Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A Brief History For You...

As most of you know, in two weeks’ time I will be travelling to the West Bank, in occupied Palestine, with the International Solidarity Movement for Palestinians (ISM).

The ISM is a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement which opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through direct action. To find out more about what we do at the ISM, visit the link at the top of this page.

In this post before I go, I’m going to briefly explain what is happening in Palestine, for those of you who may not know much about the conflict, but whom I have asked to read this blog. I have done my best to condense 130 years of history for you!

The history in this post comes from David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch, which is by far the best and most accurate read on the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’. I would also strongly recommend watching John Pilger’s documentary Palestine Is Still The Issue; reading Mark Thomas’s book Extreme Rambling about when he walked the Separation Wall along the West Bank; or watching the Channel 4 programme The Promise – links to all of which are at the top of this blog.

A Very Brief History…

The First Settlements

The first Jewish settlements in Palestine began in the 1880s, as part of the Zionist Movement. Zionism is an ideology that seeks the establishment of a Jewish homeland and state, largely against the backdrop of growing anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th Century.

The location of this state was decided to be the land formerly known as Palestine (see map below), after other countries such as Uganda and Argentina were ruled out by the leaders of the Zionist Congress, headed by Theodor Herzl. Palestine was the obvious choice for the Congress, as Jews believe that they have an historical claim to the land - in the Old Testament/The Torah it is written that God promised the Holy Land to the Israelites - which is Holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.

The Balfour Declaration

The number of Jewish settlements in Palestine rapidly increased over the next thirty years. And in 1917, Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, declared British support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine:

            “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 clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Unfortunately, it remains unclear how the establishment of a Jewish state would not prejudice the civil and religious rights of the Palestinians who had been living on the land for hundreds of years. The British government proceeded to be complicit in these prejudices.

The Proclamation of an Israeli State

As the number of settlements increased under British Mandated Palestine, so did the number of Palestinians who were forced off their land; thousands became refugees in neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and thousands more became internally displaced peoples (IDPs) whose families were homeless.

As a result of the Holocaust (1933-1945), the demand for a Jewish homeland, where Jews could live in peace, became great. The United States and Western Europe were first choice for many, but the West – and the US in particular - refused to take in the majority of Jewish refugees (the US took in 20 000). Geographically tiny Palestine, then, remained the only option for the majority of the 300 000 Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany.

It is not a controversial statement to make that, since 1917, Britain and the US have supported political Zionism: a Western-looking Jewish state in the Middle East would be an invaluable geo-political ally. The denial of entry to Jewish refugees into Western Europe and the US was largely in cahoots with the Zionist Congress at the time, who sought to bring as many Jews to Palestine as was possible.

The UN Partition Plan

In 1947, the UN issued a partition plan of Palestine into two states: one Jewish and one Palestinian. See slide two below:

“[Former] Palestine comprises some 10 000 square miles. Under the Partition Plan, the Arabs [Palestinians] were to retain 4 300 sq. miles while the Jews, who represented one third of the population and owned some 6 percent of the land, were allotted 5 700 sq. miles. The Jews also got the better land; they were to have the fertile coastal belt while the Arabs were to make do, for the most part, with the hills.” (Hirst 2005:256; The Gun and the Olive Branch)

Obviously, the Jews were glad to accept this Partition Plan, whereas the Palestinians – who were losing 60% of their land – were not, and rejected the plan.

In May 1948, the Zionists proclaimed the State of Israel despite the Palestinians’ rejection of the Partition Plan, and war broke out. Zionist forces mounted over 100 000 in comparison to the Arab forces’ (Palestinians and support of neighbouring Arab countries) 17 500. As a result, 700 000 Palestinians were driven into the sea, or into neighbouring Arab countries. By the end of the war, the Zionists had occupied 77% of the land (as shown in slide three on the map) as opposed to the 57% they were allotted by the partition plan. This is what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic).

Fighting continued in the proceeding years, but the borders remained the same until 1967.

The Six Day War

The Six Day War, which began with a surprise Israeli air strike, saw Israel occupy the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza in just six days. Israel was forced by Eygpt to withdraw from the Sinai in 1982, but continues to date to occupy the Palestinian and Syrian areas.

The Situation Today…

The Wall

In 2002, the Israeli government began to build a wall to separate the West Bank from Israel, for the purposes of ‘preventing terrorism’. The wall “consists of six rolls of razor wire (three at the bottom, two in the middle, one at the top); a concrete gully; a sand trap which registers the footprints of anyone who’s been near the fence; the ‘fence’ itself is electronically monitored and sends signals out to the control room; then there’s another sand trap, then there’s a military road which is patrolled 24 hours a day and has watch towers with cameras that have a range of 6km; then there’s another gully; then there’s another roll of barbed wire” (Mark Thomas).

The wall is twice as long as the actual West Bank border, and deliberately cuts off 9% of Palestinian land, as shown below (most of the planned route is now built).

Illegal Settlements

The West Bank is now becoming populated with small Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that "The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies." Palestinians are forbidden from building extensions to their houses (on their land) and so, as their family grows and, inevitably, they need to build, the Israeli military wait for families to build extensions, then annex them off until a new settler family can move in. These are ideological settlers, who enjoy military support and who often harass the Palestinians; one example is of adult settlers attacking Palestinian children with stones and bats on their way to school every morning in Hebron, while the military stands aside.


There are military checkpoints along the wall. Security coming into the West Bank is relaxed; going into Israel, it is stringent (unless you are a foreigner or Israeli, then you can take the fast lane). Palestinians whose families have been separated by the wall, or whose place of work is the other side of the wall, have to apply for a permit to pass through the military checkpoints. Often Palestinians have to queue for hours to get through, sometimes only to be turned away or interrogated by soldiers. One Palestinian woman explains that she has to go through the check point to do her shopping (as the Palestinian village she lives in is practically encircled by the Wall) and whenever she comes back through, the soldiers always tell her “you don’t need all that food – you have to leave some of it here”. And she will get home with only half the amount of food she’d paid for.

See the blogs of ISMers at the ISM London website (link at the top of the page) for more first hand accounts.

There are also “Israeli only” roads and different legal systems for Palestinians (who can be held indefinitely without trial) and Israelis/Foreigners (who can only be held for up to 24 hours without charge).

Gaza is sealed off from the rest of the world; internationals are denied any right to visit.

If this is not apartheid, I’d like to know what is.

I just have one departing remark for my fellow Brits: your government is funding this.

My next post will be from Palestine,