Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Final part

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.

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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)

Conclusion

‘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).

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An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author.

Please feel free to comment below; email me at reportingconflict.com; Tweet @jmacrodgers. If you have read Headlines from the Holy Land, thank you — and please do consider writing a review on Amazon.

[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.

References

Adams Schmidt, D (1948) 200 Arabs killed, Stronghold taken. New York Times, 10 April 1948, 6.

Board, B (1946) 50 die as Jews blow up our Palestine HQ: Digging goes on. Daily Mirror, 23 July, 2.

Board, B (1937) Newsgirl in Palestine. London: Michael Joseph.

Briggs, A (1985) The BBC: The First Fifty Years. Oxford University Press.

Carruthers, S (2011) The Media at War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Colonial Film (1917) ‘General Allenby’s Entry into Jerusalem’ Available at http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/6131 . Accessed 9 March 2015

Daily Express News Service (1948) ‘Reporter Killed’. 20 May.

Daily Mail (1948) ‘Last Plane Out – Brings Union Jack Home’. 15 May.

Daily Mirror (1947) ‘We begin to quit in Jan’. 1st December.

Daily Mirror (1948a) ‘Last Appeal as we quit’. 14th May

Daily Mirror (1948b) ‘Truman Recognises State of Israel. Egyptian Troops 30 miles in’. 15 May.

Duffield, P (1946) Dateline King David. Daily Express, 23 July, 2.

Foreign Press Association (2009) 2009 Statements. Available at http://www.fpa.org.il/?categoryId=75143 . Accessed 11 January 2016.

Garrett, P. (2015) Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, first of the female war correspondents. London: Thistle.

Ghandour, ZB (2010) A Discourse on Domination in Mandate Palestine. Abingdon: Routledge.

Golani, M (2009) The End of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948: The Diary of Sir Henry Gurney. Basingstoke: Palgave MacMillan

Grey, E (1947) ‘“Holy war” is declared by the Arabs. Bomb fight between two cities. Daily Express, 3 December.

Grey, E (1948) ‘Egyptians Bomb Bus Queue. I saw them dive down.’ Daily Express, 19 May

Hirst, D (1967) Sense of involvement in Beirut. The Guardian, 6 June.

Hollingworth, C (1990) Front Line (London, Jonathan Cape)

Hollingworth, C (1948a) Arabs Shelling Jerusalem. The Observer, 11 April

Hollingworth, C (1948b) Israel will seek US financial aid. British Commercial Losses. The Observer, May 16.

Hollingworth, C (1948c) Mass Arrests in Yugoslav Army. The Observer, August 22.

Hollingworth, C (1948d) ‘Dying’ Greek Premier Sends Doctors Away. The Observer, November 28.

Hollis, R (2016) ‘Palestine and the Palestinians in British Political Elite Discourse: From

“The Palestine Problem” to “The Two-State Solution.”’ International Relations 30(1): 3-28.

Imperial War Museum Films (1946). World Pictorial News, No 275  Available at http://jiscmediahub.ac.uk/record/display/010-00001523#sthash.BR0KoaEG.dpuf . Accessed 30 January 2015.

Khalidi, W (Ed.) (1992) All that remains: the Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington D.C., Institute for Palestine Studies)

Kuntsman, A, & Stein, R 2015, Digital Militarism : Israel’s Occupation In The Social Media Age, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 19 October 2015.

Levin, H (1997) Jerusalem Embattled: a Diary of the City Under Siege. London, Cassell.

Manchester Guardian (1948) Summing Up. 15 May.

Mansfield, P (1992) A History of the Middle East.  London: Penguin

Mason, P (2014) As a Brit in Gaza, ‘it’s all your fault’, is a line I’ve heard a lot. Channel 4 News blog. Available at: http://blogs.channel4.com/paul-mason-blog/brit-gaza-fault-line-heard-lot/2094 (accessed 22 January 2016).

Pappe, I (2006) A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Philo, G and Berry, M (2004) Bad News from Israel. London: Pluto Press

Philo, G and Berry, M (2011) More bad News from Israel. London: Pluto Press

Reuters News Agency (1948) Despatch Datelined ‘Jerusalem, April 9’. Printed in The Times, 10 April.

Rodgers, J (2015) Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Said, E (1995) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin

Said, E (2000) The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. London: Granta

Segev, T (2000) One Palestine, Complete. London: Little Brown and Company

Shepherd, N (1999) Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine. London: John Murray

Sherman, AJ (1997) Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-48. London: Thames and Hudson

Shlaim, A (2000) The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. London: Penguin.

Smith, S (1948) Fight for Jerusalem. Daily Express, May 15th    

Teo, Hsu-Ming. ‘Orientalism: An Overview.’ Australian Humanities Review 54 (2013): 1-20.

Zadka, S (1995) Blood in Zion: How the Jewish Guerillas drove the British out of Palestine. London: Brassey’s.

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Blowing up the mandate: Jerusalem 1946

It shocked and shook the base of what was then the greatest external power in the Middle East: the British Empire. Seventy years on, the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem still has many lessons for journalists and diplomats working in the region. My piece in the current edition of the British Journalism Review, explains why.  There’s an extract here.     

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The aftermath of the bombing of the King David Hotel, July 1946

IT IS AN INCIDENT RARELY RECALLED TODAY. Yet if you know where to look on a wall in West Jerusalem, you will find an account that still seeks to shift blame from those who carried it out: terrorists then, heroes later – heroes who had fought valiantly to establish a state. As anyone who has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, history dominates contemporary politics in a way it no longer does in western Europe. Any British correspondent setting out to work in Gaza or on the West Bank might well find themselves asked to explain, or apologise for, the Balfour Declaration – so they had better know at least a little of what it was.

Their counterparts based in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946 certainly would have done. They were reporting from the Holy Land’s holiest city in the last years of the British Mandate for Palestine. The League of Nations had looked to the British empire to govern this contested corner of what had been the Ottoman empire. The task was not only thankless, but ill-defined, and, in its later stages, extremely dangerous. At lunchtime on that hot summer day, bombs went off in the basement of the King David Hotel, the headquarters of the British military and administrative authorities in Palestine. A whole corner of the hotel was immediately destroyed; dozens of dead buried in the ruins. Newsreel footage from the time – and now held in the Imperial War Museum archive – shows British servicemen searching the rubble in the aftermath of the attack. “Words cannot express the stark tragedy of this ghastly incident,” says the voiceover.

You can read the full piece here , and a fuller account of the reporting of the bombing and its aftermath in my latest book, Headlines from the Holy Land . IMG_1092

The corridor used by the bombers (picture from 2014) © James Rodgers

 

Reporting Mandate Palestine’s ‘Bloodiest terrorist outrage’

It was 68 years ago this week that Jewish fighters seeking to drive the British from Palestine struck a blow at Imperial power and pride. Last week I wrote a piece, based on my current research, for the New Statesman website. You can read it here, and a version follows below.

‘Of course, the problem we had in those days was the terrorists,’ explained the aged former soldier. It was late 2002, and I was visiting the U.K. – back from my post as the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip.

‘Terrorist’ was then one of the most used words in international news. Israel used it to describe the suicide bombs and other attacks it faced during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation. George Bush and Tony Blair were then preparing to order an invasion of Iraq as part of their ‘war on terror.’

The veteran of D-Day, and of the last days of Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, had something else in mind. Sixty-eight years ago this week, on July 22nd 1946, fighters of the Irgun – a Jewish armed movement seeking to drive British forces from Palestine, and hasten the creation of a Jewish state – blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel served as the headquarters of the British military and political authorities. As such, it was also a meeting place for journalists.

The entrance to the King David Hotel, 2014  © James Rodgers

The entrance to the King David Hotel, 2014
© James Rodgers

‘I owe my life, and the fact that I am able to write this story of the bloodiest terrorist outrage, to the cool courage of a British military policeman,’ began Barbara Board’s story on the front page of the following day’s Daily Mirror. Board went on to describe how as ‘a great charge of dynamite’ went off, the military policeman, who had been guarding the hotel entrance, threw her to the ground ‘and shielded me with this body.’

In the following days, reporters pieced together what had happened. The explosives, it turned out, had been placed in milk churns – and carried to an underground hotel kitchen by Irgun fighters disguised as delivery men.

The corridor used by the bombers as it is today © James Rodgers

The corridor used by the bombers as it is today
© James Rodgers

A huge military operation to find the attackers and their accomplices follows. Newspapers – outraged at the attack – follow events with enthusiastic headlines. The Daily Mail’s ‘Palestine Army to crush terrorists’ from the 25th July, as the search got underway, is typical.

Weapons are reported found in a synagogue; Tel Aviv residents are dragged from their beds in their nightwear by British paratroopers looking for the bombers.

Less than two years later, the British Mandate is over. The State of Israel has come into being. The United Nations estimate that in the war which made that possible, more than 700,000 people fled their homes in what had been Mandate Palestine.

In the decades between then and now, in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, there have been large-scale wars in 1967 and 1973; two intifadas; several attempts at negotiated peace.

Countless episodes of bloodshed, each false dawn and failure, have been covered in detail by the international press. ‘It’s very clear that Israel for sure and that this conflict in general gets vastly more coverage than anything else,’ says the Jerusalem bureau chief of a leading U.S. News organization.

From the deadly blow to British imperial personnel and pride suffered in 1946; to Europe’s guilt over the Holocaust; to international sympathy for both Israel and the Palestinians; to the United States attempts of recent years to seek a diplomatic solution, this is a part of the world with countless global connections.

‘A lot of countries, a lot of peoples, feel that they have got a stake in this story and it’s a story that they engage in, and are committed to over and above any other conflict for religious reasons, for historical reasons – you know, so many European, American countries deeply involved here over a long period of time,’ another senior member of the Jerusalem press corps told me during my trip there last month.

Journalism and history are concerned with processes of change, and now the region around Israel and the Palestinian territories is changing as never before. In history as told by journalism, Israel has been admired for its struggle for existence; criticized as the young David of a fledgling state became the Goliath of the occupation. The Palestinians have been pitied for their suffering; reviled as terrorists as the Jewish fighters of the 1940s once were.

Much has changed in the way journalists work, too. In 1948 and 1967, reporters fretted over whether bombs and bullets would keep them from a post office or telex machine. Now they worry about wi-fi, and whether they will be trolled on social media.

The journalism itself has been praised, and rubbished. Yet their fascination with the story means that journalists have been there, often travelling to places others cannot, or will not. Where, for example, have the diplomats, the policy makers, the peace envoys been in the last couple of weeks? They have not been in Gaza.

Next book: ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’

At the start of this year, I began work on my next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’.

The book is due to be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. It is the story of the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, and has been, reported — particularly by British and U.S. media. I’ll be publishing more details on this site as the work progresses.
For interviews and other research, I travelled in January to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The day before I left, I chanced to see a war memorial in my local church in west London. It revealed a link between where I was going, where I had once reported from, and where I now lived.

I wrote the story of what I found for the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’. It was broadcast on Radio 4 in the U.K., and on the BBC World Service, during the last week. You can listen to it here, and a version of the script follows.

At this time of year, the grass in the cemetery seems at its greenest – watered not by sprinklers, as in the summer heat, but by winter rain, and, unusually this year, snow. There are more than two-and-a-half thousand headstones. Standing out against the hillside, they rise in rows up a gentle slope.

The British and Commonwealth War Cemetery, Jerusalem

The British and Commonwealth War Cemetery, Jerusalem

In the distance, through trees and telegraph wires, you can see the domes and spires of the Old City of Jerusalem: the prize which brought to the Holy Land the soldiers who are buried here.

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the cemetery

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the cemetery

When I visited, a team of gardeners were weeding the flower beds which lie at the foot of the gravestones. I was looking for names I had seen in my local church in London the afternoon before my departure. Noticing a wooden cross above a book of remembrance, I had gone for a closer look. The cross turned out to have been carved from wood from the Mount of Olives. Soldiers from my area had, it seemed, served in Gaza and Jerusalem during the First World War. Having spent two years as the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza a decade ago, the connection fascinated me. So when I returned to the region last week to conduct research for a book, I decided to see if I could find their graves.

I wasn’t having much luck. Then someone behind me called out, ‘Hello! Where are you from?’ I turned to see one of the gardeners rising from his work. He introduced himself as Mohammed, and said that he had worked there since 1970. Four decades and more did not seem to have decreased his enthusiasm. His hair was white, and some of his teeth were missing – but his work seemed to invigorate him, and he had a moustache to make a patriarch proud. Had I been to other cemeteries? After I told him I had been to the ones in Gaza, we chatted about the gardener who had tended those for many years, and whom I had met when I reported on his retirement.

With Mohammed’s help, I was pointed in the direction of the graves of some of the men from my local parish. They had been killed a few days before Christmas 1917, as British forces sought to consolidate their hold on Jerusalem.  Their occupation of the Holy Land then was part of the process – the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which would see the Middle East divided by borders we largely recognize today.

British forces stayed in Jerusalem until 1948. Their commanders came to use the King David Hotel, opened in the early 1930s, as their Head Quarters. This made the building a target for Jewish fighters seeking to drive them out of Palestine. In July 1946, bombers disguised as milkmen blew up the southern wing of the hotel, killing 91 people. Today the King David hosts Presidents and Prime Ministers. Guests in sitting the lobby on my recent visit seemed casually dressed, but snatches of conversation, and ubiquitous smartphones and tablet computers, suggested they were doing big business. It is not a place for the budget backpacker to the Middle East.

I had come to learn more about the experience of my journalist counterparts in the late 1940s. Some of them had narrow escapes from the explosion. ‘It was here,’ explained Maya Morav, the hotel’s PR Manager, flicking on the lights to a basement room. ‘Now it’s a hall for conferences and meetings.’ Then it had been a subterranean kitchen: the place where the bombers left the milk churns they had packed with explosives.

Less than two years later, the British Mandate came to an end. British involvement in the Middle East, of course, did not. When you are covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a correspondent, you need to have history at your fingertips: often, more than one version of it. One of my earliest experiences in Gaza was being welcomed, and then chastised, by an elderly Palestinian refugee. Because I was British, he saw me as bearing some of the blame for events of the previous century which had left his family in a shanty town in one of the most crowded parts of the world. Perhaps he had a point. As events remembering the First World War begin this year in Europe, perhaps the real focus should be on the Middle East, where decisions taken then helped to shape Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel, Syria, and Iraq as they are today.

The entrance to the cemetery

The entrance to the cemetery

All photographs © James Rodgers 2014