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History does not justify either Israel or Palestine.

To be blunt, there is no Israel and no Palestine. At least not in a continuous historical sense, as there is a France or an Egypt, a China or a Thailand or an Ethiopia. Without the British there would be neither a modern Israel nor Palestine.

The Jews claim that they are merely returning to their roots, unwinding the clock to Old Testament times. But if every group of ethnic kin with an ancient pedigree did this where would we be? The Indians could reclaim North and South America, the Moguls Russia and the Hottentots South Africa. Besides, the Jews, led by Moses, committed terrible crimes of genocide when they journeyed from Egypt to claim the Promised Land. Read the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament and you will read how Moses commanded his generals to kill all the women and small boys of the Midianites tribe, even though his army had already defeated the men.

The Jews left what was relatively recently named Palestine a long time ago. In AD 70 after the Jewish insurrection the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and the Jews began a new exodus to Babylonia, in modern day Iraq. This large-scale Jewish settlement of Babylonia endured until the eleventh century. Other Jews went to Egypt, the Romans enslaved many and others were dispersed by war and catastrophe to Italy, Spain, Gaul and Eastern Europe. Judaism also spread by proselytising. By the late Middle Ages the heartland of Jewish settlement was the Polish-Lithuanian state in present day Russia.

The Jews did not begin to settle again in Palestine until the late 19th century. It was only after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, strongly backed by prime minister David Lloyd George, a religious man who saw the Zionist cause as one that must be supported by Christian charity, issued his declaration that the government "views with favour" the aspiration for a Jewish "national home", that the settlement of Arab land began in earnest.

An overwhelming majority of the next generation of British politicians and Middle East administrators, faced with a bloody Arab revolt that they had to mercilessly repress, felt that Lloyd George and Balfour had made a terrible mistake.

But if there are reasonable questions to ask about the legitimacy of the Jewish colonisation of Palestine one can also question the roots of Palestinian nationalism.

Before British rule there were places called Palestine in the region but they were not states and Jerusalem was not their capital. The states that did exist were not called Palestine. The name appears first in late Roman times as the name of a province and the name survived for a short while in the early Arab empire but then it disappeared. The people of these times had deep rooted, sometimes complex identities but being Palestinian was not one of them.

During the long Ottoman era Jerusalem was only the capital of a district of the same name. It and other districts in the area were under the authority of larger provinces, governed from Damascus, Sidon or Beirut.

It was the British who created a formal entity called Palestine with delineated boundaries and made Jerusalem its capital.

The British were perpetually strung on the horn of a dilemma. The Arabs were convinced that they had been promised a state of their own if they helped the British during the First World War overthrow the Turks and dismember the Ottoman Empire. This is why the Jewish historian, Tom Segev, describes this piece of land as "twice promised". It is also why the UN in 1947 decided, given the reality of Jewish settlement and Palestinian nationalism, that what the British had ruled as "Palestine" had to be divided in two.

Any modern-day prime minister of Israel has to try to ride the tiger of modern day Zionism. Having himself or herself fed the beast for most of his or her political life with the meat of a Jewish return to all biblical lands if he attempts any compromise it risks the assassin's bullet from those settlers still imbued with the Zionist dream.

Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestinians, for most of his political life held fast to the idea that the Palestinians did not want partition. They wanted it all, as the British had promised them. Arafat later appeared to mellow, yet what he told audiences when he spoke in Arabic sometimes suggested that the compromise of partition that he envisaged was but a first step to driving the Jews one day into the sea.

Neither side will find the road to peace unless there is some modesty in their approach to the other. In the end the two sides, if they truly want peace and development above all rather than their myths and dreams and the near continuous war they bring, must return to the principles of a reasonably fair division as negotiated at Camp David with President Bill Clinton, and refined at the subsequent negotiations at Sharm el-Sheik and Taba. The truth is that neither side has a cast iron claim to their own state on the land the British called "Palestine", and the sooner their leaders tell their people that the sooner there might be honest discussions about a peace.


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