It seems that Israel and Palestine are only out of the news when there is a major conflict elsewhere. Anti-Semitism this, apartheid that. But I wanted to know who started it. Was it Jews? Or Palestinians? So, I made a documentary film, The Tinderbox, to investigate. Spoiler alert – the answer was surprising – this is on Britain.

At the risk of sounding very Jewish, we need to talk about… British colonialism. What do recent or ongoing wars in the Middle East have in common? Yemen and Iraq are former British protectorates. And Syria is a former French protege following the Sykes Picot and San Remo Agreements with Britain (and partners).

And what about more general threats? Iran is perennially on international lips as a potentially destabilising force. Many have forgotten that Iran was the first democracy in the Middle East. But when Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, Iran’s first elected leader, tried to ensure the country benefited from its own oil, the USA and Britain orchestrated a coup.

Let’s back-track for a moment and consider what the real implications of colonialism are beyond its dictionary definition of “control by one country over another and its economy”. Apart from power and profit, what colonialism really signals is that we (white Europeans and people of European descent), are better than you (everyone else). And here, Britain has form.

It’s easy to groan and say, “it’s just history.” But to quote the iconic American author William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And that’s where Britain’s Palestine Mandate comes in. When Britain, led by General Allenby, marched into Ottoman-governed Jerusalem in November 1917, there were around 60,000 Jews, and around 600,000 Muslims and Christians. By the time Britain left Mandatory Palestine in May 1948, there were around 600,000 Jews and around 1.5 million Muslims and Christians. It takes a while for those numbers to sink in.

Britain entered Palestine during the First World War. To do this, the British had fought alongside Arab tribesmen, to whom they had promised Arab Independence. Although no one native to Palestine was involved in that negotiation, Palestine was included in the deal. Until Britain found a new cohort of allies.

In Russia and Eastern Europe, where Jews had been mercilessly oppressed in pogroms, a movement that had been growing slowly for about eighty years, gained ground. Zionism, as expressed by Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, advocated for the establishment of a Jewish national home in the Holy Land.

Whether it was the lure of further allies, or biblical promises for fervent Christians like Prime Minister Lloyd George, in November 2017, Minister Arthur J. Balfour sent the Balfour Declaration. It offered Jews a national home in Palestine. The fact that the majority of people living in Palestine were not Jewish, was ignored.

There was also another problem. Edwin Montagu, the only British Jewish Minister at the time, felt that the Balfour Declaration proved that the British Government was anti-Semitic, and would encourage other Western nations in anti-Semitism: “Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom,” he wrote. “If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman.”

Most British Jews agreed with him. Montagu went on to say that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and that Zionism would inspire Western countries to get rid of their Jewish citizens. Was he right? When I look back at the decades that followed, I shudder. 

At a time when short-term governmental fixes are back in vogue, The Tinderbox reminds us of the consequences of one such fix. The film juxtaposes the story of the British Mandate against the lives of a range of Palestinians and Israelis today, highlighting the ongoing consequences of political short-termism. Under Article 22 of the League of Nations Mandate, Britain, and the predecessor to the United Nations, pledged to mentor locals to form their own governments, while preventing exploitation. The British were there to build good native governance and to keep the peace. 

It’s hard to know how they believed a Jewish national home in a country where the vast majority of people were non-Jewish, would allow them to deliver. Did the British government, or Zionists for that matter, think the local population would respond well to such a programme, which included largescale immigration of European Jews to Palestine? How would we have responded had that happened here? Causality matters.

Britain lived up to her mandatory obligations for the Jewish ten per cent of the population. But they did so by assuming that European Jews were better equipped to run a Jewish homeland than those who’d been living in Palestine, often for centuries. But as tensions and sporadic violence remain a feature, this claim is highly questionable. Then there’s the ninety per cent, the Muslim and Christian majority of Palestine. To them, Britain’s mandatory obligations remain starkly un-delivered. Britain and her international partners need to own this. If Israelis and Palestinians are to escape persistent cycles of violence the international community needs to unite to rectify its mistakes.

The region had its problems under Ottoman rule but widespread inter-religious fighting was not one of these. It was only under Britain’s rule that such violence spiralled. Britain’s flip-flopping, supporting one side and then the other, did not help. The Mandate was under-funded and did not have the manpower to keep the peace effectively.

But could anyone have kept such a peace? The overlapping layers of racism are eye-watering: the idea that the local multi-religious community would be unable to govern itself without white saviours; Jews as early as the 1890’s mis-treating Arab workers as reported by Zionist icons; European Jews treating their Middle Eastern counterparts with contempt; disdain leading to widespread violence between Arabs and Jews; and, as foreseen by Edwin Montagu, the British Liberal politician who served as Secretary of State for India between 1917 and 1922, racism amongst Western nations against both Arabs and Jews.

As Edward Mandell House, a US diplomat and advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson wrote in his diary: “(Balfour) is inclined to believe that nearly all Bolshevism and disorder of that sort is directly traceable to Jews. I suggested putting them… in Palestine, and holding them responsible for the orderly behaviour of Jews throughout the world. Balfour thought the plan had possibilities.”

But it’s not just racism and racist violence that soared to new heights during the Mandate. Methods of policing earlier used in India and Northern Ireland, made their way to Palestine under the supervision of Sir Charles Tegert: fortresses, dogs, torture, and counter-terror laws making whole Arab villages responsible for terrorism, were deployed in 1937. Many such initiatives are still used there today.

Mandatory laws covering everything from forestry to property rights also remain in use in Israel. This includes current disputes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, where Mandate-era property rights are being invoked to evict Palestinians. Yet the corollary to these claims, rights conferred during the period of Jordanian rule over Palestinians, are nowhere to be seen.

When, in 1944, Lord Moyne was assassinated by Zionist paramilitary group, the Stern Gang, followed two years later by Irgun blowing up British government headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the writing was on the wall. The British backed down, making plans to withdraw from Palestine before finishing the job. This was the ultimate inequity, and it is hard to miss the echoes in the West’s recent hasty exit from Afghanistan.

A lot has changed in the Holy Land since then but violence continues to spiral. Given the role that Britain, and indeed, the international signatories of the League of Nations played in allowing this situation to occur in the first place, and then to grow, surely the onus is on us to fix this? While we cannot turn back the clock, the right to equal human rights and self-government for Palestinians is a century overdue. And as we’ve seen in other countries where united international pressure has been applied, if there is the will to deliver this, there will surely be a way.

Gillian Mosely is a BAFTA-award-winning Jewish filmmaker. “The Tinderbox” is her directorial debut and will be in cinemas from March. Visit for screening details

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February 2022, Main Features

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