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From Coexistence to Conquest: the international law origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict 1891 1949

Book Author(s) :
Victor Kattan
Published Date :
June 2009
Publisher :
Pluto Press
Paperback :
544 pages
ISBN-13 :
978-0745325781
Review by :
Dr Atef Assha'ar

The Palestinian cause has been, and will remain the most important issue in the Arab world until it is resolved in accordance with international and humanitarian laws. Many people have approached the issue and have discussed it showing at times thought and knowledge, at times not; it has been discussed both intellectually and as an ideological anomaly. As a result many who have looked at this issue have paid the price by depriving the issue of its humanity, cutting the past from its roots and shrouding the present in a manner that does not fit its status.

With all its components, the Zionist movement forms a strange ideology, fuelled by those whose feelings have united with their objectives, as the book illustrates, historically, politically and legally.

The author of this book a Palestinian-British national, Victor Kattan, is an accomplished writer on the subject. He dates the Arab-Israeli conflict in its primary stage both legally and politically, and uses a unique and solid methodology.  This is rare in the field of politics and international law. The book is inclusive of that volatile historic period, discussing events, policies and laws, their consequences and how they interact locally, regionally and internationally.

Perhaps one of the main ideas and values that Kattan puts forward in the book is that law is and remains a key factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict and that its role is important and cannot be ignored. Complying with a law does not compromise a person's feelings and emotions towards the cause. Indeed, the laws that coincide with human justice are binding for all and are the only way of ending deadly conflicts. Ideologies and attempts to  mobilise people and stir up emotions in ways contrary to rational thinking, serving only an individual's narrow thoughts and parties, will not bear fruit or last. The fact that Israel continues to violate many laws will make its continued existence difficult. It is in fact seen as an existential problem for Israel by many principled Jewish intellectuals and writers.

The book consolidates and strengthens the legal view that Zionism is based on a need to fulfil colonial ambitions. The book also uses the law as an essential philosophical tool when searching the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its consequences. It is seen to be a credible contribution by the author towards the development and humanization of laws so they can become the foundations of history. As Arab and other distinguished historians, such as Ibn Khaldun, the Italian thinker Giambtista Fico and the Palestinian – American Edward Said said history is man-made and therefore people have to take it upon themselves to be good for their collective conscience.  If developed, that sense would make a human being discover that he is one of the richest resources on earth.  If he listens to his mind and conscience, contemplates things around him, and leaves extremism in favour  of humanity, he will find a higher meaning to life than that fed by ideologies, especially extremist ones. What Prompted Kattan to engage in law and its political and social aspects is the absence of a specialised cadre and a Palestinian reference.  What encouraged him is the shortfall in research and studies that address the West in its own language and clarifies the laws that were set to support the founding of the state of Israel on the land of Palestine. These laws favoured Zionism and were completely biased and contradictory.

The above is compatible with the fact that many of the laws which have disappointed people were made-up by forces with self-interest at heart, and do not correspond to the minimum requirements of justice sought by all who dream of a world more humane and harmonious. In this book we will see how Zionism, on which the state of Israel was founded, has manipulated the law and influenced the major powers to make them conform to its vision and colonial ambitions in Palestine. In the first chapter of his book Kattan says "If there are three words which could explain the success lying behind the creation of Israel and the conquest of Palestine in 1948 they would be anti-Semitism, colonialism and Zionism … And law, being the end product of politics, was there every step of the way providing legitimacy and a legal framework through which Jewish immigration into Britain would be controlled in 1905, before being redirected into Palestine after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and regulated thereafter through the implementation of the League of Nations Mandate from September 1923 until May 1948."(p, 8) If there is a contradiction in that then it is the politics that controlled the laws and turned them to its advantage. There is a deep conviction and balanced explanation that all laws if analysed and placed in proper context, whether they are laws on the right of self-determination and sovereignty, or decisions of division and partition will support and emphasise Palestinian rights.

It can be learnt from Kattan's book that the road to justice may be paved with thorns, but can be walked down if one struggles, is steadfast and does not diverge from the path of justice. Kattan links  history, politics, laws, the past and present and comes out of this 'cocktail' with clear views and provisions in regard to the Palestinian cause from beginning to end. The knot the author tries to untie is complex and deals with the marriage between Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is understood as a western phenomenon hostile to all Jews. Rabbis of the Zionist regime, including the founding father Theodor Herzl, took advantage of the deeply rooted anti-Semitism in Europe, in order to convince European politicians of the importance of a Jewish homeland which in the mind of many of Zionists, had to be Palestine. For many reasons, including pragmatic and historical ones the focus turned to Palestine. But the direction of Zionism in Palestine was not easy; history, politics and economy were interlinked and there were many quirks before the arrival of the Jews in Palestine and the establishment of a national homeland occurred on the ruins of the Palestinian people. We can see from the first chapter in the book how Herzl, the father of Zionism, and other Zionists like Chaim Weizmann,  were heard by Balfour who was himself hostile to the Jews but saw in the colonization of Palestine a solution to the so-called "Jewish question". In other words, he saw the Jews as a thorn that must be removed from the European side. He considered them as part of the immigration problem and put them under the framework of what was then described as an "Alien Act". Winston Churchill the British Prime Minister, the Jewish-Zionist Herbert Samuel and others danced to the same tune.

Britain's policy was consistent with the goals of Zionism, as shown in the book, although there were understandings and agreements with the Arabs contrary to the spirit of practical British politics towards the Jews. In this context, we find that the evolution of the Zionist movement and the convergence of objectives with the essence of British colonial policy were met with strong opposition from some governmental sectors and civil administration in Britain. These people saw in the convergence of the British and Zionist goals great damage to Britain and to the Jews in the long run.

Hence, a good characteristic of this book is that it distinguishes between those who saw things  based on facts and laws, and those who saw things from the colonial perspective. It shows that despite the resulting tragedy to others, British policies were questioned and resisted by people who were sincere and stood on the side of human rights and justice rather than on the side of power and colonial arrogance. This is a good lesson for people to distinguish between good and bad when they deal with others, instead of putting all nations in refabricated locker for this is far removed from reality.

The figure most opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine and who was in despair at the British policy to support it was Edwin Montagu, a Minister of State in the British government of India between 1917-1922. He predicted the future in light of the available data, in contrast to his cousin, Samuel Herbert, the first High Commissioner to Britain in Palestine, who was a passionate Zionist. Montagu saw the plan as a threat to Jews and Judaism and predicted that the indigenous population, the Palestinians, would not be silenced if uprooted from their land and robbed of their properties. The British contradiction in this context was manifested in more than one instance. One of the legal foundations of the ideology of the colonial division of land is seen in the categorisation of territories into 'A', 'B', and 'C'. These categories were based on the stage of development of the people on a managerial level and on the ground and hence tested the viability of self-governance. Palestine was classified under the framework of 'A', a land capable to govern itself, and in this regard, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, William Ormsby-Gore told a meeting of the British Parliament in 1924 that:

"Consideration of the reports on Palestine showed that the problem was entirely different from that of B and C mandates, where African and Polynesian inhabitants were under consideration. Palestine occupied a unique position in international politics, since it was the Holy Land for Jews, Christians and Mohammedans. The object of the British government was to treat all Palestinians on a basis of complete equality." (p, 53)
Palestine was among the countries qualifying for independence, as the language of the mandate and the regulations stated, but did not get its independence. Namibia, which was classified in a lower category in terms of management and over which there was conflict between South West Africa and South Africa, gained its independence in 1990. What happened to Palestine and the continued manipulation of the laws was something rare and alarming.

Another Legal issue that the book exposes is the secret agreement between the Arabs and the British in the form of the understanding between the Governor of Makkah, Sherif Hussein, and Britain's High Commissioner in Egypt at that time (1915-1916), Henry McMahon. McMahon promised the Arabs their independence, including Palestine, in exchange for supporting Britain in its war against Ottoman Turkey. That also did not happen. Kattan proves with documents, legal analysis and rational understanding that just because the agreement was secret does not detract from its legality; a secret agreement in the international norms does not mean it's a non-binding agreement, as some claim. Another important aspect covered in the book is the decision of partition in 1947, which was not legal, as it gave the indigenous population less than that given to their opponents who were fewer in number and less rooted in the country. The decision contradicted many international laws and legislations. British politicians agreed that it was a bad decision and not legal. for example, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, said in an extremely confidential memo to Winston Churchill in 1945: "It would not be easy to persuade Arab governments that it is equitable or consonant with the mandate, or with the Atlantic Charter, or with our own war-time publicity, to include in the Jewish State all the best land, practically all the industries, the only good ports and about a third of the Arab inhabitants." (p, 146 )

The attempt by Arabs to retrieve Palestine after it was conquered in 1948, which is called by some international lawyers an act of aggression, is a blatant fabrication. There are laws that give the Arabs the right to resistance against those who invaded their land and displaced them.  International law is based on facts not the outcomes that had no legal basis. On this issue, Victor Kattan, says: "History is integral to international law, especially as the discipline operates on precedent, in the form of treaties, custom, general principles and case law. Moreover, when layers make a case or assert an argument before a court of law they are beholden to the facts." (p, 172) The book deals with many aspects relating to the State of Israel being found on the land of Palestine and the ensuing consequences of this, including the right to self-determination as stated by the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923. According to this Treaty indigenous people are more eligible to sovereignty than the invaders who have imposed themselves on the land by force and claimed that they are legitimate owners.

Balfour wanted Zionism to be "a great adventure", one that had never happened in the world, and for this reason he played with the law to justify himself and did not pay attention to the suffering of others, particularly the Palestinian refugees, whom Kattan, after studying their status, concluded had the right  to return to their homes or be compensated.

Balfour the British Foreign Secretary and signatory of the disingenuous Declaration of 1917 did not listen to Edwin Montagu who at the beginning said that the Jews would fall into historical quagmire that would encourage anti-Semitic sentiments. It was said that Montagu cried in front of Balfour when the latter did not listen to him and he was excluded from the heated discussions about the Declaration.

Thus, in view of the issues discussed by the author and the importance of international law, I wish to conclude with what Victor Kattan said: "After all, a peace treaty is a legal document. In the end it is unlikely that a lasting peace would subsist unless it is based on equity, justice and principles of international law, which have been sidelined throughout the Arab-Israeli to the detriment of all concerned. In the absence of such conditions any peace agreement is doomed to fail, as evinced by the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s and all the other failed peace endeavours." (p, 261)

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