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The Tragedy of Palestine, part 1

August 4, 2014

Jewish Family in Mt. Zion


Since the conflict between Israel and Gaza first started 28 days ago, it seems like both mass media and social media have little else to talk about. However, throughout this conflict, I have seen far too many misrepresentations of the truth, too many fingers pointing, too much ignorance of the situation, too many assumptions, and too much hatred.  In order to hold a more educated discussion of the situation rather than spread more hatred and ignorance, let’s start from the beginning.


Theodor Herzl



For most people, the root of all evil is Zionism. I’d like to know though, how many people actually understand zionism?

Zionism, or the dream of a Jewish homeland, is often accredited to Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew, who, in response to the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, who wrote Der Judenstaat in 1895. In his book, Herzl called for European Jews to leave Europe and migrate to Israel (or Argentina). Later, in 1902, he wrote another book Altneuland, in which he described zionism and outlined his aspirations for the state of Israel (or Argentina).

Despite was most people think, the idea of zionism was not the creation of a religious state based on Judaism, nor was it a call for the eradication of all non-Jews from the land of Israel. Actually, the original zionist beliefs were for a nation where everyone (regardless of religion or gender) could live as equals in a society that was a blend of capitalism and socialism and cared for its citizens, much like the original kibbutzim in Israel. Sadly, all that most people are aware of regarding Zionism is the much darker, racist side that arose as part of Jewish Nationalism movements.


Sharif Hussein bin Ali


Palestinian stamp


Arab Nationalism

Ironically, there is not much mention in the news these days of the Arab Nationalism movements. After centuries of foreign rule, Arabs desired to have a land of their own in which they were joined by a common language and culture, could return to “true Islam”, and were not dependent on Western powers.

In 1916, the British encouraged Sherif Hussein bin Ali to lead a revolt against Ottoman rule so that  the Ottoman army would be distracted and allow the British to gain control of the Suez Canal.  In return for their support, Lord Kitchener promised Hussein an Islamic caliphate. It is this spoken promise, in addition to the letters exchanged between the British High Commissioner Sir Henry McMahon and Hussein and his two sons, Abdullah and Faysal, that many Palestinians use when claiming that the land on which Israel sits is rightfully theirs. However, when the British promised the caliphate, they left the borders undetermined, and never actually promised the region of land now part of Israel. It is also important to note that Abdullah and Faysal did later became the rulers of Jordan and Syria.


A Brief Summary of the History of Palestine in Relation to the Jews

Another question that is often raised, is what right did Jews have to create the State of Israel in Palestine? Well, let’s look at the history of the region of Palestine. If you want to have a look at ancient history, you can see that the region has undergone many name and border changes, in the 8th century BCE, there were even two states, Israelite and Philistine, which existed side by side. Regarding the historical (biblical) land of Israel, that’s best saved until I discuss the Settlement Movement… For now, I will only focus on the more “modern” history.


Historical map of Israel/Palestine


Palestinian Jews and the Ottoman Empire

Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until 1917/8. Under Ottoman rule, Jews living in Palestine were fairly well treated, apart from the Egyptian/Arab revolts from 1831 – 40, during which time Jewish populations were attacked by Palestinian Arabs. In 1840, European countries came to the aid of the Ottoman Empire and the Egyptians retreated. Following this, the Ottoman Empire introduced some reforms and enacted the Land Law in 1858. The Land Law, among other things, promoted land ownership and agricultural enterprises. These two factors are important as they paved the way for Jewish agricultural settlements.


Edmond de Rothschild visits Eretz Yisrael settlements prior to 1900


Jewish Land Purchases in Palestine

Under the Ottoman Land Law, most of the land that comprised Palestine was transferred to wealthy families outside of Palestine, who did not live near the land that they now owned. While Jews were not actually permitted to move to or purchase land in Palestine, Jewish organizations and wealthy Jewish benefactors, such as Baron Rothschild, still managed to purchase the land from the wealthy landowners who were not partial to whom they sold the land. Additionally, some land was also purchased from poor Arab farmers (fellahin) who needed the money to repay debts.

Most of the land purchased by the Jewish organizations was sparsely populated and undesirable to farmers since it was less fertile. Research into the land purchases has shown that more than half of the land was purchased from non-Palestinian landowners (absentee landowners), and, of the remainder, less than 10% was purchased from peasant farmers.

Could land purchases by the Jewish population have been the original trigger? In 1931, large tracts of land supported much smaller populations of Jews than they had Arabs, and the ongoing land purchases left a number of Arab tenant farmers landless and without a future income. Given that a lot of the Palestinian Arab culture is tied to the land and that the land was the only source of income for them, this would be a very good cause for them to dislike the Jews, even before the creation of Israel.

While this may have been an instigator, the claim that the Jews took “too large a portion of the arable land” and left many Arabs landless, is not entirely correct. In fact, out of 3,000 claims of dispossession, the British Mandate found that less than 80% were valid. Most of the land was barely settled (not including the Bedouin), let alone farmed, at the time of purchase. It was only after the Jewish agricultural settlements that the once infertile land (sand and swamp) was successfully cultivated. Furthermore, Jewish landowners employed Arab farmers, so, although in some cases they were now landless (some never owned land to begin with), many Arab peasants still had a source of income.


A fellahin family group from Siloam

A fellahin family group from Siloam


Population Statistics Prior to 1948

Regarding the population statistics during the Ottoman empire, I have not come across any definitive numbers due to the following reasons: foreigners living in the region were not counted, people who were evading taxes and military service were not counted, women and children were not always counted, under the Ottoman Empire there was no administrative district of Palestine, only smaller districts in the region. However, even knowing that it is difficult to come up with an accurate count, one can positively say that the number of Arabs exceeded the number of Jews in the region, although there were enclaves were Jews significantly outnumbered non-Jews; for example, in Jerusalem.

The population of Jerusalem according to the Turkish 1844 census:

Jews – 7,120

Moslems – 5,000

Christians – 3,390

Under the British rule, the numbers are also not definite, although one can clearly see the increase in the Jewish population as Jews began to flee the anti-semitism that spread across Europe. Not often mentioned, there was also an increase in the non-Jewish Arab population that occurred in the early 20th century. Most of the new Arab immigrants came to Palestine due to the increased job opportunities and higher wages that were available. Considering when they arrived in Palestine, I wonder, should these more recent immigrants be counted as refugees of the 1948 war since Palestine was not their original home?


In conclusion:

1. Zionism is a racist Jewish movement against the Arabs. FALSE

Zionism started as a peaceful, secular movement that desired a state where all members were equal. It was only later that Zionism began to be equated with terrorism, which I will discuss in the next section.

2.. There were no Jews in Palestine before Israel. FALSE

While  Zionism and anti-semitism encouraged more European Jews to migrate to Palestine, there was already a population of Jews living there.

3.. The Jews took all of the land from the Arabs.  FALSE

Jews were restricted from purchasing land, and when they did purchase land, it was mostly land that, until then, was unfarmed (swamps and sand). Furthermore, most of the land was purchased at high prices from wealthy landowners, many of whom did not live on the land, and only a small portion was purchased from peasant farmers. The increase in the number of landless Arabs was due more to the increase in their population size (there were no restrictions on  Arab immigration) and an increase in live birth rates than it was due to the Jewish people buying their land.

4. Arab Nationalism played, and still plays, a large role in the ongoing conflict. TRUE

I will discuss this more in the next section.


If anyone has any information that they feel I have missed, please leave a comment. However, only constructive criticism is accepted. Unlike the Mass Media, I am not trying to start a fight between people who are Pro Israel or Pro Palestine because I don’t believe there is a need to choose sides Believe it or not, or perhaps wait until my later posts, but I actually support both sides and am only trying to uncover the underlying reasons for this ongoing conflict as well as to disprove commonly held beliefs.



Top image Jewish Family in Mt. Zion

Image of Herzl from Wikipedia

Image of Hussein from Wikipedia

Image of stamp from

Map from

Image of Baron Rothschild from

Image of Fellahin Family from Palestine Exploration Fund


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