Middle East

Mideast conflict: Legacy of UK imperial episode

343762_GazaOn Dec. 28, five years on from Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, a handful of British MPs, in concert with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, published a letter in the Guardian exhorting the UK government to bring an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The blockade is causing electricity shortages that are robbing Gaza’s people of essential services. However, British politicians have other things on their minds at the beginning of 2014. Not least are they preoccupied with a feared invasion of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria. At the same time, Britain’s imperial past is looming more than usually large, with elaborate preparations under way to commemorate August 1914, the fateful month, a century ago, when Britain went to war against the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It was during the “Great War” that Britain sowed the seeds of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not that the forthcoming anniversary is likely to witness British politicians expressing regret for the parlous upshot of their country’s actions in the region. Indeed, what ought to be a solemn event is in danger of being hijacked by ministers with contemporary ideological agendas. One leading British Conservative politician has already seized the opportunity to celebrate Britain’s most consequential contribution to the Middle East at the time of the war. The other day, in a BBC radio discussion on the teaching of history in British schools, partly prompted by the coming anniversary, Secretary for Education Michael Gove declared that Britain did a great thing when it provided a home for Jewish people.

Gove was evidently thinking of the 1917 Balfour Declaration according to which the British government professed to view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jews. His remark echoed the sentiments of British politicians of that period who embraced the Zionist cause, while failing so much as to acknowledge the existence of Palestine’s indigenous Arabs. And like them, Gove is either duplicitous or delusional. For – leave aside his presumption that Palestine was legitimately in Britain’s gift – the truth is that the Balfour Declaration had little if anything to do with generosity on the part of the British ruling class.

After World War I, Britain and France exploited the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in what amounted to a crude land grab. But the victor powers were concerned to present their triumph over Germany as the beginning of an idealistic new chapter in world affairs when small nations would determine their own destiny. In the guise of holding Palestine in trust, Britain, though, was being anything but chivalrous. The key British priority in the Middle East was not to vouchsafe Jews a home but to exert control over the Suez Canal at a time when the canal was vital to British interests.

Gove deplores the historical ignorance of British children. However, no great attempt was ever made to educate children about Britain’s role in Palestine. Considering how discreditable it was, this is perhaps not surprising. Generations of British people have received little inkling from their schooling about the wretched debacle that the Mandate became. Especially strenuous efforts were made to crush Arab resistance to British rule, but it is a measure of how little Britain cared about the welfare of Jewish people that after WWII the Mandate authorities turned back ships crammed with Jews fleeing from a Europe where they had come close to annihilation at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Britain would have persevered with the Mandate. But exhausted by the 1939-45 conflict and struggling to cope with Zionist guerrilla actions, it was ultimately obliged to accept – following its endorsement in 1947 by the United Nations – that the Israeli entity was an accomplished fact.

The creation of Israel and subsequent Palestine-Israel conflict are legacies of a British imperial episode, which ended not voluntarily but through force of brute circumstance. Michael Gove believes that the time has come for the British to stop excoriating themselves for the misdeeds of their empire. In reality, and above all perhaps where Palestine is concerned, they have hardly begun to face up to the lamentable consequences of their imperial past.

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