At the end of World War II, the British Empire was on its last legs. Its economy badly damaged by the ravages of two world wars and the Depression, it no longer had the strength to hold onto its more troublesome holdings. There were two in particular it needed to divest itself of as quickly as possible.
Both Palestine and India were situations that even with sensitive and delicate handling were potential powder kegs. Tensions between the two major ethnic communities in each country were extreme. In India, the split was along religious lines between Hindus and Muslim.
In Palestine, it was both a nationalistic and a religious split between two groups claiming the same territory through historic precedent. Both Jewish Zionists and Arab nationalists had legitimate title to being original inhabitants in the narrow strip of land we now know as Israel.
Far from showing the wisdom of Solomon in either case, the British decided to actually cut the baby in two and leave the two mothers to squabble over the remains. Partition may have looked good on a map (two areas in each land, one for each group) but in actuality, it was a fiasco.
Arbitrarily drawing lines on a map results in massive upheavals of individuals. One day you’re living in your house happy and content, the next you discover you’re living in a land ruled by people who may or may not welcome you. In theory Arabs in the new state of Israel were free to stay, as were Muslims in India, but in practice hardly any felt secure enough to do so.
Although Pakistan did provide a destination for India’s Muslims, the prospect of uprooting oneself and running a gamut of Hindi anger from one end of the subcontinent to the other was overwhelming. Although the leaders of the new India did their best, they were unable to restrain their more fanatical brethren from exacting a price on the refugees.
But unlike their counterparts in Palestine they at least had the comfort of knowing they would be building their own country at the end of the line. While there have been border disputes, skirmishes, and war between the two nations, they can each claim to have established individual countries for their people’s.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, the Zionist movement had been formed. Mainly wealthy Jews and intellectuals to start with, its goal was the creation of a Jewish homeland where Jews would no longer be the victims of another government’s caprice. As many Jews considered themselves exiles from Palestine (the ritual of saying “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of each Passover seder is embolic of this), it was a natural progression for most of them to think of Israel.
Until 1918, that part of the world was under the control of the vestiges of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. At the end of World War I, with the defeat of the Turks, the birth of many of today’s Arab countries took place. But, as the liberators, Britain decided to hold onto a narrow strip of land encompassing what is now modern day Israel so as to take control of Jerusalem.
As soon as possible after the fall of the Turks, the Zionist league began to organize immigration to Palestine of willing Jews in an attempt to legitimize their claims to the land. These initial settlers were the original Kibbutz founders. They established settlements in the desert and began the process of reclaiming land for farming.
These moves were not lost on the Arab residents who brought pressure to bear on the British to limit the numbers of Jewish refugees allowed in on a yearly basis so as to maintain a balance of numbers. The Arabs were already feeling betrayed because one of the promises that had been made them by the British for fighting the Turks was control of Jerusalem.
The influx of Jewish refugees continued to mount in the years leading up to World War II and even during the war. Those people able to make it to neutral Portugal would pool resources to purchase the risky passage across the Mediterranean trying to avoid German submarines and then the British patrol boats that would turn them away.
Of course after the war, with the revelations of the camps, the pressure increased for a Jewish homeland. By 1949, with world opinion strongly in favour of the Jews the British were ready to withdraw and wash their hands of the whole mess.
In an attempt to placate both sides they drew a line through the country right down the middle of Jerusalem. The Jewish state of Israel would retain the Kibbutz settlements in the Gaza and border the Red sea. The Arabs would be given the land up to the borders of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Of course this pleased no one.
Attempts by both sides were made to encourage the others to leave territories through terrorism and other acts of violence against civilians.
The Zionist terrorist groups Irgun and Stern were responsible for the destruction of an entire village and a variety of other non military targets. Needless to say Arab groups reciprocated in kind.
The surrounding countries of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan saw an opportunity to take back the territory that had been promised them by the British. So instead of allowing the Arabs of Palestine the opportunity to establish a country beside Israel they invaded the moment the British mandate expired.
What resulted was the beginning of today’s mess we call the Middle East problem. When the invasion failed to destroy Israel, instead of retreating back into their own countries again, the Arab nations of Jordan and Lebanon held onto the territories that had been ceded to the Palestinian Arabs.
Fully anticipating the eventual removal of Israel, the Arab countries made little or no provisions for the refugees. They were not allowed to move from the area which was to have been their half of the partitioned land, but at the same time they had no control over their government. They had effectively become the stateless people they are today.
From that time forward there have been various wars between the countries. The Arabs were intent upon destroying Israel, who in turn sought to fortify their position. In 1967, they did just that by seizing the land that had been earmarked as being for the Palestinians in the original partitioning of the land.
Most of us are familiar with this territory as being the Gaza strip and the West Bank of modern parlance. The territory that is right now on the point, sometime soon it can only be hoped, of being ceded back to the Palestinians. While Israel will retain control over Jerusalem, the border will be almost identical to that drawn up by the British close to sixty years ago.
Like India before them Israel faces a severe internal test from the more fanatical elements of it’s society. The “settlers” oppose any surrender of territory and back up their demands with violence and the establishment of illegal residences. They have already been responsible for the assassination of Prime Minster Rabin in 1995, who was on the verge of finalizing negotiations with the Palestinian authority.
Recently they have stepped up their activities by trying to provoke Palestinians into retaliatory behaviour by attacking Arabs and encroaching further into their territories.
The government of Ariel Sharon, after cynically using the settlers as a weapon, has finally cracked down on their activities. The army is being used to close down all illegal settlements and securing the borders of the new Palestinian state.
The irony of these settlers is that the majority of them are not from Israel. The first proponents of this activity were the followers of Rabbi Mehr Kahane, a fanatic from Brooklyn who founded the Jewish Defence league. They proscribed to a type of Jewish Nazism advocating that Israel be for those of pure Jewish blood only.
Now the settlers come from all over the world, intent on destroying the hopes for peace so long desired by the people who were born and raised as the first generations of Israel.
Hamas and other similar groups who carry out terrorist attacks purportedly on behalf of the Palestinians have been labeled as outside agitators in our press. But the same information is glossed over when it comes to talking about the settlers.
Unfortunately both groups have far too much in common. For their own personal prestige and power they will manipulate and destroy the hopes and dreams of the people they claim to represent. Neither the Palestinian authority or the Israeli governments seem able or willing to control these elements within their society.
Promises have been made in the past about and from both elements either promising a respect of a cease fire, or a withdrawal of people, and been broken so often that it is hard to believe anyone’s word any more.
Without guarantees from these and other parties any talk of peace is just that, talk. While the threat remains of civilian death how can either side be expected to trust the other enough to relax vigilance.
After years of stalling, Ariel Sharon and the Likud party are finally accepting the inevitable. But they have continually played a shell game with the settlers. With one hand they withdraw them, but with the other they’ve pushed them forward. Their latest measures to crack down on them seem like a step in the right direction.
Peace for this troubled part of the world rests on their ability to follow through on this promise as much as it does on the cessation of anti Israeli terrorist activities.
India and Pakistan are proving with their current negotiations over the Kashmir border dispute that long held animosity can be overcome when both sides are willing and able to make concessions.
Almost 60 years and thousands of deaths later, it would be nice to see the other survivors of partition lay down their arms.