Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Brief History From the Muslim Perspective

Following is an excerpt taken from Tamim Ansary’s book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes pg. 320-324. Please note that the title here is my own and Ansary put this piece under the chapter ‘The Crisis of Modernity’.


The most problematic single territory for the competing claims of nationalism versus nation-statism was Palestine, soon to be known as Israel. Before and during World War II, the Nazis’ genocidal attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe confirmed the worst fears of Zionists and gave their argument for a sovereign Jewish homeland overwhelming moral weight, especially since the Nazis were not the only anti-Semites in Europe, only the most extreme. The fascists of Italy visited horrors upon Italian Jews, the French puppet government set up by the Germans hunted down French Jews for their Nazi masters, the Poles and other Eastern Europeans collaborated enthusiastically in operating death camps, Great Britain had its share of anti-Semites, Spain, Belgium – no part of Europe could honestly claim innocence of the crime committed against the Jews in this period. Millions of Jews were trapped in Europe and perished there. All who could get away escaped in whatever direction lay open. Boatloads of Jewish refugees ended up drifting over the world’s seas, looking for places to land. A few were able to make their way to the United States and resettle there, but even the united States imposed strict quotas on Jewish immigration, presumably because a single country could absorb only so many immigrants of any one group; but just perhaps some anti-Semitism was mixed into that policy as well.

The one place where the refugees could land was Palestine. There, earlier immigrants had bought land, planted settlements, and developed some infrastructure of support. Toward that slender hope of safety, therefore, the refugees headed, overcoming heroic hardships to begin building a new nation in an ancient land inhabited by their ancestors. Such was the shape of the story from the Jewish side.

From the Arab side, the story looked different. The Arabs had long been living under two layers of domination by outsiders, the first layer being the Turks, the next the Turks’ European bosses. Then, in the wake of World War I, amidst all the rhetoric about “self-rule” and all the hope aroused by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, their land was flooded by new settlers from Europe, who slogan was said to be “a land without a people for a people without a land” – an alarming slogan for people living in the “land without a people.”

The new European immigrants didn’t seize land by force; they bought the land they settled; but they bought it mostly from absentee landlords, so they ended up living among landless peasants who felt doubly dispossessed by the aliens crowding in among them. What happened just before and during World War II in Palestine resembled what happened earlier in Algeria when French immigrants bought up much of the land and planted a parallel economy there, rendering the original inhabitants irrelevant. By 1945, the Jewish population of Palestine almost equaled the Arab population. If one were to translate that influx of newcomers to the American context, it would be as if 150 million refugees flooded in within a decade. How could that not lead to turmoil?

In the context of the European narrative, the Jews were victims. In the context of the Arab narrative, they were colonizers with much the same attitudes toward the indigenous population as their fellow Europeans. As early as 1862, a German Zionist, Moses Hess, had drummed up support for political Zionism by proposing that “the state the Jews would establish in the heart of the Middle East would serve Western imperial interests and at the same time help bring Western civilization to the backward East.” The seminal Zionist Theodor Herzl wrote that a Jewish state in Palestine would “form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” In 1914, Chaim Weitzman wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian stating that if a Jewish settlement could be established in Palestine “we could have in twenty or thirty years a million Jews out there…They would develop the country, bring back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.” Arabs who saw the Zionist project as European colonialism in thin disguise were not inventing a fantasy out of whole cloth: Zionists saw the project that way too, or at least represented it as as such to the imperialist powers whose support they needed.

In 1936, strikes and riots broke out among the Arabs of Palestine, serving notice that the situation was spiraling out of control. In a clumsy effort to placate the Arabs, Great Britain issued an order limiting further Jewish immigration to Palestine, but this order came in 1939, with World War II about to break out and the horrors of Nazism fully manifest to European Jews: there was no chance that Jewish refugees would comply with the British order; it would have been suicidal. Instead, militant organizations sprang up among the would-be Jewish settlers, and since they were a dispossessed few fighting the world-straddling British Empire, some of these militant Jewish groups resorted to the archetypal strategy of the scattered weak against the well-organized mighty: hit and run raids, sabotage, random assassinations, bombings of places frequented by civilians – in short, terrorism.

In 1946, the underground Jewish militant group Haganah bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing ninety-one ordinary civilians, the most destructive single act of terrorism until 1988, when Libyan terrorists brought down a civilian airliner, Pan Am Flight 103, over Scotland, killing 270.

The horrors of Nazism proved the Jewish need for a secure place of refuge, but Jews did not come to Palestine pleading for refuge so much as claiming entitlement. They insisted they were not begging for a favor but coming home to land that was theirs by right. They based their claim on the fact that their ancestors had lived there until the year 135 CE and that even in diaspora they had never abandoned hope of returning. “Next year in Jerusalem” was part of the Passover service, a key cultural and religious rite in Judaism. According to Jewish doctrine, God had given the disputed land to the Hebrews and their descendants as part of His covenant with Abraham, Arabs, of course, were not persuaded by a religious doctrine that assigned the land they inhabited to another people, especially since the religion was not theirs.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led efforts to create new political mechanisms for keeping the peace, one of which was the United Nations. Palestine was just the sort of issue the United Nations was designed to resolve. In 1947, therefore, the United Nations crafted a proposal to end the quarrel by dividing the disputed territory and creating two new nations. Each competing part would get three patches of curiously interlocking land, and Jerusalem would be a separate international city belonging to neither side. The total territories of the proposed new nations, Israel and Palestine, would be roughly equal. Essentially, the United Nations was saying ,”It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong; let’s just divide the land and move on.” This is the sort of solution that adults typically impose on quarreling children.

But Arabs could not agree that both sides had a point and that the truth lay somewhere in the middle: they felt that a European solution was being imposed on them for a European problem, or more precisely that Arabs were being asked to sacrifice their land as compensation for a crime visited by Europeans on Europeans. The Arabs of surrounding lands sympathized with their fellows in Palestine and saw their point; the world at large did not. When the matter was put to a vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations, the vast majority of non-Muslim countries voted yes to partition.

Most Arabs had no personal stake in the actual issue: the birth of Israel would not strip an Iraqi farmer of his land or keep some Moroccan shopkeeper from prospering in his business – yet most Arabs and indeed most Muslims could wax passionate about who got Palestine. Why? Because the emergence of Israel had emblematic meaning for them. It meant that Arabs (and Muslims generally) had no power, that imperialists could take any part of their territory, and that no one outside the Muslim world would side with them against a patent injustice. The existence of Israel signified European dominance over Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, and over the people of Asia and Africa generally. That’s how it looked from almost any point between the Indus and Istanbul.

On May 15, 1948, Israel declared itself born. Immediately, Arab armies attacked from three sides, determined to crush the new country before it could take its first breath. But instead, Israel did the crushing, routing the armies of its three Arab adversaries, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, and so it was Palestine, not Israel, that became the stillborn child. When the war ended, a war that Israel remembers as their War of Independence but that Arabs called the Catastrophe, some seven hundred thousand Arabs found themselves homeless and stateless, living as refugees in the neighboring Arab countries. The lands that were supposed to become Palestine were annexed (mostly by Jordan). The bulk of the Arab refugees collected on the West Bank of the Jordan River, where they seethed and stewed and sometimes staged small raids into the land that had once been theirs.

In the aftermath of the war of 1948, the Arabs lost the public relations battle even more drastically than they had lost their land. For one thing, some prominent Arabs publicly and constantly disputed Israel’s “right to exist.” They were speaking within the framework of the nationalist argument: Zionists wanted Israel to exist, the Arabs of Palestine wanted Palestine to exist, and since they claimed the same territory, both could not exist: the assertion of each nation’s “right to exist” was inherently a denial of the other nation’s “right to exist.” But in the shadow of the Nazis’ attempted genocide, asserting that Israel had no right to exist sounded like saying, “Jews have no right to exist.”

To make matters worse, at least one Arab notable made no bones about actually endorsing Nazi anti-Semitism. This was the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had lived in Nazi Germany during the war and now spouted racism from many pulpits including his radio broadcasts. The weight of world opinion, the tone of media reporting, and the rantings of Arabs such as this mufti subtly conflated the Arab cause with Nazism in the public mind, especially in the West. Arabs not only lost the argument about the land but in the process became the Bad Guys who deserved to lose their land. This combination of feeling wronged and feeling vilified fed a spiraling resentment that rotted into the very anti-Semitism of which Muslims stood accused.

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