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Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis

Posted By: Question & Answer
Date: 18, May 02, at 2:06 p.m.

[From Z Magazine, May 2002]

by Stephen R. Shalom

What are the modern origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
During World War I, Britain made three different promises regarding historic Palestine. Arab leaders were assured that the land would become independent; in the Balfour declaration, Britain indicated its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine; and secretly Britain arranged with its allies to divide up Ottoman territory, with Palestine becoming part of the British empire. Historians have engaged in detailed exegesis of the relevant texts and maps, but the fundamental point is that Britain had no moral right to assign Palestine to anyone: by right Palestine belonged to its inhabitants.

In the late years of the 19th century, anti-Semitism became especially virulent in Russia and re-emerged in France. Some Jews concluded that only in a Jewish state would Jews be safe and thus founded Zionism. Most Jews at the time rejected Zionism, preferring instead to address the problem of anti-Semitism through revolutionary or reformist politics or assimilation. And for many orthodox Jews, especially the small Jewish community in Palestine, a Jewish state could only be established by God, not by humans. At first Zionists were willing to consider other sites for their Jewish state, but they eventually focused on Palestine for its biblical connections. The problem, however, was that although a Zionist slogan called Palestine "a land without people for a people without land," the land was not at all empty.

Following World War I, Britain arranged for the League of Nations to make Palestine a British "mandate," which is to say a colony to be administered by Britain and prepared for independence. To help justify its rule over Arab land, Britain arranged that one of its duties as the mandatory power would be to promote a Jewish national home.

Who were the Jews who came to Palestine?

The early Zionist settlers were idealistic, often socialist, individuals, fleeing oppression. In this respect they were like the early American colonists. But also like the American colonists, many Zionists had racist attitudes toward the indigenous people and little regard for their well-being.1

Some Zionists thought in terms of Arab-Jewish cooperation and a bi-national state, but many were determined to set up an exclusively Jewish state (though to avoid antagonizing the Palestinians, they decided to use the term Jewish "national home" rather than "state" until they were able to bring enough Jews to Palestine).

Jewish immigration to Palestine was relatively limited until the 1930s,.when Hitler came to power. The U.S. and Europe closed their doors to immigration by desperate jews, making Palestine one of the few options.

Who were the indigenous people of Palestine?

Pro-Israel propaganda has argued that most Palestinians actually entered Palestine after 1917, drawn to the economic dynamism of the growing Jewish community, and thus have no rights to Palestine. This argument has been elaborated in Joan Peters' widely promoted book, From Time Immemorial. However, the book has been shown to be fraudulent and its claim false.2 The indigenous population was mostly Muslim, with a Christian and a smaller Jewish minority. As Zionists arrived from Europe, the Muslims and Christians began to adopt a distinctly Palestinian national identity.

How did the Zionists acquire land in Palestine?

Some was acquired illegally and some was purchased from Arab landlords with funds provided by wealthy Jews in Europe. Even the legal purchases, however, were often morally questionable as they sometimes involved buying land from absentee landlords and then throwing the poor Arab peasants off the land. Land thus purchased became part of the Jewish National Fund which specified that the land could never be sold or leased to Arabs. Even with these purchases, Jews owned only about 6% of the land by 1947.

Was Palestinian opposition to Zionism a result of anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism in the Arab world was generally far less severe than in Europe. Before the beginning of Zionist immigration, relations among the different religious groups in Palestine were relatively harmonious. There was Palestinian anti-Semitism, but no people will look favorably on another who enter one's territory with the intention of setting up their own sovereign state. The expulsion of peasants from their land and the frequent Zionist refusal to employ Arabs exacerbated relations.

What was the impact of World War II on the Palestine question?

As World War II approached, Britain shrewdly calculated that they could afford to alienate Jews -- who weren't going to switch to Hitler's side -- but not Arabs, so they greatly restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. But, of course, this was precisely when the need for sanctuary for Europe's Jews was at its height. Many Jews smuggled their way into Palestine as the United States and other nations kept their borders closed to frantic refugees.

At the end of the war, as the enormity of the Holocaust became evident, for the first time Zionism became a majority sentiment among world Jewry. Many U.S. Christians also supported Zionism as a way to absolve their guilt for what had happened, without having to allow Jews into the United States. U.S. Zionists, who during the war had subordinated rescue efforts to their goal of establishing a Jewish state,3 argued that the Holocaust proved more than ever the need for a Jewish state: Had Israel existed in 1939, millions of Jews might have been saved. Actually, Palestine just narrowly avoided being overrun by the Nazis, so Jews would have been far safer in the United States than in a Jewish Palestine.

During the war many Jews in Palestine had joined the British army. By war's end, the Jewish community in Palestine was well armed, well-organized, and determined to fight. The Palestinians were poorly armed, with feudal leaders. The Mufti of Jerusalem had been exiled by the British for supporting an Arab revolt in 1936-39 and had made his way to Berlin during the war where he aided Nazi propaganda. From the Zionist point of view, it was considered a plus to have the extremist Mufti as the Palestinians' leader; as David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine and Israel's first prime minister, advised in 1938, "rely on the Mufti."4

What were the various positions in 1947?

Both the Palestinians and the Zionists wanted the British out so they could establish an independent state. The Zionists, particularly a right-wing faction led by Menachim Begin, launched a terror campaign against Britain. London, impoverished by the war, announced that it was washing its hands of the problem and turning it over to the United Nations (though Britain had various covert plans for remaining in the region).

The Zionists declared that having gone through one of the great catastrophes of modern history, the Jewish people were entitled to a state of their own, one into which they could gather Jewish refugees, still languishing in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The Zionist bottom line was a sovereign state with full control over immigration. The Palestinians argued that the calamity that befell European Jews was hardly their fault. If Jews were entitled to a state, why not carve it out of Germany? As it was, Palestine had more Jewish refugees than any other place on Earth. Why should they bear the full burden of atoning for Europe's sins? They were willing to give full civil rights (though not national rights) to the Jewish minority in an independent Palestine, but they were not willing to give this minority the right to control immigration, and bring in more of their co-religionists until they were a majority to take over the whole of Palestine.

A small left-wing minority among the Zionists called for a binational state in Palestine, where both peoples might live together, each with their national rights respected. This view had little support among Jews or Palestinians.

What did the UN do and why?

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two independent states, a Jewish state and an Arab state, joined by an economic union, with Jerusalem internationalized.

In 1947 the UN had many fewer members than it does today. Most Third World nations were still colonies and thus not members. Nevertheless, the partition resolution passed only because the Soviet Union and its allies voted in favor and because many small states were subject to improper pressure. For example, members of the U.S. Congress told the Philippines that it would not get U.S. economic aid unless it voted for partition. Moscow favored partition as a way to reduce British influence in the region; Israel was viewed as potentially less pro-Western than the dominant feudal monarchies.

Didn't Palestinians have a chance for a state of their own in 1947, but they rejected it by going to war with Israel?

In 1947 Jews were only one third of the population of Palestine and owned only 6% of the land. Yet the partition plan granted the Jewish state 55% of the total land area. The Arab state was to have an overwhelmingly Arab population, while the Jewish state would have almost as many Arabs as Jews. If it was unjust to force Jews to be a 1/3 minority in an Arab state, it was no more just to force Arabs to be an almost 50% minority in a Jewish state.

The Palestinians rejected partition. The Zionists accepted it, but in private Zionist leaders had more expansive goals. In 1938, during earlier partition proposals, Ben Gurion stated, "when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine."5

The Mufti called Palestinians to war against partition, but in fact very few Palestinians responded. The "decisive majority" of Palestinians, confided Ben Gurion, "do not want to fight us." The majority "accept the partition as a fait accompli," reported a Zionist Arab affairs expert. The 1936-39 Arab revolt against the British had mass popular support, but the 1947-48 fighting between the Mufti's followers and the Zionist military forces had no such popular backing.6

But even if Palestinians were fully united in going to war against the partition plan, this can provide no moral justification for denying them their basic right of self- determination for more than half a century. This right is not a function of this or that agreement, but a basic right to which every person is entitled. (Israelis don't lose their right to self-determination because their government violated countless UN cease-fire resolutions.)

Didn't Israel achieve larger borders in 1948 as a result of a defensive war of independence?

Arab armies crossed the border on May 15, 1948, after Israel declared its independence. But this declaration came three and a half months before the date specified in the partition resolution. The U.S. had proposed a three month truce on the condition that Israel postpone its declaration of independence. The Arab states accepted and Israel rejected, in part because it had worked out a secret deal with Jordan's King Abdullah, whereby his Arab Legion would invade the Palestinian territory assigned to the Palestinian state and not interfere with the Jewish state. (Since Jordan was closely allied to Britain, the scheme also provided a way for London to maintain its position in the region.) The other Arab states invaded as much to thwart Abdullah's designs as to defeat Israel.7

Most of the fighting that ensued took place on territory that was to be part of the Palestinian state or the internationalized Jerusalem. Thus, Israel was primarily fighting not for its survival, but to expand its borders at the expense of the Palestinians. For most of the war, the Israelis actually held both a quantitative and qualitative military edge, even apart from the fact that the Arab armies were uncoordinated and operating at cross purposes.8

When the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, the Palestinian state had disappeared, its territory taken over by Israel and Jordan, with Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem, which was to have been internationalized, was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control. Israel now held 78% of Palestine. Some 700,000 Palestinians had become refugees.

Why did Palestinians become refugees in 1948?

The Israeli government claim is that Palestinians chose to leave Palestine voluntarily, instructed to do so via radio broadcasts from Arab leaders who wanted to clear a path for their armies. But radio broadcasts from the area were monitored by the British and American governments and no evidence of general orders to flee has ever been found. On the contrary, there are numerous instances of Arab leaders telling Palestinians to stay put, to keep their claim to the territory.9 People flee during wartime for a variety of reasons and that was certainly the case here. Some left because war zones are dangerous environments. Some because of Zionist atrocities -- most dramatically at Deir Yassin where in April 1948 254 defenseless civilians were slaughtered. Some left in panic, aided by Zionist psychological warfare which warned that Deir Yassin's fate awaited others. And some were driven out at gunpoint, with killings to speed them on their way, as in the towns of Ramle and Lydda.10

There is no longer any serious doubt that many Palestinians were forcibly expelled. The exact numbers driven out versus those who panicked or simply sought safety is still contested, but what permits us to say that all were victims of ethnic cleansing is that Israeli officials refused to allow any of them to return. (In Kosovo, any ethnic Albanian refugee, whether he or she was forced out at gunpoint, panicked, or even left to make it easier for NATO to bomb, was entitled to return.) In Israel, Arab villages were bulldozed over, citrus groves, lands, and property seized, and their owners and inhabitants prohibited from returning. Indeed, not only was the property of "absentee" Palestinians expropriated, but any Palestinians who moved from one place within Israel to another during the war were declared "present absentees" and their property expropriated as well.

Of the 860,000 Arabs who had lived in areas of Palestine that became Israel, only 133,000 remained. Some 470,000 moved into refugee camps on the West Bank (controlled by Jordan) or the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt). The rest dispersed to Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.

Why did Israel expel the Palestinians?

In part to remove a potential fifth column. In part to obtain their property. In part to make room for more Jewish immigrants. But mostly because the notion of a Jewish state with a large non-Jewish minority was extremely awkward for Israeli leaders. Indeed, because Israel took over some territory intended for the Palestinian state, there had actually been an Arab majority living within the borders of Israel. Nor was the idea of expelling Palestinians something that just emerged in the 1948 war. In 1937, Ben Gurion had written to his son, "We will expel the Arabs and take their places ... with the force at our disposal."11

How did the international community react to the problem of the Palestinian refugees?

In December 1948, the General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which declared that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so" and that "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." This same resolution was overwhelmingly adopted year after year. Israel repeatedly refused to carry out the terms of the resolution.

Did the Arab countries take steps to resettle the Palestinian refugees?

Only in Jordan were Palestinians eligible for citizenship. In Lebanon, the government feared that allowing Palestinians to become citizens would disturb the country's delicate Christian-Muslim balance; in Egypt, the shortage of arable land led the government to confine the Palestinians to the Gaza Strip. It must be noted, however, that the Palestinians were reluctant to leave the camps if that would mean acquiescing in the loss of homes and property or giving up their right to return.

It is sometimes implied that the lack of assistance to Palestinians from Arab nations justifies Israel's refusal to acknowledge and address the claims of the refugees. But if you harm someone, you are responsible for redressing that harm, regardless of whether the victim's relatives are supportive.

Hasn't there been a population exchange, with Jews from Arab lands coming to Israel and replacing the Palestinians?

This argument makes individual Palestinians responsible for the wrong-doing of Arab governments. Jews left Arab countries under various circumstances: some were forced out, some came voluntarily, some were recruited by Zionist officials. In Iraq, Jews feared that they might be harmed, a fear possibly helped along by some covert bombs placed by Zionist agents.12 But whatever the case, there are no moral grounds for punishing Palestinians (or denying them their due) because of how Jews were treated in the Arab world. If Italy were to abuse American citizens, this would not justify the United States harming or expelling Italian-Americans.

How were the Palestinians who remained within Israel treated?

Most Arabs lived in the border areas of Israel and, until 1966, these areas were all declared military security zones, which essentially meant that Palestinians were living under martial law conditions for nearly 20 years. After 1966, Arab citizens of Israel continued to be the victims of harsh discrimination: most of the country's land is owned by the Jewish National Fund which prohibits its sale or lease to non-Jews; schools for Palestinians in Israel are, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "separate and unequal"; and government spending has been funneled so as to keep Arab villages underdeveloped. Thousands of Israeli Arabs live in villages declared "unrecognized" and hence ineligible for electricity or any other government services.13

Following 1948, didn't the Arab states continually try to destroy Israel?

After Israel's victory in the 1948-49 war, there were several opportunities for peace. There was blame on all sides, but Israeli intransigence was surely a prime factor. In 1951, a UN peace plan was accepted by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but rejected by Israel. When Nasser came to power in Egypt, he made overtures to Israel that were rebuffed. When Nasser negotiated an end to British control of the Suez Canal zone, Israeli intelligence covertly arranged a bombing campaign of western targets in Egypt as a way to discourage British withdrawal. The plot was foiled, Egypt executed some of the plotters, and Israel responded with a major military attack on Gaza.14 In 1956, Israel joined with Britain and France in invading Egypt, drawing condemnation from the United States and the UN.

How were the Occupied Territories occupied?

In June 1967, Israel launched a war in which it seized all of Palestine (the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt), along with the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Large numbers of Palestinians, some living in cities, towns, and villages, and some in refugee camps, came under Israeli control. (In 2001, half the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories lived in refugee camps.15 The Israeli conquest also sent a new wave of refugees from Palestine to surrounding countries.)

Israel's supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots in this war, it was a justified preventive war, given that Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel's borders, with murderous rhetoric. The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for Israel's safety. But those who understood the military situation -- in Tel Aviv and the Pentagon -- knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war. Nasser was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Israel attacked when it did in part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, who was an enthusiastic supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars was quite clear about the necessity of launching an attack: In June 1967, he said, Israel "had a choice." Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that Nasser was about to attack. "We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."16

However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on Israel's part, this cannot justify the continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan -- don't give them back Gaza and the West Bank (which they had no right to in the first place, having joined with Israel in carving up the stillborn Palestinian state envisioned in the UN's 1947 partition plan). But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.

Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions which prohibit a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory. These settlements, placed in strategic locations throughout the West Bank and Gaza were intended to "create facts" on the ground to make the occupation irreversible.

How did the international community respond to the Israeli occupation?

In November 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 242. The resolution emphasized "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict." It also called for all countries in the region to end their state of war and to respect the right of each country "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

Israel argued that because resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from "territories," rather than "the territories," occupied in the recent conflict, it meant that Israel could keep some of them as a way to attain "secure" borders. The official French and Russian texts of the resolution include the definite article, but in any event U.S. officials told Arab delegates that it expected "virtually complete withdrawal" by Israel, and this was the view as well of Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.17

Palestinians objected to the resolution because it referred to them only in calling for "a just settlement to the refugee problem" rather than acknowledging their right to self- determination. By the mid-1970s, however, the international consensus -- rejected by Israel and the United States -- was expanded to include support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps with insignificant border adjustments.

How did the United States respond to the Israeli occupation?

Prior to the 1967 war, France, not the United States, was Israel's chief weapons supplier. But now U.S. officials determined that Israel would be an extremely valuable ally to have in the Middle East and Washington became Israel's principal military and diplomatic backer.

Why, given the U.S. concern for Middle Eastern oil, was Washington supporting Israel? This assumes that the main conflict was Israel vs. the Arabs, rather than Israel and conservative, pro-Western Arab regimes vs. radical Arab nationalism. Egypt and Syria had been champions of the latter, armed by the Soviet Union, and threatening U.S. interests in the region. (On the eve of the 1967, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were militarily backing opposite sides in a civil war in Yemen. Israel had plotted with Jordan against Palestinian nationalism in 1948, and in 1970 Israel was prepared to take Jordan's side in a war against Palestinians and Syria.)

Diplomatically, the U.S. soon backed off the generally accepted interpretation of resolution 242, deciding that given Israel's military dominance no negotiations were necessary except on Israel's terms. So when Secretary of State Rogers put forward a reasonable peace plan, President Nixon privately sent word to Israel that the U.S. wouldn't press the proposal.18 When Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, proposed a peace plan that included cutting his ties with Moscow, Washington decided he hadn't groveled enough and ignored it. But after Egypt and Syria unsuccessfully went to war with Israel for the limited aim of regaining their lost territory, and Arab oil states called a limited oil embargo, Washington rethought its position. This led in 1979 to the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Agreement under which Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace and diplomatic relations. Egypt then joined Israel as a pillar of U.S. policy in the region and the two became the leading recipients of U.S. aid in the world.

What progress was made toward justice for Palestinians during the first two decades of the occupation?

The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, but it was controlled by the Arab states until 1969, when Yasser Arafat became its leader. The PLO had many factions, advocating different tactics (some carried out hijackings) and different politics. At first the PLO took the position that Israel had no right to exist and that only Palestinians were entitled to national rights in Palestine. This was the mirror image of the official Israeli view -- of both the right-wing Likud party and the Labor party -- that there could be no recognition of the PLO under any circumstances, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, let alone acceptance of a Palestinian state on any part of the Occupied Territories.

By 1976, however, the PLO view had come to accept the international consensus favoring a two-state solution. In January 1976 a resolution backed by the PLO, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Soviet Union was introduced in the Security Council incorporating this consensus. Washington vetoed the resolution.19

The 1979 Camp David agreement established peace along the Egyptian-Israeli border, but it worsened the situation for Palestinians. With its southern border neutralized, Israel had a freer hand to invade Lebanon in 1982 (where the PLO was based) and to tighten its grip on the Occupied Territories.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Notes

Messages In This Thread

Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis
Question & Answer -- 18, May 02, at 2:06 p.m.
Re: Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis
Question & Answer -- 18, May 02, at 2:13 p.m.
Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis: Notes
Question & Answer -- 18, May 02, at 2:15 p.m.

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