Friday, April 08, 2011

What really happened in Palestine / Israel

If the plain facts surrounding Jewish settlement in the Holy Land were set forth, it would dispel the most blatant self-serving claims of those who chant "From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free." It would also dispel the convoluted claims put forth in response by American Zionists and their confused Christian cohorts.

Accordingly, a brief summary is hereby set forth. In response to coherent questions, I will fill in relevant source material as needed.

When the European Jews active in the Zionist movement first began settling in the Holy Land, they arrived by permission of the government of the Ottoman Empire. At one time, the Ottoman Turks had struck fear into the heart of Europe, conquering Constantinople (thereafter, Istanbul), ruling most of the Balkans, barely stopped at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century. But, by the late 19th century, the empire was known as the sick old man of Europe, heavily dependent on German technical and military assistance, which eventually brought it into World War I as one of the Central Powers.

Why did the Ottoman Sultans, successors (however remote) to the Caliphs who had once ruled Bagdhad, choose to permit Jewish immigration? Jews had lived in the empire for its entire history, and some had held high office, including Admiral of the Ottoman navy. The Abassid caliphate in Bagdhad had also nurtured a prosperous Jewish population.

There was a fair amount of unused land. Educated Jews from Europe brought badly needed technical expertise, and the empire could only be a little richer for it. Local feudal landowners sold them land nobody else wanted, next to impossible to work. The Jews who came were mostly some kind of socialist - the more bourgeois Jews cheerfully stayed in Europe to build their fortunes. Those who came to Ottoman lands built their little kibbutzim, and found ways to grow a good crop. A nation or a political entity they were not. But, in a land where every Arab village was ruled more by its own Muktar than by the distant Sultan, Jewish villages too found plenty of autonomy.

During World War I, an enterprising British officer named T.E. Lawrence, later glamorized as "Lawrence of Arabia," agitated a number of Arab tribal leaders and princelings to wage war, more or less under his direction, against the Ottomans. It was a cheap investment by the British Empire, and paid reasonably good dividends.

The Arabs generally hated the Turks, would just as soon be relieved of taxes to the Sultan, and had no hestitation about fighting fellow-Muslims. The Arabs who ruled Mecca and Medina, cheefully fought the empire built by those who had moved out of the Arabian peninsula, now ruled by the descendants of hired mercenaries from central Asia. This tied up some Ottoman forces and resources, and cost the Sultan most of the territory from Arabia and Egypt north to Damascus.

After the war ended, the British came in as imperial masters, rather than grateful allies, treating the Arab leaders with insulting paternalism. The Ottoman Empire was no more. Mustafa Kemal Attaturk invented a Turkish national identity on what land he could hang onto. The British invited the French to join them in sharing the spoils. Of course Britain and France couldn't simply annex the land, as both had done in Africa.

They had just snookered the USA into saving their butts from the German Wehrmacht by calling their fight "a war for democracy" so that "small nations might be free." (No Irish need apply, but they did anyway, in their own war for a small nation to be free). There was now a League of Nations, which could grant "mandates" to administer lands whose people were deemed unready for self-government.

So, the British Mandate of Palestine came to include the territory within which a number of Jewish settlements were interspersed with a number of older Arab communities, some Christian, some Muslims of various branches, including Sunni, Shia, Druze, Sufi, etc. There were even a few Jewish communities which had been there since Roman times.

For reasons related to British home politics, and the exigencies of war in Europe, a letter had been written on 2 Nov 1917 by Arthur James Lord Balfour, summarizing discussions in the British cabinet, to the effect that,

"His Majesty's Government view 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, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. "

However, the British establishment generally looked down their noses at Jews, particularly those who had not become thoroughly British, and actual policy in the Mandate did not live up to that commitment for very long. It may be presumed that the Balfour Declaration was not communicated to the forces organized by Lawrence.

There was, naturally and unnaturally, some friction over the matter with the Arabic-speaking population within the boundaries of the Mandate. Naturally, introduction of a new population almost always produces some friction with long-settled inhabitants of any land. In the USA, this has occured with waves of Irish, German, Polish, Italian, east European, and Jewish immigration, to name only a few. It is rumored that the Pequot, the Passamaquody and the Powhattan confederacy had some objections to English settlement also.

Unnaturally, there was a deliberate effort by feudal lords of various ranks and claims to preserve their faithful, illiterate peasant retainers from contamination by the technical expertise, literacy, and other blessings the Jewish kibbutzim had to offer, which might distract loyal subjects from obedience to the will and whim of their masters.

The immigrant Jews, after all, were European in culture. The Jews who left in various waves of the Diaspora dressed, spoke, and ate very much as the non-Jewish Aramaic-speaking population they left behind. There is a reason that salaam and shalom sound so much alike. But the Jews who came in the 19th and 20th century had a very different culture, acquired in exile. The many Jewish communities in Arabic lands had no desire to pull up stakes and head to Palestine until after 1948.

Throughout human history, on all continents except Antarctica, the most effective way to make an oppressed underclass accomplices in their own subjugation is to inflame passions for some irrational reason against the object which threatens to offer some small degree of liberation and enlightenment. Thus, a series of organized and incited riots in 1929 were set in motion by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Religious fanaticism is generally in the covert service of politics, even when convenient rhetoric suggests otherwise. After a series of mob actions which left 83 Jews dead, and communities in Hebron and elsewhere, which predated the Zionist movement, chased out, Jewish communities developed the rather natural idea that they needed an effective mechanism for self-defense, and a defined, defensible territory.

The British authorities, although eventually motivated to kill some Arabs, just to show who was in charge, had shown no particular concern for saving Jews. Jewish defense organizations were persecuted by British authorities, who also restricted further Jewish immigration.

This was a time when Britain and the United States imposed an international embargo on arms to combatants in the Spanish Civil War - which meant Germany and Italy armed Franco's fascists, while everyone else scrupulously honored the embargo by refusing to sell arms to the elected government of the Republic. In Palestine, the British similarly confiscated Jewish arsenals, quite aware that they were unable or unwilling to prevent the Mufti and neighboring kingdoms from acquiring much larger arsenals.

Then Adolf Hitler perpetrated his "final solution" of "the Jewish question," and those who survived it were in large numbers motivated to leave Europe for the Holy Land.

That brought in several times as many Jews, more than anyone, Jewish, Arab or British, had ever anticipated before. It raised tensions considerably. In some respects, this was not unlike many other migration in human history. One powerful tribe overwhelms another, which flees, taking what land they need from whoever happens to be in the way. The Chinese chased out the Hsiung Nu, and a hundred years later, the Huns came thundering into Europe.

But in 1945, half the world had a sense of guilt about the Jewish population of Europe, and rightly so. The Arabs did not, and with occasional exceptions, like the Grand Mufti, who spent WW II in Berlin, most Arabs had no reason to feel responsible. They had neither been military allies of Germany, nor gassing thousands of Jews a day and burning them in crematoria. It was a choice between a semi-socialist democracy with high literacy standards and extremely equal rights for women, vs. a collection of feudal despots.

The net result was a UN plan for partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories. Partition was a popular solution to ethnic friction during that decade. Britain tried it in India. The result was one or two million civilians dead, a Pakistani state that today would have Muhammed Ali Jinnah spinning in his grave, and more Muslims living in India than Pakistan, most of them better off too, although occasional pogroms by Hindu nationalists remain a hazard.

Jewish and Arab settlements were scattered in patterns that denied anyone defensible borders, but the UN hadn't considered that there might be fighting. This was supposed to be an amicable administrative solution. The British, embarrassed by the UN vote, threw a temper tantrum, said if they weren't in charge any more they didn't care what happened, but continued to confiscate Jewish arsenals.

There was fighting, and the indefensible borders were far more to the Jewish settlements' disadvantage, since there were several Arab armies preparing to march in. The Jewish forces won the 1948 war for the oldest reason in the world: they were fighting for their lives, the Arab armies were only fighting for their dinner.

Who were the Arab forces? The Grand Mufti was one, but only one. A lot of feudal lords wanted to be some kind of top dog or king of the hill. The corrupt Egyptian monarchy, under Farouk, sent in an army, as did the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, some forces from Iraq, and some freebooting mercenaries.

A word about the Hashemite monarchy. At the time of Lawrence's exploits against the Ottomans, the Hashemites were lodged in the western Arabian peninsula, the Hejaz,ruling Mecca and Medina. They were at least distantly descended from the Banu Hashim, a sub-clan of the Quraysh, who had ruled Mecca in the days of idolatry.

Muhammed died of pleurisy within a couple of years after the capitulation of Mecca to his Muslim army, and the more senior branches of the Quraysh saw that this Muslim movement was going places, so they immediately took control. The Banu Hashim did not produce any of his successors, or caliphs in Arabic. Many remained in Arabia, while the Ummayads went forth to consolidate the new Caliphate, and were eventually supplanted by the Abbasids.

After WW I, a rival monarch from further east, one Ibn Saud, chased the Hashemites out of the Hejaz, in 1922, with British acquiescence. Thus, Saudi Arabia was born. The Hashemites fled north, arriving in what are now Jordan and Iraq, to announce "We've come to be your leader."

The British facilitated both moves, with Feisal on the throne of Iraq, Abdullah in what was then called TransJordan. The last Hashemite king of Iraq, the young Feisal Jr., was killed during a coup d'etat in 1958 led by Karim Qasim, who was overthrown by the Ba'ath Party in 1963, eventually leading to the presidency of one Hussein al-Takriti, who grandiosly retitled himself "Saddam Hussein."

Meantime, in Jordan, King Abdullah apparently thought the Jews would make useful subjects, once he established military control and expanded his kingdom. The Jews had other plans, and in any case, the Grand Mufti was eager to literally drive them all into the sea. When general war breaks out, as it did in 1948, the borders established in the course of the fighting generally supercede those previously drawn by diplomacy.

When the dust cleared, the borders of Israel were markedly different than previously drawn. A UN diplomat named Ralph Bunche worked out an armistice, and everyone settled down in seething hostility to wait for the next war. There were some Arab residents remaining in Israel, but they had been transformed by partition from equals to an ethnic and religious minority in what had indeed been their own land.

There were a large number of Arabs, Christian as well as Muslim, who had been displaced. Many had been told to get out of the way by various Arab armies. When the Jews were defeated, they could go back home. The Jews were not defeated, and weren't about to accept a mass of people who would include infiltration of hostile forces back into their newly won defense perimeter. Arab countries declined to absort the displaced population, scrupulously herding them into refugee camps, where they were to remain "until Palestine is liberated."

As intended by the Arab feudal despots, the refugee camps became permanent breeding grounds for warriors against Israel. When modernizing army officers overthrew King Farouk, they might have said, that stupid old king dragged us into this pointless war with Israel. Let's focus on building Egypt. Instead, Gamal Abdal Nasser said, we officers fought honorably but the corrupt monarchy kept us from defeating the Jews, and kept his nation focused on the futile task. Jordan and Iraq sort of went along, as did Syria.

Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia, resident since Roman times or before, suddenly found themselves viewed as a fifth column, because Israel, the new Jewish State, had become The Enemy. It wasn't exactly their idea - it was a minority of European Jews who had started the Zionist movement. The position of Arabic Jews was not unlike that of North American communists, who thought they were fighting for the liberation of the working class, and had not anticipated that the Soviet Union would become the primay military rival of the United States in 1946, thus casting communists as potential spies.

Israel was built by disciplined socialists in the European tradition, but it was now inundated with conservative polygamous patriarchal North African Jews, and conservative religiously observant Orthodox eastern European Jews. It's politics changed over thirty years or so. It won wars in 1967 and 1973, again because Israel was fighting for its life, while various Arabic armies were fighting for their dinner. But it ceased to be the underdog.

Israel came to possess many of the qualifications of an oppressor. It had a large, well-equipped army, an entrenched officer corps, a semi-covert alliance with the Republic of South Africa in development of military hardware. After 1967, Jews who felt entitled to do so began settling in what had been the West Bank of the Jordan River valley, annexed by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1948, although by the terms of the UN partition, it should have been the independent Arab portion of the former British mandate of Palestine.

The various nongovernmental forces that sustained themselves by making occasional terror attacks on Israel generally claimed some sort of leftist or pseudo-communist rhetoric. One, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, even aimed to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, but that hope was crushed by the military action known as Black September. With the kind of rhetorical flourish typical of this arena of conflict, the organization known as "Black September" specialized in attacks in Israel, not on the monarchy.

During the 1980s and 1990s, as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China both lost prestige, and the U.S. committed itself to supporting Salafist Islam against the splintered communist parties of Afghanistan, the conflicts surrounding Israel took on a religious tinge, and emerged in the early 21st century appropriating the banner of Islam.

In fact, this created a wholly different confrontation, having little in common with the earlier Palestinian causes. One difference is that the enemy has much more become "the Jews" rather than "the Zionist entity." Hoary incidents from ancient history have been dredged up as symbols, like the minor skirmish in the Arabian desert around Khaybar, fought for mainly political and economic reasons.

Thus, the entire conflict has become a muddle mess. Anyone with any sense at all, Arab, European, African, or Asian, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or atheist, should be motivated to step back, take a deep breath, and ask "What in the name of God are we doing?"

Israel needs to turn loose the West Bank, let Arabic leadership develop a functional economy, while of course keeping an alert military force on its borders. If that is a success, people in Gaza will get rid of Hamas - which they only elected because the kleptocratic PLO factions were so burdensome.

Hezb-i-ul-Lah in Lebanon will wither away when it no longer has a cause to rally around. Yeah, yeah, Nasrallah, but Israel is still there, and everyone in Palestine is taking vacations by the seashore, and we have better things to do. The theocracy in Tehran can rail all it wants, it doesn't have a border with Israel. Ironically, Pakistan will probably become the world center of terror in the name of Islam. Blame that one on the British too.

When world history is rewritten one more time, Jews and Muslims and Hindus, Arabs and Israelis, should all be able to agree on this: blame it all on the British. What stupid, pig-headed, muddled colonial bunglers they were. Even when they turned loose of their empire, they managed to do it in way that killed millions of civilians in pointless wars that lasted more than half a century. Now, let's get on with living.


Anonymous said...

What would you have done in 1947 if you ran the Palestine Mandate? Or maybe that was too late and you are placing blame earlier than that?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Good question Anonymous. I'm going to take a whole new post to answer it.

By the way, are you one of the Anonymouses who post at Fousesquawk? I know there is more than one, because what they say can't all fit in one mind or one set of consistent principles.

Anonymous said...

A couple more quick points. Have you read or heard lectures on or youtube by Asher Susser? If not, I’d recommend it. He believes that Iran and Turkey are the big players in the Middle East now. Iran is a big problem IMO since they will send weapons and money to Lebanon and Gaza to keep the conflict going to get themselves out of the news since their leaders don’t have the support of their people. I don’t want to confuse you and say this is what Susser is saying exactly. He has said for years that the moderate leaders in Arab nations are more fearful of Iran than of Israel. My point is that I don’t think Hamas and Hezbollah is going to go away as easily as you may think because of outside actors.