How the First World War led to 100 years of Palestinian suffering
The endless dispossession of Palestinians from their own land, which continues today, was begun by decisions colonialists took in 1917.
November has been a bleak month for Palestinians, at the mercy of ruthless and indifferent colonial powers for a century now. November 2017 marks the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, a single-paragraph letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, to World Zionist Organization leader Lord Rothschild sealing a quid pro quo to save Britain from defeat in World War I and sacrificing the Arabs of Palestine in exchange.
Since the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1916, the UK and France with characteristic colonial arrogance decided in the Sykes-Picot Agreement how to divide up Ottoman Arabia if victorious. Meanwhile, however, British forces urged the Arabs to revolt and fight with them, for which the Arabs were promised political independence in the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence of 1915-1916 should the Triple Entente prevail. On this pledge, Arab leaders fielded some 70,000 troops under mixed Arab and British command including Capt. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) fighting major battles from June 1916 through October 1918 in the Palestinian cities of Gaza, Rafah, Jenin, Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Tulkarm, Nazareth, Beersheba and Tiberius, as well as key cities in Syria.
The Arab-assisted Entente prevailed, whereupon an Anglo-French Declaration of November 7, 1918 assured “the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.” To implement the promised political liberation, the post-war League of Nations mandates given France and Britain were intended to guide Arab territories to independent nationhood. French-controlled Syria and Lebanon and UK-controlled (Trans)Jordan and Iraq became independent nations but UK-controlled Palestine did not. What happened?
The World Zionist Organization (WZO), established in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, had set its sights on Palestine. To assess feasibility for Jewish settlement they dispatched two rabbis who sent back a coded message, “The bride is beautiful but already married.” Debating how to proceed facing this obstacle, in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall” Revisionist Zionism founder Ze’ev Jabotinski emphatically identified their goal as “Zionist colonization” that must be “carried out in defiance of the will of the native population” since “every indigenous people will resist alien settlers,” requiring “the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.”
These two histories were brought together by German U-boats.
In early 1917 Germany was on the verge of victory due to its highly successful submarine blockade of shipping to Britain. In desperation, the British government sought help from the WZO to draw America into the war since, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev, British PM Lloyd George believed that “the Jews controlled the White House.” They struck an agreement, which Philip Weiss contends launched the Zionist lobby in America, prominently including American Zionist leader and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and banker Jacob Schiff, both advisors to President Wilson, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who, with future WZO President Chaim Weizman, scuttled a June 1917 diplomatic mission to negotiate a potential Ottoman peace treaty that would have precluded the British mandate in Palestine. Whether their efforts were decisive we cannot know, but despite Wilson’s 1916 campaign pledge to remain neutral, on April 6, 1917 America declared war on Germany. On November 5, 1917 a reciprocating British pledge was formalized in Lord Balfour’s letter:
His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…
The tide was turned, costing 116,000 American lives, and Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918.
By 1947 British facilitation had tripled the Jewish population from 10% in 1920 to over 30% of Palestine, but the land remained over 90% Arab-owned. Throughout this period the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi underground Zionist militias had ruthlessly terrorized both the British and Palestinians – documented in an October 1948 UN report titled “Timeline of Zionist Terror” – and the exhausted British ceded the problem to the UN, resolving to terminate their mandate in May 1948. The UN General Assembly appointed two commissions to explore options, which both came under massive lobbying, manipulation and extortion. The option for a single, integrated democratic state was rejected. Instead, in another bleak November in Palestinian history seven decades ago, UN General Assembly Resolution 181 recommended that 55% of land that wasn’t theirs be given to yet another European colonial project, Zionism, on November 25, 1947.
Violating the UN Charter’s principle of self-determination for previously non-self-governing peoples, UNGA 181 was never sent to the Security Council, which was developing an alternative 5-year UN trusteeship plan when the Zionist militias launched a blitzkrieg (“Plan Dalet”) ethnically cleansing a third of Palestine before the British withdrew, then seizing 78% by December 1948. Almost a million largely helpless Palestinians, previously disarmed by the British, were expelled and never allowed to return, violating international law and Israel’s own 1949 pledge as a condition of UN admission.
Under continuing colonial arrogance, this remains the heart of the impasse. A 2009 survey of Israelis and Palestinians under occupation following Operation Cast Lead found that 87 percent of the Palestinians considered the “right of return AND compensation” for refugees to be “essential” to a final agreement, but this option was rejected by 77% of Israelis as “unacceptable.” This right is one of three objectives of the BDS movement that Israel and its US lobby so vehemently oppose as “the destruction of Israel.” This would decolonize Palestine, erasing Israel’s Jewish majority, ending Jewish domination, supremacy and privilege, and inevitably discarding the 65 laws that now discriminate against non-Jewish citizens of Israel. It would provide in exchange a normal multi-ethnic, egalitarian, actually democratic society.
Collectively replicating the “fearless moral inventory,” apology and restitution that are the heart of every 12-step program, this alone can heal the relationship between these two peoples, simultaneously relieving the anger of one side and the guilt (however unconscious) of the other. As a political psychologist and former clinician, that’s my prescription.
But the faithful, steady, stubborn execution of Jabotinski’s 1923 vision continues to block this simple solution, trampling upon the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention and countless UN resolutions, including 44 UN Security Council resolutions vetoed by the US under relentless lobby pressure. In each of these vetoes the US has stood alone, unsupported by any of the four other permanent or 10 rotating members of the UNSC. Michel Warschawski of Israel’s Alternative Information Center sees Israel self-isolating behind its own walls, building its own “open tomb,” and we have been its enabler.
Their lobby has been rated among the two most powerful in Washington by Congress members and staff, represented not only by nationally well-known AIPAC, ADL, JINSA, WINEP, and the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (51), but a nationwide network of Jewish Federations, Community Relations Councils and media figures.
Thus have Jewish Americans played decisive roles in both creating and sustaining the ongoing Palestinian catastrophe, and Jewish Americans of good conscience and rational judgment now have a duty to spare no effort to end it. Many are increasingly doing so, propelled inter alia by Jewish Voice for Peace, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, If Not Now, and Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, which includes an impressive list of intellectual leaders and potential community speakers. Theirs is the free speech we most desperately need and they deserve our wholehearted support.
After 100 years it’s time to revisit Balfour’s ignored provision that non-Jewish communities in Palestine be protected.
Jack Dresser is national vice-chair of the Veterans for Peace working group on Palestine and the Middle East