Attlee cabinet was split over Palestine
ROWS BETWEEN British leaders over the withdrawal of troops from Palestine at the end of the Mandate in May 1948 have been revealed in secret government papers.
Files held by the National Archive in Kew, West London, show that as fighting between Jewish and Arab forces reached a peak in the run -up to Israel’s independence there was disarray in the government.
Some politicians and military officials, desperate to dampen the violence, suggested giving the Jews early control of Tel Aviv.
Others, including Britain’s High Commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, urged delayed withdrawal from Jerusalem to safeguard the city. Both proposals were rejected.
There were also sharp differences among the military’s top brass over whether to stage an early withdrawal.
Some suggested it was time to extricate troops while others warned an early pull-out would result in military hardware being left in the wrong hands.
These conflicting suggestions came against a backdrop of deep divisions in the Labour government of Clement Attlee. The documents show that these came to the surface during a secret cabinet meeting, also attended by chief of staff Viscount Montgomery, just a week before Israel declared its independence
Confidential minutes revealed that there was a particularly bitter attack on the performance of the army by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, following its failure to stop the Haganah — Israeli’s fledgling army — from seizing control of Haifa on April 23, 1948.
Mr Bevin said he felt “let down by the [British] army in Palestine” and deplored the “leaking” of information about the situation by the War Office
Protests from Viscount Montgomery were dismissed by Attlee, who said that “plain speaking is the order of the day in a confidential meeting”.
Mr Bevin pointed out that Haifa was the main embarkation point for British troops leaving Palestine. He said: “We should not have lost control over the perimeter of Haifa. This has allowed so many Arabs to have been driven out of the city.
“We had large forces there and it was a blow to British prestige that it appeared the Jews could do as they liked. Resolute action by the army had been needed.”
Viscount Montgomery denied the army had lost control of Haifa. It was a “big place and for some time troops there had been unsure of the date of withdrawal”.
The high command, he said, had urged withdrawal before the scheduled date of May 15.
Earlier, in a top secret cable to the cabinet, Sir Alan said: “I feel bound to say that if the Jews continue in their policy of blowing up innocent Arabs, as sponsored by the Haganah, the situation will worsen.
“I cannot say that we will not be able to extricate ourselves but it will become increasingly difficult.”
As for Jerusalem, he said, “I feel it cannotbeleftwithoutprotection.Weshould not leave it until some arrangement is made for the security of the city.”
Calm before the storm: Prime Minister Clement Attlee, flanked by Ernest Bevin, welcomes Arab delegates to the Palestine Conference at Lancaster House in London in September 1946