Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it.

— Zechariah 12:3

After a time of relative peace, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated again this month, with Hamas firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s missile defence system, the Iron Dome. Israel has responded by striking Hamas terror targets in the Gaza Strip.

Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be very difficult for outside observers, not least because the corporate media is often slanted in its reporting. There are also many myths circulating today about the origins of the conflict and the identity of the Palestinian people.

An excellent book that examines these myths and traces the history of the conflict in the Holy Land is From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine (2002, first published 1984) by Joan Peters.

Joan Peters is a secular journalist who was a product of the popular mythology surrounding the Arab-Jewish conflict. From Time Immemorial, she explains, “was originally meant to be solely an investigation of the current plight of the ‘Arab refugees’.” (p. 3)

The data she uncovered in her research not only changed her perspective on the situation in the Middle East, but the focus of her book entirely. The result is a book that documents just how far the popular understanding of the origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict is from historical reality.

In the words of Peters, this is the widely-accepted mythology:

The Arabs, Palestinian and otherwise, have nothing against Jews — Arabs and Jews lived harmoniously in Arab lands before 1948; it was only the alien European ‘Zionists’ who came back after two thousand years to usurp the property of the Palestinian Arab native throngs. And when Palestine became Israel in 1948, Jews forced the exodus of millions of Arabs from their plots of land inhabited by them from time immemorial.” (pp. 5-6)

Peters explains that this mythology rests on the following premises:

  • The ‘Palestinian people’ had an identity with the land, and this identity goes back thousands of years.
  • In 1948, ‘alien’ Jews returned after two thousand years, displacing these ‘Palestinian Arabs’ and forcing them to flee their homeland.
  • It is Arab land — the Arabs were there first.
  • The modern-day state of Israel comprises the totality of Palestinian land, and there is no other Palestinian land in which the ‘Palestinian refugees’ could resettle.
  • The ‘Palestinians’ who today suffer poverty and oppression in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are descendants of Arabs who had lived in the disputed land for thousands of years before Jews displaced them.
  • Israel is responsible for the current plight of the ‘Palestinians refugees’ — therefore Israel is principally responsible for the ongoing strife in the Middle East today.

From Time Immemorial goes on to examine — and roundly debunk — each of these premises.

A Brief History of the Holy Land

As a background to Peters’ book, a brief history of the land known as ‘Palestine’ is in order. In AD 70, Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, and for the next sixty-five years, Jews fled the land of Israel in droves. (From a biblical perspective, this was a remarkable fulfilment of prophecies such as Daniel 9:26Zechariah 13:7 and Luke 21:20-24).

During their reign, the Romans gave the land the name Syria Palaistina, which is where the name Palestine came from and has since stuck. (The name the Bible gives this land is Judah).

Muslims, seeking to expand the rule of Islam, invaded the land and took it from Byzantine (Roman) rule in the seventh century. It was ruled by a number of different powers during the Middle Ages, including Crusaders from Europe who sought to liberate it from the yoke of Islam.

In the sixteenth century, the land passed to the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire, who ruled it until WWI. During the Great War, the land fell to the British as they pushed back the Turks.

With the land now in the hands of Britain, the Jewish people — who had lived scattered across the world since the Diaspora — pursued the idea of returning to the land to re-establish a national home. This goal won the support of many, and in 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which proposed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

In 1922, the Palestine Mandate was approved by the League of Nations (which later became the United Nations), designating the boundaries of the Jewish homeland and entrusting the facilitation of the process to the British.

All of these events turned out to be extremely fortuitous for the Jewish people. A place of refuge was established for many Jews who fled the Holocaust of WWII, and the opportunity for a new start was provided for those who lost everything — including property, wealth, and family — to the reckless anti-Semitism of Hitler’s war.

(Biblically speaking, these events also comprised a remarkable fulfilment of prophecies such as Ezekiel 20:34 — “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out.”)

Israel Regathered Under British (Mis)Management

Managing the entrance of hundreds of thousands of Jews into the land was a huge task, especially during WWII when many of those seeking entrance were refugees fleeing Nazi death camps. Sadly, Peters documents that it was a task largely mismanaged by the British.

The British kept strict quotas on Jewish refugees entering the land — much stricter than necessary, according to Peters. The land was able to support many more people than the number of Jews who were eventually allowed to enter.

At times, the British went to great lengths to keep unwanted Jewish refugees from entering the land, including forcing ships at Palestinian ports full of Jewish refugees to turn around and take the refugees back — which for many, resulted in their extermination in death camps. There are reports of the British even firing on such ships to ward them off.

The British kept official records only of Jews entering the land, and not also of foreign Arabs. It should have been a priority for the British to record both, because of their apparent concern of overcrowding, and because the land had suddenly become an attractive destination for foreign Arabs because of the injection of Western funds, infrastructure, and as a result, employment.

Peters shows that vast numbers of Arabs did illegally enter the land during this period — which turns out to be a critical piece of information missing from the current popular mythology. In time, these illegal immigrants swelled the land’s population significantly, causing the British to place even greater restrictions on the number of Jewish refugees allowed to enter.

This created a tragic situation, because many Jews fleeing Europe were obviously in real need of a place to live — unlike the illegal foreign Arab immigrants, many of whom were merely seeking better fortunes.

The Palestine Mandate designated the boundaries of the land approved by the UN as the Jewish national home. What many remain unaware of is that the narrow strip of coastal land that Israel occupies today is only a small fraction of what was set aside for them.

Surrounding Arab powers had taken great issue to the British giving this land to the Jews — even though it was rightfully Britain’s, taken from the Turks in WWI, and was for hundreds of years apparently of little interest to the Arab world.

So, to appease the Arab powers, the British gave 83 percent of the Palestine Mandate — land that had been set aside for Israel — to the Arabs. That piece of land is today known as Jordan.

Incredibly, today there is great uproar from ‘Palestinians’ who demand a Palestinian state. But one already exists — Jordan. And it comprises more than three quarters of the land that was originally reserved for the Jewish national home.

The Origin of the ‘Palestinian Refugees’

Israel’s statehood was declared by the United Nations on May 14, 1948. The following day, the armies of Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq declared war on the new Jewish state, and launched an offensive. In what can only be described as a miracle, Israel was victorious, and even gained land in a war that should have seen her crushed by far superior opponents.

Figures are difficult to verify, and were greatly inflated by the Arab League, but around 430,000-650,000 ‘Palestinian Arabs’ were displaced during this War of Independence, as it came to be known.

It’s commonly asserted that Israel drove these Arabs out of their settlements, but Peters documents that they were “invited to leave while the invading Arab armies would purge the land of Jews. The invading Arab governments were certain of a quick victory; leaders warned the Arabs in Israel to run for their lives.” (pp. 12-13)

Despite Jewish insistence that Arabs stay and not flee, many did flee, creating refugee situations in the areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In response, the UN set up relief programs for the refugees. In turn, many Arabs not affected by the war came for handouts, and, exploiting the compassion of the UN, ended up being numbered among the refugees, and became dependent on the aid.

In order not to exclude or discriminate, the UN changed the definition of a refugee from “a person normally resident in Palestine who had lost his home and his livelihood as a result of the hostilities and who is in need”, to “one who had lived in Palestine a minimum of two years preceding the 1948 conflict”.

These factors caused refugee populations to swell considerably, so that today, many of the ‘Palestinian refugees’ are descended from Arabs who actually never were refugees from the war — or even necessarily Palestinian.

Additionally, as highlighted earlier, vast numbers of illegal foreign Arab immigrants had been entering the land before the war because of the negligence of the British. What becomes clear from a study of these figures is that a significant proportion of the genuine refugees themselves also weren’t Palestinian. Many of them had only recently entered Palestine, or were descended from those who had recently entered from other Arab lands during the British mandatory period of 1917-1948.

Many of the refugees were therefore in fact rightful citizens of surrounding Arab countries. The saddest fact of all about these refugees is that Arab governments of surrounding nations began deliberately denying refugees the right to return to their countries of origin — those places they lived in before illegally entering Jewish land.

They did this for two reasons: first, to promote anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab and Western worlds; and second, removing the refugees from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be conceding victory to Israel, and recognising Israel’s right to the land.

In examining this issue, it is important to understand the attitude of many of the leaders of the Arab world towards Israel: Israel’s borders are not the issue — the issue is Israel’s existence. Indeed, many Arab leaders have declared that they wish to “wipe Israel off of the map”.

At other times, Arab leaders may tell the UN or the US what they want to hear. But the real conviction of many in the Arab world, including prominent Arab leaders, is that Israel has no right to exist as a nation. Consider the words of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) National Charter:

Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history… Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.

This sad political refugee game continues today. Why have not all of the ‘Palestinian refugees’ been resettled in other Arab nations — where language, culture, and religion are familiar to them, or are more similar to their own? Why have they not been resettled in the 83 percent portion of territory already conceded to Arabs for the Palestinian state of Jordan?

It is now sixty years since the displacement of these refugees, and still the crisis is perpetuated by Arab governments, instead of a permanent solution being found — with blame being laid on Israel for not surrendering land that they legitimately took in a defensive campaign. And, as Peters asks, “why has UNRWA [the relief program set up by the UN] spent well over a billion humanitarian-contributed dollars — mostly from the United States — to perpetuate the refugee dilemma?” (p. 32)

Even if it was true that all of the ‘Palestinian refugees’ were Palestinian, and not illegal foreign immigrants from before the war, a better solution than them remaining in the squalor of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would have been their resettlement into Arab lands, just as — paralleling this situation — Jews fleeing Arab persecution in 1917-48 were able to be resettled in Israel.

Peters documents that “for every refugee — adult or child — in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere in the Arab world who compels our sympathy, there is a Jewish refugee who fled from the Arab country of his birth” (p. 25). If the small parcel of land allotted to the Jews was able to support six hundred thousand Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Arab lands, then surely the Arab world — rich with oil money, and vastly greater in size — could also support the refugees of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Peters demonstrates not only the availability of vacant land for farming in the Arab world during this era, but also the desperate need of Arab governments for migrant labour, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt — where the refugees could easily have been absorbed, even many times over (pp. 19-32). It is unthinkable that despite this, the remainder of the Arab world has for sixty years forced the refugees to remain refugees.

Some ‘Palestinian refugees’ have been absorbed into Arab nations, but they are generally discriminated against, and often are not granted citizenship — again, the reason for this is that Arab leaders wish for them to remain a political tool to be used against Israel.

A Continual Jewish Presence in the Land

Peters points out that there are several other factors important to understand when considering the origin of the Arab-Jewish conflict.

First, although the Jewish Diaspora of AD 70-135 was comprehensive, it was not total. Peters’ research uncovered that:

The Jewish presence in ‘the Holy Land’ — at times tenuous — persisted throughout its bloody history. In fact, the Jewish claim — whether Arab-born or European-born Jew — to the land now called Palestine does not depend on a two-thousand-year-old promise. Buried beneath the propaganda — which has it that Jews ‘returned’ to the Holy Land after two thousand years of separation, where they found crowds of ‘indigenous Palestinian Arabs’ — is the bald fact that Jews are indigenous people on the land who never left. (pp. 81-82)

Later, during the seventh-century advent of Islam in Arabia, Jews there began to suffer terrible persecution and many were driven out or forced to flee. This resulted in many of them returning to the land of Palestine where they joined Jewish populations that had never left.

Peters also cites records from the fifteenth century onwards that demonstrate continual Jewish presence on the land. Depending on the harshness of the current political power, Jews would suffer varying degrees of persecution, but one thing is clear: Jews, in one condition or another, lived in Palestine continually from the time of the Diaspora until the twentieth century.

This challenges the popularly-held view that the only basis for the Jews’ claim to the land of Palestine are the biblical promises. (Like many, I believe God’s promises to the Jewish people also give them legitimate rights to land, as these promises were unconditional — see for example Genesis 17:8Deuteronomy 4:40Psalm 105:8-11).

The international community may scoff at the Jews’ claim to the land because of their ‘religious’ convictions based on biblical promises, but they should recognise Israel’s claim for political reasons — because Jews have maintained a continual presence in Palestine from the time of Joshua until today.

Second, before the return of many of the world’s Jews to the land in the twentieth century, Palestine was not a land inhabited by “throngs of Palestinian Arabs” who were indigenous to the land “from time immemorial” and who were later driven out by the Jews. For much of this time, Palestine was in fact a wasteland with very few inhabitants. Peters quotes many descriptions given by various visitors to the land from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth century (pp. 158-161):

  • Nothing there to be scene but a little of the old walls, which is yet Remayning and all the rest is grasse, mosse and Weedes much like to a piece of Rank or moist Grounde.” — an English visitor, of Jerusalem in 1590
  • A house of robbers, murderers, the inhabitants are Saracens… It is a lamentable thing to see thus such a town. We saw nothing more stony, full of thorns and desert.” — a Franciscan pilgrim, of Nazareth in the fifteenth century
  • An inconsiderable village… Acre [the name of a town] a few poor cottages… nothing here but a vast and spacious ruin.” — Nazareth in 1697
  • Desolate and roamed through by Arab bands of robbers.” — German encyclopaedia, of Palestine in 1827
  • The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population.” — The British Consul, of Palestine in 1857
  • The north and south [of the Sharon plain] land is going out of cultivation and whole villages are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Since the year 1838, no less than 20 villages there have been thus erased from the map [by the Bedouin] and the stationary population extirpated.” — of Palestine in the 1860s
  • Stirring scenes… occur in the valley [Jezreel] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent — not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings.” — Mark Twain, of Palestine in 1867
  • I travelled through sad Galilee in the spring, and I found it silent, and, [In the vicinity of the Biblical Mount Gilboa], As elsewhere, as everywhere in Palestine, city and palaces have returned to the dust… This melancholy of abandonment… weighs on all the Holy Land.” — Pierre Loti, French writer, of Palestine in 1895
  • As a result of centuries of Turkish neglect and misrule, following on the earlier ravages of successive conquerors, the land has been given over to sand, marsh, the anopheles mosquito, clan feuds, and Bedouin marauders. A population of several millions had shrunk to less than one tenth that number — perhaps a quarter of a million around 1800, and 300,000 at mid-century.” — David Landes in “Palestine before the Zionists”

Third — and this is related to the second point — the idea “that Arab-Muslim ‘Palestinians’ were ‘emotionally tied’ to ‘their own plot of land in Palestine’ — based upon a ‘consistent presence’ on ‘Arab’ land for ‘thousands of years’” (p. 137) — is a recent contrivance of Arabs as “an appeal to the emotions that would ‘counter Zionism’” (p. 138).

In fact, Peters quotes Zuheir Mushin, the then Military Department head of the PLO (an organisation established to mobilise the ‘Palestinian people’ to recover their usurped homes), who in 1977 said:

Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel. (p. 137)

Peters writes that until recently,

The Arabic-speaking peoples in Palestine were not motivated towards Palestinian nationalism, and that it was long after, not before, the Jews settled their new farms that the first claims of ‘Palestinian Arab’ identity and an ‘age-old’ tie to the land would be invented. (p. 170)

She explains this fabrication as an attempt by the Arab world “to match the Jewish history by inventing an ‘identity’ for the ‘Palestinian Arabs’ that would, they reason, ‘counter Zionism’” (p. 171). Peters quotes an observer, Folke Bernadotte, who in 1950 said,

The Palestinian Arabs have at present no will of their own. Neither have they ever developed any specific Palestinian nationalism… it would seem as though in existing circumstances most of the Palestinian Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated into Trans-jordan. (p. 234)

The fourth and final point is one that has already been highlighted, but that is foundational to properly understanding the origins of this conflict. During the British mandatory period of 1917-1948, when the British facilitated the entrance of Jews to the land, there was also a massive illegal immigration of foreign Arabs that was not officially recorded, and which continued largely unhindered by the British.

Peters spends five chapters documenting these figures, concluding that hundreds of thousands of Arabs illegally entered Jewish land during this time.

This illegal immigration is not the issue in itself, she explains. The issue is that these ‘Palestinians’ — who were warned by Arab leaders to flee their homes so that they wouldn’t be harmed as Arab powers pounced to annihilate Israel, and who ended up as refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — in reality never were Palestinian.

Since that time, a false ‘thousands-of-years’ history of attachment to the land, and a ‘Palestinian national identity’ has been ascribed to them by the Arab world to evoke international compassion — and international condemnation of Israel. This has been largely successful. And, as we have seen, the Arab countries from which these refugees originally came have denied them re-entrance for resettlement, in order to help perpetuate the myth.

In her concluding chapter, Peters pleads:

What must not continue, what cannot be allowed to continue, is the cynical scapegoating of the Jewish state and the Jewish refugees therein, or the sacrifice of the Arab refugees who are, in the name of ‘humanitarianism,’ being employed inhumanely as a war weapon against Israel by the Arab world.

In the face of these major problems, too many politicians and persons of influence choose to shut their eyes to the facts. Too many refrain from critical analysis of propaganda in order to preserve their illusions about the price of oil. And far too many, the overwhelming bulk of us, had never been furnished with enough data to understand what the problem really was. (pp. 409-410)

From Time Immemorial — A Summary

So, in summary, here are the popularly accepted myths juxtaposed with the historical realities:

  • The ‘Palestinian people’ had an identity with the land, and this identity goes back thousands of years.

Apart from famous highlights of conquest, the land remained desolate for much of the period between AD70 and 1917, and had few inhabitants. Jewish populations did however remain in the land continuously throughout the intervening period — so Jews of this time can rightly be considered ‘Palestinian people’ who maintained a continual identity with the land.

  • In 1948, ‘alien’ Jews returned after two thousand years, displacing these ‘Palestinian Arabs’ and forcing them to flee their homeland.

Jewish claims to Palestine are based on continual Jewish presence in the land from the time of the Diaspora until today. The ‘Palestinian Arabs’ were displaced by the war of 1948, but this was largely the result of Arab world leaders advising them to flee (and despite Jewish pleas for them to remain) so that allied Arab armies could defeat Israel without harming Arab compatriots.

  • It is Arab land — the Arabs were there first.

Jews have maintained a continual presence in the land for thousands of years, since the time of Joshua. The claim that Arabs have maintained a ‘Palestinian national identity’ in the land is false, as admitted by Arab leaders.

  • The modern-day state of Israel comprises the totality of Palestinian land — and there is no other Palestinian land in which the ‘Palestinian refugees’ could resettle.

83 percent of the land set aside for a Jewish national home in the Palestine Mandate was surrendered to appease the Arab world. This land is the Palestinian state known as Jordan, and would have provided (and potentially still does provide) an appropriate location for the ‘Palestinian refugees’ to resettle.

  • The ‘Palestinians’ who today suffer poverty and oppression in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are Arabs, and descendants of Arabs who had lived in the disputed land for thousands of years before Jews displaced them.

The ‘Palestinians’ who came to be refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were largely illegal immigrants, or descendants of illegal immigrants, who entered Palestine unlawfully from foreign Arab lands during the British mandatory period. Before this time, Palestine was a wasteland, with very few inhabitants.

  • Israel is responsible for the current plight of the ‘Palestinians refugees’ — therefore Israel is principally responsible for the ongoing strife in the Middle East today.

The ‘Palestinian refugees’ have suffered immensely, and it would be an injustice to downplay this. However, they have been victims not so much to Israel as to an Arab agenda that has caused them to remain refugees for sixty years instead of being resettled in their original Arab homelands, or in alternative resettlement locations in the Arab world (which would parallel normal resolutions of refugee situations).

Arab world leaders call for another ‘Palestinian state’ — and it is with this agenda that the Arab world continues to discriminate against the ‘Palestinian refugees’ by only allowing them this option, and not the option of resettlement elsewhere in the Arab world. To resettle them elsewhere would be to admit defeat to Israel, and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

Summarising her book, Peters says that “in the human sense, it is about the onrushing of peoples — about flight from conquest, from persecution, from corruption, from habit, and from poverty. But in essence, it is about the flight from fact.” (p. 10)

Though From Time Immemorial doesn’t absolve Israel of its own wrongs and abuses through the decades since its independence, it should prompt us to question the narrative perpetuated by the Arab world and repeated by the corporate press. Truth matters.

It should also prompt us to pray. No-one benefits from the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Israel and its neighbours are in need of permanent solutions — the most permanent of which will be the return of the Prince of Peace. Let us pray for that day.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

— Psalm 122:6a

3 thoughts on “Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  1. The Media world-wide has a lot to answer for. Let honesty and justice arise and be recognised.

  2. Excellent article, thank you for posting. It’s so frustrating how the MSM gives one biased side and few people know the truth. Regarding your comment: “No-one benefits from the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.” sadly there is one who does benefit – the Military Industrial Complex – weapons manufacturers. I’m continuing to pray for peace in Jerusalem, Isaiah 2:4 “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Amen

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