Ian Black acknowledges that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has a strong claim to be the most closely studied conflict on earth. Yet the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last November, which started it, leads him to record the narratives of both sides in this lengthy tome. He finds no narrative consensus and ends with the bleak conclusion ”violence was never far away. No end to the conflict was in sight”. The fatal geography of strategic location keeps world powers engaged and compounds the complications of local conflicts.
It is a fascinating story, beginning with Gen. Allenby’s conquest of the Ottoman vilayet of Southern Syria and Palestine in December 1917, which gave significance to the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain, a month earlier, committed itself to favour the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
The British counted 5,12,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews, and 61,000 Christians in this territory. Yet, despite many internal debates reflecting the importance of Muslim opinion for imperial strategy, they decided that Zionism, rooted in age-old traditions, to be of profounder import than the “desires and prejudices of the Arabs who inhabit that ancient land”. Under the British Mandate, migration of persecuted European Jews accelerated (Zionists had started arriving in the 1880s), with pioneering settlements and modern economic infrastructure being established, backed by finances from rich Jews in the West. By 1939, they were almost half-a- million: 30 per cent of the population, well organised, and with the critical mass to form a nation-state when the time came a decade later.
The inevitable protest by Arabs, settled in the area for centuries and neighbouring Arab States, unravelled attempts at reaching an agreement between Zionists and the Hashemites, to whom the British had promised a unified Arab State. The violent response and counter violence, begat a century of conflict. The tale goes through the twists and turns of British, Jewish and Arab policies of confusion, double dealing, violence, and war which, in 1948, brought an inglorious British retreat, the birth of Israel, and the great Naqba or disaster, which turned the majority of Arabs living in Palestine into refugees in neighbouring Arab countries. Territories intended for a Palestinian state came under the rule of Jordan and Egypt.
Conflict marks the next seven decades, both through wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and cross-border raids, terrorism and counter-terrorism between Palestinian Arabs and Israel. A critical moment came in 1967—the midpoint of this story when Israel won a decisive military victory over the combined Arab armies arrayed against it; thereafter (despite the less successful outcome of the 1973 war) it became the dominant military power in the region, now backed by the US and an energised diaspora. And the conflict changed into one between Israelis and Palestinians rather than Arabs in general over a land which both claim as their home.
It has appeared to be an irreconcilable conflict except for the period between 1993 and 2000 (and less credibly in 2007-8), when a negotiated settlement with US backing seemed possible. Extremism now marks the positions of both sides, and Black’s bleak conclusion is one which many would share. The narratives remain far apart. The Zionist belief in their right to set up a state in their ancient homeland minimised the rights of Arabs living in the area. After 1967, settlers backed by diaspora irredentists using “pseudo mystical arguments” (in the words of Israeli scholar Nissim Rejwan) have sought to make any Palestinian state on the West Bank impossible. Arabs dismiss the Jewish connection to the land where Judaism emerged, and Jews ruled and worshipped for a millennium before they were scattered in 70 A D. The Palestinian leadership failed to grasp compromise proposals in 1937, 1948 and 2000, which might have led to a Palestinian state, or to build incrementally on Israel’s withdrawals from parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The emergence of Hamas has only added more rhetorical excess and a penchant for self-defeating violence.
Despite the failures of the earlier partition plans, the Oslo process, and the later US initiatives, the Two State solution, with mutual recognition of the rights of the Israeli and Palestinian people, is the only one which can provide some resolution to this enduring conflict. Explaining that requires what the Israeli-Palestinian writer Odeh Bisharat calls a new “shared narrative for the future”.