As the world focuses on the Hamas attack on Israel on Saturday 7th October, there is a tendency to see the barbaric retaliation by Israel solely in terms of a response to this attack. But there is a long history of killing, of displacement and of persecution. Some say that the roots go back centuries, but some actions of the British, behaving in their customary arrogant manner, clearly made a major contribution to the current crisis.
The exact date of the origin of conflict in the Middle East is often discussed, yet remains unclear. But, while many think back 75 years ago to 1948 and the horrors of the Nakba, of crucial importance is the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when the British made a commitment to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Anyone with a shred of good sense and decency nowadays would wonder how a European power could make a promise to the Zionist movement that they would create their own country in a place where Palestinian Arabs lived and made up over 90% of the population. Thereafter the British encouraged the mass migration of Jews to the area and confiscated Palestinian lands for the new arrivals.
The Palestinians understandably grew alarmed and planned protests and strikes, so much so that the British had gathered 30,000 troops in Palestine by the end of the 1930s. They bombed the villages, demolished Palestinian homes, detained and killed the protestors. Between 1936 and 1939 they killed 5,000 Palestinians, wounded between 15,000 and 20,000 and imprisoned 5,600. Remember this was before the establishment of the state of Israel and demonstrates clearly how complicit the British were in creating a situation that was to lead to the present day crisis and a complete catastrophe for the Palestinian people. And the Zionist paramilitaries were in action even before the end of the British mandate. This is when the Deir Yassin massacre occurred. Then between 1947 and 1949 the paramilitaries destroyed 530 Palestinian villages, they killed 15,000 Palestinians and they expelled three-quarters of a million more. The Zionist movement took 78% of Palestine and the rest (22%) was divided into the West Bank and Gaza.
So the Israeli state came into being from mass killings, displacement, persecution and land seizure. And, just as they are now, the British were complicit in the destruction of the Palestinian homelands, not just condoning but encouraging the devastation.
Al Jazeera has published a number of articles which cover the history over the subsequent years in some detail, and which point out that through various upheavals, through wars and changes of administration a pattern was established: “The bloody pattern has only continued since, with Palestinians consistently dying in disproportionate numbers even while being cast as the aggressors and victimisers.”
If we consider this century, for instance, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 and killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including 400 children. Three Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed. In 2012, Operation Pillar of Defence killed 167 Palestinians and six Israelis. In 2014, Operation Protective Edge killed 2,251 people in the Gaza Strip in 50 days, including 299 women and 551 children. Six Israeli civilians and 67 soldiers were killed.
Since 2008, 33,000 Palestinian children have been injured or killed.
In addition to the deaths and injuries, of course the quality of life for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank has never remotely compared to that enjoyed by people benefitting from the facilities and lifestyle in the state of Israel; in terms of land, homes, wealth, opportunities for employment, free movement, medical provision, education, just about every aspect of life.
We are not defending Hamas, but Hamas is the elected government of Gaza, and, despite some domestic policies we would certainly not agree with, it has created a level of welfare provision. And not all Palestinians in Gaza support Hamas or approve of the attack this month. If, however, Hamas’s attack on civilians is considered a war crime, does that justify Israel’s decision to embark on an even greater war crime which is leading to the unbearable suffering of the civilian population? The planned destruction of this tiny, overcrowded strip of land and resultant loss of life is abhorrent. Already there have been at least 2,750 deaths in Gaza, with more than 1,050 of these being children. Netanyahu has indicated his desire to wipe Palestine from the map of the Middle East. He has embarked on this course. But we must remember that the seeds of this brutality and persecution lie in the past, and all along the British and indeed other western powers, keen to have influence in the Middle East and to profit from arms sales, have regularly condoned and encouraged Zionist aggression.