Just as TE Lawrence was solemnly promising Arabs self-determination in return for aiding Britain in its Great War struggle with Germany and the Ottoman empire, the British government fatefully acceded to persistent lobbying from Zionists to secure Palestine for themselves.
Although Jews accounted for only 8 per cent of its population in 1917, then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour — who had previously served as chief secretary for Ireland — announced his government’s support for the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people”.
The Zionist lobby, led by Lord (Walter) Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann, who subsequently became the first president of Israel, had boldly sought to have the territory “reconstituted” as such — without any reference to the wishes of the indigenous people, who were overwhelmingly Palestinian Arabs.
But the British government didn’t go all the way in meeting Zionist aspirations and felt the need to add an important caveat that it was to be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine …”
Despite this reservation, what the Balfour Declaration did was to give an imperial imprimatur to an essentially colonial project by European and American Jews to take over someone else’s country, then part of the Ottoman empire, on the basis that they had “biblical rights” to the land.
Two years later, Scottish-born Balfour argued that Zionist aspirations to “return” to Palestine were “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Counting for nothing, there could be no question of granting them “self-determination”.
Suffused with myths
Given that Zionists “looked forward to a practically complete dispossession” of the indigenous population, as the US-dominated King-Crane Commission noted in 1919, clearly the establishment of a Jewish state could not be achieved without the “gravest trespass” on the rights of “non-Jewish communities”.
But Zionism itself was suffused with myths, notably the oft-repeated characterisation of Ottoman-era Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land”. It was as if the territory was occupied by a few nomadic Bedouin with camels who could, presumably, move on to somewhere else.
Even today, many cheerleaders for Israel deny that Palestine ever existed as a distinctive place. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said in 1969, “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine … and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
Yet that is precisely what happened. People whose ancestors had lived in Palestine for centuries had their country “taken away from them” by the Zionists, on the basis that they needed to establish a “Jewish home” there to escape from pogroms, persecution and discrimination in other countries.
In 1922, the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into Britain’s League of Nations mandate for Palestine. Its first high commissioner, Herbert Samuels, was an ardent Zionist and he encouraged Jewish immigration, long before the Holocaust. Those who arrived built settlements that were advertised as “colonies”.
Deep unease among Palestinians about the continuing influx and its implications led to an Arab revolt in the 1930s. By the time it broke out in 1936, waves of immigration had resulted in a six-fold increase in the number of Jews then living in Mandate Palestine to nearly 30 per cent of the population.
Partition of Palestine
In the wake of the Second World War and the horror of the Holocaust, the newly-established United Nations decided in 1947 to partition Palestine — again without reference to the indigenous people, giving them just 49 per cent of what they regarded as their own country, and 51 per cent to the Jews.
Naturally, Palestinians — who then accounted for nearly 70 per cent of the population — regarded this as a raw deal and vowed to oppose it by any means possible. Zionists were ecstatic, however, as they saw the UN partition plan as a building block for the creation of a Jewish state in all of Palestine.
The dirty business of ethnic cleansing then got under way, with massacres of men, women and children by Jewish militias in villages such as Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, and Tantura, south of Haifa. Altogether, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from what became the State of Israel in May 1948.
More than 400 Arab villages were wiped off the map during what Palestinians call the Naqba, and covered by forests planted by the Jewish National Fund to erase any cultural memory of previous habitation. Cities such as Jaffa and Haifa were also ruthlessly cleared of as many “non-Jewish” people as possible.
Under the guidance of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, a false narrative was constructed to cover up the “original sin” of ethnic cleansing — that the absent Palestinians had either left of their own free will or were told to do so by Arab armies that invaded after the state had been proclaimed.
By then, the Zionists had seized 79 per cent of the territory of Palestine, leaving the remaining 21 per cent to the indigenous people, most of whom were now refugees. Arab inhabitants of Israel, who had neither fled nor been forced out, constituted less than 20 per cent of the new state’s population.
Regarded as no better than fifth columnists, as nationalists in Northern Ireland were treated in the decades following the establishment of a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”, the Palestinian minority in Israel lived under military rule for nearly 20 years, their rights barely acknowledged.
Capture of West Bank and Gaza
In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Israel seized control of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and almost immediately launched a new phase of its colonisation of Palestine, starting with the eviction of 6,000 Palestinians in the old Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish homes.
The Israeli settlement programme — all of it illegal under international law — got under way in earnest with Ariel Sharon’s “Ring Neighbourhoods” plan to encircle Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish colonies, in an explicit effort to ensure that it could never become the capital of any Palestinian “state”.
Not that there was, or is, any real prospect of such a “state” emerging. Despite intermittent rounds of peace talks and the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s recognition of Israel’s existence, the only outcome that was ever on offer would be equivalent to the bantustans in apartheid-era South Africa.
In other words, Israel would continue to control the remaining Palestinian territories, just as it controls Gaza as a virtual open-air prison camp for 1.8 million people, many of them descendants of those who were expelled in 1948 — ironically, the same year as the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.
Most of the 300,000 Arabs — about a third of Greater Jerusalem’s population — are not Israeli citizens but rather “permanent residents”, although even this lesser status is contingent; since 1967, some 14,000 “permanent residents” have been excluded from the city, on a variety of pretexts.
Even Palestinians in Israel itself are no more than second-class citizens, subject to a range of discriminatory laws and practices. For example, they can be — and are — prohibited from living in rural towns and villages by Jewish “admissions committees” that effectively enforce segregation in housing.
But Jews have a “right” to live anywhere. In the Silwan area of Jerusalem, which is overwhelmingly Palestinian, Zionist settlers acquire houses by fair means or foul, running up Israeli flags under the protection of Israeli soldiers; Ariel Sharon himself did that in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.
The Noble Sanctuary
On my first visit to Israel/Palestine in 1980, I went to see Sharon’s house at night and found that it bridged a narrow street, with a Jewish menorah (seven-branch candelabra) aloft on one side and an Israeli flag fluttering on the other side, both floodlit and all guarded by heavily-armed soldiers.
Sharon led the Qibya massacre in 1953, when Israeli troops killed 69 villagers — mostly women and children — in a raid on the then Jordanian-controlled West Bank. He also presided over the 1982 mass slaughter by Maronite militias of 2,000 Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.
So when Sharon, then the right-wing Likud opposition leader, turned up (with hundreds of armed riot police) for a tour of Haram al Sharif — the plateau on which the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque stand — in September 2000, it was enough to spark the second Palestinian intifada (uprising).
Haram al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and their more extreme elements want to see the Islamic buildings cleared away so that the ancient Jewish temple can be rebuilt there. Their regular visits to the site, under armed guard, are seen as deeply provocative.
On another visit to Israel/Palestine in 1988, I’ll never forget our London East End Jewish minicab driver, who had emigrated to Israel in 1967, telling us that the Dome of the Rock’s design was “based on a tent. After all, these people came in from the desert and what did they know about architecture?”
Steeped in Zionist mythology, he regarded Arabs as untermenschen, just as Jews had been treated in other countries. And he didn’t see anything discriminatory about the fact that he, as a Jew, was automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship under “the Law of Return”, but no Palestinian was, or ever would be.
I was shaken by the discovery in poisonous Jerusalem that Palestinian-owned cars have different-coloured number plates, to distinguish them from Israeli-owned cars. My God, I thought, in the Nazi concentration camps Jews had yellow Stars of David sewn into their tunics and numbers tattooed on their arms.
Evidence for apartheid
Every year in June, there’s a “Jerusalem Day” to celebrate Israel’s capture of the entire city, which is marked by a rampage of militant Jews through the Old City chanting slogans such as “Death to the Arabs” — much more overtly racist than Orangemen burning republican effigies on “11th night” bonfires in Belfast.
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank must queue for hours in caged structures at army checkpoints to get to work in “Israel-proper”. They’re not entitled to use a network of roads built to cater for the 350,000 Israelis living in settlements in the area and some 200,000 others in “Greater Jerusalem”.
Israel doesn’t refer to the West Bank as such; it is, rather, the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria and, therefore, open to continued colonisation. If Palestinians resist, even by throwing stones, they risk being detained without trial, sent to jail for long periods and having their family homes bulldozed.
Having crushed the second intifada, after enduring several suicide bomber attacks, Israel started building a “separation barrier” to protect its illegal settlements in the West Bank and further isolate Palestinians. In many places, the barrier is a concrete wall at least twice as high as the infamous Berlin Wall.
Evidence for apartheid is everywhere, most notoriously in Hebron, where all of the Palestinian shops on once- thriving Al-Shuhada Street were sealed up in 1994 so that it would serve as an exclusively Jewish route to and from a militant Zionist settlement planted right in the heart of the old city.
Invitably, bitterly-divided Hebron became a flashpoint in the recent series of stabbings of Israeli soldiers and civilians by Palestinian assailants, many of whom were shot dead on the spot. These street executions, some caught on camera, give the lie to self-professed claims about Israel; having a “moral army”.
Although it proclaims itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, some 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank have no rights at all, and the same applies to nearly two million crowded into the Gaza Strip, most of them refugees. Israel also effectively controls Gaza by land, sea and air.
Gaza fishermen are regularly fired on by the navy gunboats if they venture beyond Israel’s three-mile limit, electric power is often only available for a few hours per day, Israeli soldiers regularly flatten land near the border to prevent farmers planting crops and shoot to kill protestors at the border fence.
In response to rocket attacks on random targets in Israel, its armed forces launched merciless assaults on Hamas-ruled Gaza three times in the past seven years, most recently in 2014, when nearly 1,500 civilians were killed. Of these, 500 were children, including four boys playing football on the beach.
This regular war-mongering has the added bonus of boosting Israel’s arms industry, as new weapons can be tried out and then marketed as “battle-tested” to rogue regimes around the world, such as Myanmar (Burma), where the army has been “ethnically cleansing” that country of its Muslim minority.
In the past, Israel maintained close relations with the white minority regime in apartheid-era South Africa, sold $700 million in weapons to the Argentinian military junta in the 1970s and also supplied arms that were used in ethnic cleansing and genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1990s.
As for Israel itself, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, who knew the old regime in South Africa intimately, has had no hesitation in calling out what’s happening in Israel/Palestine as apartheid and endorsing the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
The BDS movement has so unnerved the present Israeli government — the most right-wing in its history — that it’s investing considerable sums of money in trying to counter it by churning out hasbara (pro-Israel propaganda) and efforts to silence BDS campaigners by branding them all as “anti-Semites”.
This has been particularly pronounced in the US, where most people still have no idea how Israel came into being, so its cheerleaders in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) can get away with persuading US states to outlaw BDS advocates and contracts with companies that support them.
Paranoid about the truth
Israel is so paranoid that people around the world would find out the truth about what’s going on there that it regularly denies access to the country by representatives of Amnesty International, other humanitarian organisations and even the UN. Its nuclear weapons programme is also a closely guarded secret.
Like so many others, I had swallowed the myths about Israelis as a plucky people who had “made the deserts bloom”, even though they were surrounded by hostile Arab countries. I knew almost nothing about the Palestinians who had been displaced so that Israel could achieve “self-determination”.
I had my eyes opened up to reality years later when I read David Hirst’s great book, The Gun and the Olive Branch, documenting the history of Zionism. Other historians, notably Israeli-born Ilan Pappé, have been demonised for telling the unvarnished truth, based on researching the country’s own archives.
In the light of what has happened in Palestine over the past century, any “celebration” of the Balfour Declaration is bogus and unwarranted. Contrary to its terms, the Zionists went beyond creating their “national home” to establish a state that trampled on the rights of Palestinians from the very outset.
Just last month, Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay declared that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jews”, but if they were to retain a Jewish majority, there would have to be some compromise. “I want a Palestinian state for our own benefit,” the opposition leader said. “I don’t care about the rights of the Palestinians.”
More extremist politicians are pressing for legislation to designate Israel as a Jewish state that Palestinians would have to recognise as such; those living in Israel itself would be required to swear allegiance to the state that already treats them as second-class citizens or risk expulsion to the West Bank or even Jordan.
Instead of feigning support for a “two-state solution”, as Israeli leaders have done for years, it would be much better — and more in keeping even with what Balfour actually says — to have a single secular state with equal rights and guarantees for all. The occupation has gone on for far too long. It must end.