The European answer to the “ Jewish Problem “ has been enacted over two millennia through; pogroms, blood libels, the massacre of the Jews in 1190 in York, forced conversion or death under Catholicism in Spain and of course the Holocaust.
The British Empire’s approach was more genteel, but proactive and the mess we have in the Middle East right now is part of that imperial legacy.
The Balfour Declaration is often quoted as the progenitor of the Palestinian’s problems but actually that followed on from something that created the space for that to happen.
This was the Sykes -Picot Agreement in 1916 , a secret treaty between the UK and France supported by the Russian Empire and Italy that sought to carve up the corpse of the Ottoman Empire to the benefit of the parties to the agreement. Sykes, a former British Army Colonel with experience in the Middle East saw himself as an expert in that area of policy and was given leadership in negotiating the agreement. He died in 1919 in Paris from Spanish Flu aged just 39, but not before he was able to look back in horror at what he had created. An agent of Empire, as was Picot, his vision saw a divided Palestine with a Homeland for Jews and Arabs, but necessarily in his view under the tender care of British Imperial rule.
The quite remarkable outcome of the Agreement was to bring Arabs and Zionists onto the same page in their condemnation of something that served neither of their causes .
Quite naturally, because Empire brings its own warped legitimacy, there was no requirement to engage with indigenous peoples to see what their views were. The term “ Terra Nullius” comes from the application of the notion in Roman law of “ Res Nullius” meaning “ nobody’s thing.” In this case “No-one’s land. ” It was first debated by the Spanish conquerors of the Americas as a means to justify imperial takeover. It began to be applied in the European colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th century. The term wasn’t used overtly to justify the Sykes- Picot Agreement, but it was assumed. It probably went a bit like this :-
“ The Ottoman’s have gone, there is a power vacuum in the Middle East, oh and lots of oil, best that we don’t argue about this don’t you think? Shall we look at a map?….Do you have pencil? Mais Oui”
Having looked at how the agreement was concluded to everyone’s satisfaction other than those not consulted, that seems to have been the essence of how it was achieved. In terms of the tiny corner of the map on the left hand side, Palestinians and Israelis live with the repercussions right now.
Both prior to and after the Agreement, other approaches to a Jewish Homeland were considered. Uganda and Argentina were suggested. The Soviets developed a Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East of their Union they also considered giving them Crimea. To me, perhaps most astonishingly, the Australians explored the notion of settling the Jews in either Tasmania or Kimberley as late at the 1930s. So there were options. Indeed even the 6th Zionist congress debated the Uganda proposal.
We have a tendency as a human race to hear what want to hear and ignore the inconveniences . Sykes, a friend of the Zionist Theodore Herzl, seen as the founding father of the State of Israel. managed somehow to not notice that Herzl’s pamphlet that discussed the idea of a “homeland” was called “Der Judenstaat” the Jewish State. Not a homeland under British rule, the hint was in the name.
After 2000 years of persecution perhaps the only surprise about the establishment of a Jewish State was that the Jewish people waited that long. By 1948, three years after the Holocaust it was not as if the notion of assimilation was an outstanding success. This is the background of the Jewish assertion “ never again.” It is inculcated in the Israeli psyche.
So that is the background and the reality of the Jewish State’s perspective.
The problem is that is one reality and there are two.
Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration foresaw two peoples living in two parts of one area under Imperial control. The problem is that they promised, as much to Arabs as Jews, to each have sovereignty over the same land.
Jewish people have always lived in Palestine but prior to the Balfour Declaration they were a small minority in the area. Jews bought land and settled next to their Palestinian neighbours. The pogroms accelerated immigration.
Palestinians now commemorate Nakba Day on the 15th of May to coincide with the Declaration Independence of the State of Israel. When all of their neighbours combined to destroy the new State, Israel fought back, and took the land that it could defend. This is where Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe, begins. Though you could argue it began a lot earlier and was the creation of neither, now warring, party.
Where we are is a function of Imperial hubris.
My politics are left wing, and as I get older are probably becoming more so.
I am not Jewish, but I was adopted into a Jewish family, so although I don’t identify as Jewish I guess that gives me some cultural ownership of Jewishness, and a perspective on the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians.
I find myself increasingly frustrated by my left wing friends who seems to be a broken record on the Palestine – Israel issue that can be summarised as “ Israel, wrong .”
It is not that I want to defend Israel’s excesses or be an apologist for Israel or to suggest that the Palestinian position is anything other than appalling, my frustration with my friends is that they feel able to apply their logic from a coffee house in Islington or Morningside without either really bothering to consider the whole picture or offering a viable solution.
My views on the state of the Palestinians are clear. They have been left homeless and living in appalling situations, whether they be in Gaza or on the West Bank Lebanon, Syria or Jordan where they now make up almost half of the population. Situations that are degrading, inhumane and offer young people no future. When Israel is attacked its responses are usually disproportionate. “Collateral damage” a rather obscene description, often means the death of innocents. Palestinians in Israel, in practice are treated as second class citizens. Travel rights and employment opportunities that are normal for Israelis are denied to Palestinians who characterise this as apartheid. This applies as much in the West Bank area. Since the coming to power of Hamas when they ousted Fatah in 2007, Israel has been far more restrictive, monitoring travel, as well as imports and exports. As a semi autonomous body Gaza does not have the capacity to expand their economy in a way that would be true for a nation.
In Gaza they live behind razor wire and walls, erected not just by the Israelis but by Egypt too (of whom you hear very little criticism. ) They rely on electricity either through oil imports or through connection to Israel.
They are discriminated against everywhere. In areas where they live in refugee camps in Arab countries they are tolerated, not assimilated
If we were they, then we would feel as they do.
Palestinians fight for recognition of their cause. Arab states pay lip service but by and large do not give practical support. They have other priorities and the closeness of Hamas and Hezbollah to Iran give them cause for concern. Gulf States see value in doing business with Israel, to the infuriation of Iran. We don’t know if Iran is behind the current Hamas actions, but they do not disapprove. They applaud.
There are Palestinians and there is Hamas, they are not the same thing, any more than all Israelis are supporters of Netanyahu and Likud. What both nations share as a responsibility is that they democratically elected these people in the errant belief that they would serve their needs to achieve their aims.
What happened this weekend at the hands of Hamas cannot be excused by anyone. There is no possible explanation that can justify the largest slaughter of innocent Jews since the Holocaust. Dwell on that statement for a moment and then recall the Israeli’s response to the Holocaust – “ never again .” It forms a background to the responses you might expect. Hamas knows that. Israeli responses serve their cause in the court of international opinion. In more senses than one the attack at the weekend was a deliberate act.
I heard an interview with a Palestinian spokesperson who spoke of this as a great Palestinian victory. He justified the killing of unarmed civilians and the kidnapping as hostages of people including children and elderly people. He said there was no such thing as an innocent Israeli because they were all occupiers and must be treated as legitimate military targets. Unless they give up land unconditionally, killing them is justified.
My left wing friends point towards United Nations resolutions that demand that Israel leaves occupied lands as if that would resolve the entire conflict. They are right to point to that reality, but that is one reality there are others. Those resolutions assume that there are people to negotiate with who respect the right to existence of the State of Israel.
My friends rarely seem to quote the Hamas Covenant of 1988 so let me put forward some of the key points :-
“ The conflict with Israeli is religious and political: The Palestinian problem is a religious-political Muslim problem and the conflict with Israel is between Muslims and the Jewish “infidels.” All Palestine is Muslim land and no one has the right to give it up: The land of Palestine is sacred Muslim land and no one, including Arab rulers, has the authority to give up any of it. The importance of jihad (holy war) as the main means for the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) to achieve its goals: An uncompromising jihad must be waged against Israel and any agreement recognizing its right to exist must be totally opposed. Jihad is the personal duty of every Muslim.
which states that the destruction of the State of Israel is both a religious and political aim .”
It goes on …and on , in the same way. It is unapologetically Anti Semitic and brooks no compromise. This is inconvenient to those who say that Hamas demands are “ reasonable .”
When my friends say to me that Israel must go to the negotiating table with Hamas this is the belief system they are asking them to negotiate with, one that sees no value in negotiation.
Palestinians and Israelis are at present caught between two extremes .
The status quo is impossible. Palestinians do not have enough land. They do not have the land they consider is theirs.
Our First Minister commented that punishing over 2 million people through the proposed Israeli blockade of Gaza is an unjust response because it will hurt the vast majority of totally innocent Palestinians. He is of course right for several reasons, not the least being that Israel’s response will be brutal, not the least because it has the potential to break international law, but I’d take issue with him on one point. While Palestinians take the political route at the ballot box to return an increasingly radical and violent Hamas it is hard to see who will do business with them. Because at the end of the day, in every conflict everywhere, it is either total defeat and subjugation or negotiation that brings an end to conflict. No-one, including sane Israelis, want the first.
So is there a way out? Frankly in the short term, no. Blood will be spilt.
I fear for Palestinians in Gaza. A far right wing Israeli Government will not hold back. The blood shed is already horrific. There is rhetoric that claims Israel is indiscriminately killing innocents through their bombing, but it butts headlong into the reality that Hamas planned and executed an operation that had as an objective the murder of children at a music festival and the kidnapping of children and the elderly. Had this been a knee jerk reaction to an Israeli operation that would still have been wrong, but it was planned at a time when people were not fighting. The Palestinian Ambassador to the UK said that Israel “ had this coming .”
If both sides indefinitely store the wrongs of the past as justification for the present then truly they are lost. That is the lesson of every reconciliation process that has been successful.
I despair for ordinary people on both sides, the innocent will die, Palestinian’s who have suffered enough will suffer more. Jewish mothers will sit shiva over the deaths of their children. None of this should happen. But we, here in the comfort of our living rooms, do not help the cause of either side by criticising the actions of the other without offering an alternative.
There are alternatives.
My next book to read is “ The ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian. The title suggests he is not an apologist for Israeli excess. These people exist in Israeli Society as much as there are moderate voices in Gaza and in the Palestinian movement.
The point is that people who recognise the humanity of both sides should be at the table.
I have also spent a lot of time listening to Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. She is the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem. She spoke this weekend of the similarities of her family and the interests of Arabs in Jerusalem. British born, a barrister she was a founding member of the UAE -Israeli business council and has been a leading light in reaching out to the Gulf states. You may want to hold your nose at anyone signing accords with a country with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but it is a start. We are rarely given the convenience of starting difficult relationship building where we want to end it.
She works for the interests of women and has worked to even out spending across all of the people of Jerusalem of all ethnicities, especially marginalised groups. She has been accused by right wing Israeli groups of encouraging terrorism because of her views. She is a religious Jew and a Zionist. She is an Israeli patriot and some of her views are not my friend’s views . Her words :-
“ This is a Jewish country . There’s only one. And of course there are laws that some people will consider as favouring Jews, it’s a Jewish State .”
But here is a woman, a rising star, courageous, someone who listens, a strong voice who Arabs can do business with.
I consider her position legitimate. If she was a Palestinian making the same statements about an independent Palestine, I’d consider those legitimate too.
The question is, “ where are those Palestinian voices ?” They will be there.
If peace is their joint wish, a two country solution is the only possible outcome. To achieve that both sides need to return different politicians, recognise each other’s humanity. To dream of a Middle East with no Israel is to countenance the cruellest delusion because it is unachievable. It stokes the perpetuation of violence based on a myth.
Nothing will be as guaranteed to achieve violence than more violence. But the road to peace begins with the simple acceptance that both sides have a right to exist.
Simple things are not always the easiest to achieve.
Think of the people who will die now on both sides. Think of the suffering of mothers.
Think also of the family of our First Minister’s wife, who ( last heard) are trapped visiting relatives in Gaza.
May they be safe, Inshallah.