Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Blame Balfour. But blame Netanyahu too

It is depressing to see barriers going up again blocking off the streets around the Israeli embassy in London.
Depressing to see the same protesters massing, the same vanloads of police waiting, the same slogans shouted and placards waved.
It’s depressing to see a cartoon I’m sure I saw in 2008 being recycled as if it was new. Which it might as well have been.
In it an Israeli soldier points to a single missile embedded in a massive defensive wall. “See,” he says. “We’re just defending ourselves.” While overhead the sky is filled with planes, rockets and bombs delivering mayhem and murder on a cowering Palestinian community.
As cartoons go, it’s not very funny. It’s too close to a very grim reality for that.
I do have some sympathy for Israel. It cannot be easy to live your whole life knowing that the nations that surround you would rather you weren’t there.
Even if – no, especially if – your standard of living is so very visibly a lot higher than theirs.
But it’s hard to retain much of that sympathy when you see the effects of Israeli weaponry on the children and civilians of Gaza.
When you compare the two sides’ respective casualty lists.
Or when you contemplate the maps that show how Israel has gradually “settled” – ie taken over – more and more of what used to be Palestinian land since grabbing the so-called West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Ultimately, like most wars, this is a battle for land.
Land the Israelis claim – very tenuously indeed – to have been “theirs” until they were thrown out by the Romans in the first few decades after Christ.
Can you say where “you” were living 2,000 years ago? And if you could, would it give you more right to the territory than anyone who might have lived there since?
Give East Anglia back to the Angles, I say. France to the Gauls. And North America to the Apache, the Sioux, the Cherokee – or whichever were those tribes’ predecessors’ predecessors.
Real blame for the latest outbreak of hostilities in Gaza belongs, in a very real sense, with Arthur Balfour.
“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.”
That was Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, in 1917. The words, in a letter to the British Zionist Federation, came to be known as The Balfour Declaration.
The Zionists were looking for a “return” to a place most of them had never been as refuge from the horrors of Europe.
Not that Europe at that time was a haven of bliss for anyone. But for the Jews, persecution had been a fact of life for generations.
After the Nazis turned persecution to industrialised genocide, the calls for Balfour’s promise to be kept seemed undeniable.
Especially with the connivance of the most eager and prominent of all non-Jewish Zionists, Winston Churchill.
In the curious way the world was still divided up then, Palestine – a.k.a. The Holy Land – was a British “mandate”. Which gave Westminster the right, or responsibility, of deciding who to hand it over to.
And so, in 1948, the Zionists got the land they had craved since the Hungarian Theodor Herzl came up with the idea in 1895.
Which might not have been such a bad idea if no one had lived there already.
In fairness to Balfour, his Declaration went on: “…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Some hope.
And some cynicism too. Because those words make clear that he knew the land was not unoccupied.
Ironically – considering how his name is still revered in Israel – Balfour was an anti-semite.
He wanted a homeland for the Jews “over there” because he didn’t want more of them “over here”.
So blame Balfour. Blame Churchill. Maybe blame Herzl – though his vision was for a much more peaceable, inclusive and tolerant Israel than the one we now have.
None of that absolves the leaders of modern Israel – Peres, Netanyahu and the rest – from blame for the attacks on Gaza.
Murderous attacks on poor, over-crowded communities of mostly innocent people.
Repeated attacks on communities whose poverty and over-crowding is already Israel’s responsibility.
The present holders of the once-honourable Zionist flame have turned a people who once had the world’s pity into the world’s villains.
Thereby threatening the future existence of Israel at least as effectively as anything neighbouring states might do.
By waging war on the people who used to live on the land they now occupy, they have made Balfour’s Declaration look a bigger mistake than ever.

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