60 Years Later: Canada and the Origins of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Part 1)

May 6, 2008 (ZNet)

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The year 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, and should be the occasion for a serious re-evaluation of international policy towards the conflict that has ensued. Political Zionism, and after 1948 the Israeli state, has consistently drawn crucial political, economic and military support from Europe and North America. With this support comes a heavy burden of responsibility for its consequences.

These consequences are much too severe to be ignored or tolerated. In Gaza today, 1.5 million people - mostly refugees from 1948 - are being collectively punished and starved in line with a policy of what Israeli officials call "economic warfare," approved by Israel's Supreme Court and accompanied by continuous air strikes, artillery attacks and ground incursions. When Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrated in solidarity with Gaza this March following a series of Israeli attacks that left 269 Palestinians wounded and 120 dead, a member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees heckled them with threats of expulsion from the country. Neither Israeli legal structures nor Jewish Israeli public opinion seem to pose any serious obstacle to Israel's intensifying war against the Palestinians. Western policy, meanwhile, continues to help prevent constructive international intervention.

While there is much guilt to go around, Canada is operating in particularly crude alignment with Israel against the Palestinians. Within the framework of the "war on terror," the Canadian government has criminalized nearly all major Palestinian political parties by designating them as "terrorist groups" (under Bill C-36), even as it cultivates ever more intimate trade, security and diplomatic relations with the Israeli state. On the United Nations Human Rights Council, Canada has emerged as the staunchest opponent of meaningful criticism of Israeli human rights violations and war crimes.

Under these circumstances, many in Canada could find it tempting to fall into a kind of nostalgia - for an Israel that was more liberal and democratic, or for a Canadian foreign policy that was more even-handed. To be sure, Israeli political culture has, in important respects, shifted to the right in recent decades, and Israeli regional ambitions have expanded and taken on new significance. In recent Canadian history, the policy shifts initiated under the Paul Martin Liberals (from late 2004), and extended by the Stephen Harper Conservatives, have sharpened Canadian alignment with Israel against the Palestinians.

But the Israeli war against indigenous Palestinians is not novel. Nor is Canadian rejection of Palestinian rights to political self-representation, or official indifference to the well-being and very survival of the Palestinian people. A broad, vigorous challenge to these policies is imperative. Such a challenge can only be weakened by a refusal to own up to the history from which these policies extend, or by an under-estimation of how rooted they are in longstanding Canadian perceptions and practices.

The 60th anniversary of the war of 1948, which was perhaps the defining moment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, affords us the opportunity to explore this track-record of Canadian complicity and strengthen the challenge to its continuation. This article aims to contribute to this process. It falls considerably short of a comprehensive exploration of the Canadian record on this issue. Instead, it reviews some basic historical aspects of Canadian interaction with Israel/Palestine, focusing on the landmark event that is at the centre of a series of upcoming celebrations: the mass ethnic cleansing of 1948.

Early Zionist Colonization, Canada, and the ‘Transfer' of Palestinians:
Wadi al-Hawarith and Beyond

The history of Canadian interaction with Israel/Palestine can be understood in relation to two conflicts. The first of these is the specific clash between the political Zionist movement and indigenous Palestinian Arabs. The second is broader, between the imperial ambitions of Western powers (including Canada, Britain, and the United States) and the aspirations of people in the Middle East for genuine independence and decolonization - this as connected to the wider international struggle between the major world powers and regional liberation movements. While this article focuses on the first of these conflicts, it bears emphasis that the two are in fact inseparable.

This article centres on the events of 1948, but the processes which led up to these events - and which we still live with today - did not emerge overnight. It may be useful, then, to review the roots of the conflict that culminated in 1948, and the nature of early Canadian interaction with it. The first part of this article is devoted to this task.

Roots of the Conflict, Early Canadian Orientations

These roots can be traced to late 19th century Europe. The intensification of anti-Semitism during this period - notably, the sustained outburst of violence in Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander the II in 1881 - provoked a process of widespread Jewish migration which, in addition to laying the basis for much of the contemporary Canadian Jewish community, also produced the first wave of modern Jewish immigration to Palestine. In the coming years, these circumstances combined with the upsurge of nationalism across Europe to strengthen calls for a specifically Jewish nation-building project. In an era of massive European imperial expansion, the option of concentrated Jewish settlement overseas as a means of pursuing this project and as a purported solution to Europe's "Jewish problem" became a topic of serious consideration. In 1897, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was established as an instrument to carry it out.*

The European colonial campaigns which marked this period, most infamously including the colonization of much of Africa, directly encroached upon what we now know as the Middle East: in 1882, for example, British troops occupied Egypt. It was the extension of this process to Palestine which determined both the fortunes of the political Zionist movement, and the terms of Canadian interaction with it.

The critical moment came with the First World War. In 1918, Allied forces operating under the British General Edmund Allenby conquered Palestine from the Ottoman Turks and subjected it to an Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA). The previous year, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour had declared his government's support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." This declaration was prompted by an odd mixture of imperial geopolitics, Christian Zionism, and misperceptions of international Jewish political clout - those interested can refer to Maxime Rodinson's Israel and the Arabs, Roger Adelson's London and the Invention of the Middle East, and Sabeel's recent volume, Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Israel-Palestine Conflict. In any event, as of 1918, the Zionist movement enjoyed considerable support from the major world power (Britain) in effective control over Palestine - a power, moreover, under whose flag the Canadian government had long operated.

The impact on Canadian Zionism was considerable. The WZO's inaugural conference in 1897 had committed the movement to "[t]he organization and binding together of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country"; in Canada, a Federation of Zionist Societies (precursor to the Zionist Organization of Canada, ZOC) had been duly established in 1899. Canadian Zionist activities had long received official encouragement, with Prime Ministers and other prominent supporters even attending the occasional Zionist conference from as early as 1906. Bolstered by the prestige of British imperial endorsement, Canadian Zionism now operated within a still friendlier atmosphere.

The Canadian Zionist movement had long focused on fundraising. This was coordinated by the World Zionist Organization, and directed in large part towards the WZO's land-acquisition and colonization arm, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), established by the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901. Following WWI and the British occupation of Palestine, the Zionist movement as a whole expanded and was restructured. As part of this process, its fundraising activities in Canada were reorganized, and escalated considerably.

The British Mandate's "Appropriate Jewish Agency"

Even with the British occupation of Palestine in 1918, Britain's declaration of support for a Jewish "national home" in Palestine was just that: a unilateral government declaration. The post-war diplomatic settlement and establishment of the League of Nations, however, involved the creation of a mandates system as "a means of lawfully incorporating the former colonial peoples of the losing side in World War I into the colonial empires of the victorious allies without explicitly extending colonialism as such."(Falk, 40) This was viewed as a betrayal across the Arab east, where resistance to Ottoman rule had been mounted in relation to the Allies' wartime promises of post-war independence. The situation was particularly dramatic in Palestine, where the League of Nations conferred a sort of legal and diplomatic legitimacy upon Zionist colonization by formally incorporating the Balfour declaration into the terms of the British mandate.

Additionally, Article 4 of the British mandate stated that "[a]n appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine," and that the WZO, "so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognized as such agency."(Shaw, 5)

As its new official status was setting in, the WZO was busy restructuring its fundraising institutions. A new organization was established, called the Keren Hayesod (Foundation Fund), to function - in the words of the relevant WZO resolution - "as the central fund of the Zionist Organization under the control of the Zionist Congress." When a distinct "Jewish Agency" constitution was ratified in 1929, it affirmed that "unless and until otherwise determined ..., the Palestine Foundation Fund shall be the main financial instrument of the Agency for the purpose of covering its budget."(Stock, 27 & 88)

In North America, financial support for the Keren Hayesod (to be used at the discretion of the WZO/Jewish Agency executive) and for the Jewish National Fund specifically (which was also ultimately under WZO direction) was organized in close coordination under the umbrella of a combined fundraising campaign, the United Palestine Appeal (UPA).

And so, in association with a revamped fundraising apparatus - and in an atmosphere of British imperial endorsement - Canadian support for political Zionist colonization efforts intensified.

Perceptions of Pre-Colonization Palestine: "A Land Without a People"

Before exploring some of the noteworthy aspects of direct Canadian interaction with Zionist colonization in Palestine, the basic political Zionist orientation towards Palestine's indigenous population deserves attention. Here, a convenient starting point is offered by the memoirs of an individual whose name will come up repeatedly below: Ben Dunkelman (1913-1997). His father David was the founder of the retail giant Tip Top Tailors; his mother Rose the Ontario leader of the women's Zionist organization Hadassah. A veteran of the Second World War, Ben Dunkelman is today a much-revered figure amongst Canada's Israel-linked Jewish community leadership. He was also a notable Canadian culprit in the ethnic cleansing of 1948.

Visitors to Toronto's Lipa Green Building, headquarters of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIAFC) - the umbrella operation for the Canadian Jewish Congress and Canada-Israel Committee, and successor to the United Palestine Appeal - can today view Dunkelman's autobiography, Dual Allegiance, cased in a glass display as a monument to the author and the history he represents. The text is a credible reference-point in exploring the outlook of the Canadian Zionist establishment.

Dunkelman describes the circumstances prevailing at the time of the British occupation of 1918 as follows: "At the time, the total population of Palestine was about one million, and the Jews were a small minority, numbering no more than 160,000. But Jewish settlements were springing up all over the country - small and isolated, but veritable oases in a landscape which was otherwise largely barren wilderness."(19)

Dunkelman's population figures are a bit off. In a detailed study published by Columbia University Press, Justin McCarthy puts Palestine's total population in 1918 at approximately 750,000, including a Jewish community of slightly less than 60,000 people. About 8% of the population was Jewish, then - up from approximately 3% before the immigration of 1882 onwards, but in any event, as Dunkelman puts it, "a small minority." His approach to the non-Jewish indigenous majority is both representative and highly revealing.

In describing this populated territory as "largely barren wilderness," Dunkelman is essentially echoing the classic Zionist slogan: "A land without a people for a people without a land." This slogan is sometimes taken to suggest that Palestine was literally uninhabited, but this was obviously not the understanding. As the detailed work of the Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha shows, the slogan was, instead, part of a conscious effort to undermine indigenous rights to the land. Consider the blunt words of Israel Zangwill, who coined and popularized this classic slogan. Zangwill also declared: "[We] must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the [Arab] tribes in possession as our forefathers did or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan and accustomed for centuries to despise us."(Masalha '92, 10) It was not that Palestine did not have inhabitants, but that it did not have a people worthy of the land; that "there is at best an Arab encampment," as Zangwill put it. (Masalha '97, 62)

And so it was for Dunkelman: "The [Jewish] colonies were well tended and green, standing out in contrast to the wasteland all around. The Arab villagers also tilled their land, of course, but they were terribly exploited by absentee landlords, disease-ridden, and tied to agricultural methods that were primitive and ineffective."(19)

Dunkelman, who briefly settled in Palestine in 1931-32, thus depicts his efforts to rid Palestinians of their traditional existence as almost humanitarian. At the same time, he points to what it was about Zionist land ownership and settlement that would come to produce such anger amongst Palestinians. He relates an anecdote from his work as part of a Zionist settlement on absentee-owned land in Palestine. This involved confrontation with Palestinians trying to drink water and otherwise make use of land which had not previously been subjected to such exclusive control. "Till that time," Dunkelman writes, "there had been a kind of unwritten agreement whereby the Arabs were permitted to come into our groves and cut the grass growing between the trees. But I thought we should hold on to that grass, for use as fertilizer, or to sell for fodder."(40) This provoked a physical confrontation - but despite being "a hell of a long way from Upper Canada College," Dunkelman "could punch, wrestle, kick, butt, and gouge as well as any man," and laid down the new rules.(4)

One may infer from Dunkelman's writing that he simply tended to be somewhat of a thug. But such acts of aggressive exclusion were not restricted to a few overzealous settlers. Regarding the mainstream Zionist policy, and sticking to instances of prominent Canadian involvement, the case of Wadi al-Hawarith is instructive.

Canada's Patch of "Uninhabited Sand and Swamp"

Formally, significant portions of Palestine were owned by absentee landlords. This was a fact that the Zionist movement, with the support of British legislative reforms, leveraged to its advantage. Purchase of absentee-owned land, combined with efforts to displace its inhabitants, was a major preoccupation of the Zionist movement through the 1920s and 1930s. Naturally, this was an approach which relied upon the heavy participation of international fundraising networks.

It was in accord with this model that the WZO acquired title to the lands of Wadi al-Hawarith, a stretch of coastal territory located at about equal distances south of Haifa, and north of Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Spanning some 30,000 dunams (one dunam is roughly one fourth of an acre) Wadi al-Hawarith was home to a Bedouin community with a population estimated by the British at 1,000 to 1,200 people, with livestock of 3,200.(Adler, 204) In 1928, legal title to the land was acquired by the JNF with the support of Canadian Zionist fundraisers.

This purchase was a major focal point for Canadian Zionist activity, and often comes up in histories of the movement. Its implications, however, are rarely discussed. Take the work of Gerald Tulchinsky, whose book Branching Out: The Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community provides a lively account of many workers' struggles, campaigns against immigration restrictions, and other important chapters of the history at issue. Unfortunately, on issues of Zionism and Palestine, he succumbs to the familiar dogma. Of the push to secure title to Wadi al-Hawarith, he writes: "JNF officials were anxious to acquire this large tract of uninhabited sand and swamp when it became available in the mid-1920s."(165) In fact, not only was Wadi al-Hawarith inhabited, but the struggle over the fate of its tenants became a significant issue for the Zionist leadership, the British authorities, and the Palestinian national movement alike.

The designation "tenants" requires some clarification. Technically, according to the Ottoman land registry inherited and reformed by the British, the people of Wadi al-Hawarith did not themselves have title to the land which they worked. But this had previously had very little impact on their lives. Tenancy was permanent, and could be inherited. The nominal owners - in this case, originally a Lebanese Maronite who had lived in Jaffa, and mortgaged the land to an individual in France - were entitled to rent; but as in Wadi al-Hawarith, many owners collected rarely if at all.(Adler, 204)

In this instance, the owner's heirs, spread across a number of continents, had failed to meet the original owner's debts. The JNF applied a combination of pressure and bribery to ensure that the land was put to public auction. And so, as leading JNF official Yosef Weitz would later write, "the President of the Jewish National Fund, M[enachem] Ussishkin, packed his bags and sailed off to Canada to arouse the dispersed Jews and encourage them to contribute to the redemption of this valley". Canadian Zionists committed to raising $1,000,000 for the effort, and worked for the better part of the next decade paying it off. (Adler, 200; Kimmerling, 70; Tulchinsky, 166)

For four years following the issuance by British authorities of the first eviction notice in 1929, the tenants of Wadi al-Hawarith maintained an impressively unified struggle to preserve their community from displacement. The first attempt to physically evict them was resisted with sticks and stones. As Walid Khalidi explains: "The insistence of the people of Wadi al-Hawarith to remain on their land came from their conviction that the land belonged to them by virtue of their having lived on it for 350 years. For them, ownership of the land was an abstraction that at most signified the landlords' right to a share of the crop."(Khalidi '92, 564)

This insistence collided head-on with the political Zionist position, as crudely expressed in 1930 by JNF president Ussishkin (the main broker of this deal, but referring to the issue in Palestine as a whole): "If there are other inhabitants there, they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land. We have a great and nobler ideal than preserving several hundred thousands of fellahin." (Masalha '92, 27)

The British rejected a proposal from the Jewish Agency to transfer the tenants to Jordan. However, they continued to try and remove them from this coastal territory and to transfer them elsewhere in Palestine: "in my opinion," the Assistant District Commissioner in Nablus explained, "this pocket of primitive Semi-negroid Beduin ... is a nuisance and only serves to impede the proper development of a very valuable area." (Altran, 734)

The struggle peaked in 1933. In Nablus, a general strike was organized in solidarity with the tenants of Wadi al-Hawarith. On the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, the tenants themselves marched to join demonstrations in Tulkarem, and were prevented from doing so only by coordination between police units and low-flying RAF planes which dispersed the demonstrators. (Adler, 215)

As Raya Adler (Cohen) writes: "The convergence of the tenants' resistance against their displacement with the general political struggle briefly turned the Wadi Hawarith affair into an event of national important that resonated beyond the borders of Palestine." Eventually, most tenants were evicted and dispersed; some managed to stay on small patches of the land until 1948; and popular anger around the case "merged into the general wave of discontent." (215 & 213)

Adler (Cohen) continues: "Had the JNF compromised with the tenants and allowed them to cultivate part of the land as they demanded (and as was proposed by a Jewish peasant journal), the affair might have ended differently. But the JNF's goals were national rather than economic: it could not content itself with legal ownership; Jewish settlers had to replace the Arab tenants. The displacement of the Bedouin violated the customs of Arab society and united the community in protest against this blatant injustice."(216)

In Canada, meanwhile, Zionist fundraising for this project continued, receiving a prominent official rubber-stamp just as the struggle over this case was at its height. Zionist Organization of Canada president A.J. Freiman - interlocutor with Ussishkin on the Wadi al-Hawarith case - was joined in a radio broadcast for the United Palestine Appeal 1933 by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Referring to "the promises of God, speaking through His prophets," the Prime Minister declared: "Scriptural prophecy is being fulfilled. The restoration of Zion has begun."(Gottesman, 91)

Building on Precedent: "Transfer the Arabs"

Political Zionist ambitions of ethnically cleansing Palestine were not restricted to incremental land acquisition, enclosure, and settlement from abroad. Already in 1919, Winston Churchill had noted that the Zionists "take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience."(Masalha '92, 15) For the mainstream political Zionist leadership, this remained a core objective.

Throughout the 1920s and the early '30s, the relative weakness of the Zionist movement, and the overall isolation of indigenous Palestinian resistance by the British authorities, kept concrete discussion of how to pursue this objective fairly broad and abstract. But in 1936, the eruption of a large-scale Palestinian Arab rebellion prompted a detailed consideration of this issue in mainstream Zionist bodies.

On the one hand, the eviction of tenants and the displacement of peasants during the course of Zionist settlement was a central cause of the indigenous rebellion. On the other, it was recognized by Zionist strategists as a positive precedent for "compulsory transfer." In 1937, for example, JNF National Committee member Eliahu (Lulu) Hacarmeli argued that if the Zionist movement were to engage in widespread "transfer, even if it were to be carried out through compulsion - all moral enterprises are carried through compulsion - we will be justified in all senses. And if we negate all right to transfer, we would need to negate everything we have done until now: the transfer from Emek Hefer [Wadi al-Hawarith] to Beit Shean, from the Sharon to Ephraem Mountains etc." (Masalha '92, 73)

The establishment by the Jewish Agency in late 1937 of a Population Transfer Committee is notable not simply because, alongside JNF heavyweight Yosef Weitz and others, it included Dov Yosef - the former head of Canadian Young Judea, one of the Canadian groupings that advocated direct settlement - but because it indicates how formally mainstream Zionist institutions were coming to grapple with this question.

A detailed exploration of these discussions is provided by Nur Masalha (Expulsion of the Palestinians: the concept of "transfer" in Zionist political thought, 1882-1948), and need not detain us here. But a diary entry by Yosef Weitz from 1940 does outline the severe conclusion which key Zionist leaders reached:

"The Zionist work so far, in terms of preparation and paving the way for the creation of the Hebrew state in the Land of Israel, has been good and was able to satisfy itself with land-purchasing but this will not bring about the state; that must come about simultaneously in the manner of redemption (here is the meaning of the Messianic idea). The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left." (Masalha '92, 131-132)

A Dose of British Civilization for Palestine

What followed the eruption of the Palestinian Arab rebellion in 1936 was not only a detailed discussion of political Zionist strategies for dealing with Palestine's indigenous majority; there also occurred a shift in power which helped set the stage for their successful pursuit in 1948. British policy was central in effecting this shift.

The British responded to the revolt with the advanced military means at their disposal.

20,000 British troops, operating with considerable air power, were deployed to crush the rebellion. The leading institutions of the Palestinian Arab national movement - eg., the Arab Higher Committee and the National Committee - were declared to be illegal and forcibly dismantled. Waves of British military operations, executions and deportations left Palestinian Arab society thoroughly weakened. (See for example Hirst, Nachmani & Shaw, cited below.)

At the same time, not only did the Jewish Agency and associated institutions continue to operate, but their military capabilities were given a tremendous boost. Technically, the Jewish Agency's military arm, the Hagana, was illegal. In practice, the Hagana received regular financing - and not only thanks to international fundraising anchored by the Keren Hayesod. The British government itself helped to arm, pay, and train forces selected by the Jewish Agency (mostly Hagana units), with which they then coordinated in repressing the uprising. (Shaw, 590-1)

In an article titled "Britain's Contribution to Arming the Hagana," David Ben-Gurion, executive of the Jewish Agency from 1935 to 1948 (and then Israeli Prime Minister), explained: "The appearance of thousands of Jewish young men with legalized arms immediately improved our defence position."(372) The article continues: "The most successful and complete co-operations between the Jews and the British was achieved with the establishment of the Special Night Squads by a distinguished British Officer, Captain Charles Orde Wingate. This was a practical step towards the establishment of a Jewish military force within the framework of the British Army." (375)

British journalist Leonard Mosley gives the following account of the first Special Night Squads raid on an Arab village. Wingate apparently fired into the village, drawing the local militia out into a trap which saw 5 militia members killed and 4 captured:

"Wingate came back, carrying a Turkish rifle over his shoulder. He looked calm and serene. ‘Good work. You are fine boys and will make good soldiers,' he said.

He went up to the four Arab prisoners. He said in Arabic: ‘You have arms in this village. Where have you hidden them?'

The Arabs shook their heads, and protested ignorance. Wingate reached down and took sand and grit form the ground; he thrust it into the mouth of the first Arab and pushed it down his throat until he choked and puked.

‘Now,' he said, ‘where have you hidden the arms?'
Still they shook their heads.
Wingate turned to one of the Jews and, pointing to the coughing and spluttering Arab, said, ‘Shoot this man.'

The Jew looked at him questioningly and hesitated.

Wingate said, in a tense voice, ‘Did you hear? Shoot him.'

The Jew shot the Arab. The others stared for a moment, in stupefaction, at the dead boy at their feet. The boys from Hanita were watching in silence.

‘Now speak,' said Wingate. They spoke." (Hirst, 105)

While British-Hagana military coordination did not last, Ben-Gurion explains that "Wingate's work was not in vain. The Hagana's best officers were trained in the special Night Squads, and Wingate's doctrines were taken over by the Israel Defence Forces, which were established twelve days after the birth of the Jewish State."(387)

It was in this spirit - in line with an increasingly resolute commitment to deal with indigenous Palestinians not by means of political agreement, but by means of force - that the political Zionist leadership approached the lead-up to 1948. The point was put rather bluntly by Michael Comay, a former South African intelligence officer and the leading Zionist diplomat to Canada in '48, when asked whether the Zionist movement could not have pursued some form of serious negotiations with indigenous Palestinians rather than merely seeking international support in the fight against them. "No," Comay replied simply: "the only way we can succeed is to ram our state down the throats of the Arabs. Then they'll accept it." (Bercuson '85, 195)

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