Palestine – Understanding the Present by Remembering the Past

April 4, 2011 by David Singer
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An article recently written by a retired Commodore of the Royal Saudi Navy – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim –  titled “What if Arabs had recognized the State of Israel in 1948?” – has been acknowledged by many as  a brave initiative by a prominent Arab to step outside the almost monolithic Arab viewpoint that has consistently refused to recognize Israel in the 73 years since its establishment in 1948. 

There have  been some significant cracks in the Arab wall of rejectionism since 1948  – Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 and  the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.

But none has been sufficient to end the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine that has raged since about 1880.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the Commodore’s article was published by Arab News – Saudi Arabia’s first English-language newspaper founded in 1975. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company , a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group.

Commodore Al-Mulhim however only tells half the story by commencing his narrative in 1948 – rather than 1919. No understanding of the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine is possible without including those 29 turbulent years.

By 1948 both Jews and Arabs had become firmly entrenched in their political views over the previous 29 years. Both had by then endured much death and suffering following a series of riots, massacres, Commissions and Inquiries that abruptly ended the high hopes and expectations that had followed Turkey’s defeat in the First World War.

Britain’s failure to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine between 1919-1947 had led to Britain declaring its intention to hand over its League of Nations approved Mandate to a nascent United Nations – whose 1947 plan for partition into an Arab state and a Jewish State was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs.

By then it was too late to prevent the 1948 War that was to follow Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the immediate invasion of Palestine by six Arab armies intent on eradicating the existence of the Jewish State – creating problems and hatreds that have remained unresolved ever since.

It had all seemed so different and so promising in 1919.

The defeat of the Turks and the capture of huge swathes of the Ottoman Empire ruled by Turkey for 400 years had opened up the exciting prospect for creating independence and self-determination for the Arab populations living there and for the Jews who had been returning since the 1880’s to join a small band of their brethren  who had maintained a continuous presence in Palestine – their historic and biblical homeland.

At the Peace Conference in Versailles an Agreement signed on 3 January 1919 had contained the following preamble :

“His Royal Highness the Emir Feisal, representing and acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, representing and acting on behalf of the Zionist Organization. mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and  the Jewish people, and realising that the surest means of working out the consummation of  their national aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them … “

The San Remo Conference held between the Principal Allied Powers – Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan – had resolved on 25 April 1920:

“to entrust, by application of the provisions of Article 22 [of the Covenant of the League of Nations], the administration of Palestine, within such boundaries as may be determined by the Principal Allied Powers, to a Mandatory, to be selected by the said Powers. The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 8, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of 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 existing non- Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The terms of the Treaty of Sevres agreed on 10 August 1920 by the Principal Allied Powers and the Allied Powers – Armenia, Belgium, Greece, the Hedjaz, Poland, Portugal Roumania, the Serb-Croat-Slovene State and Czecho-Slovakia – unanimously endorsed the San Remo Conference Resolution – paving the way for the creation of separate Mandates for each of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, and Mesopotamia with the unanimous agreement of all 51 member States of the League of Nations

The proposed territorial carve up between Jews and Arabs had involved allocating the Arabs 99.999% of the  liberated Ottoman territory – whilst the Jews were to receive the right to reconstitute the Jewish National Home in just 0.001% of such land in accordance with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

The Arabs regrettably were to have none of this perceived meddling in their part of the world.

Britain’s attempt to placate Arab objections by belatedly denying the Jews the right to reconstitute the Jewish National Home in Transjordan – some 78% of the small sliver of land originally to be made available to them – did not help achieve a breakthrough.

The Arabs did not accept – and never have accepted – the disposition of any part of the Ottoman captured territory to the Jews. If they had the Middle East would have been a different place today.

Understanding the history of Palestine between 1919 -1948  is therefore critically important and very relevant in 2011 because it  highlights that

  • Israel’s establishment in 1948 as the Jewish State had its legal basis in the events that began in and took place during 1919-1947 as part of an internationally endorsed policy of granting self-determination for both Jews and Arabs in the liberated territories of the Ottoman Empire
  • The conflict in former Palestine still remains one between “Jews” and “Arabs” – not “Israelis” and “Palestinians”

Telling only half the story – and ignoring the other half – has become a recipe for misunderstanding and confusion and a real impediment to ending the current conflict.



5 Responses to “Palestine – Understanding the Present by Remembering the Past”
  1. david singer says:

    Dear LCTH

    I have written many articles which you can access at My CV is fully set out there.I will be happy to read your comments and discuss any issues you might want to raise.

    Commodore Al-Mulhim is indeed to be admired for breaking out of the Arab mould and to speak out as he has. I hope his decision will be emulated by others.

    The Middle East could well become a paradise if the Arabs could only give up their stated goal of getting rid of the Jewish State.

  2. LTCHOWARD says:

    David: this is an excellent article. Thank you for calling it to my attention. A you a professional historian? I ask you that because your grasp of events in your summarization of both very well done. Having been involved in the Islamic world for more than 30 years I found the Adm. very sincere and very thoughtful. His writings were call to the Arab world to enter the 21st century and enjoy the blessings that could come to them by working cooperatively with Israel for the good of the entire region. Undoubtedly, he is not well informed on the Middle East. However he was US trained and a very sincere and sensitive person.

    Again thank you. I hope you read this comment..

    I have bookmarked your article for my program files. You have anything further to recommend.


  3. roxanne questi says:

    @sharwood: you are missing the point of the article with your pedantics.

  4. david singer says:

    M S Sharwood

    Commodore Al-Mulhim’s narrative is that classically employed by Arab propagandists to portray the current conflict as being one between “Israelis” and “Palestinians” – rather than between “Jews” and “Arabs”.

    Israel is not mentioned as the Jewish State at any point in his article.

    The Commodore could have well started his narrative in 1919 and thereby recounted the futility of the riots and massacres that followed the Arab refusal to accept the reconstitution of the Jewish National Home in Palestine or to accept partition when it was proposed in 1937 and 1947.

    Arab propagandists want to excise everything that happened before 1948 including the legal ramifications of the San Remo Conference and the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, the Mandate for Palestine in 1922 and article 80 of the 1945 UN Charter. The best way to do that is to simply ignore those events or fail to credit them with having any legal or political effect on the current conflict.

    Perhaps I am being a bit harsh on the Commodore. Maybe he is a victim of Arab propaganda and himself is ignorant of what happened in Palestine between 1919-1948. He certainly would not be on his own.


  5. M.S.Sharwood says:

    D.Singer states that A.Al-Mulhim only told ‘half the story’, by failing to explain the crucial events between 1919 and 1948, thereby engendering ‘confusion’ and ‘misunderstanding’. However, from the title of Al-Mulhim’s article,it would appear that he was intent on hypothesizing what might have happened if the Arabs had recognised Israel in 1948.In that context,was it necessary to describe the events of 1919-1948.?Had the article been about whether recognition SHOULD have been accorded, then the vital history, so ably summarised by D.Singer,would have been clearly relevant, but since Al Mulhim was simply asking ‘What if….,and in the absence of knowing what matters he actually discussed,did he create ‘misunderstanding.?

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