Posts Tagged ‘History’


Israel, Palestine and Gaza: Part IV

January 16, 2009

All the usual caveats apply, needless to say.  Comments are welcome, if non-abusive.

IV The global coalition against Israel

The current war in Gaza has witnessed a huge surge in anti-Israeli sentiment world wide. Animus toward Israel has been steadily growing for many years, and even prior to the launch of Operation ‘Cast Lead’ had achieved a level of cultural embedment that in many respects is both baffling and disconcerting. It has been particularly alarming to see how, over the past few years, the decades-long aversion to anti-Semitism has broken down over much of the western world, and classic Jew-hatred has unmistakeably re-surfaced as part of the anti-Israel discourse.

I say baffling and disconcerting because, on any objective measure, Israel hardly rates at all on the index of pure evil. During the period that Israel has been in existence, the world has witnessed nations conducting themselves in ways that completely eclipse the worst that can be said of Israel: the Soviet Union, the PRC and Cambodia, to name three.

In today’s world, atrocities by the governments of Burma, Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Congo, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Syria should totally overshadow the crimes alleged against Israel. Some of these the world has largely ignored; some it has deplored – often quite gently. But none of them have attracted the avalanche of fury that has been directed, with steadily increasing intensity, against the lonely Jewish state lodged precariously on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

Some context

Israel has done much that can be disagreed with or even vehemently opposed. Its carrying of the war against PLO terrorists to the streets of Europe was probably unwise, and it made bad mistakes, such as when its intelligence services executed the wrong man in Oslo in 1973 (they mis-identified a Moroccan waiter as Ali Hassan Sulameh, mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre).

Targeted assassinations are a repugnant instrument for a democracy to employ even against its deadliest enemies, although I can see the rationale and – almost – the need. The establishment of settlements in territories occupied as a result of war was wrong – at least morally, although many sympathisers argue that it was not technically illegal. But Israel has demonstrated that it is prepared to regard the settlements as negotiable: those in the Sinai and Gaza have been dismantled and the territories returned to Egyptian and Palestinian sovereignty. Recently Prime Minister Olmert urged the West Bank settlers to psychologically prepare themselves for the day they must return to Israel proper.

Israel has fought many wars, all of which – perhaps with the exception of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon – were forced upon it by its enemies. Three times Israel has fought off and defeated the combined armies of the neighbouring Arab states, whose war purpose was to annihilate Israel and kill or expel its citizens. No war can be conducted without major mistakes or blemishes, but Israel has committed remarkably few.

Its greatest was the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in December 1982. Although the Phalangist militia were responsible for the atrocities, the IDF commanders should have recognised the potential for such actions and guarded against them – as Israel acknowledged, through the findings of the Kahan commission. Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility and was forced to resign as Defence Minister. The number of victims at Sabra and Shatila is uncertain, but the best estimates appear to be around 500.

World public opinion has never forgiven Israel for Sabra and Shatila, but it has completely forgotten, if it ever really knew, that President al-Assad of Syria, in February that same year, massacred between 20,000 and 40,000 of his own citizens in the city of Hama in reprisal for an attempted coup. Similarly, at around the same time, the number of political prisoners estimated to have been executed by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran ran into tens of thousands. The world paid no mind. I recall Israeli diplomats bitterly remarking, even then, on the double standards that applied to Israel.

The most common charge against Israel is that it is an occupying power, which it has been since 1967 when it captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. It appears little known that Israel offered the territories back in exchange for peace almost before the echoes of gunfire had faded. The Arab answer, delivered at the Arab League’s September 1967 summit in Khartoum, was: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

Many anti-Israel bloggers and commentators commonly assert that these territories are Palestinian by right or by nature, and that in occupying them Israel is somehow preventing the state of Palestine from constituting itself. Yet during the period that Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip (1948-1967) there was never any question that a state of Palestine should be created there. Both territories were used as platforms to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, both by fedayeen supplied, armed and trained by Jordan and Egypt, and by military units of both nations. Dozens of attacks were launched in the four months prior to the June 1967 war alone. Given that, and in light of the ‘three noes’ of Khartoum, Israel could hardly be expected to return to the status quo ante.

Serious talk of a ‘two state solution’ only emerged after Israel defeated yet another annihilating invasion by Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1973, and it became clear that the Arab states could not destroy Israel by military force, which they had been determined to do since 1948.

It is a historical fact beyond any serious dispute that the Arabs could have created a state of Palestine in 1937, when the Peel Royal Commission recommended it; in 1947, when the UN voted for it; at any time between 1948 and 1967, when the Arabs occupied Gaza and the West Bank; at any time, provided that the terms did not pose an existential threat to Israel, between 1967 and 1977, when the Likud won its first electoral victory, and Israeli irredentism got the upper hand; and in 2000, when Barak offered it.

Each time, the Arabs refused.

The other major charge against Israel is that it is responsible for the current plight of the Palestinians who fled (most) or were expelled (a comparative few) from what became Israel in 1948, who along with their descendants are still maintained in refugee camps as persons of no nationality. Very few people are aware that Israel offered to take back 100,000 refugees after the War of Independence, and that the Arab states refused to allow them to do so. They would only return, the Arabs said, in the wake of victorious Arab armies.

Meanwhile, the Arab states did not allow the Palestinians to settle or gain citizenship within their borders. Instead, the UN’s Work and Relief Agency was set up to fund and run the camps, making the Palestinians refugees in perpetuity. In post-WWII world that witnessed the transfer, often forced, of millions of people – Hindus to India, Muslims to Pakistan, ethnic Germans from a re-constituted Poland, Jews from Arab lands to Israel – only the Palestinians were never permitted to settle and establish themselves in lands of refuge. The Arab states and the UN were determined that the Palestinians should remain unsettled, often in squalid conditions, as a constant weapon and reproach against Israel.

Against that backdrop, it is difficult to understand why international support for Israel (other than in the US) seems to have collapsed so comprehensively. The settlements apart, the most that can be said against Israel, it seems to me, is that it has acted on occasion with unnecessary brutality in executing reprisal raids for terrorist incursions or rocket barrages, and that its religious extremists are a pretty bad lot who hold disproportionate power in the Knesset, thanks to Israel’s foundational mistake in opting for proportional representation as its electoral system.

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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


Israel/Palestine: the 70% 70 year old solution

December 9, 2007

The problem of Israel/Palestine was solved 70 years ago. Amazing but at least arguably true. It was determined then that the establishment of two states within the land then known as Palestine was the only feasible or practicable way to resolve the murderous impasse between Arabs and Jews. Depressingly enough, that prospect seems as distant now as it must have been back then.

What has inspired this train of thought was a very interesting book I was reading over the weekend, Mandate Days, by A.J.Sherman, published ten years ago. Sherman based his book primarily on the hitherto unpublished private correspondence, records and diaries of British officers and other ranks deployed to Palestine between 1918 and 1948 to execute the Mandate with respect to Palestine conferred on Britain by the League of Nations following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

To my reading, Sherman is scrupulously fair, as unflinching about Jewish terrorism in the immediate post-WWII period as he is about Arab terrorism during the Arab Rebellion of 1936-39.

The Mandate, as is well known, was based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Over the years of the Mandatory Government, it became clear that it was impossible to reconcile the two wings of the Declaration: a national home for the Jews, and preservation of the rights of the indigenous Arabs. Yet Britain was bound by the Mandate to struggle for the achievement of both.

The British officers posted to Palestine to implement the Mandate saw clearly their task was impossible. The hatred between Jews and Arabs could, even then, be cut with a knife. It smouldered below the surface like an inextinguishable fuse.

The British didn’t care for the Zionists by much. Accustomed to the more amenable “natives” of India and Kenya (even if such existed only in their imaginations), they found the Jews — especially those born in Palestine — hard, brash, arrogant, pushy. Most of all, and quite unlike the Arabs, they lacked the proper spirit of deference. They didn’t know their place. To the upper-middle and upper classes of the Empire, effortlessly possessed of a sense of their own social and cultural superiority, this was both puzzling and offensive. In the words of Reader Bullard (see this post), the unintellectual, sport-loving British found a natural affinity with the Arabs, and reserved their distrust for the “intellectual, complicated Jew”. Sherman’s correspondents are almost universally pro-Arab.

From the first, the British on the ground tried to turn Palestine into the kind of colony they were familiar with, complete with hunts (for jackals!), parties, “at homes” and the endless social round. They seemed not to understand that the Mandate did not confer upon them imperial powers, but only administrative responsibilities.

For their part, the Zionist Jews were uninterested in becoming the subjects of Empire. They busied themselves, instead, with fulfilling their part of the Mandate — the construction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They bought land from absentee Arab landlords, usually domiciled in Damascus or Cairo, drained the swamps, rescued the sand dunes and, as even the British grudgingly recognised, really did make the deserts bloom. They built a state within a state, with its own schools, language (Hebrew), administrative machinery and taxation to fund their education and health infrastructures. Undoubtedly this was in preparation for the formal establishment of a Jewish state (as opposed to a mere “homeland”).

Meanwhile, the Arabs of Palestine too had their aspirations. Like Arabs elsewhere, they longed for national self-determination. This they had been promised by the British in return for their help in defeating their overlords, the Ottomans. By the late 1930’s, Syria and Iraq were on the verge of achieving it. But in Palestine, the terms of the Mandate made it impossible, for their land had, perforce, to accommodate a national home for the Jews. This the Palestinian Arabs hated above all else. They watched the increasing pace of Jewish immigration and land acquisition with fury and fear, as their land was sold from under them, and the remorseless logic of demographics foretold they would soon be a minority in their own land. The dream of self-determination would be gone like drifting smoke.

The British in Palestine, torn between pro-Zionist policy directives from Whitehall and a profound local conviction that both the Mandate and the Declaration upon which it was based it were profoundly mistaken and unworkable, tried hopelessly to keep the irreconcilable parties apart. Violence erupted throughout the 1920’s, with a series of massacres perpetrated against Jewish populations of Hebron and and other towns in 1929, and culminating in a serious, territory-wide uprising by the Arabs beginning in 1936, urged on by the anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini.

It was then, in 1937, that the solution to Israel-Palestine was proposed: partition. Lord Peel was appointed to lead a Royal Commission into the causes of the Arab Rebellion. The Commission’s report is a model of impartiality, diligence, good sense and good governance. The summary of the report is here.

In short, Peel concluded that the Mandate had failed, that the differences between the peoples were irreconcilable, and that the only feasible solution was the establishment of two states, one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews.

The problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question which of them in the end will govern Palestine must be Neither. No fair-minded statesman can think it right either that 400,000 Jews, whose entry into Palestine has been facilitated by the British Government and approved by the League of Nations, should be handed over to Arab rule, or that, if the Jews should become a majority, a million Arabs should be handed over to their rule. But while neither race can fairly rule all Palestine, each race might justly rule part of it.

Seventy years later, now as then, it remains the only solution. And seventy years later, now as then, the Jews accept it, and the Arabs do not.

Other highlights of the Peel Commission’s findings are below the fold. They’re rich in insight and well worth reading.

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The villain of the peace

December 2, 2007

David Kopel at The Volokh Conspiracy describes the history of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), set up in 1949 to assist the Palestinians who who fled or were expelled from Israel, but which has only served to ensure they maintain their refugee status in perpetuity.

Established in December 1949, UNRWA began operations the next May. The UN Agency’s job was to help settle the Palestinians who had left Israel because of the 1948-49 war. According to General Assembly resolution 302(IV), UNRWA’s mandate was that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.”

Over half a century later, UNRWA’s annual budget is nearly half a billion dollars, including nearly $150 million from US taxpayers. As UNRWA’s website explains, “In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate.” Stated another way, UNRWA’s bureaucratic existence depends on making sure that the Palestinian refugee problem is not solved, and that “international assistance for relief” is not terminated at an “early date,” or ever.

Well worth a read, as are the comments.

One commenter, Prof. Ethan, makes some important observations, which echo an argument advanced by Bernard Lewis prior to the recent Annapolis conference:

The Palestinian refugee situation is hardly unique, neither in suffering nor in scale.

There was a lot of these events at the end of WWII and during decolonization:

About ten million Germans had to flee their centuries-old homes in eastern Europe in 1945. A million died; another million were raped. They were not welcomed in western Germany, and there was much suffering. None of these people or their descendants is blowing up discos in Danzig.

About seven million Hindus had to flee from what became Pakistan (and an equal number of Muslims fled from India). No Hindus are blowing up schoolyards filled with students in Islamabad.

The number of Palestinian refugees resulting from the Nakbah of 1948 is about 750,000. Bernard Lewis is right: the number of Jewish refugees expelled from Muslim states between 1948 and 1960 was larger: about 850,000. These Jews were forced to leave everything behind (uncompensated). Some Muslim is enjoying their property even as we speak (perhaps this illegally-seized property could be a source of compensation for the Palestinians!). None of these people is blowing up supermarkets in Marakesh or Aden.

About 300,000 Greeks were intentionally forced from Egypt by the Nasser government policies 1953 and 1960–in order to Egyptianize and Muslimize Egypt; ethnic and religious cleansing to the max. Most of these Greeks had come to Egypt in the early 19th century; but some had been in Egypt for 2,300 years. The refugees weren’t happy, nor was it easy for them to assimilate where they ended up. They had to leave everything behind (uncompensated); some Muslim is enjoying their property as we speak. No Greeks are blowing up buses in Cairo.

Millions of Greeks were forced from western Turkey in 1922; the ethnic cleansing of Greeks by the Turkish government went on as late as 1955 in the area called “Pontus” on the south coast of the Black Sea; the refugees remain bitter and when a Greek “Pontic” refugee girl won a gold medal in the Olympics in 1992 the bitterness in Greece was very public. None of these Greeks or their descendants is blowing up restaurants in Ankara.

About 50,000 Hindu Indians were driven from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin in a program of ethnic and religious cleansing. Their property was confiscated (uncompensated). None of these people or their descendants are intentionally shooting rockets at civilians in Uganda.

When I pointed out these parallel tragedies to a Palestinian, his response is revealing: “None of these people is as honorable as the Palestinians are.”

I wish I was making up this psychologically revealing story. I assure you that, unfortunately, I am not.

As far as I can see, there was no just solution to the problem of Palestine in 1947 — at least, not one that would be just to both sides. A solution just for the Jews involved an injustice to the Palestinians. And the opposite was equally true.

The British were tired of of the burden of their Mandate, and wanted out. The Jews had fought for the establishment of a Jewish state against the Mandate, and their struggle was not going to stop. The Arabs did not accept the Jews in Palestine, and their struggle was not going to stop. The only possible solution was what the UN in fact proposed: two states, one for each people. The Jews accepted, the Arabs did not.

And still do not.


“The gift of Israel to the world”

November 30, 2007

On 29 November 1947 the United Nations approved Resolution 181, which brought Israel into the world. It sought also to create a contiguous Palestinian state, a move rejected by the Arab nations.

Today (or yesterday? I get confused by time zones), Dan Gillerman, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN and a hugely impressive orator, delivered this speech to mark the 60th anniversary of that decision.

(With thanks to Aussie Dave. Video here, commencing at 1 hr 35 mins.)

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

I know these words evoke a different voice and a different precedent. But with all seriousness, Happy Birthday. On this day, 60 years ago, the Jewish State was born out of the historic 1947 General Assembly session, where two extraordinary gifts were given to humanity: the gift of a modern state for the Jewish people and the gift of Israel to the world.

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The Khan, the virgin, and the pot of gold

May 27, 2007

Fundamentalist Muslims look back at Mongol secularism as a scourge. But, although U.S. rule in Iraq has produced a constant flow of refugees, particularly religious minorities, out of the country, under Mongol rule Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Buddhist immigrants poured into the newly conquered Iraq to live under the Great Law of Genghis Khan. It was said that during this time a virgin could cross the length of the Mongol Empire with a pot of gold on her head and never be molested.

Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Now that’s what I call civil society.

Seriously, though. Think about the kind of institutions and mechanisms that would be needed to secure that kind of result.

Another version — even more apocryphal — stipulates a naked virgin.


We’re talking about a journey from Kiev to Peking, after all.


Warsaw ghetto uprising, 1943

April 20, 2007

Norm Geras reminds us that yesterday was the 64th anniversary of the 1943 uprising of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw.

Heroic failure.


The memorial in Warsaw.