The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – Yet Another Attempt For Understanding: Part 1 – The Early Days
This is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A conflict easily raising emotions nearly everywhere around the world. I have been in steady contact with a friend of mine in the UK, a fierce fighter for minority rights – may it be LGBTIQ* rights or immigrant rights. Still following public debate in the UK a bit, I know that the UK perspective is coined by its past and the misdoings during the time of the British Empire. As the League of Nations gave Britain a newly created de-facto colony called Palestine as a mandate, Palestine and thereby what would 38 years later would become the state of Israel are also seen through the lens of the Empire’s atrocities (I will dig deeper into this point later on).
As I am not British but German, my perspective differs. It is not coined by the Empire’s misdeeds, but by the claim „dass Auschwitz nicht noch einmal sei“ (that Auschwitz shall never be repeated again, Theodor W. Adorno). I think the British debate largely to be bordering on antisemitism and coined by severe misinformation, whereas my friend thinks my positions to be excusing large atrocities committed by Israel. I will try to show that many twists and turns in the in fact terribly difficult history of Israel and Palestine are forgotten, repressed and turned around. By showing that, hopefully a more clear picture will emerge.
Zionism as a observable political force within Europe’s Jewry started in the late 19th century. The Austrian Theodor Herzl was one of his founding fathers. It propagated Jewish settlement in those areas that were seen as the historic homeland of Jews, i.e. the roman provinces Jews were expelled from in 80 B.C.
It spread all over Europe and the US but up until the Nazis taking over power in Germany, World War II and the Shoa, Zionism was a minority position amongst Jews worldwide. Still, small numbers of European Jews (who were, by the way, not read as white by Europaean racists and antisemites, but as a non-white „parasite race“) settled in Palestine under then Ottoman rule.
The reason being most European Jews disapproved Zionism was their comprehensible argument that Zionists helped the case of Antisemitism by helping to evict Jews from Europe, thereby trying to make it Jew free instead of helping the emancipation of Europe’s Jewry. Early Zionist leaders mostly were aware that Palestine at the time was not an empty land but a land populated with Arab people. Therefore many of them propagated a distinguishable Jewish community in Palestine, not necessarily a Jewish state. The latter notion was propagated largely only in later decades.
We will now turn away from Europe and take a look at what today is Israel and Palestine, but at the time, in the 1860s, was the Ottoman province of Syria – to be more precise the sub-provinces of Nablus, Akkon and Jerusalem. Around 700.000 people lived in all of then Syria – mostly Arabs of Muslim faith. This started to change soon.
In several waves Jews from all over Europe left their former homes because of rising antisemitism, pogroms and other atrocities. Most of them fled to the North and South Americas, a much smaller number to today’s Israel and Palestine. They founded Tel Aviv and other settlements and generally tried to live in good spirits with their Arab neighbours. Most Jewish organizations of the time did not favour a Jewish state but at best some kind of cultural autonomy. The situation in the area also included hostile acts from both Jewish and Arab communities, but was on a whole, peaceful. As Jewish settlements grew, more Arabs also began to settle in the area as it became more wealthy.
In 1920, Britain obtained Palestine als a mandate from the League of Nations, thereby betraying Arab leaders. During the Great War, Britain hoped for Arab support against the Central Powers, i.e. the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. In exchange they presented the Arabs the prospect of one united Arab nation, freed from Ottoman rule. Instead, Britain and France divided up Arabia, tailored new mandate areas which later became Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq etc. This, understandably, lead to tensions in the Arab world. But that was not all: in 1917, Lord Balfour appears on the Middle Eastern stage.
On November 2nd 1917 Lord Balfour, then British foreign secretary, declared Britains Middle East policy to be in accordance with the Zionist World Organization. This meant that in what would soon become the British colony of Palestine a national homestead for Jews should be established – while preserving the rights of the non-Jewish population. The British did not do so because of a special sympathy for the Zionist movement, but because of the simple fact that they had intelligence that Germans and Ottomans were also in talks with the Zionists. Both sides tried to use them as a tool against the enemy. After the war, in 1922, the Balfour declaration became part of the League of Nation’s mandate for Palestine.
In the beginning, the Balfour declaration was not opposed by all Arab factions and leaders. Faisal I., short term king of Syria and son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and Hashemite king of Hejaz, declared in 1919 that Jews and Arabs are „related by blood“ and that there would be no conflict by character. He is quoted in the Jewish Chronicle saying that the Arabs demanding freedom would be not worthy of it if they would not also welcome the Jews back home. He described the Jewish movement as national, but not imperialist and that there would be enough space in Syria „for all of us“.
Faisal was at the time in negotiations with one of the Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann, who became Israels first president. Faisal only had one condition for agreeing with the Balfour declaration: Arab independence. The one condition Britain was not willing to meet.
However, it must be said that Faisal was one (even though important) voice at the time. Another one, equally important, were Arab nationalists, declaring in 1919 that there should be no place for a Jewish homestead in southern Syria.
As was to be expected, Britian’s denial of Arab independence lead to tensions in the newly formed mandate of Palestine (in its first years it included today’s Israel, Palestine and Jordan and was later reduced to today’s Israel and Palestine). This put the Jewish migrants between a rock and a hard place: A first pogrom happened on Easter 1920, more were to follow. Jewish groups retaliated, they both fought against British forces.
British High Commissioner Samuel then stopped Jewish migration, but London revoked that order. Samuel made more and more concessions to the Arab side and sadly agreed to Mohammed Amin al Husseini as Mufti of Jerusalem. Al Husseini was not only an Arab nationalist, but also a staunch antisemite, a later ally to Hitler.
After the Arab uprising against Jewish migrants in 1936, the British Peel Commission turned down the Balfour declaration once and for all and came up with a division plan. The larger part of Palestine should be Arabian, the smaller one Jewish while Jerusalem and the coast line should remain British. Chaim Weizmann and the WZO agreed to this plan so to save as many Jewish lives as possible – it was already clear that the Hitler regime in Germany had evil plans for the Jews living there. The Arab side declined, demanding all of Palestine should be an Arab nation. The British reacted and minimized the area that should be under Jewish control.
Finally, in 1939, the British government decided that the Balfour declaration had already been implemented and Jewish migration to Palestine should be restricted to 75.000 Jews for the next five years. Neville Chamberlain even tried to convince the WZO to refrain from a Jewish homestead in Palestine. Meanwhile, after Hitlers explicit annaouncement that he would enforce the annihilation of „the Jewish race“ in 1939, the British turned away many Jewish refugee boats from the coasts of Palestine. Jewish underground organizations became more and more popular – terrorist attacks on British personnel and institutions included. The British reacted as was to be expected and tried to restrict pro Jewish actions further. Meanwhile, 50.000 to 100.000 Palestinian Jews were fighting on allied frontlines against the Fascists, while millions of Jews where killed in the Holocaust.
Now let us now take a closer look to the incidents that preceded the Israeli declaration of independence. The years from 1945 to 1948. Spoiler: It wasn’t the US, that enforced the foundation of the Jewish state. It were not the British. It was – surprise, surprise – the Soviet Union. Sorry lads: no US imperialist project here. Not British settler colonialism. And there is one more nation Israel owes thanks. Thanks for the delivery of huge amounts of weapons. Weapons that were crucial for Israel to win its first war – imposed onto them by the surrounding Arab nations: Czechoslovakia. Let’s start in 1945.