FIRST PUBLISHED 30 MAY 1940
REPRINTED DEC. 1941
The Problem of
HOWEVER difficult the problem of Palestine may be to
solve, it is easy to state. Palestine is a tiny country, until 1918 a
portion of the Turkish Empire, with today not quite a million and a half
inhabitants; but every occurrence, every project, in Palestine affects
the interests of three completely separate peoples, each with world-wide
connexions —the British, the Arabs, and the Jews.
It is not surprising
that in such circumstances it has proved extremely difficult, and often
impossible, to find a formula or a plan which satisfies all the partners
equally. The easiest way to get a clear picture is to consider first the
separate position at the end of the last war of each element in the
Palestinian situation in itself, without reference to the others.
The British in Palestine
The Near-Eastern campaign in the war of
1914-18 was an inevitable development of Allied strategy. It was
impossible to allow the Turks, who were allied with the Germans, to
threaten the vital communications of the British Empire by their control
of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and the eastern shores of the Red
Hence Allenby advanced into Palestine in
the autumn of 1917, entering Jerusalem in December of that year, while
the desert Arabs, led by the Emir Feisal with the aid of Lawrence,
pushed the Turks northwards and entered Damascus in the autumn of 1918.
After the war Palestine became even more
important. British security still demanded the control of the east bank
of the canal; the development of imperial air communications made
Palestine a potential link in lines to India and the Far East; the motor
road across the desert to Bagdad could be reached from the country, and
one end of the oil pipe-line from the Iraqian wells at Kirkuk debouched
at the Palestinian port of Haifa, which was also one of the best naval
stations in the eastern Mediterranean (see map).
Such is the basic British interest in the
country, an interest analogous to those which, in the past, have led to
the British control of Gibraltar, Malta, or Singapore. It is a vital
link in the communications of a world-wide empire, and Britain cannot be
indifferent to its fate. In old days she might simply have annexed the
country after her conquest. In actual fact she obtained it after the war
as a Mandate from the League of Nations.
From this point of view the one essential
is that the country should be stable and prosperous, for a weak and
divided country offers endless opportunities to intrigue, and there are
several Powers only too willing to fish in its troubled waters.
In so far as its inhabitants were concerned, there
was in 1919 no such thing as a Palestinian nationality, in the sense in
which there is Portuguese nationality giving fairly clear indications of
the natural areas of the Portuguese State. The present frontiers of
Palestine, while they look more or less familiar to an Englishman or a
Jew accustomed to maps of Palestine in
Bible days, were only fixed after the Versailles Conference.
The country formed part of two Turkish provinces, and
its inhabitants were just part of that vast Arab section of the Turkish
Empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to Persia. They did not
think of themselves as Palestinians, but as Syrians who were part of the
Moslem world and part of
Hence, on the one hand, they identified their situation
with that of other Arab States in the Near East, and, on the other,
Moslems all over the world were interested in their circumstances, as
Jerusalem is the third holiest city in the Moslem world.
In 1922, when the first census was taken of the
present territory, the Arab population numbered some 664,000, of whom
73,000 were Christians. More than half the Moslem Arabs were
peasants, cultivating about one-half of the soil of Palestine by methods
which had altered little since Bible days. The main reasons for this
situation lay in the poverty of the soil and the poverty of the peasant;
and each reacted on the other, keeping the unfortunate inhabitants in an
almost permanent state of indebtedness. The Arab was neither lazy nor
improvident; his iron-shod wooden plough, his sickle for reaping, were
the most effective instruments within his means. Improved cultivation
and the extension of the area cultivated were only possible with
artificial manures and irrigation, neither of which the cultivator could
A great deal of the land belonged to a small number
of landlords, of whom some lived outside the country and were entirely
uninterested in the condition of their tenants. Of what was left
much was held communally, but even where a village owned its own land
there was no inducement to the individual to improve his soil, since
after a couple of crops it passed into other hands.
A tenth of the Moslem Arabs were still wandering
shepherds, living in tribes, and grazing their flocks over wide but
vaguely defined areas. There was no really accurate land register, a
situation which caused considerable difficulties in the early years of
the British administration, and has not yet been entirely remedied.
The Christian Arabs lived more in the towns, and
provided a high proportion of the professional, official, and artisan
class. A rich Moslem was almost invariably a landowner, a rich Christian
often a merchant or official. The urban proletariat was small, for large
towns were few, and commercial or industrial life extremely backward.
The Jews are at once the most ancient and the most
recent of the settled inhabitants of Palestine
and, while it is true that the
circumstances connected with their dramatic return to their 'National
Home' are the cause of most of the present complications, it is also
true that Jewish enterprise provides by far the most interesting part of
the story of the last twenty years in Palestine.
Throughout the last two thousand years the country has
never wholly lacked Jewish inhabitants. Sometimes they were to be
numbered by hundreds, sometimes by tens of thousands. But some there
always were. They came to 'the land of Israel' to lament the fallen
state of their nation, to bury themselves in its religious life and
history, or to die there in its holy ground. It is only in the second
half of the nineteenth century that vigorous young Jews began to return,
not to die but to live, not to study on holy ground but to cultivate it.
It was out of this return to Zion that the Zionist Movement was
born. Persecution in Russia and even in western Europe stimulated it,
and in 1914,
there were already more than 10,000 Jewish settlers owning or cultivating
90,000 acres of Palestinian soil.
At the same time these colonists were a small minority
of the actual Jewish population of the country in 1914. Jerusalem was
already a city in which the majority of the population
was Jewish, though most were of the old-fashioned and religious type who
did nothing to cultivate the soil or to earn their living. Similar
groups lived in Hebron and in the north, but side by side with them
there was springing up an urban population of artisans and traders
possessed by the same ideals which had created the colonies, the
rebuilding of a national home in the ancestral country.
But life under
Turkish rule was uncertain, their position was never really secure,
and it was with relief that they hailed the coming of the British
and the passing of the country into British control. From the area
controlled by the British many colonists volunteered and took part
in sweeping the Turks out of the country. It was typical of the
idealism of their whole outlook that, within actual sound of the
booming of the guns, the foundation stones of a Hebrew University
were laid outside Jerusalem.
To be continued...
haGalil onLine 14-03-2002