When Prince William arrives in Tel Aviv on Monday for a trip that will include time in Israel and the West Bank, he will become the first-ever member of the British royal family to undertake an official visit to those places. For a region with a long history of controversial British involvement, that’s a significant milestone.
William’s spokesperson says the visit is “non-political,” in keeping with the royal family’s ceremonial constitutional role. But for people across the region, the visit will carry political undertones, not least because — alongside engagements to play soccer with schoolchildren and help refugees in the West Bank — he is scheduled to meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. And the visit comes at a time of increased tensions, just months after deadly clashes on the Gaza border and President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
It is an area of the globe that cannot escape its history, a history in which Britain has played a major part. So, on the eve of what the British Foreign Office hopes will be a bridge-building tour, here is a short guide to Britain’s complicated role in the modern history of the region.
The Balfour Declaration
It was an agreement signed over 100 years ago, but the 1917 Balfour Declaration is still cited today as one of the defining factors in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The declaration, in the form of a letter from the U.K. foreign secretary James Balfour to a prominent Zionist, Lord Rothschild, committed Britain to supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The Zionist movement had grown in the late 19th century as advocates spread the idea that the Jewish people, too long persecuted in Europe, formed a nation that should have its own state, and that such a state should be located in its Biblical homeland of Israel. At that time, that land was under the control of the ailing Ottoman Empire, which would collapse following defeat in World War I. In 1916, as it became clear that such an outcome was approaching, Britain had struck a secret agreement with France over how to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s levantine territories. It was in this climate that the Balfour Declaration was signed.
By 1920, the drawing-up of the British Mandate for Palestine, by command of the newly established League of Nations, formalized British control over what is now Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This meant that the ideas expressed in the declaration could be turned into reality.
While the British now ruled the area, the Mandate explicitly gave Britain the responsibility to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Mandatory Palestine, as it became known, came into existence in 1923; though Israel did not yet exist, hopeful Jews quickly began arriving from Europe. They joined a small Jewish population that had lived in the area under Ottoman rule and that had already begun to swell with early waves of Zionist immigration; in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the region was about 8% Jewish.
However, while the victorious powers had been deciding what to do about Ottoman territory, the Palestinian people were not consulted. When new arrivals said they had been told the land was to be theirs, the people who already lived there were understandably hostile. Already by 1929, disputes over land — specifically Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall — were so deep they resulted in violence. In one deadly week that August, rioting Arabs murdered over 100 Jews, while over 100 Arabs were killed by British police trying to suppress the unrest.
The White Paper of 1939
Fast forward to 1939, and Britain realized it had a problem largely of its own making: nothing it could do would satisfy both the Arabic and Jewish populations.
A plan to divide the land into two states was rejected by both sides; between 1936 and 1939, an ongoing Arab revolt demanded a complete end to Jewish migration to Israel. In response to this unrest, British lawmakers issued the White Paper of 1939, which limited Jewish migration to 75,000 over five years.
This attempt to mitigate the problem was unfortunately timed to coincide with Hitler’s increasing persecution of the Jewish people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Britain’s policy infuriated Jews, who continued to migrate regardless of the quotas, and also infuriated Palestinians, who saw no guarantees of long-term self-determination. “If immigration is continued,” the paper stated, “the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East.”
In 1947, with immigration quotas still in existence, the SS Exodus, a boat carrying holocaust survivors who intended to migrate to Mandatory Palestine, was boarded by British forces, who killed three and returned the rest to refugee camps in Europe.
Having had their plan for dividing Mandatory Palestine into two states rejected, the British government decided in the White Paper of 1939 that an independent Palestine, jointly administered by Arabs and Jews, should be established within 10 years. The sharing of power, it said, should be done “in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded.”
Britain tries to disengage
The Second World War forced Britain to put the issue of Palestine to one side soon after the White Paper was issued. But when peace arrived in Europe, the question could no longer be ignored.
After the war, a Jewish insurgency in Mandatory Palestine put pressure on the British. In 1946, militants bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Britain’s administrative headquarters, killing 91 people. Prince William is scheduled to stay at the hotel during his trip.
In 1947, a war-weary Britain decided to pull out. It handed responsibility for deciding the future of Mandatory Palestine to the United Nations, which had recently been established. (The decision to pull out of India was made the same year.) The U.N. came up with a plan to divide the territory, but it fared little better than Britain had. Yet, even though the U.N.’s plan to divide up the territory was rejected by Arab side — it was seen as too generous for offering 56.5% to the Jewish side, which is far less land than is covered by the current borders of Israel — Israeli politicians moved ahead with it on their own anyway, and in May of 1948 publicly issued a declaration of independence.
The Arab side was outraged. The following day — May 15, 1948 — Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invaded Israel. With British-Israeli relations still soured following the insurgency, the Arabs enjoyed tacit British support. The Royal Air Force engaged in skirmishes with Israeli planes, but Britain never fully committed to the war. Nor did its support extend to doing anything to help the roughly 700,000 who were forced to leave their homes during the war, in what has become known as the Palestinian Exodus or “Nakba,” meaning catastrophe. (Throughout the 1920s, much of the violence in Mandatory Palestine was perpetrated by Arabs against Jewish settlers. By the 1930s that balance had reversed.)
At the end of ten months of fighting, Israel had increased its land area by a third — meaning that its borders now extended to land originally allocated to Palestinians by the U.N. — and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, while Jordan controlled the West Bank. Those borders stood until 1967.
After the war, Britain recognized Israel as a state. The Palestinian government, which had just been set up to govern Gaza, did not receive separate diplomatic recognition from Britain — and never has.
Britain’s lingering role
Britain had, officially at least, left the area. But it also left a mark.
Palestinians resented Britain for parceling out their land to Israel, while Israelis resented Britain for what they saw as halfhearted support of a project that the U.K. had once promised to see through.
And even as a distant observer, no longer directly involved in the management of the region, Britain’s role remained complicated in the years that followed. Britain sold Israel weapons, for example, which would be used in a series of wars that led to the expansion of Israel’s power and territory. And such controversial arms sales continue, despite the fact that in 2016 Britain supported a U.N. resolution that stated that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank was in “flagrant violation” of international law.
On the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration last year, Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed Netanyahu to London and said that she was “proud of [Britain’s] pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel.” She also affirmed Britain’s “renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” And, following violence at the border in April and May of this year, she called for an independent inquiry into what she called “deeply troubling” use of force by Israel. Those riots, at the Gaza border, ended with the deaths of 123 protesting Palestinians and left only one Israeli wounded.
However, soon after, new figures revealed that British arms sales to Israel had reached a record high in 2017.
The press release announcing Prince William’s visit refers to “The Occupied Palestinian Territories,” the internationally recognized umbrella term for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which are occupied by Israel. In the Hebrew version of that press release, however, the Prince’s office dropped the word “occupied.” Seventy years after Britain learned the difficulties of the region the hard way, the discrepancy shows that as much as Prince William might like, nothing in the region is “non-political” — especially if you represent the United Kingdom.
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