Palestinians and their history

by Alan M. Guenther,
Assistant Professor of History,
Briercrest College and Seminary

Christian opinions about the Middle East tend to be polarized. Some see Israel as the homeland for God’s chosen people, the Jews, and the Palestinians as the enemy committed to terrorism and the annihilation of the Israeli state. Others see the Palestinians as refugees who have lost their homes and lands, and the Israelis as the primary oppressors, encroaching on Palestinian territories with illegal settlements and attacking regularly with superior military force. As often happens in cases of such polarized opinions, many other Christians end up in a confused middle space, wondering if there might not be some truth in both positions.

Muslim conquest

While a brief essay will not be able to solve the issues, some historical perspectives might be able to provide some clarity. But here, too, we face further questions. Do we begin with God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis? Or with the Jewish conquest of the region under Joshua? Or with King David’s rule? Or with the Exile and invasions by successive empires including the Roman Empire during the time of Christ Jesus and the early Church? While the focus of this essay will be the modern period, some events of the 7th century deserve specific attention because they had a lasting impact.

In 614, the Persians with their Jewish allies conquered Jerusalem which had been under Christian Byzantine rule for several centuries. But within 13 years, the Byzantines regrouped, attacked, and defeated the Persians, taking control of Jerusalem once again. However, their rule would be brief because the Muslim Arabs took advantage the weakened state of the two great empires by sweeping in and conquering Jerusalem and the surrounding regions a few short years later in 638. For the next 1400 years, the city was ruled by various Muslim empires or dynasties, except for the 90-year rule by the Latin Crusaders in the 12th century.

What that means is that by the time of World War I, the region of “Palestine” had been under Muslim rule and part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, with populations of Muslims, Christians, and Jews all living together. At the start of the war, the Ottoman Empire allied themselves with the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and fought against France, Britain, and Russia. The British made three conflicting agreements during the course of the war which had an impact on Jerusalem and Palestine after Ottoman rule was abolished at the end of the war.

British and French imperialism

First, Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt began correspondence with Hussein, the Sharif or Arab ruler of Mecca in which he promised the British government would “recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs” if the Arabs would help them by revolting against Ottoman rule. Second, Britain and France drew up a secret agreement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide among themselves the territory which had just been promised to Sharif Hussein. And third, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, drew up the Balfour Declaration stating that the British government viewed with favour “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” giving encouragement to the growing Zionist movement.

At the conclusion of World War I, then, various groups vied for control of Palestine. Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal quickly set up an Arab Kingdom in Syria and, at least initially, expressed sympathy with the Zionist movement and welcomed Jews to make their home in Palestine under his rule. The French insisted that the Syrian territory was rightfully theirs and marched in their army to take control of Damascus. The British considered their alliance with France to be more important than their earlier promises to the Arabs and agreed that the French could exercise control over Syria in the north while they would exercise control over Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan in the South. The British established Faisal as the King in Iraq, and another of Sharif Hussein’s sons became King of Jordan. These regions were referred to as “Mandates” recognized by the League of Nations allegedly to assist newly liberated peoples until they could rule themselves. In practice, it looked like extensions of the French and British Empires in the region.

Growth of Jewish settlement

Had anyone asked the people living in Palestine what they wanted—whether an Arab king from Mecca or British and French caretakers? Actually, it was the Americans under President Woodrow Wilson which established a commission of inquiry to tour the area and survey the aspirations of the people, finding that they desired national independence, unsurprisingly. However, the commissioners’ recommendations were largely ignored because the decision to divide the territory into French and British Mandates had already been made and implemented. Most of the Palestinians surveyed also opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration had mentioned only a “national home” and specified that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Zionists were now promoting greater immigration and the purchase of the land, dispossessing the non-Jewish inhabitants.

Under the British Mandate, the British High Commissioner in Palestine tried to establish a legislative council with elected Jewish, Christian, Muslim representatives as well as an advisory council. However, the Arabs refused to participate because they insisted that the Balfour Declaration first be rejected. They were growing increasingly dissatisfied with Jewish immigration. Several waves of Jewish settlers had arrived in Palestine, the largest group coming in the 1930s. Wealthy Arab landlords were willing to sell their land to the settlers, resulting in the impoverished farmers being evicted and unable to find work. Tensions between the Arab inhabitants and Jewish settlers increased leading to riots and some limited attempts by the British to restrain both the violence and the immigration. Jewish settlers began to form their own defence leagues as well as a representative government.

The British eventually concluded that their Mandate rule itself was the problem. Both the Arab and Jewish communities were expecting the British to solve their problems and would not set aside their hopes and fears in order to work together. The Peel Commission of 1937 recommended that Palestine be partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states. The responses adopted by the two groups became typical of their subsequent responses to suggestions of partition. The Arabs rejected the proposal because they saw it as a violation of the rights of the Arab inhabitants. The Zionist leaders were willing to accept partition but thought their assigned territory was too small. As violence increased, the British position against continuing Jewish immigration and settlement became more fixed. In 1939, the government declared that it was not part of British policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State, that Jewish immigration and land transfers would now be restricted, and that Palestine was to have independence in 10 years. Zionists were shocked at this seeming reversal of policy, and the Arabs were dissatisfied that independence would not be immediate.

Establishment of the State of Israel

Then World War II happened. By the end, Europeans were appalled at the atrocities against the Jews by Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, and saw settlement of the Jews in Palestine as a way to atone. Zionist support in American was also increasing. Jewish defence groups such as Irgun increased their attacks against British targets in Palestine in an effort to move the process towards independence. The British government decided that it could not handle the situation by itself any longer and referred the matter to the recently formed United Nations which had replaced the League of Nations. The UN sent yet another commission to examine the situation which once again recommended the partition of Palestine. And again, the Jewish leaders endorsed the proposal, but the Arab leaders rejected it. The Jewish community at the time had increased to one third of the population but owned less than 10 per cent of the land. The UN proposed partition would give 54 per cent of the land to the Jews.

It should be noted that while the Jewish community had developed its own governing institutions, the Palestinian Arabs at this point no longer had their own leadership but were represented in these negotiations by the Arab League formed in 1945. This, too, would have repercussions in the subsequent decades as the surrounding Arab nations would make decisions regarding Palestine according to their own national priorities, not necessarily those of the Palestinians. The UN General Assembly decided to go ahead and adopt the partition plan on November 29, 1947, and the British aimed to terminate their Mandate and vacate the region by the following May. This Partition Plan for Palestine becomes a foundational document for subsequent Jewish-Palestinian relations. Even though initially rejected by the Arab League, the plan would later become the basis for the demand for a Palestinian State.

On May 14, 1948, the British withdrew, and the birth of the State of Israel was declared. But a Palestinian State was not. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. quickly recognized the new state. However, the surrounding Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq rejected the declaration and invaded, beginning the First Arab-Israeli War. Outnumbered, ill-equipped, and divided along national lines, the Arab armies lost to the Israeli troops who were now fighting for national survival. The war was over in ten months, with Israel now controlling not only the territory promised the Partition Plan but much of the proposed territory of the Palestinians as well. The remaining territories were annexed by Transjordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza Strip) for themselves, with no Palestinian state. The ceasefire and new borders ended the conflict but was not an Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist or of permanent borders, resulting in the continuing unrest in the coming decades.

The Palestinian refugees

A key outcome of the formation of the State of Israel and Arab-Israeli War was the creation of the Palestinian refugees. The UN has estimated that over 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes; they and their descendants now number over five million. From the start, the debate has waged whether they were forced from their homes by the fighting and campaigns of terror waged by the Israelis or whether they were lured by the surrounding Arab nations who hoped to bring ongoing international pressure on the nascent Jewish state. If there had been no sense of a “Palestinian” people before, now there was as they were drawn together and given an identity by their common experience as refugees. The intention of the UN was not that they remain permanently in the refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, but that they would return to their homes or be compensated for the loss of property if they chose not to return. Again, this resolution was rejected by the Arab League, and sections of it were also opposed by Israel. Nevertheless, the “right of return” has remained an aspiration of the Palestinian refugees and is seen by them as a “fundamental requirement for justice.”

A key difficulty in the matter of returning was that Israel experienced a new influx of immigrants who were now settled in those abandoned homes and villages. The Palestinian lands were absorbed into the Israeli economy. The Arab countries which had received the refugees passed strict limitations on their movement and employment with the result that many Palestinians were trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependency. Those with sufficient wealth relocated to other Arab states, Europe, or North America, but still held to the ideal of returning to their lands and homes.

Activity of the PLO

The aspirations of the Palestinians eventually coalesced in the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The goal of the PLO was the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. It saw Palestine as an integral geographical unit with the boundaries which existed at the time of the British Mandate. Zionism and a state for the Jews as such was rejected. It was secular in nature, declaring that all the religions in the territory were to be recognized and have equal status. This is in contrast with the subsequent founding of the Islamist Hamas organization which was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and now governs in the Gaza Strip. The PLO was an umbrella organization of various factions, one of which was led by Yasser Arafat and became dominant. In the 1970s, the PLO was known primarily as a terrorist organization involved in hijackings at the international level. Their militancy eventually earned them the displeasure of their hosts in both in Jordan and Lebanon, leading to severe hardship and destruction for the Palestinians living in the refugee camps.

The goals of the PLO changed over the decades from liberating all of Palestine to creating a Palestinian State to accepting the right of Israel to exist—albeit in its pre-1967 borders. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel defeated the Arab nations once again and annexed the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Once again, the UN stepped in to try to mediate a peaceful solution, this one being somewhat more successful because the various groups eventually agreed to abide by its injunctions, however reluctantly. The new resolution called for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had captured in exchange for peace. It called for the Arab nations and the Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist. The Palestinian State was declared by Yasser Arafat in 1988, and the Palestinian Authority took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994.

Responding as Christians

This did not mean that all the grievances were settled, however. But a review of the earlier history provides the broader context in which to view current struggles. It is designed to help us avoid simplistic answers which would create further polarization and understand some of the complexities involved. It also seeks to counter the tendency to put all the blame on one party or the other. Yes, mistakes were made, and injustices were committed. And these are difficult to correct or reverse easily and quickly because they have often accumulated over decades or even centuries. But neither should we throw up our hands in despair. Let us work for peace and justice as God leads, and let us do so as informed people of God, listening carefully to all sides.

One key perspective which to me seems paramount is to recognize the role our brothers and sisters are playing in the region. Christian communities have been present in the region since the time of the early Church. They are currently divided between various denominations but make up a significant minority in both Israel and the Palestinian State. Most would be Arab speakers, though there are also converts from Judaism. Let us, then, especially listen to Palestinian and Israeli Christians, as well as those in the Palestinian diaspora, and stand with them as they seek to bring God’s peace and healing to their nations.

Alan Guenther

Alan Guenther comes from the Mennonite community north of Saskatoon, attending school in Hepburn and church in Osler. He studied at Prairie Bible College and Briercrest Bible College before going to Pakistan to work as a missionary with TEAM. Upon his return, he completed an M.A. and Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at McGill University. For the past 15 years he has been teaching at Briercrest including courses such as the history of the modern Middle East as well as the histories of Christianity and Islam.

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