Friday, June 3, 2011

Palestine, the 1967 Border, and Other Works of Fiction

A Crash Course on Arab-Israeli conflict in the 20th Century

In his excellent article, “Whencesoever Palestine?” Hassan Nurullah handily exposes the very idea of Palestine as an ancient-world political fabrication carried into modern times by anti-Semites of every stripe and color since. I highly recommend reading his article before reading this one.



Much has been made regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to President Obama’s remarks on Israel and Palestine. His response to a call for a return to 1967 borders in a speech delivered from the Oval Office has been chastened by critics as “rude” and “lecturing” the president “like a schoolboy.” Aside from the dangerous potential for a racist code-word to be hidden in that description of Obama, these critics seem to have forgotten that politics is a game played by grown-ups.

For this author, the most remarkable thing about President Barack Obama’s call for Israel to return to pre-Six-Day War borders, "mutually agreed swaps" notwithstanding, is how wholly the assertion disregards recent history. It isn’t just that the 1967 border—more appropriately called the Green Line—has no real bearing on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s that the pronouncement has such a “been there, done that” quality to it, it’s a wonder anyone can take it seriously.

While it is true that all talks regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state have acknowledged the 1967 line, the little progress that has been made from 1993 until today has made it clear that a precise following of the line would be impossible, thanks in no small part to the fact that the line runs right through Jerusalem. These talks, already close to 20 years old, have been marked by routine Palestinian rejection of Israeli and international proposals without any counterproposals. But I promised a crash course of the whole 20th Century conflict, so let me back up.

Even the most casual historian knows that the land called variously Israel, Palestine, Judea, and more has changed hands continuously since antiquity. At the turn of the last century, the land was in the hands of the Ottomans who, for centuries prior, had variously supported and persecuted the Jews therein. World War I broke out in 1914 and proved disastrous for the Ottomans. One last hurrah for the Empire was to expel the Jewish population.

Following WWI, the land became part of the British Mandate, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was made, endorsing creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Many expelled Jews returned to the area and many Zionists immigrated. At this time, the League of Nations granted the Zionist Commission official status and offered a similar status to Arab leaders, which was refused. Thus begins the history of the world community establishing terms with a Jewish state in the face of obstinacy from their Arab counterparts.
Throughout the Mandate period, the Arab population would riot and attack Jewish settlements.  In spite of the Balfour Declaration, the British provided little support or protection to the Jews, even placing restrictions on Jewish immigration. The Jews resorted to forming their own Haganah militia for self-defense.

Anti-Semitism swept Europe through the 1930’s causing more Jews to flee to Palestine. The 1936 Nuremberg Laws stripped 500,000 German Jews of their citizenship, creating more stateless refugees than Palestine could absorb. The large numbers of Jews entering Palestine led to the 1936–1939 Arab Uprising, a movement to expel Britain from the area. In spite of Haganah support of the British Military during the Great Uprising, growing British fear of the Arab world led them to steadily withdraw their support of Zionism.

The British held the 1939 St. James Conference in London to negotiate an agreement between the Arabs and the Zionists so as to begin British withdrawal. The Arab delegation refused to meet its Jewish counterpart, to recognize their authority or even to use the same entrances to the building. All the same, the British issued the 1939 White Paper, their plan to withdraw from Palestine.

The atrocities against the Jews during WWII are well documented and understood. Understandably, many displaced European Jews desired to head for Israel rather than return to their former homes. A joint Anglo-American committee recommended acceptance of 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine. However, a weakened British Empire placed more importance on cordial Anglo-Arab relations and instead turned over the “Palestinian Problem” to the newly-formed United Nations. Jewish delegations met with the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, but the Arab Higher Committee boycotted them. Still, on 29 November 1947, the U.N. approved their Jewish/Arab Partition Plan for the land and designating Jerusalem a U.N. administration. The following day, civil war broke out in Palestine. The Civil War continued until the official end of the British Mandate, during which time approximately 250,000 Arabs fled the region.

On May 14, 1948, though fighting continued, Britain officially withdrew from Palestine. Israel claimed its independence at 4:00 PM that same day, based in good faith on the U.N. partition plan. Israel was rapidly recognized by several countries, including the U.S.A. within minutes. The Arab League, in its first major action since its founding three years earlier, attacked fledgling Israel within hours. Overtaking all of what would have been Palestine—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon along with Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Muslim Brotherhood—invaded Israel. The Arab states publicly proclaimed their aim of creating a "United State of Palestine" in place of the two-state U.N. Plan. But the Israelis pushed back and when the fighting finished over a year later, there was no Palestine, only Israel and the four bordering Arab states divided tenuously by armistice lines. Jerusalem, for the first time in history, became a divided city with the eastern part held by Jordan.

Israel became a member of the United Nations on 11 May 1949 with the Armistice line as its border. By its very nature, an armistice line is impermanent, and this was no different. With the exception of the Lebanese Armistice, all the agreements contained a clause disclaiming this line as an international border. The West-Bank was never officially recognized as Jordanian territory by any but the British. The 1923 Syrian border was reestablished but was "not to be interpreted as having any relation whatsoever to ultimate territorial arrangements." The Israel-Egypt Armistice flatly declared the line around Gaza to not be an international border. For a little over a decade, until 1959, a quasi-state named All-Palestine emerged with Gaza as its capital, but it was ultimately occupied by Egypt. No other state ever recognized the state of Palestine in Gaza or elsewhere.

In the decades following the establishment of Israel, the rise of Arab nationalism intensified Jewish persecution—if at all possible. Iraq ordered in 1951 "the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism." Egypt expelled its Jews in 1956. Riots in Yemen through the 1950’s targeted Jews and caused most of the population to flee for their safety.  Libya and Algeria revoked the citizenship of their Jewish residents in 1961 and 1962, respectively. Additionally, Jews from several other Arab countries fled and abandoned their property in fear that they would remain hostages of hostile regimes. In total, around a million Jews left their homes in Arab countries during this time, the majority of them reaching Israel.

In 1956, the Suez Crisis occurred when Egypt attempted to block Israeli access to the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran.  Following the event, Israel made it clear to Egypt and the international community that any future blockade would be considered an act of war. The U.N. installed forces in Gaza and the Sinai to ensure all parties would comply with the 1949 Armistice. In 1967, Egypt expelled the U.N. from Gaza and the Sinai and declared the Straits closed to Israeli shipping. Two weeks later, the Six-Day War began.

The Six-Day War led to Israel taking control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights (Jordan and Syria came to Egypt’s aid) and Jerusalem was reunited. The U.N. passed Security Council Resolution 242 which declared that Israel must give up all the lands it acquired from the conflict. This Resolution would have turned those lands back to over the Arab nations that had previously occupied them, not create a new Palestine. The Jarring Mission was dispatched by the U.N. to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. Rather than negotiate, however, the Arab League issued the Khartoum Resolution, including the infamous “Three ‘No’s’”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel.

Not until 1979, after initiating and losing the 1973 Yom Kippur War, did Egypt move away from this policy and enter into negotiations with Israel for the first time at the Camp David Accords. They regained the Sinai in a fairly straight forward manner involving a three-stage Israeli withdrawal over three years. Consistent with the 1949 Armistice, Egypt made no claim to Gaza.

In this same period, the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, rather than turn their attentions to the land which they left, turned instead against the Jordanian state. Their uprising led to the curtailment of many liberties that had been established in Jordan since the 1950’s. To end these hostilities, in 1988 King Hussein of Jordan renounced claim to the West Bank and declared the Palestine Liberation Organization to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Effectively, this declaration ended Jordanian interest in the 1967 Resolution.

Syria, meanwhile, has remained the most openly and continuously hostile to Israeli interests since the latter’s declaration of independence. Their insistence on the official status of the 1923 border is disingenuous at best, since they never recognized it when it was in effect. Furthermore, the disputed Golan Heights region was not a part of the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, and thus does not concern Palestine.

So, with no Arab states making claim to any Palestinian land, who can Israel return the land to in accordance with 1967 Resolution 242? With whom shall Israel “swap” lands in accordance with the Resolution? Neither Egypt nor Jordan made any attempt at establishing a “Palestine” in the years they held the land. In such a light, Israel appears to be the single greatest supporter of Palestine!

In fact, it was the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO, which created the Palestinian Authority and gave it responsibility for areas under its control. In 2000, following the plan laid out in the Accords, Israel offered the PA full control over more than 90% of West Bank. The offer, which would have created for the first time a true Palestinian state, was rejected and instead the Second Intifada was launched against Israel. In spite of this setback, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, also following the Accords. And in 2007, the Annapolis Conference was held in an attempt at a two-state solution as outlined in the “Roadmap for Peace.”

It becomes apparent that, only since Israel has controlled the West Bank and Gaza, and no other Arab states lay claim to the territory, has the possibility of a Palestinian state been able to be seriously explored. But equally apparent is the continued Arab obstinacy that, nearly 100 years ago, first led outsiders to impose a solution to the “Palestine Problem.”


While previous American Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush received accolades for essentially jumping in front of an already-unfolding peace process, Obama seems intent on crafting an outsider solution in the vein of the ill-fated 1947 Partition Plan. The marked difference between Obama’s approach and that of the U.N. nearly 65 years ago is that Obama’s is based on his own preconceived notions rather than any facts on the ground. 

Obama, in a few reckless words, could have potentially walked back at least two decades of negotiation had Netanyahu not responded. Far from condescending, Netanyahu was compelled to remind the young president of prior conditions that were set in the Clinton Parameters and the Road Map for Peace. Granted, the progress over the decades has been scant and halting, but Obama's statement on May 19 makes many wonder if he was even aware of his predecessors’ efforts.

A lot of focus has been paid to the line “mutually agreed swaps” as though Obama had uttered something new and profound when really it follows in the footsteps of seven prior U.S. presidents. The only thing profound is that Abbas continues the stubborn Arafat position, yet amazingly it is now regarded as pliant. The Palestinians are basically negotiating secession. Their only bargaining chip is an end to the violence they are creating. By returning to terms such as “the 1967 border,” Obama offers justification for new attacks on Israeli settlements in West Bank. And in introducing the concept of “mutually agreed swaps,” he fabricates a dimension of Palestinian legitimacy that history simply does not bear out. If Netanyahu took Obama to school, it wasn’t to be rude; it was because Obama needed it.

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