The incessant Israel-Palestine conflict has its roots in the decline of the Ottoman Empire. B. Crose had rightly stated that all history is contemporary history and this applies to this context as well. Several revisions of historical accounts have been made, but the irreducible Arab-Jewish core of the conflict remains intact, which can be best elaborated by focussing on the period between 1882–1917.
In 1882, the Zionist chapter proper began in Palestine. The first settlers called themselves Hovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) and aimed at forging a Jewish national life in Palestine. Notably, they chose to speak Hebrew, instead of Yiddish. During the First Aliyah (a wave of Jewish immigration), several settlements like Zichron Yaakov and Rishon LeZion were set up. The Arab fellahin (peasant) labor was essential. The common trend of colonization of treating the natives across the world was also followed religiously- the natives became submissive servants, who were punished severely for every transgression. There were also local conflicts between the two communities over grazing or harvesting rights and land purchases. These local problems periodically had wider resonance, with some Arabs even sending petitions to the Sultan. This gained some traction and by June 1891, Arabs were strongly urging for a stop on Jewish immigration and land purchases. Ahad haAm’s popular essay titled, ‘The Truth from Eretz Yisrael’ in 1891 contained a prescient warning of the resistance by Arabs if the then-present manner of Jewish land purchase and settlement continued.
The Zionist movement gained a boost with the Zionist Congress being convened in Europe in 1897 and then in 1898. Though Arabs implored for Palestine to be left alone, the Zionists maintained the argument, commonly employed by colonialists, that Jewish immigration will certainly result in economic and social upliftment of the Arabs.
Soon, Arab hostility escalated sharply and in 1904, the authorities forbade the sale of land to foreign Jews, though purchases continued freely. The Arab hostility was huge enough to not be ignored now. In 1907, Epstein of the Hovevei Tzion “warned that the relations with the Arabs were the ‘unseen question’ that the Zionist movement had failed to address”. This view finds support in the ground reality. In the port city of Jaffa, for instance, the deep resentment against the foreign Jews eventually resulted in the brutal fighting in March 1908, and demands for the post to be shut to Jewish immigrants were made even by the Ottoman officials.
Soon, it became increasingly clear to the Arabs that the main aim of the Zionists was to control land. This is exemplified in the efforts of Shukri al-Asali, the Ottoman governor of Nazareth, to prevent the sale of the fertile al-Fuleh lands. He even sent a petition to the sultan in Istanbul and it led to heated discussions in the Ottoman parliament in 1911. Finally, the sale went ahead and Asali refused to comply, but the fellahin were expelled anyway. The Zionists stuck to their line of argument that growth in Jewish settlement will create corresponding remunerative opportunities for the Arab laborers.
Zionist leaders and proponents like Weizmann had now begun to take cognizance of the ‘hidden question’, as evident in personal memoirs and letters. The trajectory of the Jewish national movement was all set. Founded on Zionism, the movement was aimed at, as Khalil al-Sakakini describes it, subjugating another national movement to make itself strong and to “kill an entire nation so that it might live”. Interestingly, the Palestinian newspaper Filastin soon made a clear distinction between Jews and Zionists by emphasizing how the Zionists hijacked the communal harmony between the two communities and “declared their intention of taking over the country from its inhabitants”.
Britain’s conquest of Jerusalem- a place with great significance for all three Abrahamic religions- in 1917–18 heralded a new phase in Palestine’s history. Weeks before this epoch-making surrender of Jerusalem, London had issued a document that has been since known as the Balfour Declaration. Through this, the British government expressed its support to the formation of state for Jews in Palestine and its implications have been lucidly described by Koestler, mentioned at the outset of this article. This historic document was driven by the desire to outsmart the French in post-war arrangements in the Levant as well as the need to use Palestine’s strategic location to protect Egypt, the Suez Canal, and thereby, the route to India. But this land was the twice promised land, G. Antonius notes, as the British had earlier committed herself to recognize Arab independence in Palestine. The Arabs, subsequently, viewed this as a fraud as they hadn’t consented.
As Ian Black notes, “the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s conquest of Palestine offered the Zionists dazzling new opportunities in their promised land”.