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Who Can Claim Palestine?
One of the key questions in the conflict between Israel and Palestine is this: Who can legitimately claim the land? The underlying question is: Who deserves to have a state there, and to live there? To answer these questions, we need to understand the historic legitimacy of the claims of Israel and Palestine, and for that we must know who owned what, when.
In this article, I’ll refer to Palestine as the historical region of Palestine, which comes from the label that the Ottomans put on the region that is today Israel and Palestine. The British kept that label.1
In the previous article, we covered the origin of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, and the Jews who inhabited it 3,000 years ago, how some were captured and sent to Babylon, and how they returned and formed a semi-autonomous kingdom.
At that time, the number of Jews was growing until the Romans subdued them again. Their numbers started dwindling in clashes with the Roman Empire, which eventually triggered the Jewish Diaspora: Most of the Jews left the Levant and spread across countries.
After the Romans, the Byzantines took over the Levant, and then the Arab Muslims.
Arab and Muslim Rule
Muslim empires controlled the Levant for about 1,100 years between 650 AC and 1918, with the crusades as the only interlude, which lasted about 200 years.
Many of these early Muslim empires were Arab (Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid), but later ones were not (Seljuks were Persian, Mamluks were originally a warrior slave class from around the Black Sea, and the Ottomans were from Turkey).
During the rule of all these empires, the many wars and the lack of local kingdoms probably affected the population negatively, so much so that by the early 20th century, the population of the Levant was lower than in Roman times.
By the end of the 19th century, the share of Jewish population in Palestine was very low, antisemitism was rampant in Europe, and ideas of nations were en vogue. This is when Zionism appeared: the proposal to create a new Jewish state that could host and defend all Jews. Zionists created the typical elements of nation-building—a flag, a language—and decided on a place to recreate Israel. The obvious candidate was where it had all started, in the Levant, where Jews had dreamed of going back at some point.2
So many that, after thousands of years, their presence once more became sizable4:
The strategy was conscious and thorough: Organize Jews across the world to buy land in Israel to establish themselves there.
By the early 1900s, tens of thousands of Jews were in Palestine. This brings us to the key pivotal point of the Palestinian conflict: World War I.
How to Split an Empire
It’s 1917. The Ottoman Empire is fighting alongside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Allies are fighting the Central Powers. But there’s a stalemate. How can they tilt the balance?
One of their approaches is to open new fronts against the Ottomans in their overextended empire. So they enlist the Arabs, promising them a big nation in the Arabian Peninsula. This leads to the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans.
But the British also wanted the support of Jews, who now counted in the tens of thousands in the Ottoman region of Palestine. So they made the Balfour Declaration, promising them a “national home” in Palestine at the end of the war.
And of course, the Brits were not the only allied power in WWI. They had to decide how to split a conquered Ottoman Empire in the future with France, Russia, and Italy. So they signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which would split the region into French and British areas of influence.5
The Arab leader, Hussein Bin Ali, didn’t accept this, but the Allied powers nevertheless went for it. In the following struggle, the UK created several protectorates in the region, of which two would be ruled by Hussein’s children (Iraq and Transjordan), and the Al Saud family took over most of Arabia:
The UK’s Quagmire: Mandatory Palestine
This left the UK in a weird position in the region they called Mandatory Palestine. They ruled it, but didn’t give it to Hussein. They had promised a homeland for Jews, but Arabs were a majority in the region and also wanted their own country. Remember, this is in the early 20th century, a time when the new idea of nationalism is exploding, and everybody wants land to build into a nation and rule, while the idea of the consent of the governed is taking hold: The legitimacy of a government depends on the agreement of its people.
Jews and Arabs had been clashing for years. Jews wanted their own country—and were OK with an Arab country—but the Arabs weren’t. They didn’t want to give up any land to the Jews. They also didn’t want any more Jewish immigration, given that the Zionist movement was in full swing, and Jewish immigrants kept coming.
Arabs and Jews clashed in 1928, 1929, and 1936. While local Arabs sold land to immigrating Jews, Arab leaders asked London to stop Jewish immigration, prevent land sales to Jews, and create an Arab country.
The British wanted to keep control over the region, because giving it away would have threatened the Suez Canal, a key artery for the UK in its communications with India.
Issued in July 1937, the 400-page Peel Report ascertained that the underlying causes of the recent disturbances were the same as those in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1933: the Arab desire for independence, the Arab hatred and fear of the Jewish national home and the determination of the Jewish national movement to realize its goals. It concluded that the two communities’ aspirations were irreconcilable, that the Mandate in its existing form was unworkable, and that Palestine should be partitioned into distinct Jewish and Arab entities. The Report attached a map of the proposed Arab and Jewish states and a neutral enclave for British control of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.—Source.
The Arab community in Palestine utterly rejected the notion of partition, as did neighboring Arab leaders and states: in September 1937, in Bludan, Syria, a non-governmental pan-Arab Congress of over 400 Arab delegates rejected the partition of Palestine, declaring instead its goal as “liberation of the country and establishment of an Arab government.” The Zionist response was more nuanced, neither endorsing partition nor rejecting it outright. Zionists, while happy to hear that the British recommended partition, believed the time was not yet ripe and that the proposed Jewish state was too small.
London realized it couldn’t find a solution. So it invited Arab and Jewish leaders to hash it out. They couldn’t. At the same time, conflict in Europe was escalating, so the UK simply decided to freeze the situation with the 1939 White Paper by slowing down Jewish immigration and land acquisition, and suggesting a blurry “Jewish National Home within an independent Arab state”. Regardless, WWII broke out, and the Palestinian issue became secondary.
What Should We Do after WWII?
The war gave a massive boost to the Zionist movement. Jews around the world yearned for a place where the Holocaust couldn’t happen to them anymore, and sympathy grew towards them, especially in the Western World.
At the same time, the UK started withdrawing from its colonies. Given the complexity of the Palestinian situation, it just dropped the problem like a hot potato and asked the UN to come up with a plan. The UN proposed a two-state solution:
This map had changed substantially from the one proposed by the UK a few years earlier. It gave a big chunk of the north of the country (Galilee) to the Arabs, but it gave the Jews the lion’s share of the Negev desert in the south. This increased the allocation of land to the Jews. Why? These were the settled areas at the time:
Jews had focused their settlements in specific areas: the northern coast, the Jezreel Valley, Galilee, and the Negev desert. They had not settled the southern coast and central mountains.
The UN had several goals. The main one was to provide land to each side that would reflect where they lived, as well as to make room for further Jewish immigration. The result is that areas with Jewish majority or heavy minority were allocated to Jews. Meanwhile, the Negev desert, which represents 60% of the land of Israel even today, was very sparsely populated but had been intensely settled by Jews in the previous decade. It was allocated to Israel.
Another goal of the UN was to allow each state to be as contiguous as possible. Contiguity was important for economic and defense purposes, but this map made it really awkward, with two narrow points connecting disjointed parts of each country.
The result of all of this was that the existence of a Jewish country would entail providing 56% of the land to one third of the population, while creating two semi-split countries.
The Arab reaction covered the entire spectrum, from the thought that this deal was good because it would preempt Israelis from furthering their advantages, to the desire to commit a genocide against them. The most common reaction was one of preferring war to giving in to a two-state solution.
Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a war of elimination and it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre or the wars of the Crusades. We will sweep them [the Jews] into the sea.—Azzam Pasha, General Secretary of the Arab League.
We shall eradicate Zionism.—Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli
[Arabs will] continue fighting until the Zionists are annihilated.—Haj Amin al-Husseini, Palestinian Arab nationalist and Muslim leader in Mandatory Palestine.
So Arab countries went to war.
The Formation of the New Israel
The British Mandate in Palestine ended on May 14th 1948.
That day, Israel declared its independence.
The day after, Arab countries attacked.
Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, and expeditionary forces from Iraq entered Palestine in unison.
Somehow, the Israelis won the war and expanded their land beyond what was assigned to them by the UN in 1947.
This was the third opportunity for Arabs to create a Palestinian independent state, after the British and UN proposals. But Egypt and Transjordan had different aims. They simply took over the Arab regions for themselves. Egypt took over the Gaza strip (the small green band on the left), and Transjordan took over the West Bank (the bigger green blob on the right). Israel signed truces with all its neighbors, but not lasting peace agreements.
Around 750,000 Arab Palestinians fled or were expelled from the Israeli areas, in what they call the Nakba (“disaster”). The causes are complex, and range from straight expulsion by Israeli forces to requests from Arab leaders for the population to leave, to fear of hostilities, or confidence they could return after the conflict. About 150,000 Arabs remained and became Israeli citizens. Arab nations refused to absorb Palestinian refugees, instead keeping them in refugee camps while insisting that they be allowed to return.9 Another UN resolution supported the right to return of these refugees.
This reflects a similar migration of Jews from Arab countries. Between 1948 and 1970, around 900,000 Jews emigrated from Muslim countries around the world—mostly Arab—into Israel. In some cases, they were attracted by the Israeli project. This was the majority of emigration from Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, or Turkey. However, in many other countries like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan, Jews were persecuted.
The Expansion of Israel
Israel would attack Egypt in a smaller war in 1956 for the Suez Canal and to keep access to the oceans from its southern tip.
About ten years later, Egypt blocked that access and prepared for another war with Israel, amassing military personnel along the border and asking UN forces to leave the area. The Jewish state preempted an attack and targeted the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, eliminating them in the first day of what’s called the six-day war. Jordanian and Syrian forces were misled by Egypt into thinking it was winning and started shelling Israel. Israel counterattacked and took over Gaza, the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
About 300,000 Palestinians left the West Bank, and about 100,000 Syrians left the Golan Heights.
Six years later, in 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel again, in the Yom Kippur War. Initially they were successful, before being pushed back by Israeli forces, which advanced on Cairo and Damascus, the capitals of Egypt and Syria.
After this, Egypt decided to bid for peace with Israel. Israel returned the Sinai, and they signed peace agreements following the Camp David Accords of 1978. In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, which relinquished its claims on the West Bank. In 2020, under the Abraham Accords, Israel signed peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. In the last 50 years, Israel has gone from having no relations with the majority of countries in the world, to having relations with all countries but for some Muslim ones and some dictatorships.
I haven’t talked much yet about the Arab Palestinians who live in occupied territories. I will soon. But we already have a bunch of information from which to start drawing conclusions.
Who Deserves the Land of Palestine?
It depends. Who do you want?
We can’t answer this question before acknowledging here the massive biases. People don’t have hard moral rules that they apply consistently across situations. They have an intuition, and then they try to justify it morally.
This, of course, is toxic in a situation like this one, where there is a small land that must be split between two parties. The size of the pie is settled, and we can only fight for the biggest slice. So instead of having a predetermined answer and then trying to justify it, we should come up with moral rules of legitimacy, and see where they take us. So what factors decide whether a land should belong to one group or the other?
Who ruled first?
They were there 3,000 years ago. They were there 1,600 years before Islam even existed, or Arabs conquered the region.
But that’s a long time ago. Who controlled the land first, but recently?
How recently? How do you know what’s the relevant recency? When should you start counting?
If you start counting 3,000 years ago, that’s Jews.
2,000 years ago, still Jews.
The centuries before 1900? The area was controlled by the Mamluk, who were Turkic soldiers from Egypt, and then the Ottomans, who were Turkic. Both were Muslim, but neither was Arabic. The Seljuk were not Arab either.
There was never an independent Arab state in the region. There was Arab rule, however, but the most recent one was about 700 years ago or so, the Ayyubid Sultanate. Unless you count the Mamluks, in which case it was 500 years ago.
What about Muslim rule, not Arab rule?
This is something that many think but few voice out loud, I believe. There is a significant religious component in all of this. Indeed, the region was ruled by Muslims for about 1,300 years, between about 650 and 1918, with a 200 year hiatus due to the Crusaders. It has not had Muslim rule since.
Should we consider religion as a basis for legitimacy of a state there?
Maybe. Should there be a Muslim state in Palestine because the region was ruled by Muslims for over one thousand years?
What about the fact that Jews ruled there for over 1,000 years?
When is the appropriate time to take this into consideration?
Israel is officially a Jewish state. Does it deserve at least one state in the world, since Muslims have plenty?
Should other religions be able to claim a country?
Who rules doesn’t matter, what matters is the people. Who was there first?
The Canaanites, from whom both Arabs and Jews in the region descend.
After them, it was the Jews, who had a strong presence there for 1,100 years, and some stayed there for 500 years more before Arabs started appearing in the region.
What about more recently?
In Israel, Jews are a majority. In the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, Arabs are a majority.
What about just before the Israelis came back during the Zionist movement?
There was a strong Arab majority.
Was it a lot of people?
No. The population was pretty small at the time, as this region was neither contested nor important strategically, and its economy had suffered in the previous centuries.
What about the *religion* of the people?
Israel and Palestine had a majority of Jews until the late Roman Empire, for about 1,500 years.
Then for about 600 years it was a Christian majority. Should it be Israeli because Jews were there first?
Christians fought the crusades because at some point the Arabs decided to kick them out. Should the region be Christian because the Arab Muslim colonizers kicked them out?
Muslims were probably a majority for the last 900 years, before Jews took over. Are these the ones that really count? Or did they prevail the very same way as Arab Muslims did before them?
The UK is a majority-Christian country. It won the area fair and square. Should the region be Christian?
What about what’s morally right?
On one hand, Jews suffered the Holocaust. Maybe they deserve a country to ensure that never happens again? Remember, they don’t have any, but there’s plenty of Arab and Muslim countries. Does that matter?
On the other hand, they arrived and took over the local land. Some consider this colonization. I don’t think this qualifies, as colonizers have a home country and want to extract wealth from the colony. Jews don’t want to extract wealth from Israel. They made it their home. Maybe that’s reprehensible and they should leave?
But also the local population colonized it from other populations. It’s assholes all the way down. Dozens of empires have been battling for this piece of land for centuries. Which one is the legitimate one?
What about state building?
Israel is the most democratic country in the region by far. It has created a rich and prosperous country. Excluding petrostates, Israel is the richest across the region and compared to other Arab states, the one with the highest human development index, the lowest corruption, the highest business freedom, rule of law, innovation…
Surely we want more successful countries like this?
Well… Do you want your country to stop existing because it stagnates? Should Europeans colonize Africa again to make sure it grows?
I’m going to assume you don’t think so. So even if you *root* for this type of country, it is not a legitimate basis on which to decide whether one deserves to exist or not.
What about might is right?
Then Israel currently controls the land and should keep it. But then this entices imperial powers to conquer their weaker neighbors. If you don’t like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or you don’t want China to invade Taiwan, you shouldn’t be cheering Israel for controlling Palestine by force.
Should we penalize the Palestinians because Arabs had plenty of opportunities to get an Arab state?
It’s true that Arabs have had many occasions to get an Arab state: the British proposal in the 1930s, the UN proposal, several offers from Israel since…
But honestly, who could blame them for it? From their perspective, in each one of these proposals, they were getting a worse deal than what had been the reality a few decades earlier. And every time, they were just one successful war away from taking over the region. So they gambled, and they lost. The current situation is the consequence. Should it mean that millions of people who feel Palestinian and are governed by an occupying force don’t deserve a country? I don’t think so.
What would you have done in their position? A bunch of immigrants systematically come to the area where you live, and a few decades later they demand their own country. What would you do?
Plus, in many of these situations, it was not the Palestinians voting, but other Arab countries, which, as we’ve seen, don’t usually have the best for the Palestinians in mind. For example, Jordan took over the West Bank, and Egypt took over Gaza when they had the opportunity.
So who deserves the land then?!
This question has no answer. You can simply choose whatever suits you to legitimize your position. Both have many legitimate claims. If you wanted to be really objective, you would need to create a mathematical formula that accounts for things like rulers, populations, their sizes, and a factor to discount time, so that more recent times count more than older times. Of course, whoever does that would likely tweak the parameters to make their answer seem like the right one. Jews might want to discount time a lot (or very little) to win, because they’ve controlled the land both recently and long ago. They might also weigh the ethnicity that ruled more heavily, since Arabs haven’t ruled the area for centuries. Meanwhile, Arabs would weigh religion and the ethnicity of the local populations more, but not too recently.
So nobody deserves this land, because for the last 3,000 years, dozens of peoples have fought for it, all until very recently, and the mixes of religion, rulers, and ethnicities are too complex.
How should we decide then?
Geography, history, legality, people, rulers, morality… So many factors. The problem is that these are easy to bias. Those who use this type of bias tend to adapt their rules depending on the situation, to favor them. But that makes no sense. If somebody thinks the region should be Israeli because that’s right for Jews, or vice-versa, who’s to say that this rule should be limited to a specific area? Why not make the entire world that way?
We need rules that are objective and can be accepted by all.
Internationally, the set of rules that determines statehood is the Montevideo Convention:
The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
Additionally, regions can’t be countries, and countries can’t gain independence through military action.
As of today, in my humble opinion, neither Israel, nor Gaza, nor the West Bank respect these four. The population in the West Bank keeps changing because of Jewish settlements. Israel’s territory keeps changing for the same reason. Hamas is not a government for Gaza, and is in no position to enter into relations with the other states. None of the groups have a total claim on the region. Of course, nobody would say that none of these countries deserve their own state.
Another important factor is that political legitimacy comes from the consent of the people. In other words, self-determination. This resonates with me, because it’s the translation of freedom at the level of the people. If a large majority of the people in a region consistently believes over time that it should belong to a separate country, and it emphatically pushes for this to happen, it should be respected.10
Another factor is international recognition.
The truth is that the vast majority of countries recognize both countries, and the only countries that recognize only one of them are allies of one side or the other. In other words, they’re biased. Having lived in many countries that don’t recognize Palestine, I can confidently say that everybody in these countries knows Palestine is a reality.
In summary, who deserves a claim on Palestine?
Israelis make up the vast majority of the population in Israel, and have done so for decades. They want their state to be independent. Most countries recognize Israel exists. It’s a stable country, with a permanent population, defined territory, and government. It has a strong historic, moral, and geographic claim. It deserves to exist.
Similarly, Palestinians make up the vast majority of the population in Palestinian territories, and have done so for decades. They want their state to be independent. Most countries recognize Palestine exists, even if not officially. It’s a country with stable borders, with a permanent population, and defined territory. It has a strong historic, moral, and geographic claim. Despite what Westerners think, their government has been stable (both Fatah and Hamas in their respective territories have governed for over 15 years now). Palestine deserves to exist, even if it needs help getting its government to reasonable international standards.
Israel and Palestine deserve to be countries.
How do you go from this conclusion to actually making it happen?
What about the settlements?
What about the right to return?
What about safety on each side?
What about the government failure on the Palestinian side?
I’m going to cover these next, and for that, we will tackle the geopolitics of Palestine.
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The etymology of the word is from Philistines, an ancient people from 3,000 years ago that lived around where Gaza is today. These were not Arab nor Muslim.
The Levant is the broad area where today we find Israel, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and western Jordan and Syria.
Palestine is the broad region where today we find Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Levant includes Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The Muslim growth is similar to what can be seen in other Arab countries. What is exceptional here is the Jewish growth.
Italy and Russia would get other parts of the Ottoman Empire.
There’s evidence that trigger warnings don’t work. Also, the goal of Uncharted Territories is not to cuddle you in comfortable positions, but to face reality the way it is, and build a world around that.
With heavy Jewish lobbying.
Which is not too surprising, since Arabs had not approved the previous British plan, and the new one could be seen as worse from the perspective of total land, even though one of the biggest differences was giving the more fertile Galilean region to the Arabs in exchange for a vast swath of desert.
Key pieces here are large majority and consistency. I don’t think the Western approach of Brexit makes sense: One vote won by a slim majority in one given year means decades of work need to be rolled back? It’s much easier to leave than to join. I also think the Canadian approach of subsidiarity for self-determination is interesting: If a sub-region decides to secede from a seceding region, it should be able to.