Why history ended up this way
Enormous controversy has blown up in the wake of the explosion of violence over Gaza, particularly in the west, over the supposed right of the world’s historic Jewish diaspora to a homeland in the disputed Palestine territories. Asia Sentinel presents the following timeline for our readers of how that dispute came about.
Modern Israel began in the mid-19th century with the idea that Jews might try to return to the land from which their ancestors had come two millennia or more previously. The largest number lived in eastern Europe, then mostly part of the Russian empire, where they suffered periodic persecution and pogroms. There were also substantial groups in western Europe and North America, and long-established ones around the Mediterranean, Morocco in particular, and the Middle East, especially Iraq.
Known as Aliyah, the movement of Jews to Palestine/Eretz-Israel attracted support from evangelical Christians in the US and some influential figures in Europe including Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the UK.
1870: The groups Lovers of Zion began some small settlements in the ‘Ottoman-ruled land.’ Colloquially known as Palestine (Falestin), it approximately covered the Ottoman sanjaks (districts) of Nablus and Acre, plus Jerusalem which had a special status and reported directly to Constantinople.
1896: Publication of Der Judenstaat by Theodore Herzl and First Zionist Congress 1897 gave wider attention to the idea of Aliyah. The Jewish population grew from about 2 percent in 1870 to about 8 percent in 1914 partly impelled by the Kishinev massacre in Russia
1914: German and most US Jews initially support Germany at the start of the 1914-18 war due to antipathy to anti-Jewish Russia, Poland-born David Ben Gurion sought in Jerusalem then New York to recruit Jews for the Ottoman army but in May 1918 joined a Jewish unit for the British army and fought against the Ottomans in Palestine.
1917: In Britain during the war, Zionism had several promoters in the Cabinet and there was a growing inclination to attract Jews to the allied cause. On November 2, 1917, Britain, through its foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration. It promised, once the Ottomans had been defeated, to make Palestine a “national Home for the Jewish people,” adding that “nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
1918: These were all deliberately imprecise words but with the US now on the allied side in the war it made an immediate impact. Poland-born David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, who earlier had sought in Jerusalem then New York to recruit Jews for the Ottoman army, in May 1918 joined a Jewish unit for the British army and fought against the Ottomans in Palestine.
The Balfour statement contradicted two already made by the British. The first was correspondence between the King of Hijaz and Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ali of the Hashemite clan, and the British High Commissioner in Egypt Henry Macmahon. Hussein was promised post-war independence for an Arab state as reward for revolt against the Ottomans. This was not precisely defined but excluded lands west of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama, -- essentially what is now Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast of Syria. This was all public knowledge and intended not only to help the war effort against the Ottomans but keep British India’s Muslims on-side.
1916: The British and French conjured up another, this time secret agreement, also involving Russia, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement after its authors, After the Ottoman defeat, the British were to get control over Palestine including Haifa, trans-Jordan, and Mesopotamia, the French what are now Syria and Lebanon. The Russians were to get a longed-for prize, Constantinople, and also western Armenia. The Russians never got their portion when the now Republican Turks fought back against Russia in the throes of post-revolution civil war.
1925: King Hussein, in particular, felt cheated, so refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles and an Anglo-Hashemite treaty. The British no longer had a use for him and Hijaz was invaded by the forces of expansion-minded King Saud, whose Wahabi-aligned family had long ruled central Arabia. As consolation to the Hashemites, the British installed one, Abdullah, as Emir of Trans-Jordan, (later King of Jordan) and another, Faisal, as King of Iraq (Mesopotamia). Iraq became theoretically independent in 1932 but continued to have difficult relations with the British.
The British rule in Palestine was formalized with the League of Nations Mandate in September 1923 which included the National Home commitment to Jews. But Arab resistance had already started, with outbreaks of violence in 1920 and 1921. Immigration of Jews continued at a pace, with 10 percent in 1920 and rising threefold in the next 25 years despite a prolonged period of Arab revolt from 1936 to 1939. This saw about 5,000 Arabs, 400 Jews, and 200 British killed in fighting between Arabs and British military and Jewish armed groups.
1936: Various attempts at solutions went nowhere. The Peel Commission of 1936 recommended a partition with a small Jewish state and some transfer of Arab people. The Arabs rejected this demanding that Palestine be treated as a single entity and with special protection for Jews (and British interests). Zionists were divided but leaders such as Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann saw it as a first step to something much bigger.
At the same time in Germany, Hitler was intensifying his anti-Jewish programme causing many Jews to leave, particularly to the US but also to Palestine.
1939: A British White Paper recommended a drastic reduction in immigration as response to the Arab revolt. This remained until 1946. By then the world knew about the Holocaust, Hilter’s genocide of Jews with about 6 million Jews from its conquered territories in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine as well as from Germany and Austria. After 1945, the remaining Jews in Germany and eastern Europe sought to migrate.
1944: Jewish terrorism against British restrictions on emigration to Palestine started with the assassination of British Minister of State for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, by the Lehi (otherwise known as the Stern Gang after its leader Avraham Stern). It later, in 1948, assassinated UN Mediator, Swedish Count Bernadotte. Another Jewish militant group, the Irgun, in 1946 blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killing 91 people. The Lehi and Irgun were also behind the massacre of about 100 Arab civilians at the village of Deir Yassin in 1948. One significant Lehi figure, Yitzhak Shamir, later became Prime Minister of Israel, as did Irgun fighter Menachem Begin.
1947: The British had given up on trying to govern the mandate particularly given the massive post-war pressure for the settlement of a large number of Jewish survivors from the Holocaust. Hence a proposal from the UN for a partition which was rejected by the Arabs who said it was contrary to the UN's obligations to provide majority rule to the territory and that the division proposed gave more to the Jews than they represented either in terms of number or landholding.
The proposal was accepted by a two-thirds vote of the UN members. But this was later seen by opponents as a reflection of its domination by the west at a time when most of Africa and much of Asia was under colonial rule. Only one Asian country, the Philippines, which gained independence from the US that year, voted in favor. China abstained. Others voted against it. Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Burma, Malaysia, etc were not yet members. No countries in the Americas and none in Europe except Greece voted against it. Latin American states had sixteen votes, none against but only four African countries could vote, with Egypt against and (white) South Africa and Liberia in favour. Ethiopia abstained.
In the war that followed, the newly proclaimed Israel expanded its UN-allotted territory, and in the course of the war large numbers of Palestinians fled, or were forced, to leave to the remaining non-Jewish territory on the West Bank, or to Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. The kingdom of Jordan took over what remained of Palestinian West Bank territory.
1967: In a subsequent war against Egypt and Syria, Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank Palestinian territory, and the Golan Heights from Syria. It incorporated East Jerusalem and the Golan into its territory while the West Bank retained a degree of Palestinian autonomy. However, Israel enabled over the years the gradual establishment in the supposedly autonomous West Bank of Jewish settlements. There are now more than one hundred and their Jewish inhabitants now account for about 10 percent of Israel’s population and are regarded as Israelis for legal purposes.
1995: The nearest the two sides have come to a resolution of the conflict were the Oslo Accords, the second and last between Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yassir Arafat. This was unpopular with many on both sides and effectively ended with the assassination of Rabin. Leader of the opponents of the accord was Likud party leader and current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who used extreme language in his criticism of Rabin. In a somewhat similar fashion, Egyptian Anwar Sadat had been assassinated in 1981 for a peace agreement with Israel. This did not address the Palestinian issue but saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai peninsula which it had acquired in 1967 but which Sadat had tried to regain in 1973 in a surprise attack which ultimately failed but was seen to redeem Egypt’s honor.
Gaza was under Egyptian control from 1948 to the 1967 war when it was taken by Israel. The Oslo Accords led to it becoming a separated part of the Palestinian Authority territory. In 2006 Hamas, which rejected the Oslo Accords, defeated Fatah, the party of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in elections in elections, with 45 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Fatah.
US, Israel, and Fatah combined to subvert the election result which resulted in Hamas being excluded from the West Bank but becoming de facto ruler of Gaza. Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza though was easily able to attack it from the air, mostly in response to Hamas rocket attacks which had scant military purpose but kept the Palestine issue alive politically. Densely packed Gaza was largely sustained by aid, and had a high birth rate.
Since 1948, about eight million Jews have made Aliyah to Israel. Today the Jewish population of Israel (plus Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem) is about 7 million. The Arab population remaining in Israel is about 2 million, similar to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and there are about 1.9 million in Gaza, a strip of what was once part of Palestine but now cut off from the West Bank. Most of its population are descendants of refugees from 1948, and some from 1967.
Statistics on the Palestinian diaspora are hard to verify but the largest number is in Jordan. Its population has risen from about 500,000 in 1947 to 11 million today due mainly to the 1948 and 1967 influxes of Palestinians and their descendants but later also with refugees from wars in Syria and Iraq. There are smaller ones in most Arab countries, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Outside the region, the biggest group is considered to be in Chile with 500,000, followed by the US. Mexico and Central American countries were also destinations post 1948.
The percentage of Christians in Palestine has fallen from about 10 percent in Ottoman days to 2 percent or less, in the West Bank and 1 percent or less in Gaza. The Christian percentage of the diaspora is considered to be much higher, probably because it was easier to migrate to Christian-majority countries in the Americas. About 8 percent of Arabs in Israel itself are Christian.
One indirect result of a Christian exodus has been the increasing role of Islam in Palestinian issues, as seen in Hamas. Previously Palestinian nationalism had been a largely secular local affair, whether the mainstream PLO of Arafat or the most radical being Marxist George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Palestinian nationalism was also previously linked to the secular pan-Arabism of the era of Egypt’s President Nasser (1954-1970). Hamas is the acronym of the Arabic Islamic Resistance Movement hence opposition to a specifically Jewish state in the former Palestine has acquired a more religious aspect and one associated with more fundamentalist Islam than in the past.
2023: Meanwhile, politics in Israel itself has tended to move to the right which partly explains the success of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his sixth term as prime minister. and its co-option of parties representing Russian Jews who migrated in large numbers in the 1990s, and the highly orthodox Haredi community which has been growing fast and is now estimated at 13 percent of the population.
Netanyahu’s position on two-state solution has tended to be ambiguous, accepting it in principle but meanwhile expanding Jewish settlements, building walls to separate these areas and Israel itself from Palestinian territory, and changing laws in ways to discriminate against non-Jewish citizens. Most of his current coalition parties look to extend their boundaries to the West Bank, just as Hamas (and many secular Palestinians) still pursue the idea of a single state in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. The US has always backed the two-state solution but never to the point of requiring Israel to accept it in practice and cease let alone withdraw West Bank settlements. The role of Iran in supporting Hamas has further identified US strategic interests with those of Israel.
Palestinians remain divided between a radial, belligerent Hamas in Gaza and the weak Palestinian National Authority based in Ramallah and headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and heavily reliant on US and EU subsidies.
Given the violent history of the past 100 years, and current demographics, a single state, whether an Israel extending to the West Bank or a single multiethnic state, looks unfeasible both because of the strength of Israeli identity and the actual current and likely future demographics. Israel has a high fertility rate by developed country standards – 2.9 – but the Palestinian one is even higher – 3.5. The number of Jews and Arabs within the land defined by the 1923 mandate is close to being equal. Net Jewish migration now adds only about 0.1 percent annually to Israel’s population. However, in addition to about 9 million Jews outside Israel, there are about another 5 million people with sufficient Jewish connections, mainly by marriage, to qualify under Israel’s Right of Return law.
Without a new influx Israel will have to find a way to live with so many Palestinians or to ease as many as possible from their West Bank and communities as has before happened in 1948, and has continued very gradually since 1967 -- and persuading Egypt to take on a Gaza made ever more radical by recent events.