The Land of Israel pre-1948
During the seventh century Arab armies conquered most of the Middle East, including the land now variously called Israel, Palestine and the Holy Land (some 10,000 square miles). This area, including Jerusalem, became part of the Ottoman Empire and was largely under Muslim control until the early 1900’s. Significantly, Jerusalem became holy to Muslims as the site where tradition says Mohammed ascended to heaven (although some claim he never set foot in Jerusalem). Over this period most of the population gradually accepted Islam and so by the mid 19th century the area was occupied by some 400,000 Muslims, 75,000 Christians and 25,000 Jews [World Vision].
Despite the strong Muslim presence, by the early 20th century the land was a mix of many peoples representing some 50 languages [1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica]. According to historian Richard Hartmann, prior to the creation of Israel in 1948these communities were ‘ethnologically a chaos of all the possible human combinations’, and so did not share a common Arab identity.They included Balkans, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Persians, Kurds, Germans, Afghans, Bosnians, Sudanese, Algerians and others.The land was not a ‘country’ and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries[Prof. Bernard Lewis].
This strong ethnic mix meant there was no distinctive Palestinian people at the start of the 20th century, although there were stirrings for nationalism in response to Zionism. The term ‘Palestine’ seems to have come to prominence after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when shortly after this the British were given a ‘Palestine Mandate’. Is was only really after WWI that we find an emergence of Palestinian nationalism and an identifiable ‘Palestinian People’ [James Gelvin][Rashid Khalidi]. Some see this as a response to the threat posed by Zionism, when waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine between 1919 and 1939.
Timeline for the Partitioning of Palestine
*.1917: Under the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain supported the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine, without violating the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities. Initially the mandate defined ‘Palestine’ as spanning both west and east of the Jordan.
*.1922: The British Mandate was formalized in 1922 and this redefined the boundary of Palestine as west of the river Jordan, including Judea and Samaria – an area now called the West Bank. The area east of the Jordan was called ‘Transjordan’, which subsequently became Jordan. The Arab communities wanted as little to do with the mandate as possible.
*.1920’s: During the late 1920’s Jewish immigration and investment benefited the indigenous people and Arab standard of living in the area increased.
*.1937-38: The Peel and Woodhead commissions of 1937 and 1938 recommended partitioning Palestine into a small Jewish state and a large Arab state, but this was rejected by the Arab leadership (which included Saudi Arabia).
*.1947: Nearly half the land of Palestine was owned by Arabs, nearly half was “Crown Lands”, and about 8% was owned by Jews. In 1947 a UN Special Commission on Palestine recommended that this area be divided equally, with open borders, into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was to be ‘internationalized’. The UN General Assembly adopted this plan as UN Resolution 181. The Jews accepted the UN resolution but the Arabs rejected it.
*.1948: The Jews proclaimed an independent State of Israel and the British withdrew from Palestine.
*.1948-49: Arab nations, notably the Egyptian and Syrian armies, invaded Israel. During this war the Israel Defence Force (IDF) was formed. At the end of the war Israel held territory beyond the boundaries set by the UN plan (approximately 78% of the area west of the Jordan) and Jerusalem was divided between Jordan and Israel, Jordan holding east Jerusalem. Egypt held Gaza and Jordan held the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).
The Arab countries refused to sign a permanent peace treaty with Israel and so the UN Commission proposals never received legal international recognition. Instead, Israel’s borders were re-established along the ‘Green Line’ of the 1949 UN armistice agreements. This is a line excluding Israel from the West Bank and Gaza (see map).
The fact that these borders were not recognised by Arab states (since they refused to recognise Israel) underscores Israel’s legal case for the West Bank.
The Land of Israel pre-1948