To whom was the Promised Land promised?

Israel has been consistently criticized for its occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, even though they were captured in a purely defensive war.

Sunrise in the Negev (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sunrise in the Negev
(photo credit: Courtesy)

If the world were governed by reason, logic and conscientious adherence to the rule of law, then Professor Abraham A. Sion’s new book would be a game-changer. For he has submitted the entire legal process leading to the establishment of the State of Israel to meticulous forensic examination, and he demonstrates beyond any doubt that judicial rulings from the UN, the EU, the International Court of Justice and elsewhere have often been at odds with a scrupulous interpretation of their legal basis. In short, he demonstrates with chapter and verse that the almost universally accepted consensus on Israel’s legal position regarding the West Bank, settlements and Jerusalem is legally flawed.

The international bodies that he demonstrates to be at fault maintain that the West Bank and east Jerusalem are Palestinian territory, and that Israeli towns and cities in Judea and Samaria are illegal. Sion uncovers the solid legal building blocks that have been ignored or overlooked and that prove different.

Professor Abraham Sion was born in 1939 in Iraq. During the anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad in 1941, his family fled to India. They came to Israel in 1951 and Sion later served in the Israel Defense Forces. Having read law at the Hebrew University, he graduated in 1964 and was admitted to the Israeli Bar in 1966. He then spent time at Cambridge University in the UK, achieving his PhD in its Faculty of Law in 1971. He served as Israel’s deputy state attorney in 1972.

Subsequently, he pursued a wide-ranging career in law and academia, lecturing and publishing widely on international law and the Arab-Israel dispute. While holding a visiting professorship at Stanford Law School in the US, he examined the legal origins of the conflict. He is now Law Professor Emeritus at Ariel University.

To Whom was the Promised Land Promised? dwells in great detail on the political factors surrounding the conception and final drafting of the Balfour Declaration, published in November 1917 by the British Government. The text, as it passed through its various drafts, is analyzed at each stage. The anti-Zionist political pressure applied on those keen to bring the Declaration into existence is described in detail. Sion subjects the Declaration to this degree of scrutiny because later, slightly but significantly adapted, it was incorporated into legal instruments binding under international law.

 To Whom Was the Promised Land Promised? By Abraham A. Sion To Whom Was the Promised Land Promised? By Abraham A. Sion

Sion leads us step by step along this rocky path. It begins with the endorsement by much of the world of the Balfour Declaration even before it was issued. Sion lists eight nations, including the US and France, that did so. Indeed, he asserts that the Balfour Declaration was not issued until the prior approval of France, Italy and the US had been assured. After its publication, both Houses of Congress endorsed it.

Then came the Resolution incorporating the Declaration in its entirety that was passed at San Remo in April 1920 by the Principal Allied Powers (the UK, France, Italy and Japan, with the US as an observer). That Resolution affirmed that Palestine would be administered by a mandatory.

San Remo was followed by the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920, which gives legal effect to the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, and the subsequent administration of its territories. The treaty specified that Palestine was to be governed by a mandatory that “will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on 2 November 1917 by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”

Britain’s undertaking in the Balfour Declaration to use its “best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object” was thus transformed into a direct responsibility for putting it into effect, and this became international law when the League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine in July 1922. The whole world declared, and endorsed in a legal instrument, that it required a national home for the Jewish people to be established in Palestine.

Later in the book Sion recounts step by step the long history of retreat from the original intention set out in the Balfour Declaration as originally understood in the Mandate. Sometimes, under the pressure of events, small reinterpretations, qualifications or amendments to the League’s original intentions were slipped into place, while in one major shift of British policy, the original Mandate was blatantly violated.

Sion explains fully the complex circumstances that led Britain to detach the whole area east of the Jordan River from Mandate Palestine and create a new Arab political entity, Trans-Jordan. He terms it a “total breach of the Mandate instrument and the convention of San Remo.”

He explains that Britain was entrusted with the administration, not the sovereignty, of Palestine, and derived its legal power from the Mandate under which it undertook the responsibility of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Palestine at that time undoubtedly included the territory east of the Jordan running up to what was then the Palestinian border. Britain, he writes, thus deprived the Jewish people, “to whom the pledge in the Balfour Declaration was made, from immigrating, settling and building their National Home in the eastern part of the country.” Legal authority for Britain’s action was, Sion asserts, never obtained.

What followed, as Sion illustrates, was a reinterpretation of the intentions underlying the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations mandate, which in turn led to the concept of a second partition of the already truncated Palestine. Sion realizes that there was much Arab resentment against Britain for pledges made that were inconsistent with the Balfour Declaration. He deals with a number of British promises to Arab leaders that were only partially or never fulfilled, but he draws a distinction between them and the legal basis of the Mandate, confirmed and endorsed by the international community and the League of Nations.

At the very start of his book, Sion says that his purpose is to ascertain who owned the legal right to the territory of Mandatory Palestine under international law. He identifies the two competitors as the Arab nation on the one hand and the Jewish people on the other. He is concerned solely with the legal position, and not with political or related issues. He wishes to establish the legal rights under international law of both parties in order to determine what side acquired the legal title to the land.

Ever since the Six Day War in 1967, Israel has been consistently criticized for its occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, even though they were captured in a purely defensive war. Sion questions why they were universally considered Palestinian Arab territory, for the result has been a consensus of world opinion that Israeli settlements in these areas contravene Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (that is, an occupying power may not transfer part of its civilian population into the territory it occupies). Sion demonstrates that in reaching these and related conclusions, international bodies never refer to the original treaties that shaped the legal structure of the Middle East. He shows that the rights derived from those binding international commitments made to the Jewish people were still valid when Israel “occupied” the West Bank.

Will Sion succeed in convincing these bodies to reconsider their rulings? Regardless of the merits of his arguments and his apparent incontrovertible proofs, the prospect is not bright. Too many factors militate against even razor-sharp legal brains reaching an agreed conclusion about matters so mired in emotion and controversy. Those of us with less endowed brains must simply read, appreciate, enjoy and ponder over Sion’s superbly well-researched study.