Focus On: Israel/Palestine – The Genesis of the Conflict Part 1

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always a hot subject on the news nowadays; we hear of terrorist explosions and failed peace processes, forced land purchases and expelled people. The Middle East oozes with emotions and everyone seems to have an opinion on who to blame and how to solve it. But how did it all really start?

The reasons stretch a hundred of years back into a complex web of aspirations, hopes and greed articulated by Zionists, Palestinian nationalists and the British government. The history of the conflict is not about numbers of displaced or deceased people; those are the consequences. The history is rather about recognising the ambitions and desires of Israelis and Palestinians, and it is through our understanding of those forces that we can end the conflict today.

Palestine in 1880s under the Ottoman Empire was politically and economically undermined. Many Arabs were indebted and illiterate, and, according to Professor Mark A. Tessler the land was initially uncultivated, lacking urban centres. Zionists, Jewish intellectuals advocating for an independent Jewish state who migrated to Palestine because of Eastern European pogroms, purchased land from indebted Arab peasants, often employing more Arabs than Jews on farms. Zionist settlers and the Arab indigenous population therefore often lived in peace, much because Zionists enhanced Arab economy. Only Palestinian nobles expressed antagonism, as they believed Zionist settlers posed a dangerous economic competition.

It was the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the British Mandate period between the two world wars that created real tension between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The Young Turk Revolution ensured the spread of Arab nationalism, and Palestinian newspapers and societies soon adopted an anti-Zionist view. Political activity against Jews emerged in the 1920s, and one riot in 1920 killed five and injured 211 Jews. At the same time, Zionists exclusively dealt with the question of the creation of a national home instead of dealing with the increasing Arab antagonism. Believing in the superiority of Western culture, they did not mingle with the Arab population but instead relied on the relationship with Britain. Thus the two groups failed to recognise each other’s aspirations.

Britain proved to be the big villain in the creation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pursuing her own interests through the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France which would divide the Middle East into British and French spheres, promises of the creation of an own state were given to both Zionists and Palestinians. The 1917 Balfour Declaration and the Holocaust paved way for the creation of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948.

The Palestinian disappointment can be appreciated, and the Independence War, or Nakba (the Disaster) as Palestinians call it, that followed the British military withdrawal from Palestine created 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Radical Zionist paramilitary groups like the Irgun attacked and threatened Arab villages to force the migration of Palestinians. Arab neighbouring states refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees who were forced to live in United Nations camps. Today, the descendants number almost 5 million. Simultaneously, 300,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries and forced to migrate to Israel. 41 per cent of the Israeli population today descend from these Jews, which surely explain some of the antagonism against Arabs.

The displacement of millions of people, both Jews and Arabs, and the creation of one of the biggest contemporary conflicts was thus a result of Britain’s poor and selfish political decisions. Professor Mark A. Tessler argues that a peaceful coexistence could have been possible if Britain had honoured her promise to Arabs, giving them political and economic rights, and so ensuring that the development of the Jewish state would have grown from a relationship with Arabs rather than with the British government. It is an interesting thought, although the antagonism between Jews and Palestinians is undermined, if not ignored. Because of the inability and the resignation to understand each other, Israelis and Palestinians might not have been able to solve their differences even without British involvement.

After the 1948 war, displacement and dispossession of Palestinians continued, for example through spreading rumours of Jewish rule being harsh to encourage Palestinians to move. Palestinian land was also bought with Jordanian currency to ensure a Palestinian future in Jordan. Israel believed that a peaceful coexistence would come from Palestinian settlement in other Arab countries. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) established in 1964 disagreed. With the aim to liberate Palestinians through armed struggle, for example through attacking a school bus and hijacking airlines flying to Israel, they advocated the Palestinian return to Israel.

The Six-Day War in 1967, created, however, another 300,000 Palestinian refugees from the conquered territories Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. The threat of annihilation before the war, turned into total victory for Israel, made the West Bank an important incorporation into the Israeli state. Israeli consciousness equated the borders of contemporary Israel with those of biblical Israel, making it impossible to return the West Bank to Palestinians.

At the end of 1967, the majority of Palestinians were therefore living outside of Israel, being deprived of the land that once had belonged to them. It is however important to remember that this was a result of two groups being partly played by the greater power of Britain, and partly unable to understand and reason with each other’s aspirations.

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Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    You have excluded crucial factors leading up to the Balfour Declaration and the massacres and expulsions of 1948 (actually began in December 1947).

    You make it sound as if all people living in Palestine were Zionists or ‘Arabs’. They were not Christians, Muslims and Jewish people lived together on the land for many many generations.

    You have ignored the significance of the Zionist Congress (first meeting in 1897). This rallied political support in Europe and began sending Zionists with the intention of buying land to deliberately segregate populations and build a state. Although it is an interesting note that they first considered Argentina as a ‘homeland’. These Zionists also did research on the Palestinian population to identify ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’, something that would be crucial in deciding who to kill and who to exclude in 1948.

    There is plenty more I could add, but if I now skip myself. Another crucial aspect is the legal right of all the refugees to return to there homeland, something the UN every year recognises and states (repeats).

    Maja
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    Martin,

    Yes – I am aware that many issues in the conflict are either not explained to a full extent or mentioned. To keep the length down I had to make choices what to include and what to not include.
    It was not my intent to create a picture of Palestine being inhabitant by only Zionists or Arabs, but I chose to only mention those groups because it was mainly between them the issue arose.
    The right to return to Israel will be discussed more in the next article.

    Pete
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    I think its fair to say you could write a textbook on the issue and still not cover everything. All these points are valid, and the input you’re giving certainly helps, but the writer is required to summarise the situation in an 800 word article, which obviously means leaving some gaps. Overall, I think it’s a good effort.

    Martin
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    I would agree that there is much to cover, though this (part one) covers familiar ground…

    By not mentioning the intent and actions of the Zionist Congress you have neglected a crucial piece of history (the norm is to ignore it though). You have made it sound as if Zionists innocently went to Palestine and the British were the major source of conflict. The British government has a share of the blame but to a certain degree they were duped to. Certainly some British commanders on the ground were against the Balfour Declaration and made it know to government about the likely violence that would follow.

    It should also be more explicit that Palestine was under British colonialism and that the last thing anyone needs is a fresh colonial master. “British Mandate” equals “British Colonialism”, though the latter is more explicit and more people have some understanding of what this means.

    I appreciate that you wrote something on the topic though.

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    Also adding more substance to the article would be the fact that both preceding and after 1948 many Jewish people refused to be apart of the Zionist project in Palestine. They understood it would cause greater suffering…

    Luke SF Goodger
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    These many Jewish people were mainly those who lived nice cushy lives in countries like America, France and Britain, but you cannot ignore the support that these communities give to Israel, financially and politically, it must also not be forgotten that the Jewish Anti-Zionists in Britain are quite vociferous in their condemnation of Israel. Many Jews in Israel itself are also very against what their state is doing, however it is the security situation that pushes them into the hands of Netanyahu. If the Palestinians in their territories and their diaspora do not recognise Israel as a democratic state in their region and continue to call for Israel’s destruction, the problems will persist. Perhaps they should have thought twice before allying themselves to Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian troops which were occupying the West Bank and Gaza when the British left the Levant in 1948.

  3. avatar

    Maja, as someone really interested in this topic but slightly ignorant and heavily overwhelmed by the history and opinions available, I found your overview very useful and concise; thank you very much!

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