Palestine is a region in the Middle East, also called Levant and today either part of the the State of Jordan, the State of Israel, or the Palestine Authority. The term Palestine is also used frequently in the Arab world as a country to be coterminous with the land Israel occupies (see occupied territories); some maps show it that way already.
Historically the boundaries of the region are not clearly defined, but for purposes of recent history can be defined as the territories that made up the British League of Nations mandate of Palestine, after 1923.
The history of this part of the world, being the subject of a conflict that continues to this day, is heavily disputed; there are indeed few statements concerning its history which would be agreed with by both Israelis and Palestinians. This article attempts, however imperfectly, to present both sides equally and fairly.
Defintion of Palestine
Prior to 1923, the British mandate of Palestine included modern-day Jordan, but in that year the British government separated the eastern half of the mandate to form the separate mandate of Trans-Jordan, which became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan today. Thus, in the context of the post-1923 history of the Middle East, the term "Palestine" is used by most people to refer only to those territories which remained part of the British mandate after that date. Most Jews, many Christians, and some Palestinians argue that despite the British action in separating the territories, the term "Palestine" should include modern Jordan also. From the 1960s to the 1980s internal and public PLO documents stated that the goal of the PLO was to create a Palestinian state in all of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, all of which they termed "Palestine". This terminology changed in the last few years.
Palestine originally denoted only the sea-coast of the land of Canaan inhabited by the Philistines (Ex. 15:14, Isa. 14:29,31, Joel 4:4). It is exclusively in this sense that Pelesheth ("Philistia" in many English translations) occurs in the Hebrew Bible. The Philistines were subjugated by David (1 Sam. 23:1-5, 2 Sam. 5:22-25, etc.) and later ceased to exist.
The Jewish homeland is called "land of the Hebrews" (Gen. 40:15), "land of Canaan" (Gen. 11:31, Ex. 6:4, etc.), "land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8, Lev. 20:24, etc.), "land that [God] swore to your fathers to assign to you" (Deut. 7:12, Josh. 1:6), "land of Israel" (1 Sam. 13:19, 2 Kings 5:2, etc.), "land of Judah" (1 Sam. 30:16, 2 Kings 23:24, etc.), "holy land" (Zech. 2:16), and "land of the LORD" (Hos. 9:3).
In 132 CE, bar Kochba led Jews in a rebellion against Roman occupation. When this rebellion was put down in 136, Roman authorities renamed the land of Israel to "Palestine", after a people that no longer existed for centuries. This renaming of the land was done in order to thwart Jewish nationalism.
The territories under Israeli military occupation are the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights (the Golan Heights however form part of Syria, not Palestine). Israel occupied these territories at the end of the Six Day War. Israel has claimed to annex some of these territories; however Israeli claims of annexation are not recognized by the United Nations nor by most states, which regard them as territories under Israeli military occupation.
Prior to Israeli occupation, the West Bank was under Jordanian control, and Gaza was under the control of Egypt. Egypt and Jordan once claimed these territories as part of themselves. But this claim was never recognized by most of the international community, and they both since relinquished these claims as part of the peace treaties each has signed with Israel. (More needs to be written on the Palestinian struggle for independence against Jordanian and Egyptian occupation. Is there any material on this?)
United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 state that the status of the occupied territories needs to be resolved by negotiations, and requires Israel to withdraw from these territories as soon as possible.
Today "Palestine" is used to refer to the occupied territories, and "Palestinians" to refer to the non-Israeli population of these areas. Palestine is recognized as a state by many Arab and Islamic states, and as such Palestine is a member of the League of Arab States. Most of the occupied territories are under the civil administration of the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat; but in most areas Israel maintains security control, either by itself or in conjunction with the Palestinian authority. Though about ninety-five percent of the territories were offered to the Authority, the offer was rejected. Currently, only a few percent of the occupied territories are under full control of the Authority.
History of Palestine
Early Political History of Palestine, and Decline of Jewish Population
Palestine was in ancient times occupied by Jews, along with other (now mostly extinct) peoples, such as the Samaritans and the Phoenicians. However the Jewish population over the centuries declined, due to several reasons. The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar conquered ancient Israel in 597 B.C.E., and deported the middle and upper classes of the Jews to Babylonia, replacing them with settlers from other parts of the Babylonian Empire. Some of the lower classes and the settlers intermarried and merged into one community. The deported Jews flourished in Babylonia, and decades later, the upper and middle class Jews in Babylonia were permitted to return to Israel. However, a large proportion decided to stay in Babylon for economic reasons. This was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. The Jews who had returned to Israel refused to recognize the descendants of the lower class Jews who had remained as Jews, due to their intermarriage and merger with pagan settlers. Thereafter these descendants became the Samaritans. Jews claimed (and many still do today) that their religious practices had changed substantially due to religious syncretism; however the religion of modern-day Samaritans seems very close to that of Judaism, leading many to question this claim.
In 539 B.C.E. the Babylonians were annexed by the Persian Empire, which held Palestine until the time of Alexander the Great, who conquered Gaza and the surrounding areas in the early 330s B.C.E. After Alexander's death in 323, his empire was partitioned, and the competing Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires occupied various portions of the eastern Mediterranean, including different parts of Palestine, until the Roman Empire swept through in 63 B.C.E. Under the Romans the territory of Palestine was in nearly constant revolt, and a number of events with far-reaching consequences took place, including the founding of Christianity, the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Roman army and mass suicide of Zealots in 66 C.E., and the sacking of the entire city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 132 C.E. (Some sources mark the failed Jewish revolts as the beginning of the Diaspora.)
Over several centuries, the diaspora grew even further. In addition to the large Jewish community in Babylon, large numbers of Jews settled in Egypt, and in other parts of the Hellenistic world and in the Roman Empire. This migration was primarily driven by economic opportunities, though the situation in Israel also contributed. Israel experienced a large amount of conflict, principally over Hellenistic and then Roman rule.
The Jews were divided between those who were Hellenists, and supported the adoption of Greek culture, and those who believed in keeping to the traditions of the past. This conflict caused frequent disputes, which resulted in political and military upheveal -- such as the Maccabean revolt, the war of the 70s A.D. and the revolt led by Bar Kokhba in the 130s. The frequent conflict contributed to Jewish emigration, both as refugees, through deportation, and by reducing economic opportunities in the region compared to elsewhere. It also led to many deaths among the Jewish population of Palestine, both deaths in battles with the Romans and others, deaths due to massacres, and deaths due to the famine and disease that so often accompanies armed conflict.
Over time the Jewish population in Palestine declined, due to several causes: Jewish emigration, deaths due to the multiple rebellions against the Romans, the deportation of Jews and the settlement of pagans by the Romans in response to these revolts, and the conversion of Jews to Christianity (and later Islam). This conversion was driven both by the attractiveness of these religions to some Jews, and the taxation applied to Jews by Christian and then Muslim rulers. These special taxes on Jews especially affected agriculture, in which the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine was involved (the diaspora by contrast was primarily urban). As a result, the Jewish population in their original homeland dwindled over the centuries to a tiny percentage, both of the local population and of Jews as a whole.
Palestine changed hands several more times in the post-Biblical period, becoming at first part of the Byzantine Empire after the division of the Roman Empire into east and west (a fitful process that was not finalized until 395 C.E.), then an early acqisition of the first Islamic Caliphate in 638 C.E. The Umayyad dynasty controlled the Caliphate until they were overthrown by the Abbasids in 661. Over time the monolithic Caliphate fragmented, and the Fatimid Caliphate assumed control of Palestine in the 900s. In the next century, Seljuk Turks invaded large portions of West Asia, including Asia Minor and Palestine, which was the proximate cause of the Crusades by the Christian European powers. Jerusalem and the surrounding lands were the object of these military expeditions. Christian forces held Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187, when Saladin defeated them. The Ayyubid Sultanate, founded by Saladin, controlled the region until 1250, when the Mamluks invaded. The Mamluk Sultanate ultimately became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of campaigns waged by Selim I in the 16th century.
By the end of the first millennium A.D. almost all the Jewish population lived in the diaspora, in the Arab world and in Europe. During this period Israel continued as a constant topic of Jewish thought and liturgy, though its Jewish population was by then minimal -- for many of the Jews of the period "Eretz Israel" was a mythical place of redemption, since few of them ever stepped foot in it, and those who did found it changed dramatically from what it once was. Most Jews during this period believed that the Jewish people would would return to Israel with the coming of the Messiah (note that the Jewish concept of the messiah is significantly different than the Christian concept); some proposed that Jews attempt to return earlier, by their own devices, but until the rise of Zionism in the 19th century they were in a minority.
Rise of Zionism
Zionism, a political movement seeking to have Jews return to their ancient homeland in Palestine, arose in Europe in the 19th century. It arose as a result of the liberation of European Jews from the many legal restrictions placed upon them in Medieval times. This liberation resulted from the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It led however to the marginalisation of many European Jews: due to anti-Semitism they were not accepted as part of the wider society, but by leaving the ghetto they were no longer accepted by the Jewish community either. Zionism was also heavily influenced by the rise of nationalism, a major trend in 19th-century European politics.
Zionism was not (and is not today) supported by all Jews. Many Jews would rather try to integrate into the society they lived, than try to return to Israel. This was the position taken by Reform Judaism at the time. Reform Judaism changed its opinion after the Holocaust, and now Reform Judaism tends to support Zionism rather enthusiastically. But in practice most Reform Jews still did not want to emigrate to Israel, especially those in the United States, who had avoided the traumas suffered by European Jews.
Many Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups believed that any attempt to return to Israel before the coming of the Messiah was sacriligeous. The Lubavitcher Rebbes, for instance, were anti-Zionist, though the more recent Rebbes have changed their position from one of anti-Zionism (i.e. active opposition to Zionism) to one of mere non-Zionism (i.e. neutrality towards it). Modern Orthodox Judaism was initially tepid towards Zionism, and then embraced it fully. Today most of the world's Jews support Zionism to at least some degree.
In general, it can be said that anti-Zionist Jews were opposed to any conception of Jewry as anything other than a religion; many of the Zionists, by contrast, were intent on seeing it primarily as an ethnic group: many of these Zionists had rejected Judaism, but still viewed themselves as in some sense "Jewish". Others Zionists felt that Zionism was a religious obligation.
Zionists argued that an independent Jewish homeland was necessary to ensure Jewish survival and protect Jews from anti-Semitism. They thus began to settle in Palestine, though intially the numbers were quite small. The British government, who after World War I administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, supported this aspiration of the Zionists by the Balfour Declaration.
Establishment of British League of Nations mandate
Prior to the end of World War I, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. With the Allied defeat of the Central Powers, the United Kingdom was granted control of Palestine by the Peace Confrence of Versailles, which also established the League of Nations. The British had promised the local Arabs, through Lawrence of Arabia, independence for Palestine, in exchange for their supporting the British. The British however refused to fulfill this promise, in part because of the Zionist desire to establish a Jewish state in the area, which would have been impossible had Palestine been independent. This was the source of much of the Palestinian resentment against the British, and the Middle East conflict of today.
Palestinian opposition to Jewish emigration
Initially Jewish emigration to Palestine met little opposition from the Palestinians. However, as anti-Semitism grew in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish emigration to Palestine began to markedly increase. A small trickle was becoming a flood. As a result, the Palestinians became increasingly opposed to further Jewish emigration to Palestine. The British government wavered frequently, at one moment supported the Palestinians and at the next moment supporting the Jews. No matter which position the British adopted, they experienced armed opposition from either side. (The Palestinians would frequently riot or massacre Jewish communities; while the Jews formed terrorist groups and launched attacks against the British.)
The British placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in the remaining land, allegedly contradicting the provision of the Mandate which said "the Administration of Palestine...shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency...close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not acquired for public purposes." According to the pro-Israeli side, the British had by 1949 allotted over 8500 acres to Arabs, and about 4000 acres to Jews.
The Holocaust, the destruction of approximately 6 million European Jews by the Nazis, had a major effect on the situation in Palestine. It greatly increased Jewish immigration, as the survivors fled Europe. And it also increased the sympathy of the British and the Western world for the Jews and the Zionist cause. This caused increasing strains and violence in Palestine.
Many, but by no means all, Palestinians, supported the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Hitler viewed Arabs as his racial inferiors, although he held them in a better light than he held the Jews. In the 1920s, Hitler had no opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine. Indeed, he once proposed the deportation of European Jews to other parts of the world, such as Madagascar, although such a proposal was never practical and the Nazis never took much effort to put it into effect. (Many argue that he never seriously meant such proposals, and that they were always a cover for his plans for extermination; but that would require that the Nazis had planned the Holocaust from the beginning, something which many scholars in the field of Holocaust studies reject). By the early 1940s Hitler was an avid enemy of Jewish emmigration to Palestine, believeing that Jewish people must be exterminated throughout the world.
Despite being no great friend of any Arab cause, Hitler accepted Palestinian support in the hope that they would rebel against his enemies, the British, in the region, thereby advancing Hitler's military interests. Those Palestinians who supported him did so because they believed he would help them prevent further Jewish immigration to Palestine; but this support in the end did nothing but lessen support for the Palestinian cause in the international community.
The British refused to recieve any more Jewish immigration; Irgun, a Jewish group led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, responded by blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the headquaters of the British administration, killing around 200 people. After this the British announced they would withdraw from Palestine in 1948. With the British withdrawal, Palestine descended into civil war.
Divison of Palestine by United Nations
The United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, attempted to solve the dispute between the Jews and the Palestinians. The UN appointed a committee, the UNSCOP, composed of representatives from several states. None of the Great Powers were represented, in order to make the committee more neutral. UNSCOP considered two main proposals. The first called for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, with Jerusalem to be placed under international administration. The second called for the creation of a single federal state containing both Jewish and Arab consitituent states. A majority of UNSCOP adopted the first option, although several members supported the second option instead and one member (Australia) said it was unable to decide between them. The UN General Assembly largely accepted UNSCOP's proposals, though they made some adjustments to the boundaries between the two states proposed by it. The division was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal.
The partition plan was rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. Most of the Jews accepted the proposal, in particular the Jewish Agency, which was the Jewish state-in-formation. Some Jews rejected the plan. For example, Menachem Begin, who was to serve as Israel's prime minister from 1977-1983, announced: 'The partition of the homeland is illegal. It will never be recognized. The signature by institutions and individuals of the partition agreement is invalid. It will not bind the Jewish people. Jerusalem was and will for ever be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever.' His views were publicly rejected by the majority of the nascent Jewish state; but many Palestinians claim that this publicly expressed rejection was mainly propaganda for the consumpition of Western nations, and that Begin's statement more accurately reflected the real intentions of the founders of the State of Israel.
On the date of British withdrawal the Jewish provisional government declared the formation of the State of Israel, and the provisional government said that it would grant full civil rights to all within its borders, whether Arab, Jew, Bedouin or Druze. The declaration stated "We appeal ... to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions". Many Palestinians question however whether the Jewish provisional goverment ever really intended to implement these promises, or whether they were merely propaganda intended for the consumption of Western nations. Palestinians point that out, despite the assurances of equal rights for all, the State of Israel continues to discriminates in numerous ways in favour of Jews against others. For example, they point to Israeli immigration laws, which give preference to Jews in immigration, despite the fact that many other Western democracies (a grouping which many Israelis consider their country a member of) have abolished all discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in their immigration laws (witness the White Australia Policy in Australia or the US immigration system prior to 1961).
Palestinians consider a far more accurate statement of the intention of the founders of Israel to be that of Chaim Weizmann, who reportedly said:
[Our intention is to] finally establish such a society in Palestine that Palestine shall be as Jewish as England is English, or America is American.
The topic of Palestinian refugees has been very controversial, and tends to be the subject of endless propaganda. Israelis have argued that the Palestinians left their homes because they were encouraged by the surrounding Arab states, through means such as radio broadcasts. Palestinians claim that many of them were forced from their homes by Zionist forces. Recent historical research [insert reference] indicates that both explanations are partly correct. About a third of Palestinian refugees were ejected from their homes by Zionists; most of the rest left due to encouragement to do so from both Arabs and Zionists.
There were also a large number of Jewish refugees from surrounding Arab states created by the 1948 war. Like the Palestinians, many of these were forcibly ejected by the Arab governments or the local population; others were encouraged to leave by both Arabs and Zionists.
On the date of British withdrawal the Jews declared the formation of the State of Israel. On the day Israel proclaimed its independence there were already 300,000 Palestinian refugees, and Zionist forces had occupied large chunks of territory designated for the proposed Arab state as well as parts of Jerusalem intended for international administration.
Israelis allege that the Arab refugees left their homes because Arab radio from surround nations ordered them to leave. Arab military commanders promised an immediate invasion of the nascent Jewish state that would kill all the Jews, and Arabs were ordered to leave to reduce casualties. Israelis claim that the Arabs were promised that victory would be quick, and that they would be able to return to their homes within a few weeks. Specific quotes and references are provided in the entry under Palestinian.
Example: Israelis point to statements made by the Iraqi Prime Minister at the time, Nuri Said, who said "We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down." Likewise, Israelis point to statements made by Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 1948-49, who said "Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the [Arab] refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return." Palestinians however argue that they were forcibly driven out of their homes by the Israeli forces.
Palestinians claim that many of the refugees were driven out of their homes by Israeli forces.
By the end of this war, there were between 400,000 and 650,000 Arab refugees. (Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator on Palestine, Submitted to the Secretary-General for Transmission to the Members of the United Nations, General Assembly Official Records: Third Session, Supplement No.11 (A/648), Paris, 1948)
At the same time hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were created, as Arab nations ejected their Jewish populations.
Neither the Jewish nor the Palestinian refugees have been permitted to return home.
On midnight on May 14 1948, the last British soldiers departed and the new state of Israel was proclaimed. Palestinians claim that by then the Zionists had already captured the the Arab quarters of west Jerusalem and infiltrated the old city, had taken Jaffa and opened a corridor between the coast and Jerusalem. There is no dispute that dozens of Arab villages were destroyed.
In response to the declaration of the State of Israel, and alleged Jewish atrocities against Palestinian civilians, armies from surrounding Arab states enterred Palestine, thus beginning the 1948 war. In any event the Arabs lost that war, and according to the Palestinians were then evicted from their homes, and have never been allowed to go back.
See also Deir Yassin incident
Some of the links below represent Palestinian point of view; others represent the Israeli point of view. Unfortunately much of the information on this issue, from both points of view, is closer to propaganda than unbiased factual reporting.
- Palestine Ministry of Information homepage
- Palestinian National Authority
- "Welcome to Palestine"
- Palestinian Media Watch
- Question of Palestine at the United Nations
- Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations
- "Backgrounders" from The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
- Middle East Media and Research Institute
- Myths & Facts Guide to the Arab Israeli Conflict
- Honest Reporting