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Palestine - History

Lord Shaftesbury called Israel “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This highlights the source of the problem that has troubled relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East for a hundred years. In the late 1800s, the land in question was indeed a “land without a people,” in the sense that the people living there did not think of themselves as a “nation.” But, it was not a land without people. While much of the land was barren, there were a few hundred thousand people living there, most of them Muslim Arabs, who began to be concerned about the influx of Jews.

The Arabs living there did not, however, call themselves “Palestinians.” That is because in the late 1800s, there was no sovereign entity known as Palestine. (In ancient times, it was a Roman province.) The whole region, along with much of the Middle East, belonged to the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and Palestine did not even exist as a specific entity within the empire; nor had there ever been a sovereign entity known as Palestine. The area that today is called “historic Palestine” was at the time of Ottoman rule subdivided into different districts within the empire, reporting to different governors. If there was no Palestine, then there were no Palestinians.

Indeed, the average person living there at the time to identify themselves, may have identified themselves as members of a family or clan, as Muslims, possibly as Syrians (since “historic Palestine” was considered by many to be part of southern Syria, which itself was not an independent entity at the time), or they would have identified as Arabs or as subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinians didn’t become a self-identifying people until later, perhaps around 1920 (or even much later), and that was largely in response to Zionism. One could say that had there been no Zionism, there likely would have been no “Palestinianism.”

The roots of the conflict can be traced to the late 19th century, which saw a rise in national movements, including Zionism and Arab nationalism. Zionism, the Jewish national movement, was established as a political movement in 1897, largely as a response to Russian and European anti-Semitism. It sought the establishment of a Jewish Nation-State in Palestine so that they might find sanctuary and self-determination there. The World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund encouraged immigration and funded purchase of land under Ottoman rule and under British rule in the region of Palestine.

In the 1870s, a wave of anti-Semitism spurred a new migration from central Europe, and in 1898, Theodore Hertzl organized a Zionist international movement to establish in Palestine a home for the Jewish People secured by public law. Thousands of Palestinians were already living in Palestine as their descendants had done so for centuries.

In 1914 came “The Great War,” - the Ottoman Turks aligned themselves with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians. These “Central Powers” fought against the “Allied Powers,” consisting of the British, French, Italians, Russians, and eventually the Americans. To help win the war, the British made many promises to many groups.

From the Arab viewpoint, the British promised Palestine to them in 1915-16, in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, an exchange of letters between a British official and the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the gist of which was that in exchange for leading an Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, the British would grant independence to the Arabs after the war (assuming British victory in the war).

From the Jewish viewpoint, the British promised Palestine to them in the Balfour Declaration of 02 November 1917, which embodied the results or negotiations conducted between Great Britain and the Zionist organization. Therein, British policy was committed to support the establishment or a Jewish National Home in Palestine, despite the intense and widespread Arab objections to the idea of Zionism.

The French also had a claim on it by dint of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which is why Israel/Palestine is sometimes called “the thrice promised land.”

Thomas Edward Lawrence led the Arab Revolt to occupy Damascus, thereby assuring the Turkish defeat. His exploits were made known to the world by war correspondent Lowell Thomas, whose dispatches created the “Lawrence of Arabia” myth.

With the collapse of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the victorious Allied Powers met in 1920 to determine the disposition of the former Ottoman territories. The northern half of the province of Syria was assigned to France, and the southern half – corresponding to the modern states of Israel, Jordan, and the areas known as the West Bank and Gaza – was assigned to Great Britain. In 1922, the newly formed League of Nations (the predecessor of the United Nations) confirmed the assignment of the “Palestine Mandate” to Great Britain, tasking Britain specifically with the responsibility of putting into effect the terms of the Balfour Declaration (securing “the establishment of a Jewish national home” in Palestine).

Soon, however, Britain found itself embroiled in a dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine that it could not resolve. Tensions between Arab and Jewish groups in the region erupted into physical violence--the 1920 Palestine riots, the 1921 Palestine riots, the 1929 Hebron massacre and the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine.

Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy increased the influx of Jews into Palestine and caused further Arab resentment. The Jewish population rose to nearly half a million in 1935. The Arab rebellion started in 1936 and continued to expand until a major British Military effort suppressed it two years later.

Eventually, in 1937, Britain put forth the Peel Partition Plan to divide Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. However, this plan was rejected by the Arabs and quickly shelved. With an eye to securing Arab support in the coming war with Germany, the British then moved to restrict Jewish immigration into Palestine in 1939 – at just the moment the Jews of Europe most needed a safe haven from Nazi Germany. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews, lost their lives because of this policy. The Evian Conference (an international conference to discuss the Jewish refugee problem that revealed that in fact no country really wanted any more Jews).

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Page last modified: 19-11-2015 19:04:56 ZULU