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The Curse of Partition

by Michael Carberry

In 1973 I was one of group of aspiring British diplomats undergoing the Foreign Office selection process.  For one exercise we were thrown a topic: “Partition never solved any political problem.  Discuss.”  


Although I had never previously thought about it, the truth of that statement rapidly became apparent to me. As a student of history, I was aware of the tragic partition of India in 1947: the fifteen to twenty million people displaced, the unspeakable communal violence including between one and two million killed, the legacy of confrontation and conflict including three Indo-Pakistani Wars and tensions over Kashmir which persist to this day. In the 1960s as a student in Liverpool I had witnessed the re-emergence of the 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland and the thirty years of horrific sectarian violence and mayhem which followed - a legacy of the partition of Ireland in 1923. During the course of the twentieth century many other previously united countries became partitioned: Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Cyprus.  In almost every case the result was at best an armed stand-off with mutual fear and distrust of those on the other side of the divide; at worst a long and bloody war as in Vietnam.  And the only lasting solution has proved to be reunification as in Vietnam or Germany.


Perhaps nowhere has the curse of partition been so malign as in the former British Mandate territory of Palestine.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 'Balfour Declaration' by the British Government in 1917, it never intended the creation of a Jewish state.  The declaration stated “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …. It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.  Or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” [My underlining]

The partition proposed by the United Nations in 1947 was an attempt to limit the increasing inter-communal violence resulting from the mass immigration of Jews into the territory during the British mandate and accelerating after the Second World War.  The rate of immigration – far greater than that experienced by the UK or other European countries today – provoked an Arab revolt against the British authorities and attacks against Jews in an attempt to limit immigration with reciprocal acts of violence by Jewish paramilitary organisations such as Haganah or the more radical Irgun and Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang).

The partition was doomed to failure from the start.   Partition sets communities against each other.  It creates disaffected minorities on both sides and endless arguments over territory and areas or sites which are of iconic importance to communities, such as Jerusalem.  Palestinians Arabs who were 80% of the population and owned most of the land could see no just reason for handing over more than half their country to immigrants – rather as if the UN had proposed dealing with anti-immigrant feeling in Britain by proposing to carve out a separate Muslim state from parts of the UK.  Many Jews were also unhappy. They wanted the right to settle anywhere in Palestine but were persuaded by the Zionist leadership to accept partition as a first step to gaining control over the whole territory and with every intention of expanding the state in the future.  The stage was thus set for more than seventy years of conflict.


In the numerous wars which followed Israel has steadily expanded its territory at the expense of the Palestinian people.  In 1966 while on a student work-camp in Lebanon, I was taken to visit a refugee camp of Palestinians who had been driven out of their homes in 1947 and were still waiting to return almost twenty years later. I was told then that many Israelis had a vision of a State of Israel including all the former territory of Palestine stretching from the Litani river in Lebanon to the Red Sea.  I did not believe it at the time but the following year I was proved wrong when Israel attacked and seized control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the Golan Heights in Syria.  Although it subsequently withdrew from Sinai and Gaza both territories had already been invaded by Jewish settlers . Some nine thousand Jewish settlers living in twenty-five settlements had to be evicted from Gaza alone. 


Meanwhile the process of expropriation of Palestinian lands and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs has continued in the occupied West Bank, driven by militant Jewish settlers under the protection of the Israeli Defence Force. Protests by Palestinians are met by violent repression.  Violence breeds more violence and ultimately terrorism.  Hamas, as the UN Secretary General pointed out, did not occur in a vacuum. Hamas was able to take control in Gaza because it was seen as standing up to Israeli oppression in a way which the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank was unable to do.


But rather than address Palestinian grievances and help build support for the Palestinian authority, Nettanyahu’s Likud government has focussed instead on trying to defeat Hamas by purely military means, allowing for further expansion of the Israeli state.  In my experience, no terrorist insurgency has ever been defeated militarily.   Israel is the most militarized state in the world but despite that it has never known real security since the declaration of statehood in 1947.   Moreover, military action tends to destroy the possibilities for peaceful dialogue.  Soldiers are trained to seek the total defeat and destruction of the enemy – that is their job.   Compromises or negotiated solutions are seen as failure.  As a diplomat in the early 1980s at the height of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, I was assured by my military attaché colleagues that the problems could easily be solved if only the military were given a free hand to go in and “sort out” the Irish Republican Army (IRA).  I was horrified by such naivety.  It was precisely such a hard-line military response to the failed ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin in 1916, with the summary execution of the leaders, which turned many Irish soldiers, who had volunteered to fight for the British Crown in the First World War, into convinced republicans, leading quickly to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21, the subsequent partition and ultimately the creation of the Irish Republic.


Israel’s attempt to achieve a military solution in Gaza is doomed to failure. Many of the Hamas leaders will have already left Gaza to carry on the fight from neighbouring countries. States like Iran will continue to provide financial and military support. Nothing can excuse the grotesque barbarity of the Hamas attack against innocent Israelis on 7 October, but, as the UN Secretary General has pointed out, one atrocity does not justify another. The mindless slaughter of thousands of innocent Palestinians, (who are themselves the victims of a terrorist regime) is nothing less than a crime against humanity. The young boys picking their way through the rubble of their destroyed homes looking for the remains of their families and nursing a burning hatred of Israel are the next generation of Jihadis. Whereas, previously, Hamas’s influence was largely confined to the Gaza strip, as the IDF campaign in Gaza has stepped up, so the West Bank is now awash with Hamas flags. Meanwhile the Israeli government is haemorrhaging support among Western nations and provoking increasing condemnation from the international community and protests around the world.  There has been a global surge in both antisemitism and islamophobia. The biblical retribution being exacted by Israel is not just militarily ineffectual, it is politically inept and morally bankrupt.


So, can anything be done to try to bring to an end the cycle of violence? In Northern Ireland, after thirty years of trying to defeat the IRA militarily, it took the Blair government’s decision to talk to the IRA and broker a deal, intended as far as possible to meet the aspirations of both communities, to achieve the current fragile peace.  In Gaza, the temporary halt to the carnage and release of some of the hostages held by Hamas was achieved not by military force but through negotiations brokered by the Qataris involving a mutual release of prisoners.  All the hostages could and should have been released but, while both sides blamed the other for the break-down of the talks, Benyamin Netanyahu’s repeated assertions that the military assault would continue as soon as the hostages were released removed any incentive for Hamas to release further prisoners. The lives of the remaining hostages are now seriously at risk.  It is not only the Hamas leaders who show scant regard for the lives of their own people.


Most ordinary Israelis and Palestinians simply want to be able to live in peace and security.  One of the most poignant scenes amid the horrors of the last few weeks in Gaza was the image of the elderly female Israeli hostage who, on being released, turned to shake hands with her captors, saying “Shalom” - Peace. Many decent people on both sides strive continually for mutual understanding and better intercommunal relations (for example Daniel Barenboim with his East West Divan Orchestra.)   But they are constantly frustrated by the men of violence: Islamists like Hamas or the ultra-nationalist Jewish Parties around Netanyahu who have no interest in compromise and see only enemies to be destroyed.


Had it not been for the partition of 1947 we might today have seen a secular state of Palestine “from the river to the sea” with Jews and Arabs living side by side in peace and harmony (as indeed they did in many countries prior to that event).   That will now never happen but there is still just hope for a two-state solution if there is goodwill on both sides. But the only way to wean the Palestinians away from the men of violence is by responding to their legitimate aspirations and starving Hamas and other Islamist terrorists of the oxygen of support. That means an end to Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, to the expropriation of Palestinian property and the accompanying ethnic cleansing, and not least, an end to the occupation the West Bank. The world cannot stand by and watch the extinction of a whole people.  The Palestinians have a right to live in peace and security and justice in their own land.   Unless and until that is accepted and implemented by an Israeli government there is no hope for peace in the Holy Land.


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