Magazine article The World Today

Palestine, a Running Sore

Magazine article The World Today

Palestine, a Running Sore

Article excerpt

Britain has redefined the problem as calculations on a possible solution have changed, writes Rosemary Hollis

International support for independent statehood for the Palestinians has increased in recent years, though less as an endorsement of their national rights than as a vehicle to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The evolution of the British stance on the issue since 1945 is instructive. It reflects not only changes in the circumstances of the Palestinians, but the changing calculations of British officialdom about the implications of different depictions of 'the problem'.

When Britain held the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, following the First World War, officials envisaged the emergence of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine. After Israel was established in the war of 1948, and the advent of the Palestinian refugee problem, the British clearly hoped that the refugees would either be allowed to return or be integrated into the surrounding Arab states.

The stages by which Britain came finally to see Palestinian statehood, alongside Israel, as the answer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reveals how the fate of the Palestinians has always been shaped by prevailing norms and power relations.

In 1945, when the British government was still the Mandatory authority in Palestine, the people living there were generally described as either Arabs or Jews and seen as in competition with each other and the British for national independence. In that year a contributor to The World Today, citing a former British High Commissioner, attributed 'the root of the Palestine problem' to fear - 'the fear of the Jews of being forced into the sea and the fear of the Arabs of being edged out of their own country'.

That assessment would still hold today, of course, but 70 years ago the British thought they could contain the problem by limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in accordance with the policy enshrined in the British White Paper of 1939. Yet their hands were tied.

Under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine the British were required to implement the undertaking made by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a champion of the Zionist movement, in 1917 - the Balfour Declaration. The letter pledged British government support for 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people ... it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing nonJewish communities in Palestine'.

In other words, the British government supported the Zionist cause but thought it could do so without compromising the rights of non-Jews in Palestine. Only later, when the Mandate was established, did the British fully realize the impossibility of reconciling the ambitions of both the Zionists and the Arabs. From the start there were violent clashes between Jewish immigrants and their Arab neighbours, leading the British to try to exert control over both in their quest to build a bi-national state. This caused the Arabs to turn on the British as well as the Jews in the Arab Revolt of 1936, which the British suppressed with a brutality typical of their approach to armed resistance elsewhere in the empire.

A subsequent inquiry, the Peel Commission, proposed the partition of Palestine, but at the time both the Jews and the Arabs rejected the proposed terms - which would have seen the Arab state-in-themaking appended to Jordan and Jerusalem remaining under British control. So, on the eve of the Second World War the British issued the White Paper, imposing limits on the numbers of Jews permitted to immigrate to Palestine.

By its end, and once the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, that recourse was no longer tenable, though British commentators, such as the contributor to The World Today in November 1945, were still persuaded that limiting Jewish immigration was the only viable British option pending 'handing over the administration of the country to a bi-national body'. …

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