Many of my American friends do not know the history of Palestine. Until relatively recently, I sure didn’t.
Here’s my attempt to “educate” my fellow Americans. I would appreciate any constructive comments to my first draft.
“The erasure of Palestinian culture and history is a tactic of war and occupation, a means to further limit the self-determination of the Palestinian people. Yet the richness, beauty, and complexity of Palestinian existence was everywhere evident, in the historical and contemporary cultural material produced by writers, poets, journalists, artists, archivists and librarians, and in the histories passed down through stories and from person to person. We bore witness to a culture of resistance, which in all its myriad forms resoundingly refutes the notion that Palestine does not exist.” – Delegation of Librarians and Archivists who visited Palestine (August 2013)
As an American growing up in the 1950s & 60s, and taking note of the world beyond my horizon beginning in the 1970s, I learned about the Middle East through the Israeli narrative which the U.S. mainstream media picked up lock, stock and barrel.
The story-line went this way: The young Jewish state provided a safe-haven for the persecuted victims of the Holocaust. The kibbutzim were a progressive social experiment in a relatively empty landscape that might flourish one day. Hostile Arab neighbors were ruthless and wanted to destroy Israel in her infancy. As the only democracy in that part of the world, America’s alliance with Israel made perfect sense; maybe America could spread some of its noble values around.
I didn’t question this story-line or look deeper because there were more pressing concerns – raising a family and starting a career – and, of course, the Viet Nam quagmire. Frankly, Southeast Asia was on my radar screen more than the Middle East until the “intifada” hit the nightly news in the late 1980s. What is an “intifada”? Why were these children throwing rocks? The Israeli narrative began to crack but I was still too preoccupied to bother learning about the occupation. Most Americans, I suspect, were as unconcerned as I was about the Middle East.
Today a visitor can travel to France and easily grasp that country’s culture, its environs, and the current political scene without having any knowledge of the French Revolution; or to India without a scintilla of information about the British East India Company. Not so in Palestine.
The signs of the Israeli Occupation are everywhere. Travelers disembarking at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, intending to visit the West Bank or Gaza, are immediately confronted with the reality of the Occupation. Israeli security guards separate, isolate and question them, sometimes instruct them to open their Facebook and email accounts, and meticulously search their belongings. When this happened to me on my first visit in 2004, I started asking myself questions about the Occupation. What is an Occupation? Why is Israel occupying Palestine? Who is responsible for this Occupation? Finding the answers required learning about the past.
Palestine isn’t a country, nation-state, or province; in the minds of some people, Palestine and Palestinians don’t even exist! Do they have a history?
Before I set off on my second trip to the Middle East in 2011, I decided I needed to do some homework. Reading up on the history of the region was part of my self-assignment. I quickly learned that the conflict is not limited to the politicians and rock-throwing youth. Historians are also battling with each other.
In the late 1980s, a group of Israeli historians, including Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, began to challenge the commonly-accepted version of Israeli history based on newly-declassified Israeli government documents. Morris called them the New Historians. They went head-to-head with the traditional historians who cast Israel as the peace-seeking victim in a hostile Arab world, the David-and-Goliath narrative. The New Historians shared a more nuanced history of the exodus of the Palestinians and the reasons for the persistent political deadlock with the Arab states in the region.
Why is the history of Israel and Palestine so important?
At its core, the conflict is framed from both sides as an issue of existence and identity. Israeli leaders assert that their nation’s existence is threatened by hostile neighbors in the region, and they see criticism as an attempt to delegitimize Israel’s identity.
Palestinians also frame the conflict as one of existence and identity. They say Israel is trying to wipe them off their land, and their identity as Palestinians is threatened in the absence of a sovereign state to call their own.
The historians continue to struggle with competing narratives. Students in Israel and Palestine are learning their own historical narratives through textbooks which conveniently omit the other’s narrative. Most diplomats and peace negotiators conduct their business as though the conflict between Israel and Palestine began in 1967, ignoring the pain and injustices that occurred when Israel first declared statehood in 1948.
Israelis and Palestinians are bound together in what appears to be an intractable conflict because of the history they share but refuse to acknowledge. Each side wants to cast their history in a light most favorable to their claims on the land, and also to legitimize their current actions. For the most part, neither side wants to hear the other and so no “peace agreement” nor “two-state solution” will mend this historical divide.
A non-historian’s summary of the history many Americans do not know.
Palestine’s location put it at the ancient crossroads of trade, science, scholarship and religion for many different people and cultures.
Zionists argue their claim on this land they call Judea and Samaria outranks all other claims because their God gave them this land thousands of years ago.
Palestinians (primarily Muslims) point to the conquests of the Arabian Peninsula beginning in the 630s by Prophet Mohammed and his followers. The region was governed by Muslim rulers for hundreds of years, with the exception of the Crusades (1099 – 1291) and then the establishment of Israel in 1948.
My eyes glaze over and I stifle a yawn when the advocates on either side turn back this far into history to support their claims. I can’t believe any deity wants his or her followers to trumpet their rights to the land or rationalize their cruelties and injustices based on events dating back so far in history.
Instead, I turn to more recent times when the Turks ruled their Ottoman Empire, including this region of the Middle East, for more than 400 years. There were no Arab states at that time – no state of Palestine — but after WWI the victorious British Empire laid claim and established Palestine’s first borders in 1922 with the blessing of the League of Nations.
Although there were Jewish immigrants escaping the pogroms and arriving in Palestine as early as the 1880s from Europe, the inhabitants in Palestine were predominantly Arab Muslims and Christians. [stats].
The British Mandate of Palestine (1920 – 1948) was a stressful time for everyone. The indigenous Arab population had a flourishing network of towns and villages, a thriving commerce, and strong educational, religious and cultural institutions which knit them together. [Photos] They didn’t need or want British rulers.
The Zionist project was also flourishing, and Jewish immigrants were arriving in larger and larger numbers. [stats] Resentments grew. For hundreds of years, Jews had been kicked out, humiliated, treated as second-class citizens, and worse, everywhere they went. The Zionists wanted a safe home to call their own and they had a very deliberate plan for how to accomplish their goal.
The British tried to keep the peace but were attacked by both sides. In 1948, they said “enough is enough!” and departed, turning the keys (so to speak) over to the United Nations. Prior to their departure, the UN General Assembly approved the Partition Agreement on November 29, 1947, dividing the British Mandate of Palestine into two – giving 55% to a new Jewish state and 45% to a Palestinian Arab state. The Jewish Agency accepted the division; the Arab governments in the region rejected it and war broke out.
Why did the Arabs reject the Partition Agreement? I suspect they felt the division was unfair. At the end of 1946, 1,269,000 Arabs and 608,000 Jews lived within the borders of Mandate Palestine. Jews had purchased 6 – 8% of the total land area of Palestine amounting to about 20% of the arable land. Overnight, more than half the land passed into the hands of less than 1/3 the total population, and it just didn’t pass the smell test for most of the indigenous Arabs in the region. [ ]
1948-49 is the most disputed period in this history. Israelis celebrate May 14, 1948 as the birth of their new state. Palestinians mourn May 15, 1948 as the Nakba (Catastrophe). Traditional Israeli historians believe that thousands of Palestinians voluntarily picked up and left their homes and villages in 1948-49. The New Historians have written about the deliberate plans to forcefully expel the native population; destroying or depopulating more than 450 towns and villages. [ ]
By the end of 1948, two-thirds of the Palestinian population (approximated 750,000 people) was exiled, and more than 50% were driven out under direct military assault. Others fled as news spread of massacres committed by Jewish militias in Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin and Tantura. Tens of thousands of shops, businesses and stores were left in Jewish hands. Many Palestinian families took with them the keys to their homes thinking they would return one day soon. Six decades later, the keys have been passed on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Nakba may be decades-old history but it lives today in every Palestinian home and in the heart of every Palestinian man, woman and child. There are approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees (those who fled in 1948-49 and their descendants) living today in 61 camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The Nakba trauma is recounted in the history books of Palestinian students just as Israeli students learn about the Holocaust. Evidence of the Nakba can be seen in murals on major streets in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Imans’ sermons in local Mosques can be heard recounting the devastation of the Nakba.
In June 1948, David Ben Gurion unilaterally announced the State of Israel was open and ready to do business, now on 78% of the territory of the former British Mandate. This new Jewish state was expanding. The Gaza Strip, West Bank, and the Arab East Jerusalem made up the other 22%.
The UN General Assembly tried to bring closure and peace by passing Resolution 194 on December 11, 1948. The Arab member states rejected it. Resolution 194 places Jerusalem, as the center of three world religions, under international control. Israel’s acceptance as a member of the United Nations was conditioned on its acceptance of the terms of Resolution 194. The most contested provision concerns the rights of the Palestinian refugees.
Paragraph 11: Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.
During the next 20 years (1948 – 1967), the Gaza Strip was ruled by Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem were ruled by Jordan.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization was created in 1964, but U.S. leaders ostracized the PLO from the first day. When Yasser Arafat was elected PLO Chairman in 1968 (or 1969?), he galvanized the Palestinians and gave them a voice even though they did not have a state of their own. Arafat was invited to the United Nations in 1974 where he spoke about carrying both a gun and an olive branch, and pleaded with delegates, “do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” [ ] The U.S. refused to speak with the PLO until 1988.
The Six Day War in June 1967 is another bone of contention between the traditional historians and the New Historians. Whether the Arab nations were mobilizing to strike and destroy Israel, as the traditionalists assert, or Israel preemptively attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria to expand its borders and demonstrate its superiority, there is no doubt about the outcome. Israel took control of the remaining 22% of the former territory of the British mandate, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
Following the war, in November 1967, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 242 to proclaim the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.” The PLO rejected Resolution 242 but in September 1993 agreed to support it. Resolution 242 is arguably the cornerstone for any discussions or negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors because it firmly checks Israel’s plans for expansion and provides legitimacy to the Palestinians’ claims.
Israel’s military control of the lands it captured in the 1967 Six Day War is called an Occupation. To Palestinians and hardcore activists, this is so elementary that it needs no explanation. To most Americans, and even some Jews, the Occupation is either a new concept because the Western media rarely mentions it or it may be considered a hurtful and anti-Semitic term because it challenges Israelis’ version of history and the core beliefs of many Israelis about their country.
Spending time in Gaza, I witnessed how the Nakba (1948) and the Occupation (1967) live within the Palestinians today. These are much more than history lessons in a schoolchild’s textbook. Their identity and culture, even their dreams and goals for the future, are wrapped up in the injustices perpetrated during the Nakba and continuing to the present for those living under Occupation.
Traditional Israeli historians, and many Israeli politicians, assert time and time again that Palestinians do not want peace; they are monolithic in their desire and determination to fight with the ultimate goal of destroying Israel. The New Historians dispute this claim.
A lost opportunity came in January 1976 when the PLO went to the UN Security Council with a proposal for two states (Israel and Palestine) with Palestinians accepting the remaining 22% of the territory that had been divided in 1948. Israel refused to attend the meeting and the U.S. vetoed the resolution. At that time, the U.S. was still not talking with the PLO.
Egypt normalized relations with Israel in 1978 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords at the White House. For their efforts, they shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Israel returned the portion of the Sinai it had captured in the Six Day War to Egypt with strict conditions about keeping it a demilitarized zone; and the U.S. promised to provide lots of money and military equipment to both Israel and Egypt, which it continues to do to this day. [ ] The Camp David Accords angered Palestinians and many Arab nations. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League and Sadat was murdered in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
The Occupation became firmly entrenched in the 1970s and 1980s. Jewish settlements grew in the West Bank and Gaza (the occupied Palestinian territories), and the Israeli military transformed itself into an Occupation force to protect the settlers and keep the Palestinians subdued. A new generation of stateless Palestinian refugees was growing up under the oppressive humiliation of Occupation. The international community, by and large, remained silent.
On December 8, 1987, an Israeli truck swerved and killed four Palestinians at a busy checkpoint in the Gaza Strip – a doctor, an engineer, and two laborers. [ ] Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were outraged and the Intifada (“rising up” in Arabic) was sparked. It was spontaneous and probably caught Palestinian leaders and the PLO off-guard, but it became organized very quickly. This was a genuine grassroots resistance movement to the Occupation.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1987 during the Intifada, which raged on for the next six years. In 1988, the Palestinian National Council (the legislative branch of the PLO) voted to accept two states with Palestine on the remaining 22%, and declared Palestine’s independence. The international community was silent. [I want to know more about this.]
The First Intifada came to an end in 1993 with the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles at the White House on September 13, 1993. They thought they were setting up a five-year transition process during which time the Israeli military would begin to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and Gaza, a new Palestinian National Authority would be created to assume control of parts of the occupied territories, and the parties would use this time to negotiate issues about final borders, the rights of refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and security.
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created but nothing else. For their efforts, Rabin, Peres and Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
PART II to follow.