WASHINGTON, November 8, 2014 — In Israel, almost no one speaks of a “two-state” solution. Land that would constitute a Palestinian state — the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem — is being settled by Israel. Late in October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would fast-track planning for 1,060 new apartments in East Jerusalem.
Most of the world, including America, considers such settlements illegal. The State Department says it is “deeply concerned” about these developments.
The U.S., while continuing to provide $3 billion in no-strings-attached aid to Israel each year, has consistently condemned unilateral steps that could prejudice the outcome of negotiations over East Jerusalem, which Israel took from Jordan in the 1967 war and later annexed in a move that was never internationally recognized, nor recognized by the U.S. The U.S. Embassy is in Tel Aviv.
Palestinian officials say tha Netanyahu has refused to outline the borders of a future Palestinian state. “We believe such unilateral acts will lead to an explosion,” says Jibril Rajoub, a senior figure in Fatah, the party led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian leadership is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to the Israeli occupation within two years. The Israelis feel that they have been given a blank check from the U.S. to continue their occupation policies and to abandon any need to pretend to support a two-state solution.
Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, Israel, says of Netanyahu, “The truth is that he is not really nervous about America or the world anymore because, until now, nobody has done anything.”
The Palestinians are among the victims of the horrors of the 20th century. In many respects, they are the final victims of the Holocaust. Palestinians over the years have said, “The Holocaust was a horrible event. We didn’t do it. We were living peacefully in Palestine, as our ancestors had done for centuries. To make up to the Jews for the devastation of the Nazis, our country was taken from us. How is this just?”
Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish state, began in 19th century Europe. Until the rise of the Nazis, it was a minority movement among Jews, particularly in the U.S., England, France and other Western countries. After the Holocaust, many Jews and western politicians became advocates of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, even though Palestine was fully occupied by others and Jews constituted a small minority of the population.
The early Zionists and the British Government — which announced via the Balfour Declaration its intent to transfer ownership of Palestine, which it had gained as the spoils of war, to the Jews — were indifferent to the Palestinians.
The immediate issue for the Zionists in the late 19th century was the “Arab problem” in Palestine, an indigenous population 92 per cent Arab. The early Zionists, writes Israeli historian Benny Morris in “Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionisr-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001,” saw that the establishment of a Jewish state would require the removal of these Palestinian Arabs. The idea of removal, he notes, “goes back to the fathers of modern Zionism … one of the main currents in Zionist ideology from the movement’s inception.”
According to Morris, the Zionist settlers referred to Palestinians as “mules” and behaved “like lords and masters, some apparently resorting to the whip at the slightest provocation … a major source of Arab animosity.” The Russian Jewish writer and philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote in 1891 that the European settlers “behaved toward the (Palestinian) Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it.” Moshe Sharett, a future prime minister, acknowledged that, “We have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it … the land must be ours alone.”
In the mid-19th century, the land corresponding to Palestine had about 340,000 people, of whom 300,000 (88 percent) were Muslim or Druse, 27,000 (8 percent) were Christian, and 13,000 (4 percent) were Jews. In 1922, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, Jews constituted only 11 percent of the population.
Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, viewed his enterprise as similar to other European colonial movements. He promised that the new state “should there form a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The writer Max Nordau, Herzl’s second in command, agreed. “We will endeavor to do in the Near East what the English did in India. It is our intention to come to Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Europe to the Euphrates.”
The British knew very well that they were acting in defiance of the wishes of Palestine’s indigenous population. Lord Curzon, the representative of the House of Lords in the War Cabinet during World War 1, who would succeed Balfour as Foreign Secretary in 1919, opposed the Balfour Declaration. He said it would commit Britain to creating a Jewish state in a land that “already has an indigenous population of its own of a different race.”
The Arabs who lived there, Curzon warned, “would not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigration or to act as mere hewers of wood or drawers of water for the latter.”
According to George Kidston, who served in the Middle East Division of the Foreign Office, Balfour promised Palestine to the Zionists “irrespective of the wishes of the great bulk of the population, because it is historically right and politically expedient that Balfour should do so.
“The idea that carrying out these programs will entail bloodshed and military repression never seems to have occurred to him.”
Balfour understood very well that by embracing Zionism he was rejecting the principle of self-determination for the people of Palestine. In 1919, he wrote to Lloyd George:
The weak point of our position, of course, is that in the case of Palestine, we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination. If the present inhabitants were consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict.
Zionists often spoke of Palestine as “a land without people for a people without land.” In 1891, the Lovers of Zion in Russia sent Ahad Ha’am to observe conditions in Palestine. He reported that,
“From abroad we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy land there can come and buy all he wants.
But in truth, it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled…If the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not easily yield their place.”
At a meeting of the 7th Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1905, Yitzhak Epstein, a teacher who had migrated to Palestine, raised what he called the “hidden question”:
Among the difficult problems associated with the idea of the renewal of life of our people in its land, there is one question that outweighs all the others, namely the question of our attitude to the Arabs. We have overlooked a rather ‘marginal’ fact — that in our beloved land lives an entire people that has been dwelling there for many centuries and has never considered leaving it.
Hillel Zeitlin charged that the Zionists “forget, mistakenly or maliciously, that Palestine belongs to others, and it is totally settled.”
David Ben Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, acknowledged that frustrated Palestinian national aspirations lay behind the 1936 rebellion, as well as fears that a Jewish state was being thrust upon them. He knew that the Palestinians’ fears were “legitimate”:
Were I an Arab … I would rise up against the immigration for Arabs are fighting dispossession … the fear is not of losing land, but of losing the homeland of the Arab people, which others (we) want to turn into the homeland of the Jewish people. When we say the Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves — that is only half the truth … politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.
As early as 1937, Ben Gurion revealed his strategy to take over all of Palestine:
After the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and expand to the whole of Biblical Palestine. I do not see a partition as the final solution of the Palestine question … We will expel the Arabs and take their places … We shall accept a state in the boundaries fixed today, but the boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people and no external factor will limit them.
In 1947, in the wake of the Holocaust, the U.N. recommended partition of Palestine: 56 per cent for a Jewish state, 44 percent for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians cited the inequity: the Jews with 31 per cent of the population were being allocated 56 percent of the land. Moreover, Jews owned only 6 percent of Palestine.
What, they wondered, would happen to those Palestinians who comprised nearly half the population in the territory allocated to the Jews?
Israeli historian Avi Shlaim summarized the Palestinian case:
The Arab case was clear and compelling. Palestine belonged to the people living in it, and the overwhelming majority was Arab. In language and culture, as well as land ownership, the country had been Arab for centuries. Geographical proximity, historical ties, and religious affinity made Palestine an integral part of the Arab world. It was entitled to immediate independence. Jewish immigration and settlement could not take place without the consent of the country’s Arab owners, and this consent was emphatically denied. Neither Britain, nor the League of Nations had the right to promise a land that was not theirs to promise, the promise was null and void.
The Palestinians are indeed the last victims of the Holocaust, still seeking justice from an indifferent world. Finally, the world seems to be listening, including many Jews of conscience who regret what has been done in their name.
It is not too late to provide justice to both Palestinians and Israelis, both victims of a brutal history.