Palestinians can have their future but not our past

I found this long-ago essay on my PC while rummaging through my files. I had submitted this to the Japan Times in response to some typical twaddle they had featured on Israel; they really should learn to stick closer to home. In any event, the response was never printed, so I thought I’d throw it in here. I must have written this around 2006, when Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were still on the scene, but it still holds up pretty well: 

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I don’t understand assertions that Palestine was controlled by the Arabs. The territory was under Ottoman rule for three centuries until the end of WWI, when the British took control under a League of Nations mandate. There was no Israel, no Jordan, no nation at all under either Arab or Jewish control: it was a borderless land in which both sides had been living for centuries. In this respect, it is fair to ask why the British gave the land now called Jordan to a Hashemite king in defiance of its Palestinian majority; one columnist has suggested that had the British called that nation Palestine, there might not be a problem now.

At any rate, the state of Israel did not create itself. Amidst relentless violence between the Arabs and Jewish minority, the British handed their mandate to the UN, which then sought to divide Palestine into lands that would reflect the majority of their populations. The UN General Assembly adopted this idea in the UN Partition Resolution (GA 181) in 1947, which also set aside Jerusalem as an international entity belonging to neither side. Minority rights were to be guaranteed under the new states. This plan was supported by both the leading Cold War powers, strongly by the USSR and somewhat more reluctantly by the U.S. At that time, there were approximately 600,000 Jews and 1.2 million Arabs living in Palestine. Nearly all the Jews were living either in Jerusalem or the newly designated Jewish portion of Palestine.

The Jewish side accepted the plan, i.e., it agreed to the creation of two states, one with a Jewish majority and the other an Arab majority, and an internationalized Jerusalem. The Arabs rejected it out of hand. When the Jewish side proclaimed the state of Israel in accordance with the UN plan the next year, the surrounding Arab nations immediately declared war. When the dust cleared, Jordan and Egypt were in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, territory that was supposed to have been part of the new Arab state. Jordan also invaded and occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem; Israel wasted no time in responding by securing the western (predominantly Jewish) half for itself. Like Jordan and Egypt, Israel also came out of the war with land that had been designated for the Palestinian Arabs.

In the chaos prior to and during the war, there were plenty of refugees created on both sides, including for some reason Jewish residents of other Arab nations. Jewish refugees no longer exist, as they were immediately given shelter in Israel. Meanwhile, it is simply not true that the Palestinian Arabs were all innocents driven violently and unwillingly from their homes; many, and a good many, left to join Arab armies intent on obliterating the new Jewish state. Israel refused to allow the Arab refugees from the previous Palestine back into the territory, which remains a subject of much contention. However, it has assiduously guarded the rights of those Arabs who remained within its borders.

The situation today is telling. The Arabs who left are now called Palestinians and languish still in refugee camps, unwanted by either the Jewish state or apparently their Arab “brethren”. The Arabs who stayed are called Israelis and have all the rights and privileges of any Israeli citizen, including representation in the Knesset (parliament) and their own political party. It is indeed a sad irony that the only Muslims with true democratic representation anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa are the Israeli Arabs.

When the PLO was founded in the early 1960s, the controlling power in the West Bank was not Israel but Jordan. Yet the organisation never spoke of ousting that nation from its land; its stated goal was to destroy Israel and expel all Jews that had arrived in the land since 1918. So much for protection of minorities. Note that neither Jordan nor Egypt ever gave either citizenship or independence to the Palestinian Arabs during their 20-year occupation of the territories; their pious comments on behalf of the residents came later, after they lost the lands to Israel in the 1967 war.

Immediately after that war, Israel offered to return all the conquered territories except Jerusalem in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors. This was effectively rejected, as Arab nations simply refused to negotiate. Religious and nationalist Israeli groups then began to push for settlement of the territories, but it was only many years later, when hard-liners won the upper hand in Israel, that this became official Israeli policy. It was revealed recently that Israeli intelligence officers evidently discussed a peace proposal with the West Bank Palestinians in 1967 after the Jordanians were booted out, though their report does not seem to have been submitted to the Israeli Cabinet. It is extremely unfortunate that this effort did not succeed, and we can only wonder what might have been. Still, after yet another war in 1973, Israel eventually did return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for recognition as a state and full relations, showing a willingness to negotiate in good faith and give up land for peace.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Arab sides have missed abundant opportunities for peace, but the Arabs have played a particularly wearisome game. First they turn down a separate Arab state in the former Palestine, then they want it. First they refuse to accept the return of the conquered territories, then they want it, as in their fervent support for UN Resolution 242. It is typical that most of the Arab nations that insist that Israel accept this resolution have at the same time denied the legitimacy of another UN resolution, i.e., the one that created Israel in the first place. That is, they are apparently willing to accept UN decisions only when it suits them to do so. (It should be noted that Resolution 242 does not in fact call unequivocally for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders, as is widely believed. It leaves room for negotiation.)

Finally they are trying to force a decision through random terror directed at innocent people, blackening the name of their own religion in the process. The Palestinian Arabs deserve a state of their own, and even Israel’s rightist prime minister Ariel Sharon has conceded that this is inevitable. In light of their actions, however, it is fair to ask just what kind of state they are hoping to create. Whether democracy is desirable or necessary for the Palestinian Arabs will be a matter of judgement, and people are free to choose their own style of government, to the extent that they can choose their tyrants. However, if Israel were to give in to terrorist acts on the present scale, the implications would be horrendous. What the Palestinian Arabs need is a Gandhi or a Sadat. What they’ve got, unfortunately, is an Arafat. This is their biggest tragedy.

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