This is the final part of my article about British and U.S. newpaper reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. You can read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that correspondents covered the conclusion of a troubled period of British imperial history.
An Israeli watchtower overlooking the rubble of destroyed homes. Gaza Strip, fall 2003. Photo by the author.
Days of change, transition, and reflection
By the time of the massacre at Deir Yassin, the British Mandate had only a few weeks to run. The words attributed to the ‘Irgun Commander’ at the press conference following the killings show that Jewish militant groups were already forming strategy based on what they might be able to achieve ‘after the British withdrawal’. When that came, the British newspapers provided coverage which combined various elements of patriotic pride. These ranged from justification of British control of Palestine, and a cataloguing of achievements, to concern for the future. On the morning of May 14th 1948, the Daily Mirror’s story was headlined ‘Palestine – last appeal as we quit’ (Daily Mirror, 1948). Under the crossheading ‘Underdeveloped’, the paper reported that
When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped.
The population of 750, 000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out. (Daily Mirror, 1948)
Given that the British departure was to herald Palestine’s descent to an even greater intensity of armed conflict, there was a motive to seek out the positive, the achievements. The British investment in terms of blood and treasure had, after all, been significant – and many of those directly involved, or their families, would have been reading the Mirror and other papers. As the story points out in the next paragraph, ‘We had 84, 000 troops in Palestine.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948a). The number is astonishing, especially when the current strength of the British Army is considered for comparison.[i] Little wonder, then, that Palestine was such a story. If there was any sense of weariness, failure, or futility, the British Newspapers were generally keen to keep a lid on it. The coverage of the very end of the Mandate tended to focus instead on the disorder which followed. In the Daily Mirror of May 15th, ‘The Jews claimed to have won control of Jerusalem after house-to-house fighting.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948b). On the coast, Eric Grey reported for the Daily Express on an Egyptian air-raid, apparently aimed indiscriminately at civilians, part of the assault by Arab armies which meant that, ‘Israel was thus born in the midst of war.’ (Shlaim, 2000: 34).
Egyptian spitfires dive-bombed a bus station in the heart of Tel-Aviv at the rush hour this evening. Forty-one people including children were killed, and more than 60 wounded.
I watched two planes come in from the sea and circle at 10,000 feet.
Then with a three-minute interval between them, they dived to 500 feet, dropped four small bombs – and started machine-gunning. Their green markings could be seen.
Those three minutes saved many lives: they gave hundreds of people a chance to take cover.
Two bombs dropped near a long queue waiting for suburban buses. One fell right on the station building.
Several buses were shattered, and the road was strewn with dead and wounded.
Until tonight the raids have not been taken seriously. The city thought it was a joke when four Jewish girls captured an Egyptian pilot shot down this morning. (Grey, 1948)
Alongside this kind of coverage – these dramatic accounts of armed conflict, albeit with the moment of levity, when the inhabitants of Tel Aviv thought the air raids ‘a joke’ – another theme is also present: that of a sense of an end of a chapter of British imperial history. In the Daily Express on May 15th, Sydney Smith encapsulates this moment and the conflict which erupts in its wake. He describes British officials taking their leave, ‘the Union Jack was hauled down at Government House and a Red Cross flag took its place. Hardly had they left when the Arabs and Jews resumed their battle for Jerusalem.’ (Smith, 1948). Compare this account of a battle with the apparently calm and dignified surroundings into which the same flag arrived in London only a few hours later (brought by plane, ahead of many officials, who made the journey by sea)
The weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack which was lowered for the last time from British Headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem early yesterday was carried in the airways terminal building at Victoria, S.W. at 12.45 am today.
The flag, symbol of the end of the British mandate, was tucked under the arm of Mr Maurice Dornan, Under-Secretary for Administration in Palestine.
With the last party of officials to leave Jerusalem – led by sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary – they had just flown to England.
The Daily Mail reporter in Haifa cabling last night said that as General Sir Alan Cunningham, last High Commissioner, left Jerusalem a solitary piper played on the roof of Government House.
Sir Alan flew to Haifa then drove to the port through heavily guarded streets.
Sir Alan stepped into a naval barge, saluted and sped to the cruiser Euryalus, while two flights of Spitfires dipped low over the water. (Daily Mail, 1948).
The Daily Mirror added more detail, again designed to emphasize the sense of imperial history. The paper reported that Mr Maurice Dorman, the official who carried the flag on arrival in London, had ‘climbed on to the tower (i.e. of the King David Hotel) and hauled down the flag.’ The report added, ‘Sir Henry Gurney said “The withdrawal from Jerusalem was done in an orderly and proud manner”’. (Daily Mirror, 1948b).
What followed was neither orderly, nor something of which to be proud.
The British were supposed to bear responsibility for preserving law and order until midnight, May 14, 1948; on several occasions they defended Jewish settlements and neighborhoods (sic), among them the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. They did not, however, attempt to prevent the advance of the Haganah or the flight and expulsion of the Arabs. (Segev, 2000: 512)
‘The flight and expulsion of the Arabs,’ is still, almost seven decades later, one of the issues which enrages Palestinians, and to which no just or lasting solution has been found. As Said argued in an essay first published in Western Newspapers in 1998 (on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Mandate, and the coming into being of the State of Israel), ‘What makes it especially galling for Palestinians is that they have been forced to watch the transformation of their own homeland into a Western state, one of whose express purposes is to provide for Jews and not for non-Jews.’ (Said, 2000: 268). If the way in which the Mandate ended, or even the fact that it existed at all, is rarely discussed in Britain now, it is not forgotten in the region. If they did not know that, correspondents travelling there to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often reminded. The experience of Channel 4 News’ Paul Mason, in the summer of 2014, was fairly typical: ‘As a Brit in Gaza, “it’s all your fault”, is a line I’ve heard a lot,’ (Mason, 2014). The end of the Mandate was reported extensively at the time it happened; remembered by journalists in this decade only in blog entries, rather than in mainstream news outlets. The correspondents who covered the end of the Mandate cannot be blamed for the relative obscurity of an era which helped to shape the modern Middle East. For they did manage, within the restraints placed upon them both by discourse and physical danger, to convey a sense of what was happening; of the longer term trends in the region. For that reason, their work merits re-reading today – especially as the greatest challenges they identify remain unsolved.
Decrying the departure from Jerusalem of Cable and Wireless (the company whose communications she used to send her stories) Hollingworth concluded ‘an important British interest has been needlessly sacrificed. There is little doubt that the Jewish State will build itself up commercially at considerable speed and provide the United States with a firm foothold in the Middle East.’ (Hollingworth, 1948b). Once again, Hollingworth knew what she was talking about – not only observant but prescient: foreseeing Washington’s rise to become the dominant outside power in the region for the remainder of the 20th century. Had there a prize for journalism on the end of the Mandate, though, it should probably have gone to the Manchester Guardian’s editorial dated 15th May 1948. Interested readers may wish to seek it out in its entirety, but one extract will suffice to show how succinctly it diagnosed the condition in which Britain was leaving Palestine
The promise to favour “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people” without prejudice to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” led us straight to the terrible conflict which is now being settled by the blood of Jews and Arabs. (Manchester Guardian, 1948).
An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author.
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[i] A British Government website in October 2014 gave the number of personnel in the British Army as 89,200. Please see https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/373115/af-quarterly_personnel_report_oct14.pdf . Accessed 27 February 2017.
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