The Arab-Israeli conflict today isn't about borders and never was. It's about a struggle for existence. The origins of the conflict indeed lie in the post-World War I happenings in the region, but beyond that, the commonly understood history of this conflict is riddled with myths and misconceptions. Below is a take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from researcher Martin Sieff. Many like to say the strife began with the extraordinary 1967 Six-Day War, and Israel's conquest of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. That war (which was a preemptive but defensive war by Israel), was part of a larger war that had started half a century earlier.
The creation of Israel: An anti-Muslim U.S. conspiracy?
According to the rhetoric of the most severe critics of Israel, Israel is the unholy spawn of the United States. In fact, the first president to address the issue was Woodrow Wilson, who was hostile to the idea of a “Jewish national home in Palestine.”
The idea of Israel had its real advocates among the British, who in 1917 issued the famous Balfour Declaration, calling for the creation of a Jewish state. This was not out of British love for the Jews and the Zionists among them. (Zionist is a loaded word, to be sure, but it literally means someone who believes in a Jewish state.) The Balfour Declaration was actually based on the ludicrous belief that the Zionist leaders of the time controlled the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the political destiny of the United States. The Zionists, who knew their own powerlessness, never dreamed they held such influence or aspired to anything of the sort.
In autumn 1917 the British War Cabinet faced a dire prospect. Russia was floundering and on the verge of being knocked out of the war, and it would be many months, perhaps more than a year, before new American armies could be trained, transported, and organized to plug the holes on the weakened Western Front. How could Britain keep Russia on its feet and America committed in the meantime?
Sir Mark Sykes, Britain's chief diplomatic negotiator on Middle East affairs, had an answer. In flowering, ecstatic language that reads more like a Victorian novel than sober documents of state, he proclaimed that the Zionist movement had vast power over the Bolsheviks in Russia and the government of President Woodrow Wilson in the United States. Commit the British cause to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and “Great Jewry” would make sure Russia stayed in the war while speeding up America's commitment to send its armies to the Western Front. The desperate government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, ready to clutch at straws, bought into this fevered fantasy. None of this calculation was known to Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist movement in Britain. He genuinely thought that the growing British interest in his cause was based on a passion for the Bible and justice for the Jews, as well as on gratitude for his own useful role in building modern munitions factories the length of Britain to provide more shells for the war.
If Weizmann had known what was truly motivating the British embrace of Zionism, he would have laughed. It was true that there were a disproportionate number of Jews among the Bolshevik leadership, most notably Leon Trotsky. But they were a tiny minority among their own people and-as good Communists-they hated every form of Jewish nationalism. Throughout the seventy-four years of Soviet history, any form of Jewish nationalist or Zionist organization was mercilessly suppressed by successive Soviet regimes.
The idea that Woodrow Wilson was in Weizmann's pocket was even more ludicrous. Wilson, for all his talk of national self-determination, was highly selective and arbitrary about which nationalities he empowered and which he ignored or repressed. He never showed any sympathy for the Jewish national home policy and later sent envoys to Palestine who opposed it ferociously. The first U.S. president to publicly and explicitly state his support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine was Wilson's successor, Warren G. Harding. Mark Sykes died of the Spanish flu in 1919, having made his mark on history. Successive generations of Jewish Zionists and Israelis revered him as a great friend and benefactor. Almost none of them knew that it was his cavalier acceptance of some of the worst anti-Semitic myths that put him at their side.
The Arabi-Israeli Conflict: How It All Began
The roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict lie in the 1917-1920 period. Such conflict was unavoidable. The Jewish people had a hereditary presence in Palestine going back more than three thousand years. There had always been significant numbers of Jews there, especially in Jerusalem. But after the British government committed itself to the Jewish national home policy, Palestinian Arab opposition to the returning Jewish community was unrelenting.
This might not have mattered if the British ran their empire the way the Romans or the Ottomans had: boldly declaring their policies and pushing them through, regardless of resistance. But the British conquerors did not behave as conquerors. Anti-Semitic prejudice was rampant in the British Army's Occupied Enemy Territories Administration, which ruled Palestine from 1917 to 1920. During those fateful years, officers and administrators at the highest level of the British bureaucracy gave encouragement, protection, and promotion to the most murderous and extreme anti-Jewish Palestinian leaders. Not surprisingly, their favorites turned out to be equally vicious enemies of the British as well.
One favorite anti-Israel claim is that the creation of Israel meant driving Arabs from the Holy Land. In truth, there was room for both populations to live side by side. Historian David Fromkin estimates the Palestinian Arab population in 1917-1918 at 600,000, which may be far too high. The territory of Palestine had been ravaged by more than four years of war and by a fierce famine that killed thousands of Arabs and Jews alike. (The great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem recalled in his memoirs more than half a century later that when he first came to Jerusalem he was able to buy huge numbers of rare, ancient books on Jewish mysticism in Jerusalem because the holy men and their families who had owned them had died of hunger and disease during the war. Palestinian Arab peasants had died in even greater numbers.) Palestine had not been a totally empty, deserted land under the Turks, but it was certainly a very lightly populated one. In 1881, before any modern significant Jewish immigration from the czarist Russian Empire began, in very small numbers for the next thirty-three years, the total population was certainly less than half a million.
Ironically, illegal Arab immigration into Palestine during the post-World War I period of British rule (known as the Mandate), largely overland from Syria and Iraq, may have exceeded the number of Jews immigrating into the country in absolute numbers at the same time. The British limited the number of Jewish immigrants based on presumed economic absorptive capacity if the land. This basically meant the government's Jewish Agency and the Jewish organizations running and encouraging the settlement had to provide the economic infrastructure for immigrants before they arrived. But the growing prosperity of the urban economy also attracted large numbers of Arab peasants from neighboring countries. The British never bothered cracking down on them; they didn't have enough troops to close the land borders even if they wanted to. As a result, Jewish investment also ended up significantly strengthening the Palestinian Arab urban population.
The rise of Haj Amin al-Husseini
For the entire troubled length of the British military occupation and Mandate in Palestine from 1917 to 1947, the figure of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti (Muslim religious leader) of Jerusalem, blocked the paths of the British and Zionist Jewish settlers. If you're seeking a source of the strife and hatred in the Arab-Israeli conflict, this British-picked mufti is a good place to look.
Husseini, a cousin of Yasser Arafat, was even more murderous toward his own people than he was toward the British and the Palestinian Jews. Once he was in office, it never occurred to the British occupiers-as it would certainly have occurred to their Ottoman Turkish predecessors- to simply remove him from office or kill him. This misplaced constitutionality queasiness was quickly grasped by Husseini and his followers, encouraging the mufti to defy with impunity the British rulers who had appointed him in the first place. Husseini was no serious Islamic cleric. He was simply a handsome young junior notable from one of the two or three most prominent Palestinian families in the highlands of Palestine.
He was able to rise to the top despite his youth and inexperience because he curried favor with the British, especially with Sir Ernest Richmond, the chief architect of the British administration in Jerusalem, who also happened to be fiercely anti-Semitic and ultra-reactionary. Richmond prevailed upon his long-term lover, Sir Ronald Storrs (the same intriguing official who had drafted the infamous correspondence with Sherif Hussein in Mecca in 1915-1916 and then garbled their plain meaning because of his linguistic incompetence). Storrs had been promoted to governor of Jerusalem, where he got Richmond an influential job as assistant secretary to the British ruler of Palestine, High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel.
Samuel was Jewish, but more importantly, he was a high-minded, do-gooding fool who later opposed Churchill's warnings about the rise of Nazi Germany. Samuel naïvely followed Richmond's recommendation and passed over better qualified candidates to appoint the dignified, handsome, impeccably mannered-but also psychopathically genocidal and murderous-young Husseini to the job. Tens of thousands of innocent Arabs and Jews were to die so that Samuel could feel high-minded and morally superior. Thereafter, for more than a quarter of a century, successive British administrators deferred to Husseini as if he were the archbishop of Canterbury.
He was nothing of the kind. First, he orchestrated a campaign of assassination and terror to cow the Nashashibi clan, the moderate extended family of notables who were the Husseinis' ancient rivals. Then, pioneering a form of diplomacy his cousin Arafat would adopt on a grand scale, he internationalized and Islamicized the native Palestinian Arab opposition to the Jewish settlement in Palestine. He took advantage of the 1929 riots in Jerusalem to claim that the Jews were plotting to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The governments of surrounding Arab nations Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, eager to distract their own populations from domestic issues and establish their own credentials, followed Husseini's lead. By 1936, when the main Palestinian Arab revolt began against the British rulers and the Jewish Zionist settlers, Husseini was the undoubted dominant figure among Palestinian Arabs.
He was a disaster for his people, but he was also popular among them. Like any native population faced with the sudden appearance of European colonists, Palestinians rose up in defiance, fiercely opposing the Jewish settlement and the British policy of supporting it. A century of war might well have been inevitable in any case. But the fact remains that
Husseini was far more extreme, murderous, and unrelenting than the Nashashibis, who were the most likely alternative. He also flatly refused to enter even the most cautious and exploratory of negotiations with any Jewish leaders at every step. By 1929, using the issues of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, Husseini had stirred up opposition to Jewish settlement throughout the Muslim world. Violent Arab riots broke out in 1929 when scores of Jews were killed around Palestine.
Finally, in 1936, a popular Arab revolt broke out against the Jewish settlement. Husseini took advantage of this revolt, which he had worked hard to foment, to use terror gangs he controlled to assassinate all his potential rivals. For the next eleven years he was the unrivalled leader of the Palestinian Arab community and the worst they ever had. Finally, in 1939, the British sent a then unknown general, Bernard Montgomery, who defeated the revolt.
In World War II, Husseini took the logical ultimate step to becoming an eager accessory-and a very effective one-to the most monstrous crime in history: he spent the war years in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
He was very active in urging the SS bureaucrats running the Final Solution, the methodically planned genocide of the entire Jewish people in Europe, to make sure that children, especially from the Sephardic Jewish communities of the Balkans, were not spared from the gas chambers in Auschwitz. He recruited SS regiments for the Nazis from the Bosnian Muslim community in Yugoslavia. They guarded the security of the railway lines carrying cattle trucks filled with hundreds of thousands of Balkan Jews for the extermination chambers and cremation ovens of Auschwitz. One of those forces took a leading role in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Gypsies, as well as Jews, in Yugoslavia. Husseini was also a close personal friend of Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. He even visited Auschwitz on at least one occasion to make sure the job was being done right. When the great showdown between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine that he had lusted for finally came in 1947, Haj Amin al-Husseini's unrelenting policy of seeking to drive every Jew into the sea led instead to the shattering and scattering of his own people. Posing as their greatest champion, he repeatedly proved himself to be their greatest calamity.
Churchill in Cairo: 1921
He came. He was photographed alongside his friends sitting on a camel. He painted the Pyramids. He summoned his heroes T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell to meet with him. When Winston Churchill visited Cairo in 1921 as His Majesty's secretary of state for the colonies, he had the kind of holiday little boys dream of. He also drew the map of the modern Middle East. Three modern Middle East nations were created by the decisions Churchill made and the lines he drew at the epochal Cairo Conference.
First, he upheld the already highly controversial policy to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine and to build it up with massive immigration from the impoverished and persecuted Jewish communities of Europe. That policy ultimately ensured the creation of the State of Israel. Second, Churchill unilaterally recognized as-Sayyid Abdullah as the real presence on the ground east of the Jordan River. Abdullah, the eldest son of that old British favorite Sherif Hussein of Mecca, was the emir (prince) of Transjordan/
Of all the Hashemites at that time, Abdullah was the one British rulers and policymakers liked least-perhaps because he was the smartest and wasn't prepared to dance at their every word. But the British didn't need the embarrassment of kicking him out of Transjordan, and they needed to set up some kind of government to keep the peace on the cheap. So Abdullah stayed. Third, Churchill created the modern nation-state of Iraq under King Faisal I. It had never existed in history unless you count the famous but brief Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar 2,400 years earlier. But the British were determined to hold on to the fabulously oil-rich territories they had finally conquered with such difficulty in the closing period of World War I.
And the great 1920 Shiite revolt in southern Iraq had underlined the urgent need to establish some kind of native Arab government supposedly acceptable to the people of Mesopotamia. A friendly native government was needed because the British lacked the financial resources or the will to occupy the land militarily. Being able to produce Faisal, another son of Sherif Hussein, as the “king of the Arabs” was thus a political masterstroke for Churchill. In the short term, the huge redrawing of the Middle East map that Churchill decreed at Cairo proved, especially from the British point of view, an outstanding success. For the next eighty years, ultra-right Jewish and Zionist nationalists attacked the “treachery” of cutting off Jordan-more than half the territory Britain controlled after World War I.
But almost no Jews lived in the Transjordan territories when Churchill gave them to Abdullah, and the British lacked the military manpower to enforce Jewish settlement there anyway. There weren't even enough Jewish settlers coming from Central and Eastern Europe to develop Palestine at the time. In the early 1920s the British Colonial Office was furious at the Zionist Organization for bringing in too few Jewish settlers.
In the event, Palestine enjoyed one of its brief interludes of peace for eight years after the Cairo Conference, and the British Parliament somewhat reluctantly accepted the Lloyd George-Churchill-Balfour policy of encouraging Jewish immigration and building up the Jewish national home. Even in Iraq, the news seemed to get better; the Shiite revolt was finally crushed and the British slowly prepared Iraq for a form of titular independence under Faisal while keeping the reins of power firmly in their own hands.
But twenty years after Churchill's hour of triumph in Cairo, the Arab houses of cards he had so flamboyantly created came crashing down on his head. In the spring of 1941, with General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps charging across the Western Desert toward Egypt, Britain stood alone and isolated against the Nazi conquerors of Europe. At this moment, the officers of the Iraqi army that had been painstakingly crafted for twenty years to do Britain's will in the Middle East rose in revolt, kicked the British out, and declared that Iraq was joining the Axis. Pro-Nazi forces also took over in French-controlled Syria next door.
At this darkest hour for Britain's imperial fortunes in the Middle East, even most of the famous Arab Legion of Transjordan, led by a British officer, John Glubb, passively mutinied and refused to march against their pro-Nazi Arab brothers in Iraq. Churchill in 1921 as colonial secretary had created Iraq and Jordan to secure the British Empire in the Middle East. Twenty years later, as Britain's embattled war premier, he found the armies of both nations stabbing Britain in the back when it needed them most. Only the Jews of Palestine, who had no reason by then to love the British, but who had nowhere else to go, provided the last stronghold from which the British could decisively strike back and briefly regain their mastery of the Middle East.
But in the twenty-first century, the lines that Churchill drew so confidently on a map in Cairo in 1921 continue to shape the history of the world. The militarily powerful little state of Israel that grew out of his Jewish national home policy continues to struggle for survival against enemies close at hand and, in the case of Iran, at the far end of the region. And the artificiality of the unity he imposed on Iraq now bedevils U.S. policymakers even more than it did British ones. Churchill's Cairo legacy therefore remains a mixed one, to put it mildly.
Emir Abdullah of Transjordan
The British experience with Middle Eastern nation-building and rulerpicking could have taught the West this much: a good man is hard to find-and sometimes hard to recognize when you've got him.
During their brief imperial heyday in the Middle East, the British displayed an uncanny talent for choosing and empowering the biggest losers (like King Faisal of Iraq and Sherif Hussein of Mecca) and the most poisonous, unrelenting enemies (like Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem) while despising or opposing successful rulers of real ability like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey or King Abdulaziz ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia. The only time they hit on a real winner, they did so in spite of themselves. Even when Winston Churchill gave Emir Abdullah, the eldest son of Sherif Hussein, rule over Transjordan to shut him up and keep the territory quiet in 1921, nothing much was expected from him. In the eyes of Churchill, Abdullah was the least of the Hashemites.
They still clung to the ridiculous fantasy that the whole Arab Muslim world regarded, or would come to regard, Sherif Hussein in Mecca as the successor of the Ottoman caliphs in Constantinople. And their hearts beat faster thinking of Faisal as the dashing new pro- British, enlightened ruler who would usher in a new Golden Age-under British tutelage, naturally-in Baghdad. (Eighty years later, Bush administration policymakers would go weak in the knees over Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi the same way). Abdullah-small, shrewd, not very handsome, and always soft spoken- was in their eyes the least of the three. But he would outlast them all.
There was no oil in Jordan. And for more than half a century after the emirate was created, even the tourist traffic to see its wonderful antiquities was negligible. But Abdullah was sober, intelligent, industrious, and street-smart. He worked quietly with the British to keep order and with only a fraction of the state budget of neighboring Iraq handled it with conspicuously greater success. Commerce boomed, and the lazy village of Amman, where Abdullah and his Bedouin had encamped in 1920, grew to become a major regional city.
As this book goes to press, Abdullah's great-grandson, King Abdullah II, continues to rule over a kingdom of Jordan that against all odds has survived hostile neighbors on every side to become and remain- without benefit of any oil revenues-a relatively prosperous nation and one of the safest and most stable in the entire Middle East over the past century.
Emir Abdullah's heirs outlasted the British, the French, and the Soviet Union. They also outlasted old Sherif Hussein, humiliatingly kicked out of Mecca only a few years after the Cairo Conference by Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the real warrior hero and statesman whom Churchill, Bell, and T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia” had no time for. Abudullah's heirs have already by almost half a century outlasted the kingdom of Iraq-Churchill's pride and joy-and Faisal's heirs, whom the Iraqi army shot in cold blood in the horrific military coup of 1958. The success and longevity of Abdullah and his heirs-contrasted with the failures of Churchill's handpicked rulers elsewhere in the region- ought to be a lesson to the West: in the Middle East, our ideas of what a leader should be are often wrong.
Herbert Dowbiggin: Unlikely Prophet
Herbert Dowbiggin was a career colonial police administrator of the British Empire who ran the police force of Ceylon-today the nation of Sri Lanka-with an iron fist from 1913 to 1937. He had hardly any interest in the Middle East and was sent out to report on why the Palestine police failed to deter the bloody riots of 1929 that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Jews, especially in the town of Hebron. But amid all the visionary lunatics and ambitious, bungling, two-faced administrators and politicians who got everything wrong for half a century and then obsessively tried to cover up their tracks, Dowbiggin stands out as a breath of common sense and sound advice.
Dowbiggin's 1930 report was one of the most important and valuable studies on maintaining law and order in occupied or colonial nations ever written. He insisted that every minority community at possible risk from an attack, riot, or pogrom by the alienated majority had to have its own armed police detachment. He emphasized the importance of maintaining excellent roads and telephone communications between outlying police stations and the capital, and of having fast-reacting reserves of police who could quickly be sent to trouble spots. Most of all, he emphasized the importance of having a very large, well-trained police force whose highly visible presence on the ground deterred violence from breaking out in the first place.
There is a remarkably modern ring to Dowbiggin's insistence that colonial disorders-in Palestine as well as in Ceylon-needed to be handled as policing operations, not military ones. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has said the reasons the British security forces were so effective against the Irish Republican Army in the Northern Ireland conflict was that they dealt with it as a policing operation, not a military one. Using armies as armies automatically causes a lot of collateral damage, including lots of civilian casualties. And the more innocent civilians are killed and injured, the broader the popular support for the guerrilla movement becomes.
But as is so often the case with true prophets, as opposed to the more common false ones, Dowbiggin's warnings fell on deaf ears. Sir Charles Tegart, who took over the Palestine police in the 1930s, ignored Dowbiggin's report and militarized the police, moving them into breathtaking mountaintop barracks that were twentieth-century versions of Crusader castles. They had the same fate. After a little more than a decade in the Tegart Forts, as they were called, the British were forced to evacuate Palestine. By 1947 they had lost all effective political support among Palestinian Arabs and Jews alike. But to this day, Dowbiggin's report remains the most important document for any Western policymaker grappling with the tactical problems of maintaining law and order in an occupied society.
How British imperialist weakness sparked the Arab-Israeli conflict
The British did a lot for both the Arabs and the Jews during the thirty years they ruled Palestine. The population of the country tripled. Prosperity unknown since Roman times arrived. Swamps were drained and modern sanitation, hospitals, and schools were built for both communities. The only thing lacking was law and order. On April 4, 1920, less than a year and half after World War I had ended, an anti- Jewish pogrom swept through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. A number of Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. In four hundred years of Ottoman Turkish rule, such a thing had not happened once.
Under the hand of a kinder, gentler empire, the Jewish people were more threatened than they ever had been under the tough Muslim empire that preceded it. The British were unable to keep the peace, and such anti-Jewish violence happened again and again, with growing ferocity and exponentially larger casualties on each occasion.
The first civilian governor the British set up to rule Palestine after they ended their brief, disastrous period of military occupation there was idealistic liberal party leader Sir Herbert Samuel, who was Jewish. In classic liberal fashion, Samuel tried to turn his country's enemies into friends by showing them mercy and kindness. What he reaped instead was an entire generation of civil strife and bloodshed as a result. Thousands of innocents on both sides would pay with their lives for Sir Samuel's progressive high-mindedness.
The Hebrew Bible: A book of war
“Wingate: there was a man of genius who could have been a man of destiny.” Winston Churchill paid that tribute to British brigadier general Orde Wingate after he was killed in a plane crash in Burma in 1944. Churchill was right about the genius (it takes one to know one), but he didn't realize that in his short, extraordinary life, Wingate had already decisively reshaped the future of the world-especially the Middle East. Wingate was a brilliant young British army officer and biblical fundamentalist Christian zealot who was posted to Palestine as a young captain in 1936 at the start of the Arab Revolt. He had shown no especial interest in either Jews or Zionism before going there, but quickly became obsessed with the potential of the young pioneer Jewish community and became convinced it was God's will that a Jewish state be restored in Palestine after thousands of years. He also believed that he was personally destined to raise its army and lead it in battle. These views were understandably received with some surprise, not to mention suspicion, by both British military commanders and Jewish community leaders in the Mandate.
However, as a few thousand Arab guerrillas continued to run rings around what at one point constituted 25 percent of the active combat force of the British army, both groups became increasingly desperate. Wingate got the approval to raise from Jewish volunteers what became known as his Special Night Squads (SNS) to defend the British oil pipeline from Iraq to the Palestine port of Haifa. He imprinted on them his own highly unorthodox and idiosyncratic combat doctrines, primarily inspired not by Carl von Clausewitz and the German or French general staffs, but by a close reading of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible.
Wingate drew tactical lessons and doctrines from the campaigns and victories of such biblical heroes as Joshua, Gideon, and David. He emphasized the importance of small, fast-moving commando forces who were tough, motivated, and trained to know intimately the areas in which they operated. He emphasized night marches through difficult and mountainous terrain to take the enemy by surprise. He loved night attacks. According to some testimonies much later, Wingate also advocated extreme ruthlessness in the shooting of suspects or random victims taken from villages from which terrorists had launched their attacks. His SNS played a crucial role in damaging the morale of the Palestinian Arab guerrilla bands operating in the Galilee region of Israel during the last year of the Arab Revolt-a role far out of proportion to their numbers.
But they were too few to crush the revolt. That was carried out by much larger and more widespread British forces and operations commanded by a tough new senior commander, Major General Bernard Law Montgomery. In 1939, British senior commanders, recognizing Wingate's passionate identification with the Jewish community, transferred him out of Palestine. There were standing orders that he never be allowed to serve there again. But, thankfully for Israel, it was too late. Wingate had already provided invaluable military education to a crucial number of the first, defining generation of senior officers in what would become the Israel Defense Forces. His young soldiers and students included men who would become the greatest generals in Israel's wars of survival in the first twenty years of its existence: Moshe Dayan, Yigael Allon, and Yitzhak Rabin.
Wingate's Bible-based tactical doctrine appealed to the imagination of a young generatio