An introduction to the history of the Palestine problem and why it is important today
Palestine came into existence as a political unit for the first time in 1923. It comprised the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. This had belonged to Turkey before the First World War and was placed under a Mandate granted to Britain , which had the duty to prepare the country for independence. It was inhabited by Arabic speaking Palestinians who were predominantly Muslim but included substantial communities of Christians and Jews who also spoke Arabic. But the Mandate contained a pledge known as the Balfour Declaration which envisaged that ‘a Jewish national home’ would also be created in Palestine .
A European Jewish nationalist movement known as Zionism, to which the pledge in the Balfour Declaration was originally issued, wished to encourage Jewish immigration into Palestine and eventually to turn Palestine (or as much of it as possible) into a predominantly Jewish sovereign state. The Mandate had been structured in a way that enabled the Zionists to establish their own ‘state within a state’, something from which non-Jews, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population, were inevitably excluded. Violence was the result, particularly as Palestinians could see neighbouring Arab lands being granted their own elected parliaments and progressing towards independence. Yet a parliament was out of the question for Palestine , because democracy would have led to the end of the Zionist dream.
The Palestine Arabs rebelled between 1936 and 1939, but the revolt was fiercely suppressed and the Palestinian nationalist movement exhausted. Nevertheless, it achieved a degree of political success because Britain finally backtracked from the Balfour Declaration and agreed to limit Jewish immigration and make Palestine independent after ten years. But history had moved on. Hitler was now in power in Germany and Jewish immigration into Palestine soared, while many other countries shut their doors or limited the number of Jewish refugees they were prepared to take, often preferring the refugees to go to Palestine.
After World War II, some Zionist organisations conducted a terrorist campaign against the British rulers of Palestine with the explicit aim of forcing a British withdrawal. They succeeded, and Britain handed the problem over to the UN. Zionist leaders wanted Palestine partitioned. They lobbied in Washington to gain American support. Not only did America give way to this pressure, but used its diplomatic muscle to twist the arms of weaker states to support it. This led to the UN vote to split Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, even though the Jewish state would have a very substantial Arab minority of at least 40% of its population. According to some estimates, the Arabs may have constituted a majority of the inhabitants of the proposed Jewish state. The Zionist leadership claimed to accept the partition plan but did not do so in good faith, because they never intended to honour it. They not only set out to conquer the areas allocated to the Jewish state but also as much of the land intended for the Arab state as they could. They also coveted Jerusalem , which the partition plan (which they had accepted) had envisaged as an international enclave. They cleansed many of the areas they captured of Muslim and Christian Arabs. The Arabs, understandably, rejected partition.
The Mandate ended on 14 May 1948. The Zionists proclaimed the sovereign state of Israel. Yet it was questionable whether they had the right to do so in international law, since they could only achieve their objective by the use of illegal force. Neighbouring Arab states, their populations incensed at what had happened, intervened. They sent small expeditionary forces to stem the Israeli advance, but were handicapped because each Arab state had its own objectives. Only one of them, Jordan, had any degree of success on the battlefield. It occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem , saving these areas from Israeli conquest. Throughout the hostilities, the Israelis had larger forces, and after the first few weeks they were better equipped. By the time of the cease-fires in 1949 Israel had conquered all the areas intended for the Jewish state and approximately half of the area intended for the Arab state, ruthlessly expelling the vast majority of non-Jews from most of this territory. Apart from the territories occupied by Jordan , the only part of Palestine left in Arab hands was the Gaza strip which was under Egyptian occupation.
There were efforts to reach a settlement over the next two years. Egypt , Syria and Jordan all made approaches. Syria even offered to take nearly half the Palestinian refugees as part of a permanent peace. But Israel ‘s prime minister, Ben Gurion, refused to let a substantial number of the refugees return to their homes or to make territorial concessions in exchange for peace. He was more concerned with consolidating Israel’s gains on the battlefield and encouraging Jewish immigrants – including substantial numbers of Arab Jews who were now unwelcome in the countries they had inhabited for hundreds or even thousands of years – to settle on the land the refugees had been forced to abandon. Palestinian refugees trying to return were killed or driven away by Israeli security forces, with the result that some of them increasingly turned to terrorism, much of it motivated by a desire for revenge.
Diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement during the 1950s and 1960s were unsuccessful, and the problem festered. Israel was playing its own game, and did all that it could to deepen the gulf between the West and the Arab states, even recruiting Egyptian Jews to conduct terrorist actions against American targets in Cairo and hoping to blame these on Arab nationalists. In 1956, Israel invaded Egypt in alliance with Britain and France as part of the tripartite aggression known today as the Suez crisis. Although Israel was forced to withdraw, its behaviour increased Arab suspicion that Israel was a tool of western imperialism. Arab attitudes continued to harden, and rulers such as Nasser of Egypt started to use extreme rhetoric.
Another diplomatic crisis occurred in 1967. This led to the Six Day War in June that year, in which Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground then thrust to the Suez Canal, the Jordan and the Syrian Golan Heights above the
Sea of Galilee . It claimed its action was defensive, but military analysts knew it could defeat any combination of Arab armies, and no Arab army was in a position to attack it successfully. In November, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242 which called for peace based on mutual recognition, acknowledgement of the territorial integrity and secure and recognised boundaries for all states, the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war, and a just settlement for the refugees. It envisaged an Israeli withdrawal so that Israel might not add to its territories as a result of the war.
That, however, was not what Israel wanted. Egyptian peace feelers came to nothing because Israel wanted to keep a slice of Sinai. This led to a further war in 1973 after which Israel made limited withdrawals in Sinai and the Golan Heights . Egypt then broke ranks with the other Arab states and signed a separate peace with Israel in 1979, in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory and the uprooting of Israel ‘s settlements in Sinai.
The Palestinians had not even been mentioned in Resolution 242, but they returned to international prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Guerrilla operations and terrorist attacks were mounted against Israel from Jordan and then Lebanon , as well as at international targets like the attack on the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The occupied territories were relatively peaceful, but as Israeli colonisation intensified an explosion of anger occurred in 1987, known as the First Intifada. When America needed Arab support during the Kuwait crisis in 1990-1, it used its good offices for the first time in a serious effort to reach a comprehensive peace. Although the negotiations convened were unsuccessful, Norwegian efforts at Oslo were more so. In 1993, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation formally recognised each other on the basis of the principles contained in Resolution 242. A number of interim agreements were reached under which parts of the occupied territories were handed over to a new Palestine National Authority, while the Palestinians tried to develop the institutions for a sovereign state.
Oslo should have been the start of a process that led to final peace. Yet someone born at the time of Oslo would be sixteen or seventeen today, and peace has not come. Why is this? We believe that the core reason has been Israel ‘s failure to acknowledge Palestinian legal rights under international law in exchange for Palestinian acceptance of Israel within the old 1949 armistice lines. Israeli prime ministers have refused to accept that Israel has no lawful entitlement to East Jerusalem or any other part of the occupied territories, and that the settlements on occupied land (which have continued and intensified since Oslo ) are concrete proof of Israel ‘s bad faith as a negotiating partner. Israel has also refused to acknowledge any legal or moral responsibility towards the refugees it drove from their homes, and textbooks used in Israeli schools are censured to lay the blame for the conflict on the Arabs.
Recent events are well known. Israel has built a wall to shut off as many of the Palestinians in the occupied territory as possible, while seizing yet more land so that the wall can encircle illegal Israeli settlements. In 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza but retained total control of borders, airspace and the sea, making it impossible for the territory to develop into a modern economy.
Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 led to the election of Hamas. The result was caused in part by PLO corruption, but most of all by the PLO’s failure to win Palestinian rights. Hamas is an Islamic movement with a reputation for being free of corruption and the Palestinians judged that only Hamas with its ethos of resistance could win for them a Palestinian state.
Although Hamas’ leaders have indicated to visiting parliamentarians (including our own Lord Wallace, Baroness Tonge and Baroness Northover) that they are willing to accept a Palestinian state based on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, implicitly recognising the existence of Israel behind the 1949 armistice lines, the international community has been persuaded by the Israeli lobbies in western democracies to condone the collective punishment, blockade and semi-starvation of the people of Gaza, which Hamas now controls after a civil war with their secular Palestinian rivals.
Israel responds to Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza with a punitive and brutal violence, aimed at terrorising the population. Because Israel still exerts total control, Gaza , according to international law, is still occupied, and therefore Israel has the duties of an occupying power.
The situation has to end.
The total failure of Western governments to support international humanitarian law in the Middle East lies at the heart of so-called ‘Islamic’ terrorism. It had a large part in the radicalisation of Bin Laden and others. There can be little doubt that British soldiers have been killed and maimed in Iraq – and possibly Afghanistan – by so-called ‘Jihadi’ foreign fighters who have been incensed by what the international community has allowed to happen in Palestine.