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The origin of the Palestine conflict is in Europe

It’s the single most complicated international issue, unresolved for more than a century! Ultimately, here is one of the most classic motives of crisis and war through the whole history of humanity: a land dispute.

The land

Palestine area from space
Palestine area from space
by NASA (from Wikimedia)

The issue relates to the control of the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea, the Jordan River, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan heights. Palestine is the name that it was called until 1948, probably from the Philistines, who were leaving approximately in the area around the current town of Gaza.

The whole area is one of the earliest human establishments and civilisation, with a long and turbulent history. A crossroads for religion, culture, commerce and politics: through history, it has been controlled by numerous different peoples, including – but not limited to – the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims Arabs, European Crusaders, Mameluks, Ottomans, etc.

In other words, with some rare exceptions, the whole Mediterranean and European world has, at some point in time, exercised some form of domination on this territory. Could you imagine if all the descendants of these populations had put forward a claim on it? The only ones who have been reasonably successful in such a claim were the Zionists.


The fundamental driver for the Zionism birth is a profound desperation for centuries of antisemitism around Europe since the Middle Ages. Life for the diaspora Jews in Europe was far from easy. The Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) created by Catherine The Great in 1791 was concentrating in a specific region the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe, with prohibition for them to live outside of it. The era of pogroms started in 1821 (the first recorded one in Odessa) and continued in the XX century. In Western Europe, it wasn’t much better: the latent but increasing xenophobic and non-religiously fuelled antisemitism often lead to massive scandals, like the Dreyfuss affair (1894-1906) in France.

Theodore Herzl
Theodore Herzl
(from Wikimedia)

As Walter Laqueur points out in his History of Zionism, the Zionist movement was founded as a response by Ashkenazi Jews to this situation. From a formal perspective, the political movement was established by the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl in 1897, following the 1896 publication of his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). The ultimate purpose of the movement was the encouragement of Jewish migration to Palestine.

At the time, the area was under Ottoman domination. But this didn’t prevent, between 1897 and 1914, the first and second aliyah to bring into Palestine some 60,000 Jews, mainly from Russia, Poland and Yemen. That was the time when the kibbutz movement was born (first kibbutz, Degania Alef, in 1909) and Tel Aviv was founded.

On May 17th 1901, Herzl finally managed to meet with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, XXXIV Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and proposed him the consolidation of the Ottoman debt in exchange for the Zionists to settle in Palestine. But the Sultan refused….

World War I, the British and the Palestinian question

During World War I, the idea of planning the future of the Middle-East area started to form. But, instead of being openly and properly addressed, it came up in terms of geopolitical spheres of influence, promises in exchange of military help and economic pressures. In the period between 1915 and 1917, the British Government showed an astonishing inaptitude to deal with the Palestinian question, especially in consideration of its shifting and conflicting declarations and commitments regarding the future of the region.

When the Ottoman Empire joined World War I aside the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, a threat was posed on the Suez canal and the British were uncomfortable because it made the communications with the Asian part of the British Empire – fundamentally India – more problematic. So they were very keen to establish a presence in the area that would keep the canal safer and could also provide an alternative land route.

Sykes & Picot
(from the Web)

That’s why, between November 1915 and May 1916, the Governments of the United Kingdom and France – with the acknowledgement of the Tzar’s Russia – were secretly negotiating future spheres of influence and control in the Middle East, in case of victory. The results of these negotiations became the (secret) Sykes-Picot Agreement (from the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes). It effectively assigned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula to the future British and French control or influence. There was also a brown-shaded area on the agreement map – approximately corresponding to Palestine – that the agreement proposed to an international administration that would need to be decided after consultation with the Allies and the representatives of the Sherif of Mecca (i.e. the Arabs).

McMahon (by John Collier)
from Wikimedia

Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, High Commissioner for Egypt between 1915 and 1917, exchanged letters with Hussein Bin Ali, Sherif of Mecca in 1915: these letters are known as Hussein-McMahon correspondence. The aim was to instigate an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, with the clear intent to help the Allies win the war. The British were happy to promise Hussein the control of Arab lands with the exception of portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. This is fundamentally Lebanon: set aside for the French, consistently with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It wasn’t explicitly stated whether this exclusion was comprehensive of Palestine or not. However, geographically, Palestine lays not to the West but to the South-West of Syria…. When much of the relevant documentation was later declassified, among various assurances of Arab independence, the minutes of a December 5th 1918 meeting were found, where Lord Curzon discussed various Palestine undertakings, clarifying that Palestine had not been excluded from the agreement with Hussein. As pointed out in A Dictionary of Contemporary World History by Oxford professor Jan Palmowski, from an Arab perspective, the British Government’s promises were considered an agreement between them and the United Kingdom. On this understanding, the revolt began in June 1916, with an Arab army of around 70,000 men engaging the Ottoman forces. This definitely helped the General Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force to enter Palestine and Syria.

A.J. Balfour
(modified from Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, the Zionist movement had been exercising a constant pressure on the Allies and it was bringing some results. On November 2nd 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, to be transmitted to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. British historian Malcolm Edward Yapp, in his 1988 book The Making of the Modern Near East 1792–1923 reports a fragment of the letter:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

During this time, Russia, aware but marginally involved in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was going through the October Revolution. When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, they divulged the terms of the agreement. The result is best described by Peter Mansfield in The British Empire magazine (no. 75 – 1973):

(….) the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted.

The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) published this agreement on November 26th 1917, only three weeks after the Balfour Declaration. Obviously, the Zionists thought their aspirations had been ignored and betrayed.

A way forward for the too-many-times promised land

Following the Ottoman Empire capitulation on October 30th 1918, the French and British Governments issued the November 7th Anglo-French Declaration:

The object aimed at by France and the United Kingdom in prosecuting in the East the War let loose by the ambition of Germany is the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.

As reported by Hughes, Taylor and Francis in Allenby and British Strategy in the Middle East, 1917–1919,

the British (….) had issued a definite statement against annexation in order (1) to quiet the Arabs and (2) to prevent the French annexing any part of Syria.

Later, the Allies issued a military edict on November 23rd 1918, where the Ottoman territory was divided in Occupied Enemy Territory Administrations (OETA). Only in a meeting at Deauville in 1919, British David Lloyd George and French Georges Clemenceau finalised the December 1918 Anglo-French Settlement. The new agreement allocated Palestine and other minor territories to the British in exchange for British support of French influence in Syria and Lebanon.

The Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations

The main focus of the “big four” winners of World War I (UK, France, USA and Italy) was the former German colonies destiny, while Turkey – together with the Palestine question – was a “separate issue”.

US President Woodrow Wilson – the first US President to visit Europe while in office – sent Fourteen Points for consideration. The fourteenth of them was:

A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

This point was accepted and gave birth to the League of Nations: the embryo of the later United Nations.

As a compromise between the British dominions (who wanted territorial rewards) and the Americans (who wanted the League of Nations to administer the territories until their independence), the Conference decided that the League of Nations would confer mandates. And this was also the devised solution for all the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine.

The Palestine Mandate

Since General Allenby had occupied Palestine after the Arab revolt, the British occupation never left Palestine. But, before the Palestine Mandate was assigned, between April 4th and April 7th 1920, a violent Arab reaction against the continued Jewish immigration occurred in Jerusalem – later known as 1920 Nebi-Musa riots. The British military reaction was inefficient, practically absent. As it is understandable, trust between the communities fell dramatically. So the Jewish community started to build an autonomous security infrastructure, parallel to the British one. In reality, the first security organisation, Bar-Giora, was founded in 1907 to protect settlements for an annual fee. It was then converted to Hashomer (The Watchman) in April 1909. But the Nebi-Musa riots pushed the Jewish leaders to take advantage of the soldiers of the Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion (both part of the British Army) to give birth, in June 1920, to a nationwide underground defense organization: the Haganah.

Despite the Nebi-Musa riots, on April 24th 1920, in the small coastal Italian town of San Remo, a League of Nations Conference conferred the Mandate for Palestine to the United Kingdom, following the generic specifications that were included in Article 22 of the Covenants for the League of Nations. The Zionists had previously asked for the recognition of the Jewish people’s historic title to Palestine but their hopes were constrained by Article 7 of the Palestine Mandate:

The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.

After several territorial discussions, the Palestine Mandate to the British was finally issued in 1922, and took effect on September 29th 1923.

Approximately at the same time in 1922, Winston Churchill provided a White Paper, with an official interpretation of the 1917 Balfour Declaration – yes: five years later:

The tension which has prevailed from time to time in Palestine is mainly due to apprehensions, which are entertained both by sections of the Arab and by sections of the Jewish population. These apprehensions, so far as the Arabs are concerned, are partly based upon exaggerated interpretations of the meaning of the [Balfour] Declaration favouring the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, made on behalf of His Majesty’s Government on November 2nd 1917.

The British Mandate for Palestine would end on May 14th 1948.

The boiling pot

According to J.B. Barron in Palestine: Report and General Abstracts of the Census of 1922, roughly at the start of the British Mandate, there were 757,000 residents, of which 78% were Muslims, 11% were Jews, 10% were Christians and 1% were Druze.

The British mandate was an era of economic growth: between 1922 and 1947, the Jewish portion of the Palestinian economy was growing 13.2% every year, with enormous disparities: in the same period, the Arab portion grew only 6.5%. By 1936, the Jewish-driven economy had eclipsed the Arab-driven one. The disparity was more problematic when it came to individuals: Jewish workers earned about 2.5 times as much as Arabs! No surprise if instability was affecting the area….

The unrest kept growing during the whole British Mandate; so, many Haganah fighters objected to the official policy, imposed by the Jewish leadership, to only defend communities and not initiate counterattacks against Arab gangs or their communities: these fighters believed that the best defense is a good offense; and, on April 10th 1931, they splintered off and formed the Irgun Tsva’i-Leumi (National Military Organization), better known as Irgun (or by its Hebrew acronym, pronounced “Etzel”).

However, the major objective of the Arab revolts was to end the British rule and the sparkle that set fire was the death of a Muslim preacher, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, at the hands of the British police near Jenin in November 1935. In the following four years, the Arabs uprose against the British rule and the mass Jewish immigration: initially in sporadic events, but increasingly organised and armed. Targets were British assets and, to a lesser extent, Jewish assets and people. The Haganah, though illegal, actively supported British efforts to quell the insurgency; the Irgun, howerver, adopted a policy of violent retaliation against Arabs for attacks on Jews.

The inevitable divorce

The six-months-long Arab general strike forced the British to address the situation seriously. On November 11th 1936, a commission headed by Lord William Peel arrived in Palestine to investigate the reasons behind the uprising. It returned to Britain on January 18th 1937. It took the Peel commission about two months to come to the most obvious conclusion: on July 7th 1937, it published a 400-pages report that, for the first time, recommended the Palestine partition into two States. This was the first fact-based recognition that the coexistence could not work – at least in the form that it had been implemented so far.

The Peel commission conclusions were rejected by the Arabs: they claimed that they were promised autonomy and there was never the question of giving land to the Jews. The two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, convinced the Zionist Congress to accept the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation.

The British response was to set up yet another commission, the Woodhead Commission, to examine the Peel Commission plan in detail and to recommend an actual partition plan. Ultimately, the Woodhead Commission declared the Peel Commission partition unworkable and this was finally endorsed by the British Government.

The missed opportunity

When the Peel commission published the results, the Spanish Civil War was heading towards the direction of putting Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in power (though the war actually finished in 1939), also thanks to the support from Hitler and Mussolini. The Nazi were experimenting in Spain their war machine that the Versailles Treaty was forbidding them to have. In Asia, the Japanese expansion reached China. One year later, while the Woodhead Commission was working, Austria – annexed to the III Reich – would cease to exist and Czechoslovakia would be forced to yield the Sudetenland to Germany with nothing in exchange and without being consulted….

The definitive confirmation of the inconsistent and misleading British approach to the problem came in 1939, when the British Government issued the MacDonald White Paper where it was explicitly mentioned that:

not part of [the British government’s] policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State (….).

The paper also sought to eliminate Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricted Arab land sales to Jews. However, this was upheld against the League of Nations and the determination was that the White Paper was in conflict with the Mandate terms of the Mandate. The Second World War suspended any further deliberations. The world was busy getting weird and, generally, the most powerful Governments were interested in facts that were away from the Middle East.

Unfortunately, a mixture of despicable weakness, ignorant underestimation and unrealistic self-confidence let a relatively small issue grow inexorably, up to the point that it became an international nightmare. Still, in 1937, there could have been a different solution to the problem…. It is provoking to recall what, twenty years after the Peel commission results were published, Ben-Gurion wrote:

Had partition been carried out, the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed — most of them would be in Israel.

To the six millions, I would also add all the other ones that perished during the future wars and terrorist attacks….

After World War II

World War II started a few months after the Woodhead Commission published the results and just after the MacDonald White Paper publication. The League Of Nations – which wasn’t able to prevent World War II – was dismantled and the United Nations would form and, somehow, own the issue back.

The geopolitical situation was totally different from what was happening after World War I. The US – more than the UK – had the economic and military power to drive the agenda. So, while the British were still limiting the Jewish immigration to Palestine – consistently with the MacDonald White Paper – the pressure to give peace to the refugees from the Holocaust was growing and the internal Jewish community started to build up an armed resistance. In 1946, another Committee, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, examined the Palestine situation and came up with yet another plan: the Morrison-Grady Plan, proposed by British Herbert Morrison and American Henry F. Grady and endorsed by US President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, providing for the division of Palestine into four, with 17% of the land set aside for up to 100,000 Jewish immigrants, 40% for Palestinian Arabs, and 43% for a neutral zone under British control. In essence, Palestine would not be a Jewish state nor an Arab state. But, in order to put this in place, the British were requiring the US assistance to control the territory and they were never offered that…. Plus, both Jews and Arab refused the resulting plan – for opposite reasons. So the British referred the matter to the UN.

The Exodus affair: another British scandal

As it happens quite often in history, a single event catalyses the opportunity of a move forward. In the summer of 1947, the SS Exodus affair literally exploded in the hands of the British. Exodus 1947 was a ship full of Jewish emigrants (4,515 passengers including 1,600 men, 1,282 women, and 1,672 children and teenagers), most of them were Holocaust survivors. The ship left the port of Sète, near Marseilles, in the South of France, in the early morning of July 11th, flying a Honduras flag and claiming to be directed to Istanbul. The captain was Ike Aronowicz and the commander was Yossi Harel, both from Haganah. The intention was to immigrate the passengers to Palestine and this was openly defying the limited Jewish immigration in the British policy. It is debatable whether this immigration attempt was illegal or not, as the British immigration policy – as stated in the MacDonald White Paper – was deemed in contrast with the League of Nations Mandate; but the British considered it illegal and the Royal Navy followed the Exodus. When it was about to reach the Palestinian coasts, on July 18th, the British boarded the ship (with some incidents): the British Government decided that the ship passengers were to be deported back to France. This was a signal to the Jewish community and the European countries (which could assist immigration) that whatever they sent to Palestine would be sent back to them. Ironically, the Exodus did reach Palestine as, under the supervision of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), its passengers disembarked at Haifa and were transferred to British ships. The ships arrived at Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles on August 2nd but the French Government said it would allow disembarkation of the passengers only if it was voluntary on their part. So the passengers, encouraged by Haganah agents, refused to disembark and the French refused to cooperate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Media coverage put pressure on the British to find a solution. After three weeks (during which time the prisoners on the ships held steady in difficult conditions) of rejected offers of alternative destinations, the ships were sailed to Hamburg in British-occupied Germany.

The UN resolution and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

The Exodus affair forced the UN to come up with a proposition. On November 29th 1947, it came in the form of the General Assembly Resolution 181 (II): a precise and detailed two-States partition plan for Palestine. It recommended the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem area to be protected and administered by the UN. It also dealt with plans for an economic union between the proposed States and for the protection of religious and minority rights. The British Mandate was to terminate by August 1948 and the new States would be established by October 1948.

Jewish leadership accepted the partition plan but Arab leaders rejected it. The Arab League threatened to take military measures. So, when, on May 14th 1948, Israel declared its independence within the borders of the Jewish State set out in the Partition Plan, the Arab countries declared war on Israel: it was the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

After this war – which Palestinians interestingly call the Catastrophe – the 1949 Armistice Agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, modified the partition, with Israel getting much of the former British Mandate territory, Jordan controlling the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt occupying the Gaza Strip.

The decline of the European influence over Palestine

With the end of the British Mandate ends the European involvement in the area. Lebanon had already gained the independence from France (in 1941 from the Nazi-supported Vichy Government of Maréchal Pétain and in 1943 from the Free French Government of Charles de Gaulle). Similar situation in Syria where the British forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government. On May 25th 1946, the UN approved the end of the British Mandate over Transjordan and recognised it as an independent sovereign kingdom. The Parliament of Transjordan proclaimed King Abdullah as the first King. Also, the British Government had unilaterally granted independence to Egypt on February 22nd 1922, even if it managed to maintain a military presence until 1954. Similarly, in Iraq, Britain granted independence to the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, on the urging of King Faisal, though the British retained military bases and transit rights for their forces. The early XX century’s colonialism is not completely over yet but the end of the British Mandate in Palestine is also the end of the official involvement of Europe in the Middle East.

Eighteen years of undeclared war and six days of Apocalypse

Let to themselves and to the inconclusive approach of the UN, the belligerents experienced a difficult period: far from being peaceful. Several international commissions were set up to deal with disputes related to the 1949 Armistice Agreements. The discussion of complaints by the Jordan/Israel Mixed Armistice Commission during the year 1952 resulted in Jordan being condemned for 19 violations of the General Armistice Agreement and Israel being condemned for 12 violations. The following year, it went worse. Statistics taken from the official records of the Jordan/Israel Mixed Armistice Commission Period from January 1st 1953 through October 15th 1953 show Jordan being condemned for 20 violations (after discussion of 171 Israeli complaints) and Israel being condemned for 21 violations (after discussion of 161 Jordan complaints).

The disconnection between the official diplomatic steps, the real intentions of Governments and what was happening on the field was becoming more and more obvious. This pattern of territorial and international treaties violations from all parts continued for almost two decades. It culminated when, according to The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences by Wm Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim:

[Egyptian President] Nasser [took] three successive steps that made war virtually inevitable: he deployed his troops in Sinai near Israel’s border on May 14th; expelled the UNEF [United Nations Emergency Force] from the Gaza Strip and Sinai on May 19th; and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping on May 22nd.

And so Israel triggered the undeclared Six Days War, which began on June 5th 1967, with surprise strikes against Egyptian air-fields, invading Jordan River West Bank and attacking Syrian air forces. It continued until June 10th and a cease-fire was signed on June 11th. At the end, Israel ended up capturing the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (with East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights. Israel’s territory grew by a factor of three, including about one million Arabs placed under Israel’s direct control.

This marked a point of ‘no return’: the UN were not able to keep any of the belligerents under control and Israel had conquered a privileged position on the field that could not be ignored anymore.

There can only be one solution!

The history of the area since 1948 is still made of countless guerrilla-style attacks, undeclared wars (like the Yom Kippur one), treaties and peace conferences – whose determinations always ended up totally or partially disregarded, underlying financial and military support by almost every other State….

There is a reason for that: after the World War II, the Cold War extended to the Middle East, with the US supporting Israel and the USSR supporting some of the neighbouring Arab countries. In several areas of the world, the same scenario presented itself: US and USSR fighting one another on foreign fields. Most of the time, it needed a violent and cruel war to settle the matter one way or another, like in Greece, Chile, Cuba and Vietnam. In the Middle East, none of the two blocks dared pushing hard: too much background, too many players…. The stalemate was easier to deal with, for a problem that they didn’t create. But the problem now has become much bigger because at least two generations have been raised on a war field. Among the Palestinians, hope has been killed and it’s generally not a good idea to leave people with nothing to lose….

In terms of solutions, it is clear that there can be only one: a partition in two States. But this is hardly a surprise: it was known in 1937 when the Peel Commission published its report. If it is understandable that nothing could be done during World War II, there could still be an opportunity with the first UN resolution and the related partition plan. Even now, this is the only approach on the table and slowly – very slowly, too slowly – the parties start to understand what was already clear in 1937….

Time for Europe to take ownership back?

Everybody has already forgotten that the foreign policy of the main European countries created the problem in the first part of the XX century. It would be magnificent for the EU to demonstrate wisdom and cultural leadership by taking back the ownership of the problem and impose the solution. Utopia?

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Maurizio Morabito 02-Apr-2014, 18:33

    A two-state solution is impractical as polarized from the get-go. A three-state solution incorporating the British-made Kingdom of Jordan is far more likely to function.

    • Armando Gherardi 05-Apr-2014, 00:06

      As explained in the post, the two-states approach is an option that has been coming back over and over again. I don’t think a three-states approach is fundamentally different….
      In my view, the fundamental point is the ownership of the problem and the strength of forcing the parties to accept a solution: so far, no one has put in place the guts for it.