The Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute

The British short story writer Saki (H. H. Munro) once described the island of Crete as a place that has produced more history than could be consumed locally. The same might be said of Palestine, the territory that includes the contemporary State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The territory itself is quite small. It stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east, and from Lebanon in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Sinai Peninsula in the south. The State of Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey. And Israel comprises almost 80 percent of the aforementioned territory.

The population of Palestine is also small. Israel's population is about 6.5 million, less than 10 percent of the population of Turkey, Iran, or Egypt. There are approximately three to 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — roughly the population of Chicago. (Estimates for the total number of Palestinians in the world run as high as nine million.) Since 1948, wars between Israel, its neighbors, and the Palestinians have claimed upward of 150,000 casualties. These wars were certainly tragic, but they just as certainly pale in horror when compared with the most grievous squandering of lives in the region during its recent history. During the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, there were 500,000 to one million deaths and one to two million wounded.

In spite of the fact that the size of Palestine and the number of people directly affected by its political problems are minuscule in comparative terms, the dispute between Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and various Arab states, on the other, has been at the forefront of international attention for over sixty years. The so-called Arab-Israeli dispute has gone on for such a long time and has been the subject of so much heated debate that it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental issue involved. The dispute is, simply put, a real estate dispute. Jewish immigrants and their descendents, united by their adherence to the nationalist ideology of Zionism, and the Palestinian Arab inhabitants among whom the Zionists settled, both claim an exclusive right to inhabit and control some or all of Palestine.


Palestine and the Middle East

Zionism is a nationalist movement that redefined a religious community— Jews — as a national community. Like other nationalist movements, Zionism asserts the right of this nation to an independent existence in its historic homeland. The Zionist movement was typical of nationalist movements that arose in Europe during the nineteenth century. And, like other nationalist movements, the Zionist movement has its own pantheon of heroes who were instrumental in articulating its doctrines and organizing for its goals.

Perhaps the most important figure in the early history of Zionism was a Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl was the son of a Hungarian merchant whose family had moved to Vienna at a time when that city seemed to promise so much to upwardly mobile Jews who wished to assimilate into mainstream European society and culture. Herzl received a secular education and acquired a doctorate in law. He went on to become the French correspondent for a prestigious Viennese newspaper. It was while he was in Paris that Herzl became a Zionist.

According to many accounts, Herzl's turn toward Zionism came as a result of the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain, was accused of spying for Germany. Dreyfus was, like Herzl, an assimilated Jew. The trial of Alfred Dreyfus became a cause célèbre in France and the rest of Europe. For many, it was clear that Dreyfus had been guilty of little more than being a successful Jew in Catholic France. Among them was the French novelist Emile Zola, who condemned those who accused Dreyfus in the following words:

It is a crime to poison the minds of the small and simple and to excite the passions of reaction and intolerance while seeking refuge behind that hateful anti-Semitism of which great liberal France — France of the rights of man — will die, unless she is cured of her disease.

The Dreyfus Affair demonstrated to Herzl that if France could play host to virulent anti-Semitism, Jews could not be secure anywhere. What the Jews needed was a homeland of their own in which they would form a majority of citizens.

At first, Herzl was ambivalent about just where that homeland should be. In various writings, he advocated establishing a Jewish home in Argentina or in the western United States. Others were not so ambivalent. Since the first century, when the Romans dispossessed the Jewish community in Palestine, Palestine was remembered in texts and rituals of Jews who lived, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes in peril, as a scattered community throughout the world. Thus, Zionism combined Herzl's call for the establishment of a Jewish national home with the historical memory of Palestine.

Theodor Herzl was not the first Zionist. Nor was he the movement's most brilliant advocate. Indeed, there were a number of Zionist thinkers who contributed more ideas to Zionism than Herzl. But few offered more passion. Herzl's organizational talents proved essential for the success of the Zionist cause. In 1897, Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The Zionist Congress created the World Zionist Organization, which continues to speak for the international Zionist movement. It also issued the Basel Program, which not only called for the establishment of a “Jewish home” in Palestine, but specified the tactic to achieve that goal. The Basel Program stipulated that Zionists should commit themselves to obtaining that home through diplomacy.

While Herzl and others attempted to gain support from a variety of powers (including the Ottoman Empire), the Zionist movement achieved its first real success in 1917 when the British issued the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration stated, in part, “His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object....” This declaration marked a milestone in the efforts that culminated in the creation of the State of Israel. The British, who received the mandate for Palestine from the League of Nations, allowed Zionist immigration to Palestine (which, after the creation of Trans-Jordan, they defined as the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River).


The Jewish settlement Nes Zionah, near Jaffa, was established in 1883. (From: The Collection of Wolf-Dieter Lemke.)

Jewish immigration to Palestine began even before the Balfour Declaration was issued and continued long after the end of the war, however. Immigration took place in waves, called in Hebrew "aliyot" (sing.: aliya). The first aliya was significant because its members attempted to install a settler-plantation colony in Palestine similar to the French settler-plantation colony in Algeria. For the most part, their efforts failed. The second and third aliyot, which took place during 1904-1914 and 1918-1923, had more lasting results. During these aliyot, sixty-five thousand Jews emigrated to Palestine from Europe. These immigrants shaped many of the institutions and ideals that still exist in Israel. Influenced by both socialism and romantic, back-to-the-land ideas that were then popular in Germany, the new immigrants established agricultural settlements, including collective farms (moshavim, sing.: moshav) and communal farms (kibbutzim, sing.: kibbutz). They organized a labor federation (the Histadrut), which established schools and hospitals and which provided a variety of social and welfare services for the immigrant community. And they resurrected the biblical language of Hebrew for use as the national tongue.

Perhaps most important for the future of the Middle East was the labor policy adopted by the new immigrants. The Zionists of the second and third aliyot expressed their aspirations in two slogans: “conquest of land” and “conquest of labor.” The first slogan refers to the need these Zionists felt to make their imprint on the land of Palestine by “taming the wilderness” through settlement activity. The second refers to the need these Zionists felt to remake the Jewish people by having Jews fill all jobs in the economy. Whereas the peculiar circumstances of

Jews in Europe had restricted them to certain urban occupations, these Zionists wanted Jews to expand beyond commerce and the professions. Only by doing this, they believed, could Jews overcome their crippling experience as an exile community and become a true nation. The belief that the Jewish nation had to purge itself of the ill effects of centuries of exile is called “the negation of exile.” It, too, played a central role in Zionist polemics.

Although the “conquest of labor” idea had its ideological roots in Utopian socialism and romanticism, there were practical reasons for European Jewish settlers to shun Arab labor. Although many Zionists in Europe believed Palestine to be “a land without a people” and thus a perfect fit “for a people without a land,” Arab labor was, in fact, plentiful, and Arabs were willing to work for lower wages than would European settlers. The expansion of the labor force to include low-wage workers would drive wages down and discourage the immigration of new settlers. As a result, influential Zionists felt that the success of their project depended on severing the economic links connecting the two communities. Thus, after the Zionists bought land, often from absentee landlords, they frequently displaced Palestinian farmers whose services were no longer required.

The indigenous inhabitants of Palestine did resist Zionist settlement policies. This resistance took a variety of forms, from land occupations to violence against settlers and destruction of property. But while the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine resisted Zionist settlement from the start, this resistance was mainly defensive, devoid of political goals, and rather haphazard. No Palestinian national movement existed until after World War I. Even then it had to compete with other nationalist movements for support. Before World War I, most educated Palestinians viewed themselves as Ottoman subjects and later as Ottoman citizens. As we saw in Chapter 13, the fact that educated Palestinians would express their political aspirations in the form of nationalism was inevitable. That they would advocate Palestinian nationalism was not. After World War I, when an Ottoman identity was no longer a viable option, some Palestinians were attracted to Arab nationalism. Others viewed themselves as Syrians.

In addition to the competition a Palestinian national movement faced from rival national movements, there were other factors that hindered its consolidation. The Palestinian community was hardly as well organized or as unified as the Zionist community. As citizens of the Ottoman Empire, there had been no need. Although the Zionist community was notorious for the fractiousness of its politics, most of its members did, after all, play by the same rule book. The Zionist community embraced the mandates system and organized itself accordingly. Political elites in the Arab community in Palestine accepted neither the Balfour Declaration nor the British mandate. They thus did not organize themselves in a way that could take advantage of the mandate. Further hindering the organization of a unified Palestinian national movement was the problem of internal fissures in the Arab community — fissures that were exacerbated by British policies. While political elites had competed with each other for positions and prestige under the Ottomans, the British were not reluctant to use that competition for their own ends. The British also continued the Ottoman policy of allowing each religious community to organize its own affairs. Because the Arab community of Palestine included both Muslims and Christians, each community maintained parallel but separate institutions for such functions as social welfare and law.

Over the course of the mandate period, both the Arab nationalist and the Syrian nationalist options became less and less viable. The mandates system not only divided the Arab world into a variety of states, but severed Palestine from Syria. Because the Palestinian Arab community could not reasonably expect to unite with Syrians, the lure of Syrian nationalism eventually faded away. Over time, the history and institutional development of Palestine and Syria also diverged. Syrian elites, for example, would further their education by studying in France and felt at ease in French culture. Since Britain held the mandate for Palestine, educated elites in Palestine would often learn English, complete their studies in Britain, and come to regard British institutions and traditions, not French, as the model to be emulated.

But there was a second reason why a separate Palestinian identity began to emerge during the mandate period. The inhabitants of Palestine faced a problem that no other inhabitants of the region faced: Zionist settlement. Zionist settlement was very different from the imperialism practiced in Syria or Iraq under the mandates system. The British and French ruled their mandated territories indirectly, through local collaborators. They did not appropriate land, establish a rival and competing economy, or establish rival and competing political structures. Because they faced a different type of adversary, the response of Palestinians was different from the response of their neighbors.

The fact that Palestinian nationalism developed later than Zionism and, in feet, developed in response to Zionist immigration does not mean that Palestinian nationalism is any less legitimate than Zionism. All nationalisms arise in opposition to some internal or external nemesis. All are defined by what they oppose. Zionism itself originally arose in reaction to anti-Semitic and nationalist movements in Europe. It would be perverse to judge Zionism as somehow less valid than European anti-Semitism or those nationalisms. Furthermore, Zionism itself was also defined by its opposition to the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the region. Both the “conquest of land” and the “conquest of the labor” slogans that became central to Zionist thinking originated as a result of the confrontation of Zionism with its Palestinian “other.”

During the late 1920s and 1930s tensions between the two communities escalated. Both local and international events contributed to these tensions. As a result of the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1930s, Jewish immigration to Palestine expanded dramatically. From 1931 to 1935, the Jewish population of Palestine rose from 175,000 to four hundred thousand. To put it another way, the Jewish population expanded from 17 to 31 percent of the total population in Palestine. Zionist land purchases struck a Palestinian population already reeling from an agricultural crisis. Palestinian society was predominantly rural, and the collapse of agricultural prices and international trade caused by the Great Depression had put it under tremendous strain. By 1931, Zionist land purchases had led to the ejection of approximately twenty thousand peasant families from their lands. Close to 30 percent of Palestinian farmers were landless and another 75 to 80 percent did not have enough land for subsistence.

Thus, in 1936 Palestine exploded in violence. What Palestinians call the Great Revolt was, after the 1948 War, the most traumatic event in modern history for Palestinians. The British quickly suppressed the revolt in urban areas, but met with more difficulty in rural areas. There, the revolt lasted three years. By the autumn of 1937, up to ten thousand rebels roamed the countryside. To put down the revolt, the British launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, employing tactics all too familiar to Palestinians today: collective punishment of villages, “targeted killings” (assassinations), mass arrests, deportations, and the dynamiting of homes of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The revolt, and the British reaction to it, ravaged the natural leadership of the Palestinian community and opened up new cleavages in that community. Many wealthy Palestinians fled rather than face what they considered to be the extortionate demands of rival Palestinian gangs, while the British imprisoned many of the community's leaders or forced them into exile. Palestinian society never recovered. The roots of what Palestinians called the nakba (calamity) of 1948 can be found in the Great Revolt.

In the wake of the Great Revolt, the British attempted to find some diplomatic solution to the Palestine imbroglio. In 1937, they proposed dividing Palestine into two separate territories, one Zionist, one Palestinian. In 1939, they backed away from partition and issued a White Paper that had just the right ingredients to offend leaders of both communities. The White Paper of 1939 advocated putting restrictions on (but not ending) Jewish immigration and closer supervision of (but not ending) land sales. It also promised independence for Palestine within ten years in the unlikely event that the two communities learn to work together. Both communities felt betrayed by the White Paper. Both communities rejected it.

Although the White Paper remained official British policy during World War II, Palestine was relatively quiet. Much of the Zionist community balked at the idea of sabotaging the British war effort against the Nazis, and the Arab community of Palestine was still recovering from the trauma of the Great Revolt. Furthermore, the war was an economic boon to Palestine, as it was to much of the rest of the region. But the lull was not to last. As the ten-year deadline stipulated by the White Paper loomed on the horizon, the struggle between the two communities — and between the two communities and the British — resumed. By 1947, at a time when India was about to achieve independence and the cold war was in its initial stages, the British had to station one hundred thousand soldiers in Palestine to keep the peace. Their soldiers and diplomats targeted by Zionist splinter groups, their economy in shambles, the British decided that enough was enough and dumped the Palestine issue in the lap of the newly established United Nations. The United Nations was, after all, the successor organization to the League of Nations, which had granted Britain the mandate to begin with. Following the recommendations of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the General

Assembly of the United Nations voted to terminate the mandate and partition Palestine between Zionist and Palestinian communities.

In the wake of the United Nations' vote to partition Palestine, a civil war broke out between the two communities. The civil war was followed by the intervention of surrounding Arab nations on behalf of the Palestinians. The war for Palestine — called by Israelis the War of Independence and by Palestinians the nakba—affected all combatants in dramatic ways. For Zionists, the war led to the creation of the State of Israel whose de facto borders corresponded to the ceasefire lines. Although the state quickly received international recognition, no peace treaties were signed between Israel and its neighbors — only armistice agreements. For the next forty-five years, the attention of the world would focus on getting Israel and its neighbors to sign such treaties. In other words, for the next forty-five years most of the international community chose to view the conflict between two peoples — Zionists and Palestinians — as an “Arab-Israeli” conflict among sovereign states. After more than half a century, only two peace treaties between Israel and any of its neighbors have been signed and enacted: one between Israel and Egypt (1979), the other between Israel and Jordan (1994).

On the other hand, the war devastated Palestinian society. About 720,000 Palestinians fled their homes and were trapped behind enemy lines, unable to return. Although the reasons for their flight have been a subject of debate for over sixty years, a consensus has begun to emerge in the scholarly community, mainly as a result of research undertaken by a group of Israeli scholars called the New Historians. Most scholars now agree that a combination of factors led to the birth of the Palestine refugee problem. On the one hand, Palestinians, like most refugees, naturally fled from a war zone. On the other hand, there were calculated expulsions, while other Palestinians were deliberately frightened into leaving by acts of terror committed by Zionist forces. In the village of Dayr Yassin alone, between 110 and 240 men, women, and children were butchered, and the bodies of many were stuffed in the village well. Acts such as that one were hardly kept secret. After all, as Lenin once put it, the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.


Palestinian houses demolished by the British during the Great Revolt. (From: Fondation Arabe pour l'image, Beirut.)


Israel/Palestine, 1921,1948

Most Palestinian refugees ended up in the West Bank (which was occupied by Jordan until 1967), the Gaza Strip (which was occupied by the Egyptians until the same year), and neighboring Arab countries. Those who had an education or money tried to rebuild their lives as best they could on their own. Others who were not so lucky ended up in camps supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), where they and their descendents have lived to this very day. Those Palestinians who remained in Israel were subject to martial law until 1966.

The 1948 war also affected Arab states — not just those that fought in the war, but states throughout the region. Groups of military officers in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq felt they had been betrayed by their governments. While the Palestine war was not the only reason these officers were dissatisfied, the Arab defeat came to symbolize a host of grievances these officers held against their governments. They accused those governments of entering the war half-heartedly (which they did) and blamed their defeat on the incompetence and corruption of those governments (which they were). They also equated the defeat of the Arab forces with the inability or unwillingness of Arab governments to promote the sort of economic and social development that would have assured success on the field of battle. Taking matters into their own hands, these officers launchedcoups d'état in Syria (1949), Egypt (1952), and Iraq (1958) against their governments. As we shall see in the next chapter, these coups would change the course of Arab politics and transform the bond connecting the states of the Middle East with their citizens.

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