HC Deb 28 February 1940 vol 357 cc2057-60
Mr. Attlee (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he has any statement to make regarding the issue of regulations controlling the transfer of land in Palestine?

Mr. M. MacDonald

Yes, Sir. The High Commissioner for Palestine has been authorised to issue regulations controlling the transfer of land from Arabs to non-Arabs in certain areas. These regulations are being published in the "Palestine Gazette" this afternoon, and will be deemed to have come into force on 18th May, 1939, when the last Statement of Policy was issued. As, for reasons connected with the international situation, the Council of the League of Nations has not yet been able to discuss the last report of the Permanent Mandates Commission, His Majesty's Government have furnished the Council with a copy of the regulations, accompanied by explanatory memoranda, in case any of its members should wish to ask that the Council should be convened to discuss this matter. The letter to the Secretary-General of the League, with copies of the regulations and explanatory memoranda, are being laid before the House in the form of a White Paper, copies of which will be in the Vote Office at 4 o'clock.

Mr. Attlee

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the action of the Government, in making themselves the judge in their own case, in taking action contrary to the Permanent Mandates Commission's decision, and in disregarding the Council of the League of Nations, will cause very wide mistrust of the Government, and a very wide feeling that, instead of acting up to their obligations under the Mandate, they are flouting the authority of the League and international law?

Mr. MacDonald

We are not disregarding the Council of the League of Nations. We recognise fully the position which the League Council occupies in relation to the administration of the Mandate for Palestine, and it is for that very reason that, as I have already announced, we have communicated to-day a copy of these regulations to the Council, and have indicated that we are fully prepared to attend a meeting of the Council, to discuss the matter, if the Council so desires.

Mr. Attlee

Why is action taken now, and the League Council presented with a fait accompli? Why have the regulations not been held up until it can be determined by the League of Nations whether they are in accord with the Mandate or not?

Mr. MacDonald

Two courses were open to His Majesty's Government. The first would have been to publish these regulations in draft and to suspend their coming into operation for an indefinite period, until the Council had had time to consider them. If I may be very frank with the House, for many reasons the Government would have preferred to follow that course; but we are faced with a delicate situation in Palestine, and there were certain practical objections to that course, which made it extremely undesirable to follow it. The second alternative was to publish these regulations and let them come into operation at once, but to inform the League Council of them immediately, and, as I say, to express our readiness, if the Council so desired, to attend a meeting to discuss them; and if there were such a meeting, and if the Council expressed any view upon them, we should be bound to give most serious attention to that view, whatever it was. As between those two alternatives, we have adopted the one which we thought right in all the circumstances, which is certainly not one which ignores the Council in any way.

Mr. Amery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that misgivings on this subject are not confined to one side of the House? If he is anxious about the creation of a delicate situation, does he not think that he is going to create an even more delicate situation by his action now, and a yet more delicate situation if the League should afterwards decide that his action is not in accord with the terms of the Mandate?

Mr. MacDonald

I fully recognise, and the Government do, that this is a matter upon which all parties in the House are divided; and the Government do not in any way underestimate the very sincere feeling, held in all parts of the House, on both sides of this very difficult question. I think the House will recognise that whatever course we might follow would be attended by certain disadvantages. We have had to weigh up those disadvantages, one against the other, and we have taken the line which we think is the least disadvantageous, and which does recognise all our obligations to the League Council and other bodies concerned.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

Seeing that it is nearly 10 months since the White Paper was published, and that since then the only impartial authority to which it has been referred has expressed the opinion that it is contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the Mandate, would it not have been better, rather than to have faced the League with a fait accompli, as the Government are now doing, to have postponed for one month, or perhaps two months, the bringing of these land regulations into operation, so that the League Council could have considered them without being faced by this action on the part of the Government?

Mr. MacDonald

We took those considerations into account, and I have told the House very frankly that, for many reasons, we should have preferred to follow that course; but in our judgment, and in view of the situation in Palestine, we felt that, in the present circumstances, the course that we have adopted was the wiser and better one.

Major Cazalet

Why has the right hon. Gentleman chosen this particular moment, after six months of war, and six months of peace in Palestine, for the first time for the last six years, when all sections of the community are working loyally with the Government in that country, to introduce a measure which will exacerbate Jewish opinion, not only in Palestine, but throughout the whole world?

Mr. MacDonald

I think the whole House recognises the way in which both communities in Palestine have co-operated with the Government, and with each other, in these six months of war, and the whole House would wish to pay a tribute to the people in Palestine for the way in which they have assisted us during these six months. If I may answer my hon. and gallant Friend in one sentence, I would say that it is because the failure to introduce measures of control of land transference in Palestine any longer might have prejudiced that peace, that we have decided upon this course.

Mr. Attlee

In view of the gravity of the action taken by the Government, and owing to the entirely unsatisfactory explanation by the Secretary of State, I beg to give notice that we shall put a Motion on the subject on the Paper.

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