The Arab/Israeli Conflict in Palestine
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By Kyle Katz
Perhaps one of the most significant circumstances to arise in the Zionist journey toward sovereignty was the conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs. This conflict, which remains as heated today as it was almost a century ago, is rooted in several fundamental factors. At its core, it is a religious battle over which of the two groups has rightful claim to the land of Israel, as bequeathed by God. Competing interpretations of God’s word hold, on the one hand, that Palestine was promised only to the descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac (the Jews), and on the other, that this promise extends to all descendants of Abraham, which includes the Muslims. While there has been a great schism between the Jews and Arabs throughout history, the early twentieth century would see this conflict explode into massive political turmoil, bloodshed, and ultimately, a long awaited fulfillment of a very old promise.
Before World War I, the land of Palestine had been a territory within the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. During the late nineteenth century, Arab nationalism began to grow in the region, and would formerly coalesce in the establishment of the Arab Club in 1906. This strengthening of identity was greatly challenged as the Turkish population of the Ottoman Empire began to assert their ethnic and cultural dominance in the years preceding World War I. At the same time, the Zionist movement was gaining momentum throughout Europe and in certain Jewish-populated areas of the Middle East, including Southern Syria. As both the Jews and Arabs were subjugated and discriminated against by the Turks, they began to actively support the allies at the dawn of World War I. Britain in particular would be an allied power that played a major role in how the Arab-Israeli conflict would unfold, as British interest in defeating the Ottoman Empire would lead to a significant relationship with both the Arabs and the Jews.
In exchange for Arab support in defeating the Ottoman Empire, Britain pledged its support of an independent Arab state, which would comprise several regions throughout the Middle East, including Palestine. The Arab revolt, led by T.E. Lawrence, was a resounding success, permanently dismantling the Ottomans’ hold over the Middle East. As of 1917, Britain appeared to be the Middle East’s salvation, as they helped oust the oppressive force that had so long held sway: “…between October 1917 and September 1918 British troops marching from Egypt expelled Turkish forces northward and placed the country under military rule.” In June of 1922, the League of Nations granted Britain the official mandate of Palestine. For the turbulent duration of the mandate, Great Britain would navigate a very narrow tightrope of appeasement between both of the warring factions.
Britain’s support for the Jews came in the form of the “Balfour Declaration”, a 1917 statement made by Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour that professed British support for the founding of a Jewish homeland. In 1922, after being granted the mandate over Palestine, Britain was instructed to put this declaration into practice: “The official mandate agreement endorsed by the League of Nations stipulated that Britain ‘shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure…the Jewish national home’…” While there was definitely a degree of legitimate concern over the Jews’ welfare and their answering the age old spiritual calling back to the promised land, Britain’s primary motives behind Zionist support were for the advancement of their own interests: “Britain intended to have Palestine solely under its control by honoring its policy of facilitating the establishment of a Jewish National Home in disregard to the wishes of the Arab majority.” The British needed a moral foundation to attain exclusive control of Palestine, as “…several countries had long claimed an interest on religious grounds…” Their support for Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish homeland was the kind of moral imperative they needed, and by 1922 Britain had attained “…international acquiescence to Britain’s exclusive hegemony in Palestine .”
The favoritism shown to the Jews in the wake of Britain’s conquest of the Middle East resulted in great resentment on the part of the Arabs. Moreover, the Arabs had become increasingly dispossessed of the government control they had held during Ottoman rule: “With the…onset of British military rule in Palestine, the Palestinian notables lost the government influence they once had in Ottoman times…” This resulted in an increased strengthening of Arab nationalism, as members of aristocratic families that were once the ruling elite, began to form new political alliances in opposition to Zionism and British rule: “In the new situation, we witness the entry into politics of several small groups of Arab nationalists who were attracted to Faysal and to the goal of pan-Syrian unity.” With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the stage was now set for a playing out of simmering tensions that Ottoman oppression had eclipsed for years. Britain’s help in ending Ottoman reign would ironically bring these tensions into sharper relief, and cause them to ultimately boil over.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, certain trends in Zionism arose as a response to Britain’s partial retraction of the undivided support they’d once pledged to the movement, as well as increasing tensions with the Arabs. In 1922, Secretary Winston Churchill pronounced that “…whatever permanent regime arose in Palestine following the mandate’s termination recognized that the country’s Jewish community was ‘in Palestine as of right and not on suffrance’…” To further assuage Arab apprehensions, Churchill affirmed that Palestine as a whole was not to be converted to the Jewish homeland, but that merely a portion would be reserved for the founding of such an establishment. Because British funds used to promote Jewish settlement also ran dry, the Jews were left to fend for themselves. Immigration slowed down, and the Zionist movement lost significant momentum. However, “During the early 1920s, the British authorities…undertook to improve and expand Palestine’s highways, railroads, ports and communications network .” This created a vast need for employment, consequently allowing a surge in Jewish immigration. Jewish industrialization and immigration became the most significant trends in the Zionist movement to solidify the Jewish presence in Palestine and address tensions with the Arabs. Under leadership of David Ben Gurion, the labour-minded halutsim faction of the Zionist movement sought to transform the aims of the movement from being primarily political, to more economic in nature. In this new context, the flourishing of the Jewish population “…could be accomplished even if Jews did not form a majority in the country and Palestine never became a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’…” All that would be necessary to achieve such aims, as far as Guarion and the halutsim were concerned, was the purchasing of enough land for Jews to have for themselves, to cultivate and live on in harmony. This, in the halutsim’s estimation, would assuage the conflict between the Arabs and Jews as it would create “…two autonomous communities sharing governmental responsibilities and public resources under neutral British supervision…” Throughout the rest of the 1920s, Zionism’s journey toward eventual statehood would be marked by continued conflict with the Arabs, as well as great internal conflict between “Labour Zionism” and the dissenting “Revisionists”, led by Vladmir Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky believed that the “can’t everyone just get along?” approach espoused by Guarion and the halutsim was naive and impractical, and that “…the Jewish national home could develop only behind an ‘iron wall’ of combined British and Jewish force.” These two ideologies clashed due to fundamental differences in what they believed would benefit the movement at large, but neither internal strife nor significant tensions with the Arabs would deter their ultimate goal of sovereignty.
Though the events I have mentioned merely hint at a far larger iceberg of tumult that has pervaded world politics for over a century, I hope it gives some sense as to where the iceberg began to form. Considering the current incarnations of the conflict, it’s worthy to note how autonomy and a place on the world stage have shaped the once struggling movement that breathed life into the dream of Israel.