Thursday, July 17, 2014

From The Wonderful People Who Brought You World War One

Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on June 10, 2014. Much of today’s conflict in the Middle East has its roots in contradictory promises made by colonial powers to different ethnic groups during World War I. Getty Images

First World War Centenary – Middle East Conflict
by Laurence Eyton

On Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. Published in the Times (of London) newspaper one week later, the letter said: “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.”

The manner in which the nascent Jewish state was created by the British has had far-reaching consequences.

Confronted with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the war, Britain and France signed an agreement to divide up the territories. This deal contradicted promises to local Arabs of self-government should they successfully rebel against the Ottomans.

Realizing that the U.S., which had recently entered the war, didn’t look kindly on colonial land grabs, the British made a commitment to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, something for which leading Jewish groups had been campaigning for since the 1890s. The British hoped the declaration would get American Jews to pressure their government to allow Britain to keep control of Palestine after the war, valuable to Britain because it could secure the east bank of the Suez Canal, a waterway of strategic importance to its empire.

After the war, Jewish immigration proceeded apace. Land was a major bone of contention. Settlers bought it, sometimes from absentee landlords living in Syria or Lebanon liquidating foreign assets, sometimes from local Arabs. Many of these owners, according to the British high commissioner in Palestine, John Chancellor, were so mired in debt to moneylenders that they had little choice but to sell.

The settlers, wanting to farm the land they bought, then relied on British authorities to evict Arab farmers who wouldn’t leave. Evictions produced resentment, then attacks. The settlers created their own militia; Arabs responded in kind.

By 1930, Chancellor was calling the Balfour Declaration “a colossal blunder” as the British found themselves trying to keep the peace between two increasingly bellicose communities. Eventually an Arab revolt broke out in 1935, which persuaded the British to try to restrict Jewish immigration.

The end result was a Jewish revolt, secretly backed by the French, which led directly to the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, and numerous Arab attempts to destroy it thereafter. Much of the animosity that has roiled this region for almost a century can be traced back to the policy-making and colonial rivalry immediately after the end of World War I.

from 100 Years, 100 Legacies - WSJ 16 July 2014


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