At the end of World War I the Ottoman Empire had been destroyed, leaving the allies to administer its former territories in the Levant. The French received a League of Nations mandate for Lebanon, which had been Catholic since the crusades, as well as for what is now Syria. The British created new kingdoms with varying degrees of independence in Egypt, Iraq, and in Hejaz, which would be invaded by the Sauds and transformed into Saudi Arabia a few years later.
The British also received a League of Nations mandate to implement the Balfour Declaration in Palestine. As the Mandate stated, “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
Lord Balfour said in a speech he hoped the Arabs would not “begrudge that small notch” of land to the Jews, reminding them of the new Arab sovereignty in Hejaz, which covered 870,000 square miles. Palestine, this “small notch of land,” included Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and all of Jordan. This territory jointly constituted about 46,000 square miles, or 5 percent of the area of Hejaz, and had a population of just a few hundred thousand, including nomadic Arabs as well as Jews who had largely arrived in the first Zionist settlement movement of the 1880s.
Unfortunately, the British had made a certain Prince Faisal, who had been an ally in the war, king of Iraq. And his brother Abdullah, who had also been a good British ally, wanted to be a king, too. He complained to the British, who duly made him a king. Their solution was to give him the largely empty Transjordan, figuring the Jews wouldn’t mind if 75 percent of their promised homeland was deleted right at the outset.
The Jews were left with about 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. Between the world wars, the British restricted Jewish immigration and settlement to small areas and simultaneously encouraged Arab immigration. The Arabs were vastly more influential in the region and had the innate sympathies of the British. They might have gotten away with eradicating the Jews from Palestine entirely if not for the unfortunate trick played on the Arabs by World War II: The Arabs had supported Nazis, and this made them look bad. As a result, the British felt compelled to stick to their guarantee of a Jewish homeland. To an extent.
The United Nations in 1947 voted to end the British Mandate and create a jigsaw-puzzle partition which would leave the Jews with about 56 percent of the remaining territory—an area considerably smaller than Connecticut.
Naturally, this was too much favoritism to the Jews to be born, and when Israel declared its independence in 1948, she was immediately invaded by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The Arabs expected to make quick work of Israel, so they encouraged the Arabs living in Israel to flee, promising they’d get a much better deal on land once the Jews had all been killed.
And that is the origin of the Palestinian refugees—they are the people who left Israel hoping that they could come back in a few weeks once their Jewish neighbors were dead. Unfortunately for them, it turned out that one Israeli soldier was worth 1,000 enemy soldiers—oddly enough, exactly according to a Biblical promise (“one shall chase one thousand”). The Israelis won the war, and the Arabs who had left felt cheated.
The war had also displaced a huge number of Jews—roughly 850,000 had been living in Arab territories in 1948 and most found themselves either expelled or murdered. The expelled Jews, of course, were able to find a home in Israel. But the Arabs who had left Israel were not similarly welcomed by their brethren: Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan refused to settle them, choosing instead to build refugee camps and deny them citizenship. Not that there wasn’t plenty of land. As late as the 1970s, Syria was offering free land to anyone who would come cultivate it—providing he was neither Jewish nor Palestinian.
The Arab armies were humiliated in 1948, in 1967, and in 1973. It wasn’t just that they kept losing wars despite overwhelming territorial and numerical superiority. It was the shameful sight of seven Arab nations teaming up against one tiny Jewish country that wasn’t even as big as its smallest attacker. It was a modern David and Goliath story, and each Arab defeat was a huge PR victory for the Jews. Hollywood was making movies about it.
The narrative needed to change. The Arab nations saw this as early as 1948, and realized that the Palestinians—their own flesh and blood—were the perfect victims to be sacrificed towards the destruction of Israel. By refusing to accept them into the neighboring land, the Arabs were able to make them a permanently aggrieved class. The U.N. helped by designating as a refugee anyone who had lived in Israel for just two years. No longer would it be seven big nations against a small one, but now one nation against a small group of stateless refugees. Rather than invading Israel, the surrounding nations could simply pay for attacks coming out of the West Bank and Gaza. It would look as though the Arab nations were defending the Palestinians against heartless Israeli belligerence. Never mind that they created these refugees in the first place.
And thus the invention of modern terrorism, which is public relations through murder. In 1972, the Palestine Liberation Organization massacred members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. But instead of creating a massive outpouring of sympathy for the dead Jews, it was the start of the new narrative against Israel. Hence the refusal of the International Olympic Committee at every Olympiad since then to hold a moment of silence for the murdered Israeli team. The PLO had actually been created in 1964 to fight against the Jordanians, who had occupied the West Bank ever since the 1949 ceasefire. But the PLO’s transformation into an anti-Jewish cause made them international celebrities, brought them huge funding, and eventually got their leader Yasser Arafat (who was an Egyptian) invited to the White House.
This brings us to the question of the right of return: For the several hundred thousand Jews who were expelled from Arab territories during the War of Israeli Independence, or rather for their millions of descendants. Should they be allowed to return to the Arab nations that kicked them out and deprived them of all rights to citizenship, property, and civil justice? Should Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq be forced to return the Jews’ confiscated land and reinstate them? Why shouldn’t the rights of these Jews be a precondition to any settlement with the Palestinians?
Fat chance. No Jew would go to any of those places unless he wanted to be killed. While an Arab can live in the Jewish state and vote in their elections—and even get elected to parliament—there is no Arab state where a Jew can vote. (Though this is somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison, since of course, no Arabs can vote in Arab states either—democracy not being their forte.)
Besides, how long can we remember stolen land? Is it fair to remember that someone was deprived of his property a hundred or a thousand or more years ago?
If it were fair to extend our memories back that far, we might be tempted to point out the stones of the Jewish Temple sitting underneath the Dome of the Rock. The Temple—the Second Temple—is more than 1,000 years older. All of this territory, including the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention a large part of the Transjordan, was Jewish property. If we were being fair, we might have to eject every single Palestinian occupant in Gaza and the West Bank. We might have to kick out a whole bunch of Jordanians as well. And we might have to bulldoze the Dome of the Rock while we’re at it.
But who wants to be fair?