The land that later came to be called Palestine was first inhabited as early as 9,000 years ago. The city of Jericho, a few miles north of the Dead Sea and west of the Jordan River, is reported to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Canaan (the Biblical name for Palestine) later became inhabited by Semitic tribes from the inner Arabian Peninsula. The Jebusites, one of the Canaanite tribes, built a settlement 5,000 to 6,000 years ago called Urusalin (Jerusalem), meaning “the city of peace.” Peace is still “salaam” in Arabic and “shalom” in Hebrew. Around 2000 BC, another Semitic people, the Hebrews, headed by Abraham, passed through Canaan on their way south. About 1300 BC Hebrew tribes under the leadership of Moses returned from Egypt and engaged in wars with the Canaanite tribes for possession of the land. The Philistines in the south, the Canaanites (Jebusites), Phoenicians, Amorites, and Hittites in the north resisted the Hebrew (Israelite) invasion. Four centuries later, the Israelites, under David, were successful in uniting the Hebrew nation, conquering and substantially absorbing the Canaanites. From this point, Israelites, Philistines, Hittites, and Canaanites mixed races and have subsequently been a racially mixed, Semitic people.
Note: Semitic designates a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages including Arabic and Hebrew, among others.
Canaan, later to be named Palestine by the Romans, was at different times ruled by the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Hebrews, and Assyrians, the Chaldaeans, the Babylonians and Persians, Macedonians (Alexander the Great), the Egyptian Empire of the Ptolemies, and the Seleucids from Syria.
The first Jewish dispersion occurred in 586 BC under the rule of the Chaldaeans (Babylonia), with thousands forced into exile to Babylon until the reconstruction in Palestine of a new Jewish state after 538 BC. During the Babylonia captivity, the Jews developed ideas and institutions that were subsequently to form the foundation of Jewish political and social life after the second dispersion in 135 AD. In 67 BC, a rebellion headed by Judas Maccabeus restored the Jewish state. However, the invincible Roman Empire seized Jerusalem and subdued the Jewish tribes in 63. Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and the Jews were expelled in 135 AD. All of Judea was destroyed, 985 towns and villages burned, and 50 fortresses razed to the ground.
The Romans had renamed Biblical Canaan, Palestine. Palestine was considered the land of the Philistines. In Arabic, Palestine is “Filastin.”
With the decline of Rome in 476 and Byzantine in 611, the Jews (descendants of Judah) began to migrate to Western Europe. The Muslim Arabs, also a Semitic people, conquered Palestine in 634 from the Persians. It was in Jerusalem that the prophet Muhammad reportedly rose to the heavens. Thus the city became holy land for the three great monotheistic religions. Palestine became predominantly Arab and Islamic by the end of the Seventh Century, and united the Semitic people with the exception of the Jews. The land was not even nominally Jewish after this point. With short intervals of partial domination by the Christian Crusaders and the Mongols in the 11th through 13th Centuries, Palestine was under Arab rule for approximately 1000 years and Islamic governments for 15 centuries. In 1516, Palestine came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The Jews over the same period were to experience, with some exceptions, a long history of rejections, repression, and pogroms. They were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1392, and from Spain the same year of Columbus’ voyage in 1492 looking for India. They were then expelled from Portugal in 1497. They attempted, with varying responses, to live throughout Europe, including Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
The Emergence of Zionism
After the Russian riots 1881, and passage of the notorious “May Laws,” tragically forcing the Jews from their farms into town ghettoes, an increased impetus was created for the large number of Jews in Russia to initially emigrate through the formation of Lovers of Zion (at Odessa, Ukraine, 1882). This effort succeeded to the extent that there were 25 Jewish colonies by 1898, and 43 by 1915 in Palestine (Zion). Zion is the name of a hill on which Jerusalem stands, and has come to be a synonym for Jerusalem itself, and by extension to the whole of Palestine.
In 1896, the Viennese journalist, Theodore Herzl, published The Jewish State, influenced by 19th century European nationalism. The vision: creation of a Jewish nation-state. In 1897, Herzl convened a Congress of Jews at Basel, Switzerland and founded the World Zionist Organization to restore the Jewish National Home in Palestine, which at that time was a remote Turkish colony, but inhabited by over a half million Arab Palestinians.
The political program adopted at this 1897 Congress, that continues to provide its basis, begins: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly recognized and legally secured home in Palestine.” Among the means identified for attainment of the objective: “Promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturalists, artisans and tradesmen in Palestine.” Zionism was envisioned as a “wall protecting Europe from Asia” and “an outpost of culture against barbarism.” It implied alliance with the great western capitalist powers and therefore was very Eurocentric. Thus it has always represented a western bias.
The federation of American Zionists was created in 1898 with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise as secretary. The first issue to split the Zionist movement was whether Palestine was essential to a Jewish state. A majority of delegates at the 1905 Congress agreed it was essential and rejected the British offer of a homeland in Uganda, at the time a British Protectorate in east-central Africa. Cypress had also been mentioned as a possible homeland.
World War I ended (temporarily) the influx of Jewish settlers into Palestine. Jewish population had reached 100,000 in 1914. By secret agreements, including the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, France and England were to share the remains of the Ottoman Empire following the War, even though at that time neither country held any power at all in the region. Lebanon and Syria would become French Protectorates, while England would hold a Mandate over Iraq, including the Kuwaiti District of Basrah, and Palestine within which present day Jordan was included (TransJordan).
In 1916, Zionist leaders met with British authorities asking for creation of an autonomous Jewish settlement in Palestine. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, in November 1917, declared that the British supported establishment of land for a “national home” for the Jewish people. This became known as the Balfour Declaration, perhaps regarded by the British as a method for preserving and extending their dominion in the region that was becoming strategic because of the emerging era of oil. However, since the Arabs had greatly assisted the British in defeating the Turks during the War, the Declaration included language that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” over 90 percent of the population at the time. The dream of a united Arab nation or kingdom had been kindled during WW I, significantly by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but was cruelly betrayed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which divided up the spoils among European powers Great Britain and France after the War. The Arabs claimed that the British had promised them an independent state as well. The ratio of Jewish settlers to Palestinian indigenous in 1918 was only one to ten.
The British Mandate
The British Mandate, originally an enunciation of the policy of Great Britain only (with the silent assent of France), was ratified by the allies at the 1920 Conference of San Remo (Italy). This conference ratified the decisions made at the May 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and June 1919 Versailles Treaty, at the conclusion of WW I. In effect the Mandate established a colonial government over the Palestinian people, while overseeing the immigration of Jews into Palestine. A special Jewish battalion was organized to assist in the re-conquest of the “Holy Land,” supported by the 1920 Zionist Congress in London.
Tensions had been mounting for years. The 1919 King-Crane Commission investigated Palestine and concluded: “Zionists look forward to a practically complete dispossession of the Palestinian people. It was increasingly clear at that time that Zionism meant both (1) the “return” of all Jews around the world to “Erzetz Yisrael” and their mass transfer to and settlement in Palestine, and (2) the exodus of indigenous Palestinian Arabs and their mass transfer from Palestine. In effect the situation was not that much different from the dispossession from the Americas of the Indigenous natives by the Europeans.
The first Arab anti-Zionist riots occurred in Palestine in 1920. Despite these problems, the League of Nations formally approved the British Mandate over Palestine in 1922. This Mandate by a foreign colonial power preempted self-government by the Palestinians, facilitated Jewish immigration, and oversaw the transfer of land to the settlers without the consent and against militant opposition of the indigenous Palestinians. Large tracts of land were purchased or “acquired” from the Arabs, massive electrification of the country was initiated, and a “model” town, Tel Aviv, inhabited completely by Jews was laid out, including construction of schools and other institutions.
Arab nationalism had been developing during the early part of the Twentieth Century in response to 4 centuries of Turkish/Ottoman rule. When the Turks were defeated in WW I, the Arabs were prepared to reclaim Palestine. The combination of Zionist colonization and the British Mandate necessarily provoked growing Arab nationalist sentiments even more. Jewish immigration and settlements continued under the Mandate, part of the function of the British charge. In 1929 there occurred serious Jewish-Arab violence at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
In 1930, Sir John Hope Simpson was dispatched by the British government to study the economic conditions in Palestine. He found that the Zionist land policy was displacing large numbers of Arab farmers while also causing neglect and deterioration of agricultural land. Throughout the 1930s, the Arabs conducted large-scale strikes and boycotts in protest. The Palestinian general strike in 1936 in protest of continued Jewish immigration, the latter spurred by Hitler’s persecutions, led to the creation of the British Peel Commission (1937). The Commission found British promises to Zionists and Arabs irreconcilable, declared its Mandate unworkable, and recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish, Arab, and British (largely the holy sited) states. The Zionists reluctantly accepted but the Arabs vehemently rejected the partition plan. Sporadic rebellion lasted until 1939, by when most Palestinian leaders had been killed, exiled or imprisoned, and the British dropped the plan. Instead, the British began strict controls over Jewish immigration for 5 years. In ten years a binational Palestine (one state) was to be established.
Shocked, the Zionists rejected the latest proposal. The Arabs demanded immediate creation of a secure Arab Palestine and prohibition of all further Jewish immigration. As World War II was unfolding, Zionists and most Arabs supported the British war efforts. The plan was scrapped but tensions inside Palestine continued to mount.
Intensification of Violence and Terrorism
As the Jewish community became better organized in defense of its immigration into and settlement of indigenous Palestinian land, the militant Zionists led by Vladimer Jabotinsky became more violent. At a World Congress in Prague, they declared that continued Arab resistance would be met by Jewish violence and that they (the Zionists) affirmed their right to establish a Jewish Majority on both sides of the Jordan River.
Haganah was a secret armed group organized by the Jewish Agency, the organization that officially worked with the Mandate. The Irgun, the most militant of all, and the Stern Gang also emerged as Jewish terrorist groups. Irgun, under the leadership of a Polish Jew, Menachen Begin, also announced in 1944 its war against the Mandate and specifically its goal to assassinate British officials because of their support for a limitation of Jewish immigration quotas. Virtually all current Israeli leaders were members or supporters of one or more of these terrorist organizations. Fifteen British officials had been murdered by October 1944. The terror campaign gathered momentum in 1945-46. The Kind David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed with many killed. Thousands of Europe’s Jews sought admission to Palestine following the end of the war but the British blocked the immigration attempts and detained the migrating Jews in Cypress and other locations. The Jewish terrorist groups responded to the blockade with the escalation of violence, including the blowing up a number of buildings, bridges, and railways, while targeting British soldiers.
A 1947 London conference of British, Arabs and Zionists produced no agreement. The British then turned the Palestine problem over to the United Nations in February 1947. At this time there were about 1,100,000 Muslim Arabs, 615,000 Jews, and 145,000 Christian Arabs in Palestine. In April 1947, the UN General Assembly established a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). In August the UNSCOP proposed partition into separate Arab and Jewish states, and an internationally administered zone including Jerusalem and the holy sites. This was similar to the plan proposed by the British in 1937 (Peel Commission). The UN plan was adopted on November 29, 1947. Great Britain abstained. The Arab representatives left the General Assembly session declaring they would resist the plan. Armed Zionist organizations began forcefully expelling Palestinians from their homes, claiming an attack by Arab armies was imminent.
On April 9, 1948, the Irgun terrorist organization, commanded by Menachen Begin, as a part of an increased campaign of violence, attacked the village of Deir Yasin, killing 254 Palestinian men, women and children. The intention was to terrify the Palestinians into leaving their land. Ten thousand Palestinians did leave the country in fear of their lives. Begin later declared: “There would have been no State of Israel without Deir Yasin.”
The Mandate Ends: Creation of State of Israel (without borders)
At midnight, May 14, 1948, the British High Commissioner for Palestine departed the country. (I bet he said, “Phew”!) At 4 p.m. that same day, the Jews held a ceremony in Tel Aviv at which time they read their Declaration of Independence of the Jewish State in Palestine, for the Jewish people (wherever they might be living at the time), to be called Israel. The new state had no boundaries and, to this day, more than five decades later, Israel is the only country in the world, the only member of the UN that refuses to accept any identified boundaries. It is worthy of note that Israel was established as a state for the “Jewish People,” and not as the state of its citizens. The UN partition plan, however, did identify the boundaries on a map, generally described as (1) a narrow strip of coast, including the ports of Haifa and Tel Aviv, but leaving Jaffa and Acre to the Palestinians, (2) most of the Negeb, a large arid sector in the south, and (3) eastern Galilee around Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Israel, without its borders, received immediate recognition by the United States and Russia.
The Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq invaded the new state of Israel on May 14, 1948. But the Jews had been preparing for war for many months. They had acquired many arms with soldiers to carry and fire them, had planted many land mines, and possessed abundant ammunition. Many of their weapons were Soviet made but purchased through Czechoslovakia. Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, created and protected by the United States, had also participated in a variety of schemes whereby arms were smuggled through the Central American country to the Zionists in various military training locations as early as 1939-40. Nearly 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages almost immediately from areas that were part of Israel’s partition. One hundred twenty thousand managed to remain living within this early version of Israel. This mass expelling became known to the world community as the first wave of Palestinian refugees, most living in wretched camps. They now number more than 2 million.
Of course this forced exodus exacerbated strong anti-British as well as anti-Jewish sentiment. In effect, Palestine was dismembered in May 1948. Hundreds of entire villages were destroyed.
An Armistice was signed in January 1949, ending the first Arab-Israeli War, by which Israel increased by over 40% the size of its partitioned territory. This came to be known as Green Line Israel, the pre 1967-borders. In January 1949 Israel conducted elections for its parliament, the Knesset (“assembly” in Hebrew), and its government was formed. On May 11, 1949 Israel was admitted to the UN. Within a year, 40 nations recognized the borderless state.
The Palestinian Diaspora
A much different, tragic situation was in store for the Palestinians. More than half had abandoned their homes. Most lived as refugees on the West Bank (of the Jordan River), a territory that was then annexed by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (from “Haslim,” family of Muhammad, claiming to be a direct descendent of the Prophet). The Gaza Strip came under Egyptian administration. Palestine ceased to exist as a political and administrative entity. In the eyes of the UN, and therefore international law, the Palestinians were, and are, stateless without any citizenship. Hardly a people. They are officially refugees, a “problem” awaiting resolution.
Palestinians who continued to live in Mandate Palestine on the day of the 1949 census, acquired, through Israeli decrees, a new legal designation, “Israeli Arabs” (or Arab Israelis). Those physically present in the territory incorporated by Israel, but who were not in their homes at the moment of the 1949 Israeli census, became known as “absentee-present” persons. Palestinians living on the West Bank were naturalized according to Jordanian law, as well as those who sought refuge on the east bank of the Jordan River. Those remaining in Gaza, or who sought refuge in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, remained stateless but subject to the control of the countries in which they resided. Over a million presently are in this explicit stateless status.
As a result of this fragmentation and dispersion, a plight familiar to the Jews, the Palestinians have ceased to possess any real authority to live a national or self-determinative life.
Loss of All Historical Palestine and Post-1967 Israel
With U.S. weapons instead of Soviet ones, Israel blitzed, during 6 days in early June 1967, and seized all of the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. At this moment the whole of historical Palestine came under the military control of Israel.
There continue to be other tragic consequences of the 1967 blitz war. Israel’s policy of building colonial settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza has meant shameless confiscation of Palestinian lands, annexation of Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan Heights, and the settling of over 100,000 Jews within annexed Jerusalem. Israel has confiscated precious water resources of the West Bank for its settlements, while prohibiting Palestinians from seeking desperately needed new water sources. Severe drought exists in Arab villages, compelling further exodus of Palestinian farmers. The occupation has caused serious economic dislocation and large-scale unemployment, while forcing the remainder to work for minimum wages in harsh conditions. And Israel found a captive market in the West Bank and Gaza for its manufactured goods, these areas becoming in effect “trading partners” of Israel.
The 1967 War led to the October War of 1973, the Camp David Agreements in 1979, and the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982.
The repression required to “successfully” occupy the Palestinian people in their indigenous country is nothing short of a comprehensive and systematic effort to destroy the Palestinian people. In continuing their policies of occupation and regional aggression, Israel has defied dozens of separate United Nations Resolutions since 1967.
This tragedy of two peoples gripped in a seemingly hopeless struggle over the same territory, with the U.S. politically and financially sustaining the occupation of one people by another, forms the continuing context for much of the political dynamics effecting the Middle East. Of course, without the presence of the vast quantities of oil in the Middle East region upon which most of the “developed” world is totally dependent upon, the U.S. and other Western nations would not have been supporting Israel at the expense of Palestinian and other Arab peoples.
Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Chicago: F.E. Compton & Co., 1951 Edition.
Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia. New York & London: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1931.
The New Columbia Encyclopedia. Edited by William H. Harris and Judith S. Levey. NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975.
The above sources were utilized for the following subjects: Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Jews, Zionism, WW I, Versailles Treaty, San Remo Conference, British Mandate.
Cockburn, Andrew and Leslie. Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
Said, Edward, and Hitchens, Christopher. Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. London & NY: Verso, 1988. (Introduction, pp. 1-19; Ch. 5, pp. 97-147; Ch. 11, pp. 235-296.)
Third World Guide. Grove Press, 1986. (Sections on Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.)
In addition, much information was gathered from several personal trips to Palestine/Israel, especially in April 1989 and September-October 1991.