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A Brief History of Palestine

Palestine is the historic region on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, at various times comprising parts of modern Israel, the West Bank, Gaza strip, Jordan, and Egypt.

The name first appears as Syria Palaestina, when Hadrian made it a Roman province in 139CE. It was a separate region from Roman Syria (also split into Syria Coele and Syria Phoenice under Septimus Severus).


Early History (1200 BCE - 640 ACE)

The word "Palestine" seems to refer to the Philistines ("Sea Peoples") who invaded the southern coastland and established a kingdom there about 1200 BCE.

The Hebrews were apparently subject to the Philistines until c.1000 BCE, when an independent Hebrew kingdom was established under Saul, who was succeeded by David and then by Solomon. After Solomon (c.950 BCE), the kingdom broke up into two states, Israel, with its capital at Samaria, and Judah, under the house of David, with its capital at Jerusalem.

The northern kingdom Israel was conquered by Assyria in 720 BCE, and many of its people were dispersed and replaced. The people then came to be called Samaritans.

Judah was conquered by Babylon in 586 BCE, and its people (who now came to be called "Jews" from Judah = "praise") were taken to Babylon. The Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.

In 539 BCE the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the temple was rebuilt (516 BCE). Under Persian rule Palestine enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Alexander the "Great" (or "Vandal" to some) of Macedon, conquered Palestine in 333 BCE. His successors, the Ptolemies in Egypt and Seleucids in Syria fought over Palestine.

When the Seleucids were in control, an attempt by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) to impose Hellenism brought a Jewish revolt under the Maccabees, who set up a new Jewish state in 142 BCE. The state lasted until 63 BCE, when Pompey conquered Palestine for Rome. Palestine was then ruled by the Herods (under authority from the Romans).

When the Jews revolted in 66, the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70. Another revolt by Simon Bar Kokba between 132 and 135 was also suppressed, Jericho and Bethlehem were destroyed, and the Jews were barred from Jerusalem.

In 614, Palestine was conquered by the Persians. It was retaken briefly by the Byzantine Romans, but in 640 fell to the Muslims under caliph Umar of Baghdad.


Muslim Rule (640 - 1917)

During the Umayyad rule, Muslim belief was that Muhammad stepped off the sacred rock on the site of the Temple of Solomon when he journeyed to heaven. The Dome of the Rock was erected in 691 (the design was copied from a Christian Church).

The Al-Aqsa mosque was built and re-built (after an earthquake) nearby to the South.

In the 9th century, Palestine was conquered by the Islamic Fatimid dynasty from North Africa, who suppressed the Christians and the Jews; and many churches were destroyed.

In 1099, Palestine was captured by the Crusaders and they established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusaders were defeated by Salah-din at the battle of Hittin in 1187, and the Latin Kingdom was ended.

The Crusaders were finally driven out of Palestine by the Egyptian Mamluk sultans in 1291 and the Mamluks ruled Palestine til 1516.

In 1516 the Mamluks were defeated by the Ottoman Turks (Cairo was captured in 1517). The first three centuries of Ottoman rule isolated Palestine from outside influence.

In 1831, Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian viceroy nominally subject to the Ottoman sultan, occupied Palestine. Under him and his son the region was opened to European influence.

Ottoman control was reasserted in 1840, but Western influence continued. Among the many European settlements established, the most significant were those of the Jews.

The Zionist movement was founded in the late 19th century with the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and dozens of Zionist colonies were founded there. Russian Jews were the first to arrive in 1882.

At the start of the Zionist colonization of Palestine the rural people were Arab peasants (fellahin). Most of the population were Muslims, but in the urban areas there were sizable groups of Arab Christians (at Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem) and of Jews (at Zefat, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Jericho, and Hebron).

In 1916, the Arabs rebelled against the Turks because the British had promised them independence after the war. (This is the time of Lawrence of Arabia.) The British with help from the Arabs, captured Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in 1917 and 1918.


British Rule (1917 - 1948)

After the war, in 1922, the region was given to Britain as a mandate by the League of Nations. (Lebanon went to the French.)

The Palestine of 1917 included today's Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and all the Kingdom of Jordan.

In 1922, the British divided the Palestinian mandate into two parts, designating all lands west of the Jordan River as Cis-Jordan and those east of the river as Trans-Jordan.


The Emirate of Transjordan (a self-governing territory under the British) was founded on April 11, 1921, and became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan upon formal independence from Britain in 1946.

Britain had also made other commitments. In the secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France and Russia (1916), it promised to divide and rule the region with its allies.

Follow link for a number of maps from the Palestine centre

In a third agreement, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (published in the Times), Britain promised the Jews, a Jewish "national home" in Palestine.

Foreign Office

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge

of the Zionist Federation.


Arthur James Balfour

In 1919 there were about 568,000 Muslims, 74,000 Christians, and 58,000 Jews in Palestine. The first Arab anti-Zionist riots occurred in Palestine in 1920. The League of Nations approved the British mandate in 1922, although the actual administration of the area had begun in 1920.

As part of the mandate, Britain encouraged Jewish immigration. The British stressed that their policy to establish a Jewish homeland did not include all of Palestine, but rather that such a home should exist within Palestine and that there were economic limits on how many immigrants should be admitted (1922 White Paper).

In the 1920s, Jewish immigration was slight, but the Jewish communities made great economic progress.

In 1929 there was serious Jewish-Arab violence occasioned by a clash at the Western, or Wailing, Wall in Jerusalem. A British report found that Arabs feared the economic and political consequences of continued Jewish immigration and land purchases. Zionists were angered when a new White Paper, in 1930, urged limiting immigration. Ramsay MacDonald pacified the Zionists in 1931.

The rise of Nazism in Europe during the 1930s led to a great increase in immigration. Whereas there were about 5,000 immigrants authorized in 1932, about 62,000 were authorized in 1935.

Arabs responded with a general strike in 1936, organized by Haj Amin al Husayni, mufti of Jerusalem. It lasted six months. Some Arabs acquired weapons and formed a guerrilla force.


The Peel commission of 1937 found British promises to Zionists and Arabs irreconcilable, and declared the mandate unworkable.

They recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish, Arab, and British (largely the holy places) mandatory states.


The Peel report (Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd 5479, London, July 1937, Chapter xxii, para.36, p.389) says: "If Partition is to be effective in promoting a final settlement it must mean more than drawing a frontier and establishing two States. Sooner or later there should be a transfer of land, and as far as possible, an exchange of population."

There was some debate over voluntary or compulsory transfer. Some areas e.g. North Galilee, they saw as presenting no great problem however para.43, p.391 says "But as regards the Plains, including Beisan, and as regards all such Jewish colonies as remained in the Arab State when the Treaties come into force, it should be part of the agreement that in the last resort the exchange would be compulsory."

The Zionists approved of the partition, but the Arabs rejected it.


The British dropped the partition idea and announced a new policy (1939 White Paper). Fifteen thousand Jews a year would be allowed to immigrate for the next five years, after which Jewish immigration would be subject to Arab acquiescence; Jewish land purchases were to be restricted; and within 10 years an independent, bi-national Palestine would be established.

The Zionists were shocked by what they considered a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration. The Arabs also rejected the plan, demanding instead the immediate creation of an Arab Palestine, the prohibition of further immigration, and a review of the status of all Jewish immigrants since 1918.

The outbreak of World War II prevented the implementation of the plan, except for the restriction on land transfers. The Zionists and most Arabs supported Britain in the war (although Haj Amin al Husayni was in Germany and negotiated Palestine's future with Hitler), but tension inside Palestine increased. The Haganah, a secret armed group organized by the Jewish Agency, and the Irgun and the Stern Gang, terrorist groups, were active. British officials were killed by the terrorists.

The plight of European Jewry led influential forces in the United States to lobby for support of an independent Jewish state, and President Truman requested that Britain permit the admission of 100,000 Jews. Illegal immigration, often involving survivors of Hitler's death camps, took place on a large scale.

The independent Arab states organized the Arab League to exert internationally what pressure they could against the Zionists.


In 1946 an Anglo-American commission recommended that: Britain continue administering Palestine; rescind the land transfer restrictions; admit 100,000 Jews; and that the underground Jewish armed groups be disbanded.

The Arab Higher Committee rejected this plan and called for the union of Mandatory Palestine with Syria because it was geographically and historically a part of Syria and the Arabs there spoke the Syrian dialect of Arabic.


The United Nations and the formation of the State of Israel (1948)

In 1947 a plan for autonomy for Jews and Arabs within Palestine was discussed at a London conference of British, Arabs, and Zionists, but no agreement could be reached. The British, declaring their mandate unworkable. In February 1947, they turned the Palestine problem over to the United Nations. At this time there were about 1,091,000 Muslims, 614,000 Jews, and 146,000 Christians in Palestine.

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, devised a plan to divide Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a small internationally administered zone including Jerusalem.

Follow link for UN map (caution 1.4Mb!)

The State of Israel was established on 15 May 1948. The Arab League nations immediately invaded the newly formed state of Israel. During the war the Arab Legion occupied sections of central Palestine, including the Old City of Jerusalem. An armistice was concluded in early 1949.

The Gaza strip is an Arab area on the coast that wasn't included in the state of Israel or Egypt but was strongly influenced by Egypt. The West Bank was another Arab area not included in Israel and it opted for unity with Jordan in 1950.


The Suez Crisis (1956)

In 1956, Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel made a preemptive attack on Egyptian territory and within a few days had conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, while Britain and France invaded the area of the Suez Canal. Israel removed its troops from Sinai in November 1956, and from Gaza by March 1957. UN forces were sent to the Sinai and Gaza to keep peace between Egypt and Israel.


The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded in Egypt (1963) by Ahmed Shukeiry for the purpose of liberating the land of Palestine from the Zionists. Note that it was not the "Palestinian Liberation Organisation". ("Palestinian" is now applied to inhabitants living West of the Jordan River).

Fatah, or "Arab Homeland", was founded about the same time by Yasser Arafat. Fatah took control over the PLO in 1967.


The Six-Day War (1967)

On June 5, 1967, Israel struck against Egypt and Syria; Jordan subsequently attacked Israel. In six days, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, the West Bank and Arab sector of East Jerusalem (both under Jordanian rule), giving the conflict the name of the Six-Day War. Israel unified the Arab and Israeli sectors of Jerusalem.


the Yom Kippur War (1973)

On Oct. 6, 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Other Arab states sent soldiers to attack Israel. Egypt sent troops in force across the Suez Canal to its East bank before being halted by Israeli troops. Toward the end of the fighting, the Israelis sent troops across the Suez Canal to its West bank, encircling Egypt's Third Army on the East bank and clearing a path to Cairo. They also drove the Syrians even further back toward Damascus. A cease-fire called for by the UN Security Council on Oct. 22 and 23 went into effect shortly thereafter.

After this war the PLO gained prominence in the Middle East, and in 1974 Jordan recognized it as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

In July 1988, in response to months of demonstrations by Palestinians in the Israeli-held West Bank, King Hussein of Jordan ceded to the PLO all Jordanian claims to the territory.


The Oslo Accord 1993

The Oslo Accord of 13 August 1993, called for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho which would then fall under the civilian control of a Palestinian autonomous authority. This was followed by the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington at the White House on 13 September 1993. It stipulated mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and a commitment by the Palestinian side to end terrorism and delete calls for the destruction of the State of Israel from the Palestinian Charter (see below).


Current Events

See the Oslo Interim Agreement (1995), "Grapes of Wrath" (1996), Wye River Memorandum (1998,1999), Camp David Summits (2000), Jordanian-Egyptian Peace Proposal (2001) etc.


HAMAS (18 August 1988)

Hamas is the acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement; (Harakat Muqawama Islamiyya) and means enthusiasm, zeal and fanaticism.

Article 11: The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic religious endowment throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it. No Arab country nor the aggregate of all Arab countries, and no Arab King or President nor all of them in the aggregate, have that right, nor has that right any organization or the aggregate of all organizations, be they Palestinian or Arab...

Article 28: The Zionist invasion is a mischievous one. It does not hesitate to take any road, or to pursue all despicable and repulsive means to fulfill its desires. It relies to a great extent, for its meddling and spying activities, on the clandestine organizations which it has established, such as the Free Masons, Rotary Clubs, Lions, and other spying associations. All those secret organizations, some which are overt, for the interests of Zionism and under its directions, strive to demolish societies, to destroy values, to wreck answerableness, to totter virtues and to wipe out Islam. It stands behind the diffusion of drugs and toxics of all kinds in order to facilitate its control and expansion. … We cannot fail to remind every Muslim that when the Jews occupied Holy Jerusalem in 1967 and stood at the doorstep of the Blessed Aqsa Mosque, they shouted with joy: "Muhammed is dead, he left his daughters behind." Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.


The Palestinian National Charter

Resolutions of the Palestine National Council July 1-17, 1968

Article 2: Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit.

Article 9: Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine.

Article 20: The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void. Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.