The latest outbreak of the very one-sided war between Israel and the Palestinian half-state once again demonstrates the dead end of the international policy of the Western imperialist nations in support of Tel Aviv. In order to better understand how this conflict arose it is important to explain some of the imperialist origins and development of the Israeli state.
The First World War
The decisive step behind the establishment of the modern state of Israel was the famous Balfour Declaration issued by the British Government in 1917 in the middle of the First World War. This declaration promised to provide Jews throughout the world with a “national home” in Palestine, under British “protection”.The idea of a Jewish “return to their homeland” was based on a reactionary religious myth that propagated the idea that the Jews were God’s “chosen people” who were descended from the Israelites, then expelled from Palestine by the ancient Romans and forced to wander throughout Europe. The real story was of course very different. The Jewish religion had sought like its rivals to convert non-believers and it appears from historical evidence and DNA studies that a large majority of Jews around the world descend from their local populations rather than from the children of Abraham.* Moreover, Jews historically had generally seen themselves as united by religion rather than by race or ethnicity.
Ironically, for most of the last two thousand years religious Jews were forbidden to visit Jerusalem until the Messiah came again. In contrast, the concept of recreating a Jewish Palestine is a relatively modern idea developed during the rise of nationalism in the 19th century by a small layer of intellectuals looking to create an artificial Jewish nation which they could “return” to.
Imperialist Manipulation of the Jews
The cynical aims of the British 1917 Balfour Declaration were twofold: one, to secure the support of international Jewish leaders and their communities for the British side in the war, many of whom had initially supported Germany against Russia; and two, to gain post-war Palestine for the British empire rather than the French. To that end, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George believed that the introduction of a significant Jewish settlement in the area “would help secure post-war British control of Palestine, which was strategically important as a buffer to Egypt and the Suez Canal.”1 In this way we can clearly see that the artificial injection of European Jewish settlers into the region and all the conflict that has since flowed from this, was an imperialist design from the very outset.
How could a new home be created for large numbers of foreign Jews in an impoverished area already occupied by local people with a very different culture and religion? If implemented on a capitalist colonial basis as the British intended, such a policy was a potential recipe for long-term conflict and intense competition for scarce resources between the Arabic and Jewish communities. But such considerations were of little account to the British Empire who sought only to extend its power and wealth.
Some Jewish immigration into Palestine and southern Syria had already begun in the late 19th Century as an escape from growing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Between 1882 and 1903, approximately 35,000 Jews arrived, but this is miniscule compared to the millions that emigrated to the United States. So much for the mass support that the new theory of Zionism – the idea of creating a new Jewish state in Palestine – claimed among international Jews.
However, Britain’s official declaration in favour of a Jewish homeland in Palestine began quickly to accelerate developments. Once the First World War ended, Jewish settlers began to arrive in Palestine in anticipation of the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. Between 1919 and 1923, 40,000 Jews arrived, many of them fleeing the post-revolutionary chaos of Russia. The new settlers were placed under the direction of the Zionist Commission which was granted official status by the British as the Jewish Agency for Palestine. But these were not just any Jews. The British overseers consciously pursued a middle-class immigrant policy, only allowing in Jewish settlers with sizeable cash holdings and/or professional skills. This could only further increase the potential imbalance between the incomers and the majority of poor and uneducated local Arabs. Rapidly the Jews started to dominate business in the urban areas.
In the countryside too their impact was soon felt. The Jewish National Fund, a zionist charity collecting money from Jewish communities abroad, began to help the settlers buy land. This soon caused resentment among the poor Arab farmers and rioting broke out. In response, the first Jewish armed force, the Haganah, was set up to protect the outlying Jewish settlements.
In 1924 the United States closed the door on all immigrants and the flow of Jews arriving in Palestine increased significantly – 82,000 more landed between 1924 and 1929. The influx increased yet further with the coming to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany – within months the Nazis arranged for 50,000 Jews to be transferred from Germany to Palestine, with another 150,000 fleeing in the following three years. This wave of refugee immigration into Palestine was a direct result of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and the subsequent refusal of Britain, America and other countries to allow the fleeing Jews to settle there. As a result into a country with a population of just 700,000 in 1921, over 300,000 Jewish settlers had arrived by the mid 1930s.
Potential for Prosperity
A majority of the new arrivals came with education, skills and financial resources. This offered the potential for prosperity or discord depending on how the influx was handled. If the region had been run on democratic socialist principles with democratic ownership and planning of the economy and public services, those arriving could have been integrated into the local economy and culture on an equal, tolerant and co-operative basis. And together they could have created a peaceful and flourishing future. Certainly there were many socialist progressive forces in both the Arabic and Jewish populations in the 1920s.
But the Jewish newcomers landed in a harsh, dictatorial and competitive environment, one that was dominated by a British occupying power that was happy to foster division and strife in order to hold onto its colonial gains.
Initially, the Arabs tried to argue for an extension of democratic participation which would have enabled all groups in Palestine to collectively influence government policy. But the British rulers ignored their pleas. The result was entrenchment on both sides with more conservative religious forces coming to the fore among the Arabic and Jewish communities. Far from trying to help integrate the two sides the British were happy to use the different religious institutions to administer the province. Thus from 1928, the Jewish National Council became the main institution of the Palestine Jewish community and the British allowed it to take on more and more government functions for Jews such as education, health care and security, even raising their own taxes.
Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39
The discontent caused by all these developments within the Arab population boiled over in 1936 and a general strike broke out. This soon became an armed revolt against the British who responded with brutal measures against the Arab insurgents including unauthorised mass house searches and detention, confiscation of property, flogging and torture, deportation and callous manslaughter.
Unfortunately, in addition to the call for independence from Britain, the Palestinian Arab Revolt also demanded the ending of mass Jewish immigration and the sale of further land to Jews. And as well as attacking British military and police targets there were also some assaults on Jewish rural settlements and Jewish urban neighbourhoods. While some anti-Jewish feeling was now understandable among Palestinian Arabs, this course was a serious mistake as it inevitably divided the anti-imperialist forces and provided their British enemy with a potential base of local support which they were quick to seize of advantage of.
British-Jewish Military Co-operation
The British worked closely with the local Jewish agencies to suppress the revolt. This began very early on in the conflict with the British forces setting up armed Jewish police units equipped with armoured cars to help them in their counter-insurgency work. The Jewish Agency boasted that “the Zionist movement and the British Empire were standing shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy, in a war in which they had common goals.”2
As part of the escalating conflict, the British introduced the death penalty for any civilians found in possession of weapons but this was only applied to Arabs and over a hundred Palestinian Arabs were hanged in Acre Prison for this offence.
Relations between Jews and Arabs deteriorated further when some sections of the Jewish armed groups started to indiscriminately plant bombs in markets and other places where Arab civilians gathered.
The British also used Jewish forces to carry out dirty tasks that they were reluctant to be seen to be publicly involved in. Thus Jewish night squads were formed to snatch suspected rebels, torture and assassinate them. A Jewish intelligence agency was formed in liaison with British intelligence, as well as various Jewish semi-official military forces. Thus was laid the basis for Israel’s military and intelligence agencies today.
The Second World War
The close ties between the Jews in Palestine and the British that were established in their common action to suppress the Arab revolt, began to unravel during the Second World War. The Jews understood that one of the war aims of the German invasion of North Africa was the elimination of the Jews of Palestine, in the same way that the Germans were removing Jewish communities in all of their occupied territories. The local Jewish leaders began agitating for the British to finance and equip a Jewish army to prevent the massacre of their population but this did not fit in with British military or political strategy.
The fears of the Jews in Palestine were further stoked when the 1941 pro-German coup in Iraq lead to the massacres of Jews there. Even when Rommel’s German Afrika Korps advanced into Egypt and neared the Palestinian territory in June 1942 the British still refused to create a Jewish military force to defend them. At this point the leadership of the Jewish Agency passed to more militant elements who had concluded that they would have to fight the British at some point in order to establish their dream of a Jewish state.
Switch in British Post-War Policy
The conduct of the War had clearly underlined the vital importance of petrol to military and economic operations. In the aftermath of the War the British government now saw that its imperial interests best lay with the Arabs who ruled states with the greatest oil reserves in the world. To this end, the British reneged on their promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Their former Jewish allies now saw no option but to turn their fire on the British occupation forces. In 1946 they began a campaign of bombings and terror against the British. The British forces responded with repression but in the post-war world the British Empire was no longer in a position to defend many of its colonial possessions. The newly formed United Nations intervened and drew up a plan for a Jewish and Arabic two-state solution. This was greeted with enthusiasm by the Jews but was not acceptable to the Palestinian Arabs or the other Arabic countries. From 1947 a civil war broke out with fierce fighting. The Jewish side being far better organised and relatively united made rapid gains against the Arabs causing large numbers to flee their homes.
The State of Israel Born in Flames
The following year, Britain left Palestine and abandoned it to its fate. Immediately the Jewish forces gathered to declare the foundation of the new state of Israel. The civil war that was raging soon developed into a much larger conflict between the new Israel and the surrounding Arab states, with the Israelis emerging victorious. Strangely, in the conflict the Soviet Union declared its support for Israel and was one of the first countries to recognise the new nation.
Initially the new Jewish state, with an elected government made up self-declared left-wing parties, tried to follow a non-aligned foreign policy. But Israel’s continuing conflicts with its neighbouring Arabic countries, some of which like Egypt, were becoming radicalised, pushed it more and more into the arms of the colonial powers, Britain and France, who still wanted to retain as many of their colonial possessions as possible.
The Suez Crisis
In 1956 Nasser’s new regime in Egypt took the bold step of nationalising the Suez Canal and dispossessing its French owners as part of a radical plan for the economic development of the country. The Suez Canal was a key transport lane for oil shipments and the French and British governments saw its expropriation as a challenge to their economic and military interests. At the same time, Israel saw Egypt as a dangerous enemy and was looking for ways to reduce the threat it posed as a base for continuing hostile attacks.
The dispute took on other international dimensions with the Soviet Union fully supporting Nasser and through this hoping to build its influence throughout the Middle East.
The Governments of the three countries, France, Britain and Israel, conspired together to invade Egypt and take over the Suez Canal. In the Autumn of 1956 they carried out their plan. Militarily the operation went relatively well but it turned into a diplomatic and political disaster causing mass opposition around the world including in Britain itself. In the middle of the action the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, General Gerald Templer, made clear how some sections of the British ruling class saw the issues posed by Suez: “Some people in England today say that what we’re done in the Middle East will have terrible effects in the future…The reality is that we have checked a drift. With a bit of luck we’re not only stopped a big war in the Middle East, but we’re halted the march of Russia through the Middle East and on to the African continent.”
However, the key capitalist superpower, the United States, saw things very differently. The US was against the neo-colonial ambitions of Britain and France and was keen to keep the Arab regimes from turning towards the Soviet Union. America came out decisively against the invasion of Suez and used its strength at the United Nations to demand that the invasion be stopped. In addition, the Soviet Union threatened to use its military forces, including nuclear weapons, to reverse the invasion. On top of all this, Washington used its financial muscle in the International Monetary Fund to force the British Government to climb down.
Accordingly, Britain called off the invasion and Britain and France were forced to withdraw their forces. Shortly after, Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister had to resign in disgrace. In the following year Israel also had to withdraw but retained certain key territorial gains.
Israel and the United States
Israel learned a key lesson from the Suez experience. That the United States was the key power that it needed to ally with. From this point to the present day, Israel and America have maintained this alliance, with Israel acting as a reliable agent for US interests in the region while receiving massive and continuing financial and military aid from its bigger partner.
We can see from the above account how the origins of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine arose first as an imperialist tactic to help British imperial interests. Then how the Jewish community were recruited as willing partners to suppress the movement among Palestinian Arabs for independence from British rule. How the new state of Israel was drawn into an imperialistic invasion of Egypt, and later into becoming the main agent of the United States capitalism in the Middle East.
Without the huge economic and military assistance provided by the United States and to a lesser extent from certain European governments, there can be no doubt that Israel would not be able to maintain indefinitely its aggressive and uncompromising policy towards the Palestinians, and would be forced in time to negotiate a more favourable settlement with them.
By the Editor
* One of the greatest ironies of the situation is the fact that from recent studies it seems that a majority of the ancestors of the Palestinian Arabs were originally Jewish, who first converted to Christianity in order to survive in the Byzantine empire, and then converted to Islam when they came under Ottoman rule in the 15th century.
1. ‘The Balfour Declaration: its origins and consequences’ by James Renton, Jewish Quarterly, Spring 2008, Number 209, http://www.jewishquarterly.org/issuearchive/articleea91.html
2. ‘One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate’ by Tom Segev, 2000, p.426
3. ‘Suez Revisited’ by Anthony Adamthwaite, pp.449–464, from International Affairs, Volume 64, Issue 3, Summer 1988 p.458.