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Reviewed by Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian lawyer and author of "A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle" (OR Books, 2010); founder of the human-rights organization Al-Haq.
Pluto Press, 2009. 416 pages. $149.50, hardcover.
In the preface to From Coexistence to Conquest, International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949, Victor Kattan proposes that only with a thorough grasp of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can we address the complex and difficult legal questions to which it gives rise. It is precisely this dual discussion of history and law that gives his book its unique value and makes it stand out among the many volumes that have been written about this conflict. His coverage of its first 60 years includes an opening chapter on "Anti-Semitism, Colonialism and Zionism" and ends with the creation of Israel and the Palestinian refugee problem. In the course of this survey, the important historical and legal issues that remain central to the conflict are given full, rounded scholarly treatment.
Mr. Kattan employs his dual discussion to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, for example. He makes it clear that the declaration must have been premised on the colonial assumption that the Jewish home in Palestine could only be made possible by encouraging European Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Having discussed anti-Semitism in the first chapter, he shows that an important incentive of Lord Balfour and the British government in making the declaration was anti-Semitic in essence. They saw in the creation of a national home for Jews in Palestine a "potential solution, to stem the flow of European Jewish immigration into Britain" (p. 20). He writes, "Ultimately, Zionism provided a pretext for people like Balfour to justify the removal of these unwanted people from England's shores by arguing that they were not being anti-Semitic because the Jews themselves supported it" (p. 20).
This important aspect of the colonial nature of the conflict is followed throughout most of the book. In another chapter he discusses whether the Palestinian people were in fact a people, recognized as such with a distinct identity, language and culture (p. 135). If so, they would be entitled to exercise the right of self-determination. In his discussion of the British Mandate over Palestine, he shows that this was a type-A mandate, which was supposed to prepare the people under its government for independence. Yet, Article Two of the Terms of the Mandate over Palestine declared that "the Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home." That is, the only people to be prepared for independence were the minority Jewish population, not the Arab majority.
In his coverage of the early years of the conflict, Mr. Kattan succeeds in debunking myths that continue to this day to be propagated by Israel and its supporters. Early on, he writes that anti-Semitism in early twentieth-century Britain was as acceptable as colonialism. He then proposes that the project to create a homeland for the Jewish people should be viewed and understood in the context of European anti-Semitism. Did Zionism, then, constitute a movement for the self-determination of Jews, or was it simply a colonial movement? He concludes that "in many respects Zionism was at odds with twentieth-century notions of self-determination" (p. 117). He quotes General Allenby's proclamation when he captured Jerusalem in 1917, which was closely modeled on the Anglo-French declaration of November 7, 1918, in which it was said, "The object aimed at by France and Great Britain in prosecuting in the East the War... is the complete and definite emancipation of the people so long oppressed by the Turk and the establishment of national governments and administration deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations" (p. 46). The author asks: "How could the Zionist Organization with its headquarters in London (and prior to that in Berlin) claim to be 'formerly oppressed by the Turks?' Surely, a national government in Palestine could only derive its authority from the free will of the indigenous and predominantly Arab population of Palestine" (p. 46). He proposes that "the colonization of Palestine was accomplished through a process of immigration, settlement, land purchase and ultimately conquest" (p. 3).
Another enduring myth that is discussed is the benefit the local Arabs were to derive from the creation in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. The author supports this with a 1919 quote from Herbert Samuel, who later became the first high commissioner of Mandate Palestine. Such a self-serving claim has continued to be made, whether by Israel after it occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 or the Jewish settlers of the West Bank, who felt betrayed when Palestinians boycotted settlement products.
Early in the book the author refers to another of the commonly held myths about this conflict, namely that it "has been going on for centuries or since 'time immemorial.'" Again, those who propagate such a claim want to invoke religion as giving rights, whereas the conflict has its origins in European colonial history and the particular interests of Britain and France after the end of World War I. It is likely that this conflict will continue as long as world powers deem it in their interest to have a strong and belligerent Israel keeping the region in a state of instability, as is now the case. At a time like this, when principles of international law are being dodged while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators under U.S. sponsorship haggle over "facts on the ground," books like Victor Kattan's help foster a better understanding of the fundamentals of this conflict. Otherwise, a solution will continue to elude us.