“Any attempt to solve a conflict has to touch upon its very core; the core, more often than not, lies in its history. A distorted or manipulated history can explain quite well a failure to end a conflict, whereas a truth and comprehensive look at the past can facilitate a lasting peace and solution” – Ilan Pappe, Israeli historian
Over the course of the past month nearly 2000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed as the result of Israeli attacks on Gaza. Additionally, 64 Israeli military personnel and 3 Israeli civilians have died. The increase in coverage by Western media outlets has sparked the interest of a new generation in North America, who have been, until now, largely unfamiliar with the historical roots of the conflict.
The historical ‘core’ of the Israel-Palestine conflict, according to the majority of scholars, begins with the birth of an Idea – Zionism. The Zionist movement developed in mid-nineteenth century Europe, incorporating modern nationalist ideology and aspects of the ancient religious traditions of the Jewish people. The ultimate objective of Zionism was to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine – a place where the Jewish people could live in peace, free from persecution. Former US Ambassador to Israel, and prominent supporter of Israel, Michael Oren concludes that “ (t)he introduction of Zionism into the maelstrom of Middle east politics galvanized what was already a highly unstable environment into the framework of a regional war…without Zionism there would have been no state of Israel and, without Israel, no context for comprehensive conflict”.
During the latter half of the 19th century European Jews began immigrating to Palestine in larger numbers and by the 20th century thousands of individuals claiming Jewish ancestry had settled in the region with the intention of establishing a Jewish state. Tensions began to arise between the Jewish settlers and the Arab population, who still constituted a considerable majority at the time. The outbreak of the First World War brought about a series of circumstances that would eventually plunge the region into a cycle of violence that has yet to be resolved.
In November 1914, only months after the war had been declared the Ottoman Empire joined the side of the Central Powers. Shortly thereafter a series of letters were exchanged between the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. These letters came to be known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. The negotiations revolved around the prospect of Arab independence, the right to self-determination. In exchange Sharif Hussein was to provoke the Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman rulers. While there is some dispute concerning the proposed boundaries discussed, the Arabs believed that in return for their service in undermining the Ottoman’s they would be granted self-determination. (http://www.cjpmo.org/DisplayDocument.aspx?DocumentID=2030.)
At around the same time the British and the French entered into negotiations, which resulted in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, or the Asia Minor Agreement, determining French and British spheres of influence in the event of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. When information regarding this secret agreement later surfaced many of the Arabs who had revolted in hopes of attaining sovereignty felt that they had been misled. The dispute, which persists even today, is summed up by British/Canadian journalist Paul William Roberts:
“The Arabs claim that the letters between McMahon and Sharif Hussein promised Palestine among the areas in which Britain pledged to uphold Arab independence. The Zionists deny this is true, a position also assumed officially by Britain and endorsed in 1937 by the Palestine Royal Commissions report. However, a report by the British Arab Bureau, which has never been rescinded or corrected, places Palestine firmly in the area that the Arabs were promised”.
Meanwhile Jewish immigration to Palestine continued and was given formal support by the British government in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Addressed to ‘Lord Rothschild’, a prominent banker and leader of the Jewish community in Britain, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote:
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“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 the 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”.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”
Needless to say, the Balfour Declaration “gave a special acuteness to the Arabs struggle against the British mandate and the Jewish presence” (Bernard Lewis, Middle East historian). Following the First World War the Ottoman Empire was indeed divided up between Britain and France as per the terms of Sykes-Picot. However, the British and the French were not the only world leaders who had taken an interest in the regions formerly under Ottoman rule. During the summer of 1919 the King-Crane Commission, under the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, endeavored to gather information pertaining to public-opinion in the areas formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
The commission concluded its report in the latter part of 1919, though it was not published until 3 years later, around the same time the League of Nations granted the British mandatory power over Palestine. The reports findings on public perception regarding the Zionist enterprise and British and French rule in the region were unsurprising. While there were a range of proposals pertaining to the future governance of the region, the non-Jewish inhabitants, constituting approximately nine-tenths of the total population and predominantly Muslim and Christian, were “practically unanimous against Zionism, usually expressing themselves with great emphasis”. There was no single issue on which they agreed so strongly. Additionally, during the course of their survey the commission received 1,350 petitions, of which 72% explicitly denounced the Zionist program. One such petition came from members of the General Syrian Congress which opposed Zionism but emphasized that their “Jewish compatriots shall enjoy our common rights and assume the common responsibilities.” While the authors of the report admit to having been “predisposed” to being in favor of Zionism, their findings had given them serious reservations. Cautiously, they write: “It can hardly be doubted that the extreme Zionist Program must be greatly modified…a “national home for the Jewish people” is not equivalent to making Palestine into a Jewish State; nor can the erection of such a Jewish State be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. The fact came out repeatedly in the Commission’s conference with Jewish representatives, that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase…it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine…are emphatically against the entire Zionist program…To subject a people so minded to unlimited Jewish immigration, and to steady financial and social pressure to surrender the land… would be a gross violation of the people’s rights.”
Conflict persisted between Palestinian Arabs, Jewish settlers, and the British presence in Palestine. Palestinian resistance took various forms and particularly in the 1930’s, contrary to popular stereotypes of Palestinians as violent ‘terrorists’, largely took the form of nonviolent action. These campaigns included boycotts against Israel and a six-month strike in 1936. Faced with immense persecution at home European Jews continued to settle in Palestine during World War II. Ultimately, the warnings of the King-Crane Commission and the Palestinian resistance were overshadowed as information began to surface regarding the full extent of the Holocaust and in a matter of 3 years after the war was over a Jewish state (Israel) was recognized by the United Nations via UN resolution 181.
The British Mandate came to an end in 1947 in the face of growing opposition from both Arab and Jewish communities. On November 29th 1947 Resolution 181, the partition plan, was passed by the UN General Assembly.
In a matter of weeks the Arab League announced its opposition to the proposed partition, which effectively gave Jewish settlers just over half the territory of historical Palestine to one-third of the population. By February of 1948 the Zionists, in preparation for the official founding of the state, began displacing Palestinian Arabs living in the areas that were to become Israel. Violence escalated and by May 15th 1948 neighbouring Arab countries began sending troops to assist the Palestinians in their armed struggle against the newly founded Israel. In September 1948 a UN peace mediatory, County Bernadotte, was assassinated by a militant Zionist group Lehi. In January-April 1949 armstice agreements between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states were negotiated and signed on the island of Rhodes. By that time more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs had been driven or fled from their homes, becoming refugees. They have never been repatriated and, in fact, the ‘right to return’ has remained an extremely divisive issue in peace negotiations since it has remained an issue on which Israel refuses to negotiate.