Israel and Palestine 1917-1949
Out of the fire of the 1948 war in Palestine and Israel has come the toleration of Israel in the 21st century Near East. “Deo gratias!” - “Thanks be to God!”
1. The History
In the First World War we fought the Turks who were allied with the Germans in their Middle Eastern Territories. General Allenby the British Commander liberated Palestine from the Turks in 1917. Consequently Arthur Balfour, the British Wartime Foreign Secretary, approached Lord Rothschild with a view to securing his support for a Jewish homeland in the recently freed Palestine. Rothschild of the wealthy Jewish banking family gave the plan his backing. Balfour declared his support for this homeland. Britain had responsibility for Palestine under the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France, which partitioned the lands formerly ruled by the Turks in to French and British zones. Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to rule Palestine in 1920 on account of the restiveness between settler Jews and resident Arabs. This mandate lasted until 1948 when the British evacuated their forces. The Jewish migrants were steadily arriving in their ‘homeland’ and setting up homesteads in the 1920’s and 1930’s. At this time the British Army was being attacked by Arabs and Jews alike. The Arabs were aggrieved by the British failure to enforce the quotas on Jewish migrants to what became known as Israel. Moreover they argued the British had promised them Palestine when they fought against Germany’s allies the Turks. Lawrence of Arabia had been their wartime leader and hero: a British subject. He fought on the Arab side as an Arab in disguise in the Great War against the Turks to ensure justice for the Arab cause including the Palestinian Arabs in the post war settlement.
The Jews attacked the British on account of the grossly unfair quotas as they saw it, on migrants to Israel as it would become. They argued these British imposed quotas were a backtracking on Balfour’s Declaration of 1917. The British were piggy in the middle but order was maintained until they departed in 1948.
2. Why did Balfour make his declaration?
Undoubtedly to assist the European Jews to have their own fatherland. He cannot have foreseen the repeated Israel/Arab Wars from 1948 onwards. Any nation needs its base and the Versailles Treaty of 1919 gave nation states their self- determination in Central and Eastern Europe. Woodrow Wilson drove that policy through at Versailles. He was the USA President. Balfour would have consulted Wilson before making his Jewish homeland declaration in what was a British Zone and sphere of influence. Without doubt Woodrow Wilson would have backed the November 1917 declaration by Balfour. The USA had just entered the War and victory on the Western Front had not been secured. Balfour moved when he did on account of Allenby’s advance through to Jerusalem and he wished to secure this homeland for the Jews then and there whilst the iron was hot. The Jews were the world’s oldest religion and nation and had endured centuries with no nation statehood. Balfour could have no foresight on the Holocaust, but his Declaration was prescient, innovative, courageous and fair-minded.
3. The formation of the modern Israel.
This resulted from the division of Palestine into the Israeli Zone and the Arab Zone – a partition sanctioned by the United Nations in 1947. Once Britain withdrew on 14th May 1948 Israel was attacked by Arab nations in a war that lasted until January 1949. Somehow Israel survived as an integral nation state within her own borders.
4. Should the Arab case be reconsidered?
The Palestinians did suffer improper encroachments on their territory by the Jewish influx in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It is not possible to reverse history so self-pity will achieve nothing. The British Government and the British Military presence in Palestine did ensure a degree of fair play through the quotas and the maintenance of law and order to 1948.
5. Did the Jewish Settlers act incorrectly in the interwar years?
They were entitled to settle as the Arabs were also legally resident. Co-existence post May 1948 had to be resolved by conflict as we know. The British took the flak in the 1920 – 1948 years and the Arabs and Jews did not live alongside each together peacefully during that period. The Jews could not be turned away having been given a homeland by the British. In effect both the Arabs and Jews were right and that conundrum is always a recipe for trouble.
The British bequeathed a restless and partitioned land but Balfour’s foresight was remarkable in his Declaration of 1917. There is no escaping the truth, practically every Jew from Continental Europe who settled in Palestine from 1918 to 1939 escaped certain death at the hands of the dastardly Nazi regime in Germany. He may not have understood this consequence but it followed on from his Declaration. Arabs and Jews found it very difficult to live peaceably in the interwar years. That period was the preparation for 1948 and beyond. Some wars, such as the Great War, World War II and the Vietnam War have to be fought like it or not. Who judges this issue? The belligerents themselves and their peoples. With the divided Palestine in 1948 no one can accuse the Arabs of a purely aggressive war as they were fighting to recover their homes and land in that 1948/49 conflict. Likewise Israel had to defend herself from destruction and dissolution. There was an impasse and clearly respectful cohabitation was not feasible. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1948. With the 1948-49 Palestine war it was not the winner or loser who counted. It was the ever graceful learning process for both sides. You have to be a good loser and generous in victory. Without doubt, thanks to this first Arab/Israel War, the message was being received and understood that swords must be turned in to plough shares in the words of the Torah and the Bible enunciated years before the birth of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam himself.