Origins of a crime

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The story of how Palestine was pushed out of the map by a Zionist conspiracy.

AS Israel born in sin? Dan Perry of the Associated Press asked Ilan Pappe, who taught political science at Haifa University. The answer was brutally honest and explicit without any equivocation whatever: Yes. The Jews came and took, by means of uprooting and expulsion, a land that was Arab. We wanted to be a colonialist occupier, and yet to come across as moral at the same time; pose as victims to cover up brazen aggression (AP report datelined Tel Avi v, December 24, 1985). The Jewish militia Hagana soon outnumbered the Arabs. King Abdullah of Transjordan had a secret pact with Israel that his Arab Legion, the only strong Arab army, would not go beyond the West Bank.

Ilan Pappe, who now holds the Chair in History at the University of Exeter, elaborated on the theme in Foreign Policy of March-April 2005, citing, irrefutably, facts that deserve to be quoted in extenso: One has to distinguish between what would have happened had Israel not existed and the query of the states legitimacy in the light of its problematic past. The first question should be viewed principally from the perspective of Israels victims, the Palestinians. Had Israel not existed, then 750,000 Palestinians would not have become refugees. Five hundred Palestinian villages, 11 Palestinian towns, 94 per cent of the cultivated land in Palestine, thousands of Palestinian businesses, and endless numbers of careers would have been saved. Under whatever political structure that would have evolved, instead of Israel in Mandatory Palestine, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people in 1948 when they were ethnically cleansed by the Jewish state would not have occurred.

Had Israel not existed, the lives of 50,000 Palestinians my estimate of the number killed by Israel in its 57 years of existence would have been spared. Two and a half million Palestinians would have been saved from one of the cruellest and most callous military occupations in the second half of the 20th century. A million Palestinian citizens in Israel would have been exempted from an apartheid system that has discriminated against them ever since the creation of the state. And, above all, the millions of Palestinian refugees could have come back home.

A Palestinian family

Two other fateful consequences flowed inexorably from that sordid event. Corrupt and authoritarian Arab regimes acquired an excuse for neglecting their social and economic problems. They professed sympathy for the Arabs in Palestine but allied themselves closely with Israels principal supporter, the U.S., in order to preserve their power over their own people. The Times (London) of February 11, 1980, published an article by the scholar Peter Hennessy based on 50-year Treasury files released at the Public Records Office. It was entitled Lawrences secret Arabian slush fund. Payments were made to some of the tallest leaders in Palestines neighbouring states. On March 2, 1922, the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, gave some details of the payments in the House of Commons. The bulk went to the two sons of Sherif Hussein, Feisal and Abdullah, who were made Kings of Iraq and Transjordan, respectively. They even cheated their father by grabbing secretly money the British had earmarked for him. The other consequence is an irreparable damage to the Wests relations with the Arab world and the Muslim world and to the Wests image in the Third World. Israelis are more honest in accepting the facts of history than are their supporters in the West or sympathisers in India. Tom Segevs classic work One Palestine, Complete is another instance of the kind (for a review of the book, see Palestine and Israel, Frontline, July 20, 2001). Some fear that the truth spells extinction of Israel . But Pappe sees no existential threat in a dialogue based on acceptance of the truth. Much of the harm done by Israel cannot be repaired, but a lot can be. His plea for a unitary, secular democratic State over historical Palestine might seem unrealistic, but few realists offer alternatives that are fair and just.

The respected Israeli paper Haaretz of November 28, 2000, published a report by Akiva Eldar of a meeting of Israels Cabinet at which the acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami made a stunning remark when it was discussing a paper prepared by the Prime Ministers Office listing Palestinian violations. He said that no one in the West would be surprised that a people under occupation fails to honour accords with its occupier: Accusations made by a well-established society about how a people it is oppressing is breaking rules to attain its rights do not have much credence. (Israel: A Historic Statement by Henry Siegman, New York Review of Books, February 8, 2001.) Israels is a quintessentially colonial situation.

Contrast this with the laboured apologia trotted out by Israels supporters and the false moral equivalence between Israel and the people it has wronged and continues still to oppress. One is reminded of the Irish bull: I shall swerve neither to partiality on the one hand, nor to impartiality on the other. Sample this bit of even handedness from The Economist of May 26, 2007: What right had the British, in 1917, to promise the Jews a national home in Palestine? Why did the Palestinians reject partition in 1947? Apart from the fact that the United Nations General Assemblys resolution of November 29, 1947, gave the Arabs 47 per cent of what was their homeland for seven centuries, what right had any one to demand that the Arabs acquiesce in 1947 in a fait accompli brought about by immigration of Jews into Arab Palestine? The rabidly pro-Israeli Henry Kissinger goes further still. The entire Arab world must accept history as written by Israel and the U.S. Will recognition of Israel bring an end to the unrelenting media, governmental and educational campaign in Arab countries that presents Israel as an illegitimate, imperialist almost criminal interloper in the region? (International Herald Tribune, October 24, 2007). Arabs mourn the Nakbah (catastrophe) that befell them and robbed them of their country in 1948.

Remove the qualification almost and you have a perfectly accurate description of Israel it is illegitimate, imperialist and a criminal interloper in the region, a Western outpost in the East. Israel was not only born in sin, as Ilan Pappe said in 1985. His recent researches establish beyond doubt that it was a product of a grave international crime, one of the worst in history. Israel was established by systematic recourse to force and deceit over three decades. It was established on May 14, 1948. But the origins of the crime lie in the decades earlier. Timothy W. Ryback, co-director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at the Salzburg Seminar, rightly holds that truth ultimately leads to justice and to meaningful and lasting peace. This is true of all disputes, including particularly the ones in which India is embroiled Kashmir and the boundary with China. It is all to the good that joint Palestinian-Israeli projects are under way to provide shared narratives. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan identified the competing historical narratives in mid-November 2006 at a conference in Istanbul. He had commissioned a strategy paper in 2005 on the growing religious rift between the East and the West. Our narratives have become our prison, he remarked (Enter the historians, finally by Timothy W. Ryback, International Herald Tribune, November 24, 2006).

But objectivity is tested by ones approach to the record, not by a shunning of preference, still less, by forced moral equivalence. Pappes History sets out the record preceding the establishment of Israel. His latest work establishes The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by using mostly Israeli official sources. The blue-print for ethnic cleansing was Plan Dalet. On March 10, 1948, 11 men met at the Red House, the headquarters of Israels pre-state army, the Hagana, to put the finishing touches to their master plan. This consultancy was headed by David Ben-Gurion, who became Israels first Prime Minister on its establishment. In the evening that day, military orders were sent to units on the ground to prepare for the expulsion of Palestinians. When the exercise ended six months later, some 800,000 Palestinians had been uprooted; about half the population were driven out or fled their homes and lands. Those refugees now number over 4.5 million and are at the core of the intractable issue of the right of return. This, the author holds, was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity (emphasis added, throughout). This was not incidental to the creation of Israel, it was indispensable to it, an integral part of the game of converting land that was occupied by Palestinians for 700 years into a Jewish state on the spurious ground that it was theirs 1,800 years ago.

In 1853, about half a million Arabic-speaking people lived in Palestine. Most were Muslims, around 60,000 were Christians and 20,000 were Jews. It was under Ottoman sovereignty and occupation. The empire held sway over modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan besides parts of the present Saudi Arabia. There was a vilayet (province) of Syria (1517-1918) of which Palestine was a part, as also a vilayet of Bairut. In 1864, a vilayet law was promulgated placing some sub-provinces (sanjaqs) directly under Istanbuls rule. The sanjaq of Jerusalem was one of them along with Acre and Nablus. Modern Palestine comprises the sanjaq of Jerusalem and contiguous portions of the former vilayet of Bairut.

Palestine as such was nowhere mentioned in the texts of the times. It was just a part of Syria. The Ottoman empire entered the First World War in November 1914 on the wrong side Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1918, the British occupied Palestine and the Jewish population increased 10 times through waves of immigration by the time the British quit in 1948. The table (on page 83) is based on two British publications, Survey of Palestine and Statistical Abstract of Palestine, and the report of the subcommittee of the U.N.s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine.

How and why did this come about? Basically because the British gave contradictory promises independence to the Arab subjects of the Ottomans to encourage them to revolt against the empire during the War and territorial gains to the French to keep the alliance alive.

Five documents comprise the devils bargain.

1. The British High Commissioner in Egypt was formerly Indias Foreign Secretary Sir Henry McMahon, author of the McMahon Line (1914). In 1915-1916, he entered into a correspondence with the head of the Hashemites, Sharif Hussein, guardian of Mecca and Medina, promising Arabs independence in return for their support. A crucial letter of October 24, 1915, promised to recognise and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca. This, however, was subject to a modification namely, that the districts of Mersin and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation.

The British letter contended that this also excluded Palestine. If that was so, McMahon had only to write except the sanjaq of Jerusalem. Analysing the correspondence, Prof. Michael J. Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, Israel, points out that even a cursory examination of the text would indicate that such an interpretation cannot be upheld. The qualification would comprise todays Lebanon leaving Palestine to the area assigned by McMahon to the Arabs (The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist conflict, pages 20-23).

McMahons letter was a cynical sham as his letter to the Viceroy of India, only a month later, revealed. His aim was to tempt the Arab people into the right path this on our part is largely a matter of words. The Times (London) published on April 17, 1964, an article entitled Light on Britains Palestine Promise, based on two recently discovered documents, prepared by the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office. The 20-page memorandum on The British Commitments to King Hussein acknowledged that the British were pledged to Palestines inclusion in the boundaries of Arab independence. The second document said the whole of Palestine was covered by the letter of October 24, 1915.

2. Perfidy was practised calculatedly. In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes of the Foreign Office and his French counterpart George Picot carved up the region into two spheres of influence. The parleys had begun in 1912 even before the War erupted in 1914. There were to be areas of influence and of direct control. Palestine was to be administered by an international condominium of Britain, France and Russia, which also was privy to the deal.

3. On November 2, 1917, came the Balfour Declaration promising the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people without prejudice to the civil and political rights of existing non-Jewish communities there. This odd reference to the Arab majority betrayed evil intention. The object clearly was to convert it to a minority with protected rights. A national home implying a sanctuary was a euphemism for a Jewish state. In the same month the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and published the secret treaties.

4. The Arabs were mortified to learn of this pact. Britain and France issued a declaration on November 7, 1918, to allay their fears.

5. Under the covenant of the League of Nations (1919), France acquired a Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, and Britain for Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. The Sykes-Picot deal was fully carried out, leaving the Arabs high and dry.

Intended to deceive, the pledges were inescapably contradictory. McMahon promised an independent Hashemite kingdom in Syria, including Palestine, Iraq and Arabia. The Sykes-Picot deal was a colonial carve-up of the Middle East, an expression Sykes promoted. Balfour knew that he was offering a Jewish state in Palestine under the guise of a national home for the Jewish people. Thus, one nation (the British) promised another (the Jews) to gift to them the lands of a third nation (the Arabs).

Arthur James Balfour, a former Prime Minister and author of the declaration, was the Foreign Secretary. In a neglected memorandum of August 11, 1919, Balfour analysed the pledges: these documents are not consistent with each other. They offered both independence and colonial control. Overlordship is not alien to the immemorial customs and traditions of this portion of the Eastern world. On the other hand, the scheme does seem to me to be quite alien to those modern notions of nationality which are enshrined in the Covenant (of the League of Nations) and proclaimed in the Declaration.

Besides the colonial outlook, there was another giveaway. In 1915 we promised the Arabs independence, and the promise was unqualified, except in respect of certain territorial reservations. On his own admission, these reservations did not cover Palestine. For, he added, certain reservations intended to protect French interests in Western Syria and Cilicia (Lebanon, really).

The covenant said that the wishes of the people must be a principal consideration in the selection of the mandatory. But Syria did not want France. The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For, in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to understand is how it can be harmonised with the Declaration, the Covenant, or the instructions to the Commission of Enquiry.

I do not think that Zionism will hurt the Arabs; but they will never say they want it. Whatever be the future of Palestine it is not now an independent nation, nor is it yet on the way to become one. Whatever deference should be paid to the views of those who live there, the powers in their selection of a mandatory do not propose, as I understand the matter, to consult them. In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.

Since the literal fulfilment of all our declarations is impossible, they must be trimmed to accord with the aspirations of the the French, the British and the Jews. The Arabs to whom the pledges were given and to whom the land belonged were deliberately omitted. (Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939; First series, Volume IV, 1952, His Majestys Stationery Office; pages 342-345). It contains the texts of the Sykes-Picot documents and more. This invaluable volume on that decisive phase exposes the cynicism in the entire decision-making process. But it omits an equally revealing document dated October 26, 1917. It was written by Lord Curzon, member of the Cabinet, and was published with a sneering intro by the Prime Minister of those times, David Lloyd George, in 1938 (The Truth About the Peace Treaties, Volume II; pages 1123-1132).

There is an excellent compilation, Palestine Documents, by Zafarul-Islam Khan (Pharos Publishers, New Delhi. It covers the period 1897-1998 and is one of the best). Balfour, Lloyd George and many British leaders were pro-Zionist. Winston Churchill was among them, but as an imperialist with pro-Jewish sympathies. Segev and Pappe refer to the Biblical Zionists Christians who believed that the return of the Jews would precipitate the second coming of the Messiah.

Curzons dissent hurt the Prime Minister because it was a masterpiece of scholarship and irrefutable logic. He went to the heart of the matter. What is the meaning of the phrase a National Home for the Jewish Race in Palestine? He asked what is to become the people of this country?... There are over half a million of these Syrian Arabs. They and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years. They own the soil They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water to the latter Finally, next to Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the most sacred city of the Mohammedan faith It is impossible to contemplate any future in which the Mohammedans should be excluded from Jerusalem.

On October 31, the Cabinet endorsed Balfours infamous declaration, which was issued on November 2, 1917. Originally, his draft said, Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people. Protests induced change to establishment of a national home for them. But the real objective was obvious. A year later, on December 5, 1918, Curzon noted that Zionist claims had become daily more expansive. They now talk of a Jewish State. The Arab portion of the population is well-nigh forgotten and to be ignored. Not only did the Zionists claim the boundaries of the old Palestine but they also proposed to colonise lands east of the Jordan river. In 1919, a map making such a claim was presented to the Paris Peace Conference by the World Zionist Organisation. It represents Israels ambitions.

To Curzons protests, Balfour replied, disingenuously, that the Zionist leader in Britain, Chaim Weizmann, had never put forward a claim for the Jewish Government of Palestine. Curzon had no doubt that that was Weizmanns objective. In a letter to Balfour, on January 26, 1919, Curzon cited Weizmanns statements and said, He contemplates a Jewish State, a Jewish nation, a subordinate population of Arabs etc., ruled by Jews. (Curzon and British Imperialism in the Middle East 1916-19 by John Fisher, pages 212-214).

Weizmanns double talk, plus material incentives, persuaded Prince Faisal to sign an agreement with him on January 3, 1919. Faisal represented the Arab State and Palestine and agreed to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale provided the Arabs obtain their independence. He kept this secret from Arab colleagues and later denied knowledge of the sell-out. In July 1920, Faisal was ousted from Syria by the French. The British made him King of Iraq.

R.J.Q. Adams superb biography of Balfour must be read not only by students of West Asia but also by students of constitutional law and practice. It does full justice to his remarkable subject. Balfour was a ruthless intellectual and a cynical aesthete. He was author also of the formula defining the Commonwealth. Adopted in 1926, it enabled India to become a member in 1949. The author quotes from Balfours speech in 1920 in which he said, The deep, underlying principle of self-determination really points to a Zionist policy, however little in its strict technical interpretation it may seem to favour it the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional. Balfour, in truth, fully accepted Weizmanns views. Adams ably analyses the issues in this controversy with Curzon as also Balfours decisive advice to the king which resulted in denial of the Prime Ministers job to Curzon.

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