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Why History Matters: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

02/22/2010 4:30 PM 66"110
Victor Kattan, Fellow, University of London; Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor, MIT

Description: Given the volume of writing on the Arab"Israeli conflict, "you might think that everything has been said," says Noam Chomsky. But Victor Kattan's new book, Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab"Israeli Conflict, takes a fresh look at the prehistory of the dispute, as well as the evolution of international law and its import for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, says Chomsky. While he is familiar with much of the material in this account, Chomsky also notes episodes in Kattan's narrative that open up new, "sordid chapters" in these "convoluted, complex, often painful historical events."

Kattan set out to explore how the conflict began, and so pored over the writing of scores of European political figures, and leaders of Zionist and Arab nationalist movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries. His key insight: Neither Arabs nor Jews were to blame for triggering hostilities, but rather Britain, and the other major powers.

Kattan argues that anti"Semitism, which welled up during a period of collapsing colonial empires, motivated British actions that led to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and paved the way for trouble over decades to the current time. In the 19th century, Jews viciously persecuted in Russia began flooding Western Europe, especially Britain, where many thousands more embarked to the U.S. America and Britain were the promised land to the Jews, says Kattan -- not Palestine. But British distaste for these immigrants soon led to plans for diverting the unwanted foreigners to an alternative location.

In the early 1900s, Kattan describes documents authored by British statesmen, and by such early Zionist leaders as Theodor Herzl, arguing that Britain's Jewish immigration "problem" could be solved by finding Jews a homeland in Palestine. Kattan even cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis endorsing such a solution. Anti"immigrant fervor, says Kattan, led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, describing Britain's intention to facilitate a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

This was a compromised piece of diplomacy, suggests Kattan, ushering in an era of unending disputes and hostility. Key issues the British sidestepped or muddied, says Kattan, included promises made to Arabs for their own independent kingdom, and the principle of self"determination, emergent in international law, which would have acknowledged the claims of the Arab majority in the lands carved out for the Jews. While Britain bore the largest share in creating the Middle East mess -- with its many vital interests in the region -- Kattan says that other nations were complicit, entangled as they were by immigration and independence movements and their own strategic influence.

Kattan follows this sorry tale through the Second World War and Israel's founding, describing repeated failed attempts to reach a settlement between Arabs and Jews over a shared homeland. But due to a conflict set in motion so many years before, a "culture of blame" now exists that will likely prevent agreement, particularly, says Kattan, "as long as Israeli settlements expand."

About the Speaker(s): Victor Kattan has an LL.B (Hons.) from Brunel University, an LL.M from Leiden University and is studying towards a Ph.D. He was a Research Fellow in Public International Law at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law on their Human Rights in International Law and Iran project from 2006"8. Prior to this, he was a Director with the London"based media watchdog Arab Media Watch where he also worked as a journalist, an adviser and a researcher.

In 2003"4, Kattan worked in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a U.N. Development Programme TOKTEN consultant on secondment to the BADIL Resource Center, a non"governmental organization specializing in Palestinian refugee rights.

Kattan is the author of more than half a dozen scholarly articles on the Arab"Israeli conflict in international law journals. His book, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab"Israeli Conflict was published June 2009 by Pluto Books. Kattan also compiled an edited collection of legal articles in The Palestine Question in International Law, which was published by The British Institute of International and Comparative Law in May 2008. He was the assistant editor of the Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law from 2005"8.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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