Guide: Britain and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most complicated and polarising of all time. The essence of the conflict is that both Israelis and Palestinians have historical claims to the land they’re fighting over.
It’s important to note that the main issue is not religion, it’s territory; it just so happens that the territory, especially the city of Jerusalem, has religious significance in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
This dispute is often portrayed in the media as having gone on for centuries. But the reality is that until the start of the 20th century, people of all ethnicities and religions had been living together in relative harmony in the region now known as Israel.
Then, as so often happens, the Europeans came along and made things…complicated.
So, what exactly did the British do?
The short answer is that Britain promised the same area of land to three different ethnic groups, with predictable consequences.
Firstly, in 1915, the British promised the territory, then under Ottoman control, to the people of Mecca on the condition that they would rise up against Ottoman rule, which they subsequently did. This was a bold move on Britain’s part given that the territory wasn’t yet theirs to give away, but luckily for them the gamble paid off and they succeeded in conquering the area.
Then in 1916, while dividing the territory of the fallen Ottoman Empire between Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it was decided that Palestine would be placed under British rule, although they still did not have control of the territory. While casually dividing up land with no regard to the people living there is generally ill-advised, it was fortunate for Britain that they got Palestine for themselves, so they could then fulfil their promise and give it to the Meccans.
But instead of this, in 1917, they promised it to a third group: the Jewish people. Zionism, the ideology of creating a state for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland of Israel, grew in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the face of widespread antisemitism across Europe. In light of this, the 1917 Balfour Declaration promised the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, after they had already promised Palestine to the Meccans. And yet, somehow, no-one realised this would be a problem.
The First World War and its Aftermath
World War One was a surprisingly peaceful time in Palestine. But after the war, Britain established rule over Palestine, claiming they’d stay until Palestinians were capable of ruling over themselves. Predictably, when the Palestinians said that they were in fact ready to govern themselves, they were ignored.
It was during this time that Britain created separate institutions for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, who had previously shared public spaces. This made it easier for Britain to divide and rule, but it created divisions that are still present today.
The British did partly honour their promise in the Balfour Declaration as they supported Jewish emigration to Palestine. But this started to create ethnic tension between the Jewish population and the Arab-Palestinians (made up of both Muslims and Christians). This was worsened by Jewish settlers buying land and evicting Palestinian farmers, as they attempted to consolidate their settlement in the area (something you can see today with Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which are meant to be Palestinian territories). This practice was encouraged by the British as part of their ‘honouring’ the Balfour Declaration.
The start of violence
These tensions finally boiled over in 1936 when Arab-Palestinians revolted against British rule. The British violently suppressed the revolt, with help from Jewish militias, which did nothing to help the Arab-Palestinians’ perception of the Jewish population as a whole.
In the aftermath, and in an attempt to create peace, Britain limited Jewish immigration and promised the creation of a joint Jewish and Palestinian state within 10 years. Unsurprisingly this appeased absolutely no-one. Many Jews (specifically the Zionists) were angry at the limited access to what they considered their homeland, and the Palestinians were angry at having to wait another 10 years for self-rule.
Things getting complicated? The UN will fix it!
After World War Two, the British Empire began to dissolve, partly because it had become economically inefficient, and partly because it was hypocritical to have an empire after going to war to stop the Nazis from creating one.
While other territories gained independence, the British simply passed on the problem of Israel-Palestine to the newly created (1945) United Nations for them to resolve, something they have been trying desperately to do ever since.
While this is where direct British influence ends, it is clear that their actions up to this point had a lasting impact on the conflict, so it is worth briefly explaining what has happened since the UN became responsible for the situation.
So, then what happened?
In 1947, the UN partitioned the area into two separate States, Israel and Palestine. While both states were roughly the same size, they weren’t formed from continuous territory, and Jerusalem was to be overseen by the UN.
Israel’s victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (so-called because Palestine was supported by other Arab nations in the region) led to them occupying a third more land than they were designated under the UN partition. Over 700,000 now stateless Palestinians fled as refugees, while the state of Israel was officially created.
And the story has continued on a similar pattern ever since: Israel takes more territory, Palestine fights back, the UN tries desperately to create a partition plan that appeases both sides and will create lasting peace, the agreement fails, and so the cycle begins again.
It’s important to note that although Palestinian nationalist groups like Hamas want the complete destruction of the Israeli state, which understandably upsets the Israelis who were born and raised there, many Palestinians (and Israelis) would much prefer to revert to the original two-state solution and stop the fighting.
Will it ever end?
While this conflict has been going on for a substantial period of time, it is not age-old, and both the nature and endurance of it is due in great part to Britain and its colonialism.
Hopefully, this guide provides a clear insight into the often forgotten (or purposely hidden) role of Britain in the Israel-Palestine Conflict, as well as providing a very brief, very simple overview of the conflict itself.
As a final remark, it is worth remembering that both Israelis and Palestinians have a legitimate historical claim to the territory they are fighting over, and that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to a home.