When Ian Black began conducting research for his recently published book “Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017,” he noticed how the number seven mysteriously kept cropping up every decade in the conflict. It was almost as if it were some kind of portentous omen that ran parallel with tumultuous historical events.
“It’s quite remarkable,” says Black, who held the position of Middle East editor at Britain’s left-leaning broadsheet, the Guardian, until last year. For a considerable part of that time, he worked as Jerusalem correspondent.
Black begins to rattle off some of the historical epochs where the number seven appears: The first Zionist Congress was in 1897 in Basel; the Balfour Declaration was in 1917; in 1937 with the Peel Commission, the British proposed to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.
In 1947 the UN voted to lead the way to Israel’s independence; in 1967 Israel expanded its territory during the Six-Day War; 1977 saw the rise of the Likud to power, and the demise of the old socialist stronghold in Israeli politics.
1987 witnessed the First Intifada; 2007 was when Hamas took control over Gaza; and in 2017 US President Donald Trump announced that the United States was formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be seen in the future as a serious blow to any kind of [agreement] on a two-state solution,” says Black, commenting on what he sees as yet another fork in the road to the conflict.
“It’s hard to see any meaningful peace process taking off now because the United States has just shown blatant bias [to Israel], having demanded nothing in return. And the US has done nothing at all for the Palestinians,” he adds.
The author, former editor, and now visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, concedes that writing a 100 year history about an ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews over the right to self-determination and political and cultural identity in the Holy Land is hardly an original idea at this stage. Given how much material exists on the subject hitherto, it has a strong claim to be the most closely studied conflict on earth.
Politics and institutional history are certainly important here, Black admits. But he was adamant to write a book that did more than simply document milestones of various wars, diplomatic achievements, and peace initiatives in chronological order.
“I wanted to explore how people’s lives are affected by these tragic moments of conflict,” says Black, “and, more importantly, to tell this contentious, divisive, and controversial story from both sides.”
Inevitably, Black admits, narratives surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict are going to be filled with bias from both sides. Narrative, in its simplest definition, he writes in this latest book, is “the story a nation tells about itself.”
But these narratives often become — certainly within the context of Arabs and Jews— “oversimplified and almost caricatures of themselves,” Black maintains.
“On the Israeli/ Zionist/ Jewish side, the narrative is one of return of a persecuted people to an ancient homeland land to build a nation state,” Black explains.
“On the Palestinian side the story is of foreign settlers — who have no right to the land, and who have ignored the native majority — from an outpost of Western imperialism, while trampling over the rights of the Arab people, and continuing to do so.”
“Both of these narratives are irreconcilable, and there is very little meeting ground between them,” says Black.
Given that Black’s book begins at the moment the Balfour Declaration was issued in November 1917, it seemed an apt moment for him to begin a discussion about it.
This past October, Black wrote a long form piece in the Guardian, just as the 100 year anniversary of the Balfour Deceleration approached.
As the article — and his book — points out, the famous historical letter contained 67 historic words that combined considerations of imperial planning, wartime propaganda, biblical resonances, a colonial mindset, as well as evident sympathy for the Zionist idea.
“The Balfour Declaration was an enormously important moment from the [British], who at the time were the greatest power on earth,” says Black. “It was also a boost of unimaginable significance to the Zionist movement, which had only been founded 20 years earlier by Theodor Herzl in 1897.”
Black believes the Balfour Declaration’s lacunae about Arab communities living in Palestine at the time was crucial to the political unrest and violence that followed.
“There was distinct lack of definition for those existing non-Jewish communities, [especially] considering they constituted 90 percent of the population of the time,” he says. “And there was no mention of [Arabs’] political rights either.”
Black claims when the Balfour Declaration was first issued 100 years ago, there was a strong sense of the problems that lay ahead.
“The perceived problems were not just from the British either,” says Black. “There were warnings from the Zionist side as well.”
If 1917 was a landmark moment for the conflict between Jews and Arabs, then so too was 1948, the year the State of Israel was formed.
Black recalls in his book how in March 1948 Haganah commanders meeting in Tel Aviv looked ahead to the next stage of the War of Independence in a document known as Plan Dalet (Plan D).
The plan was designed to secure control of Jewish-held territory — within and beyond the UN partition borders — ahead of the approaching British departure. In the case of resistance, Arabs were to be expelled. If there was no resistance, they could stay under military rule.
Decades later, opinions still differ sharply as to whether this constituted a master plan for expulsions or “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs.
This latter term has been borrowed from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, although it remains rather vague and is still not recognized as a crime under international law.
Far-left Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, for example, used this phrase in the title of an influential book published 10 years ago in which he claims the Jews were guilty of ethnically cleansing their Arab neighbors in 1948.
Black, however, approaches the subject with a little more caution and nuance, believing that the issue is a highly controversial one. He cites testimonies from Palestinians from 1948, as well as conflicting arguments resulting from discussions about documentary evidence versus oral evidence.
He points out how other Israeli and pro-Zionist scholars have described Plan D as defensive and the Palestinian exodus as unexpected.
Palestinian historians, such as Walid Khalidi, meanwhile, take the opposing view. Benny Morris, the controversial, pioneering “new” Israeli historian — with whom Black co-authored a book with in 1992 called “Israel’s Secret Wars” — has argued that Plan D was implemented only in piecemeal fashion, and that it was born out of war, rather than premeditated design.
“If you are looking at the war of 1948, the main discussion revolves around one question: Was there an Israeli master plan to expel Palestinians [from their land]?” Black asks rhetorically.
“The most definitive answer has been given by Benny Morris,” says Black.“It’s widely believed among professional historians that Ilan Pappé simply doesn’t produce the evidence for that [so called] systematic plan.”
Still, the important part of that discussion concerns the consensuses, which are undisputed, says Black.
“Palestinians were driven out from their homes. And my conclusion is that the consequences matter more than the motives. And those consequences are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to this day,” he says.
Black continually returns to the phrase historical hindsight over the course of our discussion; pointing out that we’re not just looking at these crucial issues today with the added advantage of historical hindsight before us.
Put another way: during each major epoch of history in the Israel-Palestine conflict there were warning signs within Israel that problems were going to arise. Black cites the Six-Day War in 1967 as a good example of this: where the young Jewish rookie nation state tripled the territory it controlled and began ruling over 1.1 million Palestinians.
Black recalls voices on the left in Israel at the time, who emphasized the moral hazards of maintaining a military occupation. Yeshayahu Leibowitz — the scientist, philosopher and theologian from Hebrew University — was especially vocal.
“Leibowitz noted at the time how the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were about to become an occupation force, with all the risks that entailed,” says Black.
Ten years after the Six Day War saw the rise of nationalist fervor in Israel like never before, Black posits. This came in the form of the rise of one political party: the Likud.
Black discusses how Israel witnessed yet another tumultuous shift in the country’s political culture. Primarily two things happened, Black maintains: there was a drastic shift to the right, led by hawkish politicians such as Menachem Begin, and the reinforcement of a trend towards settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“That shift [towards settlements] of course began under the Labor Party,” Black is keen to point out, “but the settlement enterprise accelerated pretty rapidly after 1977, and [the National Religious organization] Gush Emunim then had a patron in government.”
“That was hugely important in terms of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and the prospects of coming to some kind of peace settlement after the watershed of 1967,” he adds.
Alongside the status of Jerusalem, Black says the settlement issue is perhaps “the most significant problem in the status of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
“The message of the settlement enterprise has been that Israel wants to remain in control of significant parts of the West Bank,” he says. “That is illegal under international law. It’s also rejected by the Palestinians. Settlements are a barrier to peace.”
“Some of the biggest settlements in places like Ma’ale Adumim — or any of the other big urban settlements that straddle the old Green Line — are not a bunch of tents on a hillside; they are cities which have been built in places that are, under international law, occupied territories,” Black adds.
Black claims that he has learned just as much about this conflict while reporting for the Guardian back in 1987 from the streets of Nablus and Gaza during the First Intifada, as he has laboriously poring over declassified files in historical archives in Jerusalem and London while meticulously researching his current book.
“On the Israeli side it was hard to counter [the intifada] in propaganda terms,” says Black, “because the overall image was that violence was between very unequal partners.”
“The intifada sent an important message, which remains today if you look in the West Bank, where you see the Israelis — who remain superior organizationally, militarily and technologically — maintaining the apparatus of control over people who don’t want them there. And that is very challenging for a democratic society,” he adds.
If the First Intifada saw a significant change in opinion — by both Palestinians and the international community — the Second Intifada in September 2000 was when the conflict itself began to change significantly.
A fundamental part of this change was that body counts began to rise drastically.
Black points out that that between 1967 and the First Intifada, 650 Palestinians were killed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. From late 1987 to 2000, the death toll was 1,491. But from the Second Intifada to end of 2006, the figure was 4,046 Palestinians and 1,019 Israelis.
“When weapons are being used by both sides, but the balance between the two sides is so overwhelmingly in the favor of the more powerful one, that accounts for the higher casualty rate,” Black explains.
“And then there was the increase in the use of suicide bombers, not just by Hamas, but also by [other] members of the Palestinian movement. So the fight became a much bloodier one with terrible consequences,” he says.
When Hamas gained control over Gaza in 2007, the conflict took a significant turn yet again, Black believes. Primarily because it became a territory controlled by an armed Islamic organization and resistance movement.
“Hamas, for religious reasons, sees Palestine as part of an Islamic matrimony,” says Black. “And anti-Semitic language is part of its charter.”
“Unlike the PLO, [Palestine Liberation Organization] Hamas does not recognize Israel,” he adds.
It’s also important to remember, Black points out, that, formally, since 1993, the PLO recognizes the State of Israel.
“But Israel doesn’t recognize a Palestinian state. And the current government is not prepared to agree to one either,” says Black.
Black concludes his book on a rather depressing note.
“Palestinians, divided, scattered, occupied and dispossessed — and by far the weaker of these two unequal enemies and neighbors — face a profoundly uncertain future,” he writes.
But so too do Israelis, Black believes. Even in spite of their overwhelming advantages. Because violence, or at least the threat of it, says Black, is never far from their minds. Moreover, no end to this conflict seems to be looming on the horizon anytime soon.
“Looking to a solution to the conflict, it has to be based on two states for two peoples,” says Black, “because without the creation of a Palestinian state, the conflict has no prospect of coming to an end.”