Profoundly complicated roots of the 106-year-old Palestinian problem 

By Mayank Chhaya –

Mayank Chhaya

At the very least the problem of Palestine versus Israel is 106 years old, more than four decades before an entity called Israel even existed. Of course, in longer historical terms, it is a problem more than two millennia old. 

Reading a United Nations backgrounder titled ‘Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917-1947’, coupled with one titled “Creation of Israel, 1948” as part of the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is quite fascinating albeit highly complicated. 

As the war ravages the region today, its roots go back all the way to 1917, that is a little before the First World War ended in November 1918.  “The origins of the Palestine problem as an international issue, however, lie in events occurring towards the end of the First World War. These events led to a League of Nations decision to place Palestine under the administration of Great Britain as the Mandatory Power under the Mandates System adopted by the League. In principle, the Mandate was meant to be in the nature of a transitory phase until Palestine attained the status of a fully independent nation, a status provisionally recognized in the League’s Covenant, but in fact the Mandate’s historical evolution did not result in the emergence of Palestine as an independent nation,” according to a U.N. backgrounder. 

Even though the League’s Covenant clearly said, “The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory,” the decision on the Mandate did not take into account the wishes of the people of Palestine. The U.N. says, “Almost five years before receiving the mandate from the League of Nations, the British Government had given commitments to the Zionist Organization regarding the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, for which Zionist leaders had pressed a claim of “historical connection” since their ancestors had lived in Palestine two thousand years earlier before dispersing in the “Diaspora”.” 

“During the period of the Mandate, the Zionist Organization worked to secure the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The indigenous people of Palestine, whose forefathers had inhabited the land for virtually the two preceding millennia felt this design to be a violation of their natural and inalienable rights. They also viewed it as an infringement of assurances of independence given by the Allied Powers to Arab leaders in return for their support during the war. The result was mounting resistance to the Mandate by Palestinian Arabs, followed by resort to violence by the Jewish community as the Second World War drew to a close,” it says. 

That bit of history is enough to understand how from the get-go how this had the makings of what Britain eventually described as “the Palestine problem”. After a quarter century, Britain passed on “the Palestinian problem” to the United Nations “on the ground that the Mandatory Power was faced with conflicting obligations that had proved irreconcilable.” 

The U.N. was barely two years old and not fully equipped to deal with the problem even as violence raged on in Palestine.  

The U.N. examined several alternatives and finally concluded that the only possible way out was the partitioning of Palestine into two independent States, “one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem internationalized.” 

The partition plan did not work and failed to bring peace to Palestine. Violence spread into a Middle East war. In the midst of this unfolding crisis, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized the new nation on the same day, becoming the first country to do so. Seventy-five years later Washington remains its staunchest supporter as once again evident in the just concluded visit of President Joe Biden to Israel.  

“The Palestinian Arab State envisaged in the partition plan never appeared on the world’s map and, over the following 30 years, the Palestinian people have struggled for their lost rights,” the U.N. says. Today as Gaza is being dismantled by Israeli bombs in the aftermath of the grotesquely cruel terrorist attack on October 7 by Hamas, the idea of Palestine still remains in rubble.  

“From 1948 there have been wars and destruction, forcing millions of Palestinians into exile, and engaging the United Nations in a continuing search for a solution to a problem which came to possess the potential of a major source of danger for world peace,” the U.N. backgrounder says. 

“In 1947 the United Nations accepted the responsibility of finding a just solution for the Palestine issue, and still grapples with this task today. Decades of strife and politico-legal arguments have clouded the basic issues and have obscured the origins and evolution of the Palestine problem,” it says. 

There are several striking passages in them. Take this, for instance. 

“Ironically, the Palestinian Arabs were to suffer an experience similar to the Jews – a diaspora. That the Jews deserved sympathy was unquestionable. Even before the Nazi terror, this sympathy existed for the Jewish people among the Palestinian Arabs. The absence of racial rancor before the Balfour Declaration received emphasis in virtually every official report. Even as late as 1937, during the Palestinian rebellion for independence, the Royal Commission on Palestine said: 

“An able Arab exponent of the Arab case told us that the Arabs throughout their history have not only been free from anti-Jewish sentiment but have also shown that the spirit of compromise is deeply rooted in their life. There is no decent-minded person, he said, who would not want to do everything humanly possible to relieve the distress of those persons, provided that it was not at the cost of inflicting corresponding distress on another people.”  

In another passage, the document quotes Arnold J. Toynbee “who, before becoming recognized as an eminent world historian had dealt directly with the Palestine Mandate in the British Foreign Office.” Toynbee wrote this in 1968: 

“All through those 30 years, Britain (admitted) into Palestine, year by year, a quota of Jewish immigrants that varied according to the strength of the respective pressures of the Arabs and Jews at the time. These immigrants could not have come in if they had not been shielded by a British chevaux-de-frise. If Palestine had remained under Ottoman Turkish rule, or if it had become an independent Arab state in 1918, Jewish immigrants would never have been admitted into Palestine in large enough numbers to enable them to overwhelm the Palestinian Arabs in this Arab people’s own country. The reason why the State of Israel exists today and why today 1,500,000 Palestinian Arabs are refugees is that, for 30 years, Jewish immigration was imposed on the Palestinian Arabs by British military power until the immigrants were sufficiently numerous and sufficiently well-armed to be able to fend for themselves with tanks and planes of their own. The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the world, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the world’s peace.”  

All this is quite instructive but unfortunately, history does not help here. If anything, it merely accentuates the perpetual mess. 

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