Between 1945 and 1948, the refusal of the British government to allow Jewish immigration to Palestine led to an increasingly bitter conflict between Britain and Palestinian Jews. In particular it resulted in large scale illegal Jewish immigration, "boat people", and terrorism in Palestine. The policy of opposing Zionism led to deep divisions within the British leadership and anti-semitism in Britain.
Although the British Mandate for Palestine designated the area as a Jewish national home, the British repudiated any linkage between Palestine and the situation of European Jews (in contrast they did regard themselves as responsible for protecting the Palestinian Arabs from Jewish encroachment).
Military authorities have suggested that we should not relieve the Axis powers of the problem which these Jews represent by assuming the burden ourselves and thereby adding to the strain on our limited transport and resources.
During World War II, small numbers of Jews escaped Europe with the intention of going to Palestine. Most of those (about 2,000) were interned in a British camp in Mauritius. Opportunities did arise to rescue Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian Jews. However at the Bermuda conference on the issue, British delegate Richard Law opposed any rescue effort that
would be relieving Hitler of an obligation to take care of these useless people”.
The 1939 White Paper planned to end Jewish migration in March 1944 and in February 1944 The Irgun, now led by Menachem Begin, ended the wartime truce and began blowing up British offices related to immigration and tax collection. In November 1944, Etzel assassinated Lord Moyne, the antisemitic British minister in Cairo.
The Jewish Agency Executive condemned the attacks and called on its members to inform on known members of the Irgun. Leftist Zionist assistance (Irgun were Revisionists, or Political Zionists, at odds with the Labour Zionist movement, known as Practical Zionists) led to the arrest of some 1000 Irgun members, 250 of which were held indefinitely and without trial in internment camps in Eritrea.
In Europe former Jewish partisans led by Abba Kovner began to organize escape routes taking Jews from Eastern Europe down to the Mediterranean where the Jewish Agency organized ships to illegally carry them to Palestine.
British officials in the liberated zones tried to halt this Jewish immigration by refusing to recognize Jews as a national group and demanding that they return to their places of origin. As a result, Jews displaced by the war (displaced persons) were expected to share accommodation with non-Jewish DPs some of whom were former Nazi collaborators, now seeking asylum. Food allocation to Jewish DPs was lower than to German civilians in an effort to encourage them to return ‘home’ and Jews escaping post-war anti-Semitic attacks in Eastern Europe were refused support on the grounds that they were not displaced by the war.
In order to prevent Jewish illegal migrants reaching Palestine a naval blockade was established to stop boats carrying illegal migrants and there was extensive intelligence gathering and diplomatic pressure on countries through which the migrants were passing or from whose ports the ships were coming.
substantial unofficial and unauthorized movements of people must be expected, and these will require considerable force to prevent, for the patience of many of the persons involved is, and in my opinion with justification, nearing the breaking point. It cannot be overemphasized that many of these people are now desperate, that they have become accustomed under German rule to employ every possible means to reach their end, and that the fear of death does not restrain them.
US policy in the liberated zones increasingly focussed on helping Jews escape Eastern Europe.
In October 1945, the Zionist Haganah entered into an alliance with the Irgun and ceased cooperation with the British.
In April 1946 the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry reported that given a chance, half a million Jews would immigrate to Palestine:
In Poland, Hungary and Roumania, the chief desire is to get out… …The vast majority of the Jewish displaced persons and migrants, however, believe that the only place which offers a prospect is Palestine”.
A survey of Jewish DPs found 96.8% would choose Palestine. The Anglo-American Committee recommended that 100,000 Jews be immediately admitted into Palestine.
Despite British government promises to abide by the committee's decision, the British decided to persist with a ban on Jewish migration.
In June 1946, on "Black Sabbath", the British confiscated the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem and arrested the leadership of the Jewish Agency, holding them without trial. The leadership of the Haganah now gave Jewish terror groups permission to attack British Army headquarters in Palestine.
On 7 August 1946 there were 2,232 on board a ship at Haifa waiting for a decision on their future, an additional 2,500 due to arrive and unknown thousands expected to follow. The British government decided to intern all illegal immigrants.
In October 1946, in fulfillment of the recommendation of the Anglo-American Committee, Britain decided to allow a further 96,000 Jews into Palestine at a rate of 1,500 a month. Half this monthly quota was allocated to Jews in the prisons on Cyprus. Granting the prisoners entrance permits reduced the likelihood of an eruption on Cyprus, by Cypriots fearful of a large Jewish presence on their soil, or by the Jewish prisoners and, it was hoped, eased pressure in Palestine.
The Cypriot Communist Party, which dominated the island’s political life, opposed British rule and supported Greek demands for union. Cyprus was the only place in the Middle East where Britain had full sovereignty and it was considered of great strategic importance to the British Empire. Lord Winster, the Governor of Cyprus demanded guarantees that the Jews would leave. He feared that Cyprus could become a new Palestine.
The main alternative to Cyprus was Kenya, however Kenya was taking the 251 suspected Jewish terrorists, held without trial, from the British concentration camp in Eritrea . This was considered more important as these prisoners were “dangerous killers”. Kenya’s governor was opposed to the creation of large camps in his territory as he feared that Jewish immigrants would never leave. He considered them to be “the dregs of the population of Europe”. Camp costs were paid by the Government of Palestine. The Cyprus camps cost 1.2 million pounds to construct. In mid 1947 Secretary of State for the Colonies, Creech-Jones, estimated the monthly maintenance of the camps at 45,000 pounds.
In January 1947, all British civilians were evacuated from Palestine.
Britain was at this time negotiating a loan from the United States vital to its economic survival. Its treatment of Jewish survivors generated bad publicity and encouraged the US Congress to stiffen its terms. The post-war conflict in Palestine caused more damage to US-British relations than any other issue.
In 1947 the United States chapter of the United Jewish Appeal raised 150 million dollars in its annual appeal – at that time the largest sum of money ever raised by a charity dependent on private contributions. Half was earmarked for Palestine. The Times reported that Palestine brought more dollars into the sterling zone than any other country, save Britain.
In April 1947 the issue was formally referred to the UN. By this time over 100,000 British soldiers were stationed in Palestine. Referral to the UN led to a period of uncertainty over Palestine’s future. A United Nations special committee (UNSCOP) investigated the problem and recommended solutions.
In May a spectacular break-out was staged by 200 Jewish prisoners at the main high-security prison in Palestine at Acre. In June a number of Irgun terrorists were sentenced to death. Etzel responded to the sentences by kidnapping a number of British officers and promising to execute them if its members were hanged. On July 29 1947 the three Jews were executed and the next day the three British officers were found dead.
Following this incident the British government decided to return one ship, the Exodus-1947, to its port of origin in France instead of imprisoning the 4,500 passengers on Cyprus. The passengers refused to disembark, spending weeks in difficult conditions. They were eventually forcibly removed at Hamburg and returned to DP camps. The event became a major media event, influencing UN deliberations and exacerbating anti-semitism in Britain. During the affair (August 1947), there were anti-Jewish riots in every major British city.
The mandatory power shall use its best endeavours to ensure that an area situated in the territory of the Jewish state, including a seaport and hinterland adequate to provide facilities for a substantial immigration, shall be evacuated at the earliest possible date and in any event not later then 1 February 1948.
Britain refused to comply with these conditions on the grounds that the decision was unacceptable to the Arabs. It neither allowed Jewish immigration outside the monthly quota nor granted control to the UN representatives (who became known as the “five lonely pilgrims”). A statement issued by the British Ambassador to the UN stated that the inmates on Cyprus would be released with the termination of the mandate.
Over the remaining period of British rule, British policy was to ensure that the Arabs did not resist Britain or blame it for partition. Convinced that partition was unworkable, the British refused to assist the UN in any way that might require British forces to remain on Palestinian soil (to implement it) or turn their army into a target for Arab forces. The Chiefs of Staff in particular, believed they needed the Arabs on their side. Already embroiled in a war against the Jews, they were concerned not to get involved in a war with both sides while trying to withdraw and feared for their extensive Middle Eastern interests.
In April 1948 the Security Council called upon all governments to prevent fighting personnel or arms from entering Palestine. Britain in particular was keen to limit entry of fighters as this justified their failure to implement resolution 181 or release the prisoners on Cyprus. There was concern by other members about fairness to the Jews as Arab arms and men were entering Palestine without interference.
British rule of Palestine formally ended on 15 May 1948 and the State of Israel was declared. Despite this, Britain agreed to release only Cyprus inmates of non-military age. 8,000 men between the ages of 18 and 45 were kept in captivity. 3,000 women refused to leave the Cyprus camps without their menfolk (and had 822 babies before being released).
Britain did release the 250 men held in Kenya as terrorists.
the first armed aggression which the world had seen since the end of the war”.
Three of the invaders, Egypt, Transjordan and Iraq had mutual-defence treaties with Britain (Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, Anglo-Iraqi Treaty (1930)) and received all their arms from Britain. Israel could not legally import arms because of the Security Council resolution banning arms imports into Palestine. On 28 May 1948 the Security Council debated Palestine. The British proposed that the entry of arms and men of military age into Palestine should be restricted. At the request of the USA, the ban was extended to the whole region. A French amendment allowed immigration so long as soldiers were not recruited from immigrants. Britain cited this resolution as the justification for its refusal to release the Jews imprisoned on Cyprus. Since none were being released, this meant the prisoners were now being held without trial and with no possibility of release.
On 16 September 1948, Folke Bernadotte reported to the Security Council that the United Nations were supervising Israeli ports and placing new immigrants of fighting age who arrived in Palestine in camps so they could not participate in fighting. The next day Bernadotte was assassinated by the Lehi faction. The assassination was approved by the three-man Lehi 'center': Yitzhak Shamir, Natan Yellin-Mor, and Yisrael Eldad.
The British Cabinet decided that action could be taken to defend Transjordan, but that under no circumstances would British troops enter Palestine. In December 1948 Israeli troops made a twenty-mile incursion into Egyptian territory and Israeli forces completed the conquest of the Negev, reaching Umm Rash Rash (now Eilat) on the Red Sea. On 2 January 1949, fear of invasion and shortage of ammunition led Transjordan to invoke its mutual defence pact with Britain.
On 6 January 1949 Egypt and Israel agreed to a cease-fire and face-to-face negotiations in Rhodes. This was the first time an Arab state publicly agreed to meet representatives of the Jewish Agency or Israel.
The next day Israeli forces shot down three British Spitfires over the Egyptian border. The UK Defence Committee responded by sending two destroyers carrying men and arms to Transjordan. Israel complained to the UN that these troops were in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 50: the one Britain was using to justify holding the Cyprus inmates. Britain denied this, claiming the resolution did not apply to Britain and that the troops were not new to the region as they had been transferred from Egypt.
On 17 January 1949 the Chief of Staff briefed the cabinet on events in the Middle East. Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, protested at the decision to send arms to Transjordan, taken by the Defence Committee without cabinet approval. He complained that British policy in Palestine was inconsistent with the spirit and tradition of Labour Party policy and was supported by the Deputy Prime-Minister, Herbert Morrison and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stafford Cripps. The cabinet voted to continue supporting the Arab states, but also voted to recognize Israel and release the Jews from Cyprus. The last immigrants left in late January and shortly after they left, Britain formally recognized Israel.