In recent years, the Palestinians – broadly conceived to include the Palestinian Authority, the various political and militant factions, and their supporters abroad – have been pushing a narrative in which a flourishing Palestinian national society of ancient origin was brutally attacked and overrun by an imperialist Zionist invasion intent on stealing what had been “Palestine” since time immemorial. Curiously, the Covenant of the Palestine Liberation Organization, initially adopted in 1964 and revised in 1968, contains an article that refutes this claim.
Article 6 of the Covenant reads: “Jews who were living permanently in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinian.” That “invasion” is usually identified with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, so this article acknowledges that there were Jews in the Land before then.
Let us leave aside that Abbas’ insistence that his Palestinian state be Judenrein violates this provision of the supposedly sacred Covenant and address this question: Who were these Jews?
Conceptually, they potentially fall into three categories, any one of which establishes that the Palestinian narrative is false.
The first possible source of pre-1917 Jews would be those who had been living in the Land at the time of the Arab invasion in the Seventh Century. There is no credible way to explain the existence of such Jews without acknowledging that the Land was their homeland. Why would they have come there at that time if they had no previous connection?
Indeed, the Quran actually confirms that this was the case: Surah 5, verse 21 begins: “O my people! (referring to the Children of Israel) Go into the holy land which Allah has ordained for you.” (Pickthall interpretation) The existence of such Jews demonstrates that Jewish claims about prior habitation are correct.
What, then, are we to make of Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Malaiki’s recent statement on ash-Sharq al-Awsat, “This is the issue of recognizing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. This is a sharply contentious issue. It would be dangerous to recognize this because this would mean our acceptance of the dissolution of our own history and ties and our historic right to Palestine. This is something that we will never accept under any circumstances.”
We also have the following statement from Ahmad Samih Khalidi of the Institute of Palestine Studies in 2011: “[I]f Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then the lands that it occupies today (and perhaps more, for there are as yet no borders to this “homeland”) belong to this people by way of right. And if these lands rightfully comprise the Jewish homeland, then the Arab presence there becomes historically aberrant and contingent; the Palestinians effectively become historic interlopers and trespassers – a transient presence on someone else’s national soil.”
Seen against Article 6 of the Palestinian Covenant these statements lead inexorably to the conclusion that the Palestinian narrative is false. The Palestinians may even know that their narrative is false.
Incidentally, the Quran makes no mention of “Palestine,” and the Palestinian narrative asserts that Surah 5, verse 21, is false.
The second possible source of pre-1917 Jews would be those who might have returned between the Arab conquest and the beginning of the Zionist awakening in the Nineteenth Century. Why would they have come, knowing full-well that they would be subjected to the dhimma, a system of discrimination that is the ancestor of apartheid, if there was no previous connection to the Land?
There were such people, mainly pious pilgrims, seeking to live out their lives in the Land of their fathers; they settled mainly in Jerusalem and Safed. One of these was Joseph Caro, who wrote the code of Jewish law still used today. Undoubtedly, their descendants inter-married with descendants of Jews who had returned earlier and with Jews whose ancestors had lived there since before the Arab invasion, so in some sense, the first two groups can be conceived as having merged into one.
The third possible source of pre-1917 Jews are those who arrived with the First and Second Aliyot, estimated to total some 65,000 people. For the record, the First Aliyah was before the establishment of the Zionist Movement and thus cannot be deemed part of any “Zionist” invasion. For the most part, these people arrived in small groups, by boat to Jaffa, and then made their way on foot or by donkey to land purchased for them by European Jewish philanthropists. They came to work the land, rather than as religious pilgrims, so they were fairly easy to find. The notion that they came against the will of the sovereign at the time, the Ottoman Empire, is basically unsupportable.
Why might the Ottoman sultan, who was also the khalifah, have welcomed Jews to this part of his empire? Jews had been welcomed into the Ottoman state since shortly after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and had made valuable contributions to the modernization of the Empire. For example, Jews brought the first printing press. There is also the matter that these Jews had good connections in the major European powers, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, and the Ottomans hoped they could be used to gain influence in the capitals of those powers.
There is a potentially more important reason that often goes overlooked: During the late Nineteenth Century, the Land was on the frontier between the Ottoman Empire and a resurgent Egypt that had British backing. The Ottomans were concerned that this largely-unpopulated territory didn’t provide much of a barrier to Anglo-Egyptian ambitions. That is why they sought to bring various population groups there from elsewhere.
The record is very clear that the Ottoman government sought to populate the area with basically anyone willing to move there. Muslim tribes were attracted from elsewhere in the Empire and from Turkic Central Asia. A large number of Bosnians was transferred there when Austria seized Bosnia in 1878, which is why the Palestinian leader during World War II, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was able to recruit Bosnians to fight for Hitler.
European Jews brought new technologies from Europe, and money, permitting the economic growth necessary to attract the Muslim groups from elsewhere; they were necessary to the success of the Ottoman strategy. The Ottomans let the dhimma slip into the shadows while this effort was underway. That the Ottomans undertook this effort demonstrates that the Land was underpopulated in the late Nineteenth Century. That it had the approval of the khalifah is why the Covenant grants Palestinian identity to Jews present by 1917.
And it all would have worked just fine, except the Ottoman Empire came to an end. Government ministers, as a rule, do not factor the consequences of the demise of their state into their thinking about policies to adopt. In this case, they gave no consideration to how the Jews, both autochthonous and more recently returned, and Muslim peoples, again both those of long standing and those they were bringing into the Land, might get along without Ottoman suzerainty.
Jews who had arrived with the First or Second Aliyah had no previous experience of living as dhimmis, second-class citizens subject to the dhimma, and would not accept that status, particularly since they had taken the lead in developing the Land. There was little prospect that the Arab population would abandon it, since in its absence, Jews would continue to hold at least the economic reins. The Balfour Declaration was issued into this mix, asserting that Jews would have rights in the Land, i.e., the dhimma would not be re-established. Conflict became inevitable, with only two solutions: One or the other of the parties would have to expel the other, or there needed to be a partition, so each party would have its own state. The Arab population has routinely rejected partition and, obviously, both parties reject the idea that the other is entitled to push them out. The world has been trying to untie this knot ever since.
The Yishuv’s Jewish population in 1917 consisted of people from each of the three sources, but even if they all came from only one of them, the acknowledgement in the Palestine National Covenant that there were Jews there before 1917 disproves the current Palestinian narrative’s claim that the Land has been home “since time immemorial” to a thriving Palestinian culture. If the Jews are from the first source, then they predate the Palestinian arrival. The second source pre-supposes the existence of the first. The third source reflects Ottoman recognition that the Land was underpopulated and in need of a revival; i.e., whatever culture was there could hardly be described as flourishing.
The Palestinian narrative is thus hoist with its own petard: The Palestinian people’s founding document announces that its narrative isn’t true.