decide it would relinquish the League of Nations mandate under which it had governed Palestine.
The Nakba was underway well before the date set by Britain for ending its rule: 14 May 1948. So long as they remained in Palestine, the British, therefore, had an obligation to protect Palestinians from harm.
The British reneged on their obligations.
On 9 April that year, Zionist troops went on a killing spree in Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem. Alan Cunningham, the British high commissioner in Palestine, acknowledged that a “deliberate mass murder of innocent civilians” occurred, yet argued that the British forces were “not in a position to take action in the matter owing to their failing strength and increasing commitments.”
Of the approximately 800,000 Palestinians who would be expelled or flee their homes in the 1948 Zionist onslaught, more than 400,000 had already been displaced by the time the British left.
Was Britain really powerless?
In 1948, there were around 100,000 British soldiers in Palestine, along with a British-headed police force. The Haganah had about 50,000 members, although only around half that number may have been active fighters.
The inescapable conclusion is that Britain could have spared Palestinian suffering – and chose not to.
“Fight it out”
It was not simply a case of inaction.
On 20 April 1948, Cyril Marriott, the British consul-general in Haifa, sent a telegram to London officials apprising them of the security situation where he was based. Zionist forces were expected to attack Haifa – a strategically vital port city – within the next day or two, Marriott noted.
The priority of the military, he added, would be to safeguard “the route and installations” regarded as essential for the evacuation of British troops. Once that objective was achieved, Britain would “let Jews and Arabs fight it out in other parts of the town.”
The instruction to allow the warring parties to “fight it out” overlooked how the Haganah was numerically stronger and equipped with more modern weapons than the Arab forces.
When the offensive took place, Zionist forces swiftly captured a large part of Haifa. Hugh Stockwell, a British general, refused to allow Arab reinforcements to advance towards the town. He also ordered British forces to withdraw.
Stockwell then instructed Arab forces to disarm. He told “all foreign Arab males” to assemble at a place designated by the Haganah, so that these men could be expelled “under military control.”
Palestinian leaders in Haifa complained that Stockwell’s conditions were unfair. Without any viable alternative, they requested that Palestinians leave the area.
As the Palestinians fled – reportedly with just the clothes they were wearing – the Haganah fired on an ambulance, ransacked a hospital and looted homes. Once more, the British held back.
By leaving Palestinians with no option than to quit Haifa, Stockwell was arguably an accomplice in mass expulsion. The Zionist capture of Haifa that he facilitated helped turn it into what David Ben-Gurion called a “corpse city.”
Ben-Gurion, it should be stressed, favored transforming Palestinian communities into corpse cities. He predicted that the Zionist success in Haifa could be replicated throughout Palestine.
Within a few weeks, Ben-Gurion had formally declared the establishment of Israel. He became its first prime minister.
Britain’s involvement in Palestine did not end when it gave up the League of Nations mandate. For most of Israel’s seven decades, Britain has given it practical and rhetorical assistance.
Britain’s ruling elites have never atoned for their role in enabling the 1948 dispossession of Palestinians. Rather, they have prolonged and exacerbated the suffering of Palestinians, while pretending to believe in justice.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 May 2018.