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The British in Palestine

Since Palestinians are so often in the news, I thought it might be worth exploring British history in Palestine. I think I've learned some curious things. If you find I've got something wrong, let me know.

Britain's defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I ended Turkish control over much of the Mideast. The people so freed were not unhappy. Turkish rule had often been oppressive. In the harangues that pass as history, Britain is depicted as caring solely about the oil it could suck out of desert sands. Most of us have benefitted from oil and our lives have been considerably eased by heating oil and fuel for our cars, not to mention the factories that require petroleum to produce handy gadgets and machines such as dishwashers, so British ingenuity with oil and oil wells in the Mideast cannot be contemptuously dismissed, despite the environmental costs.

However, British involvement with Palestine did not arise from a useful and mercenary interest in oil, since no oil had been found there, but was at least partly inspired out of an instinct to do some good, thereby proving once again that no deed goes unpunished.

As you are aware various members of the human race who called themselves the Chosen People and who by others were called Jews had been wandering across Europe for a thousand years. Having resisted with surprising tenacity the human impulse to ingratiate themselves with those in power, they had been singled out for their unwillingness to adopt the dominant faith. That they were also highly intelligent, highly industrious, and highly irritating are not claims I will consider here, but history confirms that their reception in various parts of Europe and in Britain has at times been cold, if not murderous.

These people had begun agitating for a home they could call their own, and they settled on the place where their people had lived for three thousand years. This was the land of Palestine, where approximately 750,000 people lived, 83,000 of them Jews, 600,000 Muslims, and 71,000 Christians. The Zionists persuaded the British government to listen sympathetically to their ideas, and in 1917, Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, promised Jews a homeland in Palestine, specifying it be created without harming non-Jewish natives. This was the height of World War I, and it seems possible that Balfour was making the kind of vague promise many of us have been known to make in the hope we will not have to keep it.

World War I ended, and the Zionists were discovered to have what might be regarded as a lamentably long memory for promises. As a result Winston Churchill travelled to the Mideast to look at the lay of the land. He saw several things. First, he saw what could not have escaped any traveller – the land referred to as Palestine contained a number of deserts. This was true on the west side of the Jordan and on the east, which the British had named, rather prosaically, TransJordan. There were fertile areas, but it did not look like a place that would ever support many people. Second, Churchill saw that the people living there considered Palestine "to be a part of Arab Syria", which was now controlled by the French. They did not consider their land to be the independent state of Palestine, and had no notion of establishing an independent nation. Third, the Foreign Office in an another spasm of idealism entitled the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence had promised to form an Arab state in exchange for the Great Arab Revolt during the war.

There were two things Churchill did not see, though he was travelling with the man most people regarded as the expert on Arabs, Lawrence of Arabia. TE Lawrence advised Churchill that Palestinian hostility to Zionism was overrated. This must be one of the biggest blunders of the century, but even if it had been true, it should have been obvious that most people are unenthusiastic about strangers moving in with them uninvited. Nor did the Koran's negative description of Jews (5,84) augur well. But the problem did not loom large in the arid wastes because it was not expected that many Jewish people would be moving to Palestine. The second thing Churchill did not see was the number of people who would move to Palestine. Nobody did. No one imagined the floods of refugees that would be created by the holocaust of World War II and anti-semitic Soviet repression.

Compounding the problem was the fact that the geographical and political borders of “Palestine” had been shifting for more than a thousand years. It was and is hard to get a grip on the place. It appeared to include all the land now called Israel, along with Gaza, which was controlled by Egypt, and the Transjordan. The British believed this land to the east of the Jordan River could be the homeland of the promised Arab state.

Churchill’s trip had given him at least one accurate idea: Palestine spelled trouble. He found it "unduly stocked with peppery, pugnacious, proud politicians and theologians’", as he put it to Parliament in 1921, and, in a little-noted move, he urged that responsibility for it be handed to the United States. This did not occur, at least as Churchill had envisioned it.

Instead, "To the dismay of Zionists, Churchill decided that the whole of Palestine east of the River Jordan should become a second Arab kingdom of Transjordan. . .Under Churchill's settlement, the promise of a Jewish national home was to apply only to Palestine west of the Jordan. Though Churchill had been personally sympathetic to Zionism ever since his contacts with Manchester Jews in the Edwardian period, he recognized the need to assuage Arab fears of unlimited Jewish immigration" (Oxford DNB).

In 1923 Britain recognized Transjordan as a state, and provided British oversight for financial, military and foreign policy matters. Over the next several decades, Transjordan became the independent nation of Jordan. It did not, however, become the Arab Palestine, though three million Palestinians now live in Jordan, which has six million people.

Drained by World War II and by Zionist efforts to create an independent Jewish state despite intense Arab Palestinian protests, Britain relinquished the power to make decisions about Palestine to the UN in 1947. Recent actions by the UN in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, and the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq have not inspired confidence, but its decision to divide the small area of Palestine that lay west of the River Jordan into a Jewish state and an Arab state with Jerusalem an international city strikes me as absurd. Imagine if Solomon had decided to cut the body of the disputed child in half, giving a leg and an arm to each mother and dribbling blood between the two. The result would not look much different than the UN’s bizarre set-up of two different states with bit and pieces divided from each other and scattered here and there.

Arabs rejected the plan, and launched a war against the Jews, which they lost. For the losers the result was grim. The State of Israel was established in 1948, entered the UN as a member state in 1949, and kept the land won in the war. The remaining lands of “Palestine” were divided among Egypt, Syria and Jordan, which acquired the West Bank. In 1967, fighting for her life against adversaries determined to destroy her, Israel fought the Six-Day War against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and captured Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Again, not very surprisingly, she proved unwilling to return what she had gained.

The Palestinian National Charter, as amended by the Palestine National Congress in July 1968, states that the "homeland of Arab Palestinian people" is Palestine, an "indivisible territorial unit" having "the boundaries it had during the British Mandate". Though the British press rarely mentions this, Arab Palestinians consider Palestine to be the nations of Israel and Jordan combined. (Jordan does not share this sentiment, and has waged war on Palestinians in Jordan who sustain this delusion.)

Over the years many Palestinians have settled elsewhere. It is estimated that several million Palestinians and their descendants live in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. One million live in Israel. Many others remain unsettled, and are kept in dependency by the United Nations. They live in towns that resemble slums, lack responsibility or accountability, are unable to sustain jobs while engaged in year-round attacks on Israel, and raise children and grandchildren who grow up in despair. These Palestinians have never relinquished their dream of Palestine. They remain adrift, unreconciled with the losses of history or with themselves.

I have not addressed Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and I do not wish to minimize the pain and injustice of losing the house and land of your fathers and mothers and the golden future that a home and a country of your own might provide. I will observe, however, that the Celts lost land and lives to the Romans in Gaul; Anglo-Saxons lost houses and lands and their country to the Normans; Irish lost their country and their homes to the English and Scots; Native Americans lost their lands to Europeans; Armenians lost their lands and lives to the Turks; Tibetans lost Tibet to the Chinese; Christians all around the Mideast lost their lands and lives to the Muslims; and Jews lost land and lives wherever they lived; and these are but a handful of thousands of examples. This is life, and it is not always possible to rectify injustice.

I admire the Palestinians’ tenacity in holding on to their dream. I wish they would forgive the wrongs done to them, and move on.

Then again, maybe I’m thinking of my friend Nadine, who died yesterday after fighting MS every inch of the way, even as she became unable to feed herself or move in her bed, unable to touch her husband or her daughter, unable, finally, to speak. Five days ago, when there was not one thing she could do for herself, when her whole back was covered with oozing sores, and fate had handed her the worst hand of cards in the deck, she smiled. She smiled a lot.

Move on, Palestinians. Move on.

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