The struggle for control over some or all of the territory of Palestine pits two nationalist movements against each other. In spite of their claims to uniqueness, all nationalist movements bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. Each constructs a historical narrative that traces the unbroken lineage of a group – a nation – over time. Each endows the site of the nation’s birth or greatest cultural or political moment with special meaning. Each uses its purported “special relationship” to some territory to justify its right to establish a sovereign state in that territory. This is where nationalism differs from mere nostalgia or collective memory: Whereas all sorts of religious and ethnic groups feel sentimental attachment to places, nationalism converts sentiment into politics. The adherents of a nationalist movement demand exclusive sovereignty over the designated territory and, for their nation, membership in the global order of nation-states. When it comes to connecting history and geography to political rights, neither Zionism nor Palestinian nationalism is a slacker.

  • James L. Gelvin, The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Arab-Israel Tug-of-War – The Genesis

It would not be a very tall claim to state that most inhabitants of the contemporary world are – willingly or unwillingly, vaguely or precisely – well aware of the nature and origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And those who are not would benefit a great deal by reading the above-given excerpt, in which James Gelvin hits the nail on its head regarding the root-cause of the issue, displaying rare neutrality over the subject of discussion. Call the country Palestine or Israel, it is essentially the city of Jerusalem that it houses, which is the bone of contention in this century-long dispute – the so-called Holy Land, that all the three major monotheistic religions of the world claim a right to, for their respective reasons, and with varying degrees of intensity.

However, the purpose of this article is not to delve into antiquity and discuss events of the ancient past, nor is it to showcase and defend only one side of the Palestine-Israel argument. On the contrary, the article seeks to discuss contemporary events that led to the creation of Israel, as neutrally and judiciously as possible in order to declare a tentative winner in this endless debate over the possession of the land of Israel and Palestine. Neutrality is of utmost importance in this particular case since most analysts of the dispute lack it, ending up choosing one extreme – Zionism – or the other – anti-Semitism – as the likes of Karen Armstrong have acknowledged in their writings:

"It is not surprising that on both sides black-and-white accounts of the struggle have tended to oversimplify the issue, presenting it in terms of villains and heroes, total right and absolute wrong, the will of God or a divine chastisement." (Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem)

This approach must be avoided in order to reach a just conclusion over the matter. Similarly, to avoid religious debate, all theological elements have been excluded from discussion, keeping the content strictly political and legal.

So, finally, after gleaning the debate of irrelevant issues – as far as this research article goes – the main question that we are dealing with is: who is on the right in the fight over the land of Israel-Palestine? Are the Zionists justified in demanding and thereafter creating the state of Israel? Or is it the Palestinian Arabs who are the “rightful owners” of this land? Was the creation of Israel in accordance with international law? Furthermore, we need also to determine what exactly does define “justification” in this case – international law or humanitarian values? In order to explore the answers to these questions, we so begin by delving into the events that led to Israel’s Creation:

 

The Systematic Creation of Israel and the Zionists’ Claim over the Holy Land

“They are a people brought together by United Nations decree under which the State of Israel was created where Palestine had been. It was to be the first homeland of the Jewish people, free at last to govern themselves, make their own laws, build their own society.[…] Scattered all over the world for centuries, the Jews had been persecuted and held in bondage, ruled over by civilizations like the Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Christian European, but nevertheless succeeding in preserving their self-image. Now they were together, and free of their troubles. But were they, are they?”

- Jonathan Jacob, Israel: A Divided Promised Land

As insisted above, the writer would not discuss the Zionists’ religious motives in choosing Palestine as the land they wished to inhabit, but only the events that led to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Neil Caplan precisely summarizes the entire Zionist movement in a few lines in his The Israel-Palestine Conflict:

"This aspiration [for a Jewish homeland], dormant for centuries but kept alive through religious ritual, began to find overt political expression in the mid-and late 19th century. For the next half-century, a unified Zionist movement used the organizational apparatus of the World Zionist Organization (and its offshoot, the Jewish Agency for Palestine) to promote “the ingathering of the Exiles,” i.e., the migration of Jews to Palestine/Eretz-Israel. This migration was part of a larger effort to establish the infrastructure of a future “national home” on that territory, which passes from Ottoman to British rule in 1917, and which was to be partitioned in accordance with a United Nations [UN] resolution in 1947. When the British left Palestine in mid-May 1948, a war erupted; at the end of the fighting, the state of Israel, the chief fulfillment of Zionism, was born and accepted as a member-state of the UN in May 1949."

Yet, that does not explain it all. As we know, the land of Palestine didn’t always have a majority of Jewish population. That happened only after the middle of the nineteenth century when the Zionist movement began and with it the mass migration of Jews from all over the world to their “promised land” in order to eventually engineer the state of Israel. So with whose efforts and permission did this rehabilitation of Jews in Palestine began? How did it happen that so many Jews – 5.47 million out of a total of 7.2 million Israelis as of 2007 – managed to relocate themselves in a foreign land?

Much of the “credit” for this mass migration, it is said, belongs to the period in which Palestine was under British mandate – 1917-47. However, it is wrong to perceive that Jews began settling into Palestine only after the Zionist movement began. As a matter of fact, Jews were flourishing in the Palestinian lands since the times of Muhammad Ali the Egyptian, who had conquered it in 1831 when it was a part of Ottoman Syria, and who bestowed great favour upon the Jewish community of the area, allowing them to rebuild the Ben Zakkai Synagogue in 1834. His period thus saw an influx of Polish Jews into the region. In the following years, with the growing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, more and more Jews began to flee Europe moving mainly to the United States and Israel. In Jerusalem alone – the main area of contestation between the three monotheistic religions – the change in population till the arrival of the British can be shown in the following table:

Year

Muslims

Christians

Jews

Total

1800

4,000

2,750

2,000

8,750

1850

5,350

3,650

6,000

15,000

1860

6,000

4,000

8,000

18,000

1870

6,500

4,500

11,000

22,000

1880

8,000

6,000

17,000

31,000

1890

9,000

8,000

25,000

42,000

1900

10,000

10,000

35,000

55,000

1910

12,000

13,000

45,000

70,000

1922

13,500

14,700

34,400

62,600

 

Legal Matters – the British Mandate for Palestine

However, by the arrival of the First World War and the subsequent annexation of the Arabian lands by the Allies, Palestine and Jerusalem moved out of Muslim control for the first time in many centuries. Via the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) it was decided by the victorious powers that Britain was to gain mandate of the land of Palestine, and via the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917) the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George made his foreign secretary deliver the infamously inconsistent and contradictory Balfour Declaration, that gave all newly established Arab countries a right to self-government except for Palestine:

"In a memorandum of August 1919, he pointed out that Britain and France had promised to set up national governments in the Near East, based on the free choice of people. But in Palestine, 'we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.'"(Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem)

Being of utmost importance to the creation of Israel and subsequently to this discussion, some of the important parts of the Declaration are reproduced under:

"The Four Great Powers [United Kingdom, France, Russia and Italy] are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs and future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land[…] His Majesty’s Government views 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 to 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."

Thus, we can see how heavily inclined the United Kingdom and the Allies as a whole were in favour of Zionist aspirations. It is then, not surprising, that the period of British mandate (1917-1947) saw the Jewish numbers in Palestine/Israel grow to nearly 630,000 by 1931 and to 1,013,900 according to the 1949 census – nearly twenty times the number in 1910. Undoubtedly, the anti-Semitic measures of Nazi Germany also had a vital impact on the increase in Jewish population in Palestine, as it seemed to be the only safe haven for the followers of Judaism in the entire world. However, not all of these new immigrants were legal and many entered Mandatory Britain against the approval of the British rulers, yet it is vital to understand that the majority of Jews entered the land of Israel through legal procedure, either by purchasing land or through international agreements like the 1933 Ha’avara Agreement:

"The Palestine to which the European Jews of the First Aliyah [the Jewish name for migration] immigrated was vastly underpopulated, and the land onto which the Jews moved was, in fact, bought primarily from absentee landlords and real estate speculators. (Dershowitz, The Case for Israel)

Furthermore, as the British mandate for Palestine was in accordance with Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which stated:

"To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant.

"The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League."

Furthermore, it also made allowances for the variation in mandatory authority that suited British designs in the Middle East, stating:

"The character of the mandate must differ according to the stage of the development of the people, the geographical situation of the territory, its economic conditions and other similar circumstances."

Thus with British control of Palestine so legalized, the “rightful owners” of the land of Palestine by 1920 were neither the Jews nor the Arabs – but the British. And like any imperial power over the course of history, these new rightful owners had the legal authority to do whatever they wanted to do with their newly held land – and so they did.

1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine – Loopholes that Gave Birth to the Modern Arab-Israel Dispute

“Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948. The boundaries of the Arab State, the Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem shall be as described in Parts II and III below.”

  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181

It must be observed that practically speaking, there is nothing wrong with the UN resolution that drafted the partition of Palestine. Even though it was a plan that granted both the Jews and Arabs of Israel their separate homelands, yet both parties categorically rejected it. The trouble perhaps was that neither got their Holy Grail – the disputed city of Jerusalem was to be held by the United Nations itself. Thus began the armed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the uncontrolled tug-of-war for land in the Palestinian state that has since taken many innocent lives, with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli army the two parties at loggerheads. Having superior military technology and better organization, the Israeli army has managed to expand the Jewish territory to the entire region partitioned by the United Nations plan of 1947 – but it has lost many sympathy points to the Arabs as their death toll rises at the Jewish army each year.

Conclusion – Legality versus Humanity

In light of the given events, the writer believes that although the Jewish claim to the land of Palestine/Israel was legal – given it was granted by the mandate-holding British – yet the downright rejection of the United Nations partition plan was illegal and not justified. However, since the plan was rejected by the Arabs of Palestine, as well, and thus it was clear the both parties were willing to fight, there is no possible justification for the Palestinians’ self-pity. Had they accepted the UN plan, and the Israelis violated it, then their claims at suppression would have been justified. Thus, cold-heartedly speaking, the events that followed 1947 served both parties right for over-ruling the decree of an international legal body. By rejecting the UN partition plan, both the Jews and the Arabs invited the law of the jungle to be imposed over the land of Palestine – and where the law of the jungle is in place, there is no right or wrong, there is only power. The Arabs of Palestine are today suffering the repercussions of their own doings. Nevertheless, their rising death-toll does at the end of the day rise sympathy in the global community as innocent people die day in and day out at the hands of the Israeli army.

Yet, since the writer is bent upon delivering a just verdict, and since one winner has to be picked, it must be said, that in all neutrality, the Jews of Israel are justified in their claim over the land since they were initially legally awarded with the right to occupy the land by the Balfour Declaration, and later proved too strong for their Arab rivals thus gaining military control over the state. They may have transgressed humanitarian values over the six decades of the existence of Israel, but cold justice proves them to be on the right.