After Rome destroyed Israel in A.D. 70, the Jews wandered the world for nearly 2,000 years without a country to call their own. Many Jews traveled through Israel and settled throughout its borders (including Jerusalem), but they did not have a nation. It would take the Western world in the 20th century to help birth the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. During the long stretch of orphanage, the Jewish holy land was mainly in the hands of the Muslim world. From A.D. 638 until the end of World War 1, Islamic Caliphates owned and ran the Jewish homeland.
Perhaps no other piece of real estate on earth is more controversial and contested than Israel. The term “Palestinian refugee crisis” is a familiar term to modern ears. It invokes the plight of Arabs living in modern Israel and usually paints the Jews as the well armed oppressors to these poor, helpless communities. Yet the term Palestine has undergone a few twists and turns over the last couple millennia. Egyptian and Hebrew dialects have the term “peleshet,” which means “migrant.” It is believed to be the origin of the word “Palestine.” Egyptians used it to describe the nomadic Philistines living in Israel’s borders. Philistines are Aegan (i.e.: Greek ancestry) and have no cultural, ethnic or linguistic ties to the Arabian Peninsula). In the 500’s B.C., Greek historian Herodotus referred to the region of Israel as “Palaistine.” In the A.D. 132 Rome gained control of the region after a brief rebellion by Shimon Bar Kokhba and then made sure to refer to Judea as “Palaestina” in hopes of minimizing Jewish identification with the area.
Roman world in the B.C. era
From A.D. 1517 to 1917 the Ottoman Empire referred to the region by its Roman designation, “Palestine.” However, Arabs living within its borders called themselves “Southern Syrians” and not “palestinians.” After Ottoman defeat in World War 1, the British took control of the palestinian region and it was defined as not only Israel but modern day Jordan’s territory. Until Israel’s Independence Day on May 14, 1948, the Western press referred to Jews — not Arabs — living within the Israeli borders as Palestinians. It was not until years after the 1948 War of Independence between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbours that Arabs living within the West Bank and Gaza strip were first referred to as Palestinians.
Surely this is meaningless, right? Who cares about nomenclature when discussing Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab land? Well, this is where it gets interesting. What exactly was the relationship of Ottoman Arabs to the Jewish holy land prior to the creation of Israel in the 20th century? In 1867, Mark Twain travelled through Israel and in his consequent book “The Innocents Abroad” he remarked on the nearly deserted and abandoned holy land under Arab rule:
“… A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
Twain also marveled at how small and scantily inhabited Jerusalem was. By 1880 only about 40,000 Jews lived within historical Isreali/Palestinian borders along with some 400,000 Muslims. During the 1800’s a slow but steady push began to have Jews return to their native homeland due to increasing troubles abroad. Russians and consequently Europeans began heavy persecution of the Jewish people. Making it understandable for them to desire their own home. Starting in 1882 major waves of Jewish migration began arriving in what is now modern Israel (also its historical/biblical borders).
During this mass immigration, nothing was taken from Arabs by force. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were purchased by Jews from the Arab landowners in the region. Most of this real estate was in highly undesirable and undeveloped regions. After Word War 1, British, French, Canadian and American forces defeated Germany and the Ottoman Turks. The Middle East had previously been under the banner of the Ottoman Empire but in the early 1920’s was broken up into the borders we currently know of as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Israel, etc. Before these borders were finalized, Jews and Brits had begun planning a return of worldwide Jews to their native homeland. British Foreign Secretary James Balfour wrote a letter to Walter Rothschild and a Baron on November 2, 1917 officially stating the intention of Britain to form a Jewish State in the relatively uninhabited western border of the former Ottoman Empire. This famous communiqué is now known as the Balfour Declaration and is the “big bang” of modern Isreal’s creation.
The original League of Nations and British Mandate conception of the newly minted Jewish state was to include an area approximately 45,000 square kilometers which included modern day Jordan. Shortly after this was made known, Arabs within Israel’s proposed borders began intermittently rioting. This would occur until conflicts within the Jewish territories rose to the level of war in the late 1940’s. Furthermore, Jews living in Arab countries found themselves increasingly persecuted and most had to flee to Israel. From the generous borders of the 1920’s, Israel saw its territories slowly erode in the hands of the newborn United Nations due to constant Arab objections and conflicts.
By 1947, a surface area of less than 18,000 square kilometers was all that was left of the plan for Jewish homeland.
From the 1920’s onward, Jewish settlers to Israel began irrigation for agricultural development. Industrial construction also began in earnest during this time. Eventually Israel would become a net exporter of produce. Its innovations in the fields of pharmaceuticals and technology as well as its recent discovery of major natural gas reserves have propelled its economy to the highest per capita GDP in the entire Middle East. In 2012, Israel ranked number one in the Middle East on the UN’s Human Development Index. Prior to the major immigration and industrial investments by Jews in Israel, the Arab world had all but forgotten about this region of their vast Middle Eastern empire. It truly was “no man’s land.” Not only was there no meaningful Arab civilization living in pre-Israel “palestine” but even modern day Israel’s borders make up less than 1% of the Arab controlled Middle East.
Arab-Israeli Conflicts Escalate to War (the following section is a redaction of this site)
On November 29, 1947, Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee’s spokesman, told the United Nations that Arabs would drench “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood.”(1) Showing the violent intentions of Arabs towards the proposed creation of an Israeli homeland. Consequently, Arab-initiated riots in Israel killed 381 Jews, 427 Arabs and 46 British between November 30, 1947 and February 1, 1948.(2) Larger scaled attacks began in earnest on January 9, 1948 when a thousand Arabs attacked northern Jewish settlements. By February 1948 the British said so many Arabs had invaded Palestine (Jewish and Arab territories in Israel’s borders) that they could not push them back.(3) By April 1, 1948, Palestinian Arabs — with the help of neighbouring countries — had inflicted significant casualties on the Jewish people. On April 26, 1948, Jordanian King Abdullah stated:
“All our efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Palestine problem have failed. The only way left for us is war. I will have the pleasure and honor to save Palestine.”(4)
In early May 1948 many Jewish settlers in Kfar Etzion were slaughtered by the Arab Legion soldiers.(5) (6) The United Nations had no trouble blaming the escalating conflicts squarely on the Arabs. On February 16, 1948, the UN Palestine Commission had stated to the U.N. Security Council:
“Powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein.”(7)
Arabs bluntly took responsibility for escalating to war. Jamal Husseini bald faced declared to the U.N. Security Council:
“The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight.”(8)
Despite the savagery, on May 14, 1948 Israel declared its independence.
That very evening, a conglomerate of Arab states including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq began air strikes on Tel Aviv. This led Soviet delegate Andrei Gromyko to address the U.N. Security Council on May 29, 1948:
“This is not the first time that the Arab states, which organized the invasion of Palestine, have ignored a decision of the Security Council or of the General Assembly. The USSR delegation deems it essential that the council should state its opinion more clearly and more firmly with regard to this attitude of the Arab states toward decisions of the Security Council.”(9)
Alas, then — as nowadays — the U.N. proved toothless in upholding its objectives. Yet it is interesting historically to see that when the United Nations were watching this burgeoning conflict they held the Arabs guilty. One wonders why time would turn this international body against the Jewish nation? The United Nations did send Count Folke Bernadotte to the Palestinian Arabs in order to negotiate a truce. However, after spending time discussing with Arab forces, Bernadotte reported back to the U.N. that these Arabs had never “developed any specifically Palestinian nationalism” and that most “of the Palestinian Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated in Transjordan.”(10)
In other words, the Arabs were attacking the Jews but not to create a nation of their own, but simply to remove the Jews from theirs. Remember that there had not been a Palestinian identity in the Ottoman Empire or the Arab world. Only since the Jews had arrived had the Arab world turned and focused on this strip of land which they had essentially neglected prior to the 1920’s.
Despite being a freshly born nation, Israel won against a highly militarized and organized Arab world. Even on May 14, 1948, while Israel declared its independence to the world, it did not have a single canon or tank. Its air force was comprised of nine nearly obsolete military planes. Its main defense core was comprised of less than twenty thousand fully war ready soldiers.(11) Even with these odds, by March 10, 1949 every last Arab country arrayed against Israel were defeated and called for truces. As a result of the failed coup, the Arabs lost much land within Israel’s borders.
In 1967, as a reaction to the build up of the Egyptian army along Israel’s southern borders, the Jews launched a surprise air assault that decimated the Egyptian air force and neutralized it in less than a week. This conflict is notoriously referred to as the “6 day war.” It resulted in Israel swallowing up the Sinai peninsula and the West Bank. Further expanding its borders in hopes of stabilizing its nation against further terrorism and warfare coming from the Arab world.
In the aftermath, on November 22, 1967, the United Nation launched the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 which laid the modern groundwork for attempted peace treatise between Israelis and Arabs. Often called the “land for peace” treaty, Resolution 242 lead Israel to give the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in 1979 and the West Bank to Arabs in 1982. Many observers to the results of the “land for peace” actions by Israel and the U.N. are critical of the results. Arabs within Israel have never shown to be motivated to peace even immediately following the regaining of the Gaza Strip and West Bank territories. Rocket launches, terrorist attacks and the continuous building of military resources within the Palestinian Arab communities have not ceased since the Jewish-Arab conflict began in the 1940’s.
Attempted peace treatise in this section of the planet has proven difficult and frustrating. And it is within this warring context that the Jewish people have thrived despite being surrounding by an Arab world bent on its destruction and a Western world who turn a deaf ear to the Jewish plight.
(1) J.C. Hurewitz, The Struggle For Palestine, (NY: Shocken Books, 1976), p. 308.
(2) Facts on File Yearbook, (NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1948), p. 231.
(3) Facts on File Yearbook, (NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1947), p. 231.
(4) Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 322.
(5) Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1976), p. 47
(6) Ralph Patai, ed., Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, (NY: McGraw Hill, 1971), pp. 307-308
(7) Security Council Official Records, Special Supplement, (1948), p. 20.
(8) Security Council Official Records, S/Agenda/58, (April 16, 1948), p. 19.
(9) Security Council Official Records, SA/Agenda/77, (May 29, 1948), p. 2.
(10) London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), p. 113.
(11) Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 352.