Palestine – From Antiquity to 1948

Historical Background

It is a paradox of the Arab-Israeli conflict that the central issue, the plight of the Palestinians, was long regarded by much of the world as peripheral. In 1948, the UN considered the outcome irreversible and made no attempt to enforce the creation of a Palestinian state. UN resolutions 242 and 338 refers to only a just solution (a 2 state solution). This is due to the UN being under Rockefeller control, and aided by the Rothschild/Zionist lobby. Another factor was that many in the Christian West tended to side with the Zionists wish to create “Eretz Israel”. A glance at the religious history of Palestine will show that the question “who are the rightful inhabitants of Palestine “cannot be answered by recourse to religion.

 Canaan (the ancient name for Palestine) was populated from around 4,000 BC by a Semitic people-the descendants of Sham, son of Noah. The Canaanites were joined by another Semitic group, the Amorites, which had ruled in Babylon around 2,000 BC. These two groups together became an important power in the region between 1800 and 1600 BC. They were then subdued by the Egyptian 18th Pharaonic dynasty.

This was around the time period of Jacob and his son Joseph. The children of Jacob became known as the “Bani Israel”, or children of Jacob. They settled in Egypt, and some 500 years later, emerges the Prophet Moses. Moses eventually took the Jews out of Egypt, into the Sinai and eventually Palestine. The time period was around 1300 BC. The area was the home of numerous tribes, in addition to the Canaanites. The Philistines arrived in the 13th Century BC and settled along the coast between Jaffa and Egypt. Around the same time, came the Hittites, remnants of an ancient empire in Asia Minor. All these tribes practiced idol worship.  The religious map was thus immensely complicated when the Prophet Joshua crossed the Jordan into Palestine, and introduced monotheism into the region.

 What the Jews considered the “promised land” was in fact a country or a group of city states in which the Canaanite faith had been established more than 1,800 years prior, and where other religions were competing for attention. No valid claim can be made that Judaism was the “original faith of the area now in dispute.

 If the claim is based on ancient military conquest, history shows that the Jewish period of dominance was intense but comparatively brief. Like the other tribes who emerged from the desert to seize the fertile lands of Palestine, the Jews were described by the Canaanites as “habiru or passer-bys. Tablets discovered at Tel al-Amara in Egypt in 1887 record that the inhabitants of this area appealed to the Egyptian Pharaoh for reinforcements to face the invading Habiru.

The first centuries after Joshua’s arrival were marked by constant struggles between the Jews, Canaanites and other groups. It was not until the 73-year reign of King David in the 11th century BC that the Jews managed to subdue the indigenous people of Palestine. The Jews remained dominant and relatively united throughout the reign of King David and his son and successor King Solomon – both of whom were Prophets of God. It soon split into two kingdoms, Judah and Israel, which were often at odds with each other.  Israel ceased to exist in 721 BC, when the Assyrians deported most of the Jewish population – which then merged into mankind.  Judah lost its independence in 596 BC, falling under the tutelage of Babylon. Any Jewish claim based on past domination can thus only refer to a short period – 500 years at the most.

 After the fall of these two kingdoms, the Jewish presence in Palestine was eroded by waves of conquerors over time. The area then passed into the hands of Persia, Greece, and returned to the Ptolemy’s of Egypt in 323 BC. After alternating periods of Egyptian and Syrian rule, the Maccabean revolt of 167 BC marked the start of a century in which the Jews, under the control of the Pharisees, attained first religious and then political independence. This ended in 63 BC with the Roman conquest of Syria and Pompey’s occupation of Jerusalem.

After a Jewish uprising, triggered by a war between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, and Palestine became a Roman province. This area was given the name Palestine by the Romans. According to Zionist records some 600,000 Jews were slaughtered in a revolt against the Romans in 135 AD. Others were sold into slavery, Judea was devastated, and the Jews were barred from Jerusalem. From then on, the Jews were a minority in Palestine, and were permanently under the rule of others. After the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 321 AD, efforts were made to Christianize Palestine, and this resumed in a more energetic way under Byzantine rule in the5th century. Synagogues were converted into churches and the practice of the Jewish faith was restricted, by law.

After the Arab conquest of 640 AD, much of the non-Jewish population converted to Islam, including many Christians. The Jewish minority was permitted to practice Judaism throughout the next 459 years, in which three successive Islamic empires ruled Palestine. During the Crusades (1099-1291), the Jews fought alongside Arabs in defending cities against Christian invaders. Saladin –the Mameluke leader drove the Crusaders out and permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem. However, the city was destroyed during a brief invasion by the Mongols in 160, and only 2 Jews were living there in 1267. During the Mameluke era and the Ottoman Empire (1291-1918), Palestine was continuously under Islamic rule, while Muslims and Christians made up the majority of the population. By the beginning of the 1880s, the total Jewish population was not more than 25,000 people concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberius.

 As this brief outline shows, the Zionists attempt to create “Eretz Israel” can claim no justification in religious, military, administrative or demographic history. Moreover, if the dispute is regarded as primarily a legal issue, the scales come down clearly on the Palestinian side. The fact that until 1948 the Palestinians (Muslim, Christian and Druze) were a majority of the population and owned more than 90% of the land is beyond question. The Zionist seizure of their homes and lands was against all legal principals. The Zionist claim that the Palestinians were a non-existent people was and is simply untrue. In a rather broad sense the population of the disputed area has been mainly Palestinian rather than mainly Jewish for most of the past 5,000 years.

 Between 1839 and 1876 the Ottoman Empire modernized and reinvigorated itself, and this had significant consequences for Palestine. They reinforced the authority of the Ottoman central government, which was able to enforce its authority in Palestine over powerful local leaders and the Bedouin.

 From 1856 the economy began to grow steadily, and a growing contact with Europe as more visitors came. Palestine’s main exports to Europe before 1882, when the first Zionist settlement was established on its soil, were wheat, barley, sesame, olive oil , soap and oranges. Between 1856 and 1882, the volume of wheat exports increased 5 times. The number of oranges exported grew from 6 million to 27 million. The overall trend of exports was strongly upwards.  The population grew from 350,000 in 1850 to 470,000 in 1880.

 In short, Palestine was developing and growing in prosperity BEFORE the advent of Zionism. It was not a wilderness awaiting the material benefits of Zionism and its colonization. This is not simply a matter of historical interest. One of the justifications offered by the Zionists for their colonization of the other regions of the world was that they made far better use of the lands than did their backward indigenous peoples. Zionism took shape when such ideas were current, and it assimilated them. Tales of reclaiming marshlands and “making the desert bloom” would be used as tools to legitimize the theft of Palestine.

At the end of the 19th century, Palestine was still an overwhelmingly agrarian country. About two-thirds of its people lived in villages. Palestinian rural society was close-knit and insular. The “hamula” or clan was a crucial social reference point. It would help to provide its members with economic, physical and social security. Palestinians were generally tolerant towards each other in matters of religion. One of the first responses of the Palestinians to the changed situation created by British rule after 1918 , was to form Muslim-Christian committees in the major cities to represent the common views of the Palestinians to the new rulers.

  Palestine’s increasing prosperity and the expansion of its education system stimulated the county’s intellectual life. The political leaders who emerged from the existing urban elite groups were to play an important role in expressing and shaping the views of the Palestinians as their confrontation with Zionism unfolded. This was the society which would face the challenge of Zionism.

The Conflict Unfolds

 The first Jewish agricultural settlements were established by EXISTING Jewish communities in Palestine in Petah Tikva and Rosh Pinna in 1878. The Jewish presence on the land expanded with the arrival of the Eastern European Jews in 1881- following the crackdown on the Russian Ashkenazi Jews.  Most new settlements were set up on land bought by the Jewish Colonization Association, owned by Baron Edmond Rothschild. The major concentration was in the coastal plains, where it had been possible to buy land in large parcels. Most Jewish immigrants settled in towns or Jerusalem and Haifa. Tel Aviv was established in 1909, and was destined to become the largest Jewish population center in Palestine. Large scale immigration began after the Balfour/Rothschild Declaration of November 1917. Conditions were harsh and Jewish settlements faced Arab opposition. The Palestinians made their feelings known by peaceful means, but there were also violent incidents. Between 1881 and 1924, there was a net influx of 90,000 Jews into Palestine.

 Britain gained control of Palestine as Ottoman power collapsed in 1918. Then in 192, the Rothschilds engineered the granting of Palestine to Britain to another Rothschild entity-the League of Nations. Britain ruled Palestine from 1918 until 14 May 1948.

 Shortly after the beginning of British rule in Palestine, the Rothschilds created the Jewish Agency – which acted as an embryonic government. The Palestinians, by contrast, did not develop strong national institutions during the first decades of conflict with Zionism. This only happened with the rise of the PLO in the 1960s. The Zionists also built a self-reliant economy, a powerful trade union – the Histradut, and the nucleus of an army -the Haganah. Twelve days before the founding of the Zionist state, the Haganah was transformed into the Israeli army.

The Palestinians were unable to match them. They had no mechanisms for strategic planning, and private wealth tended to be invested in property and trade, rather than industry. The industrial sector of the economy was predominantly Jewish. Whereas Zionist society was adept at mobilizing all its resources towards a common goal when necessary, Palestinian society failed to make the best use of its own, due to internal rivalries and organizational weaknesses. No Palestinian military force remotely comparable to the Haganah was built. Fighters were based in their home areas.  They lacked the resources and vision to create a trained, flexible, mobile infantry force, nor did they ever achieve a centralized command structure, nor were they able to formulate and direct a coherent military strategy.

 A series of Palestinian conferences took place from 1919 on and political parties were formed. The locals treated these with much skepticism as they were seen to favor their personal interests rather than those of its people. An enduring problem in Palestinian society was that the traditionally powerful families saw leadership belonging as a right to their members. An ordinary person could not rise to a leadership position. Over the next 40 years, leadership of these people has rested on two people ; Muhammed Hussein-the Mufti of Palestine and Yasser Arafat. The story of these 2 men is also the story of modern Palestine.

Hussein recruited Arab volunteers to fight with Allenby and the British to defeat the Turks and occupy Jerusalem. In 1921, his brother passed away, and the position of Mufti became vacant. The Ulemas held an election to choose a new one, but the British High Commissioner, the Zionist Herbert Samuel instead appointed Hussein, then aged 27, to the post. The British made him Mufti and paid his salary. In short, he became a puppet of the Zionists working against, first the Turks, then his own people.

After 1921, the Mufti’s career can be divided into 3 parts. The first, 1921-1936 was a period of total servitude to the British while suppressing Palestinian concerns. The second was 1936-1948, when his servitude came to an end under popular pressure, which forced him to change sides and going against the British, and fomenting rebellion against the British from Iraq, and spent the war years in Germany. And last was the period of the 1948 War and his eventual political demise in 1964, when the emergence of the PLO rendered him obsolete. The violence, protests and riots increased. In 1933, a new movement led by Syrian cleric Izzedine Qassim preached an anti-British campaign based on a militant Islam; they called for immediate rebellion and began attacking Jewish settlements. Qassim was killed in 1935, along with a few of his followers in a British operation.

But the inevitable could not be delayed. Leaderless, the Palestinians erupted in open rebellion in 1936. It had begun with small acts and a year later turned into one of the most serious uprisings in the history of the British Empire. . At the same time, there was a 6-month long general strike- a 100% success with the full participation of the population. In 1936, the British recommended partition, which the Zionist accepted, but was refused by the Palestinians.

Over the next 3 years, the poorly armed Palestinians gave the British a hard time. The British refused to heed the demands of the Palestinians to end Jewish immigration. In response, another 30,000 British soldiers were sent to Palestine. The Palestinians fought a British army of over 50,000 men throughout the country and engaged it in successful combat. The British now armed the settlers to fight the Palestinians. In the cities there were strikes, boycotts, bombing and assassinations. It was a peasant-led uprising which produced numerous acts of sacrifice and heroism.

The British were taken back by the strength of the rebellion and by the defection of their puppet. In 1939 the British agreed to partially stop immigration. A short time later, the rebellion fizzled out. Then came an interlude due to the outbreak of the war (1939-1945).

The Nakba

1948 was to become known as the year of the Nakba, or the “catastrophe”. In November 1947, the UN recommended partition of Palestine into 2 states, with the Zionist state to be awarded the fruits of partition. Naturally, this plan was accepted by the Zionists and rejected by the Palestinians.

 The Palestinians again took up arms. They had not used the intervening years to train a disciplined force, collect intelligence and formulate detailed military plans. Palestinian groups concentrated on bomb attacks, sniping at Jewish neighborhoods and ambushing Jewish traffic on the roads. Although these actions stretched the resources of the Haganah, but the overall impact of Palestinian armed groups was limited to significantly damage Zionist military capabilities.

 Between November 1947 and 14 May 1948 when the British withdrew, the Haganah grew in strength and succeeded in holding almost all the Jewish population centers in Palestine. In April 1948 it went on the offensive. It was well placed to do so. It had over 60,000 men under arms, organized in 9 brigades, as well as an elite strike force, the Palmach. It was well trained and led, with an efficient logistics chain. As the Haganah grew in confidence, the expulsion of the Arab population became a more important objective.

  On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed. Units of Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian, and Iraqi armies crossed into Palestine, but they differed in their objectives and failed to co-ordinate their operations. The nominal overall commander was unable to make them work together. The 1948-49 War unfolded in phases of fighting separated by ceasefires. It was only in the first phase, from 15 May to 11 June that the combined Arab armies seriously strained the Israeli military; thereafter Israel held the initiative and defeated its enemies piece- meal, in the process enlarging the area under its control to just fewer than 80% of Palestine.

In 1948, the Palestinians suffered more than a battlefield defeat. Their society was overwhelmed by the Zionist movement.  Palestinian society crumbled under the impact of the foregoing conflicts. At the end of 1947, a steady exodus of wealthy Palestinians from areas on the front line of the conflict began, depriving communities of those to whom they looked for leadership. As village after village fell to the Zionist military from mid-February 1948 onwards, more and more Palestinians fled. Expulsion at gunpoint, threats, massacres and acts of genocide, and fears about how the enemy would treat their women, were the main reasons for their flight. The Palestinians who fled left believing that they would soon return. But it was not to be. Israel, having affected the “transfer” of the great majority of an unwanted Arab population, had no intention that they should ever return. Most of the 385 or more villages the Palestinians left were destroyed. Other villages were settled by Jewish immigrants, and renamed. Well over half the Palestinians had been consigned to perpetual exile from their homes by Israel.  Many families still possess the keys to houses they left in Palestine, most of which no longer exist.

 In 1948, the Jewish population of Palestine was 600,000. In 1967 it would top the 1.5 million mark.

Palestinians fled to the nearest Arab countries. Sometimes, the subsequent advance of the Israeli army meant that they had to move a second or third time. Conditions for these refuges were hard. In 1950, the UN Relief Agency, UNRWA, began operations. It provided registered refugees with food rations, basic health care, educational services as well as providing employment itself.

 At the same time UNRWA has been regarded as an agency used to keep the Palestinian discontent under control. Its drip-feed assistance serving to keep in check the disruptive potential of hundreds of thousands of desperate people who were resentful of useless Arab governments in securing their homeland. In this connection, some have seen it as significant that the largest donor to UNRWA is the US- principal supporter of Israel.

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