Palestine and Israel - A Brief History of Two Nations In Context

by Sheri_Oz

A look at the complex issues surrounding the modern State of Israel and the labour pains of the still-developing Palestinian state.

First a disclosure: I am Israeli. I cannot NOT be subjective. I care about Israeli's future.

At the same time, I support the birth of a Palestinian state. I believe that when there will be peace in this small small spot on the globe, there will be no better place in all the world to live.

Given that the topics of Israel, Zionism, and Palestinian self-determination are so wrought with emotion and mired in confusion, I hope to be able to bring a bit of order to the chaos in this necessarily brief article. I see too many knee-jerk reactions in the press, in talk-backs and in political wrangling in my own country that I hope that I can make a small contribution to achieving sane and calm discussion of the issues.

First Let's Put the Issue of "Nations" Into a Global Historical Perspective

The contemporary divisions of nations and countries is a modern invention. It was always a very fluid phenomenon and probably will remain relatively fluid for the foreseeable future. Some examples should suffice:

Canada was once upon a time (and not so long ago, historically speaking), made up of Upper Canada and Lower Canada; and, of course, that was long after ownership of the land had been shared by the various tribes of the native First Nations Peoples. The French Canadians have not really accepted the consequences of the the loss of The Seven Years' War in the 1750s and many still yearn for independence from Canada. (And I have recently heard that some southern USA states would not mind separating from the Union today.)

Until 1830, much of the territories of modern-day Belgium were under alternating control by neighbouring Holland, France, and Germany, pulling at its lands in war.

Innumerable examples all over Europe can be given for belligerent modification of national boundaries and even division of larger countries into smaller independent states along ethnic lines, such as the former Yugoslavia, as shown in the diagram to the left. The push for separation and independence is going on at the present time in Spain. This list can go on and on and on.

And then, of course, there are the African countries, Latin America, Australia, the South Pacific and Asia. Not one country can claim to exist in the same form throughout all of human history, recorded or otherwise.

Image credit: Original by Hoshie; derivative by DIREKTOR

My Blog on "Times of Israel" and My New Website

"Times of Israel" is an online news site. I have a blog there in which I discuss current events in the Middle East, especially Israel.

I just launched a new website, called Israel Diaries, and I invite you to hop over there to see original articles about Israel, the internal politics in Israel, Jewish gifts I design on Zazzle, and a blog about verses from the Torah.

The Middle East Conflict in Historical Context

When I examine what has happened in my own part of the world, I see a land marked by waves of migrations into and out of the area depending on droughts, productive seasons, desire for control over routes between Europe and Asia in both directions, etc. Imperialists and colonialists came from Greece and Rome, but also from the East, all set on conquering and gaining power, influence and riches far from their lands of origin.

Against the backdrop of unending rising and falling tides of people, I feel myself less patient with those who say that their interpretation of history is "right", regardless of what side they are on. Extremes on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum oversimplify the equation.

Tragic mistakes have been made over the years by Israeli governments and by Palestinian representatives. I feel shamed by the extremism on our side and saddened by the extremism on the other side.

Books Presenting Both Sides of the Conflict

Israel / Palestine

This book sets the current conflict within a historic perspective, focusing on Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism, cultural issues and international attempts at resolution in a new way.

View on Amazon

The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Parallel Discourses (UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED...

A unique collection of essays by Israelis and Palestinians dealing with current issues, some of which are not covered in other books: water issues, human rights, refugees, democratization, education, and more.

View on Amazon

The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, Third Edition

A good basic introduction to the background behind the present conflict. Up-to-date and attempting to bring both sides of the conflict to let the reader come to his/her own conclusions.

View on Amazon

A Look at Contemporary Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Historical Perspective

And Hopefully a Dispassionate Look

Who is the Contemporary Israeli?

An Israeli is simply a citizen of the State of Israel. Israelis are Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Druize. Bedouin tribes living within Israeli borders, who are Moslems, are also Israeli citizens.

The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. There are Arab Israelis who do not speak Hebrew and a far larger number of Jewish Israelis who do not speak Arabic. English is recognized as an important academic and commercial language and is taught in school from 4th grade. Most high-school graduates speak excellent English, but it is not an official language.

There are Jewish Israelis who can trace their roots in this country back hundreds of years (or more?). The great majority, however, are second- or third-generation Israelis, whose parents and/or grandparents immigrated here from Europe and other Arab countries and, more recently, immigrants from the Americas, the former USSR and Ethiopia.

For many Arab Israelis, being Israeli presents inner conflict - while the general standard of living, education and freedoms are greater in Israel than surrounding countries, discrimination does exist, on personal if not official levels. Moreover, loyalty issues to the overall Arab peoples makes it difficult for some to refer to themselves as Israeli and many call themselves Palestinians living in Israel.

Who is the Contemporary Palestinian?

The contemporary Palestinian inhabits Gaza and the West Bank. Diaspora Palestinians (in other Arab countries and around the world) were born in pre-independence Israel; their offspring are also Palestinian.

Some raise the argument that contemporary Palestinians are descendents of the original Canaanite population that inhabited the land before the Israelites conquered it after having escaped slavery in Egypt. It is certainly likely that there was intermarriage between the Israelites who re-entered the area (they were living there before drought forced them to Egypt where they became slaves) and the Canaanites (and other population groups) who were there at the time. However, it is unlikely that the Arabs were since they arrived only in the 600s as part of the Arab Conquest.

Similar to Israeli Jews, many Palestinians have centuries-long roots in the area and many others arrived in the ebb and flow of the multiple immigrations and dispersions that characterized this region through all times.

There is so much controversy here that if we wait until the research catches up with our need to have all the facts straight in order to resolve the conflict, we might as well wait for the Messiah (or Second Coming, as some would have it).

The History of the Connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel

Notice that I Say "to the Land of Israel" and not "to the State of Israel"

The State of Israel is a political entity. The Land of Israel is the geographic space.While "Israel", the geographic space, lives in the hearts and souls of Jews around the world, the political entity is cause for debate and extremely polarized attitudes on the part of Jews and non-Jews alike.

Ancient Egyptian EmpireThe history of the Jewish connection to Israel begins long before the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In fact, it is likely that some Israelites (also called Hebrews) remained in Canaan throughout the time of slavery in Egypt (about 1700-1300 BCE). Egypt of that time was, in fact an empire reaching into and beyond Canaan and it is important to note that ancient Egypt was not Moslem and its inhabitants were not Arabs. The Arab conquest of 600 BCE was a turning point in Middle East and African history.

Arab scholars of the Qur'an support the Biblical account of the Israelite period in Egypt at that time.


Image credit: Andrei Nacu & Jeff Dahl via Wikimedia


Brief History of the Israelite Presence from the Exodus to the First Diaspora
  1. Canaan, under control of the Egyptian Empire, consisted of a number of city-states. Economic weakening of the Empire facilitated the conquest of this area by the Israelites who had escaped from Egypt. The Canaanites comprised, in fact, a number of different Semitic tribes.
  2. The 12 Israelite tribes that fled from Egypt entered Canaan from the east and defeated tribes who were hostile to them - each Hebrew tribe was assigned a portion of the land. The Philistines (also called Peleset) entered from the Mediterranean and conquered the southern coastal region. This area is named, Philistia, in the Bible. With the Philistines pushing inward and northward and other non-Israelite tribes moving into the area from the north and east, it was never very stable and the Hebrews had a hard time maintaining control. It appears that the Canaanite tribes were slowly absorbed by assimilation into both the Philistine and Israelite tribes.
  3. A monarchy was established in about 1000 BCE in order to strengthen and bring order to the Israelite tribes. The first king was Saul, then David and then his son, Solomon. King David designed and King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem.
  4. King Solomon died in about 930 BCE. The 10 northern tribes broke away and formed their own kingdom, Israel, with its own monarchy. It fell to the Assyrians (modern-time northern Iraq) in about 700 BCE. These 10 northern tribes were thus lost to history. This is also when the word, Jew, began to be applied to all remaining Israelites.

    Judea (or Judah) was able to hold onto the southern kingdom until it fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Temple destroyed, a large proportion of the Jews, but not all of them, were exiled to Babylon (modern southern Iraq). The exiles were active in deepening their cultural-religious heritage and the Babylon Talmud (interpretations of the Torah) was developed then.

Image credit: CC BY SA license issued by the author and this derivative made by Richardprins

Brief History of Jewish Presence from Second Temple Era to the Beginning of Ottoman Rule
  1. The Persians conquered the region in 536 BCE and under their benign control, over 40,000 Jews returned immediately to the land and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem (Second Temple). They reconstructed the walls around Jerusalem and established the first religious and judicial body - HaKnesset HaG'dola. It is important to remember, however, that during the Babylonian exile only elite members of the Israelite community were exiled, the farmers and other low-status population remained in the land.
  2. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the land and the Greek Empire allowed the Jews autonomy until about 166 BCE, when they suppressed religious practices. Led by the Hasmoneans (HaMaccabim) the Jews regained their independence and the land, now named Judea, flourished as an independent monarchy.
  3. In 63 BCE, the Romans under Pompey captured the land and placed King Herod on the throne. He renovated the Temple and Jewish culture and religion thrived.
  4. In the year 70 AD, the Second Temple was destroyed yet the Jews were allowed to stay until 135 AD, when Hadrian destroyed their villages and killed or enslaved those who were not able to flee. He changed the name of Judea to Syria Palestina (the first time this name was used). The Romans continued to rule (Byzantine Empire 313-636 AD), denying the Jews their religious freedom.
  5. In 636 AD, the Arab Conquest took control of much of the Middle East, central Asia, north Africa and Spain. At first the Jews were allowed religious freedom but by 691 AD, the Dome on the Rock was constructed on the site of the destroyed Temple and religious freedom curtailed.
  6. The Crusaders invaded and conquered the land in 1099 AD and maintaining control until 1291 AD.
  7. The Mamluks controlled the land (and a much larger empire as well) from 1291-1516 AD.
  8. In 1516 AD, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire defeated the Mamluks and took control. They remained in control until the First World War in 1917. During this time, Jews migrated back to the land, setting up religious and cultural centers in Safed and Jerusalem as early as 1566.
Modern Waves of Jewish Migration Back to Israel

1882-1903   First Aliyah (immigration to Israel) - 24-35,000 - mainly from Russia and Yemen

1904-1914   Second Aliyah - 40,000 - mainly from Russia and Poland (founded the kibbutz
                    movement and the City of Tel Aviv)

1919-1923   Third Aliyah - 40,000 - mainly from Europe (founded the Labour Union, drained
                     marshes and built roads)

1924-1929   Fourth Aliyah - 80,000 - mainly from Eastern Europe, Yemen and Iraq (spurred urban

1929-1939   Fifth Aliyah - 300,000 - mainly from Germany (began from pioneering spirit but
                    quickly changed as violence in Nazi Germany grew)

1948-1952   Mass immigration from Europe and Arab countries


During all this time, Arabs from other surrounding regions also immigrated to the area.

What's in a Name? The Origins and Meaning of the Name, Palestine.

The land of Israel has been referred to throughout history by various names: Canaan, the Southern Levant, Southern Syria and Palestine. The Hebrew word for Palestine appears in the Torah and refers to the strip of land on the southern coast of modern-day Israel, the first area the Philistines conquered when they came onto land from the Mediterranean.

The root of Philistine and Palestine in Hebrew is the same and it means, invader. It is not known where they are from, nor how they called themselves in their own language. It is unlikely that these are the forefathers of today's Arab Palestinians since they were probably not Semitic.

The Romans called this area, Syria Palestina, after having gained control of Judea and in order to cut the land off from its association with the Jewish people.

During World War I, the French and British had reached a secret deal for this division of the Middle East between them (the Sykes-Picot Agreement). With Turkey allied with Germany, the British promised the Arabs independence if they helped them, the British and French, defeat Turkey. But, the British also made a deal with the Jews to support their bid for a national homeland if, among other arrangements with world Jewry, the wealthy British Jews supported the British war effort (The Balfour Declaration). In other words, Jews would get Palestine if they helped the allies win the war against Germany. It must be emphasized that Palestine was never a country, but only the name given to the British Mandate over territory that was later divided up between Israel and Jordan. This fact must, of course, be kept separate from the fact that there was an Arab population living on the land who had the right to remain.

British Mandate over PalestineWhen the Ottoman Empire was finally broken down by Turkey's losses in World War I, the League of Nations handed France a mandate over territories that are, today, Lebanon and Syria and a mandate to Britain over territories that are, today, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Iraq. When it became clear to the Arabs that the British were not going to honour their promise to give them all the territories of the mandate (because the Arabs did not live up to their promise to the allies), they revolted against their Jewish neighbours and the British who they felt had double-crossed them.

It should be noted that the British promised the Jews a sovereign state only if their numbers exceeded those of the Arabs by the end of the war and protection if they did not.

Still the Arabs did not claim the name, Palestinians. In fact, the Jewish inhabitants were the Palestinians of that day. Their newspaper was called The Palestine Post (later changed to The Jerusalem Post).

Somehow the name "Palestinian" came to be associated only with Arabs. Their acceptance of this name is not unanimous and, I argue, it can even be humiliating. In this article I explain why.


Image Credit: Copyright American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Reprinted with permission.

Former Arab Israeli Member of Knesset Denies That There is A Palestinian Arab People

In a television interview in 1996

Translation of Bishara's Statement: “I do not think there is such a thing as a Palestinian nation. I think there is an Arab nation. I always felt that way and I did not change my mind. I do not think there is a Palestinian nation. It is a colonialist invention - Palestinian nation. When were there any Palestinians? Where did they come from? I think there is an Arab nation. In spite of my clear struggle against the occupation, I am not a Palestinian nationalist. I think that, until the end of the 19th century, Palestine was part of Greater Syria.”

Inhabitants of the Land Later Referred to as the Mandate of Palestine

Before 1940 - That is: Before the Holocaust

Accurate statistics are hard to get because accurate census surveys were not taken. Data was collected by the Ottoman rulers and by the British administrators of the Palestinian Mandate, however there were problems with obtaining the facts on the ground.

For one thing, being counted in the census under the Ottoman Empire meant being taxed and drafted into military service. Therefore Jewish and Arab residents hid from census-takers.

When the British took control in 1917, there was an improved standard of living and both Jews and Arabs re-entered the area, not always legally. Those who were illegal immigrants, of any religion or origin, obviously hid from the census-takers.

What is clear, however, is that the land was inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. The data available shows that Jews were far less numerous than Arabs here as in the world in general, but the data also show that when the Jewish population increased so did the Arab population - until 1948 that is, and the war that, for the Jews, became the War of Independence and for the Arabs, Al- Nakba (The Catastrophe).

Discussion of the meaning of the available population statistics is too complex to be covered here. If you want to read more, you can consult the following references:

Palestine's Jewish Population 638 AD - 1800 AD

Land Ownership in Palestine 1800 - 1948

The Population of Palestine Prior to 1948

The Reason is Not Important - But the Fact that Palestinians Regard Themselves as a Separate People Is

And I Do Not Need Them to Say They Accept Me

What I mean is that, even if the Arabs in this region never before considered themselves a nation separate from the pan-Arab nation, it has no importance to the resolution of our conflict today. The Arabs within Israel and the Palestinian Territories today define themselves as a unique and separate nation and that is their right. As such, they desire self-determination in a country that is independent of all outside influence and that is also their right. The historical machinations of this or that country or countries in Europe or elsewhere is no longer of import.

Similarly, Israel is a fact. It has a majority Jewish population. That is a fact. The majority here consider themselves a unique and separate people - fact. Therefore, Israel has the right to exist and independently conduct its own affairs.

The Palestinian National Covenant calls for the destruction of Israel. It is their right to include in their Covenant anything they want. Israeli governments do not want to make peace with the Palestinians until they accept our right to exist and I say - it makes no difference what their Covenant says. If they sit with us at the same table to discuss borders and other arrangements, it does not matter what they write in their Covenant.

You cannot sit at the table with someone who does not exist - the Israelis exist and the Palestinians exist. Period. Now is the time to figure out, finally, how to live side by side because there is no other alternative.

We Cannot Turn Back the Clock - So How Do We Move Forward?

History marches on forward into the future and historians make sense of it backwards. While ancient history favours a legitimate Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, modern history is not so clear-cut. At this point, however, it is neither wise nor logical to wait until we can make sense of the past 60 or 600 years before we decide on how to act today.

Unfortunately, we need to rely on our leaders - our and theirs - to make choices that seem beyond their capacity to make. Is there another Begin? another Sadat? another King Hussein? I'm looking around and I am sorry to say, I don't see anyone who looks like he or she makes the grade.

So what do I wish would happen?  I wish the Palestinian State would be declared unilaterally and as a fait accompli the Israelis and Palestinians would just have to work out some way to live and let live.

We would no longer be regarded by others as occupiers and they would no longer be regarded as occupied. We could then go back to focusing on our multiple social problems within and the Palestinians would be free, then, to go about the business of nation-building.

Here are uplifting facebook pages: Israel Loves Palestine page and Palestine Loves Israel page

Updated: 01/27/2017, Sheri_Oz
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sandyspider on 05/29/2013

Thank you for the history lesson on Israel. Great reading.

Sheri_Oz on 03/22/2013

@Brenda - When I look at our neighbours, it feels like we are an oasis here at the moment. But a very precarious oasis. Couldn't live anywhere else - this is home.

BrendaReeves on 03/21/2013

Sheri, This is a great informative article. I sometimes wonder how you can live there with all the turmoil. Although, it seems like every nation is in turmoil right now.

cmoneyspinner on 02/19/2013

Thanks for approving my comment. I saw the second "NOT" and yet I still got KNOTTED UP with the word "subjective". That's only because the subject is a very sensitive one to us both. I would that people could be more objective in the approach to the peace solution. But because the matters are so close to the heart, it is very difficult. Nevertheless, I pray for peace.

Sheri_Oz on 02/19/2013

Actually, I wrote: "I cannot NOT be subjective". I worried about whether the second "not" was clear enough and now I know it is not. Thanks, I will go back an emphasize it.
Thanks for your comment - I certainly hope we figure out how to make peace and then if your words come true, that would be even greater.

cmoneyspinner on 02/18/2013

Mam, you begin your article by disclosing that you are Israeli and that you can not be subjective. I think you meant to say you can not be “objective”? I will have you know that there are very many non-Israeli people who also can not be objective. For the simple reason that to achieve peace between these two nations would shame all the other nations of the earth. There would be no more validation for war if these two groups of people could prove that peace was possible.

Sheri_Oz on 01/08/2013

I think I know what you mean, Katie. Ridiculous is not a word I would use, given how much emotional energy is invested, not to mention lives. I think "sad" is the word I would use, but that's probably exactly what you mean, no? Thanks for reading and commenting.

katiem2 on 01/08/2013

It does seem ridiculous does it not???

Sheri_Oz on 12/31/2012

Now there's an interesting idea!!

Mladen on 12/31/2012

It is amazing, indeed.
It is amazing how someone chooses to fight some 1000 years old fights, instead of choosing peace, social and economical security. If not for their own good, but at least for well being of their children.

It would be the best if we could return to times of ancient Greece: one city = one state. I think that would satisfy everyone's desires. :)

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