BERRY: Israel and International Law October 21, 2009


by Neil Berry  -  Arab News -  17 October 2009

For a state that bristles with lawyers, Israel has shown a remarkable contempt for international law. Hardly less remarkable is the license that it has effectively been granted to do what it likes by its pre-eminent sponsor, the United States, a nation that also abounds in lawyers and is currently led by one.

Not that international law is a matter of total indifference to the Jewish state. It was thanks to its invocation in London the other day that Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff and now a vice prime minister, canceled a visit to Britain for fear of being arrested and charged with war crimes. Yaalon is not the first Israeli hierarch to have been thus embarrassed and may not be the last.

It is the mission of the British Palestinian scholar, Victor Kattan, to champion the cause of international law and to underline how indispensable it is to a proper understanding of the Palestine-Israel conflict. If efforts in this direction have hitherto been modest, it is not least because few Palestinians have had the opportunity to pursue careers as legal scholars. Kattan himself owes his training to British universities.

In his valuable new book “From Co-Existence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949”, this path-finding young academic argues that the chronic failure to respect international law and Palestinian rights has led, incrementally, to today’s interminable political impasse in the Middle East. There can, he contends, be no viable peace process that fails to recognize international law’s central significance.

Kattan’s book is an impassioned and erudite work of polemic that greatly illuminates the historical background to the Palestine-Israel conflict. One of the striking features of his account is that it does not underestimate the contribution that European anti-Semitism made to the growth of the Zionist movement and to the circumstances that precipitated Israel’s formation. Indeed, nobody has ever made clearer the degree to which British backing for a prospective homeland for the Jews in Palestine, as spelled out in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, had its roots in the alarm felt by the British political establishment about the “problem” of the Jews.

The imperious British statesman, A.J. Balfour, who gave his name to the declaration, was an earnest supporter of the 1905 Alien Act, which was specifically designed to stem the inflow into Britain of Jews who were fleeing from persecution in czarist Russia. A century ago, immigrant Jews were seen by many, much as Muslims are now, as subversive intruders menacing the British way of life. What Kattan makes plain is that Zionism and anti-Semitism became inextricably bound up with one another. The Balfour Declaration may be seen among other things as complementing the Alien Act, a supplementary means of British immigration control.

What Kattan also makes plain is that the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), was only too mindful of the cynicism of Western politicians like Balfour who purported to be friends of the Jews. In later years, following the creation of Israel, Herzl’s successors continued to benefit from the concern of Western governments to prevent uprooted European Jews from taking up residence in their countries. In the aftermath of the liquidation by the Nazis of some 6 million Jews during World War II, the United States, Australia and Canada, brushing aside Arab pleas to treat displaced Jews as a challenge for the whole world, refused to relax their immigration restrictions, thereby ensuring that the great majority of them poured into Palestine, even though many would have preferred to settle elsewhere. Britain, too, maintained its immigration controls, even as it made belated efforts to curb Jewish entry into Palestine. It was with shrewd foresight that Herzl predicted that anti-Semitism would become Zionism’s greatest ally.

The high opinion of the Jewish people that Balfour had professed was, it must be said, not entirely disingenuous. Certainly, he regarded the Jews as an exceptional race, immeasurably more “civilized” than the Arabs of Palestine. But the Balfour Declaration pledged that Palestine only become a home to Jews on condition that nothing was done to prejudice the welfare of its existing inhabitants. As Kattan shows through his forensic examination of the historic correspondence during World War I between the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Makkah, the British government had in any case already promised to recognize Palestine as belonging to the Arabs. Moreover, the terms of the “Mandate” by which imperial Britain administered Palestine between 1923 and 1948 meant that Britain undertook to safeguard the rights of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine as a “sacred trust of civilization”.

Kattan rebukes international lawyers for failing to engage with the issue of the lawfulness of Israel’s creation. For what recent scholarship has laid bare is that Israel’s emergence entailed the turning of a blind eye by the Western powers to the most outrageous Zionist violations of international law. Building on the work of “revisionist” Israeli historians, he maintains that the establishment of the Jewish state was an unequivocal act of conquest, involving as it did the arbitrary expulsion from their homes of 750,000 Palestinians and the arbitrary denial to them of the right of return — not to mention the sweeping aside of guarantees enshrined in the British Mandate that had acknowledged the sovereignty of its indigenous inhabitants by virtue of long residence and superior numbers.

Victor Kattan’s book appears at a time when the UN Relief and Works Agency is urging that the Jewish Holocaust be made part of a new human rights curriculum to be taught to secondary school pupils in Gaza. Yet by the same token, young Israelis ought to be exposed to the Palestinian point of view as set out by an authority on international law who, while sensitive to Jewish suffering, is committed to documenting the historical truth. Can it be too often repeated that without truth there can be no justice, and without justice, no peace?

If you liked this article, please consider making a donation to Australians for Palestine by clicking on the PayPal link
Thank You.
Bookmark and Share

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, will not be published
optional, your blog address