Israel & Palestine: A Fairly Recent History (Part 1)

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Part 2 can be found here.


Historical Context

When I started this newsletter, I decided to stay away from current events.

There are enough sources of news that I thought focusing on historical stories that most people would never come across would be best. However, sometimes what is happening today could use historical context — and that is not always readily available.

For example – what should be done around the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? This is being widely debated. As I started to listen to impassioned speakers debate right and wrong, I found that I was often too ignorant to follow their logic, let alone provide any viewpoints of my own. I would be asked to voice an opinion — and all I could do was repeat the headline rhetoric I learned growing up in the central United States. These lines were almost entirely pro-Israel — and maybe that was fine, but I couldn’t tell you why it was right, if it was right.

However, I have learned to be wary of holding a viewpoint as my own when I cannot support it on my own. And a voice in the back of my head was telling me that anything I did say in these conversations was merely a parroting of what I had heard from others. So I decided to better understand the situation — and as with most things, that meant I wanted to start by taking a look at the history surrounding it.

Almost immediately, I found this difficult — but not for the reasons you are probably thinking. When trying to dig into the background here, I was consistently hit with one of two things — 1) partisan interpretations or 2) comments dismissing the current situation as having been going on for thousands of years (that’s too much history, even for me) or being “too complicated” to understand properly.

While it is easy enough to work around #1, #2 seemed to be a wall that was difficult to climb over – and I am not talking about the complicated nature of the situation. I’m referencing the widely held idea that things are “too complicated.” As I read more, I realized that while the history itself is somewhat complicated, it is no more complicated than most situations people feel competent enough to understand.

Thus, I concluded that #2 is said to reduce the number of participants in the discussion. It is a cop-out — on both sides — to allow a viewpoint holder the freedom to act on their own views unchallenged through a pseudo-ad hominem attack against anyone attempting to understand.

I don’t like that.

So let’s dive into the history here, in an as unbiased way as possible. It’s not too complicated — nor do I think you need to understand all the events that have happened over thousands of years — so we should be able to understand it with a little effort.

As part of going through this history and writing it out here, I am forced to make some judgment calls on what is relevant and form some opinions. I will do my best to lay out the logic for those items.

Finally, while the history is not too long, it is also not short. Thus, I will write it as best I can in two parts. This is the first — and I expect the second (on time) this Sunday.


For Context – Modern Day U.N. Map of Israel and Palestine

The yellow lands are Israel and the light brown lands are considered Palestinian territory.

Where Do We Start?

That is an important question — and in answering it, as I see it, we can sidestep the idea that you must understand thousands of years of history. Instead, I think that you can sufficiently understand the history of the region generally, and then look briefly at what has happened since the late 19th century and review events since the end of World War II.

Many people might have a problem with this idea – but my logic is as follows: before the end of WWII,  the last time a Jewish power had autonomous control over the relevant region was around 37 B.C.

If we start at 150 B.C. or so, the chain of custody goes something like this: Hasmonean dynasty (Jewish) -> Romans -> various Muslim dynasties -> Christian European Crusaders -> Muslim kingdom -> Mongols -> Egypt -> Ottoman Empire (1516) -> Egypt -> Ottoman Empire -> Britian (after WWI) -> Britian leaves in 1948.

The key here is that due to the demographics of the region’s rulers over time – with governing majorities that were antisemitic, driving the Jewish people out of the region — the area was almost entirely populated by Arab Muslims at the end of the 19th century. It had been that way for over a thousand years as best I can tell, and it certainly stayed that way after the Ottoman Empire took over the region in the 16th century.

The exact population breakdown over time seems to be debated, but a contemporary source, the British Government’sInterim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestinefrom 1921, states:

There are now in the whole of Palestine hardly 700,000 people… Four-fifths of the whole population are Moslems[sic]… Some 77,000 of the population are Christians, in large majority belonging to the Orthodox Church, and speaking Arabic…

 

The Jewish element of the population numbers 76,000. Almost all have entered Palestine during the last 40 years. Prior to 1850, there were in the country only a handful of Jews. In the following 30 years, a few hundred came to Palestine. Most of them were animated by religious motives; they came to pray and to die in the Holy Land, and to be buried in its soil. After the persecutions in Russia forty years ago, the movement of the Jews to Palestine assumed larger proportions.

So, adding all of the above facts together, it feels like we can fairly comfortably say that around 1880 or so (1921 minus 40 years), Palestine was a Muslim territory under the Ottoman empire that was inhabited mainly by Arabs that in the past had been ruled by a Jewish state.

There is an important concept here as I see it — land trades hands for various reasons throughout history. People who own it can lose it, both in fair and unfair ways. Over time, these new people have families and centuries on, these new decedents have about as much right to the land now as the previous owners did — for those previous owners often had become owners through similar circumstances. It just happens that Palestine was Arab in the 19th century.

Using this as a base, I am only going to look at the history starting in the late 19th century. That is not because what happened before then is not relevant — it is because I do not think you learn more about the current situation by going back further if you understand that minimal history already.

Also, don’t take the above to mean that the land Israel sits on today isn’t Jewish land today. Again, land trades hands for various reasons. Importantly, just because there is conflict does not mean that someone is completely in the wrong and someone else is completely in the right.

Initial Jewish Immigration to Palestine

As highlighted in the Civil Administration quote above, in the late 19th century, small populations of Jewish settlers began migrating to Palestine. Also highlighted are two drivers of Jewish immigration to Palestine — 1) religious beliefs that Palestine was the Promised Land, given by God to the descendants of Abraham (the Jewish people), and 2) escape from the anti-semitism & persecution that plagued Jewish populations globally.

This migration to Palestine, along with a desire among the settlers to set up an officially Jewish state in the region of Palestine, is a cross-national, ethnicity-and-religion-based political movement known as Zionism. This movement requires more explanation, but for the sake of brevity, the linked Wikipedia article should be useful for those so inclined. The key relevant takeaways for this discussion are that Jewish peoples in Europe, along with wealthy supporters such as the Rothschilds, decided to start moving Jewish settlers to Palestine, with a long-term goal of turning land that was not then a Jewish state into a Jewish state.

This immigration was initially funded by Jewish organizations set up to support Jewish migrants through land purchases, both during Ottoman and British control of the Palestinian territories. The land purchases sound like they were legal and thus should be viewed as a legitimate way of securing land for the Zionist movement.

Over time, however, these land purchases started to inflame tensions between the existing population and new settlers as Jewish landowners often evicted the Arab tenant farmers from newly acquired lands. This resulted in raids on the Jewish settlers and protests from the local Palestinians — cries that the Ottoman Empire eventually handled by restricting land sales to non-Arabs.

During World War I, both the Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine aligned themselves with the Allied Powers in hopes of escaping Ottoman rule. Before the end of the war, the British government would effectively promise the Palestinian lands to both the Arabs in exchange for their support fighting the Ottomans (see the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence) and the Zionists / Jewish settlers (see the Balfour Declaration).

To make a long story short, following the capture of the Palestinian region by British forces in 1917 and a 1920 mandate by the League of Nations that called for the British administration of the lands, eventual British policy supported the Balfour Declaration over the McMahon-Hussein agreement for geopolitical reasons. The Arabs viewed this as a betrayal, especially since they had upheld their end of the deal by revolting against the Ottomans — though the Europeans would say there had been a misunderstanding of the promises previously made.

However, at this time, there was not yet a Jewish state like Israel today. The territory was called Mandatory Palestine and it was British-governed, Arab lands with a growing Jewish population.

Before World War II

Following the British mandate, Jewish land purchases continued to support an increasing number of settlers to the region. Anti-semitism in Europe — such as pogroms in Ukraine and the rise of the Nazi party in German — increased the amount of immigration from western countries into Palestine.

Along with this increase in the Jewish population came an increase in tensions amongst Arabs that felt increasingly disposed of their lands. It seems that in areas purchased, Jewish landlords continued to evict Arabs that may have lived their entire lives on the land but never owned it. Further, those evicted Arabs were then met with anti-Arab racism from the Jewish settlers who would refuse to hire them back as workers or lease homes to them.

At the same time, the Arabs were not always kind to the Jewish settlers — with riots, revolts, and murders committed against the local Jewish populations. This is all very summarized as is necessary for this email, but more detail can be found here.

Important to this general history, in 1937, the British government was worn out by the fighting between groups and proposed a two-state solution by carving the Palestinian lands, roughly, into a northern Jewish state and southern Palestinian state like the below:

For context, around this time the entire population of the region was roughly one million, with only 175,000 Jewish citizens.

This proposed solution immediately outraged the Arab leaders in Palestine, who all summarily rejected the proposal. In part, there was an outright rejection that any of the lands should be Jewish land. More specifically, amongst many other complaints, the proposal gave the more developed lands along the coast and more fertile farming plains almost entirely to the proposed Jewish state. Further, when comparing population and actual land ownership at the time, the split of land seemed disproportionately cut in favor of the Jewish population.

On the other hand, albeit after much debate, this plan seemed workable to the Jewish leaders — namely Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel), who eventually convinced other Jewish leaders to let them vote in favor of the proposal, subject to further negotiation.

Hitting an impasse between Arabs and Jews, the British government attempted a few other potential paths forward, but then World War II got in the way…

[Part 2 continues here, picking up with the events of World War II]

2 Comments

  • I’ve only read the first paragraph of your history, but I had to stop because it contains a glaring historical error. You wrote, “before the end of WWII, the last time a non-Muslim majority had control over the relevant region was around 37 B.C.” This cannot possibly be true, since Islam didn’t exist until at earliest 610 C.E., and didn’t conquer the Levant until the middle of the 7th Century. I’m not sure how much weight to give anything else here on the basis of an error that a simple search would have cleared up.

    • That is actually a typo – wow, that’s embarrassing. I meant to say the last time a Jewish ruling class was in power over the region. I will adjust this. Thank you for calling it out.