A Forgivable Genocide
Part 1 - Historical background
To the victors go the spoils
Defeat in the Great War brought down the house of cards that was the Ottoman Empire. The victors, Great Britain and France, scrambled to gather up as much influence, oil, land and population as possible. At the time, European countries still held their world-wide empires, so they naturally considered their action in the Middle East to be a just another form of empire-building.
The Ottomans' administrative units (known as "sanjak" and named for the administrative seat) were ignored when the Allies drew their lines on their maps, just as ethnic groups and relief features had been ignored in Africa.
The land east of the Jordan River, Sanjak Kerak, had been ruled from Damascus under the Ottomans. Damascus was in the French sphere, so the British, who intended to control the region through the local sheiks with whom they had allied themselves against the Turks, needed a means of carving it loose.
They found a means in the "Palestine Mandate". The "mandates" were agreements among the Allies, confirmed by the League of Nations, for the administration of former Ottoman territories. The British "traded" the Golan Heights, which the French wanted as part of their "Syrian Mandate", for the land east of the Jordan River... or perhaps east of the Hejaz Railway, the limits being very unclear!
During the Great War, the British were most magnanimous! They were quick to distribute land to people they wanted as friends... land that they did not in fact control... land that was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes they were so magnanimous that they gave the same land to two different people! Or at least they were not very careful about the boundaries of their "gifts", leaving a bit of overlap here and there between them.
In 1915, they promised land (McMahon-Hussein correspondence) to the Arabs... without actually defining its limits. The British specified areas that were not included... but did not specify what land was included! In any case, this land was "somewhere" east of the Jordan.
Also during the war, the British promised a homeland to the Jews -- the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917... which did not specify any boundaries, either! Balfour himself considered that the new country should "extend east of the Jordan but not include the Hejaz Railway".
These two British promises are each so vague that they may... or may not... overlap geographically. They also may or may not overlap politically.
The Balfour Declaration included the phrase, "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine"... without defining its meaning. At the time, displacing a few hundred thousand people would not have been considered unacceptable, if it was done humanely, and if living conditions on arrival were as good as those left behind. The same sort of massive displacement was done all over Europe, to collect all of an ethnic group within its national boundaries. Quotes from Balfour seem to indicate that this was his presumption for Jews and Muslims in Palestine, but nothing was explicit, and certainly nothing was official.
The victors of WWI (Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan) met at San Remo, Italy, to finalize the dissection of the Ottoman Empire. The San Remo Resolution (25 April 1920) reconfirmed the objective "of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Already, in 1920, the British were afraid that their Arab allies from the Great War would attack the French in Damascus. The British felt they needed to find political solutions that would "calm" the Arabs.
The Cairo Conference of March 1921 decided (among others) to give the land east of the Jordan to Abdullah ibn Hussein, while excluding that land from any eventual Jewish homeland... but not excluding it from the Muslim portion of the Balfour Declaration...
Thus was created the Emirate of Transjordan.
Part 2 - Jordan
After the creation of the Emirate of Transjordan in the early 1920s as a British satellite alongside the "Palestine Mandate", things were fairly quiet all the way to the Second World War. The British slowly granted more and more authority to Emir Abdullah's administration, ultimately keeping only foreign and military affairs.
A steady influx of Jewish immigrants into Palestine (they were forbidden entry to Transjordan) led to rising Arab resentment, and ultimately to a revolt 1936-1939, with thousands dead. To calm Arab anger, the British put relatively tight limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine.
On the diplomatic front, it was clear that Transjordan would be excluded from any new Jewish state to be created in Palestine, east of the Jordan. It was not at all clear, however, what the relationship would be between the Emirate and the Muslim portion of Palestine. There were several possibilities: - The Emirate might be expanded to include Muslim portions of Palestine. - A new Muslim state might englobe Muslim portions of Palestine and the Emirate. - There might be two separate states: an unchanged Transjordan and a new Muslim Palestinian state. - All Muslim Palestinians might be moved to Transjordan, leaving all land west of the Jordan for the Jews.
There were partisans for each of these solutions, and each was possible, even the last one, which seems outlandish today. The breakup of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire after the Great War created a number of small, ethnically (almost) homogeneous countries. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in (failed) efforts to make those new counties completely homogeneous.
Diplomats tried to improve the chances of their preferred solution, but none really dominated. In general, the British avoided getting sucked into any actual realization of a Jewish state. Why? Perhaps from loyalty to their Arab allies. Perhaps they feared that a Jewish state would bring conflict and that they would get caught in the crossfire. Perhaps from anti-Semitism. Perhaps from a bit of all of those…
The Emirate of Transjordan became the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in May 1946.
World War Two... and the Holocaust... had changed everything. The creation of a Jewish state became inevitable and urgent.
The British made a quick effort at finding a universally acceptable solution, saw that there was none... and threw in the towel. They asked to be relieved of the mandate, and announced that they would pull out.
The UN looked at several solutions, and in 1947 decided that partition was the least bad. The UN plan was a compromise. Like all compromises it can be seen as good or bad for each stakeholder, depending on the criteria applied.
The UN plan was accepted by the Jews and refused by surrounding Arab nations. The opinion of the local Arabs is unknown, because no one asked them. Violence broke out even before Britain's mandate ended. Israel declared its independence, on the basis of the UN partition. War ensued.
Israel was very nearly overwhelmed in the initial Arab assault, but turned the tide. The Arabs lost. ...
But not all the Arabs... King Abdullah's British-trained Arab Legion occupied what was to become known as the West Bank. Abdullah's domain was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the West Bank was annexed.
Part 3 - Black September
In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Transjordan occupied and then annexed the "West Bank", changing its name to "Jordan". The "East Bank" at this time had a population of about 800 000, half of whom were refugees from lands west of the Jordan that had become Israel or been occupied by Israel. There were another 400 000 people living in the West Bank region. In other words, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was, by population, two-thirds Palestinian.
From safe-havens in Jordan, Yassir Arafat's Fatah began cross-border raids into Israel in 1965.
Jordan had sat out the 1956 war, but engaged in the disastrous Six-Day War of June, 1967. Israel routed all the the various Arab armies -- Egypt, Syria and Jordan -- and occupied territory belonging to each of them. Egypt lost everything east of the Suez Canal. Syria lost the Golan Heights. And Jordan lost the West Bank... but kept the name "Jordan" all the same...
One of the effects of the Six-Day War was to destroy the credibility of the Arab states as agents for victory against Israel, leaving the Palestinians to fend for themselves.
In March 1968, with the intention of destroying Fatah, Israel crossed the border and attacked several Fatah camps. Against the orders of King Hussein, Jordanian forces entered the fight on the side of Fatah. The battle was something of a Israel-advantage draw, but compared to preceding Arab catastrophes, a not-quite-draw was a very fine result indeed. Fatah's prestige rose high, and King Hussein could wonder about the loyalty of "his" troops.
King Hussein attempted to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, who were taking on more and more of the attributes of a government, within his kingdom. In November 1968, the PLO agreed to cease such actions as wearing uniforms, carrying arms, stopping/searching civilian vehicles, ... But the PLO did not keep that accord, and relations continued to worsen with hundreds of violent incidents, many of them deadly. Israeli reprisals following Palestinian raids resulted in Jordanian casualties.
In July 1969, Fatah joined the PLO, which had been created in 1964 in Cairo, and Yassir Arafat was soon elected Chairman.
Hundreds died in sporadic fighting between Jordanian security forces and PLO fighters. In an attempt to calm the situation, King Hussein fired his Interior Minister. In July 1970, Egypt and Jordan accepted an American-backed peace plan that called (among other things) for the West Bank to be returned to Jordanian authority. This was unacceptable to the more radical Palestinian groups, and fighting began again, with another thousand deaths.
Early September saw attempted assassinations against King Hussein, and several PLO-backed airliner hijackings. Among the hijackers' demands: that Irbid (Jordan's second largest city) be declared a "liberated region".
On September 15th, the Jordanian Army struck Palestinian offices and bases in Amman and a half-dozen other cities. Three days later, Syrian armor, hastily rebranded "Palestinian", attacked from the north. King Hussein asked the US and the UK for help, but in the end it was Israel's Air Force that flew mock strikes. The Syrians retreated.
The Arab states, in particular Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, put pressure on King Hussein to stop the fighting. On September 27, Nasser forced Hussein to sign a cease-fire that allowed the Palestinians to stay in Jordan, though not in the cities.
The very next day, Nasser died, throwing Egypt into political chaos. The Jordanian Army continued its assault.
The death toll for September may have been 1000 - 2000... or may have been 10 000 - 25 000... depending on the source! On October 31, Yassir Arafat signed a cease-fire that still would have allowed the Palestinians to operate from Jordan. But more extremist groups refused the agreement, even insisting that Transjordan must be incorporated into the future Palestinian state. Fighting continued to alternate with broken cease-fires, through June 1971, when the last Palestinian fighters were killed or forced to flee to Lebanon... or to surrender in Israel.
For the whole period of conflict, the death toll of the fighting between Palestinians and the Jordanian Army was certainly in the tens of thousands, with more tens of thousands fleeing to refugee camps in Lebanon.
Fatah tried for a few years to get revenge against Jordan, through a clandestine affiliate group named "Black September", without significant success. Jordan abandoned any thought of regaining control of the West Bank.
Part 4 - Quandary
The three preceding parts:
- Historical Background
- Black September
... were strictly historical. I have been as coldly factual as possible, not wanting any ulterior debate about historical fact.
This part, though, is pure opinion.
We have seen:
- Jordan is a recent construction, payment by a colonial power to a warlord for services rendered,
- Earlier, a promise of a homeland was made to the Jews -- later made urgent by the Holocaust,
- The territory that became Jordan could have been allocated to the "Muslim state of Palestine",
- Jordan made a play for sovereignty over "Muslim Palestine", but screwed it up,
- The Palestinians refused Jordan's authority... even in Jordan,
- Jordan killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, and expelled other tens of thousands.
- Israel has killed fewer Palestinians than has Jordan.
- Israel has expelled -- dunno -- call it about the same number of Palestinians.
So... why are the Palestinians so fixed on Israel?
Why have the Palestinians forgiven and forgotten what Jordan did to them?
Why is Jordan's intentional slaughter of Palestinians forgivable but Israel's occasional incidental killing is not?
The construction of a Muslim Palestinian state would be so much simpler if it did not entail the destruction of Israel, which (oh surprise!) does not intend to die quietly. So why have the Palestinians insisted on destroying Israel rather than finding an accommodation with Jordan?
I can see two answers, and only two:
- Palestinian leaders are more interested in maintaining power than in creating a Palestinian state -- an eternal conflict with Israel means eternal power for the leaders,
- Palestinian leaders are driven by anti-Semitism, desiring the destruction of Israel more than the creation of a Muslim Palestinian state.
Those two answers are not mutually exclusive. Different Palestinian leaders may be animated by one or the other... or both.
I would be very happy to hear of any other analysis, because I would prefer not to entertain such a conception of a people's leaders.
Does anyone have an idea??