Excerpts from the Palestine Royal (Peel) Commission Report
(July 7, 1937)
Reprinted in Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Edited by Charles D. Smith
Published in 2001
"Manifestly the problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question 'Which of them in the end will govern Palestine?' must surely be 'Neither'."
In 1917, in the midst of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, changing the lives of many of the people in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, issued in the form of a letter from diplomat Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), tried to clarify Britain's official position toward two groups who were vying for power in Palestine. These groups were the native Arabs, primarily farmers and small-scale traders, and Zionist Jews, recent immigrants whose mission was to build up an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Britain believed that the two groups could live alongside one another. Therefore, the Balfour Declaration stated that Britain would favor "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and [would] use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." It was a dual promise that proved impossible to keep.
After World War I, British and French troops who had ventured into the Middle East to fight against the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century) remained in the region. They divided the land into new territories, based upon historical precedents, and worked with the League of Nations, a loose confederation of sixty states, formed in 1919, whose goal was to peacefully resolve conflicts between nations, to establish a system of governance in the region. The system they devised was called the mandate system, for it gave Britain and France a mandate, or authorization, to provide governance for these new territories until such time as they could become independent nations. Britain took control of Palestine, and in 1920 Herbert Samuel (1870–1963) was named the first High Commissioner for Palestine.
From the very beginning, Palestine proved a difficult place to rule. The native Arabs—called Palestinians—resented the way that wealthy Zionists established settlements on Arabic land. They accused the Zionists of using their superior wealth to buy up large tracts of land and force Palestinian peasants to leave the lands they had tended for generations. They also resented the newcomers' claims to rights to visit holy sites. Zionists, on the other hand, were single-minded in their desire to give Palestine a Jewish identity. They created their own school systems and labor unions, and gave preferential treatment to Jews over Palestinians. Zionists argued that the Arabs could move to other nearby countries that had an Arab character, such as Transjordan or Syria. Palestine, they believed, was fated to be a Jewish state.
These competing claims to control in Palestine led to nearly constant conflict between Jews and Arabs. In May 1921, anti-Jewish riots broke out in the town of Jaffa and surrounding villages, leaving forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs dead. In 1929 riots broke out over access to a holy site called the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall; surviving section of a wall of an ancient temple). This time, 133 Jews and at least 113 Arabs died. Neither Arab leader Grand Mufti Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni (1895–1974) nor a string of Jewish leaders could stop the violence. By 1936 Arabs had decided that the only way to protect their rights was to rise up in a general revolt against both the British and the Jews. This Arab Revolt lasted until 1939. The British were forced to send large numbers of troops to Palestine during the revolt to keep order, but changing politics in Europe—especially the rise of the Nazis in Germany—made Palestine seem like an unwanted diversion, and the British government began to look for a way to peacefully give up control of Palestine.
Late in 1936 the British appointed a commission, headed by William Robert Wellesley (1867–1937), the first Earl of Peel, to investigate the situation in Palestine and make recommendations to the British government. The commission, often known as the Peel Commission, issued its report on July 7, 1937, after nearly six months of lengthy investigations and hearings, including interviews with people on all sides of the conflict. Their report, technically called Command Paper 5479, is best known as the Palestine Royal Commission, or Peel Commission, Report, and it is reproduced below.
Things to remember while reading excerpts from the "Palestine Royal (Peel) Commission Report"
- Both Jews and Arabs made historical claims to Palestine. Jews claimed that their ancestors had roots to Palestine that dated from ancient times up to 70 CE, when Romans destroyed a Jewish temple and drove Jews from the region. Arabs had lived in Palestine for centuries, and could point to hundreds of years of history living and farming in the region.
- One of the key ideas to come out of this document was the idea of partition. Partition meant the division of Palestine into two independent states. Try to gain an understanding of what the Commission means by partition.
- The events in Palestine were deeply influenced by the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. When Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), the head of the Nazi Party, came to power in 1933, he immediately passed laws that discriminated against Jews. Many Jews escaped this persecution by immigrating to Palestine.
Excerpts from the Palestine Royal (Peel) Commission Report (July 7, 1937)
1. Before submitting the proposals we have to offer for its drastic treatment we will briefly restate the problem of Palestine.
2. Under the stress of the World War the British Government made promises to Arabs and Jews in order to obtain their support. On the strength of those promises both parties formed certain expectations.
3. The application to Palestine of the Mandate System in general and of the specific mandate in particular implied the belief that the obligations thus undertaken towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively would prove in course of time to be mutually compatible owing to the conciliatory effect on the Arab Palestinians of the material prosperity which Jewish immigration would bring in Palestine as a whole. That belief has not been justified, and we see no hope of its being justified in the future. ...
5. What are the existing circumstances?
An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. About 1,000,000 Arabs are in strife, open or latent, with some 400,000 Jews. There is no common ground between them. The Arab community is predominantly Asiatic in character, the Jewish community predominantly European. They differ in religion and in language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as incompatible as their national aspirations. These last are the greatest bar to peace. Arabs and Jews might possibly learn to live and work together in Palestine if they would make a genuine effort to reconcile and combine their national ideals and so build up in time a joint or dual nationality. But this they cannot do. The War and its sequel have inspired all Arabs with the hope of reviving in a free and united Arab world the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews similarly are inspired by their historic past. They mean to show what the Jewish nation can achieve when restored to the land of its birth. National assimilation between Arabs and Jews is thus ruled out. In the Arab picture the Jews could only occupy the place they occupied in Arab Egypt or Arab Spain. The Arabs would be as much outside the Jewish picture as the Canaanites in the old land of Israel. The National Home, as we have said before, cannot be half-national. In these circumstances to maintain that Palestinian citizenship has any moral meaning is a mischievous pretence. Neither Arab nor Jew has any sense of service to a single State.
6. This conflict was inherent in the situation from the outset. The terms of the mandate tended to confirm it. If the Government had adopted a more rigorous and consistent policy it might have repressed the conflict for a time, but it could not have resolved it.
7. The conflict has grown steadily more bitter. It has been marked by a series of five Arab outbreaks, culminating in the rebellion of last year. In the earlier period hostility to the Jews was not widespread among the fellaheen. It is now general. The first three outbreaks, again, were directed only against the Jews. The last two were directed against the Government as well.
8. This intensification of the conflict will continue. The estranging force of conditions inside Palestine is growing year by year. The educational systems, Arab and Jewish, are schools of nationalism, and they have only existed for a short time. Their full effect on the rising generation has yet to be felt. And patriotic "youth-movements," so familiar a feature of present-day politics in other countries of Europe or Asia, are afoot in Palestine. As each community grows, moreover, the rivalry between them deepens. The more numerous and prosperous and better-educated the Arabs become, the more insistent will be their demand for national independence and the more bitter their hatred of the obstacle that bars the way to it. As the Jewish National Home grows older and more firmly rooted, so will grow its self-confidence and political ambition.
9. The conflict is primarily political, though the fear of economic subjection to the Jews is also in Arab minds. The mandate, it is supposed, will terminate sooner or later. The Arabs would hasten the day, the Jews retard it, for obvious reasons in each case. Meanwhile thewhole situation is darkened by uncertainty as to the future. The conflict, indeed, is as much about the future as about the present. Every intelligent Arab and Jew is forced to ask the question "Who in the end will govern Palestine?" This uncertainty is doubtless aggravated by the fact that Palestine is a mandated territory; but, in the light of nationalist movements elsewhere, we do not think the situation would be very different if Palestine had been a British Colony.
10. Meantime the "external factors" will continue to play the part they have played with steadily increasing force from the beginning. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia, the Yemen, Iraq and Egypt are already recognized as sovereign states, and Trans-Jordan as an "independent government." In less than three years' time Syria and the Lebanon will attain their national sovereignty. The claim of the Palestine Arabs to share in the freedom of all Asiatic Arabia will thus be reinforced. Before the War they were linked for centuries past with Syria and the Lebanon. They already exceed the Lebanese in numbers. That they are as well qualified for self-government as the Arabs of neighbouring countries has been admitted.
11. On the other hand, the hardships and anxieties of the Jews in Europe are not likely to grow less in the near future. The pressure on Palestine will continue and might at any time be accentuated. The appeal to the good faith and humanity of the British people will lose none of its force. The Mandatory will be urged unceasingly to admit as many Jews into Palestine as the National Home can provide with a livelihood and to protect them when admitted from Arab attacks.
12. Thus, for internal and external reasons, it seems probable that the situation, bad as it now is, will grow worse. The conflict will go on, the gulf between Arabs and Jews will widen. ...
14. In these circumstances, we are convinced that peace, order and good government can only be maintained in Palestine for any length of time by a rigorous system of repression. Throughout this Report we have been careful not to overstate the facts as we see them: but understatement is no less reprehensible; and we should be failing in our duty if we said anything to encourage a hopeful outlook for the future peace of Palestine under the existing system or anything akin to it. ...
To put it in one sentence, we cannot—in Palestine as it now is—both concede the Arab claim to self-government and secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home. And this conflict between the two obligations is the more unfortunate because each of them, taken separately, accords with British sentiment and British interest. On the one hand, the application of the mandate System to Arab Palestine as a means of advancement to self-government was in harmony with British principles—the same principles as have been put into practice since the War in different circumstances in India, Iraq and Egypt. British public opinion is wholly sympathetic with Arab aspirations towards a new age of unity and prosperity in the Arab world. Conversely, the task of governing without the consent or even the acquiescence of the governed is one for which, we believe, the British people have little heart. On the other hand, there is a strong British tradition of friendship with the Jewish people. Nowhere have Jews found it easier to live and prosper than in Britain. Nowhere is there a more genuine desire to do what can be done to help them in their present difficulties. Nowhere, again, was Zionism better understood before the War or given such practical proofs of sympathy. And British interest coincides with British sentiment. From the earliest days of the British connexion with India and beyond, the peace of the Middle East has been a cardinal principle of our foreign policy; and for the maintenance of that peace British statesmanship can show an almost unbroken record of friendship with the Arabs. ...
A continuance or rather an aggravation—for that is what continuance will be—of the present situation cannot be contemplated without the gravest misgivings. It will mean constant unrest and disturbance in peace and potential danger in the event of war. It will mean a steady decline in our prestige. ...
19. Manifestly the problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question "Which of them in the end will govern Palestine?" must surely be "Neither." We do not think that any fair-minded statesman would suppose, now that the hope of harmony between the races has proved untenable, that Britain ought either to hand over to Arab rule 400,000 Jews, whose entry into Palestine has been for the most part facilitated by the British Government and approved by the League of Nations; or that, if the Jews should become a majority, a million or so of Arabs should be handed over to their rule. But, while neither race can justly rule all Palestine, we see no reason why, if it were practicable, each race should not rule part of it. ...
Partition seems to offer at least a chance of ultimate peace. We can see none in any other plan. ...
1. Treaty System...
6. Treaties of Alliance should be negotiated by the Mandatory with the Government of Trans-Jordan and representatives of the Arabs of Palestine on the one hand and with the Zionist Organisation on the other. These Treaties would declare that, within as short a period as may be convenient, two sovereign independent States would be established—the one an Arab State, consisting of Trans-Jordan united with that part of Palestine which lies to the east and south of a frontier such as we suggest in Section 3 below; the other a Jewish State consisting of that part of Palestine which lies to the north and west of that frontier. ...
2. The Holy Places ...
12. We regard the protection of the Holy Places as a permanent trust, unique in its character and purpose, and not contemplated by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. We submit for consideration that, in order to avoid misunderstanding, it might frankly be stated that this trust will only terminate if and when the League of Nations and the United States desire it to do so, and that, while it would be the trustee's duty to promote the well-being and development of the local population concerned, it is not intended that in course of time they should stand by themselves as a wholly self-governing community. ...
10. Exchange of Land and Population ...
35. We have left to the last the two-fold question which, after that of the Frontier, is the most important and most difficult of all the questions which Partition in any shape involves.
36. If Partition is to be effective in promoting a final settlement it must mean more than drawing a frontier and establishing two States. Sooner or later there should be a transfer of land and, as far as possible, an exchange of population. ...
1. "Half a loaf is better than no bread" is a peculiarly English proverb; and, considering the attitude which both the Arab and the Jewish representatives adopted in giving evidence before us, we think it improbable that either party will be satisfied at first sight with the proposals we have submitted for the adjustment of their rival claims. For Partition means that neither will get all it wants. It means that the Arabs must acquiesce in the exclusion from their sovereignty of a piece of territory, long occupied and once ruled by them. It means that the Jews must be content with less than the Land of Israel they once ruled and have hoped to rule again. But it seems to us possible that on reflection both parties will come to realize that the drawbacks of Partition are outweighed by its advantages. For, if it offers neither party all it wants, it offers each what it wants most, namely freedom and security. ...
What happened next ...
As the authors of the report predicted, neither side was happy with the recommendations of the Commission. The Jews, represented by a government-like organization called the Jewish Agency, accepted the idea of partition, but they believed that the portion of Palestine allotted to the Jews should be much larger, and they wanted Britain to pay to evict Palestinians from what would become Jewish territory. The Arabs, however, rejected the idea of partition altogether. They argued that since 70 percent of the population was Arabic, and 90 percent of the land was owned by Arabs, that the state should be Arab. The Arab Higher Committee, which spoke for the Arabs at the time, rejected the idea that a Jewish state should be forced upon Palestinians and called for the British to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine. Riots and protests continued, and the situation did not improve.
Soon even the British agreed that partition was impossible and that they could not create a Jewish national home without the consent of the Arabs. Over the next several years, the British backtracked in their policy. As early as 1938 they issued another Command Paper, number 5893, that called the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states impractical. They also placed limits on Jewish immigration, despite the increased oppression that Jews faced in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Finally, the British officially reversed parts of their policy when they issued a document known as the 1939 White Paper.
The White Paper rejected the idea of partition, instead calling for the creation of an "independent Palestine state" in "which the two peoples in Palestine, Arabs and Jews, share authority in government in such a way that the essential interests of each are secured." Hoping to appease Arab anger at the growth in the Jewish population, the White Paper restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine for the next ten years and made future immigration subject to the consent of the Arabs. The White Paper pleased the Arabs enough to stop the organized uprising against British rule, but it angered the Jews. They felt that Britain had betrayed them by limiting immigration and backtracking on their support for a Jewish "national home," which many Jews were beginning to think of as an independent state. Despite all the diplomacy, the situation in Palestine improved very little in the 1940s. Arabs and Jews continued to build separate cultures and to fight against each other for control of the land they both claimed. Meanwhile, the rest of the world became absorbed in the fighting of World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan).
Though the Peel Commission Report and the White Paper seemed to cancel each other out, the Peel Report has become a very important historical document. It is the first official document to acknowledge the possibility that Palestine might be divided into two independent states, one Jewish and the other Arab. In the early 2000s, this remained the most widely accepted solution to the enduring conflict over control of the region. In fact, the Jewish state of Israel has acknowledged the rights of Palestinians to form an independent state, and negotiations continue over exactly what borders that state will take.
Did you know ...
- The population of Palestine doubled over the course of the British mandate, jumping from 750,000 to 1.8 million from 1922 to 1946. In 1922, 89 percent of the population was Arab and 11 percent Jewish. By 1946, just 69 percent was Arab and 31 percent Jewish.
- It is estimated that in the mid-1930s, over 90 percent of Jews in Palestine were literate, while only 30 percent of Arabs were literate.
- In 1936, per household income for Jews in Palestine was 44 Palestinian pounds, while that of Arabs was 17 Palestinian pounds.
- Jewish immigration into Palestine increased steadily until 1935, then dropped off for a number of years. According to statistics compiled by the British, 4,075 Jewish immigrants entered Palestine in 1931; 9,553 in 1932; 30,327 in 1933; 42,359 in 1934; and 61,584 in 1935. From there, the numbers fell: 29,727 entered in 1936; 10,536 in 1937; 12,868 in 1938; 16,405 in 1939; and 4,547 in 1940.
Consider the following ...
- Based on the conflicting claims to regions of Palestine in the 1930s, what would have been the best recommendation for Jews and Arabs to resolve their differences? How would this recommendation provide for the very different needs and perceived injustices of each side?
- Were the recommendations made by the Peel Commission fair? Explain why or why not.
- Diplomatic papers such as the Peel Commission Report are often dry and impersonal. What is the tone of this report? Do the writers sympathize with either side in the conflict? Use quotations to make a case for either side.
For More Information
Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.
Farsoun, Samih K., with Christina E. Zacharia. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.
Smith, Charles D., ed. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 4th ed. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
"The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917–1988." United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. http://domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/561c6ee353d740fb8525607d00... (accessed on June 24, 2005).
"Report of the Palestine Royal Commission." United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/cf02d057b04d356385256ddb00... (accessed on June 24, 2005).