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The Failure to Establish Democracy in Palestine: From the British Mandate to the Present Times

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In the wake of the Arab revolutions gripping North Africa and the Middle East, it would be worth reminding ourselves of some of the factors that have frustrated the Palestinians from establishing a democratic government in Palestine. To a greater extent than in other Arab countries, the struggle for democratic government in Palestine has always been constrained by the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

In 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections whilst many of its candidates were languishing in Israeli prisons. Instead of embracing the results the EU and the US swiftly reacted with sanctions and Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. This response was justified on the basis that the Change and Reform List that the Palestinians had elected was opposed to recognizing Israel and signing up to the Oslo Accords. 

This was not the first time that democracy had been deliberately thwarted in Palestine. Indeed it was British policy to preclude the establishment of representative government amongst the Arab population of Palestine when it ruled that country from 1917-1948. In this regard one may draw parallels between the Arab demand for self-government in 1936 which was opposed by both British Houses of Parliament and the election results in 2006.

When Britain was awarded the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine at the San Remo Conference in 1920 it had already committed itself to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Namely, the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

In 1917, Palestine had a population that was 93 per cent non-Jewish. In other words Britain had committed itself to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine where Jews only formed 7 per cent of the population. The non-Jewish population that formed approximately 93 per cent of the population of Palestine in 1917 was comprised of Christians, Muslims, and other minorities who all spoke Arabic and self-identified as Arabs.

If Britain had established a democracy in Palestine in 1917 with the population ratio that existed then, political power would have by mathematical logic been vested in the Arab population of Palestine. For all practical purposes it would have defeated the objective of the Balfour Declaration. This is why in 1922 the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill rebuffed the Palestinian Arab Delegation’s demand for self-government based on majority rule. As Churchill noted, ‘the creation at this stage of a national Government would preclude the fulfilment of the pledge made by the British Government to the Jewish people’.

In other words, those who drafted the Balfour Declaration were of the view that the Arab population of Palestine despite being the overwhelming majority of the population could not be allowed to prevent those Jews who it envisaged immigrating there from establishing their national home. In other words there was absolutely no intention to establish a system of democratic government in Palestine. As Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, explained in a memo to his colleague Lord Curzon: ‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land’.

It is important to note that Britain had an established tradition of supporting minority rule in its colonies. For instance Balfour favoured minority rule in Ireland because he viewed the Catholic nationalist majority as backward in contrast to the Protestant unionist minority in the north east of the island. This is why he was opposed to granting Ireland Home Rule without separating Ulster from the rest of the country. He told Parliament during the Second Reading of the Government of Ireland Bill in 1892 that he feared ‘the prosperous, advancing, and progressive minority [read Protestant and unionist] might have their interests seriously imperilled by the action of those who, as a matter of fact, are less prosperous and more backward [read Catholic and nationalist]’.

Consider also British policy in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.   Britain did not enfranchise black Africans when the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. As Balfour told Parliament when the 1909 South Africa Act was being debated: ‘All men are, from some points of view, equal; but, to suppose that the races of Africa are in any sense the equals of men of European descent, so far as government, as society, as the higher interests of civilisation are concerned, is really, I think, an absurdity which every man who seriously looks at this most difficult problem must put out of his mind if he is to solve the problem at all’. 

Hence it was hardly surprising that Britain did not have much of a problem with the fact that a white European minority was to rule South Africa after independence. Nor did it have much of a problem with the fact that in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia the white minority that formed 3 per cent of the population ruled over the 97 per cent black African majority from 1923 until 1980 when Zimbabwe was established.

Britain also had a historical tradition of reproducing its class system in its colonies. This began with the Princely States in British India where many an Englishman self-identified with the caste system as being akin to its class system at home. Britain also attempted to reproduce its class system in the Arab Kingdoms across the Middle East and North Africa as well as on the international plane. The establishment of A-, B-, and C-class League of Nations mandates in is an obvious example.

As the League of Nations made clear the mandates established in the Middle East, including Palestine, were A-class mandates. As opposed to B- and C-class mandates, A-class mandates were a sort of half-way house between a colony and a state. The mandates were administered as colonies, although the end goal was independence even though no date was set for when that might take place.  

Unlike in the other A-class mandates the problem in Palestine was that a community which was not viewed as indigenous by the native majority was being encouraged to immigrate to Palestine to make it their national home. In other words, Britain was creating a situation where two communities—a predominantly Jewish immigrant community and a native Arab community—would desire independence over the same territory.

In order to establish the Jewish national home in Palestine, the Zionist Organization encouraged Jews to immigrate there in large numbers. For most of the years that Britain ruled Palestine at the mandatory power hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrated to Palestine due to a combination of European persecution and British and US immigration policies.

Jewish immigration and the purchase of large tracts of Arab land by Jews caused friction with the native Arab population who feared that Palestine’s Arab character was being prejudiced. This led to outbreaks of violence between Arabs and Jews. Britain often responded to the violence by clamping down on Jewish immigration.

This naturally upset the Zionist Organization who complained that in doing this Britain was in breach of the Balfour Declaration. It would call on Britain to continue its support for the establishment of the Jewish national home. In contrast the Arabs would argue that their civil and religious rights were being prejudiced by the high rate of Jewish immigration. They would call on Britain to establish self-governing institutions to reflect their majority in numbers.

In the 1930s things came to a head.   The anti-Jewish policies initiated by the National Socialist Party in Germany led to a colossal increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Arabs now feared that they would never attain independence. The Arab Higher Committee and the Supreme Muslim Council looked to Iraq which had just become independent, as well as to neighbouring Lebanon and Syria, which had been promised independence by France. Accordingly, they demanded that Britain establish a form of representative government in Palestine or they would go on strike.

In 1935 the leaders of five Arab political parties presented a memorandum to Sir Arthur Wauchope, the British High Commissioner, demanding the establishment of representative government, the prohibition of the transfer of Arabs lands to Jews, and the immediate cessation of Jewish immigration.

Although Wauchope was not in a position to repeal any section of the mandate, he was able to deal with the Arab demand for representative government since Article 2 of the mandate spoke of establishing ‘self-governing institutions’. Accordingly, Wauchope proposed the establishment of a Legislative Council with a large unofficial majority, comprised of five officials, two nominated representatives of commerce; eight elected and three nominated Muslims; three elected and four nominated Jews and one elected and two nominated Christians. 

Although the Arab parties were not entirely happy with Wauchope’s proposal they accepted it. However, the Jewish leaders in Palestine and in the Diaspora categorically opposed the proposal and refused to accept it.   They lobbied both Houses of Parliament in Britain to reject them which they did. As Lord Melchett, who in the 1930s was the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, told the Lords:   ‘You cannot enfranchise an enormous electorate who have never used a vote in their lives and have not the remotest idea of how to use it’.   In the Commons, Captain Cazalet concurred: ‘They [i.e. the Arabs] have had practically no experience whatever in representative Government or in the manner in which they should exercise the vote and, however you like to interpret the numbers of the proposed legislative council, as a matter of fact it will develop into an Arab majority’. 

In other words, as the British saw things, the question of minorities and majorities was irrelevant. Rather, it was more important that a national community was trained in the art of self-government before being given the franchise. 

Moreover, the whole policy of the Balfour Declaration was to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. If political power was vested in the Arab population then that policy could not be implemented. Churchill explained his opposition to the High Commissioner’s proposals to the Commons in these words: ‘If you have an Arab majority, undoubtedly you will have continued friction between the principle of the Balfour Declaration and the steps that must be taken day by day and month by month to give effect to that Declaration and the wishes of the Arab majority. I should have thought it would be a very great obstruction to the development of Jewish immigration into Palestine and to the development of the national home of the Jews there’.

It was the failure to establish a representative system of government in Palestine which directly led to the proposal a year later to partition Palestine.

In this regard it is striking that the same arguments raised in the British Parliament to delay granting independence to the Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s are still invoked against Palestinian nationalists today: namely, the failure to accept the legitimacy of Zionism and the assumption that the Palestinians are not capable of creating a democratic society.

Consider the Quartet’s (the EU, the US, Russia, and the UN) Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict which both Israel (with reservations) and the Palestinians agreed to in order to restart peace negotiations in 2003. It was predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians needed to be taught how to build a practicing democracy and act against terror. According to the Roadmap: ‘A two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only be achieved through an end to violence and terrorism, when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror and willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty’. 

As part of the institution building process, which was to have begun in 2003, the Palestinians were to produce a draft constitution ‘based on strong parliamentary democracy and cabinet with empowered prime minister’. After this, an interim prime minister was to be appointed with a cabinet to act as an empowered executive. 

In other words, the Palestinians were expected to adopt the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. Although the era of colonialism supposedly came to an end with decolonization, the Roadmap is strikingly similar to the League of Nations mandate system in which those placed under mandatory tutelage had to earn their right to self-government incrementally through a series of steps supervised by the colonial power. Only this time the objective is not to build a Jewish national home, which already exists as the state of Israel, but to build a homeland for the Palestinian people.

Israel had made it clear that it will never accept any political party—even if it is elected in a democratic process and even if it is broadly representative of Palestinian public opinion—that refuses to recognise it. Yet recognising Israel in the eyes of most Palestinians means recognising the legitimacy of Zionism: it means recognising the legitimacy of partition, forgoing the right of return, and giving up on the idea of establishing a single unitary state with equal rights for all its citizens. This is precisely what the PLO did in 1988, and it is precisely what Hamas refuses to do now.

On the whole, British colonial policy was not concerned with creating democracies in the colonies. Rather, Britain sort control of the colony as an end in itself which it often accomplished by creating divisions between ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. Consider the kingdoms Britain established in Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq as well as the sheikhdoms, emirates, and kingdoms in the Gulf.  

Although Egypt’s ruling family had been established by Mohammed Ali, it was Britain that pulled the strings in Egypt and the Sudan after 1882 through successive British agents like Lord Cromer, Sir Eldon Gorst, and Lord Kitchener. King Idris of Libya was appointed by Britain before he was overthrown by Gaddafi. Britain made the Hashemite family sovereign in Jordan and in Iraq, although a revolution brought Hashemite rule to a premature end in Iraq after King Faisal II was assassinated in 1958. Britain also made those sheikhs it had formed alliances with in the Gulf sovereigns—at first in order to prevent acts of piracy in order to protect its trade route to India and later to secure access to petroleum.

In addition, in places of white settlement Britain had a tendency to vest political power in minority communities that it self-identified with to the detriment of the native majority. This is what happened vis-à-vis the Protestants in Ireland, the Jews in Palestine, and the whites throughout southern Africa where political power was vested in the white minority rather than in the black majority in Rhodesia, South Africa, and South-West Africa (Namibia). Britain assumed that these communities, although a minority, were in a better position to assume the burden of self-government than the native majority because they were more ‘civilised’ than the native majority. If minority rule could not be assured, then Britain favoured partition to secure the rights and interests of the minority community by carving out for their benefit a separate geographic homeland.

Thus, the British understanding of self-determination was inimical to majority rule. What counted in the eyes of most British statesmen was the quality of government, not numbers. The shift towards majority rule in international relations did not take placed until decolonization during the contest between the US and the USSR.

Promoting democracy throughout the world is ostensibly an American and Europea tradition, which has become particularly prevalent with the end of the Cold War. But it was never a British tradition, at least not when it ruled the world.

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11 comments for "The Failure to Establish Democracy in Palestine: From the British Mandate to the Present Times "


The essay's comparatist focus n looking at British policies across their empire is a good one. But it still does not explain the lack of a democratic government now. Or why Palestinians have been sabotaged by their own so-called leadership time and again. British policies for 40 years don't explain the next 70 years of non-action. Why do palestinians live with a corrupt, non-representative leadership of the PLO (By another name)? It is inexplicable.

Shailja Sharma wrote on April 03, 2011 at 10:01 AM

In response to Shailja Sharma's comment upon the 70 years of non-action by the Palestinians in creating a democratically elected leadership, I would suggest that any people so mercilessly despatched from their homeland might encounter difficulties in creating any form of democratic processes. Add to this the ambivalence to the plight of the Palestinians by those nations who could have helped (and I'm referring here to Britain and the USA)and their situation became quite hopeless. History is full of non-democratic leaderships of oppressed peoples so I don't think the Palestinians are unusual in this respect. The sad thing is that when they did create and demonstrate a democratic process, namely the election of Hamas, this wasn't good enough for the USA and Britain, i.e., this was the wrong sort of democratic result. The Palestinians have been the subject of one of history's greatest injustices and, frankly, no amount of democracy will have saved them from that. The two nations who bear responsibility for this human tragedy are, of course, the democracies of the USA and Great Britain. Britain, by standing by at the close of the British Mandate and permitting the atrocities to happen, and the USA, by financing and arming the Jews of Israel.

Alan Newton wrote on April 05, 2011 at 05:52 PM

Okay, so the occupation and Nakba are to blame for lack of Palestinian democracy. What is the excuse then for lack of democracy in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait?

Liz wrote on April 05, 2011 at 11:11 PM

I refer to Liz's question: I was referring to Shaila Sharma's comment that the British colonialist behaviour in times past does not explain the "lack of democratic government now". My response related to the growth of democratic processes being highly unlikely in the appallingly difficult circumstances in which the Palestinians found themselves. Liz appears to be looking at other parts of the Arab world and is relating these to the Palestinian case. But what happens in terms of the development of democracy in, say, Morocco, has little, if anything, to do with the political difficulties encountered by the Palestinians. It's a bit like asking why Franko's Spain existed next to De Gaulle's France. From the historical perspective, democracy is difficult to acquire within any national grouping, even when that grouping is in a stable environment, and I would suggest that Liz might want to consider the fact that it was less than one hundred years ago that women obtained the vote in Great Britain and twenty years ago a married woman's earnings in Britain were viewed as those of her husband. Democracy in all its facets takes a long time and we still see the democratically elected tyrant even in the West. Smugly laying down the law to disadvantaged and oppressed people may not open the door to their democratic freedoms.

Alan Newton wrote on April 07, 2011 at 04:36 PM

Why were the Jews able to form a viable democracy in Palestine? They were under the same mandatory authority as the Arabs. The British even limited Jewish immigration to Palestine and tried to prohibit the Arabs from selling their land to the Jews. The Zionist dissident groups, Etzel and Lehi, rose and fought the British in a manner not unlike the Arabs in the Arab Revolt. So why did the Zionist succeed in forming a State when they were faced with much the same challenges as the Arabs up until the 1948 War of Independence?

Munia wrote on April 09, 2011 at 01:24 PM

Professor Kattan wrote:

"In 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections whilst many of its candidates were languishing in Israeli prisons. Instead of embracing the results the EU and the US swiftly reacted with sanctions and Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. This response was justified on the basis that the Change and Reform List that the Palestinians had elected was opposed to recognizing Israel and signing up to the Oslo Accords."

Professor Kattan fails to mention the rocket attacks from Gaza in the aftermath of Israeli disengagement and after the Hamas election victory.

September 12, 2005: The Israeli flag is lowered in Gaza and disengagement is over. September 12: Rocket attack on Sderot. September 12: Rocket attack on Yad Mordechai. 9/23: Islamic Jihad attacks Kfar Aza 9/24: Hamas attacks Sderot, 11 injured 9/25, 26, 27, 30 - At least six separate rocket attacks - followed by more... October 2005: At least 7 rocket attacks November 2005: At least 11 rocket attacks December 2005: At least 34 separate rocket attacks, causing numerous injuries and much damage January 2006: At least 27 separate attacks (most with multiple rockets)

January 25, 2006: Hamas wins the PLC elections.

February 2006: At least 55 rocket attacks March 2006: At least 47 attacks, with injuries April 2006: At least 53 separate rocket attacks.

Couldn't these rocket attacks on Israeli civilians have been a substantial cause in applying sanctions on Hamas and a blockade around Gaza?

Munia wrote on April 09, 2011 at 01:44 PM

Professor Kattan writes:

As the League of Nations made clear the mandates established in the Middle East, including Palestine, were A-class mandates.

Not true.

The Mandate was not Class A.

According to His Majesty's Government's, Palestine Royal Report of July 1937

“(2) The Mandate [for Palestine] is of a different type from the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon and the draft Mandate for Iraq. These latter, which were called for convenience “A” Mandates, accorded with the fourth paragraph of Article 22. Thus the Syrian Mandate provided that the government should be based on an organic law which should take into account the rights, interests and wishes of all the inhabitants, and that measures should be enacted ‘to facilitate the progressive development of Syria and the Lebanon as independent States’. The corresponding sentences of the draft Mandate for Iraq were the same. In compliance with them National Legislatures were established in due course on an elective basis. Article 1 of the Palestine Mandate, on the other hand, vests ‘full powers of legislation and of administration’, within the limits of the Mandate, in the Mandatory”

The Palestine Royal Report, July 1937, Chapter II, p. 39, highlights additional differences:

“Unquestionably, however, the primary purpose of the Mandate, as expressed in its preamble and its articles, is to promote the establishment of the Jewish National Home.

“(5) Articles 4, 6 and 11 provide for the recognition of a Jewish Agency ‘as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration’ on matters affecting Jewish interests. No such body is envisaged for dealing with Arab interests.

But Palestine was different from the other ex-Turkish provinces. It was, indeed, unique both as the Holy Land of three world-religions and as the old historic homeland of the Jews. The Arabs had lived in it for centuries, but they had long ceased to rule it, and in view of its peculiar character they could not now claim to possess it in the same way as they could claim possession of Syria or Iraq”

Also, the “Mandate for Palestine” never mentions Class “A” status at any time for Palestinian Arabs. Article 2 clearly speaks of the Mandatory as being:

“responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home” [italics by author].

The Mandate calls for steps to encourage Jewish immigration and settlement throughout Palestine except east of the Jordan River. Historically, therefore, Palestine was an ‘anomaly’ within the Mandate system, ‘in a class of its own’ – initially referred to by the British as a “special regime.”

Munia wrote on April 09, 2011 at 02:41 PM

I am puzzled by Munia's comments. Munia adopts the view that Palestinian reaction to decades of occupation and, I would add, vicious oppression is unreasonable. Well it is, I suppose, if your stance is that of a Zionist or extremist secular Israeli, but to Palestinians who have experienced the theft of their land and water, murder of their compatriots and the international blind eye to all of that, I suppose that resistance and fighting back are what you do. People throughout history have stood up to occupation and oppression and I do not think the reaction of Palestinians is unusual in the least. The origins of all of these sad events is in the betrayal of the Palestinians and other Arab peoples by the British. Add in the carefully developed plans of the Zionists in the late 1930s and 1940s and the full horror is apparent. If Munia is interested in why things happen now I would recommend that he or she (and I apologise for not being able to recognise your gender from your name, Munia)reads Professor Ilan Pappe's account of the events leading up to the creation of the State of Israel in his "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine". This is by far the most robust and erudite history of the period. Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian.

Alan Newton wrote on April 09, 2011 at 05:45 PM

Professor Kattan, erred when writing that:

".. the Quartet’s (the EU, the US, Russia, and the UN) Performance-Based Roadmap... was predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians needed to be taught how to build a practicing democracy and act against terror."

I respond:

As you must have known, the Quartets Roadmap was not the Palestinians first encounter with practical democracy. The Palestinian Legislative elections of January 1996, in which popular participation was very strong, was a byproduct of the Oslo agreements (Article lll), a peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians that had originated with, and been concluded solely by the PLO and Israel. The elections of 1996 were reported to be free and fair although they had been boycotted by Hamas, and other Palestinian nationalist groups. The boycott limited voter choices.

So Israel cannot be charged with having substantially hindered Palestinian democracy in this instance, quite the contrary.

Be that as it may, I am sure you'd agree that democracy requires more than free, fair and open elections. Democracy is predicated upon meaningful rotation of power, including the highest office in the land; oversight; separation of powers; rule of law; respect for human rights; freedom of assembly, expression and the press.

Munia wrote on April 10, 2011 at 04:07 PM

Dear Mr. Newton

I am puzzled how you impute this adopted view to me. I thought I had been critiquing Professor Kattan's article and posing questions; still unanswered. Be that as it may, I believe you've failed to consider the widespread collaboration between the local Arabs and the Zionists before and during the Mandate of Palestine. See Hillel Cohen's book Army of Shadows. Likewise Mr. Newton, you've failed to consider the wholesale land transfers by the Arabs to the Zionists right up to the War of Independence in 1948. See, Professor Kenneth Stein's book, The Land Question in Palestine. These book beg the question, if the Zionists were stealing land and water and occupying and oppressing the local Arabs, than why were so many of them putting their patrimony up for sale and why did they collaborate with the Zionists?

Regarding Ilan Pappe, please read Benny Morris harsh criticisms in his recent New Republic article, The Liar as Hero. accessible with the following link:

For some strange reason, I don't believe Mr. Newton will be take me up and study my suggested readings.


Munia wrote on April 10, 2011 at 07:05 PM

A few points.

Firstly South Africa was acquired by the British during the Napoleonic Wars from an erstwhile ally, the Dutch, and had to sign a treaty with the Dutch settlers. This treaty gave the settlers their own legal system and rights. The Boer War was costly and ferocious, it ended with a treaty (Treaty of Vereeniging) that granted near independence to the Boers. Your attacks on the British must be taken as attacks on White South Africans.

Secondly the British were implementing the mandate given to them under the Treaty of Versailles (NOT the Balfour Declaration). See The Arab Israeli Conflict

The reason I raise these "complications" is that your article considers the problem of Israel from a local perspective. In the 19th and first half of the twentieth century the whole world was involved in deadly power politics in which the Middle East was just a sideshow. Had the evil British not predominated you would have had the Napoleonic French, The Nazi Germans or the Communists as your evil mega power to blame for events.

What about looking forward and considering how the reasonable Israelis and entirely rational Palestinians, who have no difficulty accepting other peoples and religions can resolve the problem now that the evil British have gone.

john wrote on January 15, 2012 at 08:17 AM

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