Once again, the British Parliament has led the way with an epoch-making decision. On Monday 13 October 2014, British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of recognizing Palestine as a state. With 274 to 12 votes they passed a motion stating: “This House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
The Conservative Party’s whips advised the party’s MPs to stay away from the vote. As a result, nearly 90 per cent of the ruling Conservative Party members were absent from the vote. (1)
The Israeli government lobbied actively against the motion. The Zionist Federation of Great Britain, the oldest Zionist federation in the world, launched a campaign calling on British Jews to write letters to their MPs, urging them to oppose the motion. The more mainstream Jewish organizations also joined the campaign.
On the other hand, a number of Jewish MPs spoke eloquently in favour of the motion. The veteran Labour Party MP Gerald Kaufman, supporting the motion, accused Israel of “harming the image of Judaism” and contributing to anti-Semitism. In fact, the motion would not have made it to the floor of the House without the support of the Jewish leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband.
Most of those who spoke in favour of the motion were emphatic about Israel’s right to exist, but they felt that it was time to give the Palestinians the same rights that the Israelis enjoy.
Nearly a hundred years ago, on 2 November 1917, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour issued a short statement that has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration, which set in motion the events that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.
It read: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
This declaration was of course contrary to the promises that the British Government had made to various Arab leaders that if they joined the war against the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs would be able to establish an Islamic caliphate on all the Arab lands ruled by the Ottomans. The declaration was issued long before the Holocaust and the horrendous persecution of the Jews.
Balfour’s motivation was mainly political. He thought that by so doing he would appeal to President Woodrow Wilson and his two closest advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, who were avid Zionists. His other motive was that supporting the Zionists would appeal to Jews in Germany and America and help the war effort.
Lloyd George who was the prime minister at the time of the Declaration testified before the Palestine Royal Commission, saying: “The Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise that, if the Allies committed themselves to giving facilities for the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause. They kept their word” (2)
In his Memoirs, Lloyd George further elucidated his position: “The Balfour Declaration represented the convinced policy of all parties in our country and also in America, but the launching of it in 1917 was due, as I have said, to propagandist reasons… The Zionist Movement was exceptionally strong in Russia and America… It was believed, also, that such a declaration would have a potent influence upon world Jewry outside Russia, and secure for the Entente the aid of Jewish financial interests. In America, their aid in this respect would have a special value when the Allies had almost exhausted the gold and marketable securities available for American purchases. Such were the chief considerations which, in 1917, impelled the British Government towards making a contract with Jewry.” (3)
Of course, at the time, the Jews constituted a small minority of the inhabitants of Palestine. A British census of 1918 estimated that there were 700,000 Arabs and only 56,000 Jews in Palestine. The Jewish population had in fact grown since the beginning of the 20th century, as in the 19th century the Jews constituted only about 4% of the population.
After World War I, the United Kingdom was given a Mandate by the League of Nations over Palestine. On 29 November 1947, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending the adoption and implementation of Resolution 181, proposing the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews. The land allocated to the Arab State included about 43% of Mandatory Palestine, while 56% was given to the Jews, despite the fact that at the time of the partition the Jews constituted only 33% of the population. According to a Survey of Palestine prepared in December 1945 there were 1,076,780 Muslims (58% of the total population), 608,230 Jews (33%), and 145,060 Christians (9%). (4)
In other words, a third of the population was given 56% of the best parts of the land on the Mediterranean coast, while the other two-thirds who constituted the original inhabitants of the land had to be content with 43% of their own land. One per cent of the land was set aside as a special zone for the international city of Jerusalem.
It is clear that the Palestinians, who held the overwhelming majority in Palestine and who had not been consulted over the allocation of their land to some newcomers, opposed the resolution.
It is important to point out that the resolution passed with a relatively small majority of 33 votes in favor, 13 against and 10 abstentions. The resolution was never taken to the Security Council. It is also noteworthy that Britain, that held the Mandate over Palestine, abstained in the partition vote at the United Nations.
A large number of American Jewish organizations were strongly against the establishment of a Zionist state, as they believed that their interests would be better served in democratic countries in the West, rather than being confined to a new Zionist state.
The American diplomatic establishment was also largely opposed to the resolution. General George C. Marshall, who had acted as chief of staff of the American armed forces during World War II, and who had returned to the government as secretary of state to help the inexperienced former vice president Harry Truman who had become president after the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, just a month before the Allied victory in Europe and four months before the victory over Japan, and the man who was responsible for the Marshall Plan, was adamantly opposed to the resolution.
Marshall and a majority of diplomats at the UN saw a direct UN trusteeship, succeeding the British mandate, as the only solution to halt the bloodshed. After clashes broke out in Palestine over the planned partition, Marshall urged Truman to reconsider and the State Department urged Truman not to grant diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state. Later on, Marshall resigned over American recognition of Israel.
At midnight on May 14, 1948, the British relinquished control of Palestine, and one minute later the Jewish Agency, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed the new state. President Truman was the first head of state to recognize Israel. Again, his motive for recognition of Israel was mainly political, rather than being based on his love for the Jewish people.
In a 10 November 1945 meeting with American diplomats who had been brought in from their posts in the Middle East to urge Truman not to heed Zionist urgings, Truman bluntly explained his motivation:
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” (5)
Despite all the political motivations for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, it was only right that after centuries of persecution and especially after the Holocaust the Jews should have a homeland of their own, be free to practice their religion and to live as they wished. However, the other part of that promise, namely the establishment of a Palestinian state on a smaller portion of the Palestinian land, has remained unfulfilled.
On the contrary, after the establishment of the state, Israel has deliberately tried to expand its territory and push the Palestinians out of their lands. Although the Jews had been given a disproportionately large part of Palestine, after the 1948 War with the neighboring Arab countries, Israel’s territorial gains reduced the Palestinian share of the land to only 22%.
In fact, taking over the whole of Palestine had been a Zionist plan from the start.
The Zionist leadership did formally accept the partition plan, but when many Zionist leaders objected, they were persuaded by Ben-Gurion to agree to the official acceptance. However, in several secret meetings Ben-Gurion made it clear that the partition borders were unacceptable and must be rectified at the first opportunity.
The minutes of these meetings reveal the real intentions of Ben-Gurion and the hardline Zionists. (6) In July 1948, Ben-Gurion gave orders for the operations in Lydda and Ramleh: “Expel them!” (7) Some 70% of the Palestinians were expelled from Israel.
Since then, Israeli governments have turned more and more rightwing and the suffering and dispossession of the Palestinians have intensified. There is no need to catalogue all the atrocities committed by both sides during all these years. After the 1967 war, Israel proceeded to occupy the remnant of the Palestinian lands and expanded illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
Various U.N. resolutions have declared those settlements illegal and have called on Israel to return to pre-1967 borders, but most have been vetoed by the United States and ignored by Israel.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice by a 14-1 majority declared illegal the wall built by Israel deep in occupied Palestine, but again the construction of the illegal wall incorporating more Palestinian lands has continued.
Meanwhile, keeping 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza under siege since 2007 is regarded as collective punishment. Furthermore, Israel has attacked Gaza three times in the last six years alone (2008-09, 2012, 2014). In the latest attack, Israel killed more than 2,100 people, the majority of whom were civilians.
The Oslo Accords in 1993 provided a glimmer of hope that the two sides could resolve their differences peacefully and a Palestinian State would be established in the West Bank and Gaza in what constitutes only about 20% of Mandate Palestine, but the so-called “Peace Process” has continued without producing any tangible results for the Palestinians.
In the 2002 Arab League Summit the Arabs offered a new peace plan announcing that all of them would recognize the State of Israel if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders and if a Palestinian state was established in the occupied territories with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The resolution was later adopted by all the 57 members of the Islamic Cooperation Organization, including Iran, but there has been total silence on the Israeli side regarding that offer.
There seems to be no other peaceful path left for the Palestinians but to go through the international organizations and seek recognition from various countries. On 29 November 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize the Palestinian Authority as an observer state. The degree of US and Israeli isolation in the international community was best demonstrated by the overwhelming support given to the resolution, with 138 votes for, nine votes against and 41 abstentions.
With the exception of the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama and Israel, only the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Micronesia, and Palau voted against that resolution. That resolution passed with a much larger majority of members than the resolution on the Partition Plan that led to the establishment of Israel.
Already 135 countries have recognized Palestine as a state. The list includes Poland before joining the EU. After Sweden recognized Palestine, Ireland has been considering doing so. (8) The recent behavior of Israeli leaders and the moribund peace process have led more and more people to believe that at long last the Palestinians should also be given their rights.
Of course, there are many obstacles on the path of Palestinian statehood, but inaction is not an option.
As Israel has already gobbled up so much Palestinian territory, the two-state solution may already be nonviable and Palestinians may opt to live in a single democratic state made up of Jews and Arabs. Whatever they decide to do, the international community should show support for the end of the longest conflict in recent history.
In the same way that the horrors of the Holocaust pricked the conscience of mankind and led to the Jews being given a state of their own, nearly 70 years of dispossession, statelessness, discrimination, humiliation, killings and apartheid policies must persuade the world to put an end to this dreadful situation.
The continuation of the present situation is not only unfair to the Palestinians, it is also against the long-term interests of Israelis and Jews as a whole. In the words of Sir Alan Duncan, a senior Conservative politician who served as the coalition’s international development minister, in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute following the vote in the House of Commons, “Occupation, annexation, illegality, negligence, complicity: this is a wicked cocktail which brings shame to the government of Israel. It would appear that on the West Bank of the Jordan the rule of international law has been shelved.”
He went on to say: “This illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker. As such it should be called what it is, and not by some euphemistic soft alternative. Settlements are illegal colonies built in someone else’s country. They are an act of theft, and what is more something which is both initiated and supported by the state of Israel.” (9)
The momentum for an end to the conflict is unstoppable. The least that the vote in the British Parliament and the recognition of Palestine by more and more states can do is to embarrass the US Administration, if not Congress, not to veto a Security Council resolution that would establish a viable Palestinian State living side by side with Israel, or one democratic society, giving the Palestinians equal rights and allowing millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their country.
It is time for the entire international community to support this momentum.
1. See Anshel Pfeffer, “U.K. vote: A symbolic gesture to the Palestinians – a red warning light to Israel” Haaretz, 14 October 2014
2. See Sami Hadawi, Bitter Harvest: A Modern History of Palestine, (Olice Branch Press, 1991) p. 14
3. David Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Conference, Volume II, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1939), chapter XXIII, pp. 724-734
4. See A Survey of Palestine: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the Information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Institute for Palestine Studies, pp. 12-13. ISBN 0-88728-211-3
5. See Evan M. Wilson, A Calculated Risk: The U.S. Decision to Recognize Israel(Clerisy Press, 2008), p. 126
6. See Uri Avnery, “Sacred Mantras”, CounterPunch, June 28, 2011.
7. See Dominique Vidal, “The Expulsion of the Palestinians Re-examined”, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1997
8. See Juan Cole, “Will Ireland Recognize Palestine”, October 17, 2014.
9. See: “Alan Duncan Slams Israel’s West Bank ‘Apartheid’ In Fierce Attack” Huffington Post, 14/10/2014.
Related video added by Juan Cole: