The recent horrifying images coming from Homs, Hama and Houla bring to my mind another Syria in June, 45 years ago.
That time Israeli tanks were sliding down the Golan Heights towards Damascus, and now the Syrian army’s own tanks are rushing to Homs and other cities within Syria itself. The difference is substantial, of course, but whatever has been happening in the eastern Mediterranean for a century is interdependent and connected to what is termed the middle East crisis. All regional disturbances, anti-colonial struggles, revolutions and counterrevolutions, strife for a greater Iraq and Syria, civil war in Sudan, the Algerian war of independence and all wars for Palestine have been a consequence of the political arrangements resulting from world War I.
There are many reasons to celebrate the numerous significant Middle Eastern anniversaries in this particular year -- 2012: It is 95 years since the infamous Balfour Declaration that opened the way for the creation of a “national homeland for the Jews” on land where 90 percent of the inhabitants were Palestinian Arabs; it is 65 years since the United Nations resolution on the division of Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel for Jews and the exile of 750,000 Palestinians. The Palestinians call this their Nakba, or catastrophe, and it is 45 years since the June Arab-Israeli war that increased by twofold that catastrophe, still continuing at the beginning of the 21st century.
Opinions in Israel
This interpretation leans towards the Palestinian understanding of the history leading up to and including their Nakba. It is reasonable, as it is also reasonable that Israelis and the pro-Israeli lobby consider the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1948 creation of their state a materialization of their dream to return to the Biblical Holy Land. They justify the 1967 occupation of neighboring territories as an achievement of the Zionist design for a greater Israel or at least as a permanent safeguarding of its borders.
There are, however, within Israel itself new interpretations that refute the aforementioned theses that continue to inspire Israel’s official state policy. Regarding the Balfour Declaration’s aims and disturbing effects, they were exposed by liberal British intellectuals and historians before the creation of Israel. Although being praised by Jews for his romantic descriptions of the promised Holy Land, in the 1930s the writer Arthur Koestler called the declaration “one of the most improbable political documents of all time,” in which “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.” In almost the same words the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell would say in his last political statement on Feb. 3, 1970, only a few days before he died: “The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was ‘given’ by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty?” He was followed by the no less famous historian Arnold Toynbee, who said: “The Arabs had no political experience, and they were thrown into the most subtle and intricate political situation you can imagine… This is part of the monstrosity of the whole affair.”
Avi Shlaim, one of the Israeli revisionist historians, recently wrote that the declaration “was arrogant, dismissive and even racist to refer to 90 percent of the population as ‘the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ And it was the worst kind of imperial double standard, implying that there was one law for the Jews and one law for everybody else.” It is doubtless that the British issued the Balfour Declaration and pushed it through the League of Nations as an official document due to their strategic territorial interests in the Near East. There is, however, even among those liberal Israeli intellectuals the inclination to blame only the British and not the Zionist movement’s leadership for creating a chaotic situation and Jewish-Arab conflicts during their mandate rule in Palestine.
Politics of division
In regard to the UN failure to divide Palestine into two states, 1947, one for Jews and another one for Palestinian Arabs, the Jewish Zionist leaders who became the leaders of the Israeli state claimed Arabs were solely against the partition. However, their aim could clearly be seen 10 years earlier when they rejected a British partition plan -- they wanted all of Palestine. In the same manner, but in different circumstances created by World War II and the Holocaust, David Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Jewish Agency used the confusion around the UN partition resolution as a green light to prepare the terrain for the declaration of the state on May 14, 1948, followed immediately by the first Arab-Israeli war. Then a narrative was created for the world, which was still in post-war turmoil and with the memory of the Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazis fresh in its mind, saying that the Palestinians were ordered by Arab leaders over the radio to leave their homes until Arab armies drove the Israelis into the sea and that the Israelis did not carry out any massacre of Palestinians.
The massacre of more than 200 Palestinian civilians in the village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem, ordered by the head of the Jewish terrorist organization Irgun, Menachem Begin, who would later become the Israeli prime minister, could not be hidden. It was disclosed by the International Red Cross almost the same day it happened, April 9, 1948. It became a symbol of Palestinian victimization and rightful struggle against occupation of their homeland. Let me recall how Fahim Zaydan, one of the survivors from Deir Yassin, which easily conjures the image of the events at Srebrenica to us Bosnians, described what Jewish troops did: “They took us one after the other; shot an old man, and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot, too. Then they called my brother Muhammad and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him and carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her, they shot her, too.”
The full truth about the persecution and driving off of Palestinians from their homes was discovered only a half century later when the so-called “new historians” researched declassified Israeli military archives. Historians confirmed that the Zionist militias carried out at least 37 large-scale massacres in that period. One of the historians, Ilan Pappé, found that the massacre in the village of Dawaymah was even more brutal than the massacre in Deir Yassin. In just a few hours, all the houses were destroyed, and 455 people were executed, including 170 women and children. According to Israeli archives, “The Jewish troops who took part in the massacre also reported horrific scenes: babies whose skulls were cracked open, women raped or burned alive in houses and men stabbed to death.”
Professor Pappé, the author of “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” was dismissed from Haifa University and after receiving death threats left Israel. When considered from the angle of the official Israeli historiography it was a natural consequence because he also revealed what the “father of the homeland,” Ben-Gurion, who would become the first Israeli prime minister, had already said in 1937, “I am for compulsory transfer; I don’t see anything immoral in it.” Ten years later, Ben-Gurion maintained his opposition to sharing Palestine with the Arabs by rejecting the UN partition plan because he thought it did not allocate the majority of Palestine to the Jewish state.
I have dwelled more upon the years of 1947 and 1948 due to their importance in the overall Palestinian-Israeli problem. Palestinians rightly consider these years their Nakba, the disaster of forceful expulsion from their homeland, to be the core of the overall problem. Israelis, their ally the US, other Arabs and almost the entire so-called international community neglect this time for various reasons and concentrate on the year 1967 -- considering that 1948 is a matter of history.
1967 borders and 1948 refugees
They all -- including US President Obama and even some close allies of the Palestinians -- think that the Middle East crisis will be solved if Israel withdrew to the borders before the 1967 war. It is easy to blame Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt for launching that war, and there are valid reasons for thinking this way, but the fact that Israel became a new regional colonial power by refusing to fulfill UN Security Council Resolution 242 on withdrawal to the pre-war borders for 45 years is often neglected as well.
It is, however, impossible to neglect completely new explanations of that war by brave Israeli historians, such as Avi Shlaim, who spare no effort to “demolish the myth of a benign occupation.” He holds Israel responsible for a ruthless colonial project that indiscriminately destroyed Palestinian homes, undermined the Palestinian Authority, constructed the concrete “security barrier” throughout the West Bank and separated the occupied West Bank into several enclaves without territorial contiguity.
It is also good there are more voices coming from within Israel that speak out about the plight of Palestinian refugees. In 1948 they numbered around 750,000 -- now around 7.5 million. Renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz, who was a soldier in the 1967 war, does not forget the problems inherited from 1948. He said: “Each time we Israelis hear the words ‘the 1948 refugee problem,’ our stomachs flinch out of anxiety and objection. In our parts, the refugee issue has turned into a synonym for the right of return, and the right of return spells Israel’s demise.”
Such voices are worthy of wider praise and support. However, considering the nature of the Israeli ruling establishment, the disturbing state of the current situation in that region -- from Libya, Egypt and Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the turbulent world we live in, it will be difficult to right the history of the Middle East. Turkish political analyst Suat Kınıklıoğlu has found enough reasons to believe “the world is regressing into a barbarian age,” and consequently, “The Middle East is being ravaged by barbarians who want to divide the world into Sunni and Shiite.” As the anniversaries of Middle Eastern historical events approach we should be sure to remember and reflect on them. Let me recall what happened to Professor Pappé in Germany three years ago. The Munich Municipality refused to issue approval for his planned lecture at the city’s Pedagogical Institute due to the fear it would turn into an “anti-Israeli propaganda show.” Pappé wrote an open letter to the Munich mayor stating, “In the 1930s my father, a German Jew, was silenced in a similar manner, and I am saddened to discover the same censorship in 2009.”
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer of the history of diplomacy at Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.