The idea that Palestine was ‘up for grabs’

I can’t tell you what you’re missing and I doubt many here have much experience of an orthodox school, but I can tell you what is often missing from a typical Israeli-led narrative.

That is: the idea that Palestine was ‘up for grabs’. This view is expressed in several ways:

  • It was unsettled (the land without people for the people without land)
  • It mostly wasn’t private land, so was ‘free’
  • It was British land to ‘give away.’
  • Recent immigrants immediately acquire rights to self determination
  • Palestinians, not Jews, were the recent immigrants.
  • Jews, not Palestinians, are the ‘true’ owners
  • It remained, some 2,000 years after the Romans conquered it, inherently ‘Jewish’ land

Put simply, local Arabs, and a small number of Jews mostly rubbed along until progroms in Eastern Europe and the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine started to bring far larger number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 changed that. Even after these initial waves of immigration, Jews accounted for less than 10% of the population of Palestine in 1919. Within the next 20 years, five times that 1919 number (58,000) had emigrated to Palestine. At the same time Jews in Europe and Palestine were seeking to build a state in Palestine, Palestinian Arabs were also seeking self-determination.

I’m not going to take you through the various arguments above, except to say that they are contradicted either by facts (notably around immigration) or the prevailing trend in which (African, mainly) countries have unpicked longstanding colonial fictions of empty land and pre-nation state territories being ‘terra nullius.’

So Palestinians existed. They lived in the land and had lived there in great numbers for centuries. They had a right to self-determination, as had been granted to Arabs everywhere else in the Middle East. They sought self-determination at the exact same time Jews were lobbying for a state in Palestine and long before modern Jews lived in Palestine as anything but a distinct minority.

After that was various failed partition plans. Notably in 1937, rejected by both sides and the later UN Partition Plan, rejected by the Arab side but accepted by the Jewish side. By this point, 1937, Palestine was effectively in civil war.

It is, from a Palestinian perspective, a grave injustice that land their people had farmed, owned, lived in and used for centuries could be promised away to what were overwhelmingly new immigrants citing ancient patrimony as good reason to partition Palestine. It is also gravely unfair that crimes committed by others – notably the pogroms and the holocaust, should be paid for by Palestinians.

Who started it?

Palestinians massacred Jews at Hebron in 1929, the first atrocity of this sorry conflict. They revolted, violently, against what they saw as uncontrolled Jewish immigration between 1936 and 1939. In his bid to further Palestinian nationalism, Haj Amin al-Husseini sought support from Hitler. They – here meaning Palestinians and Arabs from surrounding countries – attacked the one day old Israel in 1948 when the British Mandate ended.

These things all happened, and there is no question that they mark moral, diplomatic and military failures among the Palestinians.

Does this mean they started it?

The Jews that emigrated to Palestine were not passive arrivals. They made it very clear they intended to carve out a land in Palestine. Initially, the aim was all of Transjordan and Palestine, then by 1917, Zionist organisations were seeking just the land west of the Jordan. They also boycotted Arab labor and engaged in discriminatory practices. This was not a peaceful immigration. The Zionists of 1917 were political radicals who were not seeking coexistence. They were seeking a Jewish state.

It is in this context that the 1929 massacre at Hebron happened, which was fueled by nationalist tension on both sides, including marches on the Western Wall by Jews declaring Jerusalem to be theirs, violence, and rumors that Jews planned to attack Al Aqsa. I’m not excusing the massacre. I am, however, pointing out that it did not occur simply because Arabs hate Jews, or Arabs can’t coexist.

In 1936-9 hundreds of Arabs died in the Arab Revolt, a last ditch attempt to stop the British allowing ever greater numbers of state-seeking Jews into Palestine, and to stop a formal partition plan.

And by 1947 there is considerable violence on both sides. In fact, more violence, and more violence against Arab civilians, from Jewish paramilitaries and terrorists than the reverse. This part is often left out of Israel’s creation myth: how dirty that early phase of the war was fought. Bombs were exploded in several Arab markets, for example. The men that did it went onto be lauded as war heroes. Bear that in mind the next time someone tells you that Arabs fete their terrorists.

In 1948, better organized and better armed Jewish factions prevailed. One major creation myth is that Palestinians were told to leave by Arab forces. They weren’t, and the new Israeli historians have done some work to show how cynically non-Jewish populations were forced from their homes through ethnic cleansing, massacre and propaganda. Israel’s own military archives from the time were opened to historians but yielded some very damaging insights into the 1948 war. They are now closed once more.

In other words, place yourself in the position of an average Palestinian of the era: a group of people rock up, declare they intend to thwart your plans to finally have self-determination and that they have people in another continent backing them to build their own state where you live. They boycott your labor and your produce. Then, when all is said and done, they tell you that you started it because you couldn’t live in peace. And the more hardline ones insist you are the occupiers because of the Muslim Conquest in the 7th century (an event which liberated Palestine from the Byzantine Empire and which actually allowed Jews back into Jerusalem again.)

Modern times

In modern times, similar themes emerge. I.e. that Israel is a reluctant participant in violence, that its actions are reactions and the root of the issue is Palestinian intransigence or Jew-hatred, and that Palestinians are child-sacrificers, a particularly ugly blood libel more typically used to excuse away hundreds of civilian deaths in Gaza. A whole industry has emerged to construct an alternate world in which Arabs simply couldn’t accept Jews – the underlying premise of which is that Palestinians from Palestine should have moved to Jordan, or Egypt, or Lebanon – and that their ‘greed’ is the architect of their sorry situation, that their situation isn’t too bad, that they don’t know when to give up.

I don’t intend to defend Palestinian terrorism except to say that:

  • It didn’t emerge in a vacuum. No terrorism does.
  • Terrorism is a loaded term and unhelpful term insofar as it divides different groups using violence into neat ‘black’ and ‘white’ categories.

On this second point: Palestinian action is always terrorism, even where conducted against active combat soldiers in conflict areas. ‘Moral’ defensive actions against Palestinians by either Israeli security forces or Israeli civilians (typically settlers) are never terrorism. We now have a large corpus of casualty data, witness testimony and investigative reports by human rights organisations and rapporteurs to dismiss the idea of one side being moral, one side only using terror, one side only targeting civilians, either through intent or negligence. It simply begs disbelief that so many organisations within and outside Israel have found such similar narratives in how poorly Palestinians have been treated under occupation and that they are wrong or biased.

Settlements, justice and two states

In modern times, the major issue is settlements, which are a modern invention – they appeared after the 1967 war. Settlements in the West Bank confirm long held Palestinian suspicions that Israel ultimately wants all – or nearly all- land west of the Jordan. They show an utter disregard for international law. Their continued growth directly impacts the viability of a two state solution.

And yet, one still finds people who insist that they are not an issue.

Furthermore, the settlements that house Jewish extremists, notably around Hebron, are little more than state-sanctioned terrorism. These settlers are rarely punished for acts of violence, property damage, theft or terror – the last survey found fewer than 5% of Palestinian complaints resulted in convictions. By contrast, 99% of Palestinians charged with crimes in the West Bank are convicted, and often treated very poorly by the Israeli justice system.

We often hear about how Gaza or Hamas is the issue – a topic in its own right. But if you want to look at where a typical Israeli narrative is blind to what is being done to Palestinians – people who aren’t launching rockets and aren’t the hardline Islamists of Gaza and who very clearly are actively cooperating with Israel, then Jerusalem and the West Bank is the place. What is hidden is how much damage is being done to long term peace, by Israelis.


The big points of difference are:

  • Immigration, ownership and statehood
  • Whitewashing the Nakba and the events leading up to it
  • Occupation denial and the impact of settlements

I could go into Gaza – a place where Israelis once went for tea and where you could get a beer, but it’s a long topic and I’ve had to skim a lot already. Suffice to say, extreme conditions breed extremism. One striking thing you notice is how such immense and protracted violence against civilians is met with a wall of indifference, denial and victim-blaming. It is probably the clearest indication of where non-Israeli views of the ‘facts’ diverge so sharply from that of neutrals or pro-Palestinians.

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