Consortiumnews.com: The Battle for Palestine

August 12, 2014

Special Report: Americans often focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
based on the latest atrocity and which side is to blame. But there is a long
and important back story to this conflict which continues to stir up unrest
across the Middle East, as retired U.S. diplomat William R. Polk explains.

By William R. Polk

What we call the “Palestine Problem” is really a European Problem. No
European society treated Jews as full members, and most have ugly records of
anti-Semitism. Even relatively benign Western governments exploited,
segregated or banished Jews (and such other minorities as Gypsies, Muslims
and deviant Christians). Less benign governments practiced pogroms,
massacres and expulsions. European history reveals a pervasive, powerful and
perpetual record of intolerance to all forms of ethnic, cultural and
religious difference.

Jewish reaction to the various forms of repression was usually passivity but
occasionally flight interspersed with attempts to join the dominant

French diplomat Francois George-Picot, who along with British colonial
officer Mark Sykes drew lines across a Middle East map of the Ottoman Empire
after World War I, carving out states with boundaries that are nearly the
same as they are today.

When Jews were attacked by Christian mobs during the Crusades, they suffered
and tried to hide; when they were thrown out of such medieval cities as
Cambridge, they fled to new refuges; when they and the Muslim Arabs were
forced out of Spain in 1492, most found refuge in Muslim countries which
were far more tolerant of minorities than contemporary Christian societies;
when Eastern (Ashkenazi) and “Oriental,” mainly Spanish, (Sephardic) Jews
in small numbers began to reach Germany, Austria, France and England in the
Eighteenth Century, many converted to Catholicism; finally, most of the
European and American Jewish communities assimilated culturally and by
generous public actions sought to prove their social value to their adopted

Generally speaking, they were successful in their efforts in America,
England and Italy but failed in France, Germany and Austria. Even when they
faced existential threats, there is no record of a serious attempt by
European Jews to defend themselves.

In the latter years of the Nineteenth Century, the reaction of the Jewish
communities residing in Europe began to change. In part this was because,
like other European peoples, Jews began to think of themselves as a nation.
This transformation of attitude led to a change from the desire for escape
to a temporary haven (Nachtaysl) to permanent establishment in what Theodor
Herzl called a Judenstaat, the creation of a separate, faith-based
nation-state which was viewed as the permanent solution to anti-Semitism.
This was the essential aim and justification for Zionism.

Nineteenth Century Europeans understood and approved of the concept of
nation-states but only for themselves; in France, Germany, Italy, Austria
and the Balkans, Europe was reforming itself along national lines. However,
no European nation-state was willing to tolerate a resident rival
nationalism. So Herzl’s call for Jewish nationhood was generally regarded as
subversive by non-Jews and was feared by the more established Jewish
communities and the religious establishment as a probable cause of an
anti-Jewish reaction. These attitudes would remain in contention down to our

Keen for Imperialism

Even before the Europeans were imbibing the ideas of nationalism, their
ruling classes were thrusting into the Americas, Africa and Asia to create
empires. Spain dominated the Americas and was insistent that the
ethnic-religious problems of the Old World not be transmitted there so it
sought ethnic “purity” of its colonizers; neither Jews nor suspect conversos
were allowed. England effectively ruled India beginning in the last years of
the Eighteenth Century, and the nature of its colonial government, drawn
from the middle class, generally precluded Jewish involvement.

On the contrary, when France invaded Algeria from 1830, it opened its doors
to fairly large-scale Jewish immigration from Malta and elsewhere. Germany
briefly tried to create an empire in Africa but was stopped by the First
World War.

Russia meanwhile was consolidating its Asian empire and in parts of it
created Jewish zones in some of which people of non-Semitic backgrounds were
absorbed into Jewish culture, but, in the western heart of the Russian
empire, anti-Semitism was pervasive and violent. By the Nineteenth Century,
Russian Jews were leaving in vast number for Western Europe and the United
States. In the last decade of the Nineteenth Century almost 200,000 arrived
in America alone.

Despite the differences, we can see that while nationalism was the ideology
of choice domestically, imperialism captured the imagination of Europeans in
foreign affairs. So how did these two ideologies impact upon what most
Europeans regarded as “the Jewish problem?”

In England, we see most clearly what some leading politicians thought might
be the answer: encouraging the emigration of Jews from Europe to the
colonies. One of the early proponents of this, essentially anti-Semitic,
policy was Sir Laurence Oliphant. As he proposed, getting rid of the Jews as
neighbors — that is, in England — and thus solving the “Jewish Problem”
would foster British trade and help Britain consolidate its empire if they
established themselves as colonies in Africa or Asia.

Added to the benefit imperialists identified was the vague but attractive
idea held by many fervent Christians that if the Jews returned to the Holy
Land, they would become Christian. Thus, support for Zionism seemed to many
Europeans to be a win-win policy.

Colonial Neglect

Europeans knew little about the peoples they were conquering in Africa and
Asia and did not regard their well-being as of much importance. Americans,
let us admit, were even more brutal in dealing with native Americans. So
were the Australians with the Aboriginals and the South African Boers with
the Bantu. Rich, Western societies generally regarded the poor of the world,
and especially other races, colors and creeds, as subhuman, without claims
on freedom or even sustenance.

This was the attitude taken up by the early Zionists toward the Arabs. Even
their existence was often denied. The Zionist leader, Israel Zangwill,
described Palestine and Zionist aspirations for it as being “a country
without a people for a people without a land.”

Zangwill’s was a powerful slogan. Unfortunately, it masked a different
reality. Given the technology of the times, Palestine was actually densely
populated. The overwhelming numbers of the inhabitants were villagers who
farmed such land as they could water. Water, never plentiful, was the
limiting factor.

Nomads lived on the edges but they were always few in number, never as much
as 15 percent of the natives. They too used sparse resources in the only way
they could be used, by moving their animals from one temporary source of
grazing to another as rain made possible.

Until massive amounts of money and new technologies became available from
the 1930s, population and land were in balance but, of course, in balance on
a lower level than in wetter, richer climates where societies had more
advanced technologies.

Oliphant, his successors in the British government and others in the French
government were not concerned about what their policies did to native
peoples. The British were keen to take the lands of African blacks and to
plunder the Indians of India while the French engaged in policies
approaching genocide in Algeria. As focused on Palestine, the British sought
to solve the problem of what to do with the Jews at the expense of peoples
who could not defend themselves — and to benefit from the work of the Jews
rather like medieval kings did — rather than to reform their own attitudes
toward Jews.

Thus, as Claude Montefiore, the president of the Anglo-Jewish Association,
declared on Nov. 30, 1917, “The Zionist movement was caused by

The Deep Cause of War

The two World Wars set the parameters of the “middle term” causes of the
struggle for Palestine. Briefly, we can sketch them under four headings:
first, the desperate struggle of the British to avoid defeat in the First
World War by courting Jewish support; second, the struggle of the British
both to defeat the still powerful Ottoman empire and to avoid the danger of
mutiny of Muslims in their Indian empire; third, the British attempts to
“square” of the triangle of promises made during the war to Arabs, Jews and
their French allies; and, fourth, the management of a viable “mandate,” as
they renamed their League of Nations-awarded colonies.

Taken together, these acts form the “middle term” of the causes of war in
our times. They are:

First, in the final period of the First World War, the Russians were
convulsed by revolution and sought a separate peace with Germany (the
1917-1918 negotiations that led to the Brest-Litovsk treaty). The Germans’
incentive for the treaty was that it allowed them to shift their powerful
military formations from the Eastern front to the Western front. They hoped
that in one huge push they could overwhelm the already depleted and
exhausted Anglo-French armies before America could effectively intervene.

The Allied High Command thought this was likely. Slaughter of the Allied
forces had been catastrophic. At the same time, England faced bankruptcy. It
had drawn down its own reserves and exhausted its overseas credit. It was

So what options did the British have? Let us be clear: whether their
assessment was right or wrong is irrelevant because they acted on what they
thought they knew. They believed that support for Zionist aspirations would,
or at least might, change their fortunes because they thought that:

–The Bolsheviks who had become the Russian government were overwhelmingly
Jewish and seeing British support for what was presumably their aspiration
for a national home, they would rescind or not implement the contentious and
unpopular Brest-Litovsk treaty and so keep the German army from redeploying
on the Western front;

–A large part of the officer corps of the German army was Jewish and seeing
British support for what was presumably their aspiration for a national home
and also being disillusioned by the losses in the war and the way they were
discriminated against by the Prussian high command they would either defect
or at least fight less hard; and

–The American financial world (“Wall Street”) was controlled by Jews who,
seeing British support for what was presumably their aspiration for a
national home, would open their purses to relieve the desperate need of
Britain for money to buy food and arms. (Again, these British perceptions
may have been far off the mark but they were their perceptions.)

This appreciation was the justification for the Balfour Declaration of Nov.
2, 1917. As then-British Prime Minister David Lloyd George later declared,
“The Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise that, if the Allies
committed themselves to give facilities for the establishment of a national
home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally Jewish
sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause.”

British Maneuvering

Second, the Balfour Declaration was not a “stand alone” document: Britain
had already sought the support of the predominant Arab Muslim leader. Since
the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph had declared support for the Central Powers,
Sharif ["noble descendant of the Prophet"] Husain, who was then the
governor of Mecca, was the most venerated Muslim the British could hope to
use to accomplish their two urgent objectives: the first was defeating the
Ottoman army (which had just captured a whole British division and was
threatening the Suez Canal) and the second was preventing what their
jittery security service was always predicting, another Indian “mutiny”
and/or the defection of the largely Muslim Indian army as a result of the
declaration of a jihad by the Sultan-Caliph.

To accomplish these twin aims, the British encouraged the Sharif of Mecca to
proclaim his support for the Allied cause and to organize a “Revolt in the
Desert.” In return, the British offered to recognize Arab independence under
his rule in most of the Middle East.

The British offer was spelled out by the senior British official in the
Middle East, Sir Henry McMahon, in a series of official letters of which the
first was dated July 14, 1915. The area to be assigned to Husain was
essentially “Syria” or what is today divided into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan,
part of Arabia and Palestine/Israel. This initial offer was subsequently
reconfirmed and extended to Iraq by a series of separate declarations and

Although the British government had committed itself to support Arab claims
for this area, it also began the following year negotiating with France and
the Russian empire for this and other parts of the Middle East. An
Anglo-French accord was reached in 1916 by Sir Mark Sykes with M. Georges
Picot. Their agreement allocated to France much of what had been promised to
the Arabs and designated as an international zone the then Ottoman coastal
areas from the Sinai frontier with Egypt including Gaza up to and including
the now Lebanese city of Tyre (Arabic: Sour) except for a small British
enclave at Acre.

Third, as the war ended and the negotiations began in Paris for a Treaty of
Peace, the British had to try to explain, hide or revise these three wartime
agreements. They were embarrassed when the new Bolshevik government
published the hitherto secret Sykes-Picot agreement, but they managed for
years to keep the Husain-McMahon correspondence secret. What they could not
hide was the Balfour Declaration. However, they began a process of
“definition” of their policy that ran completely counter to what the
Zionists had expected.

Zionist Goals

The Zionists, from the beginning, were determined to turn Palestine into a
Jewish nation-state (Herzl’s Judenstaat), but, being sensitive to British
politics, their leaders denied “the allegation that Jews [aimed] to
constitute a separate political nationality.” The word the Zionists proposed
for what they intended to create in Palestine, coined by Max Nordau as a
subterfuge “to deceive by its mildness,” was heimst�tte (something less than
a state, roughly a “homeland) to be employed “until there was no reason to
dissimulate our real aim.”

Predictably, the deception fooled no one. As Lord Kitchener had remarked
when the Balfour Declaration was being debated in the English Cabinet, he
was sure that the half million Palestinians would “not be content [with an
Old Testament role as a suppressed minority to be] hewers of wood and
drawers of water.” He was right, but few people cared. Certainly not then.

The native Palestinians were not mentioned in any of the three agreements:
the agreement with Sharif Husain dealt broadly with most of the Arab Middle
East while the Sykes-Picot agreement shunted them, unnamed, aside into a
rather vague international zone and the Balfour Declaration used the curious
circumlocution for them as “the existing non-Jewish communities.” (However,
while focusing on Jewish aspirations and avoiding naming the Palestinians,
it specified that nothing should be done that would “prejudice” their “civil
and religious rights.”)

It was not until 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, that an attempt was
made to find out what the Palestinians wanted. No one in Paris knew; so,
strongly opposed by both Britain and France, President Woodrow Wilson sent a
mission of inquiry, the King-Crane Commission, out to the Levant to find
out. Wilson, already desperately ill and having turned over leadership of
the American delegation to my cousin Frank Polk, probably never saw their
report, but what the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians told the American
Commissioners was essentially that they wanted to be left alone and if that
was not feasible they would accept American (but not British) supervision.
The British were annoyed by the American inquiry; they did not care what the
natives wanted.

The British were also increasingly disturbed that heimst�tte was being taken
to mean more than they had intended. So, when Winston Churchill became
Colonial Secretary and as such was responsible for Palestine, he publicly
rebuked the Zionists for trying to force Britain’s hand and emphasized that
in the Balfour Declaration the British government had promised only to
support establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland. It did not commit
Britain to make Palestine as a whole the Jewish homeland.

Echoes of these statements would be heard, because shouted back and forth
over the following 30 years, time after time. Ultimately the shouts would
become shots.

Irreconcilable Differences

British attempts over the years to reconcile their promises to the Arabs,
the French and the Zionist movement occupies shelves of books, filled a
number of major government studies and was taken up in several international
conferences. The promises were, of course, irreconcilable.

One must admire the candor of Lord Balfour, the titular author of the
Balfour Declaration, who, in a remarkable statement to his fellow Cabinet
ministers on Aug. 11, 1919, admitted that “so far as Palestine is concerned,
the Powers [Britain and France] have made no statement of fact which is not
admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which at least in letter,
they have not always intended to violate.”

Fourth, having driven out the Ottoman Turkish forces, the British set up
military governments. Knowing about these double- or triple-deals, efforts
at concealment, post-facto interpretations, lawyer-like quibbles,
linguistic arguments and Biblical allusions, the British commander, General
(later Field Marshal, Lord) Edmond Allenby, refused to be drawn into the
fundamental issue of policy, declaring that such measures as were being
taken were “purely provisional,” but the military government quickly morphed
into a British colony, defined by the new League of Nations as a “mandate”
in which the imperial power was obligated to “uplift” the natives and
prepare them for self-rule.

Practical decisions were to be set by the civil High Commissioner. The first
such official was an English Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, who came into
office to begin large-scale immigration of Jews into Palestine, to recognize
de facto a Jewish government (the “Jewish Agency”) and to give Jewish
immigrants permission to acquire and irrevocably hold land that was being
farmed by Palestinian villagers. I turn now to the transformation of
Palestine under British rule.

The Deep Cause of War

The Palestine, which the British had conquered and around which they drew a
frontier, had a surface area of 10,000 square miles (26,000 square
kilometers) and had been divided among three sanjaqs (subdivisions of a
province) of the Ottoman villayet (province) of Beirut. The British had
expelled its governors and their civil, police and military officers, who
were Ottoman officials, and had established a colonial government.

The population of 752,000 was divided mainly between 600,000 Arabic-speaking
Muslims and roughly 80,000 Christians and the same number of Jews. Each
group had its own schools, hospitals and other public programs staffed by
religiously educated men. The Jews were mostly pilgrims or merchants and
lived mainly in Jerusalem, Haifa and the larger towns. Christians,
similarly, had their own churches and schools, but unlike the Muslims and
Jews they were divided among a variety of sects.

A British study in 1931 found them to include adherents of the Orthodox,
Roman Catholic, Greek Uniate (Melkite), Anglican, Armenian (Gregorian),
Armenian Uniate, Jacobite, Syrian Catholic, Coptic, Abyssinian, Abyssinian
Uniate, Maronite, Chaldean, Lutheran and other churches. Whatever else the
land of Palestine produced, it was certainly luxuriant in religion.

The Palestine that emerged at the end of the First World War was also an
heir to the Ottoman Empire because the British had decided that Ottoman laws
were still in effect. What these laws mandated would play a major role in
Palestinian-Zionist affairs so they must be noted. The key point is that in
its later years, the Ottoman empire had attempted various reforms that were
primarily aimed at increasing its ability to draw tax revenue from the

The most important of these changes was the imposition of quasi-private
ownership on the traditional system of land ownership. From roughly 1880
onward, wealthy urban or even foreign merchants, money lenders and officials
were able to acquire title to lands by agreeing to pay the taxes. Similar
systems and similar transfer of “ownership” occurred in many areas of Asia
and Africa. “Modernization” often came at the price of legal dispossession.
So important was this was a concept and a process in future events that it
must be understood.

Land in Palestine (and adjoining Lebanon as in Egypt, India and much of
Africa and Asia) was an extension to a village. Like the houses, the plots
mirrored the kinship structure. If a family tree were superimposed on a map,
it would show that adjoining parcels were owned by close relatives; the
further away the land, the more distant the kin relationship. One could read
into the land ownership pattern the history of births, deaths, marriages,
family disputes and the waxing and fading of lineages.

Despite the Ottoman changes, villagers continued to plow and harvest
according to their system. In fact, they did everything they could to avoid
contact with the government. They did so because the collection of taxes
resembled a military campaign in which their grain might be confiscated,
their cattle driven away, their sons kidnapped for military service and
other indignities imposed.

In Palestine as in Syria, Iran and the Punjab where the process has been
carefully studied, peasants often agreed to have their lands registered as
the possession of rich and influential merchants and officials who would
promise to protect them. In short, the new system promoted a sort of mafia.

That was the legal system the British found when they set up their
government in Palestine. Ottoman tax records specified that large blocs of
villages and their lands “belonged” not to village crop farmers but to the
influential “tax farmers.”

One example was the Lebanese merchant family, the Sursuks. In 1872, the
Sursuks had acquired a kind of ownership (known in Ottoman law as miri) from
the Ottoman government for a whole district in the Vale of Esdraelon near
Haifa. The 50,000 acres the Sursuks acquired was apportioned among some 22
villages. In return for the title to the land, they agreed to pay the yearly
tax which they extracted from the villagers in their multiple roles as tax
collector, purchaser of shared crops and money lender. They apparently made
at least 100 percent profit yearly on their purchase; the land was one of
the most fertile areas in the country.

As an English traveler, Lawrence Oliphant, wrote in 1883, this land “looks
today like a huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned
mounds rising from it like islands, and it presents one of the most striking
pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to imagine.”

While the law was Ottoman, it corresponded to English practice dating from
the Seventeenth Century “enclosures” of commons. The British imposed it on
Ireland and enforced it on the Punjab, Kenya and other parts of their

Selling the Land

The Sursuks had purchased the land, according to the records, for an initial
� 20,000. Under the Land Transfer Ordinance of 1920, they were allowed to
sell it. So in 1921, the Zionist purchasing agency bought the land and
villages for �726,000. The Sursuks became rich; the Zionists were delighted;
the losers were the villagers. Some 8,000 of them were evicted.

Moreover, for the most laudable of reasons — the Zionist regulation that
forbade exploitation of natives — the dispossessed villagers could not even
work as landless laborers on their former lands. Nor could the land ever be
repurchased from the Jewish National Fund which provided that the land was

Both anger and greed gripped the Palestinian upper class: some sold their
lands for what appeared then astronomical prices, but about 80 percent of
all purchases were from absentee owners, like the Sursuks.

In less than a decade, tensions between the two communities reached a flash
point. The flash point was then, and continued to the present time to be,
the place where the Wailing Wall abutted the principal Islamic religious
site, al-Aqsa mosque. For the first time, on Aug. 15, 1929, a mob of several
hundred Jewish youths paraded with the Zionist flag and sang the Zionist

Immediately, a mob of Arab youths attacked them. Riots spread across the
country and for the first but far from the last time, Britain had to rush in
troops. Within two weeks, 472 Jews and at least 268 Arabs had been killed.
It was a harbinger of things to come

The British were deeply disturbed. Riots were expensive; a civil war would
be ruinous. So the Home government decided to seek advice on what it should
do. It turned to a man with great experience. Sir John Hope-Simpson had been
a senior officer in the elite (British) Indian Civil Service, had helped to
solve serious problems in Greece and in China and had been elected to
Parliament as a Liberal. He was commissioned to find a solution.

Not surprisingly, he concluded that the issues were land and immigration
because “the result of the purchase of land in Palestine by the Jewish
National Fund has been that the land … ceased to be land from which the Arab
can gain any advantage either now or at any time in the future. Not only can
he never hope to lease or to cultivate it, but, by the stringent provisions
of the lease of the Jewish National Fund, he is deprived for ever from
employment on that land. Nor can anyone help him by purchasing the land and
restoring it to common use. The land is mortmain and inalienable. It is for
this reason that Arabs discount the professions of friendship and goodwill
on the part of Zionists.”

Hope-Simpson pointed out that Palestine was a small territory, only 10,000
square miles of which more than three quarters was “uncultivable” by normal
economic criteria; with 16 percent of the good land owned by Jews or the
Jewish National Fund. He thought that the remainder was insufficient for
the existing Arab community. Further sales, he was sure, would provoke
further Arab resistance and violence. Thus, he recommended a temporary halt
to immigration.

Zionist Protests

Infuriated by his report, the Zionists immediately organized a protest
movement in and around the government in London and in the English press.
Under unprecedented pressure, the Labour Party government repudiated
Hope-Simpson’s report and refused to consider his recommendation. From the
episode, the Zionist leaders learned that they could change government
policy at its source by applying money, propaganda and political
organization. Dealing with the ultimate authorities first in England and
then in America would become a persistent Zionist tactic down to the present
time. Palestinians never developed such a capacity.

The Zionist aim was, naturally, to bring to Palestine as many immigrants as
possible and to bring them as quickly as possible. Between 1919 and 1933,
150,000 Jewish men, women and children came to Palestine. In the four years
from 1933 to 1936 the Jewish population quadrupled. In 1935, as many arrived
as in the first five years of the Mandate, 61,854.

Seeing that the British government had spurned even its own officials and
that it would not or could not control either the land or population issues,
the Palestinians became increasingly furious. They concluded that their
chance of protecting their position by peaceful means was almost nil.

In 1936, a general strike, something unheard of before, turned into a siege;
terrorists blew up trains and bridges and armed bands, which also for the
first time included volunteers from Syria and Iraq, roamed throughout
Palestine and, most sobering of all, the Arab elite which had worked closely
with the British as judges and officials registered their “loyal

According to senior Arab officials in the Palestinian government, “the Arab
population of all classes, creeds and occupations is animated by a profound
sense of injustice. … They feel that insufficient regard has been paid in
the past to their legitimate grievances, even though these grievances had
been inquired into by qualified and impartial investigators, and to a large
extent vindicated by those inquiries. As a result, the Arabs have been
driven into a state verging on despair; and the present unrest is no more
than an expression of that despair.”

Annoyed but not deterred, the British Colonial Office decided, as it was
then also doing in India, to crack down hard on the “troublemakers.” It put
Palestine under martial law and brought in 20,000 regular soldiers to be
quartered on rebel villages, blew up houses of suspected insurgents and
imprisoned Palestinian notables. Over 1,000 Palestinians were killed. But it
was clear to the government in London that these were measures could be only
temporarily and that more durable (and affordable) policies must be found
and implemented. The British appointed a Royal Commission to find a

Seeking a Solution

Echoing what previous investigators had found and recommending much of what
they had suggested, the Royal Commission report has a modern ring. It
concluded that:

“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities
within the narrow bounds of one small country. … There is no common ground
between them. The Arab community is predominantly Asiatic in character, the
Jewish community predominantly European. They differ in religion and in
language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct,
are as incompatible as their national aspirations. … In the Arab picture the
Jews could only occupy the place they occupied in Arab Egypt or Arab Spain.
The Arabs would be as much outside the Jewish picture as the Canaanites in
the old land of Israel. … This conflict was inherent in the situation from
the outset. … The conflict will go on, the gulf between Arabs and Jews will
widen. (emphasis added)

Agreeing that repression “leads nowhere,” the Royal Commission suggested the
first of a number of plans to partition the land.

Partition sounded sensible (at least to the English), but in 1936 there were
too many Palestinians and too few Jews to carve out a viable Jewish state.
Small as it was to be, the Jewish state would have 225,000 Arabs or only
28,000 less than the 258,000 Jews, but it would contain most of the better
agricultural land. (The land expert of the Jewish Agency reported that the
proposed Jewish state would contain 500,000 acres “upon which as many people
could live as in the whole of the remainder of the country.”)

Partition was immediately rejected by Vladimir Jabotinsky who was the
intellectual father of the Israeli terrorist groups, the Stern Gang (Lohamei
Herut Yisrael) and the Irgun (Irgun Zva’i Leumi), and the sequence of
Israeli leaders, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin

He warned the British that “We cannot accept cantonisation, because it will
be suggested by many, even among you, that even the whole of Palestine may
prove too small for that humanitarian purpose we need. A corner of
Palestine, a ‘canton,’ how can we promise to be satisfied with it. We
cannot. We never can. Should we swear to you we should be satisfied, it
would be a lie.”

The Zionist Congress refused the Royal Commission plan, and patterning
themselves on Gandhi’s passive resistance movement, the Palestinians set up
a “National Committee” which demanded that the British allow the formation
of a democratic government (in which, the Arab majority would have
prevailed) and that the sale of land to the Zionists be stopped until the
“economic absorptive capacity” could be established.

And they offered an alternative to partition: essentially what today we call
a “one state solution”: Palestine would not be divided, but the current
ratio of Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants would be maintained.

The Royal Commission proposal got nowhere: because the Zionists thought they
could get more while Palestinian leaders could not negotiate since they had
been rounded up and put in a concentration camp.

Blocked from peaceful and non-violent action, the Palestinian leaders and
their followers began a violent campaign against the British and the
Zionists. To protect themselves, the British created, trained and armed a
Jewish paramilitary force of some 5,000 men. Violence grew apace. In 1938,
the Mandate government reported 5,708 “incidents of violence” and announced
that it had killed at least 1,000 Palestinian insurgents and imprisoned

Neither the British, nor the Zionists, nor the Palestinians could afford to
give up. In the middle of the Great Depression, the British could not afford
to rule a hostile country from which they expected no return (unlike Iraq,
Palestine had no oil); the Zionists, faced with the existential challenge of
Nazism and having gone far toward statehood, could not agree to the terms
proposed by the Palestinians; and the Palestinians saw in every shipload of
immigrants a threat to their hopes for self rule.

So, eight years after the Hope-Simpson report, two years after the Royal
Commission another British Government commission (the “Palestine Partition
Commission”) was sent to try to redraw the map in some fashion that would
create a larger Jewish state.

A Single State

The best deal the partition commissioners could get for the Jewish state was
an area of about 1,200 square miles with a population of roughly 600,000 of
whom nearly half were Palestinians; to increase the Jewish ratio to
Palestinians, the proposed Jewish state would have had to be drastically
reduced in size.

A rumor that the British had decided to recognize Palestinian independence
had the expected effect: throughout Palestine, Arab groups danced with joy
in the streets and Zionist militants bombed Arab targets.

Actually, the British did decide to implement much of the new proposal: the
Government favored a plan to stop Jewish immigration and to restrict land
sales after five years and after ten years to make Palestine a single state
under representative government. The policy was approved by Parliament on
May 23, 1939.

The Zionist reaction was furious: Jewish hit squads burned or sacked
government officers, stoned policemen and on Aug. 26 murdered two senior
British officers. Five days later, the Second World War began.

While attention was otherwise directed in the midst of the war, partition
was formally rejected by the Zionist organization in the so-called Biltmore
program proclaimed in America in May 1942, and the solution to the dilemma
of Jewish-Palestinian population ratios would be found in 1948 when most of
the Palestinian population fled or was driven out of Palestine.

During the 1930s, while most of the world was plunged in a stultifying
depression, the Jewish community, the Yishuv, profited from a material and
cultural expansion. Money poured in from Europe and America. While the
amounts were small by today’s standards, Jewish donations enabled land to
be bought, equipment purchased, factories opened, systems of transport set
up and housing to be built.

Jerusalem was built in stone by Arab labor and Zionist money, and Tel Aviv
began to look like Miami. The Yishu became a quasi state with its own
schools, hospitals and other civic institutions, and enlivened by the influx
of Europeans, it pulled increasingly away from both the Palestinian
community and from the surrounding Arab societies. That has remained the
persistent aspect of “the Palestine Problem”: while physically located in
the Middle East, the Judenstaat was and is a European rather than a Middle
Eastern society.

Palestinian Evolution

The Palestinians slowly began to evolve from a colonial, peasant-farmer,
village-centered society. Their agriculture spread in extent and began to
focus on such specialized crops as Jaffa oranges, but villagers continued
their traditional habit of isolating themselves from (now British)
government and did not develop, as did the Zionists, their own governmental
and administrative institutions.

The growing but still tiny urban middle class of Christians and Muslims
worked with the British administration and enrolled their children in
British-run, Arabic-language, secular schools. That is, they accommodated.
Meanwhile, the traditional urban elite contested power not so much with the
Zionists as with one another; whereas the Arab leaders spoke of national
causes, they acted in and asserted leadership over mutually hostile groups.

Overall, the Palestinians never approached Israeli determination, skill and
financial capacity; they remained divided, weak and poor. That is, they
remained over all a colonial society. What constituted their national cause
was not so much a shared quest for independence as a reactive sense of
having been wronged.

So, year-by-year as more immigrants arrived and as more land was acquired by
the Jewish National Fund, opposition increased but never coalesced. Whereas
anti-Semitism created Zionism, fear of Zionism fostered a Palestinian
reaction. But, until another generation had passed that reaction remained
only a seedbed of nationalism, not a national movement. To understand this,
we must look back to the previous century.

The idea of nationalism came to the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria)
and Egypt nearly a century after it had become dominant in Europe, and it
came only to a small and at first mainly Christian elite. One’s identity
came not from a nation-state, as in Europe, but either from membership in an
ethnic/religious “nation” (known in Ottoman law as a millet) — for example,
the Catholic “nation” — or, more narrowly, membership in a family, a clan or
a village. The Arabic word watan catches exactly the sense of the French
word pays: both “village” and “nation.”

Arabs, like Europeans, welcomed nationalism, wataniyah, as a means to
overcome the evident and weakening effects of division not only among the
religious communities, particularly the division between Muslims and
Christians, but also among the families, clans and villages.

In Palestine, nationalism by the end of the British mandate had still not
coalesced into an ideology; to the extent the concept of a watan had been
extended beyond the village and had become popular, it was a visceral
reaction to the thrust of Zionism. Anger over loss of land and the intrusion
of Europeans was general, but the intellectual underpinning of nationalism
was slow to be formulated in a way that attracted much of the population. It
still had not attracted general support until long after the end of the
British mandate. In part, it became possible in large part because of the
destruction of the village communities and the fusing of their former
residents in refugee camps: simply put, the watan had to die before
wataniyah could be born.

A More Powerful Drive

Jewish nationalism, Zionism, drew on different sources and embodied more
powerful thrusts. The Jewish community as a whole benefitted from two
experiences: the first was that for centuries in what they call their
diaspora virtually all Jewish men had meticulously studied their religious
texts. While intellectually narrow, such study inculcated a mental
exactitude that could be, and was, transferred to new, secular, broader
fields when the opportunity presented itself in the late Eighteenth Century
in Austria, Germany and France.

Thus, with remarkable speed, Polish and Russian Jews emerged in the West as
mathematicians, scientists, physicians, musicians and philosophers, roles
that were not part of the religious tradition. While the British had
certainly been wrong to believe that Jews dominated the Bolshevik movement
in Russia, Jews also certainly played a major political and intellectual
role both there and in Western Europe.

The second experience that increasing numbers of Jews shared was the sense
of exclusion but increasingly the reality of participation. During the
Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, while often disliked and occasionally
maltreated, Jews were generally able to take part in Western European

Thus, they were able to expand their horizons and to develop new skills.
Many thought that they had arrived at a satisfactory accommodation with
non-Jewish Europe. It was the shock of finding this not to be true that
motivated Theodor Herzl and his colleagues to begin the quest for a separate
Jewish nation-state, a Judenstaat, outside of Europe, and it was the
conservatism of religious Judaism that forced the Zionist movement to reject
offers of lands in various parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia and to
insist on the location of that nation-state in Palestine.

Jews, of course, had to focus more on Europe than on Palestine. The Zionist
movement was located in Europe and its leaders and members were all
European. From the end of the First World War, secular, “modern” Jews began
to migrate to Palestine and soon outnumbered and overshadowed the
traditional Jewish pilgrims.

Then, from the election of Hitler in 1932 and the collapse of the Weimar
Republic in 1933, pressure on the German Jewish community moved through
increasingly ugly incidents like the 1938 kristallnacht toward a crescendo
of anti-Semitism. Desperate, increasing numbers of Jews sought to flee from
Germany. Most went to other countries — particularly America, England and
France — but they were often not welcomed and in some cases were actually
prevented from entering. (America implemented restrictions and accepted only
about 21,000 Jewish refugees up to the eve of the Second World War.)

So, in increasing numbers, mainly secular, educated, Westernized Jews went
to Palestine. The numbers were important but more important was that the
individuals and groups coalesced to create a new community. It was this
“nation-state-in-formation,” the Yishuv, that set the trend toward the

Shaping Palestine

Nothing like these impulses were felt by the Palestinians. They had never
experienced pogroms but lived with neighbors of different faiths in a
carefully structured and religiously sanctioned form of mutual “tolerancem”
and, despite the Ottoman empire’s moves toward
modernization/westernization/fiscal control, they lived in an acceptable
balance with their environment. Few had an enlivening contact with European
thought, industry or commerce. To the English, they were just another
colonial people, like the Indians or the Egyptians.

That is how the British officials in Palestine treated the Palestinians. As
I read Indian history of the same period, I find striking parallels:
colonial officials in India were equally dismissive of even the richest and
most powerful Hindu and Muslim Indians. As “natives” they had to be kept in
their place, punished when they got out of order and rewarded when they were
submissive. Generally, the poorer natives could be treated with a sort of
amused tolerance.

But the Jews didn’t fit in the colonial pattern and could not be treated as
“natives.” After all, they were Europeans. So the British colonial officials
never felt comfortable dealing with them. Should they “belong to white men’s
clubs” or not? With the natives one knew where he stood. With the Jews,
relations were at best uncertain. Worse, they were adept at going over the
heads of the colonial officials direct to London. This minor but important
aspect of the Palestine problem was never resolved.

Then, suddenly, as Germany invaded Poland, the world slipped into war.

The War Years

Both Palestinians and Zionists enlisted in large numbers — 21,000 Jews and
8,000 Palestinians — to help the British in their hour of need. But both
kept their long-term objectives firmly in mind: both continued to regard
British imperialism as the long-term enemy of freedom. And, like the Hindu
Parliamentarian Subhas Chandra Bose, the Muslim Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husaini
actively flirted with the Axis. Bose led a Japanese-supplied and -sponsored
army into India. (Bose’s Palestinian counterpart, Hajj Amin had no such
army. He fled the country.)

What Bose had tried to do fighting the British in India, Jewish terrorists,
inspired by Vladimir Jabotinsky, began to do in Palestine. By 1944, Jewish
attacks on British troops and police, raids on British arms and supply
depots and bombings of British installations had become common, and military
training camps were set up in various kibbutzim to train an army to fight
the British.

In response, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East issued a
statement condemning the “active and passive sympathisers [of the terrorists
who] are directly… assisting the enemy.”

On Aug. 8, 1944, a Jewish attempt was made to assassinate the High
Commissioner and on Nov. 6, 1944, members of the Stern Gang murdered Prime
Minister Churchill’s personal representative in the Middle East, the British
Minister of State Lord Moyne. Churchill was furious and told Parliament that
“If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and
our labours for its future are to produce a new set of gangsters worthy of
Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have
maintained so consistently and so long in the past. If there is to be any
hope of a peaceful and successful future for Zionism these wicked activities
must cease and those responsible for them must be destroyed, root and

In the last months of the war, the tempo of attacks increased. Carefully
planned raids were made on supply dumps, banks and communications
facilities. With Germany going down in defeat, Britain had become the
Zionist Enemy Number One.

The Holocaust

But for a time, Zionist action focused on Europe. As the war ended, the
enormity of the Nazi crimes against the European Jews came to public
attention, and demands to “do something” for the survivors moved to the
forefront of British and American politics. The British asked the U.S.
government to join it in enforcing a solution no matter what that solution
might be.

In America, there was a sense of collective guilt: anti-Semitism, like
anti-black prejudice, while still common was beginning to be equated to
Nazism and Fascism. But only beginning. America had actually turned back
Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution. So when President Harry Truman
announced in December 1945 that the U.S. would begin to facilitate Jewish
immigration, there was little public or Congressional support. (Only 4,767
Jews were actually admitted.)

Meanwhile, various schemes were bandied about to do something for Europe’s
Jews. One, never really seriously considered, was to give a part of
defeated Germany to the Holocaust victims as their heimst�tte. It died
aborning when moves toward the Cold War argued for the reconstruction of
Germany as a barrier to the Soviet Union.

No one, to my knowledge, suggested that Americans cede a part of the United
States as an alternative Israel. Americans quickly adopted the European
program for having the “Jewish Problem” solved at the expense of someone

Zionists, quite reasonably, were not prepared to bet their future on Western
benevolence. They were determined to act, and they did so in four
interconnected programs: first getting the survivors of the Holocaust to
Palestine; second, lobbying the American government to support their cause;
third, attacking any and all who stood in their way; and, fourth, making
staying in Palestine too expensive for Britain.

Building a Jewish Presence

First, the Zionists understood and were informed by the British studies that
if they were to succeed in taking over Palestine, they would need far more
Jewish immigrants than the British were likely to allow. So already in 1934,
shortly after the Hope-Simpson report, they organized the first ship, a
Greek tramp steamer, to take “illegals” to Palestine. The little SS Velos
would be the first in what became a virtual fleet, and the 300 passengers it
carried would be followed by many thousands in the years to come. British
attempts to limit the flow — to try to keep the peace in Palestine — were
generally ineffective and were, in part nullified by the anti-Semitism of
the European states and particularly by the Nazis.

The Nazi involvement in the Palestine issue and the Zionist relationship to
the Nazis form its most bizarre aspect. By 1938, not only the Nazis but also
the Polish, Czech and other Eastern European governments were determined to
get rid of their Jewish citizens. The Zionist leaders saw this as a major
opportunity. So they sent an emissary to meet with the Nazis, and even with
the Gestapo and the SS, to propose to help them speed the Jews away: they
proposed that if the Nazis would allow the Zionists scope, they would set up
training camps for selected young people to be shipped to Palestine.

Hitler had not yet made up his mind on “the final solution” but he was keen
to promote a Jewish exodus. So the German officials, including Adolf
Eichmann, made a deal with the Zionists that enabled them to select would-be
emigrants. The choice of who was to go was purely pragmatic: it was not on
humanitarian needs but on physical and mental capacity of the candidates to
join the incipient Zionist army, the Haganah and its various offshoots.

By the end of 1938, the first batch of about a thousand Jews was being
organized and trained by the “Committee for Illegal Immigration” (Mossad le
Aliyah Bet), and roughly that many started their journey each month.*

As the Nazis moved to implement “the Final Solution,” they lost interest in
the relatively small-scale Zionist emigration operation and began their
horrible liquidation program in which millions of Jews, Gypsies and others
died at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps. With Europe
closed to them, the Zionists turned to encouraging and facilitating the
migration of Jewish communities from the Arab countries. To take over
Palestine, they needed Jews from anywhere and so they actively recruited
them from Iraq to Morocco. Then, as the war reached its final stages, the
Zionists turned back to Europe.

Their first move was to take over — literally to buy — the virtually defunct
Red Cross headquarters in Romania. The newly arrived Soviet army was
otherwise occupied so under the “Red Cross” emblem, the Zionist organization
was able to restart the program of shipping Jews to Palestine. What the
Zionist agents found was that the condition of the hundreds of thousands of
remaining Romanian Jews was desperate; they were willing to go anywhere to
get out Romania. Allegedly 150,000 signed up to go to Palestine, but the
problem remained, how to get them there.

The answer was found in Italy. Stationed there was the small Jewish
logistical support formation enlisted by the British in Palestine. Its main
piece of equipment was exactly what the Zionist organizers most needed, the
truck, and they were also decked out in British army uniforms and armed with
British army documents.

Under Zionist orders and literally under British noses, they ranged
throughout Italy, gathering displaced persons in their trucks and delivering
them to ships that had been hired by the Zionists to smuggle them into

Then disaster struck: along with other formations, the Jewish unit was
redeployed. So the Zionists made what was by far their boldest move: in one
of the most remarkable ventures of the Second World War, they created a
fictitious British army.

A Fake Army

In the chaos of the last months at the end of the Second World War, Allied
military units and supply dumps were scattered throughout Western Europe.
Most troops were in the process of being redeployed or sent home.
Command-and-control structures were falling apart. Dumps were often
unguarded or even forgotten.

So, into this chaos, the Zionists ventured. Almost overnight, they “became”
a separate British army formation with their own faked documents, phony unit
designation and looted equipment. They drew petrol for their trucks and
fuel for the ships with which they could rendezvous on the coast. With
forged requisition papers they seized a building right in the center of
Milan to use as their headquarters and others to create staging areas in
various areas of Italy.

Second, they were utterly ruthless in achieving their objectives. As Jon and
David Kimche have written in The Secret Roads, the European Jews “hated the
Germans who had destroyed their corporate life; they hated the Poles and
Czechs, the Hungarians and Rumanians, the Austrians and the Balts who had
helped the Germans; they hated the British and the Americans, the Russians
and the Christians who had left them, so it seemed to them, to their fate.
They hated Europe, they held its precious laws in contempt, they owed
nothing to its peoples. They wanted to get out. … Thus, anti-goyism, that
malignant growth in Jewish life, received a new lease of life. Linked with
Zionism, it now galvanised the Jewish camps in Europe.”

Their Zionist guides stimulated this hatred among the Displaced Persons
(DPs) because, as the Kimches wrote, “they had to be uplifted; they had to
be galvanised; they had to be given a stronger pride than their cynicism,
and a stronger emotion than their demoralised if understandable
self-seeking. The only thing that could do it, as they had seen during the
Hitler era, was propaganda — hate propaganda for preference.”

Jews who attempted to go back to their former homes found their ways barred;
others had taken over their houses and shops so their attempted return
stimulated vicious riots, particularly in Poland, that convinced most Jews
that they could not restart their old lives. If they needed further
convincing, the Polish government closed the frontier and threatened to
shoot returnees. And where the displaced persons were in temporary camps,
their hosts were anxious to speed them on their ways.

By All Means Necessary

So, the Zionists felt justified in slandering, boycotting or even destroying
those who thwarted or threatened to reveal their actions. When the head of
the United Nations program charged with giving aid to the displaced persons
in Germany, General Sir Frederick Morgan, reported that some “unknown Jewish
organization” was running a program to transfer European Jews to Palestine —
exactly what they were doing – he was pilloried as an anti-Semite.

That charge came easily. It was a charge, not unlike the McCarthyite charge
of being a Communist, that all those who dealt with or wrote about the
Palestine problem would learn to fear. It was used often, usually
effectively and was always bitterly resented by those so attacked. It is a
tactic that Zionists and their supporters often employed and is still employ
frequently today.

Third, back in Palestine, the Zionist organization was doing all it could to
make staying in Palestine too expensive for Britain. The Zionist army, the
Haganah, its elite military force, the Palmach and the two terrorist
organizations (in British eyes)/freedom fighters (to the Zionists) , the
Stern Gang and the Irgun, were attacking government buildings, blowing up
bridges and taking hostage or shooting British soldiers.

When I first went to Palestine in 1946, the streets of every city were
rivers of barbed wire, with frequent barriers and checkpoints manned by
heavily armed British soldiers. The calm of evenings was frequently
shattered by the sounds of machinegun fire and by night exploding bombs
could be heard nearby. Everyone, including the soldiers of Britain’s crack
parachute division, was constantly on edge. Calm was feared as a prelude to
the storm. Danger was everywhere, even when not intended.

On Christmas Eve 1946 at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem I sat in
the midst of a congregation armed with the unreliable but lethal sten gun,
expecting at any minute one might be dropped and go off. A few days later, I
was nearly shot, in the midst of Jerusalem by a very nervous soldier.
Everyone was suspect in the eyes of everyone else.

Denying Responsibility

When the Zionist civil authorities tried to stand aloof, pretending that
they knew nothing of the use of terror, the British published intercepted
documents showing that they were orchestrating the attacks and were involved
in collecting and passing out arms to the insurgents. For the first time
against the Zionists the British cracked down as they had done against the
Palestinians, and as they had been doing and were still doing against the
Indians in their independence movement, putting hundreds of Jews into what
amounted to a concentration camp.

In riposte, Jewish terrorists/freedom fighters blew up the headquarters of
the British government in Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, killing 91 people
and wounding about 46. To the English Parliament, press and public, the
bombing was taken as an act of war. The Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee
denounced it as a “brutal and murderous crime … an insane act of terrorism.”

But the “brutal and murderous crime … an insane act of terrorism”
accomplished its purpose. Almost everyone — except of course the
Palestinians — had concluded that the attempt by the British to establish an
acceptable level of security had failed.

Fourth, the American government had long since decided to throw its support
to the Zionists. Already at its presidential convention in 1944, the
Democratic Party issued a statement stating that “We favor the opening of
Palestine to unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization and such a
policy as to result in the establishment there of a free and democratic
Jewish Commonwealth.”

Shortly before his death, President Franklin Roosevelt affirmed that
declaration and promised to do what was necessary to effect it. (But he,
like the British in the First World War, also made a conflicting promise to
the Arabs: just as the British had promised the Sharif of Mecca so
Roosevelt promised King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, that he “would take no action
which … might prove hostile to the Arab people.” Then he immediately
reversed himself, reaffirming his unrestricted support for Zionism.)

When he came into office, President Harry Truman called in August 1945 for
the immediate admission to Palestine of 100,000 European Jews. Not to be
outdone, Truman’s Republican opponent, Gov. Thomas Dewey, called for the
admission of “several hundreds of thousands.” The rush to win Jewish money,
influence in the press and votes was on. It has grown stronger year by year.

Caught in the Middle

Feeling increasing isolated and desperate to turn to the host of problems it
faced — both domestically and throughout the other parts of its increasingly
fragile empire — the British government urged that America join in what was
hoped to be a final commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry,
which was to focus not primarily on Palestine but, for the first time, on
the plight of the European Jewish community.

It was in the emotional vortex of the hideous German concentration camps
that the Commission began its work; its work would be continued in the
context of American partisan politics. Its result was shaped both by the
sight of the misery of the surviving Jews in Europe and driven by the
political winds in America. It paid virtually no attention to the

The end of the mandate was in sight. The British decided to withdraw on May
15, 1948, eight months to the day after they had withdrawn from India. The
results were similar: they had inadvertently “let slip the dogs of war.”
Millions of Indians and Pakistanis and nearly a million Palestinians would
pay a terrible price.

India was, perhaps, a more complex story, but the sole justification for the
British rule of Palestine was the British obligation specified in the
preamble to the Mandate instrument to “be responsible for putting into
effect the

declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His
Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of th

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