Israel, Palestine and Gaza: Part III

January 8, 2009

This is the third post in this series. Here is the first; here is the second.

I wanted to write this post because in many of the discussions around the blogosphere I’ve engaged in over the past few days, I was struck by the level of ignorance displayed, particularly by those on the anti-Israel side, about the roots of the conflict between the Arabs and Israel. Many seemed to think it began in 1948. It didn’t. Its origins go back at least a generation before that.

This post has the same provisos which introduced the last: it’s quite likely I don’t know what I’m talking about. My own understanding is far from perfect and I’m happy to be corrected on errors of fact.

III The roots of Arab rejectionism

No two narratives of the Middle East are the same, and the conflicting accounts of the Zionists and the Palestinian Arabs seem to describe different realities, even different worlds. But in both accounts, there is one constant. From the very beginning, with almost no exceptions, for good reasons and bad, the Arabs rejected the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the Jews in Palestine. To all intents and purposes, that remains true today.

To understand that position, it is necessary to go back more than a hundred years. In too many of the blog debates I’ve engaged with on this subject, animus towards Israel is matched only by ignorance of the origins of the conflict. It is impossible to understand the current conflict without understanding its history, and most particularly, its century-old roots.

When the 19th century gave place to the 20th, the lands of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard constituted a dusty, neglected province of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks cared little about the place, except that it served, as it had for millennia, as the land bridge between the Caucasus and Egypt, with its fertile Nile valley. Through centuries of Turkish dominion, the Middle East had changed little from medieval times; indeed, in many ways it still resembled the Biblical age. The scientific, agricultural and industrial revolutions of the west had passed to region by. So too had its political and intellectual transformations. The Turks were incurious about the west, when their invasions had been halted, except to acquire modern weaponry. The western world modernized without the Ottomans, and without the Middle East.

There were no nations in the Levant. What we now call Israel or Palestine was divided by the Turks into administrative districts: the Vilayet of Beirut and the Mutasarriflik of Jerusalem. East of the Jordan lay the Vilayet of Damascus. As the names suggest, administration loosely hubbed around the major cities. There was no formal system of governance, as it is understood in the modern world, beyond the mechanisms for tax collection.

The region remained in the Middle Ages. The abundance of produce and rich fecundity of the region noted by Roman authors such as Josephus decayed under the Arabs, then under the Turks. At the end of the 19th century, it was widely but sparsely populated. Farming practices remained archaic. Two decades later, the British officials of the Mandatory government greatly admired the way the fellaheen clung to their centuries-old agricultural practices. But they were deeply inefficient. Farming implements had changed but little since Biblical days. Little if anything was known of irrigation or fertilization, and crop rotation was unheard of. Fields were worked to exhaustion, and then the cultivators moved on to the next, and the next. Each Palestinian community needed 100-150 dunams  – a dunam is a square kilometer –  to sustain itself. (In contrast, the later Jewish settlers were able to sustain themselves on 10 to 15 dunams.)

Most of the arable land was owned by absentee landlords, who commonly resided in Beirut, Cairo or Damascus. The fellaheen working those lands paid rent equivalent to as much as half their annual gross yield. Life was neither easy nor pleasant for them.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, into this impoverished, backward outpost of the Ottoman Empire there came first a trickle, then a river and then a torrent of strangers. They came from far away; they spoke a strange language, practiced a different religion, and behaved very differently. They wore different clothes. They brought with them the artifacts of contemporary science and modern learning, things the Palestinians had never seen before. They claimed the right to live on the land along with the Arabs due to a history of which the Arabs knew nothing.

The Palestinians knew about Jews. Jews had lived among them for centuries, either because they had fled to Palestine during the long years of European persecution, or had continued to live there since Roman times. Jews had even helped to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders. But these Jews, these strangers, were different. They were Zionists.

The strangers transformed the landscape. Along the Vale of Esdraelon, known to the Arabs as the valley of death, there were in 1920 four struggling Arab communities. Though a fertile valley, stretching from Acre on the coast to the Jordan valley in the east, poor management of land and water had created a malaria-infested wasteland. Fifty square miles of the valley were purchased by the Zionists for the extortionate price of almost one million pounds.

By 1925, when visited by the first British governor of the Mandatory, Sir Herbert Samuel, he found something very different. Twenty Jewish villages had been established, with their own schools. The swamps had been drained and the land afforested. Wooden huts had been replaced by cottages. An active trade in fishery and dairy products had been implemented. Groves of eucalypts had been planted and crops of cereals and vegetables were ripening on the hillsides. What once had been a frowning desolation had been transformed into a smiling countryside.

You would have to be extraordinarily sanguine in your expectations of human behaviour to think that those original Arab villagers would have watched all this without fear, fury and resentment.  And those, indeed, were their emotions.  Most of the Palestinian Arabs felt the same.

It went on. Most of the land bought by the Zionists was from absentee landlords, who were delighted to charge high prices for what they regarded as uninhabitable swamps and deserts. But in some cases, the Arab farmers were displaced by these land purchases. Over the years, hundreds of Palestinian families were evicted from lands they had farmed for generations by Jews who waved incomprehensible deeds of title under their noses, and proclaimed the land was now theirs. It was not theft; but to the fellaheen, illiterate almost to a man, it surely must have seemed so. Arab anger at Jewish immigration and land purchase grew and grew.

Meanwhile, Palestine – or the land which became known as Palestine – had for the first time in many centuries become the site of contest between the Great Powers. The First World War had broken out, and Turkey had taken the side of Germany. To defeat the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian, it was necessary for the British to win the support of the Arabs against their Turkish masters.

They were successful in enlisting to their cause Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, head of the Hashemite dynasty of the Hedjaz and Nezd on the Arabian peninsula (which later, with the expulsion of the Hashemites by ibn Saud, became independent as Saudi Arabia). The Arab Revolt was facilitated by Lawrence of Arabia, who, like most of the British officer class, much admired the manners and asceticism of these desert warriors, not least, perhaps, without putting too fine a point on it, because of the invisibility of women.

The Arabs of Palestine did not join the Revolt, nor assist the Allied powers in any way, which noted British diplomat Sir Reader Bullard found ‘strange’. The Zionists, for their part, contributed hundreds of volunteers to the Allied war effort, including many who served through the Gallipoli campaign. Much of the best intelligence provided to the Allies came from Jews living behind Turkish lines.

By November 1918 the British under Allenby were pursuing the Turks through the region they then called Philistia (so designated in Wavell’s memoirs). On 9th December Jerusalem fell, the city’s keys were surrendered, and four hundred years of Ottoman rule over the region came to an end. A British interim administration, known as the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, remained in place until the British formally took up the Mandate of Palestine, as agreed by the League of Nations, on June 30th, 1920.

In all, some ten million Arabs had been freed from Ottoman dominion by the British, and nearly two million square miles liberated. Palestine accounted for just 11,000 of those. But it was Palestine where the problems were going to be, and where they remained.

The League conferred responsibility for administering the Mandate on the British, because it was based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917. This called for the establishment of a Jewish National Homeland in Palestine, with the proviso that such should not violate the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish indigenes of the region.

Reluctantly, worn out by a war that had seen the best of its manhood killed on the fields of France and elsewhere, the British wearily took up the baton. It was the last thing they wanted. At least on the ground, the British officials quickly came to the conclusion that the Mandate was unworkable, and that its two wings could not be reconciled. Almost universally, as their letters and diaries show, they were on the side of the Arabs, and against the Zionists.

Arab discontent was growing. Even by 1920, they were rioting in Palestine against Jewish immigration and land purchase. But there was another basis for their anger. With good reason, they believed the British had betrayed them.

In 1915, there occurred an exchange of letters between the British High Commissioner in Cairo, McMahon, and the Sharif the Mecca, the pre-eminent leader of the Arab world, and ruler of the Hedjaz and Nezd. This exchange became known as the McMahon Correspondence. In it, the British promised to return all Arab lands conquered by the Turks to Arab rule – with one exception: the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. McMahon, however, was ambiguous in some of his letters, and he left the Arabs with the impression that all their claims would be met. That belief continued throughout and after the war.

Unbeknownst to the Arabs, in 1916 the Allies made a secret agreement, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which provided, amongst other things, that an international zone would be established in Palestine at the war’s end. It was not, therefore, to be returned to the Arabs.

The Arab world found out about this when the Bolsheviks, who had taken over Russia in a revolution and withdrawn from the war on the Allied side, discovered a copy of the agreement in the Tsarist archives and published it. This, together with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, seemed to the Arabs to be an unambiguous indication of betrayal by Britain. Unlike their neighbours in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan and Arabia, the Arabs of Palestine were not to gain their own state, after all.

None of this, in my opinion, vitiates the right of the Jews to a homeland in Palestine. Their long and bitter history of persecution wherever they settled entitles them to return to the land of ancient longing.  To my mind, Lord Arthur Balfour best summed up the morality of both the Jews’ claim and the British accession to it in a speech he made in 1920:

So far as the Arabs are concerned, I hope they will remember that it is we who have established an independent Arab sovereignty in the Hedjaz. I hope that they remember that it is we who desire in Mesopotamia to prepare the way for the future of a self-governing , autonomous Arab state, and I hope that, remembering all that, they will not grudge that small notch – for it is no more than that, geographically, whatever it may be historically – that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.

It remains the case, I believe, that until the Palestinian Arabs learn to ‘not grudge that small notch’, the Middle East conflict will continue.  But in 1920, how impossibly difficult that must have been for the Arabs to accept.  It asked too much of their collective psyche, just as it would have been too much to ask the Jews to abandon Zionism.  From here on, psychological factors become as important as the bald historical narrative in understanding Arab rejectionism.

One of the most interesting individuals of the days of the Mandate and the years that followed the War of Independence in 1948 was Sir John Glubb (known as Glubb Pasha). Glubb was the commander of the Arab Legion in Transjordan, the only effective army in the Arab world at that time. He was as pro-Arab as it was possible even for a member of the British officer class to be. He was totally opposed to the creation of Israel, and fought against it. He dedicated his life to the service of the Arabs, first in Iraq, and then for King Abdullah in Transjordan, for a single reason: in his own words, he loved them.

Because of his affinity with and deep affection for the Arabs, Glubb’s assessment of their psychological outlook, at this point in their history, is especially interesting. It cannot be ascribed to racism or anti-Arab sentiment.

The Arabs, he said (and he did say it), were like children.  They thought emotionally, not logically.  They could not conceive of a politics that was about the art of the possible, wherein you determined what was possible, set your political objectives accordingly, and negotiated towards them.  For them, it was all or nothing.

Glubb gave two particular examples. Throughout the Mandate, it was the position of the Mufti of Jerusalem (who had been appointed to that position by the British) and of the Arab High Council that since no European Jew should have been allowed to settle in Palestine, not one European Jew should be allowed to remain. They were unable to see that this solution was neither tenable nor possible.

And, Glubb contended, at the time of the first ceasefire in the 1948 war, the Arabs were in a relatively favourable position, and, had they chosen to negotiate, they could have got for themselves a better deal than the UN offered in the 1947 partition proposals. But the Arabs wanted all of Palestine, or none of it; so they attacked, were defeated, and lost it all.

All or nothing. That was the heart of it. How far that was true of the Palestinian Arabs in general is open to question. Recently declassified documents from the Haganah archive indicate, at least according to some researchers, that the Arab population at large would probably have settled for co-habitation. It was their leaders who would not, the same leaders who fled from Palestine after November 1947, prompting the normally sympathetic British to remark in some disgust that they had ‘run like rabbits’.

This was the historic and continuing failure of the Palestinian leadership. Arguably over the heads of the people they claimed to represent, the Arab leaders replied, either in the open or behind their hands, to every deal offered, every settlement proposed: it must be all or nothing.  And that mindset became ever more hardened as Israel twisted the knife by inflicting military defeat after military defeat. As Glubb has described, the Arabs had long allowed themselves the belief that they constituted warrior race of great and ancient lineage – although, as he also pointed out, that had never been true of the Arabs of the Levant.  The humiliation of repeated defeats was unendurable.

Two years ago, in a revealing interview with a German magazine, Ahmed Sheikh, the editor-in-chief of Al-Jazeera, had this to say, in explaining why Israel was to blame for everything that had gone wrong in the Arab world:

It’s because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.

Throughout the decades that followed their defeat in 1948, ‘all or nothing’ was the default position. Any Palestinian leader who suggested an accommodation with Israel was assassinated. Oslo made little difference, despite lip-service to the ‘two-state solution’, other than to donate billions of dollars to a corrupt kleptocracy. The PLO never removed from its charter the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel, as the Accords required. In broken English, Arafat said things that could be construed as accepting the right of Israel to exist. In Arabic, he said the complete opposite, mindful of the fate of the long line of other ‘accommodaters’. It has been reported (with what truth I’ve not been able to determine) that Arafat openly admitted that he rejected Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 because he would have been assassinated if he had not.

Before the Annapolis conference in 2007, Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, could not even then – on the eve of what could have been a turning point in that ‘absolutist’ mindset, had the Palestinians but wanted it – allow himself to acknowledge the existence of a Jewish state. All he would concede was that there were areas of the Levant with a lot of Jews in them.

Today, Hamas and Hizbollah both embody the contemporary articulation of the essentialist Arab position defined decades ago by Glubb Pasha, in their slogan:

Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.

Whatever the people of the West Bank or Gaza might think in their hearts, and perhaps wisely keep to themselves, the position of their leadership remains as it has throughout the generations.  It is the signature, not of their future victory, but  of their own abject failure.

All for nothing.


Next: The global coalition against Israel



  1. Rob, I hear Quadrant is on the look-out for pieces like this. Don’t hide your light under the proverbial bushel. Keith’s had a damnable, just damnable week and the poor chap will be grateful to receive your forensically well-researched and persuasive screed and be desperate, simply desperate to publish it poste haste.

    Trust me on this.

  2. Thanks, I’ll consider it. Glad you liked the piece, and found no reason to object to it.

  3. No reason at all, dear chap.

  4. Well, that’s splendid.

  5. Good-oh

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