Juan Cole, Informed Comment, March 16, 2010
On March 10, I posted on the humiliation heaped on Vice President Joe Biden by the Israeli government of far-right Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden went to Israel intending to help kick off indirect negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestine Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Biden had no sooner arrived than the Israelis announced that they would build 1600 new households on Palestinian territory that they had unilaterally annexed to Jerusalem. Since expanding Israeli colonization of Palestinian land had been the sticking point causing Abbas to refuse to engage in negotiations, and, indeed, to threaten to resign, this step was sure to scuttle the very talks Biden had come to inaugurate. And it did.
The tiff between the US and Israel is less important that the worrisome growth of tension between Palestinians and Israelis as the Israelis have claimed more and more sites sacred to the Palestinians as well. There is talk of a third Intifada or Palestinian uprising.
As part of my original posting, I mirrored a map of modern Palestinian history that has the virtue of showing graphically what has happened to the Palestinians politically and territorially in the past century.
Andrew Sullivan then mirrored the map from my site, which set off a lot of thunder and noise among anti-Palestinian writers like Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, but shed very little light.
The map is useful and accurate. It begins by showing the British Mandate of Palestine as of the mid-1920s. The British conquered the Ottoman districts that came to be the Mandate during World War I (the Ottoman sultan threw in with Austria and Germany against Britain, France and Russia, mainly out of fear of Russia).
But because of the rise of the League of Nations and the influence of President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about self-determination, Britain and France could not decently simply make their new, previously Ottoman territories into mere colonies. The League of Nations awarded them “Mandates.” Britain got Palestine, France got Syria (which it made into Syria and Lebanon), Britain got Iraq.
The League of Nations Covenant spelled out what a Class A Mandate (i.e. territory that had been Ottoman) was:
“Article 22. Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory [i.e., a Western power] until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”
That is, the purpose of the later British Mandate of Palestine, of the French Mandate of Syria, of the British Mandate of Iraq, was to ‘render administrative advice and assistance” to these peoples in preparation for their becoming independent states, an achievement that they were recognized as not far from attaining. The Covenant was written before the actual Mandates were established, but Palestine was a Class A Mandate and so the language of the Covenant was applicable to it. The territory that formed the British Mandate of Iraq was the same territory that became independent Iraq, and the same could have been expected of the British Mandate of Palestine. (Even class B Mandates like Togo have become nation-states, but the poor Palestinians are just stateless prisoners in colonial cantons).
The first map thus shows what the League of Nations imagined would become the state of Palestine. The economist published an odd assertion that the Negev Desert was ’empty’ and should not have been shown in the first map. But it wasn’t and isn’t empty; Palestinian Bedouin live there, and they and the desert were recognized by the League of Nations as belonging to the Mandate of Palestine, a state-in-training. The Mandate of Palestine also had a charge to allow for the establishment of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine for Jews (because of the 1917 Balfour Declaration), but nobody among League of Nations officialdom at that time imagined it would be a whole and competing territorial state. There was no prospect of more than a few tens of thousands of Jews settling in Palestine, as of the mid-1920s. (They are shown in white on the first map, refuting those who mysteriously complained that the maps alternated between showing sovereignty and showing population). As late as the 1939 British White Paper, British officials imagined that the Mandate would emerge as an independent Palestinian state within 10 years.
In 1851, there had been 327,000 Palestinians (yes, the word ‘Filistin’ was current then) and other non-Jews, and only 13,000 Jews. In 1925, after decades of determined Jewish immigration, there were a little over 100,000 Jews, and there were 765,000 mostly Palestinian non-Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. For historical demography of this area, see Justin McCarthy’s painstaking calculations; it is not true, as sometimes is claimed, that we cannot know anything about population figures in this region. See also his journal article, reprinted at this site. The Palestinian population grew because of rapid population growth, not in-migration, which was minor. The common allegation that Jerusalem had a Jewish majority at some point in the 19th century is meaningless. Jerusalem was a small town in 1851, and many pious or indigent elderly Jews from Eastern Europe and elsewhere retired there because of charities that would support them. In 1851, Jews were only about 4% of the population of the territory that became the British Mandate of Palestine some 70 years later. And, there had been few adherents of Judaism, just a few thousand, from the time most Jews in Palestine adopted Christianity and Islam in the first millennium CE all the way until the 20th century. In the British Mandate of Palestine, the district of Jerusalem was largely Palestinian.
The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s impelled massive Jewish emigration to Palestine, so by 1940 there were over 400,000 Jews there amid over a million Palestinians.
The second map shows the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which awarded Jews (who only then owned about 6% of Palestinian land) a substantial state alongside a much reduced Palestine. Although apologists for the Zionist movement say that the Zionists accepted this partition plan and the Arabs rejected it, that is not entirely true. Zionist leader David Ben Gurion noted in his diary when Israel was established that when the US had been formed, no document set out its territorial extent, implying that the same was true of Israel. We know that Ben Gurion was an Israeli expansionist who fully intended to annex more land to Israel, and by 1956 he attempted to add the Sinai and would have liked southern Lebanon. So the Zionist “acceptance” of the UN partition plan did not mean very much beyond a happiness that their initial starting point was much better than their actual land ownership had given them any right to expect.
The third map shows the status quo after the Israeli-Palestinian civil war of 1947-1948. It is not true that the entire Arab League attacked the Jewish community in Palestine or later Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. As Avi Shlaim has shown, Jordan had made an understanding with the Zionist leadership that it would grab the West Bank, and its troops did not mount a campaign in the territory awarded to Israel by the UN. Egypt grabbed Gaza and then tried to grab the Negev Desert, with a few thousand badly trained and equipped troops, but was defeated by the nascent Israeli army. Few other Arab states sent any significant number of troops. The total number of troops on the Arab side actually on the ground was about equal to those of the Zionist forces, and the Zionists had more esprit de corps and better weaponry.
The final map shows the situation today, which springs from the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 and then the decision of the Israelis to colonize the West Bank intensively (a process that is illegal in the law of war concerning occupied populations).