The Holy Land: what happened in Palestine by Trustee John McHugo in The Tablet

Published in The Tablet 16 December 2023 issue. 

Peace in Israel/Palestine will not be reached until each side understands the legitimate rights of the other – and stops interpreting facts to advocate its own story


Facts are sacred, including historical facts, so how did such strikingly different narratives to the story of Israel and Palestine emerge? As historical research advances, the broad lines of a common account of the facts is emerging, but it has not solved the problem. That can only happen when both parties agree on the rights of the other. Therein lies the conundrum, because the facts are interpreted by each side to advocate its own story. 

Each has the same, handy villain to blame – imperial Britain pursuing its own purposes. Published earlier this year, Peter Shambrook’s Policy of Deceit (OneWorld) shows conclusively that before Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 it had already promised Palestine would be included in an independent Arab state. Britain has never admitted this, but at the time it told its Arab ally, Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, that the Balfour Declaration, which included its commitment to use its best endeavours to facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, would have to be compatible with the political freedom of the Arab population. Commander David Hogarth, head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, who delivered the message in January 1918, reported back that he had not warned the Sharif that Britain contemplated an independent Jewish state in Palestine, and was sure that if he had, the Sharif would not have agreed to it. 

Moreover, Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations gave the Palestinians the legal right to self-determination and their own state. Having assisted France while it destroyed the vibrant experiment in democracy that was the embryonic Arab kingdom of Historic Syria (including Palestine), Britain acquired the Palestine Mandate – a “sacred trust of civilisation” for the “well-being and development” of its people. That meant guiding them to  independence. Britain then went on to incorporate the Balfour Declaration into the mandate’s terms of reference, with the compliance of the League. This, Palestinians maintain, was illegal.  

The Balfour Declaration included a proviso that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Chaim Weizmann, the Russian-born Zionist leader who worked with Balfour to produce the Declaration and later became the first president of Israel, would write in his autobiography that he saw these words as imputing “possibly oppressive intentions to the Jews”, and that they could be interpreted to impose “such limitations on our work [in establishing the national home] as completely to cripple it”.  Britain had given itself a circle it could not square.       

While Britain had obligated itself to encourage Jewish settlement in Palestine, it had also bound itself to establish representative institutions there like the parliaments that were set up in all other mandated territories in the Middle East. This was opposed by the Zionist movement until Jewish immigration (to be encouraged under the terms of the mandate) had led to a Jewish majority.  That immigration was also bolstered by a policy of Hebrew Labour, under which Jews tried to employ Jews rather than Arabs whenever possible, with the aim of building a uniquely Jewish society. The Zionist movement also established its own elected assembly to represent the Jews of Palestine, as well as embryonic institutions for a sovereign state. 

A British commission of enquiry lamented after anti-Jewish riots in 1920 that the Balfour Declaration was “undoubtedly the starting point of the whole trouble”. These sentiments would be echoed following other disturbances. The worst were in 1929, notorious for the massacre of sixty-seven Jews in Hebron, though 435 others were saved and sheltered by Muslim neighbours. Nevertheless, community cohesion had fallen apart. Henceforth, Jews and Arabs would generally live separately. In 1937, during the Arab revolt, Lord Peel’s commission concluded that the only solution was to partition the country into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Partition was rejected by the Arabs, large numbers of whom would have lost their homes. 

The revolt intensified, and after a failed conference in London to plan the future governance of Palestine and an end of the mandate, at which the Colonial Secretary had to meet the Jewish and the Arab delegates separately, the 

British government decided to impose its own policy. The White Paper of 1939 rejected the idea of partition, and called for a unitary state in which representatives of both the Arab majority and the Jewish minority would participate in government. It included a strict cap on the annual number of Jewish immigrants. Both sides rejected it. The Arabs no longer trusted Britain and considered themselves entitled to immediate independence, while the leaders of the Jewish community were aghast at the abandonment of the prospect of an ethnically Jewish state. They soon began plans to pressure Britain into leaving Palestine, and to create their own state by seizing as much of the country as possible by force of arms. Building a refuge from European antisemitism was the motivating force for Zionism. Anger against Britain now grew because of its restrictions on Jewish immigration as the facts of the Holocaust became known. Some Zionist leaders saw Britain as complicit in the Nazi genocide.

The General Assembly of the UN voted to partition Palestine on 29 November 1947 but the proposal was provisional, not legally binding.  Israel was established as a state in 1948-9 by secession – the use of force to establish its control over whatever territory it could capture.  This caused a war with the neighbouring Arab states which Israel won. Its successful military campaign was predicated on ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. There was no other way Israel could have come into existence as a Jewish majority state. Britain played an ignominious role in the final days of its mandate, failing to maintain law and order, and abandoning the Palestinians to statelessness and, frequently, dispossession. It was concerned solely with safely withdrawing its troops and officials, while preserving its strategic position in the region. For reasons of Middle East policy, Britain did not want a Palestinian state alongside Israel. 

Since 1949 there has been no other handy villain both sides can blame in the same way. They each have their own narrative, although the work of the Israeli new historians in the late 1980s (a group with radically differing political views) showed that the heroic narrative of the creation of Israel as mythologised in books such as Exodus by Leon Uris was no longer tenable. Rashid Khalidi and other Palestinian historians come broadly to the same conclusions.  Yet at an emotional level, the old, heroic narrative retains its power, especially in Jewish communities around the world and among many older people. 

"The heroic creation of Israel as mythologised in books such as Exodus by Leon Uris is no longer tenable."

How history is taught on both sides of the divide, not only in Israel/Palestine but also in the UK, including in Jewish and Muslim schools, should be scrutinised. It is only by teaching what the legitimate rights of each side are in international law, as founded on the facts of history, that peace and justice can eventually be reached. Hawks on both sides refuse to recognise the rights of the other in the land “from the river to the sea”, and frustrate moderation and compromise. 

Both sets of raptors have plenty of material to work with. Zionists can point to how the Hamas Charter cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a fabricated text that purports to detail a Jewish plot to achieve world domination – as well as vicious material from Islamic sources. Then there is Holocaust denial among some Arabs and Muslims, the propagation of antisemitic views in many Arab countries, and the active backing given to the Nazis by the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem. This is before you even mention Arab terrorism that has included attacks on school buses, the hijacking of civilian airliners, the Munich Olympics massacre and, since 1983, suicide bombings.

Extreme statements and acts on the Zionist side have received less attention in the West, but already in 1891 the Zionist thinker Asher Ginsberg, best known by his pen name Ahad Ha’Am, observed that “[Jewish colonists] walk with the  Arabs in hostility and cruelty, unjustly encroaching on them, shamefully beating them for no good reason, and even bragging about what they do.” In 1907 Weizmann told an audience in Manchester “The Arab retains his primitive attachment to the land. The soil instinct is strong in him, and by being constantly employed on it there is the danger that he might feel indispensable to it with a moral right to it.” For most Zionists the Arabs of Palestine did not have the same rights there as Jews. In 1918 he wrote that they were “a demoralised race with whom it is impossible to treat”, and reported to Balfour that they were “treacherous by nature”.

Such attitudes spawned the dehumanising ideology that enables the ongoing colonisation of occupied land taken in 1967, and the failure to confront murderous settler violence – surely a form of terrorism. They also underpin Israel’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for the displacement of Palestinians so that Israel could be created, and prepare the ground for the chants of “death to the Arabs” and, since 7 October, talk of a second ‘War of Independence’.

But, paradoxically, the atrocities of 7 October and their grim aftermath might bring something like a settlement of the Israel/Palestine question closer –  if only because they are forcing the international community to focus its attention on the need to reach a peace which reflects justice. Political will and a willingness to accept the rules of international law will be required from all.

An updated edition of John McHugo’s A Concise History of the Arabs appeared in November. He is currently working on a comparative history of Zionism and Islamism as nationalist ideologies. 

This entry was posted in Misc. Bookmark the permalink.