Learning the History of the Middle East Descending into Hell

Posted on October 18, 2023

To understand the series of conflicts in the Middle East over the last 100 years takes a lot of effort. If you are not a Middle Eastern expert who has studied and worked in this area, you would have to give up years of your time to fully understand it all. There are lots of good websites though and I have been reading a fair bit, checking sources as I do so.

1917 – A Big Date

To even begin to understand the conflict in Middle East, you must go all the way back 1917. This was when, to win Jewish support (money, essentially) for Britain’s First World War effort, the British Balfour Declaration was formed. This laid out a promise to establish a Jewish national home in Ottoman controlled Palestine once the war was over.

Unfortunately, the dastardly British also promised Arab nationalists (and Lawrence of Arabia) that a united Arab country (covering most of the Arab Middle East) would result if the Ottoman Turks were polished off. When the fighting ended in 1918, with the Ottoman Empire defeated on every front, guess what happened? Neither promise was delivered. It would appear we weren’t making many friends by double-crossing our supposed allies.

The 1920 Mandate

The next key date was 1920. This was when it was agreed that Britain would assume responsibility for Palestine. This was called the ‘League of Nations Mandate’. Over the next twenty years or so, over 100,000 Jews entered the country. So, Jewish movement into the area wasn’t post 1948, like many assumed (including me). 1948 is a very important date though, so more of that later.

During this period the the UK’s operations were generally aimed at militant Arab groups who were opposed Jewish immigration in such large numbers. As the years passed, violence intensified, peaking with what is known as ‘The Arab Revolt of 1936-39’. This was all before WWII started but, critically, after and during a period where Jews were already being targeted and attacked (without protection) in Nazi Germany.

The Homeland

As you can imagine (unless you are a weird denier type) The Holocaust had a major impact on what was unfolding in Palestine. Now check this. During the Second World War, the British restricted the entry into Palestine of European Jews. This was despite Jews being desperate to escape Nazi persecution. Why would Britain do that? Well, Britain was frantically trying to appease the Egyptians and Saudis. This is chiefly because they were oil rich (you knew oil would get a mention sooner or later, didn’t you?)

This provoked Jewish resistance (resistance I’ll have you know, not terrorism). It eventually united those who had previously looked for Britain’s assistance in establishing their national homeland (the Haganah) and those who decided to use (sod it, I’m going to say it) terrorism, to drive the British out. Trouble was brewing.

Jewish Terrorism

There were now two main (but not exclusive) Jewish terrorist groups. The first was called Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation). It was led by the future Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. The other was Lohamey Heruth Israel (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) or LHI. By most accounts I have read, the LHI were the far nastier of the two groups.

In Britain, the LHI were known as the Stern Gang after its leader, Abraham Stern. Stern, presumably to the relief of British security, was killed in a clash with the Palestine Police in 1942. However, in November 1944, the LHI wiped out Lord Moyne, the British Minister for The Middle East. A revenge terror attack, if you will.

The Refugees are Coming

At the end of WWII, around 250,000 Jewish refugees who somehow survived the hideous events of the holocaust were stranded. They were scattered around displacement camps across Europe. Despite persistent requests from America’s President Truman, the British said they would not lift the ban on immigration. Basically, they didn’t want over 100,000 Jews coming to Palestine. It was unstable enough as it was.

Things then got, shall we say, rather ugly. The Jewish underground forces were now wholly united against the UK. The Haganah had realised that during the war it would have been unwise attacking the British when they were fighting Nazi Germany (that makes sense). But with the Nazis defeated, their fighters allied themselves with Irgun and began carrying out raids against the British. That, it could be argued, wasn’t very nice of them. However, its worth remembering what was promised in 1917.

The Situation Worsens

In late 1945, it got really ugly. As a response to full-scale riots in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, plus bombs going off on the railway system, British troops had to be deployed to support of the civil police. By 1947, the number of British troops deployed in Palestine had risen to about 100,000. Most of them were from The National Service (My dad missed this by about two years, the lucky bugger).

The British troops were trained for conventional fighting and found it nigh on impossible to deal with the violent (terrorist) actions of Irgun and LHI. Curfews, searches, and the guarding of key locations came into force. However, terrorist groups had the support of the local Jewish population. This made intelligence gathering more or less futile.

Operation Agatha

The UK decided there was no alternative (there probably was) but to hit back hard. High Commissioner Sir Allan Cunningham was given the go ahead to steam in. His aim was to strike a major, fatal blow against the insurgents. So, on 28 June 1946, 17,000 British troops carried out Operation Agatha in Jerusalem. Raids took place in Jewish offices and buildings across the region. Large amounts of arms and ammunition were discovered.

Huge numbers of Jews suspected of terrorism were taken in during anti-terrorist operations that were the responsibility of the Palestinian Police. The British Army’s job was to back them up, annexing towns and aiding the searches. You can guarantee it wasn’t pleasant, but it ended with no way forward. So, in September 1946, the increasingly desperate British called a conference of Jewish and Arab leaders in London. It ended without a solution in February 1947. The UK Government announced it had now had no option but to refer the problem to the United Nations.

Terror Kidnap and Bombings

During this period of chaos (46-47) terrorist activity had continued with some gusto. This led to the introduction of martial law and strict curfews. British soldiers were frequently targets for attack and kidnap in retaliation for death sentences passed on members of Irgun and LHI. One such insurgent operation was the bombing of the British Officers Club in Haifa. Thirty people were killed and injured.

More famously, On 22 July 1946, Irgun fighters also blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. This killed more than 90 people, including many civilians who were innocent bystanders. However, this attack did shatter the increasingly fragile Haganah-Irgun partnership.

The Attacks Keep Coming

The attacks became more shocking and vicious. On 31 March 1947, Irgun set light to the oil refinery at Haifa. The fire blazed out of control for three weeks. In May of the same year, Irgun attacked the prison at Acre. Scores of inmates escaped amid the unfolding chaos.

Then, On 29 July, in retaliation for the execution of three of their own, the LHI kidnapped two British Army sergeants. They proceeded to hang them, then booby-trapped the bodies.  This resulted in the traumatised officer who cut them down, to be seriously injured and scarred for life. Both mentally and physically, one presumes.

Time to Leave

In November 1947, all changed. The United Nations pushed on by the US, recommended the partition of Palestine and the establishment of separate Arab and Jewish states. So, on 15 May 1948, Britain gave up her mandate. The British Army left Palestine. This left the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the wars that have since followed to this very day.

An example, perhaps, of what comes from false promises some thirty years earlier. There would have been reasons for making promises. Money was needed during WWI and so was Arab support to see off the Ottoman empire. However, by doing so Britain ensured that it played a key role in the chaos that unfolded post 1948 to this very day. By the time they saw the damage they were doing, it was too late.

It makes you wonder where the ‘British Sense of Fair Play’ comes from.

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