The Seeds of Conflict. Examining Britain's Withdrawal from Palestine in 1948

Essay, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 68


Critically examine origins and consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine in May 1948.

The inter- and post-war years in Palestine occupied some of the most turbulent decades of conflict in the history of the Middle East. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, the League of Nations entrusted the mandated territory of Palestine to the United Kingdom at the San Remo Conference of 1920.[1] For twenty-eight years, responsibility for the Palestinian people and their land would fall subject to British control. However, this penetration of western control would bring a de-stabilizing effect upon the land and a multitude of factors later intertwined to cause dissipation of the mandate. The decision to withdraw from Palestine was officially reached on the November 29th, 1947 by a two-thirds majority vote at the United Nations General Assembly.[2] However, despite discussions for this retreat taking place months prior, its execution would by no means form a simple process. Rather, the repercussions of this decision led not only to the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, but also dramatically altered the demographic landscape of Palestine itself.[3] The ambition of this essay will not be to identify a single ‘supreme’ factor which influenced the British to relinquish control of the mandate. Nor will it attempt to cover every element that contributed towards the decision for partition, as to do so would both dilute and complicate the study of the essay. However, it will propose to examine several integral factors of both short- and long-term positions in order to develop a clearer understanding of what lead to Britain’s decision to withdraw from Palestine on May 14th 1948 and the repercussions cast behind the creation of Israel.

It is perhaps useful to briefly review the volatile situation within Palestine during the earlier decades of the 20th century in order to comprehend the long-term resentment held towards the British by both Arabs and Jews alike. A hostile atmosphere had steadily brewed between Arabs and Jews, fuelled in strong part by conflicting promises imposed upon both Arab and Zionist elites by the United Kingdom. In return for Arab co-operation with Britain during the First World War, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had promised Sharif Hussain of Mecca the rights to construct an Arab kingdom in the Middle East.[4] This right to self-rule would help liberate the Arab people from the stagnated system of politics held under oppressive Ottoman control.[5] However, Arab trust in Britain promptly corroded on November 9th, 1917. On this date, information was released that the British Foreign Minister Sir Arthur Balfour had written to Baron Rothschild a week prior stating: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’[6] This document conflicted with Arab wishes to rule by self-determination, as it openly supported the Zionist project of the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Although Balfour stipulated that no action would be taken ‘which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, the Arab people considered this to be a gross betrayal by the British.[7] Peter Mansfield notes the impact this document had upon the people of Palestine and the country’s future in A History of the Middle East: ‘this apparently un-sensational document […] planted the seeds of a conflict which has lasted almost a century and is unlikely to be resolved before another century has passed.’[8] The dual obligations expressed within the McMahon-Hussein correspondence and the Balfour Declaration prompted severe friction within Palestine, which would ripple through the course of subsequent decades. Whilst the British had implemented these policies before the Mandate had even came into effect in 1922, these documents would form long-term forces of frustration for Arab and Jews alike. This basic blue-print for hostile relations coupled with swelling Jewish immigration figures in later years increased Arab-Jew tensions magnificently, producing a suffocating atmosphere for British authorities operating within Palestine in the later years of the mandate.

With the seeds of conflict sown, all it took was time for violence to grow. During the 1940s, a surge of terrorist activities were directed against the British following their attempts to stifle the rising numbers of Jewish immigrants seeking refuge in Palestine.[9] Jewish para-military groups had grown to prominence against the backdrop of Palestine’s deteriorating political affairs and had stemmed from the Jewish Defence Agency (also known as Haganah), which had been created during the Arab disturbances of 1929.[10] The actions of these underground groups formed an integral factor underlying the British decision to withdraw from the Mandate, as organisations such as the Irgun and the Lehi (which became commonly referred to as ‘Stern Gang’ after its leader Avraham Stern) attacked British police camps, broadcasting stations and government offices as a means of expressing Jewish dis-satisfaction with the British presence in Palestine.[11] One of the most spectacular attacks carried forth by the Irgun was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946.[12] As the hotel housed several British administrative offices as well as some military personnel, it was considered a legitimate target for Jewish frustrations.[13] The detonation of explosive devices resulted in the deaths of ninety-one people, including seventeen Jews. The intention of this attack was not to harm individuals, but rather to send a clear message to Britain that would hopefully ‘hasten their departure’ and welcome the arrival of an independent Jewish State.[14] Whilst historians such as D.D. Newsom and J. Hargee consider the attack on the King David Hotel paramount in moulding British opinion to favour a discontinuation of the mandate, others such as M.J. Haron have placed greater emphasis upon another act carried forth by the Irgun. In July 1947, in retaliation for the capture and execution of several of its members, the group kidnapped and murdered two British sergeants before leaving their booby-trapped bodies publically suspended from trees located in Netanya.[15] The 1947 Secretary of State, Arthur Creech-Jones, remarked in a private letter to Elizabeth Monroe fifteen years later that the attack had ‘left an indelible mark on the mind of the British public as well as officials at the time.’[16] He commented within this document that although the drain on British resources following the war was felt to be unbearable, it was this disturbing act of violence implemented by the Irgun that ‘struck a most deadly blow against British patience and pride.’[17] Its wide coverage in British front-page headlines resulted in waves of anti-Semitic activity within larger British towns such as Liverpool, where the economic depression of the Second World War had presented fertile soil for such manifestations to grow.[18] An excerpt from a 1947 British newspaper, The Economist, provides insight towards the sentiments of the British public following the attack: ‘The time has come not to examine international or Arab or Jewish or even American interests in Palestine, but to write the British balance sheet. Why should British soldiers continue to be exposed to this kind of killing? Why should the British community bear the cost?’[19] The opinion that continuation of British influence within Palestine could be potentially more harmful than useful to British interests was not a new one, but the upsurge of recent atrocities helped to cement this viewpoint more firmly into the minds of the British public and authorities alike. As Cohen commented, it was the barbarity of this act in all of its moral repugnance that formed ‘the single most effective act of the Jewish resistance against the Mandatory’ in the eyes of the British.[20] Although the actions of these Jewish extremists were isolated from the Yishuv, who deemed the threat of Nazism to be of greater importance than acts of resentment toward the British, Norman G. Finkelstein notes that leaders of the Jewish Agency such as David Ben-Gurion viewed their methods as an extreme but effective method of bringing pressure on the British administration.[21] With the faith of the British public corroded and the security of British officials compromised, ‘the lion of Judah had managed to twist the tail of the English lamb.’[22] However, whilst the actions of these groups did certainly create ‘an unbearable atmosphere’ for the British within Palestine, some historians such as Ilan Pappé have questioned whether these actions alone would have been enough to provoke the British into withdrawal from the area.[23]


[1] Shlaim, A. ‘Britain and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948’, at <,%20Britain%20and%20the%20Arab%20Israeli%20War%20of%201948.pdf> (last accessed, 09/03/13), p.50

[2] Miller, R. Britain, Palestine, and Empire: The Mandate Years (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010), p.13.

[3] Kramer, G. A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p.322.

[4] Alnasrawi, A., Arab Nationalism, Oil, and the Political Economy of Dependency (Westwood: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 1991), p.30.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alon, M. Holocaust and Redemption. (Trafford Publishing, 2004), p.146.

[7] Schneer, J. The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), p. xxvviii.

[8] Mansfield, P. A History of the Middle East. (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 4th edn., 2013), p.181

[9] Brenner, Y.S. ‘The 'Stern Gang' 1940-48’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Oct., 1965), pp. 2-30 <> (last accessed, 11/03/14).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ben Sasson, H.H. A History of the Jewish People. (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1976), p.1044.

[12] Newsom, D.D. The Imperial Mantle: The United States, Decolonization, and the Third World. (Indiana University Press, 2001), p.77.

[13] Combs, C.C. and Slann, Martin. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Terrorism. (Infobase Publishing, 2009), p.162.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cohen, M.J. Palestine to Israel: From Mandate to Independence. (Abingdon: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1988), p.230.

[16] Louis, W.R. ‪ The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951:Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1985), p.476.

[17] Haron, M.J. ‘The British Decision to Give the Palestine Question to the United Nations’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 241-248 <> (last accessed, 11/03/14).

[18] Cohen, M.J. Palestine to Israel: From Mandate to Independence. (Abingdon: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1988), p.231.

[19] Haron, M.J. ‘The British Decision to Give the Palestine Question to the United Nations’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 241-248 <> (last accessed, 11/03/14).

[20] Cohen, M.J. Palestine to Israel: From Mandate to Independence. (Abingdon: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1988), p.231.

[21] Finkelstein, N.G. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. (Verso, 2003), p.xxxvi.

[22] Bentwich, N. and Bentwich, H. (eds.). Mandate Memories: 1918-1948. (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd.,1965), p.173

[23] Pappé, I. The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951. (I.B. Tauris, 1994), p.15.

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The Seeds of Conflict. Examining Britain's Withdrawal from Palestine in 1948
University of Strathclyde
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History, Middle Eastern History, Palestine, Britain, 1948, Conflict, War, Mandate, Arab, Jewish
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Lindsey McIntosh (Author), 2014, The Seeds of Conflict. Examining Britain's Withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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