"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Friday, October 22, 2010

Territories Occupied? What San Remo Really Says

In light of the newly intensified focus on settlement construction in the West Bank, many Zionists pressed to find justification for this internationally condemned activity have resorted to the oft-heard argument that the occupied territories are not in fact occupied at all.

A common iteration of the argument goes something like this: San Remo gave all of Palestine to the Jews. The British Mandate violated San Remo illegally. Nothing can invalidate San Remo. Thus Jews are exclusively entitled to the occupied territories and settlement activity is legitimate.

In combating this…interesting…justification for the legality of settlements, as well as corollary arguments for “better title” and legal acquisition of territory gained by “defensive occupation” I will attempt to explain exactly what the relevant agreements, treaties, and international laws actually reveal in a series entitled Territories Occupied? The first part of this series will focus on San Remo:

A discussion of occupation as relating to the agreement reached by four Allied powers at the San Remo Conference of 1920 must first be placed in historical context in order to determine if it, or any other relevant agreement of the time, did in fact give the Jews exclusive rights to Palestine. Because San Remo relies on the express language of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, this is where we will start.

What the Balfour Declaration Does and Does Not Say

The Balfour declaration, considered the authoritative statement of British policy toward Zionism, and related from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild states in part:
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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. [1]
The caveat of preserving the “civil and religious rights” of native Palestinians would in the eyes of most disinterested observers deal a fatal blow to the Zionist claim of exclusive rights to Palestine. However, most observers are not in fact disinterested. Many modern Zionists have interpreted this line to mean that while Jews must allow the presence of Arabs within what is now Israel without instituting a policy of apartheid or discrimination (a principle Israel arguably violates), the political rights of the indigenous population were not recognized. Yet this claim falls apart upon further inspection.

The original draft of the declaration stated “that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people,” however this language was replaced before the declaration could be adopted. [2] There exists stark contrast between the implications of the latter statement and the former. One implies that the whole of Palestine be designated the Jewish homeland, whereas the other clearly leaves room for indigenous national aspirations. The fact that one was preferred over the other speaks volumes as to the intent of the declaration.

What’s more, in 1919 the General Secretary of the World Zionist Organization made this assertion:
It has been said and is still being obstinately repeated by anti-Zionists again and again, that Zionism aims at the creation of an independent "Jewish State." But this is wholly fallacious. [3]
But regardless of what Zionism claimed to be or entail, Winston Churchill elucidated in unequivocal terms exactly what was at the heart of the British government’s policy in the White Paper of 1922. According to Churchill:
Unauthorized statements have been made to the effect that the purpose in view is to create a wholly Jewish Palestine. Phrases have been used such as that Palestine is to become "as Jewish as England is English." His Majesty's Government regard any such expectation as impracticable and have no such aim in view. Nor have they at any time contemplated, as appears to be feared by the Arab delegation, the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. They would draw attention to the fact that the terms of the Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded `in Palestine.' … It is also necessary to point out that the Zionist Commission in Palestine, now termed the Palestine Zionist Executive, has not desired to possess, and does not possess, any share in the general administration of the country… Further, it is contemplated that the status of all citizens of Palestine in the eyes of the law shall be Palestinian, and it has never been intended that they, or any section of them, should possess any other juridical status. [emphasis added]
This seems quite clear-cut. To go even further, in elucidating the government’s intentions to the Sharif of Mecca, British Dispatch Commander David Hogarth related, “Political and economic freedom of the Palestinian population was not in question,” nor was the possibility of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. [4]

The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence: A Different Story?

There is, however, one glaring issue with Churchill’s white paper, namely his misinterpretation of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence of 1915-1916, which deserves attention. The declaration states: 
It is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty's Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty's Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir. Henry McMahon's pledge. 
Current consensus does not agree with Churchill’s analysis of the territories excluded. There are myriad issues, as explained below:
  • (i) the fact that the word " district" is applied not only to Damascus, &etc, where the reading of vilayet is at least arguable, but also immediately previously to Mersina and Alexandretta. No vilayets of these names exist. It would be difficult to argue that the word " districts " can have two completely different meanings in the space of a few lines.
  • (ii) the fact that Horns and Hama were not the capitals of vilayets, but were both within the Vilayet of Syria.
  • (iii) the fact that the real title of the " Vilayet of Damascus " was " Vilayet of Syria."
  • (iv) the fact that there is no land lying west of the Vilayet of Aleppo.
In a crushing blow to Churchill, the Eastern Committee of the Cabinet held a meeting in which declassified documents relate this statement: 
The Palestine position is this. If we deal with our commitments, there is first the general pledge to Hussein in October 1915, under which Palestine was included in the areas as to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future…[5]
An interesting picture thus emerges, despite the fact that McMahon’s promises were invalidated by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (in which the Allies carved up the Ottoman empire into spheres of influence, an idea that would serve as the basis for San Remo) as well as Balfour’s declaration, one in which all of Palestine was offered to the Sharif of Mecca and not the Jews.

Faisal-Weizmann: More Bad News for Jewish Exclusivity

Sykes-Picot also eviscerated, though not single-handedly, the nascent Faisal-Weizmann agreement of 1919, reached by Hussein’s son Emir Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, who would later become president of the World Zionist Organization. Endorsing the Balfour declaration, and thus implicitly recognizing the political rights of the indigenous population of what would become Israel, the agreement contained the following:
  • Article 1: Understanding between Arabs and Jews
  • Article 2: Borders between an Arab and Palestinian state to be determined by a commission
  • Article 3: Endorsement of the Balfour declaration and the establishment of the Constitution and Administration of Palestine
  • Article 4: Settlement of Jews to the land of Palestine provided thatin taking such measures the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights [in this case meaning Palestinian Arabs, considering other Arabs would not be living in Palestine] and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.”
  • Article 5: Protections of religious exercises and the guarantee that “no religious test shall ever be required for the exercise of civil or political rights
  • Article 6: Muslim holy places put under Muslim control
  • 3 other articles not relevant to the discussion at hand.
It is interesting to see that a man arguing on behalf of the WZO and happily satisfied with this arrangement would agree that the indigenous population would be protected so ardently, with religious, economic and political rights specifically fortified, even when Arabs would be getting their own sovereign state. It’s almost a shame this agreement didn’t stand the test of time.

San Remo: What Does it Really Mean?

The agreement reached at the San Remo conference embodied a lot of the basic principles of Sykes-Picot, e.g. a mandate system. Article 22 of the League of Nations provides the legal basis for such a division in which mandate holders, to be determined at a later date, would hold trusteeship over territories to facilitate their emerging national identities. San Remo also incorporated the Balfour declaration, in identical language calling for:
…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.
It was also stated in similar terms that the agreement was reached:
… on the understanding that there was inserted in the process-verbal an undertaking by the Mandatory Power that this would not involve the surrender of the rights hitherto enjoyed by the non-Jewish communities in Palestine…
If we are to accept the above statements concerning the intentions of the British government with the Balfour Declaration, we must accept that these same principles are at the heart of San Remo. Further, every other (now defunct) agreement of the time continued to provide for the political rights and incorporation of the indigenous population of Palestine and did not call for the creation of an independent Jewish state. In this vein, where do modern Zionists come up with the idea that they were ever granted exclusive political rights in all of Palestine? How does that make any sense at all?

[1] Yapp, M.E. (1987). The Making of the Modern Near East 1792-1923. Harlow,  England: Longman. p. 290
[2] Stein, Leonard (1961). The Balfour Declaration. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 470.
[3] History of Zionism (1600-1918), Volume I, Nahum Sokolow, 1919 Longmans, Green, and Company, London, pages xxiv-xxv
[4] Khouri, Fred John (1985). The Arab-Israeli Dilemma. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 9780815623403, pp. 8-10.
[5] Palestine Papers 1917-1922, Doreen Ingrams, page 48 and UK Archives PRO. CAB 27/24

(Resource citations taken from Wikipedia)


  1. The League of Nations endorsed both the San Remo Convention of 1920 and the Palestine Mandate. These documents gave permanent sovereignty over Palestine to the Jewish People, once the British Mandate ended.

    The other instruments you mention, Balfour, Sykes-Picot, etc., were not adopted by the League of Nations. The British White Paper of 1922 was purely internal to the British government, was not international law, and can not have retro-actively changed the meaning of legal instruments previously adopted by the League.

    The UN charter carries forward the acts of the League of Nations. There is no legal sovereign over Palestine but Israel.

    In "Article 2" of Faisal-Weizmann, above, the phrase "Palestinian State" does not refer to an Arab state, but a Jewish state.

  2. Metternich, i explained quite clearly exactly what San Remo ACTUALLY says. where exactly does it promise "sovereignty over palestine" to the jewish people?

    san remo incorporated balfour, which did NOT give the jews all of palestine. the white paper explained balfour's intentions, and thus by extension explained san remo's intentions.

    faisal-weizmann expressly provided for maintaining the rights of the arab population.

    instead of blindly asserting things, why don't you take the time to read the documents you cite to understand what they actually say.

  3. Are you having trouble with the idea that Jews live in Israel?

    1. No Michelle. I have a problem with ethnosupremacism and religious bigotry. Don't you?