Ugly Truths Behind Balfour and Beersheba

The 'promise' made by Balfour brought the demise of Palestine. (Photo: File)

By Jeremy Salt

Within a month two events will be celebrated that have a left a deep imprint on the ‘western’ consciousness.  The most significant is the Balfour Declaration, a piece of paper whose destructive consequences the people of the Middle East have had to live with every day since it was signed in November, 1917.  It was signed by a man, Arthur James Balfour, who in 1905, as Prime Minister, was regarded by Jews as anti-semitic for his sponsorship in the House of Commons of the Aliens Bill, specifically designed to keep Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia out of England.

Balfour regarded the rights and aspirations of the ‘Arabs’ as inconsequential compared to those of the Jews.  More than 90 per cent of the population of Palestine in 1917, the Palestinian Arabs, Muslim and Christian, were described in his declaration as ‘existing non-Jewish communities.’   The phrase is menacing: what exists today might not necessarily exist tomorrow, which was exactly what the Zionists and senior figures in the British government, including Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions during the war and Colonial Secretary afterwards, had in mind.  Palestine would be filled with Zionist settlers until the demographic balance had reached the point where the indigenous population could be overwhelmed.

The Palestine Balfour wanted to turn into a Jewish ‘national home’ had a Palestinian population of about 600,000 and a Jewish population, composed mostly of recently arrived European settlers, of eight to ten per cent of that number: private land ownership, in the towns and the country, was almost wholly in Palestinian Muslim or Christian hands, with state and village lands part of their collective inheritance.  By 1945, through legal or semi-legal purchase, the Zionist agencies had still only managed to acquire less than six per cent of Palestine.  The rest of what they wanted they would have to steal.

On October 31, two days before Balfour issued his pernicious declaration, Australian cavalrymen had broken through Ottoman defences at Beersheba (Bir Saba’).  The 4th, 8th, 9th, 11th and 12th Australian Light Horse as well as the Imperial Camel Corps were all involved.  The centenary will be celebrated this year by visiting contingents of Australians and New Zealanders.   Israeli travel companies are cashing in, offering ‘In the Footsteps of the Anzacs in the Holy Land’ tours taking in territories occupied in the 1967 war, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, down to the Jordan River valley, as well as Beersheba.

The Times of Israel has even mocked up a ‘photograph’ of 1917 cavalrymen bearing the Australian and Israeli flags.  The official Australian delegation will be led by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull: those taking part in the ‘celebrations’ will include the world champion cyclist Cadell Evans and the actor Bryan Brown.  Evans will lead Australian mountain bikers on a ride along the ‘Anzac Trail’, running from Beersheba to the Gaza strip: perhaps some of the riders might wonder what is on the other side of the fence and think twice about their presence in Israel.

Beersheba’s dark history in the 20th century includes the massacre of between 40 and 120 civilians by ANZAC soldiers at Sarafand, close to Beersheba, on December 10, 1918.  Hundreds of New Zealand troops entered the village and have been held primarily responsible for the massacre but Australian troops were there and, according to some evidence, also took part.  The number of the dead is inexact.  They were only ‘Arabs’, after all, an attitude confirmed by the fact that while General Allenby was disgusted by the killings, no-one was charged for this war crime.

After victory over the Ottomans, Beersheba passed into British hands.  Sarafand became the site of a military camp and thus part of a string of bases and prisons anchoring the British occupation of Palestine.  On May 20, 1948, six days after the British departure and David Ben-Gurion’s announcement of the establishment of the state of Israel, Sarafand (Sarafand al Amr to distinguish it from another Sarafand) was attacked by Zionist forces.   Almost all its houses were destroyed and its entire population of more than 2000 people driven out.   The British military base at Sarafand was turned into an Israeli military base combined with an interrogation and torture centre known to Palestinian prisoners in the coming decades as the ‘palace of hell’ or the ‘palace of the end’, coincidentally (or otherwise) the same name, Qasr al Nihayya, given to the Iraqi royal palace used by Saddam Hussein as an interrogation, torture and killing centre.

Beersheba’s turn for ethnic cleansing came on October 21, 1948, during Operation Yoav, one of the many campaigns launched to take complete control of the Naqab all the way down to the Gulf of Aqaba.  Beersheba was inside the territory allocated to the Palestinian state in the partition plan of 1947. It did not have a Jewish population at all and neither were there any Jewish settlements nearby.  The population of Beersheba about 6000 was entirely Palestinian, including sedentary or semi-sedentary beduin: the population of the Beersheba district was about 110,000, almost all driven out of their villages and the town itself.  Many of the buildings in Beersheba were destroyed but the central mosque was retained and eventually turned into a museum, set aside in recent years for events such as a wine and beer festival, against Palestinian protests.

Many of the residents of Beersheba and its environs ended up in Gaza as part of the outflow of about 200,000 people driven out of southern Palestine.  With Beersheba in their hands, the Zionists could then begin the conquest of the southern Naqab.  They had been allocated this region in 1947 irrespective of the fact that it had no Jewish population at all. Given the enormous mass of territory the Zionists had taken beyond the limits of the partition plan some resistance developed in the US State Department to the idea that Israel should have all the Naqab as well.  But Israel insisted that it ‘must have’ what it had been promised and, in particular, ‘must have’ Eilat.

No-one in the State Department raised the obvious point that there was no Eilat on the map, only a Jordanian police post, Umm Rashrash, standing on the site where the Zionists planned to build Eilat.  On March 10, 1949, Israel completed its conquest of the Naqab by seizing Umm Rashrash.  It had insisted on taking what it had been given in the partition plan, and had insisted on holding what it had taken outside the partition plan, and it got away with it.   Umm Rashrash was developed into the port city of Eilat, and the ethnically cleansed town of Beersheba was turned into the ‘capital’ of the ‘Negev:’ the nuclear weapons development and production plant at Dimona lies about 35 kilometres to the south.  The ethnic cleansing of the beduin from the Naqab has continued in waves down to the present day.

Australia has its own savage colonial past.   Several years ago, the Rudd government initiated the ‘sorry’ movement which was at least an acknowledgement of the crimes committed against the indigenous people.  No lecture is now given or conference given without speakers acknowledging the rights of the traditional owners of the land.  In the cities, with aboriginal land long since built over, the acknowledgement of their rights is never followed up by any practical attempt to give some of it back.   In the outback, furthermore, away from the city lights, where even neglect can be neglected, the problems experienced by aboriginal people continue unredressed, as John Pilger’s recent documentary Utopia makes painfully clear.

Australian politicians, by and large, defend the ‘rights’ of the indigenous people even if there is little clarity on exactly what those rights should include. In any case, acknowledging indigenous rights in Australia and defending them elsewhere are clearly two different matters.  Australian politicians have a track record of slavish deference to Israel, a state which continues its racist war of usurpation against the Palestinian people despite international condemnation.  The list includes all recent Prime Ministers, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcom Turnbull.   Onslaughts on Gaza resulting in the killing of thousands of people are met with the response that Israel is entitled to defend itself while at the UN Australia has repeatedly voted against the upgrading of Palestine credentials.  Julia Gillard, presenting herself as the defender of the rights of women and children around the world, has never once defended the rights of women and children in Gaza and the West Bank: on the contrary, her defence of Israel added up to justification for its crimes.

Greeting Benyamin Netanyahu in Sydney in February this year, Turnbull remarked that ‘we have so much in common, shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law.  Two democracies, one very small in area, one vast but each of us big-hearted, generous, committed to freedom.’

These remarks are such an insult to the intelligence of Palestinians and Australians aware of Israel’s criminal behaviour, a rapidly growing number, that Turnbull himself can surely hardly believe what he is saying to be true.  Palestinians are not free. In Gaza, in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank they live in a state of bondage:  even in pre-1967 Israel they are subjected to a two-tier legal and social system.  No country in the world has shown more contempt for international law and conventions than Israel.

Even as Australians were planning their Beersheba visit an infuriated Israel pulled out of UNESCO, along with the United States. The immediate cause was UNESCO’s designation of the West Bank city of Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque and the ‘cave of the patriarchs’ claimed to be lying beneath it,  as a ‘Palestinian World Heritage site in danger.’  Hebron is an occupied city that has been turned by the Israeli state into one of the most racist places on the face of the earth.  The state’s agents are soldiers and settlers who work together against the Palestinian population, the soldiers protecting the settlers whatever they do and punishing the Palestinians whatever they don’t do.  The heart of the city has been gutted by the occupiers.   The central bus station, an artery for all life in the town, was closed down in the early 1980s.  The central market soon followed, along with all surrounding Palestinian buildings, in the name of security for the settlers living on the heights above. The only visitors to the shuttered ghost market now are Jewish tourists protected by soldiers and believing anything they are told.

In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler from Kiryat Arba, adjoining Hebron, and a follower of the genocidal rabbi Meir Kahane, walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers with an assault rifle before being beaten to death by the rest of the congregation.   This horrific act was celebrated by the Kiryat Arba setters.   At Goldstein’s funeral one rabbi said that a million Arabs were ‘not worth a Jewish fingernail’ while another, Dov Lior, now the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, described Goldstein as being ‘holier than all the martyrs of the holocaust.’

Far from punishing the settler community which nurtured Goldstein, and then celebrated the massacre with a monument built to his memory, Israel took advantage of the moment to bring the mosque under its direct control, with only nominal authority retained by the waqf (religious charitable foundation) authorities.  Two thirds of the mosque was turned into a synagogue to serve the setters of Kiryat Araba and Jewish visitors and one third allowed the Palestinians.   They continue to pray at the mosque despite checkpoints and intimidation by soldiers and settlers because it is Palestinian property, because it is their place of worship and because they are determined to prevent it falling wholly into the hands of the occupier.

The UNESCO vote was only the organisation’s latest attempt to protect Palestinian sites.  Israel’s record of cultural destruction goes back to the beginning:  in 1948 it destroyed close to 500 villages or hamlets and in 1967, having seized East Jerusalem, it immediately pulled down the medieval Magharibah (North African) quarter, built for Muslim pilgrims in the 12th century by a son of Salah al Din al Ayyubi (Saladin), to make way for a ‘plaza’ around the wall of the Haram al Sharif, the compound containing Al Aqsa (the furthest) mosque, designated by Israel as the ‘Temple Mount.’

Destruction of the Muslim Mamillah cemetery in Jerusalem (Al Quds or ‘the holy’) began soon after the 1948 war to make way for an ‘independence park.’  Created in the 7th century the cemetery has been targeted repeatedly, with an estimated 1500 tombs having now been removed, with many of the remains simply thrown away.   A parking lot has been built on cemetery land and plans laid for the construction of a ‘museum of tolerance.’   The destruction/desecration of the cemetery is part of an ongoing process to water down, hide or wipe out the character of what the great scholar Albert Hourani once described as the perfect example of a medieval Islamic city.

Australians visiting Jerusalem or taking side trips to the Golan Heights during their Anzac holy land tour need to understand what they are sanctioning by their presence.  In Beersheba they will be commemorating a battle which stands in Palestinian memory as the scene of a massacre.  They will be trooping in and out of a city built up on ethnically cleansed Palestinian land.  They will be riding the ‘Anzac trail’ up to Gaza where, behind the fence, Palestinians who once lived in or around Beersheba were driven out by those who took the town over.

The problem is not just that Palestine was ethnically cleansed once, in 1948, and twice, in 1967, but that the clearing of the land continues in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.   There is no remorse, no regret by Israel, no willingness to come to terms with the past, only triumphalism, arrogance, more criminality and endless restatements that ‘this land belongs to us and only us.’   Morally, Australian public figures visiting Israel to take part in state-sponsored events put themselves in a contradictory position.  Defending, at least in word, indigenous rights in their own country, they are visiting a country where the destruction of the rights of another indigenous people does not belong to the past but, after more than 70 years, remains an ongoing process.

– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to

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