Michael Scott-Baumann’s book on the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the most useful I have read in a very long while. The book is a literary equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. In 258 pages, broken up into ten easy to read chapters, the author provides much more than a concise history of the conflict. The value of the book is enhanced significantly by the inclusion of an index, a helpful glossary of key terms and people, a chronological time line and a bibliography for further study. The book will also prove useful for interactive group discussion as each chapter begins with key questions answered and concludes with personal testimonies to illustrate the human impact of the conflict.
Over seventy years old, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now the longest unresolved dispute in the hands of the United Nations. It is also the subject of more UN Resolutions than any other dispute in the world. Michael Scott-Baumann’s book explains the reasons why and puts in context the futile attempts at resolving the conflict, or indeed to diffuse the simmering tensions which all too frequently erupt in violence and death, invariably of Palestinian civilians.
- The Origins of the Conflict
In the first chapter the origins of the conflict are outlined; the reasons why Jewish people emigrated to Palestine; how Zionism emerged as a political movement and the impact both had on the indigenous Palestinian communities. In what is a comparatively short introductory chapter, one might wish for more historical context. If the author were to consider a second edition, having undertaken my own PhD on the origins of Christian Zionism, I would include a couple of paragraphs on the role Christian Restorationists played in facilitating the rise of the Jewish Zionist movement. Nevertheless, the author succeeds in identifying the key individuals and organisations that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th Century responsible for facilitating the early Jewish settlement of Palestine and the simmering tensions this caused among the dominant Palestinian communities as Ottoman control of the Near East began to wane.
2. The First World War and the British Mandate
The second chapter describes the significance of the First World War and the reasons for British intervention in Palestine, revealed in three contradictory agreements: the 1915 McMahon correspondence with Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, promising the Arabs independence in return for their support against the Ottomans; the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France to divide the Middle East; and the 1917 Balfour Declaration which promised the Jews a homeland in the British Empire. The chapter further explores how the British Mandate was implemented and how the early colonies of European Jewish emigres gained a foothold in Palestine.
3. British Rule in Palestine 1929-39
The third chapter elaborates on the impact of, and growing resistance to, British rule among the majority Palestinian Arab communities, culminating in the riots of 1929. The chapter also explores the growth of Arab nationalism during the 1930s which paralleled the growth in, and rising independence of, Jewish settlements, the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and attempts at creating a Partition Plan resulting from the Peel Inquiry which recognised that the League of Nations Mandate was increasingly unworkable.
4. UN Partition, Israel and the War, 1945-49
Chapter four explores the reasons why the British were forced to withdraw from Palestine, how the UN Partition Plan inevitably failed and why Israel was able to defeat the combined forces of the Arab states resulting in the mass exodus of more than half of the Palestinian population. The termination of the British Mandate in Palestine coinciding with the end of the Second World War, when much of the British Empire was clamouring for self-rule, was inevitable given the heavy financial burden of maintaining an unpopular military and civil administration as well as the human casualties arising from increasing attacks on British forces by Jewish terrorist groups. The author shows why the UN Partition Plan was never a viable option and why a regional war drawing in the surrounding Arab nations, and mass expulsion of Palestinian civilians, was inevitable.
5. Palestinians and Israelis in the 1950s and 1960s
The fifth chapter examines the re-emergence of Palestinian nationalism and rise of Fatah, especially among the 700,000 Palestinians displaced between 1947-1949; how the Israeli State developed in its first two decades; and the impact of the Six-Day War of 1967 on Palestinian identity. The chapter also addresses the repeated failure to implement UN Resolution 242 requiring the withdrawal of Israeli forces to the 1949 Armistice lines, which provided the basis for a just and lasting peace.
6. The Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories
In the sixth chapter, the reasons for the annexation of Jerusalem and the settlement of the West Bank, Golan and Gaza following the 1967 war are explained. Although the terms ‘occupation’ and ‘settlements’ suggest a temporary status, in reality these were undoubtedly manifestations of a clear and systematic strategy of colonisation and annexation by Israeli Jews of Palestinian territory. Israeli settlements were built strategically to encircle Palestinian towns, deprive Palestinians of access to their agricultural land and force them to live in urban ghettos under Israeli military control.
7. Palestinian Resistance from 1967 to the First Intifada in 1987
Chapter seven is devoted to the development of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from 1967, and the use of ‘terrorism’ as an expression of resistance to Israeli military occupation of the Occupied Territories, as well as in Lebanon among displaced Palestinian refugees. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its impact, together with the First Intifada (1987-1993) are explored, along with the brutal Israeli response.
8. The Rise and Demise of the Oslo Peace Process, 1993-2000
The eighth chapter outlines the role the US played in bringing together Israeli and Palestinian leaders for face-to-face negotiations resulting in the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Peace Accords. The chapter also examines the reasons why Oslo failed and decline in the Peace Process, not least because of the continued expansion of Israeli settlements during the negotiations.
9. From the Second Intifada to War in Gaza, 2000-08
The penultimate chapter elaborates on the reasons for the Second Intifada (2000-2005); the rise of Hamas in Gaza; the impact of 9/11; the decision of the Israeli military to withdraw from Gaza; and the construction of the Separation Barrier to maximise the annexation of land while minimizing the number of Palestinians living on the Israeli side to create ‘facts on the ground’. A minor quibble would be the claim that “At no time, before or since, have the two sides made more concessions in the search for a lasting peace.” Based on ‘land for peace’ (p.193). Norman Finkelstein has argued convincingly that Israel has made no concessions whatsoever, since one cannot concede what is not yours in the first place.
10. Palestinians and Israelis in the Age of Netanyahu, 2009 to 2021
The premiership of Benyamin Netanyahu has cast a long shadow over the hopes for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The final chapter examines why attempts at achieving an enduring peace receded during the US Presidency of Barak Obama and were further thwarted by President Donald Trump’s partisan ‘Deal of the Century’ reinforced by the one-sided support for Israel among Evangelical Christians in the US. The significance of Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law cannot be underestimated especially in the light of the numerous human rights organisations now designating Israel as an apartheid state. The chapter concludes with a snapshot of daily life in the Occupied Territories just prior to publication.
In the short epilogue, the author summarises his reasons for remaining pessimistic about any possibility of a just and lasting peace being achieved between Israelis and Palestinians.
Throughout the book, Michael Scott-Baumann walks a tightrope balancing two mutually exclusive and at times contradictory perspectives based on very different interpretations of contemporary history. Zionists as well as Palestinians might inevitably wish the author had given greater prominence to their viewpoint, but I believe he has been both fair and as objective as it is possible to be on such a deeply contested if not intractable subject. My hope is that the book will help ensure, as the sub-title promises, this will indeed be “A short history of the conflict.”
“This book is both necessary and accessible. So many people are mystified by this never-ending Middle East conflict. Here at last is a concise and readable account of a fundamental international issue of our time, one that has implications far beyond the region where it is set” — Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News
“Michael Scott-Baumann makes the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict easy to understand in this clear, straightforward and unemotional history.” — John McHugo, author of A Concise History of the Arabs
“Michael Scott-Baumann’s excellent book is the ideal introduction to the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and balance, and written in a lively and accessible style, it provides a lucid overview of all key aspects of this complex and extremely important story. Scott-Baumann writes with great sensitivity and insight, enabling his readers to understand the perspectives of different historical actors, and to grasp the essence of competing interpretations of key events. His judicious interpretations are carefully grounded on factual evidence, and his inclusion of many first-person testimonies, each succinctly contextualised and excellently edited, brings the complexities and costs of the conflict to life. This book should be thrust into the hands of all those in need of a brief, clear and approachable account of the historical background to this still unresolved and geopolitically critical conflict.” — Professor Adam Sutcliffe, co-editor of The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume VII
“It is a high-risk venture to attempt an impartial account of the process, enabled by the British, by which the Jews gained a state in Palestine and the indigenous Palestinian Arabs were denied one. Scott-Baumann has taken that risk and succeeded with as near as it comes to a textbook history that brings us up to date with the injustice and dispossession that inform Israel and Palestine.” — Tim Llewellyn, former BBC Middle East Correspondent
“Michael Scott-Baumann set himself the difficult challenge of writing a primer on the now over-a-century-long history of one of the most complex conflicts of modern times. Not only does he rise to the challenge, but he even manages to offer insights that go beyond conventional historical accounts.” — Professor Gilbert Achcar, author of The Arabs and the Holocaust