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World War One and Palestine: does the connection still matter?

November 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm

World War One was never a war to end all wars. It ended, however, with a peace to end all peace, at least for the Middle East. Every political project born out of the peace has failed to emerge into a stable country defending the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

No issue epitomises the above sentiment better than the question of Palestine. This despairing assessment of the region and the historic failures of the past which continue to plague the present was the fertile backdrop to a conference organised in London to mark the centenary of the Great War.

The ill-fated consequences of peace negotiated after the war, notably in pushing Germany to the right and enabling the rise of Nazism, are generally accepted. The celebrated British economist, John Maynard Keynes, had written about the economic consequences of peace where he condemned what he branded “the Carthaginian peace” of Versailles; a ruthless outcome supported by a treaty that creates a state of total submission in the defeated.

In the case of Palestine, the long view of history does not share a similar generous reception. The narrative that Palestinian intransigence, including Arab anti-Semitism and Arab terrorism, is the main reason for the ongoing conflict continues to compete with the more accurate representation of the conflict as a struggle to overcome imperialism, colonisation, occupation and the denial of political self-determination.

The two day conference was organised jointly by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and the Palestinian Return Centre. It allowed for a timely reassessment of the inextricable link between the events surrounding the Great War and their impact on Palestine.

The case made and proven to be a disastrous feature of British thinking at the time was that in Palestine the British did not even propose to go through the motions of consulting the indigenous people in the country. As the author of the notorious Balfour Declaration, Arthur Balfour, said to Lord Curzon: “The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the Arabs who inhabit that ancient land.”

This is not just true in the case of Palestine, but the Middle East in general. The region as a whole was too big a prize, especially after the discovery of oil, to be set free to chart its own course through appeals to high-minded goals of democracy and genuine self-determination. Instead, what followed was a systematic effort to undermine self-governance and self-rule, through pliant regimes and, in the case of Palestine, outright denial of the inhabitants’ right to a free and independent country.

British Imperialism versus Ottoman Imperialism

Ironically, one of Britain’s assertions for legitimising its policy at the time was to point to its high mindedness; that it was freeing Arabs from the yoke of foreign Ottoman rule. Under the censuring eyes of President Wilson whose sanctimonious demands could not be ignored, self- determination provided the best means to secure British interest and pull back concessions made to France in the Sykes Picot agreement. However, self-determination was never really a major concern for Britain and France, who was less successful in securing their interest. Unlike France, Britain was able to “play self-determination for all its worth”.

Nonetheless, the historical comparison between Ottoman imperialism and British Imperialism was a catalyst for a stimulating debate during day one of the Al Jazeera-PRC conference.

The heated discussion demonstrated how we are all at times prone to falling into historical anachronism and false equivalences. The Ottomans ruled Palestine for five hundred years but were not guilty of denying national self-determination, despite the clash with emerging Arab nationalists at the tail end of the empire, when a moribund caliph was marginalised by the Young Turks.

For the best part of Ottoman rule, national self-determination did not evolve into a concrete political concept; nor, crucially, did nationalism exist as a centralised, mobilising political force. On the other hand, under British rule, national self-determination reached a normative status. As one of the ideals of politics at the time it was cited as a moral reason for justifying foreign involvement, the suppression of which was heavily criticised by Woodrow Wilson, the US president who proposed that the subjects of empire and stateless people should be able to choose their own destinies instead of being subjected to foreign rule.

A rivalry that shaped the Middle East

The then imminent fall of the Ottomans, predicted by France and Britain, triggered a rivalry that would determine the fate of Palestine. The two European states were like hunters who divided up their prey before they had killed it. A key consideration for both countries as they planned how to divide the spoils was that it was just as important to deny control of strategic parts of the Middle East to their rivals as it was to get what they wanted through the League of Nations “mandate” system.

The British and French made enormous efforts to undermine each other. This was a central theme of James Barr’s A Line in the Sand. For example, the writer was given access to a declassified government report in which details were given about the French funding Jewish terrorists in Palestine in order to fight against the British.

Barr also mentions that Britain was embittered after agreeing to internationalise Jerusalem and its surrounding area in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, under which the eponymous authors paid lip service to the promise of Arab independence made to Sheriff Hussein to stimulate the Arab Revolt led by T E Lawrence. Britain immediately looked for ways to circumvent the deal, and in particular to undo the settlement of Palestine agreed with France.

To do so the government in London turned to an idea that had been circulating for some time. Support for Zionism represented a better way for Britain to secure its position in the Middle East. As soon as the French started making demands about Syria in 1915, cabinet minister Herbert Samuel, who was both Jewish and a Zionist (the two are not always synonymous), used the opportunity to promote the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. He argued that by supporting a Jewish colony east of Suez, Britain could deny that territory to a rival foreign power who might then threaten its control over the Suez Canal.

The British realised that they needed a moral basis for their claim to dominate half of the Middle East. They believed that by publicly supporting the Zionist aspiration to make Palestine a Jewish state they could secure the exposed flank of the Suez Canal while dodging accusations that they were land grabbing. What seemed to be an ingenious way to outmanoeuvre France had devastating repercussions which are still being felt today. The British knew that this would anger Arab Muslims but were confident that they could overcome local objections.

British reasons for supporting the Zionist cause are many, as I argue here. The cost was the denial of democracy for the Palestinians.

Aftermath and internationalisation

The London conference, aired live on Al Jazeera, was exhaustive in its scope. Having spent the whole of day one discussing Palestine before, during and after the First World War, participants spent the second day looking at international law and the future of that troubled land. Under the mandate system, which came into effect following the Versailles peace treaty, the question of Palestine was internationalised. However, this has failed on the promise of Palestinian self-determination, mainly because the British were the Roots of Separatism in Palestine as they wilfully overlooked the indigenous population and allowed the Jewish Agency to establish its own cultural and economic infrastructure.

By 1921 the die was cast; Britain would not give independence to Arab Palestinians because British policy under its mandate was to withhold representative institutions for as long as there was an Arab majority.

By the time of the Peel Commission (1936) and, especially, the White Paper recommending partition (1939) Britain had backtracked over its obligation to establish a Palestinian state and ensure self-determination for its people as it was obliged to do under the mandate system. Instead, it opened the door for Palestine to be divided. This was accepted by Jews because, as a minority, they had everything to gain and nothing to lose; the Palestinians, though, as the majority which owned most of the land, had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Moral blackmail

If the seeds of dispossession and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began during World War One, they needed the Second World War to grow into an unstoppable force. This remarkable connection extended the significance of the “Carthaginian peace” at Versailles, which, it was argued, laid the foundations for the rise of Nazism. That, in turn, led inexorably to the Holocaust. Without this historical catastrophe, it is debateable whether the necessary migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine would have taken place and whether the central pillar of Israel’s moral arsenal would be so powerful.

Opposition to Israel began to be presented more and more as anti-Semitism and less as an anti-imperialist movement. Arabs and Palestinians began increasingly to be labelled as the new Nazis, from Nasser to Saddam, and the PLO to Hamas. Coupled with the intensive use of the Holocaust as a propaganda tool such arguments have led to intimidation and moral blackmail. The net result is that Israel has virtual immunity within the international arena and can (and does) break international laws and conventions with impunity.

Peace or impasse

The Middle East, and Palestine in particular, has reached a historical impasse. While the process of democratisation under the guise of the so called Arab Spring is being pushed back with unprecedented levels of brutality, and the eyes of the world are focused on ISIS, Jewish extremists are destroying any chances of peace through their hostile actions in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The long battle for justice in Palestine, as Ali Abunimah has put it, is going through a paradoxical moment where things have never been better and worse at the same time. From Gaza to Jerusalem and Palestinians in the diaspora, there is relentless bad news and suffering. Since the August ceasefire very little has been done for Gaza; no mobilisation of international system to support the people in Gaza has taken place and thousands of Palestinians are still living in the rubble and destruction left by Israel’s brutal military assault.

The political horizon for Palestine is viewed through two extremes. Pessimism over the two-state solution and the possibility of resuscitating it, and optimism that somehow the belief that the arc of history bending towards justice will lead eventually to a single-state solution within which there will be equal rights for all citizens.

Unsurprisingly the different positions were expressed forcefully by speakers and audience alike at the Al Jazeera-PRC conference. A few cited the tremendous achievement of Westminster’s House of Commons voting overwhelmingly in favour of the recognition of a State of Palestine. Nevertheless, the British government remains one of only a few still to recognise a Palestinian state formally. Considering its historical duplicity and failure to defend the right to self-determination of Palestinians, one would think that Britain has a greater moral responsibility to ensure that they are no longer imprisoned by British decisions taken a hundred years ago. With the recent Remembrance Day focus on the centenary of World War One, it is surely pertinent to remember the political consequences of the conflict which are shaping the lives of everyone in the Middle East to this day.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.