TE Lawrence was a notorious fantasist, so the film Lawrence of Arabia, based on his own account of the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, should not be mistaken for accurate history. But it is still a great movie, and Robert Bolt's aphoristic screenplay contains many truthful, cynical gems.
At one point Mr Dryden, a worldly-wise British diplomat, tells the idealistic young Lawrence that while he has been preaching to his Arab friends about freedom from Ottoman rule, the British and French empires have secretly agreed to carve up the Arab lands between them.
“You may not have known, but you certainly had suspicions,” Dryden tells Lawrence. “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
The progression from self-aware, pragmatic duplicity to denial and outright delusion emerges as a central thread of Enemies and Neighbours, a comprehensive new history of the Israel-Palestine conflict by Ian Black, the Guardian's veteran Middle East reporter.
At about the same time as Lawrence’s quasi-fictional meeting with Dryden – a hundred years ago in November – the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent Zionist leaders the famous “Balfour Declaration”, a promise that Britain would facilitate the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine” (a Turkish-held territory which was then about to fall to advancing British forces).
Such a Jewish homeland, the declaration went on to piously state, should not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” – in fact, the great majority of the people who then lived there, despite a wave of Zionist immigration which had begun 20 years before.
Expulsion of Arabs
In the years after the declaration, early Jewish settlers duly told the outside world of their desire for peaceful co-existence and co-development with the indigenous Arabic-speaking majority. Yet, as Black’s meticulously researched study shows, in private they discussed separation and “transfer” – a euphemism for the expulsion of as many native Arabs as possible to build a safe new home for the persecuted Jews. As Black shows again here, this duly came to pass in the massacres, fighting and deportations of 1948.
Earlier, between the world wars, as Arab resistance spilled over into strikes, violence and terrorism, Jewish leaders such as David Ben Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, had insisted publicly that these were mere “riots”, incited by a small number of malefactors, and not a reasoned political revolt against Jewish colonialism.
But privately Ben Gurion, though determined to do whatever was necessary, as he and others saw it, for the oppressed Jewish people, still had the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the Palestinians’ contrasting point of view: “The Arab in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel, in Hebrew] should not and cannot be Zionist . . . He cannot want the Jews to become a majority . . . We and they both want to be the majority.”
Black is a journalist by trade, rather than an historian, but his book is stronger on scholarship than it is on dramatic drive, or what reporters call “colour”. This is a meticulous, blow-by-blow chronicle of the events of the past hundred years in the Holy Land, drawing as scrupulously as its author can on sources from both sides of the conflict.
As such it is not, as one might expect, a particularly uplifting read. And one of the most depressing things that emerges from its later pages is the degree to which extreme nationalism can crush human empathy, and with it, the capacity to recognise simple and obvious truths. In today’s Israel, Black demonstrates, to acknowledge that decades of armed and expanding Jewish occupation has played any role at all in provoking Palestinian terrorism and resistance is a heresy confined to a dwindling, marginalised left-wing fringe.
And having reverse-engineered the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord into a blueprint for the permanent occupation and colonisation of the West Bank, successive Israeli governments have, for want of any political process, sought to preserve their comfortable status quo exclusively by force.
While the West Bank was restored to de facto Israeli military rule in 2002, the discontiguous and besieged Gaza Strip – a squalid prison for 1.5 million people – has been subject to an even more brutal form of external control. Even before the hardline Islamist Hamas movement took control of the strip in 2007, rocket fire and ground raids from Gaza were being met with increasingly frenzied assaults from Israel’s vastly superior military. The most recent of these onslaughts, “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, killed 2,251 people, according to UN figures, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 299 were women and 551 children. Six Israeli civilians, including one infant, and 67 soldiers died.
The outside world watched in horror as Israeli aircraft, artillery and tanks attacked homes, UN schools, clinics and factories, even children playing on a beach. Yet, as Black records, a subsequent poll showed that 90 per cent of Israelis supported the operation, and only 4 per cent thought excessive force had been used.
Locked in the echo-chamber of its own self-pitying media, convinced only of its own utter rectitude and victimhood, mainstream Israeli society has, not surprisingly, drifted ever further to the right. The current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has ruled over a succession of extremist coalitions which include openly racist ministers who describe Arabs as “animals” and call for the expulsion of non-Jewish citizens.
With the West Bank largely pacified at present, thanks to the co-operation of Mahmoud Abbas’s “moderate” rump of the Palestinian Authority with the Israeli occupation, and with the 1948-1967 “green line” eroded by decades of nominally unofficial but state-backed Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, it has become normal in Israel to turn a blind eye to the occupation, and even to the human existence of the Palestinians themselves. The victims of this occupation, whatever the rights and wrongs of their cause and their methods, find it less easy to pretend that nothing strange is going on.
To forget where you have put a half-lie is unwise and dangerous. To ignore the existence of four million people who suffer in your midst, living under the guns of your conscript sons and daughters, is clearly insane. And so, in his book’s gloomy conclusion, Black quotes Gideon Levy, a veteran Israeli humanitarian journalist:
“When you claim there is no occupation, or that there are no Palestinians, you effectively lose contact with reality in a way that can only be explained with recourse to terminology from the realm of pathology and mental health. And that’s where we are.”