BS"D || Rabbi Geier
Who Owns the Holy Land? +
Once again, vivid memories flood my mind as I write for the Temple Times. Almost all beautiful memories, like those we experienced during the rally at the JCC, praying, crying, and singing together for Israel, for those families waiting to hear news about their kidnapped loved ones, for the wounded, for those who lost their lives. We prayed, sang, and cried for the unfortunate confirmation that almost 20 years of avoiding a larger-scale war conflict were in vain. In all those years, Israel did not manage to live in peace, and lives were lost, their sacrifices failing to lead us to peace.
Although we made it clear that the events of October 7th, 2023 had nothing to do with Palestinian claims to the land, but were acts of simple and vile terrorism, I believe it is a good time to share some history for those who wish to understand the claims made today in favor of the Palestinian people. We know nothing is straightforward in the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East, especially considering the visceral commitment on both sides. However, there are some truths that must be spoken.
I apologize for the length of this text, which I hope you will read until the end. I attempted to provide a summary supported by my research and some social media.
A territorial dispute
The Arab-Israeli conflict is often portrayed in the media as a territorial dispute. A common argument asserts that a millennia-old Arab Palestinian population resided in the territory of present-day Israel and was forcibly evicted by Zionist Jews. However, if we delve into historical facts, we see it wasn't as some present it.
It was the Romans who, in the 2nd century C.E., first used the name Syria-Palestina for Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. It was an inaccurate use. In Greek, Palestina means “Land of the Philistines.” The Philistines never occupied more than a small strip on the eastern Mediterranean coast, including part of the current Gaza Strip, and by the time the Romans occupied Palestine, the Philistines had already vanished from the face of the Earth as a people for centuries. The Romans had conquered a place called the Kingdom of Judah, and they themselves, upon possessing it, called it the province of Judea. Both names mean “land of the Jews.” In those days, Jews were a vast population scattered throughout the Mediterranean.
The Romans' primary concern was that the popularity of Moses' law among the oppressed peoples of the empire might lead to a revolution. To prevent this outcome, the empire launched massive killings of Jews, now remembered as the First Jewish War, the Diaspora Revolt, and the Second Jewish War.
Emperor Hadrian, after destroying Jerusalem in the 2nd century, brought Greeks to inhabit it and prohibited Jews from entering on penalty of death. The city was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and the area became known as Syria-Palestina.
Some Jews stubbornly remained in their holy land, and many others returned soon after. The Romans continued to informally refer to the place as Judea. Over time, the name Palestine was used less and less and ceased to have a clear reference under the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the ruler of the entire area.
From the 16th century forward, there was no administrative or political entity called “Palestine.” In the 20th century, after wrestling the Middle East from the Turks in World War I, the British revived the name when they created the British Mandate for Palestine. Such arbitrariness supports the complaint of the Arab historian Philip Gitty, who testified before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946, saying “there is no such thing in history as Palestine at all.”
Forming the Palestinian identity
If the name Palestine is an artificial creation of the Roman Empire and later the British Empire, then who are the so-called Palestinians?
Sahir Museum, Chief of Military Operations for the Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO, now better known as the Palestinian Authority, answered this question in an interview with the Dutch magazine Trode:
“Arabs are one people. It's only for political reasons that we carefully support our Palestinian identity because it is in the national interest that Arabs learn to promote the existence of an independent Palestinian state in opposition to Zionism.’”
Indeed, the existence of a Palestinian identity is there for tactical reasons. The foundation of a Palestinian state is a new tool to continue the struggle against Israel and for Arab unity.
The PLO Constitution seems to confirm this. In its first constitution created in 1964, the PLO defined Palestine in Article Two with the borders it had during the British Mandate. In Article 24, the PLO explicitly stated that Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, the territories it now claims for its coveted state, were not Palestinian:
This Organization does not exercise any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or on the Gaza Strip.
In 1968, the PLO rewrote its constitution. This time, the definition of Palestine no longer excluded Gaza, Judea, and Samaria. So the PLO was now claiming these territories. What explains the change?
Drawing the borders of Palestine
In 1964, when the PLO wrote its first constitution, Egypt was illegally occupying the territory of Gaza. Jordan was illegally occupying Judea and Samaria. It was then that the Arabs provoked the 1967 war or the Six-Day War, in which Israelis captured the territories of Gaza, Judea, and Samaria, among others. It was after this that the PLO rewrote its constitution in 1968 to include Gaza, Judea, and Samaria in its definition of Palestine.
The borders of Palestine then are flexible and redrawn to precisely encircle only the territory Israel controls. In other words, the borders of Palestine are chosen only so it can be used as a tool to continue the struggle against Israel.
The original community
If Palestine is a recent invention, and the same applies to Palestinian identity, then where do the Muslim Arabs who today call themselves Palestinians come from?
Nowadays, around 8 million people live in Israel, but the most reliable estimate speaks of 300,000 in the same area in the 19th century. The current land was practically empty and was described as such by travelers during that century.
For example, in the mid-19th century, the British consul complained that the area was empty of inhabitants. When Mark Twain visited this area, he commented that in the Jezreel Valley, not a single village could be seen for 30 miles around. Pierre Loti, a French author, wrote after his visit that the cities and palaces had turned to dust.
Who were the few people living there? Most were Muslims, but they were divided into various identities, some violently opposed, and none of them Palestinian. There were also small Jewish communities in most major settlements and towns in the Galilee since Talmudic times, and there were large Jewish populations in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed. In Jerusalem, Jews were the majority. A document from the British consulate dated 1859 states: “The Mohammedans of Jerusalem do not exceed 1/4 of the entire population.”
In 1878, two years before the Zionist migrations began, the Ottoman Sultan launched a resettlement policy to attract Muslims, mostly Circassians and Algerians. In 1878, massive waves of Muslim immigrants started arriving in what had essentially been a wasteland. It is obvious that most of those now called Palestinians have no millennial roots in that area, as we often hear.
The UN defined a Palestinian refugee as anyone non-Jewish who had left during the 1948 war and whose family had resided in the area for only two years. Without this definition, the population of so-called Palestinian refugees is reduced to almost nothing.
Did Zionist Jews steal the land?
Now, almost everyone acknowledges that Zionist Jews settled, mostly on barren land not only unused but also despised. King Abdullah himself, who would participate in the effort to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948, wrote in 1946: “I marveled to see the Jewish settlements. They had colonized the sand dunes, taken water from them, and turned them into a paradise.”
The Jewish reclamation of the land in the first half of the 20th century produced an economic boom that attracted many Arabs from neighboring countries seeking a better life. However, many believe that Zionist Jews stole the lands they settled on. Was this true?
This question was answered by Hajj Amin Al Husseini, the father of the Palestinian movement. In 1936, Husseini, who was then the Mufti of Jerusalem, launched his fourth terrorist wave against the Jews of British Mandate Palestine. He called it the Arab Revolt, which lasted until 1939.
In 1937, the British government sent a team to investigate, led by Lord Peel. Their mission was to establish what was happening and why. Husseini was called to testify. Below is a recorded dialogue between Sir Lori Hammond, a member of this commission, and Husseini himself:
Lord Hammond: Was the problem that Jews had taken Arab lands by force?
Husseini: In most cases, the lands were acquired.
Hammond: What I'm asking is if they were acquired by force with compulsion, as if they had been acquired for public use.
Husseini: No, it was not like that. They were not acquired by force.
Hammond: But then these lands, amounting to 700,000 dunams, were indeed sold.
Husseini: Yes, they were sold. But the country was made conducive to facilitate those acquisitions.
Hammond: I'm not sure I understand.
Husseini: They were sold.
Hammond: Who sold them?
Husseini: The landowners.
Husseini: Arabs and Turks. Mostly Arabs.
Hammond: Was there any compulsion for them to sell? And if so, from whom?
Husseini: As in other countries, there are people who are forced by circumstances, economic forces, to sell their land.
The Arab landowners Husseini claimed were forced to sell their lands were the effendis, the great feudal lords of the area. They did as they pleased. Nobody forced them to sell, and they sold their less productive lands at extremely high prices.
In fact, Husseini's own family, top-notch effendi landowners, profited enormously from these sales. The Husseini family first threatened small landowners with death if they dared commit the so-called national crime of selling land to Jews. Then they bought these plots at bankruptcy prices, consolidated them, and resold them to Jews at exorbitant prices.
Israel's right to exist
In conclusion, it is false to say that a millennia-old Palestinian people had their lands snatched by Zionist Jews. First, because there was no such Palestinian people in that land, and second, because Zionist Jews purchased lands from Arab landowners who gladly sold them at prices far above market value, and also other portions of land from Turks who also governed them.
I hope this summary does not provoke anyone of you to confront those who seek our destruction as a people. There is no need to confront them personally, but to stand more firmly when we defend the State of Israel against unjust attacks and spurious claims.
May we be able to defend our right to exist as a People and as a State.
+This article is featured in more than one section of Rabbi Geier's webpage