With Israel’s Independence Day celebrations and the Nakba Day just over, the Palestinians rapidly approach a double anniversary – the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. It is long past time to weigh the fateful consequences of these crucial events for them.
The British Empire was solidifying its foothold in the Middle East in 1916 when it entered into the Sykes-Picot Agreement with its First World War allies, France and Russia, to divide the Ottoman Middle East into British and French spheres of influence: Syria and Lebanon for France, and areas to the south, including Palestine, for Britain. The outcomes are still visible today: the oddly shaped territories of Arab states and Gulf kingdoms crossing national, tribal and religious divides, unleashing historical conflicts between Sunni and Shia’ with horrific consequences, and reopening the question of the Kurds’ future.
If this meddling was not enough, the British published the Balfour Declaration a short time later, in November 1917, supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Added almost as an afterthought was the qualification that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The declaration letter, addressed to Lord Rothschild, stood in direct contradiction to other commitments made by the British government to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca who had been promised control of the same, largely-Arab lands.
By designating a territory in which Jews constituted a small minority of about 7% as a “national home for the Jewish people,” the British government laid the foundations of the future Jewish State, lending legitimacy to an idea that had previously had few takers, even among Jews.
Completely outside of the discussion were the vast majority of Palestine’s inhabitants, Muslim and Christian Arabs. The peoples of the Middle East had their territories readily carved up by foreign, imperial forces, but the Palestinians suffered an additional indignity: they were made largely invisible in their own land.
Thirty years later, in November 1947, the future of Palestine was sealed at the United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 181 called for the Partition of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with the Jerusalem area set aside as a corpus separatum under international control. The Catch? Palestinian Arabs, constituting two-thirds of the population of Palestine, were to receive 43% of the territory, while Palestine’s Jewish settlers, constituting one-third of the population, were to receive 56% of Mandatory Palestine, including most of the fertile land.
Not surprising, Palestinian Arabs viewed the Partition Plan as fundamentally unjust; their rejection of it was the culmination of Arab resistance to the loss of much of Palestine to the recently-arrived population of European Jewish settlers. Importantly, the Partition Plan was also viewed as violating the principles of national self-determination contained in the UN Charter.
By 1947, the Jewish community of Palestine was well organized, with pre-state institutions in place. For the mainstream leadership, accepting the UN partition resolution was a tactical move, a starting point of a planned military campaign designed to expand the territory beyond that which was allotted to the Jewish State by the Partition Plan, while reducing the size of the Arab population in it. Then, as now, the goal of the Jewish state has been maximizing land area and minimizing the Palestinian-Arab population.
The British government’s assurances notwithstanding, the creation of Israel brought about the destruction of Palestine – the Nakba, or the Catastrophe. Some 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homeland and not allowed to return, and about 500 towns and villages were emptied and mostly razed, with their lands expropriated and turned over to the victors. Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Middle East and around the world. The Nakba, central to Palestinian nationhood as much as the Holocaust is for Jews and slavery is for African-Americans, is the living reminder of the profound injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians.
Fast forward to June 1967, almost fifty years after the Balfour Declaration, Israel expanded its territories further, now controlling all of Mandatory Palestine and beyond. The Nakba continued: the methods and means of territorial expansion, colonial settlement, and forced transfer of the Palestinian population were remarkably similar to those of earlier times.
And as we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation, settlement and dispossession continue hand in hand, following a consistent pattern for about 100 years: people replacement – the replacement of Palestinians by Jews.
The people-replacement process is the singular theme running throughout the history of Palestine of the last century, and it remains the most significant aspect of Israeli and Palestinian history, with each party positioned on the opposite end of the power dynamics: wherever the victor succeeds, it is the victim who pays the price for it – the creation of Israel has been, rather literally, the destruction of Palestine. Israeli cities, towns and villages are physically situated on top of the ruins of Palestinian communities, often retaining their name or a version thereof. It was the same natural resources, land and water, which previously enabled Palestinian livelihood that subsequently formed the economic foundation of Israel’s early success and continue to sustain it today. It is Israel’s nation-building that brought about Palestine’s national ruin: during these passing decades, it has been and it continues to be a zero-sum game: the more we gain, advance and expand the less of you remains. And history shows that it is a war in which one party is intent on crushing the other, which it has been focusing on doing whether on the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip, quite successfully, on a daily basis.
The planned and calculated forcible people-replacement process has been researched and described powerfully by Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and elsewhere by others. The destruction and depopulation of the Palestinian towns and villages have been extensively documented (see, for example, All That Remains, Walid Khalidi, editor; Palestine Remembered; Zochrot and iNakba; and Jonathan Cook’s work; also, here for my more extended coverage of people-replacement).
Palestine is a land stolen from its people by another people, in plain view and while the world has been watching, with powerful outside governments aiding and abetting by issuing declarations to conceive rights where few existed; forming unjust partition treaties and resolutions to afford legitimacy where none was present; providing military, financial and diplomatic support to both enable an occupation and to suppress resistance to it. All of these go against fundamental human rights and moral considerations, as well as contrary to international law and conventions.
From the Shah of Iran to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the U.S., with the active participation of the U.K., has a long history of supporting Middle East dictators – for reasons of state interest and global domination. The U.S. has secured control over oil and shipping routes, and its military-industrial-complex has benefited from regional wars. For similar reasons, the U.S., again with the active participation of the U.K., has supported and financed Israel and its abhorrent five-decade occupation of Arab lands, and the continued subjugation of Palestinians.
On the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation, and the approaching centenary of the Balfour Declaration, it is time for a moral reckoning – and an admission that this injustice can no longer continue.