Palestine, Israel, Borders and Nationhood
So everyone knows my bias right up front, I’ll start with this statement. There was a war for independence that Israel waged after being attacked on all fronts by pretty much the entire Arab world at the time; a war that began only after the world body known as the United Nations recognized the nascent nation of Israel, also in 1948.
Palestine as an entity was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was carved up by the victorious Allied nations after World War I. The French got some of it, the British got some of it, and some of it remained with the 'Sheiks of Araby.' The area now known as Israel was little more than a few isolated villages with ancient roads leading to Jerusalem. Even Jerusalem was rarely visited by the Arabs of the day. Mecca, in Saudi Arabia was the predominant destination for those of faith in the Muslim world.
Israel has always existed in the hearts of Jews all over the world; the Zion of old, the place of the Prophets, of Moses, of the Kings. Israel was what Jews sang songs about, told ancient stories about, and it featured prominently in the everyday liturgy and prayers. Jerusalem is what Jews wanted, more than anything else, when they sang “Next Year in Jerusalem” to end the Passover Seder, the telling of the Exodus of Egypt and the establishment of the Jewish homeland in Israel, led by Moses thousands of years ago. To be sure, there have always been Jews living in Israel, along side Arabs, Druze, and Bedouins more or less in peace. The governing entities of the time tolerated more or less all the inhabitants of the areas.
It wasn’t until Herzl and Ben-Gurion and ultimately, the Holocaust, when Jews all over the world began once again to dream in earnest about the homeland, the nation that was once theirs in the holy land of Israel.
The British and French “Mandates” in the Middle East consisted of the lands that are now called Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. Except for Israel (then called Palestine), Britain and France carved up the rest and distributed it to various Arab tribal leaders, sheiks, and other Muslim leaders. Palestine, the land mass that was most argued over, was divided into strangely shaped non-contiguous segments and offered to both the Jews and the Arabs to live there as two nations, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. The Jews immediately accepted. The Arabs immediately refused.
The tribalism in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan was localized and indifferent to nation building. Britain and France were interested, as was most of the rest of the rest of the world, in the natural resources (oil) that were prevalent there, so they created nation-states which they hoped would be very friendly to them. The western powers cared little about the tribalism or feuding as long as it didn’t spill over to affect the oil exports. This is truly an over-simplification, yet it is instructive to know that the new leadership in these manufactured countries had no real interest in nation building, borders, commerce, laws, or international relationships. Their primary focus was on retaining control of their tribe, clan, family and lands.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, Jews from Russia, Europe and elsewhere arrived to re-build the ancient land of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and driven out of villages, cities, and towns throughout Russia and Eastern Europe as part of the pogroms. These early transplants began to transform the land, plant tress, drain swamps, build cities, establish commerce, and begin the arduous task of nation building dreamed of by generations of Jews. Most of what is now Israel was not much more than a bunch of rag-tag villages until the influx of Jews. Even Jerusalem was nothing more than ruins and broken, dirty streets. There was little government, barely any oversight, and nothing in the way of infrastructure that would support a thriving city. The Jews escaping the horrors of Russia made their way to Jerusalem and began to clean it up. As the years went by and external forces (Britain and France, primarily) carved up that part of the world, the Jews of Palestine slowly, intentionally, and quietly, began re-building the Israel of their dreams, connecting to those who had been there all along, building international relationships with people and nations, establishing commercial ventures, laying the foundation for a nation.
In the 1920’s in Syria, as the remnants of the Ottoman Empire was being divided up by Britain and France, the borders of the newly invented country of Syria excluded many who lived in what is now northern Israel, and many others who lived in what is now Jordan and Lebanon. The Syrians who lived in these now foreign regions were enraged that they were no longer able to be Syrians, angry at the occupying forces for separating them.
Most of the Arabs living in what is now Israel came during the early years of the century, enticed by the work offered as a result of the opportunities created by the early Jewish immigration and international capital flowing into the area. The Arabs of the day lived hard lives in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. They came for the commerce, the work, and the employment that the Jewish enterprise offered. They came from as far away as Iran (Persia) and Saudi Arabia.
George Antonius, a Christian Lebanese-Egyptian who lived for a while in Jerusalem, wrote frequently about the Arabs of the area during these years. One book he wrote, The Arab Awakening, included the following; “The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe (Am al-Nakba). It saw the first armed risings that occurred in protest against the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries. In that year, serious outbreaks took place in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.” In later years, Mr. Antonius was a fervent anti-Zionist, yet his description of the events during these times reflected the deep Arab desires to remain insulated and isolated within their own tribal lands, leaving the rest of the world, including the little strip of land now called Israel, to its own devices. Nowhere was there any mention of desires to build an Arab nation here. Quite to the contrary, the vast majority of Arabs wanted to return to Syrian lands.
The nakba (catastrophe) referred to Arabs, Syrians, and the dividing of Syrian lands, long before there was any Israeli nation. The rioting that ensued was because the Syrians who were cut off from Syria wanted desperately to be part of Syria, not independent from Syria. This was not a nationalistic call to arms; it was the intense desire to re-unite with the Syrian nation. These Arabs had no desire for their own independence, their own nation called Palestine, indeed, they wanted out of the areas now known as Israel, they wanted to return to the Syrian fold.
Palestinian nationalism didn’t exist prior to the UN vote, prior to the war of 1948, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. There were no Arab calls for an independent Arab Palestine prior to these times, there were no Arab countries petitioning the UN to create an Arab homeland in this little strip of land. For all intents and purposes, there was no Arab Palestinian movement until Israel began to exist.
Yet, here we are, 62 years later, confronting the call for the establishment of a Palestinian nation in the very same little strip of land that, until 1948, no one in the Arab world cared anything about. Sure, Arabs left homes, villages, and cities in Palestine during the 1948 war. Sure, Arabs felt threatened if they lived in Haifa, Tel Aviv and other cities within the war zones. And sure, there were occasions where the Arab inhabitants were forced to leave by the armies or the circumstances of war.
The war of independence, the war declared on Israel by the Arab world; this was a war that was unnecessary. Had the Arab world accepted the UN Partition Plan, there would have been two nations created, one for Jews and one for Arabs. Instead, the Arab world attacked the Jewish population in Palestine. The Jews fought back and won. As with any war, once ended, the victorious army held land conquered. The ensuing political process of establishing a nation took place in those lands. Fast forward to 1967. Once again, Israel fought a war against almost the entirety of the Arab world, with little help from the rest of the world. And once again, Israel prevailed, holding lands conquered during the war. Remember also, that these were not wars of conquest, of expansion, of colonialism. These were existential wars of defense against nations that held firm to their intent of wiping Israel off the face of the earth.
We are left with questions about statehood, about ‘the right to exist’ and whether there even should be a Palestine. Palestine, after all, was the word used to describe the piece of the British mandate that wasn’t Jordan or Lebanon, or Syria, or Egypt. That ‘piece of land’ became Israel, and remains Israel. There is no longer an entity called Palestine, or not yet. Just like there is no longer a New Amsterdam, it’s now called New York. There is no more Rhodesia; it’s now called Zimbabwe. Transjordan became Jordan. Tanganyika and Zanzibar were two semi-autonomous tribal nations that became Tanzania. Most of the area that was once called Palestine is now called Israel.
Should the world acknowledge the need to establish an entity called Palestine? Should the Arab world, specifically Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, embrace the creation of a land mass called Palestine somewhere other than where Israel now exists?
The borders of Israel are or will be what Israel, through the peace process, determines them to be. They could have been all of the areas called Judea and Samaria and the Gaza strip at the conclusion of the 1967 war. All of the Golan Heights, won in a defensive war from Syria, is part of Israel. Countries wage war; countries lose and countries win. Israel won. Get over it. Gaza should go back to the Egyptians (indeed, many believe it should have been returned in 1967). Parts of the areas called Judea and Samaria could become a nation for Palestine, but Jordan should be part of this calculation. After all, most of Jordan consists of people who call themselves or identify with the Palestinian nationalism currently in vogue.
Israel could, and should, reach out to Jordan to determine what a new Palestine, an Arab Palestine, will be. If the Arab world wants peace in their neighborhood, they, the Arab nations, must work to bring the Palestinians into their fold. Over 700,000 Jews were expelled forcibly from Arab nations after 1948 and 1967. They are now Israelis, or Americans, or French, or Canadian, or whatever. The Arab people who left Israel in 1948 and 1967 (and let me be clear, not all were forced to leave) were kept in squalid refugee camps to keep the hate alive. It worked; two generations later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these people are filled with hate toward Israel, due in large part to the conditions of their lives. Had they been absorbed into their host nations, those descendents now would be active, productive members of their nation, instead of hateful pawns living in poverty (a poverty imposed by the Arab nations), educated to hate, and still called refugees.
Regardless of this, or maybe in spite of it, the clarity of the existence of Israel is now undisputed. It is, and will remain, a nation of this world, with the right to an existence, a right to self-defense, a right to be safe and secure and acknowledged by other nations, just like the other 193 nations of this world.
Neal Elyakin, Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 16, 2009