Since it was founded in 1948, Israel has been locked in a state of war with the Palestinians and with their Arab brethren in the neighbouring states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Major wars were fought in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Minor wars were fought in several of the intervening years.
Since the Six Day War of 1967, Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Bands of Zionists have settled in the West Bank, considering the “Judea and Samaria” of the Old Testament to be their God-given homeland. They have done this in complete disregard to the wishes of the Western powers, notably the United States, which remains Israel’s strongest supporter in the UN and also its biggest aid donor.
In the West, the entire blame for the Israeli-Palestinian wars has been placed on the shoulders of the Palestinians, who are presumed to be an illiterate and incompetent people prone to bouts of violence.
What’s forgotten is that for centuries, Palestinians lived on the land that now forms Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank (once known as Transjordan) and Gaza. Palestine is one-fifth the size of England. In 1914, the year the Great War (later called the First World War) started, Arabs constituted 92% of the population, of whom 90% were Muslims and 8% were Christian. Jews constituted just 7% of the population and owned 2% of the land.
In 1918, Britain occupied Palestine. Much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be traced to the promises made but not upheld by Imperial Britain from that point onwards. Those broken promises form the core of Peter Shambrook’s incredibly well-documented book, Policy of Deceit: Britain and Palestine, 1914-1939.
Shambrook is an independent scholar at the Balfour Centre, and has held research positions at Durham University and Oxford. His book reports on a forensic analysis of the correspondence between British officials and the Sharif of Hejaz, which was long withheld from the public.
The story begins in 1914 and concludes in 1939 when Britain found itself at the cusp of the Second World War.
In 1914, the waning Ottoman Empire controlled greater Syria, comprising Palestine, Lebanon, and what now forms Jordan, Syria and Iraq, as well as Egypt and Hejaz (in today’s Saudi Arabia). Turkey had teamed up with Kaiser’s Germany in the war. Imperial Britain was concerned that Turkey was going to issue a call for a holy war, which would unite all the Muslims around the world, causing it to lose the war.
Cleverly, Imperial Britain reached out to the Sharif of Makkah, Hussein ibn Ali, who controlled Hejaz. It invited him to join Great Britain in the war, in exchange for being given independence once the war was won. Sharif agreed. Eventually, Turkey was defeated. But, as Shambrook documents in painful detail, while the Arabs honoured their commitment, the British did not.
The British imperialists had never intended to honour the agreement. In 1917, Britain issued the infamous Balfour Declaration to Lord James Rothschild, a leading Zionist and liberal MP who, in 1924, became the president of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. The declaration made it very clear that Imperial Britain never intended to hand over Palestine to the Arabs, even though that land was almost entirely populated by them. Arthur Balfour was the British Foreign Secretary in 1917, when he issued the declaration, and had served as prime minister from 1902-05. He had never set foot in Palestine when he issued the declaration. The declaration became part of the law when it was included in the British Mandate of Palestine issued by the League of Nations.
Shambrook writes that Lord Chancellor Frederick Maugham was of the opinion that “the Balfour Declaration was a promise to the Jews of a home in Palestine, and that promise had been implemented. However, the declaration did not mean the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state, because that would have been in conflict with the government’s promise to the Arabs.”
Why was there such a strong pro-Zionist bias in British policy? How did it influence the creation of what later became the nation of Israel? The book dives into these questions in detail, drawing upon previously classified material.
He proves that the British had a terribly racist and Islamophobic mindset. From the beginning, they had thought poorly of the Palestinians, calling them uneducated and illiterate, weaklings who could not be trusted to take care of themselves. Winston Churchill said, “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years …take effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine…They would have been quite content to dwell in the wasted, sun-scorched plains.”
In the late 1930s, Churchill told Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald in the House of Commons that “he was crazy to help the Arabs, because they were a backward people who ate nothing but camel dung.”
In 1914, the year the Great War (later called the First World War) started, Arabs constituted 92% of the population, of whom 90% were Muslims and 8% were Christian. Jews constituted just 7% of the population and owned 2% of the land
In secret testimony, he reiterated that point and said the Palestinians were like the “dog in the manger” who did not have the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. “The great hordes of Islam had smashed [Palestine] up, turning it into a desert… Where the Arab goes, it is often desert.”
His racism was not limited to the Palestinians. He had also expressed similar sentiments for the native inhabitants of America and Australia, “I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or at any rate, a more worldly wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place. I do not admit it.” In other words, the White Man could do no wrong, regardless of where he went.
Among the English, Churchill emerges as the flag barrier of Zionism. He made no secret of it either. On the eve of the Suez Crisis in 1956, he wrote to President Eisenhower, “I am, of course, a Zionist, and have been ever since the Balfour Declaration.”
Winston Churchill’s biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, wrote in 2011: “The centrepiece of British mandatory policy was the withholding of representative institutions for as long as there was in Palestine an Arab majority.” What could be more perfidious?
Churchill was, of course, aware of the views held by those Britons who were deployed in Palestine. Historian David Fromkin, in his book, A Peace to End all Peace, writes, “Churchill gloomily estimated that 90% of the British army in Palestine was arrayed against the Balfour Declaration. On October 29, 1921, General W. N. Congreve, the commander of the British armies in Egypt and Palestine, sent a circular to all troops stating that [our] sympathies are rather obviously with the Arabs… who have been the victims of a policy forced upon them by the British.”
Just two months prior, in the ultimate act of chicanery, Churchill had sought to reassure the Arabs that “the Jews will not be allowed to come into the country except insofar as they buildup the means for their livelihood…They cannot take any man’s lands. They cannot dispossess any man of his rights or his property.”
In 1920, Churchill had written that in his own lifetime, he hoped to see the creation of a Jewish state by the banks of the Jordan… under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four millions of Jews… which would be beneficial for the entire world and “be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”
Two years prior, in January 1918, Britain had sent David Hogarth, who directed the Arab Bureau in Cairo, to Hejaz to assure the Sharif that even though Britain favoured the return of the Jews to Palestine, it did not want that to impinge on the “economic or political freedom of the existing Arab population.” Of course, the state of Israel was created in direct violation of this commitment.
Zionism extended beyond Britain to the far corners of Europe. This Western ideology was “premised on the evacuation of Palestine by its majority native inhabitants.” Back in 1895, Theodor Herzl, the father of Political Zionism, had written, “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”
Russian Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky had publicly expressed similar sentiments in 1923, “Zionist colonisation… can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”
Only Britain, the European Zionists believed, could provide a “shield of bayonets” behind which the Zionists could take over Palestine. Of course, they had perfected the art of deception. As far back as March 1918, Weizman had assured the Palestinians that while Jews had never renounced their right to return to Palestine, they were their “brother Semites, not so much ‘coming’ as ‘returning’ to the country.”
As they pushed for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, the Zionists never felt the need to listen to the Arabs who inhabited the land. Instead, they felt the need to tell them what they ought to think. They had judged the Palestinians to be incapable of independent thinking since they were “decadent, dishonest and producing little beyond eccentrics, influenced by the romance and silence of the desert,” while the Jews were “virile, brave, determined, intelligent.”
Shambrook writes that Lord Chancellor Frederick Maugham was of the opinion that “the Balfour Declaration was a promise to the Jews of a home in Palestine, and that promise had been implemented. However, the declaration did not mean the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state, because that would have been in conflict with the government’s promise to the Arabs”
At one point, a plan to partition Palestine was proposed, creating a Jewish state and an Arab state. However, David Ben-Gurion, later the first prime minister of Israel, was dead opposed to such a plan. He said, “The Jewish people have always regarded, and will continue to regard Palestine as a whole, as a single country which is theirs in a national sense, and will become theirs once again. No Jew will accept partition as a just and rightful solution.”
Chaim Weizman, a Russian-born chemist who would later become the president of the World Zionist Organization and subsequently the first president of Israel, was considerably more guarded. In an interview with The Times in 1922, he described his vision of Palestine, “We do not seek to found a Jewish State. What we want is a country in which all nations and all creeds shall have equal rights and equal tolerance. We cannot hope to rule a country in which only one-seventh of the population at present are Jews… we have never proposed that a Jewish minority should rule over the rest. Palestine will only become a self-governing commonwealth when the majority of its inhabitants are Jewish.”
In contrast to the Zionist claims over Palestine, when two American commissioners visited Palestine, including the president of Oberlin College, they concluded that the Zionist claim to Palestine which was based on an occupation two thousand years ago, “can hardly be seriously considered.”
When the British Mandate over Palestine expired in 1948, the Zionists, working hand in hand with the British, were able to convince the UN to create the State of Israel. In so doing, Imperial Britain kept its promise with the Jews but broke all its promises with the Palestinians. The world would have been spared decades of conflicts had Weizman practiced what he preached.
This raises a question that remains unanswered to this day. Did the British seriously think the 700,000 Palestinians who had been expelled from their homes would take this lightly?
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made in Britain,” is the sharpest sentence in Shambrook’s magnum opus. Subsequently, Britain has paid a heavy price for not honouring its pledges to the Palestinians. In 1957, a year after the Suez crisis, Britain’s long-time diplomat Sir George Rendel had astutely observed, “Most of our Middle Eastern difficulties today are due to the inconsistencies of our Palestine policy” during the 1914-1939 period. The poorly thought through creation of Israel on Palestinian land in a brutal and rushed fashion has alienated Britain from nearly a quarter of the world’s population, which resides in 49 Muslim-majority countries.
Arabs and Muslims are angry that Palestinians have become “strangers in their own land.” But it is not just the Palestinians who have paid a price for Britain’s botched policies. So has Israel, which remains an unwelcome guest in the eyes of the Palestinians and much of the Arab and Muslim world.
From day one, Israel’s leaders made no effort to deal with the Palestinians as their equals. The British, who had governed much of the globe at one point with their characteristic arrogance and hubris from London, had succeeded in passing on their jaundiced and racist colonial mantle and mindset to those who now ruled from Tel Aviv.
The US and many others have continued to push the two-state solution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian enigma. It has remained a chimera.
What we have today is a draconian one-state solution. Within Israel, a democratic order prevails, but only for its Jewish citizens. In the occupied territories, especially in Gaza, the Palestinians live in a state of siege. This has caused the Right Reverend John Pritchard, a former Bishop of Oxford, while reviewing Shambrook’s book, to observe, and very rightfully so: “Palestine was a twice-promised land, and Britain’s dishonest dealings are irrevocably revealed in the author’s detailed exploration of the documents, both public and private. One could hope for some repentance and resolve in government circles. If both Israelis and Palestinians are to come through their antipathy and thrive together, then some international player needs to step up. No nation has more moral responsibility than the UK.”