Emotions are running high over the present Israeli-Hamas conflict. Many pro-Palestine protestors in a number of Western cities seem to question the legality of Israel’s existence and actions. But what does history say about the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East?
Historically, Palestine was a “region” within a larger geographical area that included Syria and Lebanon. Never governed “as a distinct unity,” it was not even a Province of the Ottoman Empire. The concept of nationalism was meaningless for late 19th century Arab inhabitants; certainly, there was no hint of “a separate Palestinian Arab nationalism.” The less than half a million Arabs living there were mostly poor, illiterate farmers experiencing economic hardship.
Even setting aside the reality of Israel of biblical times, there is much to say about the historical claim of Jewish land. For centuries, there was a small population of Sephardic Jews living in Palestine (surviving assaults by the Romans, Christian crusaders, and Muslims). Some of these Jews originated from the Arab Peninsula, survivors of Muhammad’s command: “Never do two religions exist in Arabia.” Adding to these Jewish numbers were the thousands of Jews from Europe who began to flock to Palestine in the 1880s.
Scholars point out that when European Jews – generally known as Ashkenazim Jews – began to settle in Palestine there was no displacement of local Arabs by conquest; the Jews lawfully purchased land from Arab landowners, often at “exorbitant prices.” Mark Twain’s 1867 description of Palestine was a land of barrenness and poverty, but ample evidence exists of the European Jews revitalizing many sections of the region. On the eve of the First World War, there were approximately 50 Jewish settlements in Palestine and the European Jews tipped the Jewish population to the range of 65,000 to 85,000.
During WWI, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object….” The date of Lord Balfour’s letter was November 2, 1917. For Bible-believing Christians, Balfour’s statement was beyond mere political rhetoric; it “was the hand of God writing a warrant for His people.” Soon after the Balfour Declaration, British military forces took possession of Palestine when the Palestinian Arabs still supported “the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire in its war against the (Christian) Allied powers.”
The spoils of victory included Britain formalizing its control of Palestine in 1922 with the establishment of the British mandate (Palestine and Iraq). The text of the Palestine mandate approved the Balfour Declaration and recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstructing their national home in that country….” Palestinians Jews looked forward to political independence and they had an advantage in a formal international sense.
Of the Jews, the highest concentration resided in Jerusalem. The British census of 1922 recorded 33,971 Jews and 28,112 Arabs living in Jerusalem proper. Interestingly, the leading Arab families in Palestine sold land to the Jews up until 1947. The mandate period witnessed the economic rise of the Jewish communities, far outpacing Arab development that lacked the democratic governing institutions of the Jews.
Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there was deadly Arab-Jewish conflict with the worst episodes in the years 1919-21, 1929, 1933, and 1936-39. The British were unable to solve the violence of the 1940s. They looked to the United Nations. In 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), composed of 11 “neutral” member nations, began with the basic outline that division of Palestine between the Palestinian Jews and the Palestinian Arabs was the best option. In 1947, UNSCOP visited the Jewish refugee camps in Europe, met with Jewish and Arab leaders in Palestine, and debated the issue. Jewish representatives made progress since they were able to showcase economic and land improvement and they were well prepared to present their side to UNSCOP whereas the Arabs boycotted meetings, ignored the UNSCOP members who visited Arab villages, and failed to propose any coherent alternative.
The UNSCOP presented its official recommendations to the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947. The majority report stipulated the partition of Palestine into two states with the Jewish state having most of the coastal area, western Galilee, and the Negev. The UN plan received the necessary number of votes from member nations (including both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
The partition decision was not a great deal for the Palestinian Jews, but they accepted it (it was the best deal for Jews in 1900 years). The Palestinian Arabs did not accept it. And 66 years later, many Arabs continue to argue for the destruction of Israel.