One Hundred Years and Counting

‘What’s your name?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Are you married?’ – the last a surprising question from the lips of a small Palestinian child trying out her English on the streets of Hebron. Adults are more cautious: ‘Where (are) you from?’ is a common ice-breaker…

 One Hundred Years and Counting

One hundred years ago…

‘What’s your name?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Are you married?’ – the last a surprising question from the lips of a small Palestinian child trying out her English on the streets of Hebron. Adults are more cautious: ‘Where (are) you from?’ is a common ice-breaker.

Several times over the years I have been asked that question by Palestinians whose English is as limited as my Arabic, and have been surprised by their one-word response to my admission that I come from England : ‘Balfour!’. Enough said. They know their history. They know all about the rather inglorious role the British played in the history of the region, and in the history of Palestine in particular.

One hundred years ago a letter ‘that changed the future’ was sent by Arthur Balfour – then British Foreign Secretary – to the leaders of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom. It conveyed the message that ‘his majesty’s government view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people….’.

But there was a condition. The  letter continued,  ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’.

Historians and lawyers still debate the precise meaning of the ‘condition’ that was attached to the letter. The reality is that the ‘national home for the Jewish people’ was established when the State of Israel was recognised by the international community in 1948, but at the expense of the Arab occupants of the land who were not even consulted. So much for the ‘condition’.  To this day, while Israelis celebrate their independence, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, which roughly translated means ‘the day of catastrophe’.

And fifty years ago…

If Israeli independence was a catastrophe for Palestinians, the 1967 ‘Six  Day War’ was the Naksa – the ‘day of set-back’. Fifty years later it looks as though ‘setback’ is an understatement. In fact it was another catastrophe. The occupation which followed the war is now the longest in modern history. Israelis are reluctant to use the ‘O’ word: they argue that the rules of war (there are such!) which govern occupation don’t apply in this situation (the world community disagrees). But as Ariel Sharon admitted: ‘you cannot like the word, but what is happening is an occupation; to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation….I believe is a terrible thing  for Israel and for Palestinians’. It is. Sharon rightly recognised the damage it does to both occupied and occupier, but especially to the occupied.

Hebron, and the Old City in particular, has been described as a microcosm of the occupation: a ‘little world’ which gives a glimpse of the larger reality. Here Palestinians experience the full weight of occupation: the constant presence of the Israeli military, checkpoints, restrictions on movement,  house invasions (see the website of Breaking the Silence for descriptions of house invasions by those who were responsible); road closures, and even segregated roads: paved roads for the Israeli settlers and military, boulder and rubbish-strewn paths for Palestinians.  And with no end in sight, and hope of a different future fast disappearing, it’s little wonder that Palestinians despair.

And now…

Here we are, 100 years after Balfour, and 50 after the Six Day War. What hope for the future?

Politicians still pin their hopes on the so-called Two State solution, but many commentators  suggest that the idea is dead in the water. There are many obstacles, but continuing settlement construction – there are  now an estimated 600,000 settlers living in the West Bank, and perhaps 250,000 in Palestinian East Jerusalem – is a major ‘fact on the ground’. Some settlements – especially those near the Green Line (the Armistice Line of 1949 and the notional border between Israel and Palestine) – may be subsumed into Israel in land swaps; but what about Hebron? I can’t imagine that the 800 or so settlers who live here will willingly give up their access to the Machpelah Cave and its association with Abraham and Sarah. Hebron is a so-called holy city, and a place of pilgrimage for both Jews and Muslims – who  look to Abraham as father of their faith. Israeli settlers here in Hebron are ‘ideological’, and with their ideology goes dogged determination to stay put. They will not be moved.

In the light of the failure of the so-called peace process, many Israelis and Palestinians argue that what is required is some thinking ‘outside the box’. One such group proposes ‘One Homeland; Two States’: under the banner ‘Together but Separate’; another, ‘One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States’.

The heart of their argument is that the notion of statehood could be decoupled from territory. They acknowledge the profound historical, religious and cultural attachment of both Palestinians and Israelis to the whole land of Israel/Palestine, and wonder if it would be possible for two states to occupy the same piece of land.

Their vision is of the two peoples being free to travel, live and work anywhere in the one land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river,  while preserving their own identities. Israelis – wherever they lived in the one homeland – would elect an Israeli government, Palestinians likewise a Palestinian government. Israel  would remain the ‘heartland’ for Israelis; the West Bank and Gaza the heartland for Palestinians. There would need to be joint institutions to ensure cooperation on matters of common concern, such as security, economic strategy, and use of natural resources, such as water. The authors point out that there would be nothing unique in such a confederation, citing for example the European Union, and within the EU, the State of Belgium, both of which have many characteristics of a confederation.

So, here in Hebron, the settlers could stay – provided they were law-abiding. And Abraham, who, if his remains really do lie in the Machpelah Cave must be turning in his grave at the thought of the violence perpetrated in his name, might at last give a chuckle at the thought that the family is united at last, and finally rest in peace.

The difficulties are enormous, but in the present stalemate, It’s certainly worth thinking about.


  • The Balfour Project for information about the Balfour Declaration. Includes a 20-minute video giving useful background to the conflict.

  • And a book to read: ‘One Land, Two States: Israel and Palastine as Parallel States’. (eds) Levine and Mossberg, California Univeristy Press. But read Chapter One here.

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