Notes from the 1995 RSGB Jewish Student Peace Process Tour
An overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to 1948
In 1995, in, sadly, more optimistic days for peace in the Middle East, I went on RSGB's first Jewish Student Peace Process Tour of Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. Having recently rediscovered the notes I took at the seminars on the programme, I have decided to blog such of them as are not completely overtaken by later events, as they remain interesting. This is the first of these.
Disclaimer: All views expressed (except in square brackets) are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is, further, not guaranteed.
The following information derives from the work of Walter Laqueur (b. 1921), an objective source cited by both Jews and Arabs.
1908 was the year of the first violent conflict between Jews and Arabs, in Jaffa, at the Jewish festival of Purim. Prevously Jews had coexisted mostly okay with the Arabs—in Arab countries Jews and Christians had second class citizenship.
Now, whilst the Jews and the Palestinians go back in the area to the same time, Palestinian nationalism does not go back as far as Jewish nationalism. Zionism created Palestinian nationalism.
What distinguishes the Jews (along with the Celts and Armenians) is that after their kingdom was destroyed, they maintained a common nationality. It was in 135 CE, after the Bar Kochba Revolt, that the Emperor Hadrian first used the term Palestine [renaming Judaea after the Jews' hated ancient enemies, the Philistines]. The Jews reverted from calling their land "Judaea" to using the Biblical term eretz Israel (the land of Israel); the Arabs took to using the term "Palestine".
It is important to note the continuity of Jewish presence in the four holy cities (Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron) since the start of the exile. On the other hand, the Arabs' claim to have no nationalistic feelings and belong to a Greater Arabia is also wrong. The Arabs living in Israel were fellaheen ("peasants"), who, like the Jews, did not own their own land. Until the seventh century, the fellaheen lived on land of the Romans. From the seventh century onwards they lived as serfs on lands owned by the invading Arabs from Saudi Arabia (absentee landlords).
This created a paranoia in both peoples—the Jews were landless and persecuted, losing both Israel and [much later] Spain. In the sixteenth century, following the expulsion from Spain, the Sephardim came to the four holy cities and lived together with the Arabs—both under the rule of the Ottomans. Both Jews and Arabs were second-class citizens; all the Turks were interested in were taxes, and bribery, and favouritism.
Occasionally the Sephardim tried to revolt (e.g. Shabbetai Tsevi), and the Turks would put the revolt down. The Turks persecuted the Arabs more, even though they were also Muslim. The Arabs entered a decadent period and declined.
By 1908 there had been a Turkish presence for nearly four hundred years, and they still showed no signs of getting out. This period saw the advent of Jewish nationalism—Zionism. Initially the Turks were not unduly upset—until the Arabs caught the idea of nationalism from the Zionists.
In 1908 violence broke out—both peoples were beginning to look at the other as a threat to their existence, as regards land. This was [then] a purely Jewish-Palestinian problem, distinct from the [later] Israel-Arab world conflict.
In 1917, the Turks were expelled by the British—General Allenby and Lawrence of Arabia—to the glee of both Jews and Arabs. The Sykes-Pikot Agreement divided up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France.
In 1918 there was a meeting in Paris between leading Jews and Arabs. Representing the Arabs was Emir Faisal, the titular head of the Arab world, from his HQ in Damascus—Syria was then the cradle of Arab nationalism. He also represented the Palestinians, who then considered themselves to be part of southern Syria.
Representing the Jews was Chaim Weizmann, a left-wing Zionist, and physicist [later to be president of the State of Israel]. He was an intellectual, which is why he was chosen to represent the Zionists.
These two signed a document together which called for Arab-Zionist cooperation to end all colonialism, and Arab recognition of an independent Jewish homeland in the area of the British Mandate [of Palestine], in return for Jewish guarantee of Arab well-being.
The British did not like this, and nullified the agreement, preventing all further meetings unless under British aegis, which meant no more meetings. It also meant Britain had declared itself anti-Zionist.
In 1922 Britain, in the person of Winston Churchill, wanted an ally in the area so they invented a country, Transjordan [modern-day Jordan], by partitioning Palestine. This meant problems for both Jews and Arabs.
Now, at the time the British Empire's biggest concern was India, and the British were desperate to control the Middle East, as it linked three continents. Hence, both Jews and Arabs didn't have a chance. Both the British and the French fostered hostility between Jews and Arabs to prevent further Faisal-Weizmann agreements. The Jews and Arabs would have fought anyway—but the British/French/American policy of "divide and conquer" would exacerbate any problems.
Faced with such resistance, the Kurds gave up [their struggle for self-determination]. The Jews did not.
In 1938 came the fifth, and most notorious White Paper, which nullified the 1918 Balfour Declaration [in which Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, had declared his support for an independent Jewish homeland in Palestine]. But in any case the Balfour Declaration did not have the backing of the entire British government, and was not regarded by subsequent British governments as binding: in 1919, and again in 1922, Winston Churchill delcared the Balfour Declaration null and void.
The 1938 White Paper declared the following:
- No more than five thousand [Wikipedia: fifteen thousand] Jews were to be allowed into Palestine per year. (At least one hundred thousand Jews would go on to die because Britain turned them back to Nazi Germany, because the Brits allowed deportees from entry into Palestine to be interned in Cyprus.)
- After five years an independent Arab state was to be created, leaving no room for the Jews.
From this time the Jews declared all-out war on the British. Underground Zionist movements—primarily the left-wing Hagana [Defence] and right-wing Irgun—smuggled Jews into Palestine, and attacked the British; if caught people-smuggling, the British would turn them back or even fire on them.
From 1935 the Palestinians were also at war with Britain, as they perceived the British to be planning to leave Palestine, which would imply the creation of a Jewish state. The Jews, however, were fighting the British as they perceived them not to be leaving! By 1948 there was all-out three-way civil war.
In 1947, the UN, the successor to the League of Nations which had awarded the Mandate of Palestine to Britain in the first place, attempted to deal with the Mandate, as the British were then giving up with what Churchill called their "pain in the crotch"—though this would mean the loss of Asian trade, and the Suez Canal. (The British also gave up in 1947 their "Jewel in the Crown"—India.) This ambivalence resulted, on the 29th of November 1947, in the British abstaining on a vote over the future of Palestine.
On the 14th of May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared Israeli independence, and the rest of the Arab world was sucked into a conflict that has lasted, on and off, to the present day.
The UN had voted in 1947, on the creation of:
- A Jewish state.
- A Palestinian state.
- An international Jerusalem.
Ben-Gurion, with 95% of the Zionist vote behind him, accepted this. (Menachem Begin did not, and that was the end of the Irgun.)
The Palestinians were divided fifty-fifty.
Now, if the Arabs had accepted this proposal, it would have meant peace there and then. The main Palestinian factions at the time were the Husseinis, an extremist Palestinian family violently against Zionism, and the more tolerant Nashashibis.
What actually happened in 1948 was that Jordan swallowed up the land allocated for the new Palestinian state. In contravention of international law, it annexed it, an act recognised only by Britain, and another creation of the UK—Pakistan, a state created to divide Indian nationalism. [Hmm, this take is arguable].
Why did Jordan do this? King Abdullah (I) had his own ambitions to be head of the Palestinians—though no Palestinians recognised him as such as he was a Saudi!
There then followed what Israel calls its War of Independence, and the Palestinians call al-Naqba "the catastrophe"; as a result of which (in an mirror of the India/Pakistan conflict, but on a smaller, though louder, scale), were created two streams of refugees. In India/Pakistan there were thirty million Muslims fleeing India, and ten thousand fleeing Pakistan; in Israel/Palestine there were 600 000 Palestinians fleeing Israel, and 140 000 refugee Jews, 110 000 fleeing from Iraq and 30 000 fleeing from the West Bank. [This total does not include the much larger number of Jews who had to flee from other Arab countries in the ensuing years.]
The Jews were kicked out by the Jordanian army, from Hebron, East Jerusalem, Nablus and Jenin. The Jewish army—the IDF—in turn kicked the Arabs out of Lod (which they called Lydda), Ramle, and all the Arab villages in the Jerusalem corridor. The Jews had to flee Iraq due to anti-Jewish rioting from 1941.
At least on the Jewish side there was an attempt to moderate the situation. The Hagana tried to get the Arabs to stay—e.g. in Haifa—but an Arab village near Haifa was destroyed and the Arabs freaked and ran. The same thing happened on the opposite side in Hebron: after the massacre of the Sephardi community there in 1929, they too fled.
Ben-Gurion attempted to put a brake on anti-Arab actions. In 1948 members of the Irgun and Stern Gang attacked an Iraqi base outside Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion had ordered them not to; and that he would do so with his men [the Hagana, which from now on, as the Israeli Defence Force, was to be the only Jewish army]. They defied him and killed six hundred Arabs. The next day Ben-Gurion publically apologised and sent a telegram to King Abdullah calling it an atrocity and putting a price on the head of the person responsible—Menachem Begin. But there was no equivalent on the Arab side—King Abdullah never apologised for the massacre of Sephardim in East Jerusalem. And whilst the Jews never wished to expel the Palestinians, the same could not be said for the other side.
So much for the Palestinians, but the rest of the Arab world used the conflict for their own ends, using both Jews and Palestinians as pawns.