The British Mandate in Palestine

The emergence, structure, and function of the mandatory government from 1923-1948.

As the legal instrument defining Britain’s obligations under the mandate, the League of Nations award similarly laid down a number of general “non Zionist” provisions. Public order, good government, and civil and religious rights were assured for all the inhabitants of the country, “irrespective of race and religion.” The administration was charged with recognizing the sacred holidays of the various communities, and with guaranteeing the security of the holy places and freedom of access to them. English, Arabic, and Hebrew were recognized as official languages. By the same token, each community was authorized to maintain its own school system. To ensure, also, that these and other requirements were fulfilled, the mandatory document obligated Britain to submit an annual report of its tenure in the Holy Land to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations.

Yet, at best, the award could only set guidelines for the mandatory. It was for the British themselves to institute the operative government for Palestine. An organic law, therefore, upon which the mandatory administration based its functional activities, was signed by the king in London on August 10, 1922, and proclaimed by Sir Herbert Samuel [the first British High Commissioner for Palestine] in Jerusalem on September 1. This was the Palestine Order in Council. Although it included the traditional provisions of freedom of worship, liberty of conscience, and Britain’s responsibility to foster the Jewish National Home, the Order in Council in essence was an austerely practical document that defined the various components of the mandatory government.

British General Edmund Allenby entering Jerusalem in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, the executive was designated as a high commissioner, who appointed all subsidiary administrative officials. An independent judiciary under a chief justice was empowered to protect the rights of natives and foreigners alike, and to assure solicitude for the traditions and mores of the various religious communities. To that end, the Order in Council affirmed the jurisdiction of the religious courts in matters of personal status.

One of the most important of the document’s features reflected Samuel’s warmest hopes for the cultivation of self-government in Palestine. It was for the election of a legislative council, subject to the powers reserved to the high commissioner to “establish such Ordinances as may be necessary for the peace, order, and good government of Palestine.” The body would consist of 22 members, 10 of them official members of government, and 12 unofficial members. The latter, citizens of Palestine themselves, would be elected through a delicately calibrated scheme of primary and secondary elections. To ensure the protected status of the Jewish and Christian minorities, the secondary electors would be organized into 12 electoral colleges according to their religious communities. The council would be debarred, too, from passing ordinances that violated the terms of the mandate -specifically, the growth of the Jewish National Home. Tax and revenue matters similarly were exempt. In any event, the high commissioner possessed the option of veto.

READ: The Emergence and Clash of Jewish and Arab Nationalism

On the basis of this elaborately delimited format, Samuel’s administration laid the groundwork for general elections. A census was taken, revealing a population of 650,000 Muslims; 87,000 Jews and 73,000 Christians. No serious opposition to the legislative council was encountered in its earliest phase. But within a few weeks, Arab nationalist leaders expressed growing misgivings about a scheme permitting Jews to share even limited consultative authority with Arabs. In the end, therefore, a majority of Arabs boycotted the primary elections, and the government was obliged to cancel the rest of the voting.

Jews demonstrating against the White Paper in Jerusalem, May 18, 1939. (Wikimedia Commons)
Jews demonstrating against the White Paper in Jerusalem, May 18, 1939. (Wikimedia Commons)

Samuel reverted instead to a purely nominated body. At his request, the Palestine Order in Council was amended by a second order in Council, this one issued on May 4, 1923. The new instrument authorized the high commissioner to establish simply an advisory, rather than a legislative, council. In Samuel’s blueprint, the new body would include (besides himself) ten official members, as well as eight Muslim, two Jewish, and two Christian Palestinians — to be appointed by the government. Yet even this modification failed to placate the Arab nationalists. Once more they forced the appointed Arab representatives to withdraw from the advisory council, thereby dooming the scheme. It was evident that the opponents hoped to compel Britain to institute majority self government, an arrangement that would entirely favor the Arabs.

READ: Who Are the Palestinians?

Somewhat frantically, at this point, Samuel requested the Arab leaders at least to organize their own Arab Agency. The organ would serve as a counterpart to the Jewish Agency prescribed by the mandatory award and would cooperate with the government on matters relating to Arab interests in Palestine. But at a tense meeting in the high commissioner’s palace, the Arab leadership rejected the proposal on the spot. Musa Kazem al Husseini, who earlier had led an Arab delegation to England to protest the Jewish National Home, observed that his people had never recognized the status of the Jewish Agency and therefore had no desire for a similar agency of their own. Samuel accordingly was left with no choice but to accept this third rejection of Arab cooperation as final. With regret, he announced that the legislative as well as the executive functions of the government henceforth would be reserved exclusively to the high commissioner and subordinate officers of the Palestine administration.

From 1923 on, therefore, until the end of Britain’s tenure in 1948, the government that functioned in Palestine was unique among League “A” mandates. Far from nurturing the local population to self-government, it was a Crown Colony in all but name. The high commissioner was all-powerful, with full rights to appoint, dismiss, or suspend anyone holding government office in Palestine and to sell or lease any public lands. Ultimately, Samuel and his successors were restrained by no constitutional limitations whatever as far as the nation’s inhabitants were concerned. The only built in checks on the executive’s authority lay in the provisions of mandate itself and of those in the Order in Council guaranteeing freedom of conscience, worship, fair trial, and similar traditional Western liberties. Occasionally citizens of Palestine themselves appealed real or fancied injustices to London, to the Colonial Office, or if necessary beyond that to the Privy Council — even to Parliament. But the method was unwieldy, at best.

Nor did the high commissioner hesitate to use his powers of legislation extensively. Each year his office issued as many laws for Palestine as Parliament did for Britain. Indeed, the Arab press spoke derisively of this “law factory ” that turned out new ordinances without rest. To a degree, the spate of legislation reflected the need for revising a host of near medieval Ottoman legal practices, especially in the realm of criminal and commercial law. Most of the ordinances, however, were devoted to restructuring the nation’s administration. With its 9,000 square miles, Palestine was divided now into three districts — North, South, and Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem functioned both as the headquarters for its own district and as capital of mandatory government. British commissioners governed each of these administrative units, with other British officers responsible for subdistricts. Although municipal councils were elected in 1926, throughout the entire period of British rule, mayors were appointed by the high commissioner, who could remove them at his discretion. In effect, there were no limits to the government’s centralized authority.

Reprinted with permission from A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Times, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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