Vying for Power: Dividing Palestine

views updated

Vying for Power: Dividing Palestine

The Peel Commission Report ...5
The Biltmore Program ...17
The Alexandria Protocol ...25

In the years leading up to World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the Ottoman Empire (a vast Turkish empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century) held control over much of what is known today as the Middle East. The modern nations of the Middle East were then territories within the empire, their populations loosely governed and not overly prosperous in this time before oil wealth transformed the region. World War I brought sweeping change to the region. The Ottoman Empire was defeated by Allied forces led by Britain and France, and after the war those two European powers began the process of rewriting the map of the region. Under the authority of the League of Nations (a loose confederation of sixty states, formed in 1919, whose goal was to peacefully resolve conflicts between nations), Britain and France divided much of the former Ottoman territory into regions ruled under their mandate, or administrative control. The areas operating under French mandate were Lebanon and Syria; those under British control were Palestine (later known as Israel), Transjordan (later known as Jordan), and Iraq.

The area known as Palestine lay on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and it stretched inland about fifty miles to the banks of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Much of the area was desert, and only one-third of the territory could then support agriculture. But the area was home to some of the holiest sites in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, especially in the city of Jerusalem. In the mid-nineteenth century, Palestine had been home to about 500,000 people, approximately 80 percent of them Arab Muslims, 10 percent Christians, 4 percent Jews, and 1 percent Druze (a Muslim religious sect).

In the 1880s a new force began to reshape Palestine. That force was known as Zionism, a movement by Jews to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Zionists declared that Jews had a claim to land in Palestine, where the twelve ancient tribes of the Jewish faith had ruled thousands of years before, and they encouraged Jews to move to Palestine. In the mid-nineteenth century, small numbers of Jews fleeing discrimination and persecution because of their religious beliefs in Europe and Russia began to settle in Palestine. In the late 1890s, Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), author of The Jewish State, created the World Zionist Organization to promote increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the number of immigrants increased. Zionism attracted the support of wealthy and influential Jews in Europe and the United States, including Herbert Samuel (1870–1963), a British politician. By 1917 Samuel and other supporters of Zionism had urged the British government to express its qualified support for Zionism. That support came in the form of a letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, that expressed the British position.

The Balfour Declaration, named after British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), is perhaps the single most important document in the history of the century-long conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, yet it is just one sentence long. It reads:

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

The dual promise implied in this declaration—the promise that Britain would support both Jewish and Arab interests in Palestine—proved nearly impossible to fulfill, as successive British administrations discovered through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Jews and the Arabs who lived in Palestine—or Palestinians—fought regularly and sometimes violently over control of land and access to holy sites in Jerusalem. Increasingly, both sides became committed to the idea that the other was the enemy, and that they must fight to remove the enemy's influence from Palestine.

The documents that make up this section show how the various players in this conflict—the British, the Zionists, and the Arabs—struggled to develop policies and strategies to address their interests in Palestine. The Palestine Royal Commission Report, often called the Peel Commission Report, was issued in 1937 by the British in an attempt to provide a framework for cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. (It proved so unpopular that a "White Paper," issued in 1939, reversed several of its suggestions.) The Biltmore Program was an argument made by American Zionists that Palestine should attain independence as a Jewish state, and it argued against British policy. Finally, the Alexandria Protocol, issued in 1944 during the midst of World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), was the founding document of the League of Arab States, a coalition of Arab nations that joined together to oppose Zionism and to argue that Palestine should attain independence as an Arab state.