BBC gets one of its facts on “Palestine” right

A guest post by Geary

BBC Radio 4 hosts an – often excellent – programme entitled “Analysis”. This week’s episode (July 1st, 2013) “Syria and the New Lines in the Sand” is on why, given five minutes of freedom, so much of the Arab world seems unable to refrain from tearing itself to pieces. Could it be the centuries of bitter sectarian enmities? Or the lack of any legacy of workable institutions after 500 years of Ottoman rule? Of course not; silly me.

This being the BBC, the answer, of course, is that it’s not their fault, it’s ours – or our grandfathers’ anyway. The evil Sykes-Picot (“villains” for the BBC) Agreement. The poshest man alive, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, oddly forgiven for having been Ambassador to Israel, is wheeled on to give gravitas to the argument that ‘It’s All Our Fault’. 

If only in 1920 the British (and a bit the French) had put all the Sunnis in one big country, all the Shias in another and all the Kurds in yet another, then they’d all be getting along like a house on fire (maybe that’s the wrong metaphor, but still). On the other hand these entities might forever be at each other’s throats, but this possibility was not mentioned.

Alternatively, the British should have planned some sort of Balkanisation of the region into a thousand independent enclaves, each a homeland for some minority. Oddly, the one part of this plan which came to fruition – the creation of Israel and the subsequent expulsion by the Arab states of their Jews to populate it – does not seem to enjoy universal popularity amongst the Arab neighbours or, for that matter, at the BBC. 

But imagine my shock when I heard – amid this feast of West-bashing and pandering to Arab grudges – the mention, en passant, of the non-existence of any “Palestine” prior to the 1920s. So unlike the Beeb to let this one slip. At roughly 6 minutes 20 seconds into the programme, the presenter and historian are perusing a pre-World War I map of the Middle East:

Presenter: What was this area called at that time?

Historian: Well, it wasn’t called any of the names we know it as today. It wasn’t Syria and it wasn’t Palestine, particularly. These were Western names, and Roman names sometimes, we used to refer to this part of the world, but at that time it was all just part of the Ottoman Empire. [emphasis added]

Crickey, BBC, you let the cat out of the bag there. The inconvenient historical fact that there was no country called Palestine and had not been since the Roman times, when it was inhabited by, unless the Bible, Gibbon and Mel Gibson are all telling lies, the Jews. No “historic Palestine” and so no “historic Palestinian people” then. Just a mixture of folk all living under the sway of the Ottomans. Indeed it was the British who created the Palestinians after WWI. In fact they very generously created two lots of Palestinians for good measure: Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. But before that “Palestine” had no legal tender, it was simply a name and an entity dreamt up by British diplomats who’d had a far too classical education. 

So is there hope yet for BBC historical truth-telling on Israel-Palestine, after this slip? I fear not. Later in the programme we get dark mutterings that “if the Kurds were the great losers out of Sykes-Picot” (not sure that was entirely ‘Our Fault’ – neither the Arabs nor the Turks were willing to envisage a Kurdish state) “the big winners were the early Zionists”. Sigh. So Sykes-Picot, and all the mess it created, was nudge, nudge, just another Zionist plot.

Of course no-one can pretend that Sykes-Picot was not a self-interested deal, aiming to ensure Western political interests and safeguard access to Middle Eastern oil (but what’s so bad about that? Access to trade benefits both sides – ask the Egyptians at the moment). And equally of course it denied much of the Arab Middle East self-determination for a generation. But it was also an honest attempt to create viable nation-states out of the defunct, historically retarded Ottoman Empire. And if Arab self-determination is leading to the horrors of the self-Balkanisation of the region we are witnessing now, maybe those two old Anglo-French “villains” were not so stupid or villainous after all.

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