Al Husseini and the British Mandate

Amid all the discussion about the degree of culpability for the holocaust of Hajj Amin Al Husseini, the pressure of Al Husseini and others in the Arab world on the British is being totally ignored.  Contrary to instructions from the League of Nations  in 1920 and endorsed unanimously by every state in the world in 1922, to facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people:

“Recognition has hereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstructing their national home”.

Throughout the Mandate, the British repeatedly and consistently restricted entry to the Jews.

Why was the British Mandate declared?

Partly because all recognised the historic connections of the Jewish people to the land.

Also because, under Turkish rule, much of the land had become virtually uninhabitable and sparsely inhabited, and the Jews were, as Churchill wrote, “making the desert bloom”. (Quoted in Churchill and Empire by Lawrence James, Weidenfeld, 2013).This was enhancing the life not only of the Jews, but also of non-Jews who had been entering the country from other parts of the Turkish Empire since the mid-19th C. As Churchill wrote in 1939:

“So far from  persecuted, the Arabs have crowded into the country and multiplied till their population has increased more than even all world Jewry could lift up the Jewish population”.


The Jews had proved their loyalty to the British. First, the clandestine Jewish organisation NILI helped to undermine the Turkish presence in Palestine until the British were able to expel the Turks permanently in WWI, and during the war many Palestinian Jews joined the British army.

Many other states around the world not only supported the re-establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, but even went further. President Woodrow Wilson, founder of the League of Nations said:

“I am persuaded,” said President Wilson on March 3rd, 1919, “that the Allied nations, with the fullest concurrence of our own Government and people, are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundation of a Jewish Commonwealth.”

Palestine Royal Commission Report, July 1937, Chapter II, p. 24.

This historical and moral claim was endorsed by world powers in the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 and the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.

Another important consideration was that, in 1920 a Jewish scientist arrived in Palestine and, with the help of the British, began a project which eventually led to the complete eradication of malaria. Today the land of the former British Mandate is a malaria-free oasis, surrounded by lands where malaria is still prevalent.

Why was there opposition to the presence of the Jews?

Many non-Jews living in Palestine at the time were recent immigrants from Arab and non-Arab lands, they were called ‘Arabs’ by the British:

“For the sake of convenience it is usual to speak of the Moslem population as ‘Arabs’, though the actual Arab element in the blood of the people is probably confined to what is really a landed aristocracy”.
Report of the Court of Inquiry by Order of H.E The High Commissioner and Commander in Chief, 12/4/1920. Pages 1 and 2

“The people west of the Jordan are not Arabs, but only Arab speaking…. In the Gaza district they are mostly of Egyptian origin; elsewhere they are of the most mixed race.”
Handbook published by the British Foreign Office 1922

Many of them welcomed the Jews. For example: Emir Faisal, son of acknowledged Saudi leader of the Arabs Sherif Hussein , and placed on the throne in Iraq by the British, welcomed the Jews:

“The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement….We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home….We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East and our two movements complete one another….The Jewish movement is nationalist and not imperialist. Our movement is nationalist and not imperialist. And there is room in Syria for us both [Under Turkish rule, Syria included part of Palestine]. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other”.

In a letter to Felix Frankfurther, 3/3/1919 (Near East Report, Washington, 1976)

The Nashashibi family was also not opposed to the Jews. However, Al-Husseini, a member of a rival family, was an Arab nationalist and opposed the presence of the Jews. The two families were involved in violent clashes, many Nashashibis were murdered and many fled. Those who remained did not dare to oppose Al-Husseini. He spent the war years in Berlin, urging Hitler to kill more Jews so that they would not try to go to Palestine. He raised a Bosnian Muslim army for Hitler, and appeared regularly on Nazi radio.

The British felt it was in their best interests to support the Arabs. Neville Chamberlain told his cabinet:

“If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs”

The origins of Zionism, p196, David Vital, OUP, 1980. 

Gradual digression from the Mandate

In 1922 they allocated 78% of British Mandate land to a Saudi Prince, Prince Abdullah, later King Abdullah. The land was called Trans-Jordan, later Jordan.

The British began, and throughout the Mandate continued, to restrict entry of Jews to Palestine, in contravention of the Mandate of the League of Nations, while allowing in numerous ‘Arabs’ from surrounding areas:

This illegal [Arab] immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Transjordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery”.
Palestine Royal Commission Report, London, 1937

The 1922 White Paper established the principle of “economic absorptive capacity” as a factor for deciding the immigration quota of Jews to Palestine.  The Foreign Office in London determined that, as much of the land was barren and malaria-ridden through years of neglect by the Turks thus rendering much of it uninhabitable, this would remain the situation. In fact the hard work, modern farming methods and later new building techniques of the Jews enabled the numbers of both Arabs and Jews to grow exponentially. Today the total population of the land once administered by the British Mandate is over 10 million.

The 1930 White Paper, issued in the aftermath of the Arab riots of 1929, during which large numbers of Jews were massacred by Arabs incited by Al Husseini, again restricted Jewish immigration.

Al-Husseini felt that the British were letting down the Arabs as, although the White Papers greatly restricted the immigration of Jews, they did not do so entirely.

The 1937 Peel Commission Partition Plan allocated land not only to the Arabs and to the Jews, but also to the British, connecting access to oil in Iraq with their oil refineries just outside Haifa and to Haifa port. The Plan, rejected by both Arabs and Jews, was abandoned.

The 1939 White paper further restricted the immigration of Jews immigration to a token number and thereafter at the discretion of ‘the Arabs of Palestine’.

Jewish refugees who arrived in spite of the restrictions were, from 1938, imprisoned in a camp in Atlit in Palestine, and were sent to detention camps on Cyprus.

Those Jews who succeeded in bringing Jewish refugees to Palestine from Nazi Europe, thereby saving their lives, were also arrested.

In 1942, the Struma, a ship holding 781 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, sailed from Rumania to Turkey. The Turks were asked by the British not to allow the ship to dock. It was finally blown up off the shore of Turkey, with only two survivors.

In 1947, the Exodus, a ship holding 4,515 Jewish refugees including 665 children, sailed from France towards Palestine. It was immediately escorted by British destroyers. When near the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and boarded it. Two immigrants and a crewman were killed in the ensuing battle, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced onto deportation ships bound for France. There, the would-be immigrants remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heat wave, refusing to disembark despite the shortage of food, the crowding and the abominable sanitary conditions. The French government refused to force them off the boat.

Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany, and the ship left for the port of Hamburg, then in the British occupation zone. The immigrants were forcibly taken off and transported to two camps near Lubeck.  This event shocked the world and thereafter ‘illegal’ Jewish immigrants were taken to Cyprus.

Jews who had managed to enter Palestine were arrested in the street if they did not have papers proving that they were ‘legally’ there. All the records of the citizens were kept in a wing of the King David Hotel. This was blown up by the Irgun after giving a warning which was not heeded, resulting in many unnecessary deaths. The British now found it harder to ascertain who was ‘legal’ and who was not.

There were many attacks on Jews by ‘Arabs’, incited by Al Husseini, which were rarely punished by the British. For example, the massacre in Hebron in 1929, in Jerusalem in 1936, etc. When Jews retaliated, this retaliation was punished by the British.

Although Hitler was killing Jews in their millions, and Al Husseini was encouraging him, many Jews also held the British also partly responsible for their deaths: if they had been allowed into Palestine as instructed by the League of Nations, most of those Jews would not have died.

During the months leading up to the withdrawal of the British from Palestine and the inevitable war with invading Arab armies, the British prevented the Jews from importing weapons, and also tried to stop them from manufacturing any.

The British handed responsibility for Palestine to the United Nations where, in November 1947, the British abstained from voting at the UN General Assembly for the partition of Palestine and the creation of both Arab and Jewish states.

This vote was not mandatory, as only Resolutions from the Security Council are binding. It was also in direct opposition to the League of Nations Mandate which called for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, not on 11% of Palestine. In addition, Article 80 of the United Nations states that decisions made by the League of Nations were not to be rescinded by the United Nations.

Both Arabs and Jews felt that they had been let down by the British and there were violent attacks on them from both sides, in attempts to force them to leave. Jews felt that the British had failed to fulfil the Mandate of the League of Nations, yet many around the world regard the Jews’ success in re-establishing a state in Palestine in spite of the problems put in their way by the British, as Colonialism.

Others suggest that the British never had any intention of fulfilling the Mandate of the League of Nations, and tried to use it solely as a means of maintaining their own power, influence and access to oil in the region – in other words, it was the British who were the colonialists.


The above raises many questions. It covers a period when the importance of oil was becoming increasingly apparent, and European countries wanted to ensure that Arab oil was available to them. It is therefore not hard to understand why the British may have found it hard to steer a moral path between the self-interest of assuring their access to oil as any State would, by appeasing Al Husseini and the Arabs (unsuccessfully as it turned out), and fulfilling the directives of the League of Nations to help to re-establish a homeland for the Jews in their ancestral land.

  • By following this path, did Britain renege on her obligations under the Mandate, failing not only the Jews but also disappointing many of the non-Jews living in Palestine at the time?
  • Is what happened so many years ago simply an interesting episode of history, or were there unintended consequences which impact on what is happening today? For example:
  • Did the concept of Partition, originally recommended by the Peel Commission in 1937  eventually lead to an acceptance that today’s Palestinians have equal or even greater rights to the land than the Jews?
  • If so, is it this which has led to the accusations of ‘illegal occupation’ ‘illegal settlements’, and the constant use of the phrase’ Palestinian land’, when referring to that part of the British mandate known as Judea and Samaria until annexed and renamed ‘The West Bank’ by Jordan in 1950?
  • Did this lead to acceptance of the recent claim of the Palestinians that they are the indigenous inhabitants of the land rather than the Jews?
  • Was Al Husseini’s legacy of belligerency and attacks on the Jews perpetuated by Arafat and then by Mahmoud Abbas? To what extent was he responsible for the violence now being carried out in Israel today?

For a lasting just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians to endure, the consequences of  Al Husseini’s influence, as well as the handling by the British of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine must be examined.

Today Jews constitute about 0.2% of the world population and the world’s need for oil is as great as ever, though as renewable energy becomes more widespread it is hoped that oil will cease to be such an important factor in decision-making on the Middle East.

About the Author
ounder and director of Middle East Education, which teaches in schools on the Middle East and in particular, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Author of the talks and of resources on the website