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Note: Although the first edition of Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative has been published, the document undergoes continuous refinement through ongoing stylistic and scholarly review. Text on this page may be changed from time to time as a result of this process.
Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2020, The Israel Palestine Project
All rights reserved
Chapter 1 - The stage is set: Conflicting claims of Palestinians and Israelis to the Holy Land and the origins of Zionist immigration
At the beginning of the 20th Century, most of the inhabitants of the “Holy Land”, the land we now know as Israel and Palestine, were Muslims, with a large minority of Christians and a smaller minority of Jews. Christians and Jews were considered by Muslims to be "Ahl al-Kitab", or “People of the Book” (i.e., of the Bible or Torah). In the Palestinian (predominantly Islamic) narrative, the Palestinians consider themselves as the “the sons of the soil”, living on this land for at least 1,400 years, and that this gave them prior rights of ownership and occupation.
Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Christians each consider themselves traditionally to be a “community of destiny” – a Chosen People to the Promised Land. The same territory serves as a Holy Land for all three Abrahamic religions, e.g., "Eretz Yisrael" is the Land of Israel for the Jews, and “Filastin” (Palestine) is the blessed land for the Palestinian Muslims. In this sense, by realizing their sovereign national existence on the ground, each community is fulfilling its destiny: for the Jews, regathering the Jewish people and rebuilding Zion as a defensible home for a dispossessed and scattered community; for the Palestinians (the majority of which are Muslims, with a small but important Arab-speaking Christian minority), protecting the holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron from foreign takeover (a duty befalling Palestinians since the time of the Crusades).
Until the nineteenth century, the majority of the Jews worldwide lived (and about half of them still live) in the “Diaspora”, an existential state of exile from their historic homeland of Eretz Yisrael. About 8 million Jews, the vast majority of them at the time, lived in Eastern Europe and only about 24,000 Jews lived in the Holy Land (see Note 1). Jews in the Diaspora were subjected to inequality, discrimination and, at times, persecutions and pogroms. All of these conditions were intensified during the second half of the nineteenth century. At the same time, influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment and the ideology of nationalism and pushed by their maltreatment, some Jews turned to the than embryonic Zionist national movement. In the 1880’s, Jews of the fledgling Zionist movement made a claim to Palestine as their homeland, and later, in conjunction with Great Britain through the 1917 Balfour Declaration (see Chapter 4), asserted their ownership of the land, as an act of reclaiming what was taken from them by the forces of history. In the Jewish/Israeli narrative, the destruction of the Jewish Kingdoms of antiquity through Roman persecution and conquest, followed by the epic sufferings of the Diaspora, were justifications for a new Jewish homeland in the place where it all began, the Holy Land.
Early Jewish immigrants from the Diaspora came to Palestine during the modern era in small numbers under Ottoman rule (see Note 2). These waves of immigration are seen by Zionists as harbingers of the emerging Jewish national movement – Zionism. The early Jewish settlements were highly individualistic, but there was also an emergence of nationalistic thinking by those who were influenced by the Hovevei Zion movement (see Chapter 3).
Later, in the period of 1903 to 1914, (the second phase of Jewish immigration), leading Zionist thought was to establish a national economy and autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. The rise of Arab nationalism began during this period (see Note 3). After 1918, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish immigration accelerated in cooperation between the British Empire and the Zionist movement, and large numbers of immigrants came to Palestine with British Mandate approval and, since the late 1930s, without permits.
The Jewish immigrants bought land from Palestinians with large landholdings (mostly absentee owners), and from other resident Arab landowners. The cultural alienation between the traditional Palestinian population and the modern Jewish-Zionist-European immigrants, who spoke European languages and wore European clothing, was the beginning of what became the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. By 1948, 7% of the land of Palestine had been purchased by Jewish-Zionist organizations, 54% of that through the Jewish National Fund, an organization established for this purpose in 1901. 70% of the land purchased had been from large landowners.
1. Sami Adwan, D. Bar-On, and E. Naveh, Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel and Palestine, PRIME, 2012, p. 2.
2. In the latter half of the 18th Century, an estimated 5,000 Jews lived in what was to become Mandate Palestine, out of a total population of approximately 250,000-300,000 of which 25,000 were Christians, several thousand were Druze, and the remaining majority Sunni Muslims. In the period just before the First Aliyah in 1882, the estimated number of Jews had reached 24,000. This first wave of immigration boosted the estimated number of Jews to 50,000 (from: Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 20).
3. Ran Aaronsohn , in Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, edited by Paul Scham, Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund, Left Coast Press, 2005, p. 64.
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