British-Controlled Mandatory Palestine (1920–1948): A History

In 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate of Palestine. British-controlled Mandatory Palestine existed until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

May 27, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

british controlled mandatory palestine


In the post-World War I period and subsequent geopolitical changes, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate to administer the territory known as Palestine. This region had been under the Ottoman Empire’s control before it collapsed following the end of World War I. The mandate intended to assist former Ottoman territories in transforming into self-governing entities while ensuring the successful implementation of the Balfour Declaration issued in 1917. The Balfour Declaration acknowledged British support for the establishment of a national home for Jewish people. Under British control, Palestine went through important socio-economic and political changes, as well as an influx of Jewish settlers, sparking Palestinian Arab opposition and political upheavals in the region.


Before British-controlled Mandatory Palestine: The Balfour Declaration 

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American Cartoon Showing an Ottoman Turk Making His Own Noose With the Gallows in the Background, 1903. Source: Teaching the Middle East


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was on the edge of collapsing. This period was also characterized by intense rivalry between the Great Powers — the British, Russian, French, German, and Austro-Hungarian Empires. European nations were keen to gain influence and control over the Ottoman Empire because of its advantageous location in the eastern Mediterranean. From a geopolitical standpoint, the Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean, all of which were important commercial routes. To protect its commercial and imperial interests in Asia and Africa, Britain placed special emphasis on the Suez Canal, a vital maritime route that connects the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Palestine, a region near the Suez Canal and a part of the Ottoman Empire represented a crucial geopolitical location for competing interests in this context.


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Ottoman Empire’s provinces in the Middle East before World War I. Source: PBS


Determined to secure its imperial interests in the region, in 1915, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, secretly contacted Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina, convincing him to organize an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire’s government, which was backing Britain’s rivals in World War I—Italy and Germany. This series of letters is widely referred to as the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence.


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In return, Britain promised its support for establishing a sovereign Arab state composed of the Arab entities of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, led by Husayn’s son Faysal, greatly contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 and the advancement of British influence in the region. However, the fate of the former Ottoman territories was already defined by France and Britain in a secret agreement of May 1916 known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the two great powers divided their spheres of influence in the region. Later, in 1917, British Foreign Minister Lord Arthur Balfour publicly announced the Balfour Declaration. The declaration also formalized British support for establishing a “national home for the Jewish people.”


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The Balfour Declaration, 1917. Source: British Library


The dynamics of World War I and the rapid decline of the Ottoman Empire influenced the British government to include support for establishing a Jewish state in the Balfour Declaration. As a competitor of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain aimed to secure the sympathy of various groups, including Jewish communities. Other major European powers (France and Germany) also sought to support Zionist movements, as they were perceived as a means to counterbalance British influence in the Middle East.


The British government and the Zionist Federation, represented by its president, Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first president of the State of Israel), had been in negotiations since February 1917 on the right of Jews to settle legally in Palestine. Weizmann developed explosive materials that greatly assisted Britain’s successful involvement in the war. Furthermore, winning over powerful Jewish communities in Russia and the United States was strategically significant for Britain.


Britain hoped that by supporting Jewish communities, they would influence the American authorities to support Britain in the international arena. In Russia, in light of the Bolshevik Revolution, Britain tried to obtain the support of the strong Jewish communities, which could influence the Russian authorities to continue the war.


Simultaneous to negotiations in London, Palestine was still in the hands of the Ottoman Empire, despite constant attacks by the British army. Field Marshal Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem on November 9, 1917, and in just three months, Britain conquered the rest of Palestine.


Map of British Mandate Palestine. Source: BBC


Formalizing British support for the Jews was important, as other powers participating in World War I had also tried to make similar commitments to Zionists. On June 4, 1917, the French government gave a written promise to the Zionists, represented by Nahum Sokolov, that it would support the revival of the Jewish nation “in the land from which the people of Israel had been expelled centuries before.”


The document prepared by the French was an impulse for the British government to give its guarantees to the Zionists, who were advised to agree to the British offer, as in 1917, it became clear that Palestine would be conquered by Britain sooner or later. Already in 1918, France and Italy officially recognized the Balfour Declaration, and it was included in the Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920.


The peace conference of San Remo, held on April 15, 1920 in Italy, divided the spheres of influence of the former Ottoman territories between the leading European powers, Britain and France. France acquired the territories of the Ottoman provinces in the northern portion (Syria and Lebanon), while the southern portion (Palestine) was granted to Britain. With this conference, the prospects of establishing an independent Arab Palestine became vague. Palestinian Arabs spoke of 1920 as ām al-nakbah, the “year of catastrophe.”


In 1922, the Congress of the United States approved the Balfour Declaration. On July 24, 1922, the declaration was reflected in the Mandate issued by the League of Nations as part of the League’s aspiration to administer former Ottoman nations “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”


British-controlled Mandatory Palestine

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Coastal lowlands of Palestine. Most local Palestinians found this area unsuitable for farming. Large tracts of land here were sold by absent Arab landowners to Zionist organizations. Source: PBS


Article 2 of the League of Nations-approved mandate dictated that Britain create “political, administrative, and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the development of self-governing institutions.” Article 4 established a Jewish Agency in Palestine to coordinate matters related to the Jewish “national home,” and Article 6 required the facilitation of Jewish migration. These articles did not cover Transjordan, east of the Jordan River, which represented three-fourths of the British mandate of Palestine.


Britain replaced the military administration with a civil one following the confirmation of its mandate in July 1920. Sir Herbert (later Viscount) Samuel, a prominent figure in Zionist circles, was appointed the first high commissioner.


Soon, the new administration announced the migration of 16,500 Jews to Palestine, adhering to the principles of the Balfour Declaration. Britain was also required to manage Palestine to meet the demands of Palestinian Arab entities. New political, economic, and administrative structures were established to facilitate independent rule—albeit under supervision. The dual character of the mandate contributed to the creation of two distinct socio-cultural frameworks under one political system. Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities developed their own educational and socio-cultural institutions and grew independent from each other over time.


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Spiritual Jews from the first migration wave in Jerusalem gather for prayer. Source: PBS


The British mandate was officially enforced on September 29, 1923, and Palestine became a united, distinct entity for the first time in centuries.


The dual character of British rule made it evident that the issue of the region’s ownership by the end of the mandate would be determined by the size of the Palestinian Arab or Jewish population residing in Palestine. The inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the mandate provided Zionists the opportunity to operate on two different levels: to acquire land and to facilitate Jewish migration. These developments brought subsequent changes. Between 1922 and 1945, the Arab population doubled, while the Jewish population grew tenfold, and the population of Mandatory Palestine grew from 700,000 inhabitants in 1922 to around 1,800,000 in 1945.


For Palestinian Arab communities, the swift migration and land acquisitions were worrisome as they endangered their hopes for independence and status in Palestine. Attempts to slow or stop the process frequently led to intensified hostilities.


Palestinian Arab Opposition

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A protest in Jerusalem against Jewish immigration during the Arab Revolt (1936-39). Source: The Wall Street Journal


Arab communities in Palestine were becoming increasingly frustrated with the British government. They expressed dissatisfaction with Britain’s break from its commitment to establish an independent Arab state at the start of the 20th century, the inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the British Mandate document, and the mass Jewish immigration and land purchases that followed. These developments heightened tensions and inspired the Palestinian Arab peasant resistance. The violent clashes between the Palestinian Arab and Jewish populations occurred as early as 1921, known as the Jaffa Riots.


Tensions over the Wailing Wall’s religious rights escalated in August 1929. When Zionist youth activists known as the Betar raised a Zionist flag over the Wailing Wall on August 15, the Muslim community in Palestine violently retaliated, resulting in significant casualties.


In 1933, following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and his subsequent anti-Semitic policies, the migration of European Jews drastically increased. It ultimately led to increased land purchases in Palestine. The Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 represented the culmination of frustration among the Arab communities with the British administration of Palestine and Jewish migration. Britain violently suppressed the revolt and exiled opposing Palestinian political leaders. However, the political environment was already strained on a regional level.


To ease the tensions and maintain its influence, Britain introduced a White Paper in May 1939, which limited Jewish migration for the following five years or demanded Palestinian Arab consent for any Jewish migration to Palestine. The document also set limits on land purchases.


The White Paper marked the first split in British-Zionist cooperation, as the British-imposed restraints during one of the most challenging times for Jewish communities in light of Hitler’s policies in Nazi Germany were seen as betrayal and intimidation of the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper also encouraged the illegal migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine.


The End of the British-Controlled Mandatory Palestine

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David Ben-Gurion reads the Israeli Declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum, 14 May 1948. Source: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


The issue of Palestine gained momentum once again following the end of World War II, which changed the nature of international politics and put an end to colonial powers.


Furthermore, the rapidly deteriorating socio-political environment in Palestine, which was marked by ongoing armed conflicts between the two opposing groups, fostered negative perceptions among British citizens. In February 1947, Britain formally declared the termination of the mandate in Palestine, citing the obstacles and difficulties of upholding law and order in the area.


The task of handling Palestine was given to the recently formed international organization, the United Nations (UN). The international community grew increasingly sensitive to the issue of the Jewish “national home” as a result of Adolf Hitler’s brutal policies against the Jewish people. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on November 29, 1947, suggesting the division of Palestine into two states — a proposal that the Palestinian Arabs rejected. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of an independent state of Israel, one day ahead of the formal end of the British mandate in Palestine.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.