Israel/Palestine: Pre-1967 History

Israel/Palestine: Pre-1967 History

Is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians basically a religious war?

It is a political war over a piece of land or parts of that piece of land.  Religious beliefs, usually certain extremist Christian, Jewish or Islamic ideas, have been used to justify the conflict, especially as to who owns or controls the land and resources and why.  The two parties are Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) and Israelis, not Christians and Muslims versus Jews.  There have been and still are interfaith organizations on the ground attempting to foster and nurture positive relationships.

Is it true that the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has been going on for many centuries?

No.  The modern Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political and economic conflict over land and resources.  It is not a religious conflict. Until the advent of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century there were a variety of relationships between Jews and Arabs (Muslims and Christians), many of which were positive.  Some residents of the area called themselves Arab Jews, that is Jews who spoke Arabic and considered the Arab culture to be their own.

Did Jews fare better in Christian lands than in Arab and Muslim lands?

They fared better in Muslim lands.  Islam considers Jews and Christians to be People of the Book and, although the Jews and Christians were “protected people” with fewer citizenship rights than Muslims, they were not persecuted for their faith.  During the Ottoman Empire (15th century until World War I) the Ottomans developed the millet system giving Christian and Jewish communities a certain freedom of action.  Each Church (denomination) oversaw its own personal law governing marriage, divorce, burials, etc. and they were free to worship as they chose.  The religious leaders (patriarchs, chief rabbis etc.) were to negotiate with the government and Muslim religious leaders on their behalf.

Unlike many European countries, Spain was a country where all three religions lived together somewhat harmoniously until the Inquisition. But in 1492, under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Jews and Muslims were expelled.  Many of the Jews went to Arab lands to settle, where they were treated fairly.

In Christian lands, Jews were often persecuted and condemned as “the killers of Christ”.  The Holocaust took place in a nation that called itself Christian.  It is interesting to note that after the Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem by the Romans it was an Arab Muslim ruler, Salah ad-Din, who, in 1187, specifically invited the Jews to once again live in the Holy City.

Are Zionism and Judaism the same thing?  What is their relationship?

Judaism is a religion and a cultural heritage.  Zionism is a political movement founded in the late 1800s largely by secular Jews   Zionism is a political philosophy calling for a Jewish homeland.  Several locations were considered for the homeland, but later Palestine was singled out and this was supported by Great Britain, especially through the Balfour Declaration.  (Lord Balfour was hghly influenced by Christian Zionism.)

The Holocaust during World War II, and the guilt of those who did not, or could not, stop it gave a great impetus to Jewish immigration into Palestine and support for the formation of Israel.  However, some deeply religious Jews (even some who live in Israel) feel that the establishment of a Jewish State should come after the appearance of the Messiah and not before, so they object to Israel as premature.

Is there truth to the claim that this area was “a land without a people for a people without a land”?

When the Zionist movement started encouraging immigration, the land of Palestine was a settled area with Palestinians living in villages, towns, cities and settled agricultural lands.  There were significant numbers of well-educated, professional people.  Contrary to popular belief, there were only a few Bedouin tribes in Palestine.

The Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) reports that, according to Ottoman records, in 1878 there were 403,795 Muslims, 43,659 Christians and 15,011 Jews in the Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre districts of the Ottoman Empire.  There were also several thousand Bedouin and about 10,000 Jews with foreign citizenship.  By 1914 the population of Jews had risen to about 60,000 and the Arab population (Christians and Muslims) was around 683,000.  Other sources give comparable population figures.

Did the Israelis make the desert bloom?

Making the dessert bloom is a biblical concept coming from Isaiah 35.1-10.  It describes a time when Israel is restored and renewed.  It was used in the early years of the founding of Israel to illustrate two things.  First, to show that the cultivation of the land by the Jews was fulfilling the Bible and, second, to put forth the idea that Palestine was an uncultivated desert. The term is rarely used any more.

Considerable land in Palestine was under agricultural cultivation by the indigenous Arab population before the State of Israel was founded, much of it in crops and trees that required little water beyond what was provided by rainfall.  Some desert areas were irrigated.  Deserts are generally fertile places if water is made available, but water in the whole area is limited.   For that very reason, throughout the Middle East, water is a political issue.  Water diversion and water access were major causes of ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

At the present time there is an increasingly severe water shortage in Israel and Palestine, largely the result of the amount of water being used by Israel for agriculture and to support the settlements-for example, green lawns in the dry season.

What was the British Mandate?

After World War I, the defeated Ottoman Empire was carved up by the European powers and the League of Nations.  Various areas became “mandates” and the British were given the mandate for Palestine.  Mandates were a type of protectorate (some called it colonialism) to move indigenous people to political independence by giving them administrative advice and assistance.   In the case of other mandates, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, it was assumed that the indigenous Arab people would form their independent states “under guidance.”

On November 2, 1917, the British Government announced the so-called Balfour Declaration that favored the Zionist plan of making a homeland for the Jewish people in unspecified parts of Palestine.  Throughout the British Mandate (1921-1948) Britain was aware of the conflict between the indigenous Palestinians and the immigrant Jewish people but continued to favor the Zionists, even training soldiers and giving them equipment.  When British Mandate troops became the targets of terrorism, especially by organized Zionist militias, Britain decided to end its mandate and the matter was handed to the United Nations.  After a commission of inquiry was conducted, the UN passed a plan to partition the area.

What was the United Nations Partition Plan?

The United Nations, on November 29, 1947 by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstaining, passed Resolution 181.  It divided the former Palestinian Mandate into three parts-a proposed Jewish state, a proposed Arab state, and an international zone to include Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  

Why did the Arabs reject the United Nations Partition Plan?

The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan (Res. 181) gave 55% of the land to the Jews even though they owned only 7% of the land in Palestine and comprised only 33% of the population.  The land that was designated for the Jewish state included prime agricultural and coastal land and would have had a large Palestinian population under the Jewish state control. The Arabs considered this unfair.

Is this when the Arab countries invaded Israel?

No, the Arab countries only came in later and after other events occurred.  The British announced in December 1947 (a month after the Partition Plan was announced), that they would withdraw and give up the Mandate by May 15, 1948.  More intense fighting broke out between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. Jewish fighting groups, such as the Irgun conducted military operations in a number of cities and villages and many Arabs fled or were forced out of their homes.  As a result, approximately 300,000 Palestinians became refugees before the war started.

The day after the British withdrew, the State of Israel was founded.  It was then that the Arab armies joined the fight.  In 1949, when the armistice was signed, the State of Israel held about 77% of the territory; Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem while Egypt held the Gaza Strip.

Wasn’t Israel a poorly equipped force faced with overwhelming Arab armies?

The revisionist school of Israeli historians (the so-called “New Histories”) has raised doubts over who started the war, but it has become clear that Israel had the overwhelming force, not the other way around.  Zionist militias had been trained and armed by the British during the Mandate period.

The book, Righteous Victims, (page 217) by Benny Morris, an Israeli, reports that by early spring of 1949, the Israeli Defense Forces were fielding 115,000 troops while the combined armies of the Arab Legion reached no more than 40,000 troops in Palestine.  The Israeli Defense Forces had trained manpower, weapons, a large young adult population and a centralized command based on former fighting organizations.  The Arabs were far less organized, subject to rivalries and lacked both modern weapons and training.
Why are there so many Palestinian refugees?

The first group of Palestinian refugees resulted from the war in 1948.  Palestinians claim that they fled their homes in fear after the massacre in Deir Yassin and other towns, or because Zionist militia forced them to leave at gunpoint.  They expected to return to their homes within days or weeks, and for that reason many still have their house keys with them.  Recent scholarship has shown that there were no appeals to evacuate and that Arabs urged the Palestinians to stay put.

According to Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (p. 147) by Charles D. Smith, 133,000 (others put the figure at 156,000) of the approximately 860,000 Arabs who lived in the area of Palestine that now is called Israel remained, and 470,000 entered camps in what is called the West Bank and Gaza.  257,000 fled to refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan with a smaller number going to Egypt and Iraq.  Other books give similar figures.

In addition, 100,000 Palestinian refugees were created in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and Gaza.  Some of these people, already refugees from 1948, were displaced a second time.

Why don’t the Arab nations simply absorb the Palestinians into their own countries?

Approximately 3 million Palestinians live in diaspora, outside the country they claim as their homeland.  Many still live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.  Many have moved to Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries; some have moved to other parts of the world.

Many Palestinian refugees want to return to Palestine, and their children and grandchildren want to live there.  They have no interest in settling in another country, and numerous UN resolutions state the right of the refugees to return to their homelands. Other Arab countries back them up.

The economic, social and political impact of absorbing such a large number of people from another place would present a tremendous burden on countries as well as change the demographics of the country.  Politically, absorbing the refugees would relieve Israel of its responsibility toward them.

Isn’t Jordan really a Palestinian country?

At the end of 2000, Palestinians constituted more than half of Jordan’s total population.  Jordan has given citizenship to the Palestinian refugees who entered the country in 1948 and 1949, and they have partially assimilated into Jordanian society, although most still consider themselves to be Palestinians.  Those Palestinians who fled the Gaza Strip in 1967 are called displaced persons and they are not allowed to vote or hold public-sector jobs in Jordan.

About 20% of the refugees live in refugee camps of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  If Jordan were to absorb all these refugees it would also have to take over the renovation of schools, hospitals, public buildings and housing, and pay for other services now provided by UNRWA.  During UNRWA’s 1999-2000 reporting year, Jordan spent $380.4 million on behalf of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons.  That financial burden would increase without UNRWA’s presence.

Jordan’s October 1994 peace treaty with Israel created fear among Jordanians that, because of the number of Palestinians in Jordan, the kingdom would eventually be transformed into a substitute state for the Palestinians.  This has increased the climate of suspicion between native Jordanians and Palestinians and the fear that Jordan would not remain the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  There is also concern because some Israeli government officials talk about “transferring” the Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt.

Is there a “right of return” for refugees?

International laws and resolutions state a just settlement for refugees, which involves repatriation or resettlement, and compensation for material losses.  These provisions apply to refugees of any conflict or situation anywhere in the world. The 1948 General Assembly Resolution 194 (concerning Palestine) states that refugees should be permitted to return; The 1967 Security Council resolution 242 (concerning the acquisition of territory by war) affirms the necessity “for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem”; The UN Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13) states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

There is a Law of Return in Israel that allows any Jew (except those with criminal records) to immigrate into Israel from any part of the world, even if they have not previously visited Israel. The Israeli Nationality Law automatically grants citizenship to all Jewish immigrants to Israel.   Since 1970, the right to immigrate under this law has been extended to include the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew.  This process is called “aliyah.”

Palestinians – Muslim or Christian – are not given any right of return by Israel.


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