Monday, June 10, 2013

My Log 359: Al Jazeera throws imense light, and some sense of hope, on the world’s most intractable problem: the future of Palestine

Palestine (Photo credit: Zachary Baumgartner)
English: World War I enlistment poster from Ca...
English: World War I enlistment poster from Canada. Poster shows a soldier cutting the bonds from a Jewish man, who strains to join a group of soldiers running in the distance and says, "You have cut my bonds and set me free - now let me help you set others free!" Above are portraits of Rt. Hon. Herbert Samuel, Viscount Reading, and Rt. Hon. Edwin S. Montagu, all Jewish members of the British parliament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Al Jazeera has just concluded a four-part TV series on what the Palestinians call their Nakba (the Catastrophe), that is to say, the decision made in the depths of the First World War, to hand over their lands to the small but thereafter rapidly-growing Jewish population, a decision that has since been accepted widely as something like a reparation paid to the Jews for the Holocaust they suffered during the Second World War (that doesn’t make much sense, but then, nothing about this conflict does.)
The series put the primary responsability for this decision on the British government who, in 1917 issued the Balfour declaration, dedicating Palestine as the future homeland of the Jewish people. At the time there were only a few thousand Jews living in Palestine, no more than 10 per cent of the population, of which the other 90 per cent was mostly Arab.
To conclude the series the network gathered three well-known historians who, it turned out, represented what one of them called the New History version of the Jewish-Palestinian imbroglio, and they discussed the issue for an hour under the moderator Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s notably competent senior world affairs analyst, more frequently seen as moderator of the series called Empire, in which he discusses the problems of the world’s super-powers (more often than not, the United States).
The three experts called in by Al Jazeera were Professors
Avi Shlaim, author of some seven books on this subject, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, a man who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, and once served in the Israeli army; Professor Rosemary Hollis, former head of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and now with City University, London; and James Renton, senior lecturer in history at Edge Hill University in Britain. I had never heard of these people before, and was most impressed by their calmness of manner and the complete grasp they appeared to have on the matter under discussion. When I looked them up on the internet I realized they appear to be universally hated in Israel, articles criticizing them being heavy with innuendo about their sloppy thinking, and even going so far as to describe some of their utterances as “anti-Israel slime.”
Bishara asked them what was wrong with the customary Israeli assumption that was once almost the world’s accepted wisdom, that in this struggle the Jews were the victims, that they had been attacked by the united Arab world in 1948, who were driven off, and that most of the Palestinian refugees had left of their own accord?
Shlaim said the “myths” that had grown out of the 1948 war had become exposed to more rigorous examination as documentation had become available from multiple sources, which had proved that much of accepted wisdom was not based on facts. In fact, the Arab force that attacked Israel in 1948 was bitterly divided, and “probably the most ramshackle coalition in the history of warfare.” The Hashemite strand of the Arabs, centred on Jordan, were motivated by their desire to  establish a Greater TransJordan nation, and the Lebanese were afraid of the intentions of Syria to create a Greater Syria, and there were other rivalries that made their enterprise less than united, and spectacularly unsuccessful.
The one thing that cannot be denied, said Professor Shlaim, was that 750,000 people left Palestine, and that ever since they have been refugees --- that was the greatest movement of refugees known in the world to that time.
Professor Hollis wanted it to be clearly understood that the burden of carrying responsability for the present impasse between the two sides should not be carried by the Palestinians and the Jews alone: the burden rested heavily on Britain, she said, who got out in 1944 because they did not see any possibility of solving the conflict that they had themselves created; and furthermore, they needed to be able to use the port of Haifa if they were to withdraw their forces, and so they made the deal with the Jewish authority to take over the reins of office to ensure that they could manage their departure. Ernest Bevin, of the Attlee government, was foreign secretary of the time, and was not particularly keen on handing over power to the Jewish authorities, said Mr Renton; indeed  later Bevin described the decision as the worst mistake of international diplomacy of the twentieth-century.
When Professor Shlaim, who seems to be particularly hated in Israel these days as an apostate, was asked by Bishara how the reinterpretations of this history had been received in Israel, he said that at the time of the Oslo accords in 1993 Israeli public opinion was more open to rational debate about what had caused the Palestinian exodus, and, he added Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had turned many minds to questioning the accepted version of events. But around 2000, with the intafadas and succeeding events,  “the Israeli mind has closed again.” Shlaim said that all parties to this dispute have to reassess their responsibility for the present situation. Indeed this was emphasized during the course of the four-part series, especially by one of the Arab spokesmen who  had spoken sadly about Arab indecision in face of the challenge they faced, and lack of action over the years.
At least I was left by this discussion with something more than just the usual sense that this problem is beyond resolution: having the long view, each of the participants appeared to believe that calmer heads could prevail, if only information and the actual facts of what had happened were to be accepted by the participants of both sides.

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