Opinion: Britain not to blame for plight of the Palestinians

A RECENT piece published in The Courier-Mail — discussing the legacy of British custodianship of the land that is now Israel between the end of WWI and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 — charged the British with “criminal duplicity”and “perfidy and idiocy”.

It is true that Britain hardly covered itself in glory during the period that it administered the region then known as Palestine in its transition from an outpost of the Ottoman Empire to a return to Jewish self-rule. In 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II, Britain issued the White Paper bowing to Arab pressure to resist Jewish migration to Palestine, in spite of its obligation under the League of Nations Charter — among other instruments of international law — to facilitate Jewish immigration and settlement of the land.

This left millions of Jews stranded, prevented from emigrating and destined instead for the killing fields of Europe.

Men pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem this week. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some Palestinians, not content with stopping Jews from returning to the land which, as Woodrow Wilson had said, was “the cradle and home of the Jewish race”, actively campaigned for their complete annihilation. A Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, declared: “Kill the Jews wherever you find them – this pleases God, history and religion,” and personally intervened to prevent a Red Cross-brokered release of thousands of Jewish children, ensuring instead they were all delivered to Auschwitz.

But Britain’s support for the restoration of the Jews to their ancestral land was noble and just, and was part of a broader policy of the victors in World War I to restore self-government to the native peoples of the Middle East. At the same time Britain expressed support for the creation of a Jewish state on a small part of its ancient homeland, it also supported the creation of 22 Arab states in the Middle East.

The creation of Israel was not about colonisation, it was about the precise opposite – the removal of colonial influence from the region, whether Ottoman or British, to allow for indigenous peoples to exercise self-determination.

A further fallacy often used to undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s creation is that Europe handed a state to the Jews to atone for its “Holocaust guilt”. Yet Israel’s creation had been mandated by international law decades before the Holocaust, on the basis of 3000 years of unbroken historical connection to the land. Israel was not created by guilt, but by the blood, sweat and tears of its people.

Ultra-orthodox Jews walk in the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit as Palestinian labourers work at a construction site.

The still-unresolved Palestinian refugee problem, which followed the creation of the state of Israel, is the direct consequence and legacy of the Palestinian rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which recommended the creation of a first-ever Palestinian Arab state alongside the reborn Jewish state. The ensuing war, which culminated in a full-blown invasion of the nascent Jewish state on all fronts, led not only to the flight and displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians but to the destruction of 1 per cent of Israel’s population.

Arab belligerence towards Israel also caused an even greater refugee problem than experienced by the Palestinians, as some 800,000 Jews who had lived in Arab lands for hundreds, even thousands of years, were ruthlessly dispossessed and forced to flee their homes.

It is correct that the periodic bloodletting through wars and intifadas is a cause for lament. Had the Arabs not rejected peace in 1947 and at every opportunity since, Israelis and Palestinians would be celebrating a joint 70th anniversary of independence this year. Instead, Israel is a marvel of innovation and creativity while the Palestinians are kept stateless by their corrupt and violent leaders.


Alex Ryvchin is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry