Book review: Victor Kattan’s legal history of the colonization of Palestine

Zionism, it was proclaimed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, “aims at the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law.” The choice of the words “public law” was a compromise between the delegates representing different streams of political Zionism. As David Vital explained in The Origins of Zionism, one branch of Zionism wanted to explicitly refer to the “law of nations,” while the other was willing to make do with “law” only (364-370).

Law, or to be more precise, international law, has always been central to political Zionism. After all, international law reflects the aggregation of the agreements, opinions and interests of those who decide what the law is. There is little doubt that when the Zionist Congress met in 1897, the law was what the imperial powers decided was law. In order to create a new political entity, one needed the recognition of those powers, and the recognition of the law to gain legitimacy. Hence the centrality of law to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Yet at the same time, most of the Palestinian arguments and demands are based on international law. This leaves a lot of ambiguity about what the law is, its interpretation and how it interacts with other historical events and political realities. Victor Kattan’s new book From Coexistence to Conquest attempts to clear up this ambiguity.

In order to understand how the law works, one needs to situate it in its political and historical context, otherwise it loses its relevance. That’s what From Coexistence to Conquest does. It is a novel attempt to examine the legal history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, describing law as one factor among many that shaped the development of events. Kattan, currently a teaching fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), offers an insightful contribution to the legal scholarship on the Israeli-Arab conflict, focusing on the period beginning at the end of the 19th century until the creation of Israel in 1948.

Kattan makes an argument for Palestinian independence and self-determination. He further argues that the case for Palestinian independence holds true even according “to the positive tradition of international law associated with British imperialism and colonialism” (xix). Though it is not the first work to promote such an argument, From Coexistence to Conquest makes the argument in an elegant and comprehensive way.

Kattan traces the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and raises questions about the events that have shaped this history, including the political agreements, understandings and conspiracies that led to the 1948 Palestine war. Asserting from the outset that law is “the end product of politics,” Kattan’s historically-based legal analysis draws on extensive archival research and provides readers with a broader context to understand the interplay between law, politics and power (8).

From Coexistence to Conquest is divided into nine chapters. Chapter Two, “Palestine and the Scramble for the Middle East,” is arguably the most important. Kattan explains how, paradoxically, to understand what happened in Palestine one should begin in Europe. He links the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the development of Zionism — an issue often overlooked, especially by those writing from a legal perspective. He also discusses the convergence of interests between the Zionist movement and European leaders (mainly British), many of whom are anti-Semites themselves, and how the Zionist movement found a strong and important ally in them. Kattan concludes that “[I]nternational law was integral to the Zionist movement, which was inherently linked to European colonialism, British imperialism and Western capitalism as well as European notions of nationalism, self-determination and anti-Semitism” (36).

In the next three chapters, Kattan discusses the conflicting pledges given to the Zionist movement, embodied by the Balfour Declaration, and the pledges given to Sherif Hussein of Mecca by Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, who handled the negotiations with the Arabs before the eruption of the Arab Revolt in 1916. Here Kattan provides an analysis of the situation according to the legal standards that prevailed at the time. He concludes that the Hussein-McMahon correspondence amounted to a valid agreement binding on both sides and that contrary to some of the views promoted to justify the conflicting pledges, Palestine was not excluded from the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

Self-determination and partition plans are examined in Chapters Five and Six. Here Kattan assesses the applicability of the right to self-determination (or principle, as it was only a principle and not a part of human rights yet) to the two groups living in Palestine, the indigenous population and the mostly European Jewish settlers. Kattan states that “the claim of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants to self-determination was based on effective occupation and continuous habitation whereas the Zionists’ was aligned to British imperialism” (126).

Kattan also discusses the legal, moral and political grounds that informed Palestinian objections to the 1947 UN Partition Plan. He links events in Europe and their effect on Palestine and explains that the Partition Plan allocated disproportionate areas to the Jewish state in order to solve Europe’s refugee problem at a time when Western Europe and North America were refusing to resettle those refugees mainly because they were Jewish. In the last three chapters, Kattan focuses on the 1948 Palestine war, the refugee problem and the creation of the State of Israel and its subsequent admission to the UN.

The book’s novelty lies in its use of new information, data and facts revealed in the last twenty years to update the legal analysis of events. This is especially evident in the chapters about the refugee problem and the 1948 war. In the latter, Kattan observes that international lawyers tend to overlook the armed conflict of 1948, instead of analyzing the chronology of events leading up to and during the war, thus creating a gap in the literature. Kattan takes international lawyers to task for adhering to a simplistic and inaccurate characterization of the 1948 war, and proceeds to fill the gap by providing new analysis that closely examines the course of the 1948 conflict and the atrocities that took place during the war. Kattan does so to “challenge the prevailing view in legal scholarship that the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states were the aggressors of 1948 who wanted ‘to throw the Jews into the sea’ ” (172).

From Coexistence to Conquest is a unique work of legal history on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike other works whose main focus is the law (e.g., Musa Mazzawi’s Palestine and the Law: Guidelines for the Resolution of the Arab Israeli Conflict and The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order by Thomas and Sally Mallison) Kattan’s book stands alone in the literature because of its reliance on a remarkable amount of archival material. Although the book contains legal analysis of the kind that would mainly be familiar only to international lawyers, Kattan endeavors to simplify the legal issues and make them accessible to a novice reader. In this he meets his objective of writing a book that appeals to a general audience.

From Coexistence to Conquest ends with a quote by former British Foreign Secretary Sir Arthur Balfour describing the 1917 declaration which bore his name. Balfour stated that the policy of creating a Jewish national home in Palestine is a “great experiment, because nothing like it has ever been tried in the world, and because it is entirely novel” (251). While the suffering of the millions displaced ever since, the thousands killed and the further millions whose lives have been affected over the past hundred years until today calls into question the success of Balfour’s experiment, Kattan’s book successfully and methodically shows how law was used, or rather abused, in this experiment.

Mazen Masri is a PhD Candidate at the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Canada. A longer version of this book review was first published in volume 15 of the Palestine Yearbook of International Law.

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