This is a thought provoking if not fully developed work on the ongoing situation in Palestine/Israel. Avi Shlaim has compiled a set of his writings from previous publications that in a broad way cover the events of the region, with a brief look at the Balfour Declaration before jumping forward to look at the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and its resulting sequence of events.

Avi Shlaim self professes to be of the school of revisionist historians and his writing fully supports that claim. Throughout the writing one of the themes is the Israeli use of military power to solve its problems, a solution much preferred to negotiations and compromise. A corollary of this is that when negotiations were used, they were mainly as a mask to delay a solution while the ongoing status quo built more settlements and evicted more Palestinians from their homes and farms, especially after the 1967 war.

Another thematic reminder that reiterates throughout the work is that of the asymmetric power - mainly military - that reinforces the previous idea, but also adds the knowledge that there is no balance in the situation, that Israel holds all the power, to the point that “a voluntary agreement between the parties is simply unattainable;” and as seen within the Oslo agreement the Palestinians would have been “subject to the provisions of Israeli law…and military orders… rather than international law.”

International Law

One of the more thought provoking themes raised by Shlaim is that of international law and its place within the creation of Israel/Palestine and its place within the ongoing torments of the Palestinian people. Shlaim clearly identifies the occupation as the most significant component of Israel’s defiance of international law. Under this rubric falls all the defiance of international law that refers to annexation, settlement, attacks on civilians, torture, imprisonment, land confiscation et al. That Israel is in defiance of international law is well supported, and especially since the attack on Gaza in 2008, wherein “Israel’s disdain for international norms involves America in a pattern of hypocrisy and makes a mockery of its claim to moral leadership.” At the end of his examination of Israel’s attack on Gaza Shlaim states, that Israel “has become a rogue state with ‘an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders.’ A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction [also against international law] and practices terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes [ditto].”

Where I have questions - and they are truly more questions than arguments as I am no authority on international law - is with his support of the state of Israel under international law by way of the slim trail of paperwork from the Balfour Declaration through to the UN Partition Plan of 1947.

Shlaim “accept[s] the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders” based on the “inescapable fact that something on a titanic scale had to be done for them [European holocaust survivors] and there was nothing titanic enough except Palestine,” as the “moral case for a Jewish state became unassailable.” These positions are arguable, as are any arguments stated in absolutes and written from a singular perspective of Western guilt for atrocities against the Jewish people in World War II.

Having questioned the statements, I cannot argue with the fact of Israel: it exists albeit in a somewhat ill-defined manner suiting the pro-settlement, apartheid, right wing religious nationalists; and it will continue to exist in spite of its manufactured fears and presentations of itself being the victim of Palestinian intransigence and under threat from any of a number of self-perceived enemies.

But is it all ‘legal’? Shlaim argues that “a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority cannot be illegal.” Okay, fine. The vote was 33 in favour, 13 against and 10 abstentions, with a requirement for a 2/3 majority. Is that a large majority? Abstentions obviously were not counted, but why and under what pressure of ideals were those abstentions made? And what about the other countries, more than the fifty-six voting within the UN, and probably more including the many colonies that were probably excluded at the time? Still, Israel exists and the vote is irrelevant, except perhaps for arguing about where the boundaries of Israel should be under international law.

1947 Partition

The UN Partition Plan of 1947 is of dubious validity - I would be glad to receive arguments on the pros and cons of it - based as it was on a limited and perhaps contrived vote count. But even accepting its validity, further questions arise from the Plan itself in which it says:

The Security Council consider, if circumstances during the transitional period require such consideration, whether the situation in Palestine constitutes a threat to the peace. If it decides that such a threat exists, and in order to maintain international peace and security, the Security Council should supplement the authorization of the General Assembly by taking measures, under Articles 39 and 41 of the Charter, to empower the United Nations Commission, as provided in this resolution, to exercise in Palestine the functions which are assigned to it by this resolution;

The Security Council determine as a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, in accordance with Article 39 of the Charter, any attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged by this resolution;

From all the materials I have read, there was a large “attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged by this resolution,” and there certainly has been a “situation in Palestine [note the name] [that] constitutes a threat to the peace.” Israeli historians of the propaganda ilk will argue yes, there certainly were “threats to peace,” and there were attempts to “alter by force” with the blame applied to the Arab armies and the indigenous population, yet much of this force and threat occurred well before the Arab states intervened.

The reality that has more recently been uncovered by the revisionist historians listed by Shlaim (and many others) demonstrates that force and peace threats rose immediately from the Israeli ‘defence’ forces who quickly set about the ethnic cleansing of over 400 towns using tactics which today would be considered terror. Perhaps then the arguable line of a two state settlement should be the original boundaries of the UN partition plan with Jerusalem as an international city?

Reality says that Israel exists in a much larger form than the original intended plan, and it will not surrender - arguably - any territory in a settlement with the Palestinians. Again, Israel exists and the Partition Plan is essentially irrelevant to moving forward within the current world situation.

Much farther back along the time line, the Balfour Declaration is simply that, a declaration of purpose, and has absolutely no validity in international law, or should not have. One governments belief about making a new state on already populated territory should have no validity in international law. This of course raises huge questions about many countries that were colonies set up with arbitrary boundaries by the imperial forces of the day extending throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas (did any of the indigenous populations have a say in the establishment of their country and its boundaries?) and which have been partial cause if not major cause of many international problems today.

These concerns can be argued back and forth without changing much. What is clear is that Israel today is in a clear breach of international law along with its accomplice, the U.S. Shlaim covers much territory and significant time, but the two strongest hitting chapters from my perspective were the ones on Ariel Sharon in “Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians” and on Gaza “Israel’s War Against Hamas: Rhetoric and Reality.”

Back to the basics I - Sharon

Sharon is viewed as an ultimate warrior, in which “diplomacy…is the extension of war by other means,” with convictions based on Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s strategy “to enable the Zionist movement to deal with its local opponents from a position of unassailable strength.” His “iron wall” was “not an end in itself but a means to an end,” in order “to compel the Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. Despair was expected to promote pragmatism.” His career was hallmarked with “mendacity, the most savage brutality towards the Arab civilians, and a persistent preference for force over diplomacy,” he remained “the champion of violent solutions.”

Apart from his “habitual violation of UN resolutions to the systematic abuse of international humanitarian law,” one of Sharon’s most disturbing aspects “was the commencement of the construction of the so called ‘security barrier’ or wall on the West Bank.” According to Shlaim, “it is clear that the wall is paving the way to the de facto annexation of a substantial part of the West Bank to Israel. Jabotinsky’s iron wall metaphor “fast became a hideous and horrendous concrete reality, and an environmental catastrophe,” not to mention the International Court of Justice “declared Construction of the barrier is contrary to international law."

Back to the basics II - Gaza.

Gaza receives the denouement position within this series of articles, as it is the most recent, most aggressive, and most obvious violation of international law. When a massively armed force attacks what is essentially a large outdoor prison, having previously broken a truce sustained by Hamas, there can be no doubt about Israel’s culpability in breaking international law.

While introducing the background to this chapter, Shlaim says “the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansion….and the result has been on of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.” At first, economic control of Gaza (and the West Bank), a control that “did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip,” is discussed. The ongoing Israeli activities made it so “The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.”

When the Gaza settlers were withdrawn it served two purposes. The first was propaganda for the western media, but “the real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank into the [State] of Israel.” Shlaim’s history continues with strong condemnatory notes. After the withdrawal “Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison.” As for democracy, “Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet it has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy.” Turning to the Palestinian side, he says, “the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon and Morocco.” These are impressively strong statements that speak clearly of the reality in the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Shlaim notes the irony of “The international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor, but against the oppressed.” He also notes the reaction of Hamas, as “it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution,” a voice Israel continually denies credibility to.

His language continues accusing and strong: “Killing civilians is a gross violation of international humanitarian law….Israel’s record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza.” The ongoing economic blockade is seen as immoral and also “a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.” Beyond the economy, war crimes are listed that “alone sweep away any moral or legal justification for the war.” Shlaim ends the chapter with the passage quoted above about Israel becoming a rogue state that “habitually violates international law.”


Shlaim’s work is not necessarily a good place to start for someone wanting an overview of the whole of the Palestine/Israel question from its historical inception through to today. It is however a powerfully stated series of descriptions and commentaries that highlight the Israeli disregard for international law and some of the complicity of the U.S. Without equivocation and with clear language that is accessible to all readers, Shlaim provides ample evidence of the international intransigence of Israel towards what are commonly expressed principles of international law and commonly held expectations of humanitarian behaviour. As a dissident historical perspective (becoming more and more mainstream, especially after the Gaza war), Israel and Palestine is a welcome and strongly worded addition to the library of material on the core threat to peace in the Middle East.

Israel and Palestine - Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. Avi Shlaim. Verso, London, 2009.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.