Canberra Times – March 19, 2010
Johann Hari (“Enough: Palestinians deserve a state to call their own” Opinion, March 15) would have readers believe that the story of the Middle East conflict is of Jews coming suddenly from Europe, wilfully driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes to make way for a Jewish state, repeating the dose in 1967 and needlessly and ruthlessly oppressing the Palestinians ever since. In the Hari version of history, the Palestinians, for their part, turned to terrorism only in 2000 after all else had failed. The truth, of course, is very different.
There has been a substantial Jewish population in what is now Israel for thousands of years. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations established the Palestinian mandate, under the control of the UK, with the intention of creating a Jewish state. Under the UN partition plan of 1947 to create two states, Arabs were allocated the areas where they were in the majority and Jews allocated the areas where they made up the majority. The Jewish community accepted the partition plan, even though it fell short of what they had hoped for. The local Arabs and surrounding Arab states, however, rejected the partition, and started a war intended to drive the Jews out of the entire area.
It is true that some local Arabs were driven out of their homes by Israeli military action. However, most left without even seeing a Jewish soldier. They were urged to leave by their leaders, to get out of the way of the fighting on the understanding that when it was over in a matter of weeks, they could return, and take the Jewish land as well as their own. Others fled in fear, having believed wildly exaggerated stories of Jewish atrocities devised to galvanize the surrounding Arab countries into fighting.
At the war’s end, as well as the displaced Arabs, Jews had been driven out of East Jerusalem, including the holy sites of the old city, and the West Bank, and about 700,000 Jews had been or were about to be driven from Arab countries. The most important point, however, is that, had the Arabs accepted the partition plan, there would have been no war, and no Palestinian refugees and a state for the Arab inhabitants. And from 1948-1967 that proposed Palestinian state was gobbled up by Egypt (Gaza) and Jordan (West Bank) respectively.
Almost immediately, Arab fedayeen, initially in Egypt and then also based in surrounding countries, commenced murderous terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. In 1964, three years before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza and commenced the “occupation”, often claimed to be the root cause of Palestinian terrorism, the PLO was formed to co-ordinate Palestinian attacks on Israel to engineer its demise.
The Six Day War in 1967, which resulted in Israel capturing the West Bank and Gaza, was again a result of Arab states, led by Egypt’s Nasser, committing acts of war and announcing intentions to push the Jews into the sea. At the end of the war, Israel offered to return captured land for peace, but the Arab League, meeting in Khartoum in August/September that year, rebuffed Israel with the “three no’s” – no peace, no negotiation, no recognition. Meanwhile the PLO stepped up its terror attacks, first from Jordan and then Lebanon, killing hundreds of Israelis, while the first intifada in the mid to late 80s featured deadly violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. Hari goes so far as to distort quotes from Israeli prime ministers of the time. When Menachem Begin referred to a “beast walking on two legs” and Yitzhak Shamir said they should be “crushed like grasshoppers”, they were referring to Palestinian terrorists, not all Palestinians as Hari claims.
Israel’s 1967 offer was sadly only the first of many to be rebuffed. All through the Oslo process, Israeli civilians were the victims of barbaric terrorism. Under the Clinton offer in late 2000, the Palestinians were to have a state comprising land equivalent to the whole of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem and compensation for the refugees – almost all they claimed to want. Arafat refused point blank and continued his terrorist “second intifada” that ended only because the much criticized Israeli security measures such as checkpoints and the security barrier worked.
In 2005, Israel dismantled all its settlements and withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, but instead of peace, was repaid only by further terrorism, mainly in the form of thousands of rocket attacks, necessitating the Gaza campaign of January 2009 and the partial blockade. In 2008, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a Palestinian state on even more generous terms than before, but Mahmoud Abbas refused even to respond.
The current impasse is symptomatic of these problems. Israel has not extended the boundaries of any settlement for years, and now has even declared an unprecedented ten month moratorium on the building of houses within settlements. However, following the counterproductive maximalist US policy of identifying settlements as the core problem, Mahmoud Abbas has seized on this pretext to avoid negotiations. He has done so even though there was tacit understanding before, and it is generally accepted, that Israel will retain the settlement belt around Jerusalem in exchange for equivalent pre-1967 Israeli land in any general peace agreement.
The real obstacles to peace are the Palestinian refusal to even talk to Israel, let alone accept its right to exist as a Jewish state, the effective civil war between Hamas and Fatah, the weakness and lack of authority of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing incitement of hatred towards Israel, including the honouring of terrorists who have murdered Israeli civilians.
One ray of light is the improved conditions on the West Bank, both economically and in law and order and security, under Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s program of bottoms up, incrementally creating the civil infrastructure necessary for the establishment of a state, developments fully supported by Israel. However, without constructive Palestinian attitudes towards Israel, there is no hope of an early negotiated resolution.
As flawed as Hari’s piece is, in reflecting the strident view that Palestinians are simply blameless victims, it does serve one useful purpose – it helps explain ongoing Palestinian intransigence. As long as the Palestinians are constantly assured by their own leaders and by commentators that they are blameless victims of evil Israelis, it will reinforce that intransigence, and they will remain unwilling to negotiate the compromises necessary for peace. And, unfortunately, the state they have been repeatedly offered will be farther away than ever.
Colin Rubenstein is the Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. He previously lectured in Middle East politics at Monash University. He recently returned from a trip to Israel where he also met with representatives of the Palestinian Authority.