The Story of Palestine

Nizar Sakhnini, 31 March 2002

A Struggle for Survival Against Colonial Settlement Project


In yet another act of deceit, Sharon is trying to justify his war crimes against a virtually defenceless Palestinian population as a legitimate situation of self-defence against "Palestinian Terror".He ignores the whole history of the conflict by focusing on the latest acts of desperation that pushed the Palestinian people into the corner without any hope for a decent life as equal human beings with equal human rights.

The story of the conflict is more complicated than that oversimplification. It did not start with the Netanya suicide bombing. It did not start with Sharon's deliberate provocation on 28 September 2000. The territorial expansionist war of 1967 was not the beginning of the conflict, neither was the ethnic cleansing war of 1948.


In his Der Judenstaat published in 1896, Theodor Herzl claimed that creation of an exclusive Jewish State is the only solution to the Jewish Question. The Zionist Congress, that was convened and presided by Herzl in 1897, decided that the contemplated Jewish State would be established in Palestine. Palestine, at the time of this decision, was not an empty desert waiting for its Jewish sons and daughters to come from all over the globe to turn it into a blossoming oasis. Palestine was inhabited by its native people who inherited the country from their fathers and there forefathers who settled in the land since time immemorial starting with the Cana'anites and whoever intermingled and intermixed with them through thousands of years.

It was the fate of the native inhabitants of the land that sparked the conflict. Dispossessing and displacing the indigenous population is the core of the conflict, all else is derivative.

Ahad Ha'am:

Ahad Ha'am was a Zionist leader. He visited Palestine in visited Palestine in 1891 and called for the creation of a Jewish cultural center. He stressed the fact that Palestine was not only a small land but also not an empty land. "It could never gather, as the prayer-book demands, all the scattered Jews from the Four Corners of the earth. The Bible foresaw this ingathering for the days of the Messiah, when all problems would be solved in a regenerated mankind. To confound Messianic hopes with political potentialities must lead of necessity to moral and ultimately physical disaster".

He pointed out that there was little uncultivated or utilized soil in Palestine other than some stony hills or sand dunes and warned that the Jewish settlers should not "provoke the wrath of the natives by ugly actions". (Hans Kohn, Zion and the Jewish National Idea published in The Menorah Journal, XLVI, Nos. 1 & 2, 1958. Reproduced in Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971, p. 824)

"We think," Ahad Ha'am warned, "that the Arabs are all savages who live like animals and do not understand what is happening around [colonial settlement]. This is, however, a great error". This error unfortunately has persisted ever since. Ahad Ha'am did not cease to warn against it, not only for the sake of the Arabs but also for the sake of Judaism and of Zion. On July 9, 1911, he wrote to a friend in Jaffa: "As to the war against the Jews in Palestine, I am a spectator from afar with an aching heart, particularly because of the want of insight and understanding shown on our side to an extreme degree.

As a matter of fact, it was evident twenty years ago that the day would come when the Arabs would stand up against us". He complained bitterly that the Zionists were unwilling to understand the people of the land to which they came and had learned neither its language nor its spirit. In a letter of Nov. 18, 1913, to Moshe Smilansky, a pioneer settler in Palestine, Ahad Ha'am had protested against the labor movement in Palestine that prevented the employment of Arab labor, which reflected a racial discrimination. Ha'am wrote, "Apart from the political danger, I can't put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to men of another people". He continued by stating, "and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: if it is so now, what will be our relation to the others if in truth we shall achieve 'at the end of the time' power in Eretz Israel? If this be the 'Messiah,' I do not wish to see his coming". (Ibid, pp. 824 - 825)


The founder of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, recorded in his war diary, in 1949, that Abba Eban, Israel's ambassador to the UN, "sees no need to run after peace. The armistice is sufficient for us; if we run after peace, the Arabs will demand a price of us - borders [that is, in terms of territory] or refugees [that is, repatriation] or both. Let us wait a few years." (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947 - 1949, p. 22, citing quotations in Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan, p. 465 and citing David Ben-Gurion, Yoman Hamilhama-Tashah [the war diary 1948-9], ed. Gershon Rivlin and Elhannan Orren, Tel Aviv, 1982, iii, p. 993).

According to Ben-Gurion, peace would mean specifying borders for Israel and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and lands, which were stolen from them. This was the reason behind the failure of all peace initiatives all along. All Israeli governments wanted to buy time so that they will be able to expand their territorial boundaries, on the one hand, and avoid any return of the refugees, on the other.

Count Folke Bernadotte:

In an effort to bring about a peaceful end to the war in 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte was appointed by the UN as a mediator between the Arabs and Israel. He submitted a ninety-page report to the UN Security Council on 16 September 1948. Bernadotte was assassinated in the Jewish part of Jerusalem on the following day in the Katamon quarter of Jerusalem. His final proposals to end the conflict were published on 20 September.

At the very outset of his report, Bernadotte made it clear that "no settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the Arab refugee to return to his home." With regard to the origin of the exodus Bernadotte wrote, "as a result of the conflict in Palestine almost the whole of the Arab population fled or was expelled from the area under Jewish occupation." It is significant that the UN mediator did not mention any evacuation orders by Arab leaders to the Palestinians. (Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland. London/Boston: 1987, p. 158)

Israel feared that Bernadotte's plan had the support of both the British and American governments. There were some provisions of the mediator's report, which met with Israeli approval. The suggestion in the report that the Palestinian refugees receive financial compensation could eventually be used as a wedge by the Israelis to substitute monetary compensation in place of repatriations. But Bernadotte's unequivocal affirmation that the Palestinians had the right to demand nothing less than the return of their land and property in Israel made it impossible for Israel to accept the late mediator's proposals. Besides, the Israelis had no intention of accepting the internationalization of Jerusalem or the return of Lydda-Ramleh and those portions of the Negev they had already conquered. (Ibid, pp. 161-162)

Moshe Sharett, first Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs May 1948-1954, asserted at the UN that Israel did not consider that the report of 16 September even provided a basis for discussion. Secretly the Israelis planned new military operations in Galilee [Operation Hiram was launched on 29 October 1948 to occupy the remaining parts of the Galilee] and the Negev [Operation Horev was launched on 22 December 1948 against the Egyptians in Southern Palestine] which would make it clear that with any army of 70,000 the new Jewish State was willing and able to take the disputed territory by force of arms. (Ibid, p. 162)

UN Resolution # 194:

On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution # 194, which expressed its "Deep appreciation of the progress achieved through the good offices of the late UN Mediator in promoting a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine, for which cause he sacrificed his life". The resolution also "established a Conciliation Commission consisting of the representatives of the US, France, and Turkey to assume the functions given to the UN Mediator on Palestine by resolution 186 (S-2) of the General Assembly of 14 May 1948.

In addition, the resolution stipulated, "the Holy Places, including Nazareth, should be protected and free access to them assured. And that "the Jerusalem area, including the surrounding villages and towns from Abu Dis in the east, Bethlehem in the south, Ein Karem in the west, and Shu'fat in the north should be placed under effective UN control". Moreover, the resolution resolved, "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return". It also instructed "the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees".

The Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC):

During the PCC discussions in 1949, the Arabs were ready to make peace with Israel provided the refugees were allowed to return to their homes. Israel rejected the offer. The "return" and "rehabilitation" of the Palestinian refugees are inconsistent with the Zionist objective of building a purely Jewish State. Ussishkin was very clear in this respect when he stated in 1938 that "There is no hope that this new Jewish State will survive, to say nothing of develop, if the Arabs are as numerous as they are today." Ussishkin, who was addressing the "Transfer Committee" at the time, added: "The worst is not that the Arabs would comprise 45 or 50% of the population of the new state but that 75% of the land is owned by Arabs." This land was desired for waves of Jewish immigrants who would populate the Jewish State.

On 17 March 1949, eight hundred delegates convened in Ramallah (The Ramallah Congress of Refugee Delegates) and discussed the terrible conditions of refugee life as well as political issues. The congress demanded the return of the refugees "without awaiting the ultimate settlement for the Palestine question" - that is, the country's political fate.

A high-ranking delegation representing the congress was sent to the PCC and insisted on the right of the refugees to return to their homes, and argued that that was the only way to guarantee peace and security in Palestine and in the Middle East. The delegation also expressed its readiness to discuss directly with Israel the question of return, compensation, and peace in Palestine. It explained to the PCC the harm and danger that would result from dispossession, neglect, and denial of the rights of the refugees, and from the perpetuation of their life in exile: "There is no human force that could stop the personal revenge of individual refugees against the party that sentenced them to death.

It is inconceivable that the refugees should be left to die with their children in caves and deserts in Arab lands, while watching European families of various extraction living by force in the homes that they had built with their own sweat and blood, enjoying a peaceful life. Nothing could prevent these refugees from infiltrating, as individuals, and blowing up those houses over their own heads and the heads of those now living in them." (Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Reality. New York: 1987, pp. 218 - 220)

In a memorandum submitted to the PCC, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that repatriation would create a "dual society". It proposed instead resettlement through "transfer," the idea already set out by the Peel commission in 1937. The Foreign Ministry suggested the "resettlement" of 305,000 refugees from the rural sector: 160,000 in Iraq (the Habaniah project), 85,000 in Syria (the Jazira project), 50,000 in Transjordan (the Yarmuk project), and 5,000 each in Algeria and Lebanon. Refugees from the urban sector, it claimed, would have no difficulty integrating into the Arab world because of their high level of skills and education, and would, in fact, be a blessing for the underdeveloped Arab countries. (Ibid, p. 224, citing DFPI, vol. 2, doc. 443, pp. 502 - 509)

On 1 April 1949, the Turkish PCC representative, Yalcin, concluded that their Middle East shuttle was fruitless. Yalcin, "disgruntled" chiefly with the US, explained it this way: "Nobody was strong enough or sufficiently determined to deter the Jews from doing anything they wanted to do...[US] diplomats and officials seemed [not] to have the courage to tell the truth about the Jews unless they were within sight of retirement." Yalcin added that before joining the PCC, he had "always had a soft spot for the Jews...a universally oppressed people." Now, according to his British interlocutor, he was "definitely anti-Semitic."

The PCC took two steps to try to break the logjam:

1. Set up a Technical Committee on Refugees to workout measures for implementation of the provisions of UN resolution # 194.

2. Called an international conference at Lausanne where, under PCC chairmanship, the parties could discuss the whole the whole range of issues - refugees, Jerusalem, borders, recognition - and hammer out a comprehensive peace settlement. (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, p. 260)

The PCC conference was opened in Lausanne, Switzerland on 26 April 1949. Under the threat that the US would prevent Israel's admission to the UN, Israel finally agreed to attend the conference. President Truman threatened Ben-Gurion: "If the government of Israel continues to reject the basic principles of the UN resolution # 194 and the friendly advice offered by the US government for the sole purpose of facilitating a genuine peace in Palestine, the US government will regretfully be forced to the conclusion that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable". (Ibid, p. 214)

Another delegation of the Ramallah congress traveled to the Lausanne conference in April 1949 to be close to the negotiations initiated by the PCC. The AHC sent its own delegation to Lausanne. Moreover, a number of Palestinian notables were included as members of the official delegations of the Arab states.

All the Palestinian delegations were united on a common platform, namely, to focus the debate on the fundamental problems of the refugees. "Two options were put forward to the delegations of the Arab states. The first was that they present their demands to Israel concerning borders, refugee rights, finances, and commitments, threatening to re-ignite the war if no agreement was reached. The second was to accept Israel as it existed on the condition that each refugee be allowed to return to his home, whether it was under Arab or Israeli jurisdiction." (Ibid, pp. 220 - 222)

The Lausanne Protocol:

Israel was admitted as a member to the UN on 11 May 1949. At the same time (taking the timing differences between New York and Lausanne) the Arab states and Israel signed a protocol stating that the UN Partition Resolution and the partition map included in it constituted the basis for negotiations. The Lausanne protocol stated that the aim of the conference was to achieve "as quickly as possible the objectives of the General Assembly resolution of December 11, 1948, regarding the refugees, respect for their rights, and the preservation of their property, as well as territorial and other questions". By signing the Lausanne protocol, the Arabs had in fact accepted the legitimacy of the UN Partition Resolution, a radical departure from their previous strategy. They had abandoned the idea of Palestine as a unitary Arab state, accepted the reality of Israel, and agreed to solve the dispute by political means.

Ahmad Shukairy, a Palestinian member and chief spokesman of the Syrian delegation, proposed direct negotiations between the Palestinian refugees and Israel on the basis of the Lausanne protocol, independent of the negotiations with the Arab states.

Eliyahu Sasson, the Jewish Agency's chief Arab affairs expert, dismissed the offer and proposed to help set up a Palestinian delegation headed by Nimr Hawari. Such a delegation intended to challenge the authority of both the AHC and the Arab governments, would, in co-ordination with Israel, launch a campaign for Palestinian independence in Europe and the US. It would also come to Israel to undertake direct negotiations on repatriation, compensation, and the establishment of an autonomous entity linked with Israel. Sasson envisioned that these developments would prevent Abdullah's annexation of the West Bank and allow the Arab states to dissociate themselves from the Palestinian problem. He also believed that a visit to Israel would convince the delegation of the objective impossibility of repatriating many refugees.

Sharett had serious doubts about this plan. He was afraid that there would be bitter disappointment and anger among the Palestinians when the delegation returned empty-handed. Instead he suggested "If Hawari is good for anything, he should be used to facilitate the realization of plans in the Habaniah and Jazira and appoint a serious group of Arabs willing to establish a government in the Triangle". (Ibid, p. 229, citing ISA 130.02/2442/5 and 130.02/2442/7)

In his guidelines to the delegation in Lausanne with respect to negotiating peace, Sharett pointed out that "it behooves us to do so not with haste and trepidation but by revealing strength and the ability to exist even without official peace." According to Sharett, since official peace was not a vital necessity, Israel had nothing to lose from procrastination. (Ibid, p. 215, citing ISA 120.02/2447/3 & ISA 93.03/2487/11)

The efforts of the PCC were unsuccessful. It called for a return of the refugees to their homes. Israel simply rejected that. Palestinian homes and lands were needed to settle Jewish immigrants coming from all corners of the world. It also called for the assumption of the functions of mediation started with Count Bernadotte to arrive at a "final settlement of questions outstanding between the Governments and authorities concerned". This meant final boundaries for Israel and peace with its neighbors, which would have limited its desire for expansion.

Procrastination tactics and efforts to mobilize collaborators who would accept autonomy under full Israeli control and hegemony were the strategy followed by all Israeli governments ever since. It was repeated with the Village Leagues that Sharon created following his appointment as a Minister of Defense in August 1981. The failure of that effort did not stop Sharon from his current effort, as an Israeli Prime Minister, to create a collaborating Palestinian leadership that would accept to surrender to Israel's diktat. Blinded by the unconditional support of the U.S. and by his military might, Sharon is unable to learn the lesson of his failure 20 years ago.