In an effort to escape European anti-semitism and create a land in which the Jewish people could preserve a cultural and religious heritage that was slowly fading, European Jews began emigrating en masse to Palestine in the late 19th century. Prior to the first wave of Zionist immigration, the demographic character of historical Palestine–what today constitutes Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza Strip–was roughly 88-90 percent Arab Muslim and Christian, and 10-12 percent Jewish. These were Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants since the Arab conquests of the 7th century. The early Zionist visionaries were acutely aware of this demographic disparity, so much so that other venues were initially contemplated, among them Uganda and Argentina. However, appreciable support for these alternatives would never materialize and thus the Zionist enterprise embarked upon a mission to create a Jewish state in a land that was almost homogeneously Arab. This fact, that the Jews sought to a return to a land inhabited by another people, more than any other, explains why Arabs and Jews find themselves embroiled in a seemingly intractable conflict. In short, the consensus of modern scholarship, backed by unassailable documentary evidence, has long discarded the myth that Palestine was a desolate wasteland prior to the arrival of industrious Jewish immigrants.
Palestine’s indigenous population, including its Jewish inhabitants, strongly resisted this programme of mass migration, which they regarded as garden-variety colonization and dispossession. It was understood at the outset that the purpose of immigration was to gain strength by numbers and eventually wrest a portion of the land from the Arabs, thereby making possible the creation of a Jewish state. The foundations of a tragedy were thus being laid beneath the feet of the Arabs: although every other surrounding Arab population was being given a state, the nations of the world were not forthcoming in declaring Palestinian statehood, suspending the right of Palestinian self-determination to enable the Zionist dream.
Over the next roughly 65 years, continued Jewish immigration into Palestine fueled mutual enmity between Jews and Arabs, frequently erupting in Arab-Jewish revolts. By 1947, Jews had managed to shift the demographic imbalance slightly in their favor, now constituting approximately 30 percent of Palestine’s population. As migration into Palestine continued, Zionist leaders succeeded in gaining broad support from key nations and international luminaries for the purpose of lobbying the League of Nations—later to become the United Nations–to partition Palestine. Western support for the Zionist project first found formal expression in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and slowly gained currency in succeeding decades. From 1920-1948 the League of Nations empowered Great Britain to administer the government of Palestine, which came to be known as the period of the British Mandate. Continuing in its tradition as a duplicitous colonial power, Britain made mutually exclusive guarantees to the Arabs and Jews, assuring the Arabs that their right to self-determination would not be compromised while simultaneously supporting the Zionist effort to establish a homeland in the midst of a predominately Arab community. No doubt, Western Europe and its allies were forced to acknowledge the many indefensible tragedies they had visited on the Jewish people. European anti-semitism, of course, found its most psychotic expression in the indiscriminate mass murder of 5.3 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust, but was preceded by centuries of persecution in the form of the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition and Russian pogroms. Thus, setting aside bare political considerations, providing the Jews with a safe-haven in Palestine was regarded as an act of penitence, a way to bring repose to a conscience riddled with centuries of interminable guilt. But why, the Arabs maintained, must they surrender their land to a foreign people to redress wrongs for which they bore no responsibility? Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
In 1947 the United Nations, backed by the world’s superpowers, put forth a partition resolution, the terms of which provided that 55 percent of Palestine was to go to the Jews and the remaining 45 percent, mostly arid land, to the Arabs. Given that the Arabs vastly outnumbered the Jews in Palestine for nearly 1400 years, that in spite of 65 years of Jewish immigration the Arabs still comprised 70 percent of the population, and that most of the Jews now inhabiting Palestine were not indigenous to the land, the Arabs were resolute in their opposition to this proposal. Although it can fairly be argued that, in hindsight, the Arab nations would have done well to accept these terms it is incontestable that the UN proposal constituted a gross injustice to the native Arab population and a tremendous benefaction to the Jewish people.
Contrary to the oft-recited myth, the Arab states did not immediately attack Israel upon learning of the UN proposal. Benny Morris, the noted Zionist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Arab-Israeli conflict, notes that following the declaration of the UN partition plan Jewish militia carried out as many as twenty-four separate massacres against Palestine’s Arab inhabitants, the most notorious taking place in the Palestinian village of Dier Yassin in April 1948. The method behind this madness was to terrorize the Arab population into fleeing from that portion of land given to the Jews and thereby achieve a demographic purity that the architects of Zionism regarded as an indispensable element of the nascent Jewish state. The reality was, it was impossible to carve up the map in such a way as to allow for a decided Jewish majority in any given area within Palestine. Indeed, this was true even within the initial 55 percent the UN partitioned to the Jewish state; ethnic cleansing of the Arabs thus provided an expedient means of dealing with this demographic predicament. By May 1948, some 400,000 Palestinians had been forcefully expelled from their homes.
Following Israel’s public declaration of statehood in May 1948, the Arab states went to war with Israel. Israel recognized that the 48 War furnished a momentous opportunity to complete its programme of forced transfer. In the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli War, an additional 350,000 Arabs were forced to flee from their homes. Although historians are divided on whether this second mass exodus was the product of pre-mediated aggression or merely an “accident of war,” Israel’s emphatic denial that it bears no responsibility for the refugee tragedy is undercut by one irrefutable fact: regardless of what caused the transfer/expulsion, Israel categorically denied refugees the right to return to their homes once an armistice with the Arab states had been signed. Even today, although international law provides Palestinians refugees with an incontrovertible right of return pursuant to UN Resolution 194, Israel has openly declared its uncompromising opposition to any such measure. Indeed, even diplomats genuinely sympathetic to the Palestinian plight such as Jimmy Carter maintain that permitting refugees to return to Israel proper would threaten the “Jewish character” of Israel. As such, financial compensation is often touted as a just compromise between these two seemingly irreconcilable Arab-Jewish claims. Today, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s residents are 48’ refugees or the children of such refugees. Israel’s creation forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugee camps, an existence that 60 years later is still characterized by abject poverty, penury and hopelessness. All of this stands in violent contrast to the opulence and privilege that modern day Israel affords it Jewish citizen. In sum, the “quid pro quo” for the Zionist dream was an unmitigated nightmare for Palestinian Arabs.
In addition to the expulsion of 750,000 Arabs, Israel dealt the Arab armies a decisive blow in the 48 War and managed to annex a considerable portion of that 45 percent of Palestine designated by the UN for the Arabs. Thus, once hostilities had ceased Israel possessed territorial control over 78 percent of historical Palestine. This 78 percent is today what is known as Israel proper or simply “Israel,” a land which, despite the historic injustice done to the Arabs, Israel can legitimately claim legal title to under international law. The remaining 22 percent is what we call the West Bank and Gaza, the latter only comprising 5 percent of the whole. However, even this 22 percent is by no means free from Israel’s stranglehold. In 1967 Israel and its Arab neighbors went to war again. Israel carried out a highly successful pre-emptive attack against the Arab armies and demonstrated a military superiority that established it as the undisputed regional superpower and the United States’ most cherished ally in the Middle East. In the course of the war, Israel continued its expansionist programme, annexing four additional territories: Sinai, Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1978 during the Camp David Peace Accords brokered by Jimmy Carter. However, the Syrian Golan Heights and Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip remain under Israeli control, more than forty years since their illegal annexation.
Consider the implications: today Israel effectively controls every square inch of historical Palestine. It possesses legal “de jure” title over all of Israel proper, and “de facto” military control over the West Bank and Gaza. Thus every atom of Palestine is either part of the official Jewish state or under Israeli military occupation. When we speak of the two state solution, it should be remembered that the Palestinian Arabs have already conceded an astonishing 78 percent of their historical homeland and are fighting to regain possession of the remaining 22, a land now occupied by nearly half a million Jewish settlers, massive settlement infrastructures, and tens of thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers who have made life for Palestinians perfectly unlivable. Indeed, even on this remaining 22 Israel has demonstrated an unequivocal intent to annex whatever portion of the land the international community will acquiesce to. To date, repeated UN resolutions, rulings by the International Court of Justice, and universal condemnation by prominent human rights groups have not thwarted Israel from its inhumane policy of colonizing those remaining slivers of territory which once formed but a small parcel of Arab Palestine. Bertrand Russell, widely recognized as the most eloquent spokesman for human rights in the 20th century, said it well:
“The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate?”