At the close of the First World War, under the mandate system of the League of Nations, Great Britain acquired Palestine (which also included Trans-jordan) and Iraq (Mesopotamia). In 1932 the British government voluntarily gave up its mandate over Iraq, which became an independent nation. At the time, the chief problem confronting Britain in the Middle East was the hostility of the Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain announced her intention to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Zionist (Jewish nationalist) activities resulted in an influx of Jewish immigrants into the Holy Land. The Arabs, who outnumbered the Jews ten to one, had been enraged by the Balfour Declaration. They protested vigorously against the increasing flood of Jewish immigration and against the steady acquisition of land by the Jews. The hostility of the two groups was intensified after 1933, when Nazi persecution drove thousands of German Jews to seek entry into Palestine.
In 1939 the British government turned its back on the Balfour Declaration and, in a White Paper, announced the following as its new policy: (1) termination of the mandate and establishment of an “independent Palestinian State” at the end of ten years; (2) limitation of Jewish immigrants to a total of 75,000 for the next five years; (3) a complete cessation of Jewish immigration there after. Jewish leaders at once denounced the new plan as a betrayal. Outburst of violence were common.
The extension of Nazi conquests in Europe during the Second World War and the hopeless condition of the remaining Jewish minority in Europe sharpened the problem of Palestine. The British government considered the Zionist agitation for an independent Jewish state in Palestine as a threat to her imperial position and remained adamant in her policy of restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine. The Arabs, under the leadership of King Ibn Saud of Arabia and the Arab League, placed pressure on the British government to continue the policy of the White Paper. Such pressure was strengthened by threats to terminate valuable oil concessions in the Middle East desired by both the British and Americans. In 1946 an Anglo-American Committee was set up to study the condition of the Jews in Europe and recommend relaxing immigration quotes to Palestine.
When in 1948 the British mandate terminated, the separate state of Israel was proclaimed under the auspices of the United Nations. The neighboring Arab states in the Middle East – Egypt, Trans-jordan (Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – refused to accept the sovereignty of Israel, and they sent armed forces into the territory of the new state. For eighteen months, war raged. The Israelis were successful in expelling the invaders. Armistice agreements were signed between Israel and the Arab countries, while the United Nations continued to study the problem. Although Israel maintained control over the territory granted her, intermittent border attacks and reprisals continued between the new states and her Arab neighbors. Wholly unresolved was the question of the future of approximately one million Arabs who had fled from Israel when warfare first broke out and who were temporarily in camps in Arab territory near the Israel border. The United Nations was unable to find a permanent basis for peace in the Middle East.