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Palestine Was Not Empty

In this excerpt from Ten Myths About Israel, Ilan Pappe takes on the myth that Palestine was an empty land.

10 October 2023

Palestine Was Not Empty

In light of recent unrest we have made Ten Myths About Israel by Ilan free to download. You can read an excerpt below. See all our Israel and Palestine reading here.

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The geopolitical space today called Israel or Palestine has been a recognized country since Roman times. Its status and conditions in the distant past are topics for heated debate between those who believe that sources such as the Bible have no historical value and those who regard the holy book as a historical account. The significance of the country’s pre-Roman history will be treated in this book in the next few chapters. However, it seems there is a wide consensus among scholars that it was the Romans who granted the land the name “Palestina,” which predated all the other similar references to the land as Palestine. During the period of Roman, and later Byzantine, rule, it was an imperial province, and its fate depended very much on the fortunes of Rome and later Constantinople.

From the mid-seventh century onwards, Palestine’s history was closely linked to the Arab and Muslim worlds (with a short interval in the medieval period when it was ceded to the Crusaders). Various Muslim empires and dynasties from the north, east and south of the country aspired to control it, since it was home to the second-holiest place in the Muslim religion after Mecca and Medina. It also had other attractions of course, due to its fertility and strategic location. The cultural richness of some of these past rulers can still be seen in parts of Israel and Palestine, although local archaeology gives precedence to Roman and Jewish heritages and hence the legacy of the Mamelukes and the Seljuk, those fertile and thriving medieval Islamic dynasties, has not yet been excavated.

Even more relevant to an understanding of contemporary Israel and Palestine is the Ottoman period, commencing with their occupation of the land in 1517. The Ottomans remained there for 400 years and their legacy is still felt today in several respects. The legal system of Israel, the religious court records (the sijjil), the land registry (the tapu), and a few architectural gems all testify to the significance of the Ottomans’ presence. When the Ottomans arrived, they found a society that was mostly Sunni Muslim and rural, but with small urban elites who spoke Arabic. Less than 5 percent of the population was Jewish and probably 10 to 15 percent were Christian. As Yonatan Mendel comments:

The exact percentage of Jews prior to the rise of Zionism is unknown. However, it probably ranged from 2 to 5 percent. According to Ottoman records, a total population of 462,465 resided in 1878 in what is today Israel/ Palestine. Of this number, 403,795 (87 percent) were Muslim, 43,659 (10 percent) were Christians and 15,011 (3 percent) were Jewish.

The Jewish communities around the world regarded Palestine at that time as the holy land of the Bible. Pilgrimage in Judaism does not have the same role as it does in Christianity and Islam, but nonetheless, some Jews did see it as a duty and in small numbers visited the country as pilgrims. As one of the chapters in the book will show, before the emergence of Zionism it was mainly Christians who wished, for ecclesiastical reasons, to settle Jews in Palestine more permanently.

You would not know this was Palestine in the 400 years of Ottoman rule from looking at the official website of the Israeli foreign ministry relating to the history of Palestine since the sixteenth century:

Following the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the Land was divided into four districts, attached administratively to the province of Damascus and ruled from Istanbul. At the outset of the Ottoman era, some 1,000 Jewish families lived in the country, mainly in Jerusalem, Nablus (Schechem), Hebron, Gaza, Safed (Tzfat) and the villages of the Galilee. The community was composed of descendants of Jews who had always lived in the Land as well as immigrants from North Africa and Europe.

Orderly government, until the death (1566) of Sultan Suleiman the magnificent, brought improvements and stimulated Jewish immigration. Some newcomers settled in Jerusalem, but the majority went to Safed where, by the mid-16th century, the Jewish population had risen to about 10,000, and the town had become a thriving textile center.

Sixteenth-century Palestine, it appears, was mainly Jewish, and the commercial lifeblood of the region was concentrated in the Jewish communities in these towns. What happened next? According to the foreign ministry website:

With the gradual decline in the quality of Ottoman rule, the country suffered widespread neglect. By the end of the 18th century, much of the Land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to impoverished tenant farmers, and taxation was as crippling as it was capricious. The great forests of the Galilee and the Carmel mountain range were denuded of trees; swamp and desert encroached on agricultural land.

In this story, by 1800 Palestine had become a desert, where farmers who did not belong there somehow cultivated parched land that was not theirs. The same land appeared to be an island, with a significant Jewish population, ruled from the outside by the Ottomans and suffering from intensive imperial projects that robbed the soil of its fertility. Every passing year the land became more barren, deforestation increased, and farmland turned to desert. Promoted through an official state website this fabricated picture is unprecedented.

It is a bitter irony that in composing this narrative the authors did not rely on Israeli scholarship. Most Israeli scholars would be quite hesitant about accepting the validity of these statements or sponsoring such a narrative. Quite a few of them, such as David Grossman (the demographer not the famous author), Amnon Cohen, and Yehoushua Ben-Arieh, have indeed successfully challenged it. Their research shows that, over the centuries, Palestine, rather than being a desert, was a thriving Arab society—mostly Muslim, predominantly rural, but with vibrant urban centers.

Despite this contestation of the narrative, however, it is still propagated through the Israeli educational curriculum, as well as in the media, informed by scholars of a lesser prominence but with greater influence on the education system. Outside of Israel, in particular in the United States, the assumption that the promised land was empty, desolate, and barren before the arrival of Zionism is still alive and kicking, and is there- fore worth attending to.

We need to examine the facts. The opposing historical narrative reveals a different story in which Palestine during the Ottoman period was a society like all the other Arab societies around it. It did not differ from the Eastern Mediterranean countries as a whole. Rather than encircled and isolated, the Palestinian people were readily exposed to interactions with other cultures, as part of the wider Ottoman empire. Secondly, being open to change and modernization, Palestine began to develop as a nation long before the arrival of the Zionist movement. In the hands of energetic local rulers such as Daher al-Umar (1690–1775), the towns of Haifa, Shefamr, Tiberias, and Acre were renovated and re-energized. The coastal network of ports and towns boomed through its trade connections with Europe, while the inner plains traded inland with nearby regions. The very opposite of a desert, Palestine was a flourishing part of Bilad al-Sham (the land of the north), or the Levant of its time. At the same time, a rich agricultural industry, small towns and historical cities served a population of half a million people on the eve of the Zionist arrival.

At the end of the nineteenth century this was a sizeable population, of which, as mentioned above, only a small percentage were Jewish. It is notable that this cohort were at the time resistant to the ideas promoted by the Zionist movement. Most Palestinians lived in the countryside in villages, which numbered almost 1,000. Meanwhile, a thriving urban elite made their home along the coast, on the inner plains and in the mountains.

We now have a much better understanding of how the people who lived there defined themselves on the eve of the Zionist colonization of the country. As elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond, Palestinian society was introduced to the powerful defining concept of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the nation. There were local and external dynamics that prompted this new mode of self-reference, as happened elsewhere in the world. Nationalist ideas were imported into the Middle East in part by American missionaries, who arrived in the early nineteenth century both with the wish to proselytize but also with a desire to spread novel notions of self-determination. As Americans they felt they represented not only Christianity but also the newest independent state on the global map. The educated elite in Palestine joined others in the Arab world in digesting these ideas and formulating an authentic national doctrine, which led them to demand more autonomy within, and eventually independence from, the Ottoman Empire.

In the mid to late nineteenth century the Ottoman intellectual and political elite adopted romantic nationalist ideas that equated Ottomanism with Turkishness. This trend contributed to the alienation of the non- Turkish subjects of Istanbul, most of them Arabs, from the Ottoman Empire. The nationalization process in Turkey itself was accompanied by secularization trends in the second half of the nineteenth century which diminished the importance of Istanbul as a religious authority and focus.

In the Arab world, secularization was also part of the process of nationalization. Not surprisingly, it was mainly minorities, such as the Christians, that embraced warmly the idea of a secular national identity based on a shared territory, language, history, and culture. In Palestine, Christians who engaged with nationalism found eager allies among the Muslim elite, leading to a mushrooming of Muslim-Christian societies all over Palestine towards the end of World War I. In the Arab world, Jews joined these kind of alliances between activists from different religions. The same would have happened in Palestine had not Zionism demanded total loyalty from the veteran Jewish community there.

A thorough and comprehensive study of how Palestinian nationalism arose before the arrival of Zionism can be found in the works of Palestinian historians such as Muhammad Muslih and Rashid Khalidi. They show clearly that both elite and non-elite sections of Palestinian society were involved in developing a national movement and sentiment before 1882. Khalidi in particular shows how patriotic feelings, local loyalties, Arabism, religious sentiments, and higher levels of education and literacy were the main constituents of the new nationalism, and how it was only later that resistance to Zionism played an additional crucial role in defining Palestinian nationalism.

Khalidi, among others, demonstrates how modernization, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the greedy European quest for territories in the Middle East contributed to the solidification of Palestinian nationalism before Zionism made its mark in Palestine with the British promise of a Jewish homeland in 1917. One of the clearest manifestations of this new self-definition was the reference in the country to Palestine as geographical and cultural entity, and later as a political one. Despite there not being a Palestinian state, the cultural location of Palestine was very clear. There was a unifying sense of belonging. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, the newspaper Filastin reflected the way the people named their country.6 Palestinians spoke their own dialect, had their own customs and rituals, and appeared on the maps of the world as living in a country called Palestine.

During the nineteenth century, Palestine, like its neighboring regions, became more clearly defined as a geopolitical unit in the wake of administrative reforms initiated from Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. As a consequence, the local Palestinian elite began to seek independence within a united Syria, or even a united Arab state (a bit like the United States of America). This pan-Arabist national drive was called in Arabic qawmiyya, and was popular in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world.

Following the famous, or rather infamous, Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in 1916 between Britain and France, the two colonial powers divided the area into new nation states. As the area was divided, a new sentiment developed: a more local variant of nationalism, named in Arabic wataniyya. As a result, Palestine began to see itself as an independ- ent Arab state. Without the appearance of Zionism on its doorstep, Palestine would probably have gone the same way as Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria and embraced a process of modernization and growth. This had, in fact, already started by 1916, as a result of Ottoman polices in the late nineteenth century. In 1872, when the Istanbul government founded the Sanjak (administrative province) of Jerusalem, they created a cohesive geopolitical space in Palestine. For a brief moment, the powers in Istanbul even toyed with the possibility of adding to the Sanjak, encompassing much of Palestine as we know it today, as well as the sub-provinces of Nablus and Acre. Had they done this, the Ottomans would have created a geographical unit, as happened in Egypt, in which a particular national- ism might have arisen even earlier.

However, even with its administrative division into north (ruled by Beirut) and south (ruled by Jerusalem), this shift raised Palestine as a whole above its previous peripheral status, when it had been divided into small regional sub-provinces. In 1918, with the onset of British rule, the north and the south divisions became one unit. In a similar way and in the same year the British established the basis for modern Iraq when they fused the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra into one modern nation state. In Palestine, unlike in Iraq, familial connections and geographical boundaries (the River Litani in the north, the River Jordan in the east, the Mediterranean in the west) worked together to weld the three sub-provinces of South Beirut, Nablus, and Jerusalem into one social and cultural unit. This geopolitical space had its own major dialect and its own customs, folklore, and traditions.

By 1918, Palestine was therefore more united than in the Ottoman period, but there were to be further changes. While waiting for final international approval of Palestine’s status in 1923, the British government renegotiated the borders of the land, creating a better-defined geographical space for the national movements to struggle over, and a clearer sense of belonging for the people living in it. It was now clear what Palestine was; what was not clear was who it belonged to: the native Palestinians or the new Jewish settlers? The final irony of this administrative regime was that the reshaping of the borders helped the Zionist movement to conceptualize geographically “Eretz Israel,” the Land of Israel where only Jews had the right to the land and its resources.

Thus, Palestine was not an empty land. It was part of a rich and fertile eastern Mediterranean world that in the nineteenth century underwent processes of modernization and nationalization. It was not a desert waiting to come into bloom; it was a pastoral country on the verge of entering the twentieth century as a modern society, with all the benefits and ills of such a transformation. Its colonization by the Zionist movement turned this process into a disaster for the majority of the native people living there.

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Ten Myths About Israel
In this groundbreaking book, the outspoken and radical Israeli historian Ilan Pappe examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel. This h...
Ten Myths About Israel
In this groundbreaking book, the outspoken and radical Israeli historian Ilan Pappe examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel. This h...

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