“The only thing worse than having the British as your enemies, is having as your allies”
In 70 AD, Israel stopped being considered as the country of Hebrews. It was the year when the Romans took over Jerusalem. Some time later, Hadrian (78-138 AD) changed the name of the country to Palestine after he squashed the local Hebrews’ revolt against the Roman Empire, aiming at erasing Judea from memory. And so, the Diaspora of the Jewish people began, mainly towards the north and the east, to end up mostly in countries of the West.
In 634, the Arabs took the country and it remained under the rule of the caliphs for four centuries, until its taking by the Crusaders, and then by the Ottomans in the 16th century, under whose rule it would remain until the early 20th century. Wherever the Hebrew populations would end up they would become the victims of repeated persecution and marginalization. They never completely disappeared from Palestine and when, in 1492, the catholic kings of Spain singed a decree that forced them to leave Spain within three months, they contributed to the increase of the Jewish population of Palestine.
In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote a book (The Jewish State – Der Judenstaat) where he supported the return of the Jews in the land promised to them by the god of the Old Testament -the “Promised Land”. And thus, the nationalistic movement Zionism was born. “Zion” is the name of a hill in Jerusalem and in the Bible the term implies both the city and the country. The goal of Zionism was not only to comfort the Jews of their troubles, but also to reinstate the Jewish nation in their motherland, with the creation of a Jewish State (not just a state for Jews, but a state with a Jewish identity). Herzl rekindled a hope that never died out among the disbanded people.
In 1903, a new wave of bloody pogroms against the Jews in Russia, that lasted four years, abhorred the international community and the British government made a proposal to Herzl for the creation of a Jewish community in eastern Africa, with local autonomy. The proposal referred to Uganda, but the Zionist movement looked to Palestine, as a land that was rightfully theirs according to divine contract. Jews from all over the world already had started to move to Palestine, where the Ottoman Empire turned against them. The interests of the Jews were synched to those of Entente, the opponents of the Ottomans during the First World War. In 1979, the British government made a commitment with a political statement (the Balfour Declaration, named after the Foreign Secretary) that “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. It was the first time a great power officially recognized the rights of the Jews on their ancestors’ land.
Initially the Arab leaders did not object to the Jewish presence in the region; besides, they shared an enemy in the face of the Ottoman Empire. Emir Faisal, the leader of the Arabic nationalism who directed the Arabic revolt against the Ottomans with the help of T.H. Lawrence (also known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), co-signed with the future neighbors an agreement that reflected the current climate of harmonious collaboration. This agreement talked about the encouragement and consolidation of Jewish immigration in Palestine and that “The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement”. Faisal, in a letter to Felix Frankfurter, president of the Zionist Organization of America, writes that he welcomes “the return of these exiles to their homeland”.
But the West had made promises to the Arabs as well, that were not honored at the end of the war. Britain had promised to the governor of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, the independence of the Arabs in the greater region (including Palestine) with the exchange of its help during the First World War. Thus, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, instead of the creation of a large independent Arab state, the region was shared among the great western powers, into separate countries. Palestine was assigned to Britain (a regime called British Mandate). The Jewish and the Arab nationalisms, which were so far growing in parallel, now clashed and in 1920 Palestine started to become witness to conflicts among Jews and Arabs, since not everybody shared Faisal’s sense of cooperation. The incidents were started by Arabs who looked suspiciously at the Jewish resettlement in the area. The British was late to recognize and counter the problem and restore order in Jerusalem, and started enforcing obstructions in the Jewish immigration, connecting it to the “country’s absorption abilities”, something that could be interpreted in a variety of ways in different circumstances. Trust among the three nationalities begun to decline significantly. From 1929 the conflicts between Jews and Arabs evolved into violence and the problem was intensified when Hitler’s rise begun to materialize, forcing many Jews to seek a destination to immigrate, with Palestine being the only obvious and safe resort.
In 1937, the British assigned the Peel Commission to investigate and resolve the problem of the two peoples’ coexistence in the region. It proposed the creation of two states in Palestine, one for the Jews and another for the Arabs, with the British placed in Jerusalem to have the Holy Lands under their supervision. The Jews accepted the proposal that would mean a reduction to the lands that were promised to them, due to the imminent threat of Nazism’s rise and the urgent need for Jews of Germany and Europe to resettle. The Arabs refused and, two months later, conflict begun again. Britons found themselves in a difficult position since they had officially promised Palestine to the Jews with the Balfour Declaration, and they also wanted to appease the Arabs, as their help would be needed in the possibility of a future war, which wasn’t late to brake out.
With the start of WW2 the Jews of Palestine aligned themselves with the Allies to counter the Nazi anti-Semitic savagery, with the hope that, in this way, they would earn Britain’s favor concerning the freedom of their nationals to immigrate to their new, lest unofficial, homeland. The Zionist leaders received assurances from Churchill and Roosevelt that they would support them after the war, promises that were refuted. Whichever ship with Jewish immigrants reached the country was turned back by the British with catastrophic consequences for the passengers. Nevertheless, considering the immigration waves of the previous years and the illegal immigration to Palestine, at the end of 1947 the population of Jews in Palestine approached 630,000 people, almost one third of the total population of the country. The Jews started an insurgency against the British hegemony, involving attacks against trains, bombings of buildings, sabotage, kidnappings and assassinations. The British realized that the problem was by then beyond their control and in 1947 they bypassed to the United Nations the issue of the “future governing of Palestine”. The Holocaust had caused feelings of guilt to the European nations concerning how they had been treating the Jews for centuries, and in this climate UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) was formed to resolve the issue. The committee was constituted of 11 member nations that had no direct involvement in the conflict (Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, India, Iran, Holland, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, Yugoslavia).
To make a decision, UNSCOP relied on the Balfour Declaration, the historic ties Jews had with the country, the fact that (due to the British promise) the Jews had already immigrated, exploited and developed the land of Palestine and the need to give an end to the long-lasting suffering of this people, as well as the need to give a solution to the urgent issue of 250,000 Holocaust survivors. On 29 November 1947 the decision was announced, which included the following:
- The end of the British Mandate.
- Establishing two states: a Jewish and an Arabic.
- Conducting elections and creating democratic constitutions in both countries.
- Connecting economically the two states.
The Jews celebrated the news of the decision, but not the Arabs, who completely rejected it. Take note that the Jews were invited to participate in the UN’s assembly that decided the founding of UNSCOP, even though there was no official Jewish state at the time. The Arab Higher Committee (the central political institution of the Palestinian people in Mandatory Palestine) boycotted UNSCOP, maintaining that the Arabic rights were self-evident and had to be recognized on the principles of the UN Charter. Their objections were not heard and, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the State of Israel. The two populations were led to war with the participation of the neighboring countries; a war that extended the borders of Israel and led to the creation of 711,000 Palestinian refugees of the 900,000 that lived in the region that was now the dominion of the new country.
Israelites commemorate this war as the “War of Independence” and the Palestinians as “the Catastrophe”.
- Ismat Sabri – Cartographic analysis of the Jewish Settlements in Palestine – The case of West Bank of the Jordan River (diploma thesis for the National Technical University of Athens, 2009)
- Rita Gabai-Shimantov – Israel, The rebirth of a state (Dioni, 1998)
- Yves Marc Ajchenbaum – ΙIsrael-Palestine: One land, two nations 1948-2002 (Melani, 2004)
- Chalazias Christos – Palestine, the drama of a people (Vasdekis, 1982)
- Ahmat Shahin – The Israel colonialism and the Intifada (Diplomatic Agency of PLO in Athens, 1988)