THE DISPOSSESSION OF THE PALESTINIANS

An Historical Outline

by Bill Weinberg

“Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.

—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946

“Admitting honestly to the moral and political responsibility for the crime which the Zionist scheme has perpetrated against us is what will pave the way for a historical reconciliation between the two peoples—the Palestinian and the Israeli people.”

—Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian national poet, 1941-2008, spoken in Radio Palestine address on the 50th anniversary of the Nakba, May 15, 1998

Zionism was conceived as the Jewish national liberation movement, and attained control over Palestine just as the national liberation struggles of the colonial world were gaining ground in the aftermath of World War II. But to the Palestinians, Zionism was a new form of colonialism which ironically came to power in the era of decolonization. The more the state of Israel came to behave like a colonial power over the Palestinians, the more it came to serve as a proxy and regional extension of the neo-colonial powers of the West, serving to beat back and humble the rising tide of revolutionary Arab nationalism and, later, Islamist militancy.

Many indigenous peoples around the world have been dispossessed of their homelands by colonialist projects. But both the centrality of Palestine to the three great Abrahamic religions, as well as its proximity to the world’s most strategic oil reserves, gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a unique criticality to the question of world peace. If the international community, either at the level of nation-states or citizen initiatives, truly wants to promote peace, an understanding of the dispossession of the Palestinians must inform any action we take.

The Historical Background

While Zionism is a movement of modernity, both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeal to claims arising from past centuries and even millennia of contest over the territory, and any understanding of the contemporary crisis must begin with an overview of this history.

Palestine is the southern stretch of the western arm of the Fertile Crescent, whose eastern arm is the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known in ancient times as Mesopotamia and today the heartland of Iraq. Between the two arms is the northernmost stretch of the Arabian deserts. Palestine is divided between a low and fertile coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, and rugged uplands to the east—principally, the area now called the West Bank in reference to the Jordan River that forms its eastern border. The Jordan River flows south, through a comparatively fertile valley, into the inland Dead Sea; beyond the Jordan Valley is more hill country, and then the desert of the interior. South of the Dead Sea, the fertile lands end; a stretch of desert today known as the Negev reaches down to the Gulf of Aqaba, entrance to the Red Sea. (Nathan, p. 117-23)

From earliest times, the land that is now Palestine was inhabited by Semitic peoples who arrived out of these deserts to the south and east. The most significant and settled of these early inhabitants were the Canaanites (forebears of the Phoenicians, who would later maintain a powerful maritime trading empire just up the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon). It is they who gave the land its earliest known name—Canaan. The Hebrews—led to the land by Abraham, according to biblical accounts—were one of several nomadic Semitic peoples who arrived sometime after the Canaanites. By biblical accounts the Hebrews originated in Ur in Mesopotamia, but they clearly had much in common with the Arabian nomadic peoples and almost certainly shared a common origin with them. Indeed, the words Hebrew and Arab are believed to both derive from the Semitic root-word abhar, meaning nomadic. Both peoples are traditionally held to be descendants of the biblical Shem, son of Noah (hence “Semite”). Both are also held to descend from Shem’s descendant Abraham—the Hebrews through the line of his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, the Arabs through the line of his son Ishmael. (Dimont, p. 30; Hitti, p. 24; Lewis, 1950, p. 10; Ludwig, p. 10-3; Roth, p. 3)

By the time the Hebrews arrived, other presumably Semitic peoples had established small kingdoms on the less fertile lands east of the Jordan River—Gilead, Ammon, Moab and others. Settled life slowly spread from Canaan’s seat in the hill country west of the river. But the region was far behind the two great centers of civilization—Mesopotamia across the desert to the east and Egypt’s Nile Valley across the Sinai Peninsula to the west. The Hittites, in Anatolia at the northern peak of the Fertile Crescent, were also building an empire that would make its influence felt. (Cohn-Sherbok, p. 2)

At approximately 1600 BCE, the Hebrews were among various Semitic nomads apparently driven by drought and famine in the Fertile Crescent into the rich Nile Valley. The rulers of Egypt at that time were a “foreign” dynasty, the Hyksos, themselves likely Semites who had arrived from the Crescent some years earlier. The Hyksos welcomed the Hebrews, who evidently held a privileged position in Egypt under their rule. (Dimont, p. 36-40; Roth, 5-8)

This began to change with the overthrow of the Hyksos and the restoration of a “native” dynasty to Egypt, cerca 1550 BCE, opening the most powerful period of its rule. The Hyksos and Hebrews alike were seemingly reduced to slavery by the Pharaoh Ramses II, “the Great” (1279-1213 BCE, Ozymandias to the Greeks). The name “Israelites” first comes into use with the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt back towards Canaan, led by Moses and thought to have happened cerca 1225 BCE. After centuries in Egypt, presumably inter-marrying with Egyptians, it is uncertain that the Israelites who emerged were precisely the same people as the Hebrews who had entered. Israelite monotheism may have been influenced by the reign of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1353-1337 BCE), the Egyptian pharaoh who proclaimed the sun god Aten to be the sole deity. (Dimont, p. 36-40; Ludwig, p. 13; Roth, 5-8)

While the Hebrews/Israelites dwelt in Egypt, Canaan was contested by the pharaohs and the Hittite empire of Anatolia to the north. Pharaoh Thutmose III finally took Canaan cerca 1470 BCE, but Egyptian rule there was in decline by the time of the Exodus, having merely nominal loyalty of the Canaanite kingdom. (Ben-Sasson, p. 13-4, 27; Roth, p. 6-7)

The Old Testament tells of the Israelite leader Joshua’s conquest of Canaan upon arriving in the land inhabited by the Hebrews centuries earlier. By popular histories, the Israelites simply displaced the Canaanites, but in reality there was probably an amalgamation of the two populations, with the Israelites becoming dominant, especially in the south. After a period of rule by “judges” in a sort of legislative body known as the Sanhedrin (during which time Egyptian rule in the land collapsed completely), a monarchy was established by Saul cerca 1000 BCE. Saul’s successor David greatly expanded the kingdom’s borders—most significantly, taking the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites. This he made his capital, and established a temple on the slopes of a hill called Mount Zion within the city. At its height, the kingdom stretched from the Euphrates in the east to the Mediterranean in the west; from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. The heartland, however, remained the hill country around Jerusalem. The Philistines, a probably Greek-related people who inhabited the southern part of the coastal plain (and give Palestine its name), were subdued although not conquered. David was succeeded by his son Solomon cerca 965 CE, who greatly expanded the Temple, completing its construction cerca 953. (Dimont, p. 52; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 9; Ludwig, p. 20-2; Roth, p. 23-7)

But around 930 BCE, shortly after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into the two entities of which it had really been a federation: Israel in the north, with its capital at Shechem (contemporary Nablus) and a temple at Bethel; and Judah in the south, with both capital and temple at Jerusalem. The outlying territories were mostly lost. It was at this time that composition of what would become the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) began in both kingdoms. Biblical scholars have for generations been parsing the text to determine which chapters were written in which kingdom—the scribes of Judah generally referring to God as Yahweh (“Jehova,” rendered as Lord in English translation) and those of Israel using the plural term Elohim (rendered in English as God). Scholarship is increasingly of the opinion that the inhabitants of the two kingdoms were separate peoples. The northern kingdom is generally considered to have been closer to the Baal-worshiping Canaanites, long ago pushed north by the Israelites. Starting in approximately 790, there was war between the two kingdoms. (Cohn-Sherbok, p. 13-4; Dimont, p. 54-7; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 15; Ludwig, p. 52-3; Roth, p. 32)

As the Hebrew kingdoms declined, new powers were arising in Mesopotamia, and making incursions into the western arm of the Crescent. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BCE, and (by the biblical version) the population was deported to Mesopotamia. Judah, in an alliance with Egypt, maintained a precarious independence. Then Babylon superseded Assyria as the dominant Mesopotamian power and began a new thrust of expansion. Judah’s King Josiah at first supported Babylon as an ally against Assyria. When Egypt switched sides and sent an army to back Assyria against Babylon, Josiah attempted to block its passage through Judah—and was defeated at the Battle of Meggido (Armageddon), 609 BCE. Babylon nonetheless prevailed over Assyria, and then perceived that Judah had been precariously weakened. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II took Judah in 597 BCE, sacking Jerusalem, destroying the temple, and again (by the biblical version) deporting the population. (In reality, it was likely only the political and priestly leadership class that was deported.) (Dimont, p. 58-61; Roth, p. 35, 43)

By the time of the Assyrian conquest, Israel had moved its capital to Samaria, and those Israelites from this region who were not deported became known as the Samaritans. There is still a small community of Samaritans living today in the vicinity of Nablus on the West Bank, keeping alive elements of the ancient Hebrew religion. (Jewish Encyclopedia; Roth, p. 35)

The deportations mark the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, as well as the point at which the name “Jews” (Yehudim, in Hebrew) first emerged—the exiled people of Judah, traditionally identified as the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. (By the biblical version, the exiles from the north kingdom of Israel—the ten “lost tribes”—were dispersed and disappeared from history.) The seeds of contemporary Judaism were also established in the Babylonian exile; with no temple, “houses of assembly” (beth ha-knesset, later rendered by the Greeks “synagogue”) were established as places of worship, with teachers (later to go by the title rabbi, or master) instead of priests. (Dimont, p. 68; Ludwig, p. 72; Roth, p. 62, 83)

In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia, who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (although some remained in Babylon). Under the protection of Persia, Judah (called Yahud by the Persians) again prospered, although no longer as a wholly independent state. A council of elders known as the Gerousia ruled over local affairs. Synagogue and temple, rabbi and priest, now existed side by side—the common people more linked to synagogue and rabbis; the elite to the priests and temple. (Ben-Sasson, p. 191; Dimont, p. 68-73; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 19-20)

The fall of Persia to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE meant great change for the whole region, with a Greek ruling class imposed. Alexander’s empire stretched from Egypt to what is now Afghanistan, but fractured following his death in 323 BCE, divided among his leading generals. The land of Judah was for over a century contested between the Ptolemies, ruling from Egypt, and the Seleucids, ruling from Syria. In 198 BCE the Seleucids gained the final victory, taking Jerusalem from the Ptolemies. (Dimont, p. 87; Ludwig, p. 94)

The Greeks called the land Ioudaia (Judea). At first, the Gerousia system continued under Greek rule. But around 175 BCE, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes began a campaign of “Hellenization”—imposing Greek culture and taking measures against Jewish self-government. This led to the rebellion of the Maccabees, a Jewish revivalist movement, which in 141 BCE succeeded in establishing an independent kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean kings succeeded in winning back much of the territories ruled centuries earlier by David and Solomon. However, the kingdom was still precariously situated between the hostile Greek-dominated empires, and at times under official Seleucid sovereignty. Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus waged war against the Seleucids from 134-2 to maintain the kingdom’s independence. The Hasmonean dynasty was a theocracy, with no distinction between kings and priests. It was in this period that codification of the Old Testament was completed. (Ben-Sasson, p. 202-4, 218; Dimont, p. 87-90, 120; Ludwig, p. 107-8; Roth, p. 71)

A civil war in the Hasmonean kingdom between the Pharisees (populists who rejected Hellenization, and favored the rabbis and synagogues) and Sadducees (party of the elite who favored greater integration with the Hellenized world, and stood for the temple and priesthood) was finally exploited by the ascendant power in the region—Rome. (Dimont, p. 92-5)

Rival claimants to the throne appealed to outside powers. When the pro-Pharisee Hyrcanus II sought aid from the neighboring Nabateans, his brother, the pro-Sadducee Aristobulus II, sought aid from the Romans, who had recently completed their conquest of Syria. This was to spell the end of an independent kingdom. The Roman general Pompey skillfully played the brothers off against each other, finally switching sides. It was Hyrcanus who turned Jerusalem over to Pompey in 63 CE, and the followers of Aristobulus were massacred. (Dimont, p. 92-5; Ludwig, 114-5; Roth, p. 86-7)

Hyrcanus was installed as priest-king, but he ruled as a Roman vassal. Judah was officially renamed Judea by the Roman occupation. A Hasmonean restorationist revolt in 40 BCE was aided by the Parthian dynasty of Persia, and put down three years later by the Romans with the aid of the Idumeans (Edomites), a neighboring people who had been brought under Judean rule. Herod, a Judean leader of Idumean lineage, led the forces that retook Jerusalem when the revolt was put down, and was subsequently named “king” by Rome. But Romanization of Judea by this Rome-appointed Herod “the Great” (37-4 BCE) lead to continued unrest. After Herod’s death, Roman procurators (governors) ruled from the new capital the Romans established at Caesarea on the coast; Judea was made a Roman province in 6 CE and formally incorporated into the empire. A reduced Jewish kingdom was allowed to rule under Roman occupation in Galilee—the fertile area around the small inland “sea” of the same name in the north, from which flows the Jordan River. (Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and ruler of Galilee, is the one encountered by the adult Jesus in the New Testament.) (Dimont, p. 100-5; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 29-34; Roth, p. 94-5; SchĂĽrer, p. 118-9)

The vestiges of local autonomy rapidly eroded, and Judea was even for a while annexed to the neighboring and much larger Roman province of Syria. In 66 CE, a Jewish revolt spread throughout Judea and Galilee. The revolution was crushed in 70 CE, with Roman forces under the general (later emperor) Titus sacking Jerusalem and destroying the temple. A band of Jewish partisans known as the Zealots held out at Masada on the Dead Sea for another three years before they too were crushed. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 36-7; Roth, p. 103-10)

In a subsequent rebellion under the leader Bar Kochba from 132-5, Jews succeeded in retaking ruined Jerusalem and the temple site. When the Roman Emperor Hadrian put down the rebellion, he changed the name of the province from Judea to Palestine (to de-emphasize the legacy of Judah), and deported the Jews en masse north to Galilee. There, they retained a degree of autonomy—no longer under a king, but a body of scholars known as the Patriarchate based in the town of Tiberias. Reconstitution of the culture there, and in the wider diaspora, lead to the basis of contemporary Judaism. (Dimont, p. 112; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 38; Roth, p. 111-9)

Contrary to the popular impression of a mass expulsion of the Jews from Palestine at this time, many remained in Galilee. There were now far more Jews outside Palestine than within, but this had been the case for at least a century before the deportation, due to Jews following trade routes. The most significant centers of Jewish culture were by then Alexandria in Roman-ruled Egypt and Babylon, where the descendants of Jews from the exile period remained under the protection of the Persian Sassanid dynasty. (Dimont, p. 125; Nathan, p. 35; Roth, p. 120-1)

Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem after the deportation and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. Jews were barred from living in the city, and were for many years forbidden to even enter it. After Emperor Constantine made Christianity the empire’s state religion in 324, the name Jerusalem was restored, and the city became an important Christian center—although secondary to Alexandria. When the Roman empire split into two following Constantine’s rule, Palestine came within the eastern sphere—the Greek-ruled Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (formerly Byzantium and today Istanbul). (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 40-4; Nathan, p. 37)

Over the following centuries, Greek culture and Christianity became increasingly dominant under Byzantine rule. Those who clung to Jewish identity, chiefly around Galilee, dwindled. The Patriarchate was abolished in the fifth century. Jews were allowed again to reside in Jerusalem, but the city’s leading families were now Greek and Roman. A Samaritan revolt was put down in 529. (Ben-Sasson, p. 355; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 44-5)

The 614 invasion of the Sassanid Persians was for obvious reasons supported by the Jews. Under Sassanid rule, Jerusalem was restored to the Jews, who were armed to defend it. It wasn’t until 629 that the Byzantines succeeded in driving the Sassanids back and retaking Palestine. Jews were again barred from Jerusalem. (Ben-Sasson, p. 362; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 47)

But the Byzantine restoration was brief. The Arabs, a chiefly nomadic people of the deserts far to the south of Palestine, were on the cusp of an unprecedented expansion, inspired by Islam, the new religion brought by the Prophet Mohammad. There were already Arab peoples in the Fertile Crescent—the ancient kingdoms of Nabatea (in contemporary Jordan) and Palmyra (in contemporary Syria) were Arab. But from the distant desert towns of Mecca (the religious center) and Medina (the political capital), Arabs were now forging a centralized empire, uniting tribes for campaigns of conquest. (Lewis, 1950, p. 26-7)

The Byzantines virtually invited an Arab invasion of Palestine. They had long subsidized nomadic Arab tribes beyond the Dead Sea as a buffer military force. But after the routing of the Sassanids, they overconfidently ceased these payments. The tribes appealed to their kindred further south, who were just then forging a formidable fighting capacity. (Nathan, p. 42)

The Arabs invaded Palestine in 634 and took Jerusalem four years later. Although there had been a lengthy siege, the surrender of the city to the Arab armies was in the end peaceful and negotiated. Caliph Omar, the second successor to Mohammad, personally toured the city, now holy to three monotheistic faiths. The Arabs called Jerusalem al-Quds, the holy. Islam became the state religion, but Christians and the remaining Jews were tolerated as long as they paid a special tax, the jizya. As “people of the book,” they were considered dhimmis—followers of tolerated religions recognized as having a kinship with Islam. Jews were allowed once again to reside in Jerusalem. Jews, and other subject peoples who had been persecuted by the Byzantines, generally welcomed Arab rule. (Asali, p. 116; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 48-9; Lewis, 1950, p. 58)

Arabs became the new dominant class, soldiers becoming settlers with generous land grants. However, the Arabs took over only lands which had officially belonged to the Byzantine state, or to those who resisted them. Landowners who recognized the new government were allowed to keep their properties. There was again probably a general continuity with the pre-existing population in Palestine, with many Christians and perhaps some Jews converting to Islam, inter-marrying with Arabs, and adopting Arab culture. Arabic superseded Aramaic (the vernacular counterpart to the liturgical Hebrew) as the language of the land’s common people, and Greek as the language of administration. (Hebrew would survive as the liturgical language of the Jews; Aramaic still survives today as the common tongue of scattered Jewish communities in the Arab lands.) (Lewis, 1950, p. 57; Nathan, p. 43; Polk, et al., p. 241; Lewis, 1984, p. 76; Roth, p. 121)

The Fertile Crescent naturally became the new center of Arab power, although Mecca and Medina were still revered as holy cities. In 661, Palestine came under the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled the Arab empire from Damascus, in Syria. It was in the early years of Umayyad rule that al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakhrah) were built on the Temple Mount, the site of the old Jewish temple—which had been turned into a garbage dump by the Byzantines. The Dome of the Rock protects the purported site of the biblical Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Al-Aqsa Mosque commemorates the Prophet Mohammad’s mystical “Night Journey,” in which he is believed to have visited Jerusalem. The complex on the Temple Mount—known as the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif—became the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Immediately below is the Western Wall, the last standing fragment of the Second Temple, and the holiest site for Jews. This remains the geography of the Temple Mount to this day. (Armstrong, p. 46; Hitti, p. 33; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 51-2)

In 750, the Umayyad dynasty was superseded by the Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, in contemporary Iraq. The following century was the height of the Arab empire’s glory. The empire’s local seat of administration was Ramleh, and Jerusalem’s significance was as a religious center. There was something of a recovery of Jewish culture in the city under the Abbasids, and the Talmudic Academy—Palestine’s most important center of Jewish learning—was moved there from Tiberias in the Galilee. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 54-5; Lewis, 1950, p. 96)

Egypt gained increasing preeminence in Islamic world as the Abbasids began to decline, and in 878 Jerusalem was taken by the Egyptian ruler Ahmad ibn Tulun. From 941, another Egyptian dynasty, the Ikhshidids, ruled Palestine—again, with merely official loyalty to the Caliphate of Baghdad. In this period of decay, religious conflict emerged in Jerusalem. Episodes of Muslim violence against Christians (including the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, purported site of the resurrection of Jesus) occurred repeatedly in the 10th century. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 54-5; Lewis, 1950, p. 96; Najeebabadi, vol. 2, p. 618)

In 969, the Fatimid Caliphate was established in Cairo by followers of the Ismaili Shi’ite “heresy,” and Palestine finally fell outside the orbit of the Abbisid Caliphate altogether. This brought a century of relief to the Christian and Jewish minorities. But the Fatimids lost Palestine to the Seljuk Turks in 1071. The Seljuks had begun their career as a mercenary force for the declining Abbisids, but were by now the real power in Baghdad—while still recognizing the caliph in name. A Palestinian revolt against the Seljuks was put down with great brutality. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 58-9; Najeebabadi, vol. 2, p. 622-3)

The Seljuks’ barring of Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem prompted the Pope of Rome, Urban II, to call the First Crusade, with knights recruited from across Catholic Europe to take the Holy Land. In 1098, with Crusader armies advancing, the Fatimids retook Jerusalem. But they lost it again in 1099, when Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders after a five-week siege. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 59; Riley-Smith, p. 2-10, 34)

This change of power was different: there was a general slaughter of the city’s populace, with Muslims and Jews massacred and burned alive in mosques and synagogues. In the aftermath, the city was closed to Muslim and Jewish worshipers. The Knights Templar, the most fanatical of the Crusader military orders, established their headquarters in al-Aqsa Mosque. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 60-1)

This period also saw the first major outbreaks of violence against Jews in Europe, who had by then long since arrived via the Mediterranean in France and England. Both these countries saw widespread attacks on Jews in the same paroxysm of zeal that mobilized the Crusades. The Crusaders gratuitously destroyed Jewish villages en route to Jerusalem as well. (Riley-Smith, p. 16-7)

In 1144, a Second Crusade was called to defend Christian Jerusalem as the fractured Islamic world began to gather forces for the counter-attack. The first serious threat to the Crusader state came from Zengi, ruler of Syria to the north. (Riley-Smith, p. 93)

But the real turn-around came in 1171, when the Kurdish warrior Salah al-Din (Saladin) ousted the Fatimids from Egypt, establishing the Ayyubid dynasty and restoring Sunni Islam (the majority tendency, that of the Abbasid Caliphate). The Ayyubids were officially loyal to the Abbasid Caliphate, but Cairo had now supplanted Baghdad as the center of Islamic power. Following the 1187 Battle of Hattin, Saladin drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem. Revenge killings were barred, and the city’s Christian inhabitants (by then overwhelmingly Frankish settlers) were granted safe passage to the rump Crusader state on the coast. A Third Crusade was promptly launched to re-take the city. (Hourani, p. 84; Riley-Smith, p. 84-5)

In 1191, Saladin made a peace deal with the rump Crusader state of England’s Richard the Lion-Hearted, allowing Christians and Muslims alike access to Jerusalem. This peace was broken following Saladin’s death in 1193, when new crusades were launched. (Riley-Smith, p. 118)

In 1229, a Sixth Crusade was organized at the Vatican’s urging by Frederick II, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, the great confederation of German and northern Italian states. But this time the crusade was cut short by a peace deal between Frederick and Saladin’s successor, the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil. This pact established joint Christian-Muslim control of Jerusalem under Frederick’s official if distant rule—for which the Holy Roman Emperor was promptly excommunicated by the Pope. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 67; Hitti, p. 225-6; Riley-Smith, p. 149-51)

This peace persisted until the 1244 invasion of the Khwarazmian Turks, fleeing the Mongol irruption from Central Asia. The Khwarazmians overran Jerusalem, causing much destruction, but were turned back by the Ayyubids before they reached Egypt. However, the struggle against the Khwarazmians lead to the ascendance of the (mostly Turkish) Mamluk military slave caste within Egypt’s political elite. Palestine was meanwhile left in ruin and chaos, although Nablus and other hill towns provided some shelter for refugees from devastated Jerusalem. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 67)

In 1249, when a Seventh Crusade under Louis IX of France (St. Louis) invaded Egypt, the Mamluk “slave dynasty” finally took power, successfully repelling the Crusaders. Palestine was for some years contested by Mamluk Egypt and a rump Ayyubid state in Syria. But in 1258, the Mongols themselves arrived in the Fertile Crescent. The Mongol armies under Hulagu Khan destroyed Baghdad, overran Syria, and penetrated Palestine from the north. It was the Mamluks who turned them back at the battle of Ayn Jalut (En-Harod in Hebrew) before they could reach Jerusalem. Afterwards, Palestine finally came under firm Mamluk rule. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 69; Riley-Smith, p. 160)

The Mamluk Sultan Babyars next seized Syria, expelling both the Mongols and last of the Crusaders in a confused three-way war. The Abbasid Caliphate was formally transfered from destroyed Baghdad to Cairo. Peace was restored, but centralized rule weakened, and feudalism spread. Agriculture in Palestine had virtually collapsed, and settled peoples returned to nomadism. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 69; Najeebabadi, vol. 2, p. 589; Nathan, p. 46-7; Riley-Smith, p. 203-4)

Palestine slowly began to recover under the Mamluks, and Jerusalem was rebuilt. Heavy taxes were imposed on Jews and there were periodic episodes of persecution—the closing of synagogues and so forth. Still, a yeshiva (Jewish seminary) was maintained in Jerusalem, and Jews fleeing persecution in Europe even found refuge in Palestine, arriving on Italian merchant ships. Safed, in the Galilee, was also a significant seat of Jewish culture and learning. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 69-76)

In the closing years of the Crusades, European Jews again became a target—and this time in a far more systematic campaign. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, overseen by Pope Innocent III, mandated that Jews wear identifying yellow badges. The situation worsened as the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) devastated Europe, and Jews were superstitiously blamed. In 1290 England became the first country to expel its Jews by decree. France and various German states would follow—generally amid much violence. While a small number came to Mamluk Palestine, far greater numbers moved east within Europe—to those German states that would have them, and then to Poland and Lithuania. Many would later come under Russian rule as borders shifted. By 1500, the center of Jewish culture had shifted from Western to Eastern Europe. Even where they were tolerated, Jews faced restrictions on where they could live—confined to walled ghettos in Poland and Lithuania. Their villages in Russia would later be confined to a limited “Pale of Settlement.” In the ghettos, they were allowed a degree of self-government. Effectively segregated from the Christian population, they would maintain their own language, Yiddish, a distinct tongue that evolved from German. Hebrew was of course maintained as the liturgical and scholarly tongue. (Ben-Sasson, p. 486-7; Dimont, p. 230-1, 248; Roth, p. 198, 334)

In 1400, a new Mongol irruption from Central Asia, this time under Timur Leng (Tamerlane), ravaged Syria. The Mamluks again successfully fended off the invader, so Palestine and Egypt were spared. But the Mamluk dynasty was greatly weakened by the struggle. (Lewis, 1950, p. 157)

In 1451, the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, putting a final end to the greatly diminished Byzantine Empire. In 1517, the Ottomans under Sultan Selim I (“the Grim”) established Mamluk Egypt as a vassal state, and officially transfered the caliphate to Constantinople. Palestine, and most of the Arab world, now came under Ottoman rule. Mamluk sway over Palestine waned as the dynasty declined, and the Ottoman Turks became ascendant. (Kinross, 107-10, 170)

Ottoman rule brought another period of relative tolerance and reflorescence of Jewish culture. Sultan Bayezid II (“the Just”) welcomed Jewish exiles from Spain after the expulsion of 1492 to settle in Palestine or elsewhere in his empire. Safed reached its peak as a world center of Jewish learning. (Ben-Sasson, p. 632, 661)

The rebuilding of Jerusalem picked up pace, and Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1520-66) built a new wall around the city—largely to check the periodic raids of the nomadic Bedouin Arabs. A waqf (trust or endowment) was established to oversee the Haram al-Sharif and other Islamic holy sites, with land grants in the countryside to make it economically self-sufficient. The Temple Mount complex was renovated and the Dome of the Rock restored. After the centuries of turmoil, there was now a long period of peace. The Ottomans would be embroiled in many wars in Europe—chiefly with Austria and Russia—but these did not affect Palestine. (Asali, p. 200-1; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 77, 92-100)

Trade with Europe grew, and by the 18th century Palestine’s coastal plain was a major producer of cotton and citrus for export. But real Ottoman control did not extend far beyond the urban centers. There was little permanently settled Turkish class. The land remained largely in Arab hands, and Arabic remained the dominant language. (Asali, p. 214; Encyclopaedia Judaica, p. 91; Hourani, 252, 286)

As Palestine’s economic importance grew, the Ottomans began to take tentative measures to increase their control. But in 1703, after a Turkish governor had been installed in Jerusalem who imposed heavy taxes on the peasants and townspeople alike, an insurrection broke out, led by the prominent Husseini family. It was put down, but thenceforth the governors of Jerusalem were drawn from the local Arab elite, and the heavy taxes rescinded. The nearest center of direct Turkish administration, Damascus, interfered little in Palestine’s affairs. (Asali, p. 215-6)

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte established an occupation of Egypt, precipitating a confused four-way war over the country among the French, British, Turks and Mamluks. Eager to extend his control to Syria, Napoleon invaded Palestine, sacking the Mediterranean port of Jaffa and besieging Acre, another port up the coast. In a precursor of later European imperial strategies in the territory, Napoleon appealed for Jewish support against the Arabs and Turks. On April 20, 1799, amid the siege of Acre, he had an order penned, declaring that when he conquered the territory, Jews—who he called the “rightful heirs of Palestine”—would inherit the land. The Jewish notables of Acre spurned the offer, and Napoleon was forced to retreat from Palestine. In 1801, his precarious hold on Egypt collapsed, and Ottoman-Mamluk rule was restored. Palestine remained under more direct Ottoman rule, although with broad autonomy for Arabs (Muslim and Christian alike) and Jews. (Fisher, p. 263; Jerusalem Post, May 20, 2011)

Zionist Colonization Under Ottoman Rule

By the mid-19th century, Palestine, like most of the Middle East, had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years. People who lived there called the country Filastin, or by the Arabic phrase al-Ard al-Muqadassa—the Holy Land. (Gerner, p. 9)

For centuries, a high degree of local autonomy had been allowed. There was both cultural autonomy for the various religious and ethnic groups, and territorial autonomy for villages and districts. Under the millet system, Muslims, Christians and Jews each had their own leadership responsible for internal affairs within their own community and subject to their own laws. (Lewis, 1984, p. 125)

Village mukhtars (traditional elders) were treated as local administrators, given authority over local affairs in exchange for providing taxes and conscripts for the Turkish army. Informal village militias were also often maintained to protect against Bedouin raids, and tolerated by Turkish authorities. (Sayigh, p. 15)

Villages were generally self-sufficient, with families working subsistence plots of perhaps 100 dunums (25 acres) under a system of land tenure in which some fields were formally the domain of lords or mukhtars in a survival of feudalism, and others were explicitly for the use of common villagers. Wheat, barely, millet, sesame, lentils, olives, figs, citrus and melons were common crops, and most families had goats and other livestock. (Nathan, p. 184, 196)

1834 saw a new Arab uprising in Palestine, after the territory was seized by Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali—a commander of Albanian origin who had been dispatched by Constantinople to finally oust the Mamluks, and then made his own bid for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Mohammed Ali’s excessive demands for conscripts and other encroachments on village autonomy were resented by the Palestinian Arabs. After he was forced to cede Palestine (and accept Ottoman sovereignty over Egypt), the traditional rights of the villages were restored. (Ayyad, p. 15)

This began to change in the 1840s, however, when the Ottoman Empire’s tanzimat reforms brought centralized administration and taxation, extending the control of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. This saw the formal abolition of serfdom, with peasants freed from the authoritarian control of local mukhtars. Peasants were no longer bound to the land, or forced to work it as fiefs. But, as old patterns of land use were disrupted, this also resulted in an impoverishment of the villages, and the beginning of a slow movement of the population to the coastal towns. (Morris, 2001, p. 7; Nathan, p. 50)

An 1858 Land Law to regularize property deeds had the actual effect of centralizing control of communal agricultural lands—which had traditionally been worked by peasants without formal title—in the hands of a few wealthy, often absentee, private owners. Lands designated miri—arable lands controlled by the state after being removed from feudal authority—had been de facto communal village lands, and their titling as mulk (private) lands often meant the exclusion of peasant families that had worked them for generations. Musha lands were more formally for the common use of villagers, subject to repartition among families. These were also increasingly transfered to the mulk sector, as families were given the option of privatizing the parcels they had been working. Outlying uncultivated lands—known as mewat—were also claimed by the state and then privatized, even though they had been used informally for pasturing. Many of the new owners were Turks rather than Arabs, and often they were European—with the Ottoman state then under pressure from European powers to allow land ownership by foreigners. Arab peasants were increasingly reduced to the status of tenant farmers—an ironic outcome of their “liberation” from serfdom. (Dowty, p. 59-60; Nathan, p. 50, 184)

Nonetheless, a thriving citrus industry on the coastal plain remained in the hands of local Arabs—usually the effendis, or Arab gentry. And even under greater economic burden, the villages of the fellahin, or peasantry, remained largely self-sufficient. The system of communal apportionment of lands and water, known as masha’, actually survived the new land law—in part because many Arab peasants evaded land registration. While this helped preserve communal traditions, it would also make the villages more vulnerable, as many now lacked legal title to their lands under the new system. (Hadawi, 1963, p. 119; Polk, et al, p. 241; Sayigh, p. 27, 32)

At this time the population of Palestine was 462,500, of which 404,000 were Muslim, 44,000 Christian and 15,000 Jews—or 20,000 by some estimates, as some Jews were not considered Ottoman citizens and may have not been counted. The population was overwhelmingly rural, although the Jews were disproportionately urban, concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. (Dowty, p. 13)

Events far from Palestine meanwhile gave birth to a movement which would change the land’s fate. European Jews had largely achieved “emancipation”—full citizenship rights, and an end to the ghettos—by the mid-19th century. Jewish emancipation was formally embraced by Europe’s Great Powers at the 1878 Berlin Conference. But this sparked a backlash, and the modern ideology of anti-Semitism emerged—viewing the Jews as an alien, un-assimilable and ultimately corrupting Semitic presence in Europe. As revolutionary upsurges threatened the continent’s old monarchies, Jews served as scapegoats, and an assimilationist solution to Europe’s “Jewish Question” seemed less tenable. In 1881, Russian pogroms (from word for “havoc” or “outrage”) began following the March 13 assassination of Czar Alexander II, with hundreds of Jewish villages attacked by right-wing mobs and paramilitaries. Following Alexander II’s reforms, which had allowed Jews access to higher education and posts in the bureaucracy, there was a period of backlash in which some 4 million Jews fled Russia. The reforms were overturned, and the pogroms actively encouraged by the authorities. (Ben-Sasson, p. 823-4; Gross, p. 651-7; Morris, 2001, p. 15-8; Dowty, p. 31, 33)

In the mass emigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe that began at this time, most went to the United States. Some went to Britain, Canada and South Africa. But an organized movement to direct the exodus with the aim of establishing a Jewish national state emerged in response to surgence of anti-Semitism: Zionism. (Nathan, p. 52-3)

The Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) was founded in Poland, with a vision of establishing Palestine as a Jewish homeland. It organized chapters throughout Russia, Poland and Romania to raise funds for emigration. The allied Bilu—an acronym for “House of Jacob, Let Us Go”—was established in Palestine to organize settlements. The First Aliyah, or mass migration of Jewish settlers to Palestine, began in 1882—a year which also saw the publication in German of the first Zionist manifesto, Leon Pinsker’s Self-Emancipation. Aided by wealthy Jewish philanthropists in western Europe, the movement purchased some 100,000 dunams of land for the olim (settlers, “those who ascend”) by 1890, and 200,000 by 1900. Most of the olim lived in the coastal cities, particularly the new city of Tel Aviv that was established near Jaffa. But the program called for the establishment of agricultural settlements as quickly as possible. The Bilu evolved into the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. (Ben-Sasson, p. 896; Cohn-Sherbok, p. 106-7; Morris, 2001, p. 15-8; Dowty, p. 31, 33)

In 1888, the Ottoman administrators took note of the Jewish immigration and Zionist designs, changing the region’s administrative districts to enhance Constantinople’s control. The entire region had until then been part of a province or vilayet ruled from Damascus, and was generally considered part of Syria. With the reorganization, Palestine was separated from Syria and divided into three districts, centered around Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre. The northern two districts were sanjaqs (internal districts) attached to the Vilayet of Beirut, while Jerusalem, encompassing the southern half of historic Palestine, became a mutasarriflik (independent district) administrated directly from Constantinople. The sparsely inhabited Negev Desert remained under Syrian administration. Officially, Zionist aims at this time were limited to establishing “a state within a larger state”—an autonomous Jewish territory within the Ottoman empire. (Dowty, p. 18, 33)

In 1896, following the Dreyfus Affair in France—in which a Jewish army officer was notoriously framed on treason charges—Theodore Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in Germany. The book, the first explicit aspiration of Jewish statehood in Palestine, actually made no reference to the Arab inhabitants of the territory. Elsewhere, Herzl wrote that he saw Zionism as bringing economic development to the Arabs of Palestine, and in 1903 publicly called for restraints on the purchase of Palestinian lands from absentee landlords in Beirut, arguing that “poor Arab [tenant] farmers should not be driven off their land.” (Morris, 2001, p. 20-1, 678)

But in 1895 he wrote in his diary: “We must expropriate gently… We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it in any employment in our country… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” (Morris, 2001, p. 21-2)

“A land without people for a people without land” became the Zionist slogan (actually originating in the memoirs of British politician Lord Shaftesbury). But Russian Jewish writer Asher Ginsberg (pen name Ahad Ha-Am) warned in a Hebrew newspaper in Russia after an 1891 visit to Palestine: “We abroad are used to believing that Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] is now almost totally desolate, a desert that is not sowed… But in truth this is not the case. Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed. Only sand dunes and stony mountains…are not cultivated… If a time comes when our people in Palestine develop so that, in small or great measure, they push out the native inhabitants, these will not give up their place easily.” (Morris, 2001, p. 42, 49; Davis, p. 7)

Ginsberg/Ha-Am favored a “Cultural Zionism” that emphasized the Hebrew language and Jewish cultural renewal in Palestine, and was skeptical of a rush to statehood. But the “Political Zionism” of Herzl, heedless of his warnings, became the mainstream position. (Davis, p. 7; Roth, p. 373)

Zionism was still a minority current within Jewish thought at this time, and Palestine but one option under consideration within Zionism. Jewish agricultural colonies were established in Manitoba, Argentina, Australia and South Africa. There was even a scheme to establish a Jewish state on Grand Island in the Niagara River, off Buffalo, New York. (AFSC, p. 15; Gross, p. 620)

This began to change as the movement was formalized. The World Zionist Organization was founded at the Basel Congress, held in Switzerland in September 1897. “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State,” Herzl boasted. When Ottoman authorities completely rejected establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the movement opened talks with Britain, which offered territory in East Africa. The Russian wing of the movement especially, led by the young Chiam Weizmann, was most vocal in rejecting the “Uganda Offer,” calling themselves “Zionists of Zion.” Those who were open to a homeland elsewhere than Palestine broke from the WZO to form the “Territorialist” tendency under the leadership of Israel Zangwill. The “Zionists of Zion” held sway over Herzl and the WZO. (Ben-Sasson, p. 901-2; Morris, 2001, p. 23; Dowty, p. 37)

Yusuf Diya Pasha al-Khalidi, patriarch of one of Jerusalem’s leading families, wrote to the chief rabbi of France, appealing to him to pressure for a halt to Jewish colonization, predicting it would lead to violent conflict. He wrote that there were “still uninhabited countries where one could settle millions of poor Jews… But in the name of God, let Palestine be left in peace.” (Dowty, p. 63)

Arabs had reason to fear European encroachment. European colonialism was at this time a growing force in the Arab world. In 1882, a British occupation of Egypt was established, with the Ottomans maintaining only nominal sovereignty there. Although the British had ostensibly intervened to put down an Arab revolt against the Ottoman administrators, they became the real power in Egypt. The Suez Canal—linking the Mediterranean and Red Sea through Egypt, completed in 1869 by a French-dominated company (using Egyptian forced labor)—made the region critically strategic. (Fisher, p. 286-91)

Jews were again scapegoated as revolutionary currents swelled in Russia, and a new wave of pogroms was unleashed in 1903. In the notorious Passover Pogrom, 50 were killed and scores injured and raped at Kishinev. The violence, paradoxically, succeeded in radicalizing Russian Jews, many of whom did embrace anarchism and other revolutionary ideologies. But many fled Russia, and embraced Zionism. The violence prompted the Second Aliyah movement—this one much larger and better organized. The new exodus from Russia brought some 34,000 Jewish settlers to Ottoman Palestine. (Avrich, p. 17; Morris, 2001, p. 25; Dowty, p. 36-7; Yivo Institute for Jewish Research)

The most anti-Semitic elements of the Russian government were pleased by the notion of a Jewish exodus from their country. In 1903, just before he died, Herzl actually received a letter from Interior Minister Viacheslav Plehve, notorious as the mastermind of the pogroms, in which he pledged the Czarist state’s “moral and material assistance with respect to the measures taken by the Zionist movement which would lead to the diminution of the Jewish population in Russia.” (Bober, p. 172-3)

The first kibbutzim (collective settlements) were established in Palestine, building on the moshavot of the First Aliyah, which had been based on private property and exploitation of cheap Arab labor. The kibbutzim were owned in common and sought to be self-sufficient. Menachem Ussishkin in 1904 delineated three methods by which land could be procured: “By force—that is, by conquest in war, or in other words, by robbing land from its owner… by expropriation via government authority; or by purchase.” (Morris, 2001, p. 38-9)

Although Constantinople curtailed Jewish land purchases, baksheesh (bribery) allowed de facto purchases to continue. The new Jewish owners offended local traditions of land use in various ways. Arab shepherds were denied the right of access to what had long been common pasturelands regardless of official ownership. Jews purchased land from effendis—members of the Arab land-owning elite—and then pushed out the poor tenant farmers who had been on the lands for generations. (Morris, 2001, p. 41, 46, 57)

The very first violent conflict between Arab Palestinians and Zionist settlers took place in this era—largely because of this refusal on the part of the settlers to recognize the peasants’ customary rights in the land. For instance, when settlers barred the peasants from grazing their herds on newly bought lands, this naturally provoked incursions, which then escalated to attacks. (Sayigh, p. 44)

The Second Aliyah olim were often socialists, anarchists, atheists and free-thinkers, but even the socialist Poalei Zion organization, led by Polish-born David Ben-Gurion, advocated exclusion of Arabs from the emerging Jewish economy, and a ban on hiring Arab labor. This policy was known as kibush ha’avoda or “conquest of labor.” (Morris, 2001, p. 46, 50-1)

Arab raids on settlements predictably became a constant problem, with houses vandalized and livestock seized. In 1908, the HaShomer (“guard,” or “watchman”) militia was founded to defend the settlements. (Morris, 2001, p. 53-4; Gee, p. 40)

In 1891, a group of Jerusalem Arab notables petitioned Constantinople to halt Jewish immigration: “The Jews are taking all the lands out of the hands of the Muslims, taking all the commerce into their hands and bringing arms into the country.” (Morris, 2001, p. 56)

Arab national aspirations were also emerging at this time. In 1905, Najib Azuri, a Lebanese Christian who had served in the Ottoman bureaucracy in Jerusalem, published in French The Awakening of the Arab Nation, calling for an independent Arab state stretching from Mesopotamia to the Suez. (Dowty, p. 65)

In 1907, the World Zionist Organization founded a Palestine Office in Jaffa to oversee land acquisition and distribution, headed by Arthur Ruppin, who wrote: “Land is the most necessary thing for establishing roots in Palestine. Since there are hardly any more arable unsettled lands…we are bound in each case…to remove the peasants who cultivated the land.” He advocated a “limited population transfer” of Palestinian peasants to Syria. (Morris, 2001, p. 59, 61, 140)

Yet the most ambitious Zionist statement actually foresaw the annexation of Syria itself. Max Nordau wrote that Zionism sought “to expand Europe’s moral borders to the Euphrates.” (Morris, 2001, p. 63)

In 1911, the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Azmi Bey, in a bid to appease Arab protests, wrote: “We are not xenophobes; we welcome all strangers. We are not anti-Semites… But no nation, no government could open its arms to groups…aiming to take Palestine from us.” (Morris, 2001, p. 62)

A Palestinian-born Jew, Yitzhak Epstein, delivered a lecture on the “Arab question” in Basel in 1905: “We have forgotten one small matter: There is in our beloved land an entire nation, which has occupied it for hundreds of years and has never thought to leave it… We are making a great psychological error with regard to a great, assertive and jealous people. While we feel a deep love for the land of our forefathers, we forget that the nation who lives in it today has a sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arab, like every man, is tied to his native land with strong bonds.” (Morris, 2001, p. 57; Palestine Remembered)

In direct response, Mose Smilansky wrote: “Either the land of Israel belongs in a national sense to those Arabs who settled there in recent times, and then we have no place there and we must say explicitly: The land of our fathers is lost to us. [Or] if the Land of Israel belongs to us, to the Jewish people, then our national interests come before all else… It is not possible for one country to serve as the homeland of two peoples.” (Morris, 2001, p. 58)

Smilansky was clear in advocating separation from the Arabs: “Let us not be too familiar with the Arab fellahin lest our children adopt their ways and learn from their ugly deeds. Let all those who are loyal to the Torah avoid ugliness and that which resembles it and keep their distance from the fellahin and their base attributes.” (Masalha, p. 7)

Ber Borochov, a prominent Marxist Zionist and founder of Poalei Zion, called for a “Semitic nationalism,” for the olim to learn Arabic, and recognize Arabs as “close to us in blood and spirit.” But such sentiments remained marginal. (Hertzberg, 352; Morris, 2001, p. 58)

As Zionism gained ground, so did Arab calls for independence—initially among the Lebanese Christian elite of Beirut, who launched the watan or “fatherland” movement. In 1877, a new Ottoman constitution had instated a parliament in Constantinople, with representatives from throughout the empire. When the new constitution was suspended following a conservative coup the following year, the hand of Arab independence advocates was strengthened. Many rallied to Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, who had been exiled to Syria following a revolt against the French in Algeria. The movement was crushed, and the constitution revived when the reformist Young Turk tendency took power in Constantinople in 1908. But Arabs remained a minority in the parliament even though they believed they constituted a majority in the empire’s populace. The 1908 Ottoman parliament included 147 Turks, 60 Arabs and four Jews (as well as token numbers of Armenians, Greeks, Albanians and Slavs). (Lewis, p. 179; Morris, 2001, p. 26-9)

In Palestine, demographics were changing. By 1914, there were some 60,000 Jews in Palestine, compared to 657,000 Muslims (including Druze, a minority sect), and 81,000 Christians. Some 45 Jewish agricultural settlements had been established. (Morris, 2001, p. 83; Nathan, p. 52)

World War I and the Balfour Declaration

The outbreak of World War I—with Constantinople on the side of the Central Powers—brought disruption of the Ottoman Empire’s trade routes, and harsh privation to Palestine. Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish but non-Zionist US ambassador to the Ottomans, organized a dispatch of aid raised by American Jews to the Yishuv, or community of the olim. The aid was delivered by the US battleship North Carolina in October 1914. Morgenthau also applied diplomatic pressure when the Ottoman authorities began having Jewish settlers deported as enemy nationals later that year; the deportations were halted after several hundred had been shipped to British-held territory in Egypt. (Morris, 2001, p. 85)

Many Jews in Palestine believed that an Allied victory would improve their prospects for a state, and some actively collaborated with the British. In 1915, Jewish settlers established the NILI spy ring which reported to Britain on Ottoman forces in Palestine; two of its leaders would be hanged by Ottoman authorities. (Morris, 2001, p. 87)

One 1915 British parliamentary report read:

The Zionist leaders gave us [Britain] a definite promise that, if the Allies committed themselves to giving facilities for the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause. [Thomas, p. 9]

The British Gen. Edmund Allenby invaded from Egypt in the spring of 1917—with the participation of a Jewish Legion made up of Zionist volunteers from Palestine, Britain and the US. The Turks, clearly no longer trusting the loyalty of the Jews, had Tel Aviv forcibly evacuated—under the guise of protecting the populace. The city’s mostly Jewish inhabitants took refuge in the Galilee and other inland rural areas. But Allenby took Jerusalem and expelled the Turks from the territory in December; the Jewish refugees returned to Tel Aviv. (Morris, 2001, p. 77; Segev, p. 19-20)

In April 1918, Allenby established the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA)—which, in a bid to win peace with the Arabs, made no overt moves towards implementing the Zionist policy, and actually curbed Jewish immigration. (Morris, 2001, p. 88-9)

As Allenby’s invasion was prepared, Britain’s rulers began debating the post-war fate of Palestine. Foreign Secretary Lord George Curzon stated that the Turks could not be allowed to resume “control of a country which is the military gate to Egypt and the Suez Canal…the nerve-centre of the British Empire.” Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, favored turning Palestine into a British-backed Jewish state: “The establishment of a strong, free Jewish state astride the bridge between Europe and Africa, flanking the land roads to the East, would not only be an immense advantage to the British Empire but a notable step toward a harmonious disposition of the world among its peoples.” But simultaneously, Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner for Egypt, promised the emir of Mecca and Hashemite family patriarch, Hussein ibn Ali, recognition of “the independence of the Arabs” after the war. (Morris, 2001, p. 68-70)

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