This Week in History: The British Mandate for Palestine

July 1922 saw the League of Nations take one of the first legal steps toward the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.

British mandate 88 248 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
British mandate 88 248
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
On July 24, 1922, the Council of the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations Security Council – gave its blessing to The British Mandate for Palestine, taking one of the first legal steps toward the eventual establishment of the State of Israel. The decision was taken in the wake of World War One and was greatly influenced by the colonial system in place at the time. As the war ended, the victorious Western powers decided the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, chiefly Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon were to be placed under European receivership "until such time as they are able to stand alone."
The British Mandate for Palestine put under the mandatory powers of Great Britain: Palestine and Transjordan, known today as Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Temporary in nature, the Mandate was designed to be a preparatory step toward the establishment of independent states, among them “a national home for the Jewish people.”
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References to creating a national home for the Jews came in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, which five years earlier, signified the beginning of the British commitment to seeing the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
But prior to the establishment of the mandate system, and even the Balfour Agreement, the British had made several contradictory agreements and declarations regarding the future of the Middle East should the Ottoman Empire fall in WWI.
In 1916, the British made two separate agreements with regards to the future of Ottoman-controlled areas in the Middle East. The first agreement, known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, promised the Sharif of Mecca and other Arab rulers control over much of the region. The second agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, almost completely contradicted the promises made in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, splitting Ottoman lands between the two colonial European powers.
Years after WWI, when the League of Nations adopted the British Mandate for Palestine, the agreement was essentially a legal implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in that it formalized British control over Palestine and Transjordan. Shortly after the British Mandate was passed, the League of Nations adopted another mandate, the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, also a practical implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
With the authorization of the League of Nations, the two mandates divided control of the region between the two European powers. The British were given direct control over Palestine, with additional official influence over modern Jordan. The French were given direct control over Lebanon, with official influence over modern Syria.
The British Mandate put Palestine and Transjordan under British control with a mandate to oversee the creation of a Jewish homeland, questions arose over which areas such a homeland was to encompass. Under pressure from Zionist leaders, some powers favored considering the entire mandate area as a future Jewish homeland, but others disapproved of the idea.
Thus, two months after the adoption of the British Mandate but still prior to its coming into effect, a memorandum was accepted by the Council of the League of Nations clarifying the portion of the document’s “favor” for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Because Palestine – as defined in the mandate – included both Palestine and Transjordan, the Transjordan Memorandum allowed the British to “postpone or withhold” those portions of the mandate concerning a Jewish homeland from territories east of the Jordan River. The amended version of the Mandate removed land east of the Jordan River from possibly becoming part of the still ambiguously defined idea of a Jewish homeland.
Although in no rush to leave Palestine, the British during the Mandate Period did act and permit Zionist organizations to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the Jewish state.
From 1922 to 1948, the British allowed Jewish immigration and the establishment of Jewish governing bodies. During the Mandate Period, over 350,000 Jews legally immigrated to Palestine, with additional illegal immigration pushing that number above 400,000. Representative assemblies, school systems, the Histadrut labor union and two Jewish universities were founded under British rule.
However, although the British clearly supported a Jewish homeland, it is unclear whether in asking for and receiving the Mandate for Palestine, the British initially intended for a Jewish state to be established. The legal significance of calling for a homeland and not a state, while demanding “that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” was still ambiguous.
It was not until the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan (UN General Assembly Resolution 181) that the idea of a Jewish state was ever formalized by either the League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. By that time, the British had long realized the difficulty of ruling over Jewish and Arab populations with conflicting claims to the land. The British eventually sought to end the Mandate, the result of which was UN Resolution 181.
The British Mandate for Palestine, after 26 years, came to an end in mid-May 1948. Hours later, the Jewish State of Israel was born.