During the period of Mandate rule, the British organized “commissions of inquiry” whenever Palestinians took up arms against British colonial rule and Zionist settlement. These commissions were tasked with ascertaining the cause of what the British referred to as “the unrest,” in order to make policy recommendations that would ameliorate the situation. Commissioners often spent several weeks in the country and interviewed hundreds of people, including British officials living and working in Palestine and leading members of the Jewish and Palestinian communities. Four British commissions visited Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s: the Haycraft Commission
(1921), the Shaw Commission
(1929), the Peel Commission
(1936–37), and the
The British government in London
sent the Peel Commission to Palestine as a response to the
During the months following November 1936, the commission listened to hundreds of hours of testimony, in public and in camera (also known as the “secret sessions”). The official terms of reference (set before the commission left London) were
to ascertain the underlying causes of the disturbances which broke out in Palestine in the middle of April; to enquire into the manner in which the Mandate for Palestine is being implemented in relation to the obligations of the Mandatory towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively and to ascertain whether, upon a proper construction of the terms of the Mandate, either the Arabs or the Jews have any legitimate grievances upon account of the way in which the Mandate has been, or is being implemented; and if the Commission is satisfied that any such grievances are well-founded, to make recommendations for their removal and for the prevention of their recurrence.
But transcripts of the secret testimony reveal that the commissioners in fact ranged far beyond their terms of reference, including asking witnesses what they thought of partition as a possible solution.
Procedurally speaking, the commission did not request of individuals that they give testimony. Anyone could apply to give testimony, as long as they abided by the application procedures and deadlines. The
The Palestinians did not participate in the secret sessions, although the procedures of the commission allowed them to apply to do so. One of the reasons for this was that the names of all those who participated in the secret sessions were published; the Palestinian leadership did not want to be seen to negotiate behind closed doors with the British, at a time of great suffering for the Palestinian people. By contrast, Zionist leaders gave copious testimony in the secret sessions. British officials working for the Palestine Government at all levels also gave secret testimony, as did Britons living and working in Palestine but not connected to government.
It was in the secret sessions that the details of partition were worked out. Reginald Coupland, the Oxford academic on the commission, was the most fervent supporter of partition. He worked closely with British officials based in Palestine, including Douglas Harris
, irrigation advisor to the Mandate Government, and Lewis Andrews
, commissioner for the
The final report was published on July 7, 1937. The recommendation for partition was briefly presented at the end of the report, along with a partition map. The
The recommendations of the Peel report were not implemented at the time. The Woodhead Commission, which visited Palestine in 1938, studied closely the logistics of partition and decided that it was not feasible. But for the Zionist leadership, the Peel report was a clear indication that the British were prepared to support (at an official level) the principle of Jewish statehood in Palestine. And the partition map included in the Peel report was later used as the basis for the partition map approved by the United Nations
in 1947. In other words, it took ten more years for the partition of Palestine to be realized, through the
Golani, Motti. “The Meat and the Bones: Reassessing the Origins of Partition in Mandate Palestine.” In Laura Robson and Arie Dubnov, eds., Partitions: A Transnational History of Territorial Separatism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019.
al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayheid. Al-Qiyadat wa al-mu’assasat al-siyasiyya fi Filastin, 1917–1948 [Leaderships and Political Institutions in Palestine, 1917-1948]. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1981.
Palestine Royal Commission Report. London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, National Archives, 1937.
Parsons, Laila. “The Secret Testimony to the Peel Commission (Part I): Underbelly of Empire.” Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 1 (Autumn 2019): 7–24.
Parsons, Laila. “The Secret Testimony of the Peel Commission (Part II): Partition.” Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 8–25.
Sinanoglou, Penny. “The Peel Commission and Partition, 1936–1938.” In Rory Miller, ed., Britain, Palestine, and Empire: The Mandate Years, 119–40. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010).