Explanatory Note: The opening of this essay is nearly identical to Chapter 1 of my earlier, longer essay "Israel: A Stolen Home"; but I then go on to discuss, briefly, some aspects of the issue not covered in that essay.
Born in 1939, I was too young to understand the creation of Israel in the 1940s, too old to learn much about it as history. For years I was too caught up in a busy life to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
I had only friendly feelings toward Israel. I knew many of its people were transplanted Americans, and I felt a sense of kinship. I admired their having returned to their ancestral homeland, saw it as an inspiring, epic adventure. I never questioned the rhetoric of elected officials who urge us to support Israel because it's "the only democracy in the Middle East," a staunch U.S. ally.
Now I wonder how many other Americans are as poorly informed as I was.
I was aware of the Diaspora and the Zionist movement. But I took for granted Palestine had always been a Jewish region, albeit sparsely populated, impoverished, and under oppressive foreign rule. Frankly, I couldn't conceive of the possibility that the United Nations would have created a Jewish state, with support from the U.S. and its democratic allies, if that were not the case.
I wasn't clear as to who had governed the region prior to 1948. But I assumed neighboring states had opposed its becoming independent because they hoped to divide it, making the Jews a vulnerable minority in several countries rather than the majority in a land of their own.
I thought disaffected "Palestinians" were Muslims who had always been a minority, though certainly a larger percentage before the recent return of Jews from other parts of the world.
In 2002 I looked up the facts.
I was stunned to learn that in 1914, when Palestine was a lightly populated (690,000) but thriving part of the Ottoman Empire, Jews made up less than 12 percent of its population. The region had been mostly Muslim for over a thousand years. In fact, most of the Jewish minority was descended from Jews who'd been expelled from Spain in the years after 1492. Not even they could claim thousands of years' unbroken residence in Palestine; their ancestors had been part of the Diaspora and "returned."
And it wasn't Muslims who had driven away the earlier Jewish population. Most of the blame for that rests with rulers who preceded them, pagan and Christian. In the 7th century, when Muslims became the latest in a succession of conquerors in a generally warlike era, they found a population that was predominantly Christian.
So what happened?
During World War I, Britain was in search of allies. It made contradictory promises, of self-determination for Arabs under Ottoman rule, and of support for the Zionist movement. The latter pledge was a bid for the backing of influential Jewish communities in the U.S. and Russia.
In the decades that followed, Britain administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. The British allowed heavy Zionist immigration and encouraged hopes for a "Jewish national home," despite protests and an unsuccessful revolt by the native Arabs.
Arab leaders, unlike the Zionist leadership, had to be home-grown and drawn from a largely peasant population. As a consequence of that failed revolt, many leaders and potential leaders wound up dead or in exile.
In the late 1930s, the British considered a suggestion that Palestine be partitioned and many Arabs forcibly relocated to what is now Jordan. When they realized the extent of Arab opposition, they dropped it.
Jews were still only 33 percent of the population in 1947. But with Britain eager to hand off the problem it had created to someone else, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and give them a state with 55 percent of the land. The large Arab majority would have gotten only 45 percent, and 450,000 Arabs would have been under Jewish rule unless they relocated. The U.N. General Assembly approved that proposal in part because it was supported by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Outraged Arab states demanded the U.N. ask the International Court of Justice whether it had the right to partition a country against the will of the majority of its people. Their proposal was narrowly rejected.
The Palestinian Arabs condemned the partition plan, as did Arab and Asian Muslim countries. The U.S. backtracked, saying it shouldn't be implemented without the consent of Jews and Arabs--a position Britain was also taking. Zionists would have none of that, and civil war broke out.
The well-connected, well-led Zionists had been arming for years. Groups called Irgun and Lehi had carried out terrorist attacks to put pressure on Britain. (Leaders of both groups would later become prime ministers of Israel.) Now Zionists quickly defeated the Palestinians and declared Israel independent. Neighboring Arab states came to the Palestinians' aid. But Israel defeated them too, and wound up with far more territory than the U.N. had envisioned.
An estimated 800,000 Arabs were forced to flee their homes. A half-century later, those displaced persons and their descendants number 5 million; roughly one-third still live in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.
At the end of the 1948 war the West Bank and East Jerusalem were held by Jordan, the Gaza Strip by Egypt. These noncontiguous territories make up only 22 percent of Palestine, less than half the land the U.N. had earmarked for a Palestinian state. At the time, few people seem to have thought seriously of uniting them to create such a state. But hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees went no farther than the Arab-controlled remnants of their homeland.
In 1967, in a regional war in which it was the aggressor, Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank and Gaza. This occupation is every bit as illegal as was Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990. But while the U.S. rushed to liberate Kuwait, it has condoned Israel's brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for 36 years, championing Israel and portraying its victims as somehow in the wrong because they've dared to fight their oppressors.
The 1967 war created more hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of them displaced for the second time. Palestinian refugees and descendants, including some who are internally displaced within Israel, now total about 6 million. All these refugees have the right under international law to return to their original homes. Israel refuses to let them do so, despite its having been required to acknowledge the 1948 refugees' right of return as a condition of U.N. membership.
Israel has encouraged hundreds of thousands of its people to move into the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. This is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which specifically forbids an occupier's settling its own people in occupied territories. Other international law forbids an occupying power's making any demographic changes, or permanent changes of any kind that are not meant to benefit the population it found living in the region.
Israel's latest outrage is the so-called "Security Fence" it's constructing in the West Bank. This "Fence" is a solid, heavily fortified wall, over 26 feet high and--with its associated barbed wire, ditches, etc.--requiring a swath of land over 87 yards wide. It's allegedly meant to keep resistance fighters out of Israel; but if that were its true purpose, there would be no reason not to build it along the pre-1967 border. Instead, it's cutting deep into the West Bank. The Fence is zig-zagging to embrace Israeli settlements, water sources, and the most valuable farmland. Whole Arab villages are trapped on the Israeli side, isolated from West Bank social services. Many farmers on the Palestinian side are unable to reach their own fields, which are on the Israeli side.
When U.S. media report that Israel wants a section of Fence to "dip" 12, 13, or even 20 miles into the West Bank, they omit a fact that drives home the extent of territorial encroachment: the maximum width of the West Bank is only about 30 miles.
Israel's plan is for the Fence to curve around, slice off the eastern border region as well, and leave the Palestinians with little more than 45 percent of the West Bank, in several noncontiguous sections. The Israeli government is working feverishly to create facts on the ground that will either influence a final determination of borders or, more likely, make it politically impossible for Palestinian leaders to accept any pseudo-"state" they're offered.
To forestall an argument in Israel's defense: Yes, it's true that prior to 1967, Palestinian guerrillas mounted small-scale attacks on it from the West Bank and Gaza. Given the historical background, who can blame them? Now Israel is obsessed with security. It dreads the demographic consequences of a mass return of refugees; and it fears that if it continues to balk on the refugee issue, a viable Palestinian state, however small, will serve as a base for more attacks. That fear isn't unreasonable.
But it was the Israelis who set these dark forces in motion, by stealing another people's homeland. They shouldn't be allowed to escape the consequences. Violence against them can be kept to a minimum if they bite the bullet, accept the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, and permit the return of refugees to it and to Israel. The truth is that no one knows how many of those 6 million refugees will opt to return if they are given--as they should be--a free choice between doing so (with their safety guaranteed by U.N. monitors) or accepting generous financial compensation.
The Israelis have surely seen another problem. Their only quasi-legal claim to any part of the former British Mandate is derived from the U.N.'s 1947 vote on partition (itself open to challenge as a violation of the organization's Charter, which commits it to the principle of self-determination). If they're forced to acknowledge that military conquest does not entitle them to hold land in perpetuity (a recognized principle of modern international law), doubt can be cast on their claim to any of the land the U.N. earmarked for a Palestinian state. That includes 29.5 percent of the present State of Israel.
Israel has defied U.N. resolutions that condemned its actions in the Occupied Territories. Other resolutions have been vetoed by the U.S. Why has the U.S. government always been so supportive, first of the Zionists and now of Israel? Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population; but according to author Dilip Hiro (Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians, 1999), wealthy Jews account for between one-quarter and one-third of contributions to both major political parties.
How can any fair-minded American who knows the truth not be furious? I'm an agnostic of Irish and English descent, but I like to think I'd be just as angry if I were a Jew.
The Bush administration's "Road Map" is a farce. Israel should be forced to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, totally and immediately, dismantling the Fence and taking its settlers along with its military. Then it should be forced to deal justly with the refugee issue. Absolutely no conditions should be imposed on the long-abused Palestinians.