L. Rock

British Policy in Palestine

(October 1938)

Originally published in New International, October 1938.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Selected Writings Volume 1: International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, Bookmarks, London 2001, pp. 7–10.
Downloaded from REDS – Die Roten.br /> Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The three principal factors in the political arena in Palestine are British imperialism, the Arab nationalist movement under its present leadership and the Zionist movement. A labour movement as an independent factor exercising influence in political affairs does not yet exist. We shall deal with each of these factors separately.

Palestine represents strategically a highly important colony. It is situated in the vicinity of the Suez Canal, the sea route to India. Across Palestine lies also the air route to the Far East. The greatest airport in the Near East is situated in Palestine. In Haifa the British government is constructing a sea base, naturally at the expense of the Palestine population. The oil of Iraq, of such great importance to British imperialism, flows through a pipeline to Haifa. Palestine likewise serves as an important base of British policy in the Mediterranean. With the strengthening of the Italian air fleet and its Mediterranean base, the strategic significance of Malta for England was considerably reduced. The conquest of Ethiopia weakened England’s position in Egypt. Both are important reasons for the fact that Palestine is today of the very greatest significance in the British military set-up. Not for nothing is Haifa called the Singapore of the Near East.

Besides the strategic significance of Palestine for English imperialism it possesses a certain economic significance. British capital is found to be invested in the important industries of Palestine, in the Ruthenberg electrical enterprise, in the Jerusalem station, in the Dead Sea potash works, in the construction of the Haifa Harbour, in the soap and oil factories of Shemen, in the Iraq Petroleum Company and many others. Clearly, however, the principal importance of Palestine for British imperialism lies in the field of strategy and not of economics.

British policy in this country is based on a system of divide and rule, the system of inciting national hatreds between the two peoples in the country in order to assure itself the position of arbitrator. The facts which indicate the extent to which the British provoke national antagonisms are too numerous to recite here. We must content ourselves with a few typical instances.

From the beginning of British rule in Palestine to the present there have been four bloody attacks on the Jews – 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1936–38. After the bloody events of 1921 the two leaders of the provocation against the Jews, Emia at Husseini and Aref al Aref, sentenced to 15 years in prison, were quickly released and the former was appointed by the government to the highest Arab office in the country, President of the Supreme Muslim Council, despite the fact that his name was not even included on the Arab list of proposed candidates. The other was promoted to the position of District Commissioner of Beersheba to become the only Arab District Commissioner in the country. This fact alone indicates how far the English government will go to uphold the influence of the feudal elements in their incitement of the Arab masses against the Jews. In 1928 the government began to proclaim the provocative decrees concerning the juridical status of the Wailing Wall (sacred to orthodox Jews) thereby opening the door to the chauvinistic religious propaganda of a gang of effendis and leading to the pogroms of 1929 under the slogan of “Defend the Holy Places.” Simultaneously the government by this means strengthened the influence of the religious chauvinist element among the Jews (at that time there arose the “Commissions for the Defence of the Wailing Wall”).

The government has systematically prevented all attempts at effecting a reconciliation of the two peoples. An Arab party was organised in Haifa which raised the slogan of “Peace between the Jews and Arabs” (it was a bourgeois liberal party) and counted among its members even the Arab mayor of the city. The British government together with the feudal Arab leadership and the Zionist organisation were responsible for the defeat of this party in subsequent elections, arid brought such pressure to bear on its members that it was dissolved. There used to exist in Palestine an international trade union of railroad workers. The government, however, prohibited membership in this trade union and imported thousands of European labourers to work on the railroads, thus blowing up the union. An attempt was made at one time to establish an organisation called Achwath Poalim (Labour Brotherhood) but the government proscribed it as illegal. Efforts to bring about an understanding between the workers of both peoples were not numerous, but such as they were they encountered the strongest resistance of the English government. In Palestine this policy of divide and rule takes on special characteristics which it does not show in other colonies in the same form.

To draw a clear picture of British policy one must take up two main questions: (a) the British government and its relation to Jewish immigration and settlement, and (b) the British government and the demands of the Arab masses for national self-determination.

Jewish immigration represents a basic factor in the process of accelerating capitalist development. The growth of a Jewish and Arab working class which, considered historically, represent a serious anti-imperialist force is bound up with Jewish immigration into the country. The British government is not interested in fostering any considerable working-class population in Palestine. On the other hand if the Jewish population in the country were to become too strong its dependence on British policy could not be assured even by the threat of strong pogroms. It is therefore plain that the British are not interested in a broad Jewish mass immigration. At the same time the government does not desire to shut off Jewish immigration completely. The government’s policy is therefore to open the door to a certain extent and for a limited time, and then to close it. In this way the government heightens the national tensions around the immigration question. The sharp changes in the tempo of immigration lead to sharp conflicts in the relations of Jews and Arabs. The opening of the door arouses a feeling of sympathy for the British among the Jewish masses, and the Arab population receive the impression of a identity of interests between the Jews and British rule, and this fosters the growth of Arab chauvinism. The closing of the doors in turn provokes strong chauvinism in the Jewish population which interprets the immigration restrictions not as a link in the chain of British policy, but merely as the result of an Arab “victory” and Arab domination over the British government.

The same duplicity characterises the policy of the government in the sphere of colonisation. For many years it professed to protect the interests of the fellaheen (peasants), and from time to time decreed laws for the protection of the Arab tenantry but which gave no genuine relief to the tenant for the simple reason that there was no democratic control. By means of these decrees it also tried to foster chauvinistic tendencies. It was forbidden to evict a leaseholder from the land without assuring him of an equivalent piece of land elsewhere. It was, however, permissible to evict him if he refused to pay higher rents. The purpose of this law is obvious. The government pretended to look after the leaseholder’s interests and legislate for his protection, whereas in reality the feudal landowner wasn’t affected at all because the effendis whose lands were only partly cultivated could easily evict their tenants on the pretext that they would not work the land that was assigned them. In case the landowner should incidentally have no surplus land he could, according to the law, demand a higher rent and, if the leaseholder were not able to pay, he would be evicted. If these laws were therefore ineffective against the effendis and the speculators then they were effective for the purpose of inciting national antagonisms. The Jewish settlers have no surplus land, and so do not themselves appear to the tenant as lessors who can legally evict him. It is therefore clear that the attitude of the Zionist movement which stands for unlimited purchase of land and against the laws for the protection of leaseholders only sharpens the chauvinistic atmosphere around the whole question of settlement. In any case, the British government did not pass these laws in the interests of the feudal landlords of the Jewish bourgeoisie, nor yet in favour of the Arab fellaheen, but only for the purpose of sharpening national disputes.

From all this it is evident that the British know full well how to exploit the elementary needs of the Jewish worker, namely immigration and colonisation, neither of which contradicts the real necessities of the Arab masses, in order to raise a barrier of hate between the producers of both peoples and to assure itself of the dependence of the Jewish population. This the government achieves principally through pretending to look after the humanitarian interests of the Jews in Palestine.

The government is always declaring its desire to realise the establishment of a Jewish national home. These declarations are intended to win the sympathy of the Jewish population in Palestine as well as the sympathy of the Jews everywhere. The most important of these was the Balfour Declaration. It is important to understand the motives which led England to proclaim the Balfour Declaration. It was at the time when the position of the Entente powers was very unfavourable. Russia stood on the eve of the October Revolution and her rupture with the Allies. England was interested in winning the sympathy of the Russian Jews so that they might strengthen the Russian reaction which wanted to continue the war. The British were also interested in gaining the sympathy of the American Jews so that they could support the united war front of the United States with the Allies, morally and materially. Interestingly enough, the German government at the time, and for similar reasons, proclaimed its own “Balfour Declaration”. The Balfour Declaration became the means of strengthening the chauvinistic and anti-Jewish tendencies among the Arabs, and strengthened the position of Zionism among the Jews of Palestine and throughout the world, and thereby also the position of British imperialism.

The British at the same time succeeded in canalising the anti-imperialist demands of the Arab masses for national independence. A few facts will suffice to prove this point. In 1929 the High Commissioner of Palestine declared the purpose of the trip he made to England to be the introduction of constitutional reforms in Palestine, and the strengthening of democracy and independence. Directly after the outbreak of 1929 he declared that in consequence of the Arab attacks on the Jews these reforms would no longer be in accord with the real situation. This statement led to the belief of the Arab masses that if there was to be no independence or democracy in the country this was not due to the fact that the British were hostile to these demands but the Jews. The High Commissioner proposed in 1935 to set up a Legislative Council. This British proposal, made in order to obscure the real demands for independent institutions, was anti-democratic insofar as real decisions would remain in the hands of British imperialism. Even today after the British army has demolished Arab villages, blown up hundreds of peasant dwellings, killed villagers and set up concentration camps, the Arab terror is directed not against the British government nor against English soldiers and officials, but against the Jewish population. For the government is always declaring that it undertakes its measures of suppression not to maintain its rule but out of consideration for the Jewish masses, who are the real enemy of the Arabs in their movement for liberation. The Arabs are made to see their national oppressors in the Jews, and the actions of the Arab masses are directed into chauvinist anti-Jewish channels, thus consolidating the role of the feudal leaders who are the real anti-Jewish element.


Last updated on 3 February 2017