Enemies And Neighbours: Arabs And Jews In Palestine And Israel, 1917 – 2017 by Ian Black

The Blurb On The Back:

On the centenary of Britain’s Balfour Declaration – promising a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine – comes a major new history of the Palestinians and Israelis.

In Enemies and Neighbours, Ian Black has written a gripping and timely account of the most polarising conflict of our age: the unresolved and unequal struggle between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.  Beginning in the final years of Ottoman rule, he sheds fresh light on critical developments from the Arab rebellion of the 1930s and the watersheds of the 1948 and 1967 wars up to the present day.  Drawing on a wide range of sources, from oral testimonies to Black’s own decades of reporting, Enemies and Neighbours illuminates a bitter conflict that shows no sign of ending – which is why it is essential that we understand it.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order ENEMIES AND NEIGHBOURS: ARABS AND JEWS IN PALESTINE AND ISRAEL, 1917 – 2017 by Ian Black from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Ian Black is a visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and former Middle East editor for The Guardian.  Published in 2017 to coincide with the Balfour Declaration’s centenary (although the book begins in 1882 and the arrival of Zionist settlers), this book provides a plain facts account of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians that explains what happened but doesn’t elucidate on why, leaving me with half the story.

I picked up this book because the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been going on for my whole life.  Although I have tried to follow parts of it, e.g. I remember the hope surrounding the Oslo Accords and was living in the Middle East during the subsequent second Palestinian intifada and remember the anger of the time, I really didn’t have much of a grasp on the issues at play or how it had developed.  In that respect, this book is very useful because Black adopts a ‘just the facts’ approach to setting out a history of the conflict and although it hinges on the Balfour Declaration (the original publication of the book having been timed to coincide with the centenary), he actually starts his examination in 1882 when the first Zionist settlers arrived in what was then Palestine following Russian pogroms.  

Black’s aim is to provide a shared narrative for both sides, one which sets out what happened without the brouhaha of politics and propaganda.  It’s a laudable objective and one that probably fails to satisfy supporters of either side because, ironically, the impression I came away with on finishing this book is that both sides are so entrenched that you literally cannot disengage the facts from the politics as each side is so heavily wedded to its own interpretation and spin on what happened that it refuses to countenance the views of either the other side or observers who are attempting to be neutral.  

To be fair, trying to deal with the politics involved on both sides would be a colossal undertaking because there appear to be so many players and objectives in play, e.g. the drivers behind the coalition politics in the Israeli Knesset, the various policy drivers of the Arab states (including the rivalries between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran and their various proxy groups).  However, there are times when I think it would have been very useful to have had at least a brief summary of some of this politics, e.g. when it comes to the rise of Hamas and its rivalry with Fatah I wanted to know who was supporting each side and why and how that shaped subsequent events.  Similarly I really wanted to know more about the settler lobby within Israel and the political parties that rose from it, which seem to carry increased sway in domestic affairs because it would be useful to know to what extent that they are a real block to the two state solution.  Finally, there is a comment in the introduction about how the Palestinians have been using social media to gain support for their cause but this is something that doesn’t get covered a lot within the relevant final chapters and it would have been helpful to have had some more background about the rise of the boycott movement and how the Palestinians have been attempting to address the international community.

Black has divided the books into chapters that each cover a block of time.  The advantage of this is that it does make the book more digestible because there is an awful lot of ground to cover.  Black also draws heavily on available research to substantiate what he’s saying and the book is extensively footnoted with sources and cross-references.  One point to note is that because he is quoting people from the relevant time periods, there is a fair amount of racist and anti-Semitic language within the book so be aware of that as you’re going into it.

I finished the book with a feeling of depression because, as at the time it was published, there did not seem to be any way forward between the two countries in terms of a negotiated settlement.  This has only got worse in the subsequent years, given the disastrous impact of the Trump presidency.  What does come through is how the Palestinians have suffered massive losses over the decades, both in terms of body count and economically.  They’ve also been badly let down by poor political leadership and elites who, initially, sold the land out from under them and then failed to come together to form a coherent opposition.  At the same time, Black leaves it open to interpret the Israeli position as being one of consistent bad faith (in part driven by fear of existential threat) and violent over-reaction.  This is despite the fact that there is evidently a proportion of the Israeli population sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and again, it would have been interesting to know to what extent that they try to cut through with their fellow Israelis.

Ultimately, this is an informative book but while it gives you a good sense of the history, I don’t think it does what it purports to in terms of illuminating the whys behind the various critical junctures.  As such, it is a helpful book to read if you want to understand this subject but it is not going to give you the whole story. 

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