Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917–2017, by Ian Black, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2017, $30
Britain’s celebrated 1917 Balfour Declaration promised a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, adding, “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” Veteran British journalist Black writes a lively and insightful, albeit mostly discouraging, history of the subsequent Palestinian-Jewish conflict that will satisfy the general reader.
Beginning in the late 19th century, despite official Ottoman policy banning foreigners from purchasing land in Palestine, Zionist immigrants managed to buy farmland from absentee landowners and ultimately eject those cultivating the land. Easily bribable Turkish officials handled any objections, though protests steadily worsened under Britain’s mandate after World War I. With the rise of Nazism, Western observers mostly sympathized with Jewish immigrants and adopted the Zionist position that Palestinians should accommodate them.
After World War II the harassed British turned over the problem to the United Nations, but fighting erupted even before they left. The better-organized Jewish forces conquered most of Palestine by the time of the May 1948 declaration of the modern-day state of Israel.
More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were evicted during the fighting. While Israeli officials insisted they had left voluntarily or on evacuation orders from their own leaders, later Israeli historians and wartime memoirs reveal discomfiting evidence of officially encouraged mass expulsions.
Although surrounded by hostile Arab states, Israel’s superb armed forces repelled successive invasions in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Its 1967 victory in the Six-Day War exhilarated Israelis, spurring the conviction “Greater Israel” was their promised ancient homeland. Nearly 1 million Palestinians resided within the conquered territories, and they have proved a millstone.
Light seemed to dawn with the 1993–95 Oslo Accords, when the Palestine Liberation Organization acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, and Israel agreed to limited self-government in the occupied territories. After a few years of modest progress, however, increasing violence rendered Oslo a dead letter.
Palestinians fail to realize how much terrorist attacks inflame Israeli national sentiment. Jews fail to realize how two generations of dispossession and harassment have poisoned the Palestinians’ outlook. Israel’s military continues to respond to attacks and protests. Arguably, that policy hasn’t worked as a deterrent, but it will continue, as most Israelis approve of it. No peace talks have occurred since 2014.
Black’s obligatory how-to-fix-it epilogue provides little hope—a fitting conclusion to his expertly written history.