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 Woodhead Commission (1938). The Peel Commission stands out as the most important of these commissions because in its final report, issued in July 1937, the commission recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. This was the first time that a British political body had officially endorsed the idea of a Jewish “state” in Palestine rather than the more limited idea of a Jewish “national home.” The report also recommended that more than 200,000 Palestinians be transferred from their homes to accommodate the new Jewish state.
The British government in London sent the Peel Commission to Palestine as a response to the Great Palestinian Rebellion that had broken out in April 1936. Although Palestinians had engaged in organized resistance against British rule before 1936, this revolt was widespread, highly organized, and sustained. Arab fighters from outside Palestine had also joined the struggle. The British army in Palestine had employed brutal measures to crush the revolt, including mass arrest, house demolitions, and executions. The commission arrived in the first week of November 1936, during a lull in the fighting. Lord Peel, who chaired the commission, had served in the early 1920s as Secretary of State for India. The other commissioners included two senior colonial officials: Laurie Hammond, who had served as governor of Assam in the late 1920s and chairman of the Indian delineation committee in 1935–36; and Morris Carter, who had served as governor of Tanganyika Territory in the early 1920s and chairman of the Kenya land commission in 1932–33. The committee’s legal expert was Harold Morris, who was then president of the Industrial Court in London. The Middle East expert was Horace Rumbold, a former diplomat who had served in Cairo and Tehran. The academic on the commission was Reginald Coupland, Beit Professor of Colonial History at Oxford. Coupland was an Africanist and an editor of the journal The Round Table from 1917 to 1919. The commissioners stayed in the King David Hotel, but the majority of the testimony was heard in a British government building that had formally been the Palace Hotel on Agron Street in the Mamilla district of West Jerusalem.
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 Arab Higher Committee (AHC), formed in April 1936, was the official representative of the Palestinian people. The AHC made it clear that they would not give testimony to the commission unless there was a suspension of Jewish immigration at least for the duration of the commission’s visit to Palestine. The British government did not meet this demand and the AHC boycotted the commission during its first few weeks in Palestine. In January 1937, however, the AHC lifted its boycott after being persuaded to do so by King Abdullah, Nuri Said, and Ibn Saud (often referred to at the time as “the Arab Kings”). Members of the AHC then gave public testimony to the commission. Among them were Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, Muhammad Izzat Darwaza, Awni Abd al-Hadi, and Jamal al-Husseini. This public testimony is available today in Arabic and English. It makes fascinating reading. It shows Palestinian leaders doing everything they could to make a detailed and precise case for their rights. But at the same time, Palestinian leaders told the commissioners how little trust they had in the (supposed) British commitment to “fair play.” This lack of trust stemmed from the fact that previous British commissions of inquiry had not led to a reversal of the basic injustice of British rule in Palestine. The Palestinian testimony was published in the Arabic language press to inform the Palestinian people, many of whom had paid a price for rebelling against British rule and suffered from brutal British counterinsurgency methods, of what exactly their leaders were saying to the commissioners.
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 Galilee (who was assassinated in September 1937), to push for the idea that the final report should recommend partition as the only viable solution to the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
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 Jewish Agency and the Zionist Organization were consulted on the borders of the map before the report was issued; they were able to persuade the British to include specific areas of interest within the borders of the Jewish State, including the Huleh Valley. Upon release of the report however, the Zionist leadership was divided about how to react and agreed to approve the principle of partition but not the specifics of the Peel partition map. The Palestinian leadership were outraged at the report and condemned the partition recommendation. They were firmly committed to setting up an independent Palestinian state in all of Palestine and were not prepared to give away the most fertile areas of that state to European colonizers.
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 1948 War and the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians, but the moment of the Peel Commission can be seen as a tipping point, when the Nakba became the most likely end to the British occupation of Palestine.
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-Hut, Bayan Nuwayhid. 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).