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Year 2006 No. 78, September 12, 2006 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

Britain and Palestine: A Criminal History of Intervention

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Britain and Palestine: A Criminal History of Intervention

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Britain and Palestine: A Criminal History of Intervention

Tony Blair’s recent visit to the Middle East is the latest example of interference in that region by British governments throughout the last two centuries. Britain’s Prime Minister is yet again posing as the peacemaker, as somebody who has solutions to the region’s problems, but his visit has already led to mass protests. Even before his visit, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, wrote of the “untold hurt” which the British government had brought to the Palestinian people, and the “historic responsibility of successive British governments for what has befallen our people from the Balfour declaration to the catastrophe of dispossession”. Indeed history shows that selfish economic, geo-political and strategic interests have always guided the interference of British governments in the Middle East in general, and in Palestine in particular. It has used Zionism to further these aims and has ridden roughshod over the rights of the Palestinian and other Arab peoples.

            Britain’s interest in Palestine in modern times can be said to have begun in the fist half of the 19th century. In 1839, the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston, began encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine, which was then part of the declining Ottoman Empire, as part of Britain’s policy of supporting this crumbling empire in order to thwart the strategic and territorial ambitions of its economic and political rivals, at that time especially France and Russia. Palmerston argued that Jewish immigrants would owe some allegiance to Britain and would therefore give Britain an indirect influence over Palestine, which occupied an important strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. He reasoned that Jewish immigration under British influence would in time also create a buffer zone between Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, thus preventing the emergence of Egypt as a strong regional power in the area, which might become a threat to Britain’s interests. In order to further this aim, Palmerston proposed that the Palestinian people should be removed from Palestine and re-settled in northern Iraq. Although no deportation of the Palestinian population took place at that time, Britain’s involvement in the creation of the Palestinian “problem” was clearly demonstrated, as was its pragmatic utilisation of the Zionist movement, which in this period was still in its embryonic stage.

            As today, the intervention of Britain and other western powers in Palestine and the Middle East in the 19th century created major instability in the area. As the Zionist movement developed at the end of the 19th century, it sought to reach a closer agreement with British imperialism over the future of Palestine. In the opening years of the 20th century, the Zionist movement established close links with David Lloyd George, the future Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, the future Foreign Secretary, Herbert Samuel, a future High Commissioner for Palestine and Sir Mark Sykes, who became Chief Secretary of the War Cabinet. The evidence shows that one of the aims of Britain’s political leaders during the First World War, in order to safeguard Britain’s interests in the region, including the Suez Canal, was to annex Palestine and “plant” millions of Jewish settlers

            When the First World War broke out in 1914, Palestine therefore remained an important prize to be fought over by Britain and the other big powers. In 1915, the British government made a secret agreement concerning the future of Palestine with the Sherifian monarchy of Arabia (the McMahon-Hussein correspondence), in which in order to gain an alliance with Arab peoples during the war it promised “to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca”. However, the following year another secret agreement was made between Britain and France, with the support of the other Entente powers, to divide the entire Middle East region into two “spheres of influence” and place Palestine under international, although largely British, control (the Sykes-Picot agreement). When this secret agreement was made public by the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution, the British government sent a reassuring message to Sherif Hussein stating that "the Entente Powers are determined that the Arab race shall be given full opportunity of once again forming a nation in the world ... So far as Palestine is concerned, we are determined that no people shall be subject to another". Even when Allied troops occupied Palestine and other parts of the Middle East formerly under Ottoman rule, such as modern Syria and Lebanon, the British government stated that “the wish and desire of His Majesty's Government that the future government of these regions should be based upon the principle of the consent of the governed, and this policy has and will continue to have support of His Majesty's Government". As if that were not clear enough, at the end of the war the British and French governments issued a joint declaration stating that the war in the Middle East had been fought in order to achieve “the complete and definite emancipation of the [Arab] peoples and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations”.

            However, not only had the British government been duplicitous concerning the future of Palestine and the rights of the Arab peoples to self-determination, it had also made entirely contrary declarations of support for the Zionist movement. In 1917, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued a letter on behalf of the government, the infamous “Balfour Declaration”, declaring its support for the “Zionist aspirations” and the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This Declaration was itself a response to a proposal from the Zionists. According to the Division for Palestinian Rights, established by the General Assembly of the United Nations: “The pivotal role of the Balfour Declaration in virtually every phase of the Palestinian issue cannot be exaggerated…It ultimately led to partition and to the problem as it exists today. Any understanding of the Palestine issue, therefore, requires some examination of this Declaration, which can be considered the root of the problem of Palestine.”

(to be continued)

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