Wednesday, June 10, 2015


British soldiers on an armoured train car with two Palestinian Arab hostages.

At the outbreak of World War II, Palestine was a British mandate on which about 1 million Arabs and nearly a half million Jews—the former indigenous, the latter predominantly immigrants—lived in chronic conflict. The British were obligated by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to acknowledge Palestine as the rightful homeland of the stateless Jews. Shortly before the beginning of World War II, in July 1937, the British Peel Commission divided Palestine among the Arabs, the British, and the Jews, thereby provoking the Arab Revolt led by Hadj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. The revolt was crushed before the outbreak of World War II, Husseini fled, and the British administrators interned the other Arab leaders. This essentially forced the Palestinian Arabs to suspend political agitation for years, including the war years. Nevertheless, seeking to appease the Arabs as the war approached—and wanting above all to ensure access to oil in the region—Britain rescinded the partition of Palestine in May 1939, announcing its intention to create within a decade a single independent nation-state, which would include Arabs and Jews. Preparatory to the creation of the new state, Britain barred the sale of Palestinian land to Jews and capped Jewish immigration at 75,000 over the next five years. At the end of this period, no more Jewish immigration would be permitted without Arab agreement.

The new British policy did appease Arabs in Palestine even as it put the Jews in a corner. If they objected and opposed the British, they would be giving aid to the Nazis. Having little choice, therefore, the Jewish Agency—the political organization that worked toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine—chose to cooperate with the new British policy and even mobilized agricultural and industrial resources to help Britain in its war effort. Jewish-owned war-production factories in Palestine became very important, and the rapid growth of this industry extended Jewish settlement, including irrigated and cultivated land, throughout the region. Although the British had sought to limit Jewish growth and influence in Palestine for the coming decade, its encouragement of Jewish war industries actually promoted the permanent establishment of Jews throughout the area.

At the outbreak of the war, some 136,000 Jewish men and women volunteered to join the British armed forces, and some even agreed to serve with Arabs in mixed companies. Jews fought in British units during the Western Desert Campaign and served with the Eighth British Army, primarily against the Italians. During March through September 1944, 32 Jewish parachutists from Palestine were dropped behind enemy lines in Europe to assist Jews in escaping the reach of the Final Solution.

Despite the large number of Jewish volunteers, it is estimated that only 30,000 Palestinian Jews actually served in the British armed forces, along with about 9,000 Palestinian Arabs. Palestine itself had little tactical or strategic significance in the war.

Further reading: Shepherd, Naomi. Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine, 1917–1948. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

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