The British received a Mandate over Palestine from the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference, which incorporated the stated goals of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Of course, the British had made other promises. In exchange for their instigation of the Arab Revolt, which proved crucial to defeating the Ottomans, the family of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, were given substantial control over the lands newly freed from Ottoman hands. the Sharif's son Abdullah was given the Eastern part of the British Mandate of Palestine, Transjordan, while the Sharif's other son Faisal became the King of Iraq. Hussein himself became the King of Hejaz and claimed sovereignty over all Arabia, but was eventually overthrown by his opponents: the House of Saud.
There are important implications to this history. The Zionists were not marching into lands that were under the political dominion or control of the Arabs. Indeed, there had not been Arab control over Palestine in 400 years. In the decades since Israel's founding, Palestinian Arabs have lamented the role the British played in controlling Jewish immigration into Palestine and their supposed siding with the Jews and helping them found their state. In reality, the British, after their initial support for Jewish sovereignty west of the Jordan river, quickly reneged on their promises and took many actions to aid the Arabs at the expense of the Jews. The formative moment was the appointment of Hajj Amin al-Husseini as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and de facto leader of the Arabs west of the Jordan River. Ironically, this appointment was made by Governor of Palestine Herbert Samuel, a British Jew.
Husseini was vehemently anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-British. He saw himself as the leader of the Arab state, as the new Caliph. Soon after his appointment by the British, Husseini changed sides and flew to Berlin to meet German leader Adolf Hitler. He would form strong relationships with several famous Nazis: Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Goebbels, Henrich Himmler and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Husseini saw his chance for Arab sovereignty over Palestine with a Nazi victory, and his dreams of an Arab state under the Nazi sphere of influence died with the British victory over Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corp as El Alamein.
While Husseini was still in control, he incited a series of riots in 1923, 1929 and most famously, from 1936 to 1939, during which hundreds of Jews, Arabs and British died. The British, however, following a policy of appeasement that would end disastrously at the Munich Conference a few years later, attempted to placate Arab concerns and al-Husseini's boisterous and violent behavior by curbing Jewish immigration. In 1939, after the riots finally ended, the British government issued the White Paper, which curbed Jewish immigration to Palestine, restricting Jews' rights to buy land and most importantly shelved the idea of a Jewish state in favor of a binational state in which Jews and Arabs would govern "according to their proportion." With the significant reduction in Jewish immigration, the White Paper sounded the death knell for a Jewish State in Palestine. The restrictions on Jewish immigration became particularly deadly when Jews fleeing Auschwitz and other concentration camps were turned away at the gates of Palestine to be killed back in Europe (after infamous the Evian Conference, no country agreed to take Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust).
In many ways, the next years of history reflect what both communities perceived as a joint betrayal. The Jews saw the British repudiate their 1917 promise and responded with a concerted program of illegal immigration, continued political activity and an eventual turn to violence. Jewish groups such as Irgun and Lehi began to target British forces, and to the extent they attacked civilians, to terrorism. While Hajj Amin al-Husseini fled Palestine after the end of the riots, he continued to incite and direct activities there. He returned to the Middle East in the late 1940s and began to make preparations for the end of the British Mandate, the formation of an Arab state west of the Jordan river, and the slaughter of all Jews in Palestine. For the next few years, Jewish and Arab forces consolidated until May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared an independent state of Israel and the 1948 war began.
Two very interesting patterns emerge here. The first is that the Arab Riots of 1936-1939 began a continuing pattern wherein Western powers have rewarded Arabs for their violent behavior by caving in to their needs. Indeed, it was the British appeasement policy that emboldened al-Husseini and other leaders to continue their violence, knowing that it was the best way to extract concessions from the British. Since then, Arab nationalists in the Middle East have discovered that rioting, war and terrorism are the most effective way to get concessions from European powers, especially when couching such acts in the guise of anti-colonialism. The best contemporary example is, of course, the Arab desire to return to the 1947 Partition Plan. The Arabs unanimously rejected Partition in 1947, launching a campaign to destroy Israel and liquidate the Jews. They missed their chance for an Arab Palestinian state, and continued to wage a 60 year campaign of violence. Those 60 years of violence toward Israel have actually improved the Arabs' negotiating position, now many states support their desire for a state and argue that Israel must remove Jews from Arab lands as a precondition to peace. Israel has been pressured to give away land to the Arabs despite the fact that the Palestinians refuse to even acknowledge the Jewish right to self determination. The rest of the world sits idly by and applies pressure on Israel as though Israel was the beneficiary of special treatment by the British or other Europeans and were improperly given land for their home, which must now be rectified by stripping away land from the Jewish State.
The second interesting feature is that we assume that the Jewish state was ripped from an Arab state or Arab homeland. As previously noted, there was no Arab sovereignty over Palestine for 400 years. To the extent that there was an Arab majority in British Mandatory Palestine, 70% of the Mandate was used to create a state that ended up having 100% Arabs and 0% Jews: Transjordan. The idea of creating a second state for the Arabs of the British Mandate arose primarily because the Arab leaders in Jerusalem were not willing to submit to the Hashemite leaders in Transjordan (who were foreigners from Hejaz). Indeed, except in Saudi Arabia, where there had already been two attempts to create a Saudi State, and Egypt, which had become a British Protectorate and eventually an independent state in 1922, Arab nationalism did not arise in Palestine until the Jews arrived and until al-Husseini began to foment it. In many ways, Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism in that part of the world came about at largely similar times. At the time of the first Zionist Congress, only Saudi Arabia had truly made major strides toward becoming independent of the Turks.
This is a lot of history...but why is it important? We are bombarded with imagery about the conflict and with discourse that frames Jews as foreign invaders stealing land from a place that would otherwise have been a proud and flourishing Arab state. Indeed, we are taught to believe that but for Zionism, Palestine would have existed as a state. And indeed, that might have been so. But the simpler fact is that the Arab leader from Palestine did nothing to endear themselves to either the British or the Ottomans, while the strategically thinking Hashemites from Hejaz catapulted themselves into power in Jordan and (until the Ba'ath Revolution) Iraq. We cannot sit and blame the failings of the Arab nationalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s on Jews, we can blame it only on their complete unwillingness to compromise with the Zionists or the British or their unwillingness to bring about change in Transjordan to allow Palestinian Arabs to control their own destiny, the way the Iraqis and Syrians overthrew British imposed Hashemite monarchies. It's much easier to blame the Jews than look into the past and understand their own flawed path, but unless we are willing to examine how we got to where we are today, we will have no idea how to move forward.