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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 2: The Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate

Morning Edition: October 1, 2002

audio icon Listen to Part 2 of Mike Shuster's series.

BOB EDWARDS: Today, the second part of a series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict between Palestine and Israel," picks up two decades after Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists, in 1897, launched the movement to establish a Jewish homeland.

It took that long -- 20 years -- for the first, great diplomatic breakthrough -- the Balfour Declaration in which Great Britain declared itself in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Britain then sought to govern Palestine during a period that is known as the British Mandate, a time of growing hostility and violence between Jews and Arabs.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: World War I would prove decisive for the early Zionists, and it would set in motion a cycle of violence that has not ended to this day.

The Balfour Declaration was the product of British strategic thinking and the lobbying of modern Zionism's second great personality, Chaim Weizmann.

Weizmann, a Russian Jew, settled in Great Britain before the war, and became the local representative of the World Zionist Organization. With few contacts and even fewer resources, Weizmann managed to make his way into the offices of Great Britain's highest officials, including David Lloyd George, who became prime minister in 1916.

The British quickly warmed to the strategic value of a Zionist enterprise in Palestine, says Howard Sachar, one of the pre-eminent American historians of Zionism and Israel.

HOWARD SACHAR: People like Lloyd George, people like Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, in the latter phase of the war began to see a number of very important advantages to cultivating a Jewish presence in Palestine with the unspoken understanding that this Jewish presence would be under a British protectorate.

SHUSTER: Lloyd George and other British officials were the product of a strict Protestant upbringing, which considered the Jews the chosen people of God with their rightful place in Zion.

But Lloyd George also believed support for the Zionists would cement Jewish support in the U.S. for entering the war as a British ally and in Russia convulsed by revolution for remaining in the war on the British side.

The result was the Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, named for Balfour, the British foreign secretary.

BALFOUR DECLARATION (ACTOR'S VOICE-OVER): His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.

SHUSTER: The Zionists were euphoric. They understood the words national home to mean Jewish state.

The Arabs of Palestine did not learn of the declaration for several months; the war for the Middle East was bigger news then. Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian at the University of Chicago, calls the declaration a monumental injustice.

RASHID KHALIDI: The Balfour Declaration involved a promise by an imperial power to establish a national home for a minority in a country that had a population which was not recognized in that declaration. The Balfour Declaration talks about the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish populations. The existing non-Jewish populations were the 92 percent majority of the country. Their national and political rights were ignored in a declaration which promised national and political rights to the Jewish people.

SHUSTER: What the borders of Palestine would be was not immediately clear. In 1916, Britain and France delineated the future borders of the Middle Eastern states in what came to be known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named for the diplomats who negotiated it.

Palestine was considered part of Greater Syria, to be divided between the two allies.

As it turned out, by the end of the war the British army seized all of Palestine, aided by an Arab army organized by the legendary T.E. Lawrence and loyal to the Sharif of Mecca. The British had also made promises regarding Palestine to Feisal, the sharif's son, to enlist their support fighting the Ottomans. Not surprisingly, those commitments were never fulfilled, says Rashid Khalidi.

KHALIDI: The point is that the British had not promised anything directly to the Palestinians themselves, and this is a constant problem in Palestinian history. Various actors -- the British, the United States, Israel -- preferred to deal with others rather than dealing directly with the Palestinians. And that was, in fact, a motif of the entire 30 years that followed, right up to the end of the mandate in 1948.

SHUSTER: In 1922 the League of Nations made Palestine a mandate of Britain, whose task it would be to bring the territory to independence.

Although initially committed to the Zionist enterprise, British officials believed they could rule Palestine for the mutual benefit of Arabs and Jews, says Howard Sachar.

HOWARD SACHAR: Even during the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath of the war at the time of the Paris peace conference, there seemed to be very little serious danger that the aspirations of Jews or Arabs in the Near East were necessarily on a point of collision.

SHUSTER: But unrest broke out quickly, first in 1920, then in 1921, and it continued to escalate, says Philip Mattar, editor of The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians.

PHILIP MATTAR: After Jews began to immigrate and purchase land, Palestinians began to realize that this will lead eventually to either their domination or their expulsion. So spontaneous riots broke out in Jerusalem and Jaffa. And then again in 1929, in much larger explosion throughout Palestine.

SHUSTER: The Zionists built schools and factories and farms, and a bureaucratic organization that would eventually become the state apparatus of Israel.

The Arabs resisted, says Tom Segev, author of One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate.

TOM SEGEV: When you look back to the '20s, you find that almost everything that has been said since the '20s, and everything that has been done since the '20s was there already. The Arabs said we don't accept you here. They were very, very consistent in their view, and it inevitably led to violence and to acts of terrorism.

SHUSTER: The 1930s, and the rise of Hitler in Germany, would spark a crisis in Palestine that went far beyond what had taken place before, says Rashid Khalidi.

KHALIDI: It was only in the '30s when suddenly in one year as many Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine 1935 as had lived in the country in 1918 that the Palestinians realized: a. they were going to be outnumbered in their country and b. the Zionist movement was clearly developing at a pace which would enable it to conquer the country whether they had a majority or not. This terrified the Palestinians, and it led to a mass uprising which took the Palestinian leadership completely by surprise as much as it was a shock to the British.

SHUSTER: Known as the Arab Rebellion, it resembles nothing if not the violence of the past two years. The Arabs were seeking an independent state of their own in Palestine. Arab guerrillas attacked Jewish settlers and British soldiers with guns and bombs. Jews mounted equally bloody reprisals. The British army pursued an anti-terrorism campaign that included the demolition of homes of the families of Arab bombers.

Each side had its own growing list of martyrs, one of whom was a Muslim activist named Iz-al-din al-Qassam, namesake for the military wing of the present day Hamas, which has carried out many suicide bombings over the past two years.

The British could not suppress the violence, so in 1937 they proposed for the first time to partition Palestine. Neither side was enthusiastic, says Philip Mattar.

MATTAR: The Palestinians totally rejected it, because at that time Jews had owned only 5.6 percent of Palestine whereas they were being offered 40 percent of the country. And the Jews were not entirely pleased with it either. Basically I think the idea died for lack of support.

SHUSTER: The British eventually broke the back of the Arab Rebellion, after more than a thousand Arabs and several hundred Jews lost their lives. Tom Segev says that on the eve of World War II, the British realized they could not solve the conflict in Palestine.

SEGEV: By 1939 I think the British had realized that their role in Palestine is over. There is nothing for them to do. The animosity, the violence between Jews and Arabs is too hostile. And I think that by 1939 they were in fact ready to leave.

SHUSTER: That year the British published a white paper on Palestine, which traditional historians of Israel see as a repudiation of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.

After that, the Zionists gradually concluded that they would have to fight not only the Arabs but also the British if they were to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. World War II would postpone that stage of the conflict.

But once the World War was won, the simmering conflict in Palestine would turn into a war of its own.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: Tomorrow, in the third part of the series, the newly born United Nations votes to partition Palestine, and war erupts. The new Israeli state is born, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians become refugees.


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