A Senseless, Squalid War’: Voices from Palestine 1890s-1948 is a well-written and accessible account of Britain’s time in the region that shows, without hesitation, how all sides were guilty of violence and atrocities.
In reality, the British were fighting both Jewish and Arab insurgents. That Rose is able to navigate through the numerous strands and agendas present in this period of history is to his credit.
Rose, chair of international relations at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, writes with great clarity and liveliness. Although much of the detail concerns the last few years of Britain’s mandate, during which the UN voted to partition the region and a bloody civil war began between the Jews and Arabs, we are given suitable context.
After an overview of the Zionist movement and its genesis in the 1890s, the pursuit of a Jewish homeland, Rose turns to the situation in Palestine and the slow growth of the Jewish settlements there. The Jewish Agency grows into “a state within a state” as the Jewish population increases. After the Holocaust more and more Jews sought to immigrate, but were denied by strict immigration limits.
There are the tragic stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors who died while trying to make their way illegally into Palestine. Ships that attempted to bypass the British navy illegally were boarded and the passengers interned in Cyprus.
The book shows that the British could show a great lack of sensitivity, including moving Jewish illegal immigrants to former concentration camps in Germany. The quoted documents show a sizeable degree of racism to both Arabs and Jews. During the civil war after the UN voted to partition Palestine, the British forces by and large stood by, either through lack of resources or lack of will.
It is also a sobering look at how not to run a counter-insurgency. For instance, ordering the hanging of insurgents in 1946 only led to a massive prison break by the Irgun, one of the more extremist Jewish armed groups, who then hanged British soldiers in retaliation. The army also set up military vigilantes to kill Jewish soldiers in response to British deaths.
Although this group was disbanded after a short time, it was still observed at the time, as Rose points out, that the British army was becoming “rampantly anti-semitic”. I note this here just as an illustration of how the supervising powers only exacerbated the violence and tension in the region.
Overall, the book sets things out and shows how X led to Y led to Z. There is no sense of judgment or favouritism, although there are fewer quotations from Arab sources than Jewish or British.
It is, quite accurately, a solid and vivid account of Britain’s mandate in Palestine and the foundation of Israel, a narrative formed by using contemporary sources.
This is the great strength of Rose’s book. From letters (“Caesaria has a wizo beach-bang on!”), to songs, to propaganda to military memos, he vividly recreates the time and region, giving a window into the minds of both military officers and resistance fighters alike.
The book is full of interesting and sometimes horrifying details. Some aspects of this history will seem familiar: the building of Jewish settlements and plans for a “two-state solution”.
Other aspects are less familiar: a bid by the Irgun to contaminate London’s water supply with cholera, for example.
The role of external actors in the region’s problems is another theme of the book. Britain, particularly after acquiring old Ottoman territories after World War I (the mandate ran from 1923 to 1948), was eager to safeguard the shortest route to India. The establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine had been a part of British policy since the Balfour Declaration of 1917. But the spread of communism, and electoral concerns, saw the US take a profound interest in the region.
One drawback is that Rose at times presupposes the reader has a knowledge of the subject. For example, he remarks on the presence of “one Moshe Dayan” among Jewish volunteers fighting an Arab insurgency. No more detail is given: apparently we are supposed to know who he is. Some pages later there is reference to “one Moshe Dayan” being detained by the British — that he was a leader in the Arab-Israeli war and defence minister during the Six-Day War is not mentioned at all.
Most of the book concerns the last few years of the British mandate, which saw Britain hand the problem over to the UN, which voted to partition the territory. By this point Britain had neither the resources nor the will to continue its rule. The book ends quite suddenly on the day of Britain’s formal withdrawal, which was compared by contemporaries to a Greek tragedy (“This is the 15th of May — we’re off!”). It does feel a bit like he wants to keep going with the overall narrative rather than giving serious space to the uprooting of about 700,000 Arabs during the war of independence and subsequent war against the Arab states.
However, he does note that the refugee problem was a consequence of people fleeing in fear rather than systematically being driven from their homes.
He also adds that part of the problem was how the most influential among the Arab communities fled to Beirut or elsewhere when Jewish forces drew near, although there are no substantial quotations from Arab sources to clarify this.
The concentrated use of sources also contrasts the leadership of the Jewish groups and the Arabs. The Jewish leaders were determined, highly organised and efficient, while the Arab leaders were torn with in-fighting and unable to dislodge charismatic extremists.
A good book that covers almost all the angles and offers a glimpse of the era that has given rise to some of the region’s current problems. However, it is also a sobering look at how entrenched the conflict can be. Worthwhile reading but do not expect a happy ending.