By Bumpy Walker
Somewhere it is written that whenever Israel uses its military against those who they view as their enemies, two stop clocks are started. The first, the militarily one, will only be stopped when it has achieved its goals. The other, based on its relationship with the United States, will be stopped when the US Government says stop and they have run out of excuses. This is exactly what seems to have happened this May. The United States said stop shooting and its ally complied!
World War I
The root cause of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict cannot be explained in a single short article. They are many, yet surprising. The period between 1914, the beginning of the First World War and 1948 the formation of the state of Israel is where most of the principal events and agreements that are the causal factors began. Normally outcomes are obvious only in hindsight; even as these events were unfolding, fractions within the powers involved had identified this current outcome. Baser human instincts, superstition, greed, colonial rivalry, the retention of power, racism, political and military expedience enabled the decision makers to overlook what was obvious.
One surprising aspect is the minor role that Marcus Garvey and other Jamaican men had in it! It was Garvey who encouraged enthusiastic Jamaicans to join the colonial master’s military during World War I. Jamaicans were among the West India Regiment troops sent to the Middle East where having been trained in modern warfare, successfully shot the hell out of the embedded Ottoman colonial regime, thus assisting the British to establish their colonial presence.
The British Prime Minister and Nazi apologist Lloyd George would claim that it was the treasure and blood (including colonial troops from the Caribbean, Africa and Indian) spent to take Palestine from the Ottomans that gave the British Empire the right to administer it. The French counter claim was that, having had their nation invaded, nearly destroyed by the Germans and their allies, they deserved it as the spoils of war. The French also tried to validate their claim as once having been colonial settler rulers during the Crusades; they deserved to have their former colony restored.
The British, having won the argument then made contradictory deals. All deals had a single point in common. None sort ratification by the local inhabitants as the region was seen as Terra Nullius, the region was unpeopled. This was the same principle was used to justify the settler colonies in Australia and Canada.
The first of these was the Sykes –Picot agreement in 1916. When signed this split the yet unconquered Ottoman territories between the signatories, the French and British with the agreement of Italy and Imperial Russia.
This was closely followed by the Balfour Declaration that recognised the right of European Jews to return to Palestine. Then there were the deals/ promises made between representatives of the British and King Hussein of Mecca, an Arab descendant of the Prophet Muhammed then ruling over parts of the Saudi Peninsular, but had been born in Istanbul. This last one had a film (Lawrence of Arabia) that had at least highlighted some parts of colonial chicanery.
All four of these main protagonists over the years proceeded to talk, wage war and use each other to stymie the progress of their rivals. This was expected and normal between the British and French colonial overlords; they had the history of gaining empire by such duplicitous means. King Hussain’s representatives and the leaders of the Jewish Zionist movement also made deals and played the game as well.
Obviously other national players would notice and sought to stop this is madness. Now in hindsight, it is clear that the anti-imperialist, racist, academic President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and his State Department had identified the danger and opposed it! They had more important issues like stopping the Soviets to contend with.
Shadows of Fashoda
Even before the ink was dry on the Sykes- Picot Agreement, the British considered it outdated. Why this duplicity on the part of the British? One factor was the misplaced belief in Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and empire. This is strikingly similar to the idea that led to Brexit. Basically the Brits saw the European French as rivals for empire acquisition, to be tricked.
Another factor that influenced the Middle East policy makers in both the French and British governments was the near disaster at Fashoda /Kodok (Sudan). This incident of colonial chicanery stemmed from the pizza slicing of Africa at the Berlin Conference is almost forgotten. To claim the prize of a greater share of Africa, both colonial powers sought to raise their flag over a destroyed Egyptian fort at Fashoda, thus claiming strategic control of the Nile (Terra Nullius principle once more).
The French arrived first. A British lead army arrived a few months later, whereupon the military leaders proceeded to toast each other with whiskey, while back in Europe both empires were literally one diplomatic note away from another colonial war. Many of the British and French colonial principals who shaped their Middle Eastern policies during the early twentieth century were involved in these events. Lord Kitchener, the British Minister of War when the Sykes Picot agreement was signed, was the British commander in Sudan. François Georges-Picot was, I believe, also involved in these diplomatic exchanges.
The long and short of this event was the French backed down, not with a passive Gallic shrug, rather a military grunt with institutional lessons learnt. Thus in the period leading up to 1919, Fashoda still influenced British and French politicians as they jockeyed for positional advantage during the post war negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference; they still viewed each other as rivals to take over the Ottoman and German colonial empires. The British were aware of the rich oil fields of Mosul and ensured that their share included Saddam Hussein’s home town.
One could also blame the Bolshevik Soviets; it was they who leaked the details of Sykes-Picot Agreement. (Trotsky, I seem to recall, who did it!). Solzhenitsyn, in one of his books describing the Soviet Union’s Gulag prison system, claimed Stalin’s policy to recognise the state of Israel before the United States was because he saw it as a possible destination to deport his nation’s Jewish population. This is much like the Germans proposal in the 1930s to relocate the European Jews to Madagascar. The British had also proposed at the Versailles peace conference that Tanganyika or Uganda as a Jewish homeland under their control of course! Again the application of the colonial principle of Terra Nullius!
One could also level blame twice over at the Germans. While the German role in the Jewish Holocaust is well recorded, other nation states were aware of the Nazi intention of Jewish genocide and did not allow the Jews to immigrate to safety in their nations. Thus their support of the creation of the settler Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian aspirations can be seen in part as a sop to their own conscience.
What is rarely discussed is the German plan during World War I was to use the Ottoman Emperor to raise the banner of Jihad within the British Empire (Which then held the world’s largest Islamic population) as well as to militarily take over the Suez Canal. Thus the British invaded Ottoman held Palestine to pre-empt this latter eventuality.
During World War II
This deadly double dealing reached its high point during World War II. Even as the Germans colonised continental France, and as the British supported the French government in exile politically and militarily, the French were providing arms to the Zionist paramilitaries to destabilise British rule in Palestine. There was an even more opaque dealing, as a settler paramilitary organisation the Hagenah, fought with the British to overthrow a Nazi supporting regime in Iraq. While another settler paramilitary organisation the Lehi militia (Stern Group) had approached the Nazi Germany and the Italian fascist governments for support. While they never received it, they did propose that an army of 40,000 Jewish soldiers be raised in Europe and with German support to invade Palestine to eject the British.
One does have to mention that 30,000 Palestinians did join the British military. There was support among the Palestinians for Nazi Germany. The occupant of the British-created role of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during this war period, Amin al-Husayni, was an active supporter and recruiter for the Nazis.
Bombs; Nuclear Vs Demographic
During the last century the original, diverse ethnic groups occupying Palestine were exiled by force and or /application of terror. With each subsequent agreement they have lost more and more land to the settlers. In spite of Israel having superior military resources as well as having nuclear weapons and having the capacity to prevent regional and national rivals gaining nuclear parity, time is against them as a viable nation in its present form. In 2021 the proportion of the Jewish population of Israel / Palestine has fallen to its lowest level since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Thus insecurity breeds fear and one can only expect further military action by the Israeli government. These will once again be justified as self defence against desperate Palestinian acts of resistance, having been denied their self-determination and policed in a manner that the apartheid authority of South Africa would have approved.
Bumpy Walker is a Jamaican intellectual, based in Scotland