Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 August 2017
THE first time a world war erupted, famine and extreme deprivation struck Greater Syria. Conservative estimates put the deaths from starvation at half a million. Tripoli, Junieh, Haifa and Acre ‘underwent years of extreme deprivation’. Incidences of cannibalism were reported as the hungry perished on the streets. These were the memories that haunted Palestinians at the start of the Second World War. They also haunted colonial officials, who faced the economic consequences of their brutal containment of the Great Revolt (1936–39) and its innovations in guerrilla warfare. By 1938 the signs of economic devastation from closed workshops, increased unemployment and the spectre of famine were everywhere. The onset of war compounded these conditions with further shortages and inflation. Colonial officials hoped to confront these issues with ‘extreme sensitivity and caution’. By 1940 everything from sugar to shoes was out of reach. Blockades and the effort to secure arms shipments meant prices soared, shops were emptied and trade routes closed.
To manage these crises, the British colonial government developed new institutional technologies of rule such as ‘the calorie’, austerity schemes such as rationing and new institutions such as the Middle East Supply Centre. Officials initiated a broad austerity regime (beginning in 1939) and an ambitious rationing scheme inaugurated in 1941. Throughout the war British colonial officials introduced new conceptions of development, poverty, health and productivity. Their failures reveal the politics of basic needs and disrupt the colonial panopticon that tempts us with its coherence.
Settler Colonialism and Revolt
Palestinians survived the economic duress and famine of the First World War only to face a new regime – colonial control – dubbed ‘mandatory rule’ by the League of Nations. In 1919 the Covenant of the League of Nations divided the world into ‘advanced nations’ and those peoples who were ‘not yet able to stand by themselves’. Based on the principles of ‘well-being and development’, the Covenant sought to provide ‘tutelage’ to these not-yet-peoples of the former German and Ottoman territories, which the document further divided into a three-tiered hierarchy (A, B, C) based on potential for self-rule. The Covenant graded the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as A- territories, whose independence could be provisionally recognized.