A History of Palestine

In a previous post I gave a thumbnail sketch of the countries in the Middle East. With the current war in Gaza, it is opportune to look more closely at the history of Palestine. To do that, we must go back to the Bronze Age when the first civilization appeared in the area.

I tried to read the history online and it is so long that I was lost after half an hour reading. Wikipedia was the best source but will take an hour or two to read. I have tried to summarise Wikipedia, or cut and paste relevant sections. What follows is a chronological history of what is now called Palestine.

1.5 million years ago
The earliest remains are from the Pleistocene era stretching back 1.5 million years. Remains were found in the Jordan Valley which date back to some of the original migration from Africa.

10,000 – 5,000 BCE.
Evidence of agricultural civilisations were found from this period. Jericho is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities dating back to 9,000 BCE.

3,100 BCE
Around this time Egyptian villages started to appear. The locals traded with the Egyptians. Walled settlements started to appear and were supplied by local farms. These people were called Canaanites. The Canaanite city-states held trade and diplomatic relations with Egypt and Syria.

2,500 – 2,100 BCE
The Canaanites were influenced by Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Minoan Crete, and Syria. Agricultural practices and belief in an afterlife followed these other civilisations. Burial practices followed the Egyptians.

1550 – 1400 BCE
The cities of Caanan came under the control of Egypt. Egypt appointed the leaders of this region and they became Vassel States.

1,200 – 1,100 BCE
The area seemed to have gone into decline with the withdrawal of the Egyptians. Small villages appeared in the mountain areas. The first mention of Israelites occurred with another group the Philistines. The Philistines were an invading group from the Aegean region and islands of the East Mediterranean. The Hebrew Bible talks of clashes between the Israelites and Philistines although there are no other accounts of conflict. The Philistines were established around what is today Gaza.

1,100 – 586 BCE
During this period two groups controlled the land, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel was the more prosperous of the kingdoms and developed into a regional power. Israel and Judah continually clashed with the kingdoms of Ammon, Edom and Moab, located in modern-day Jordan, and with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus, located in modern-day Syria.
In the 830s BCE, King Hazael of Aram Damascus conquered the fertile and strategically important northern parts of Israel which devastated the kingdom. He also destroyed the Philistine city of Gath. During the late 9th century BCE, Israel under King Jehu became a vassal to Assyria and was forced to pay tribute.

Assyria conquered Palestine beginning in 734 BCE to about 645 BCE. The Kingdom of Israel was eradicated in 720 BCE. The Assyrian expansion continued southward, gradually conquering Egypt but left Judah alone as it was thought to be powerless.

In 631 the King of Assyria died and a squabble over succession led by Babylon resulted in Babylon taking power from Assyria. A war followed between Egypt and Assyria with Judah in the middle. In the end, the King of Judah was killed. Jerusalem was put under siege and fell to the Babylonians and all the area fell under their control by 586 BCE.

539 – 330 BCE
Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and Palestine became part of the Persian Empire. Five Persian provinces existed including Gaza. In 538 the Persians allowed Judeans to return to Jerusalem. They were known for the first time as Jews. The First Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, was rebuilt under the auspices of the returned Jewish population

The Samaritans, an ethno-religious group who, like the Jews, worship Yahweh and claim ancestry to the Israelites competed with the Jews. Another people in Palestine were the Edomites. Originally, their kingdom occupied the southern area of modern-day Jordan but later they were pushed westward by nomadic tribes coming from the east, among them the Nabataeans, and therefore migrated into southern parts of Judea. Nomadic Arabian tribes roamed the Negev desert where they built a flourishing civilisation.

Greek influence was also strong. From the sixth century Greece has been setting up trading posts along the Gaza coast. As you can see several ethno-religious peoples were fighting for supremacy in the region.

Wars raged between Egypt and Persia from 404 BCE and at one stage, Egypt controlled Palestine and Phoenicia. Egypt was eventually reconquered by Persia in 343. The Syrian language was spoken in the north. In Judea, Hebrew was still spoken but considered a language for the upper class and a religious language.

330 – 70 BCE
Alexander the Great conquered Palestine on the way to Egypt in late 330s. When he died in 323 BCE the Generals fought over the lands. In one way or another, it was under Greek control for over a hundred years. The Greeks built cities and made Greek the main language. They imported Greek culture into the area.

In 201 BCE the Ptolemaic kings who were Macedonian Greek kings provided the most stable years for the area. It thrived and despite the Kings owning all land through a complicated lease arrangement it became a wealthy trading area.

The Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies in 201, but it took them until 198 before they had the former province of Syria and Phoenicia under their control. In 175 BCE, Jerusalem’s high priest Jason convinced the Seleucid king Antiochus IV to refound the city as a polis named Antiochia. In 167, Antiochus IV issued an edict outlawing the practice of Judaism, including Sabbath observance, circumcision, and dietary laws.

The Seleucid’s continued infighting gave Judea free reigns and from 130 it began to conquer its neighbours. Non-Jews in conquered territory were forcibly converted to Judaism, expelled or made to pay tribute. The Edomites became Jewish, and the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerizim was destroyed. By 100, Judea included the entire Palestinian hinterland from the Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south. From 100 to 70, the Hasmoneans conquered many Greek towns along the coast and in the Transjordan. The warfare and associated plunder made both the Hasmonean kings and Jerusalem’s temple institution incredibly rich.
63 BCE 400 CE

Now it was the Roman’s turn. In 63 BCE the Roman General Pompey conquered the region. In 37 BCE Herod I became ruler under the control of Rome. He rebuilt Jerusalem and 30 other cities in the name of Rome. He was hated by the religious traditionalists who resented his control from Rome. When he died, dissatisfaction eventually led to a revolt in 66 CE. The war lasted for four years and was crushed by the Roman emperors.

It was during this period that the split of early Christianity and Judaism occurred. The Jewish Pharisee movement, led by Yochanan ben Zakai, made peace with Rome and survived. Following the Great Revolt, Jews continued to live in Palestine in significant numbers and were allowed to practice their religion. An estimated 2/3 of the population in the Galilee and 1/3 of the coastal region were Jewish.

Jews again revolted against Rome in 132 CE. Once again, they were defeated. Roman war operations in the country had left some 580,000 Jews dead, with many more dying of hunger and disease, while 50 of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. The Emperor Hadrian joined the province of Judea with Galilee and the Paralia to form the new province of Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was re-established as a greatly diminished military colony with perhaps no more than 4,000 residents. Jews were banned. The priests who had considerable economic power, political authority, and prestige lost their jobs.

400 – 600 CE
The Byzantine Empire in 476 the tide turned in Christianity’s favour. The century began with the most intense persecution of Christians the empire had seen but ended with Christianity becoming the Roman state church. Perhaps more than half of the empire’s population had then converted to Christianity. The Byzantine era was a time of great prosperity and cultural flourishing in Palestine.

Revolts broke out between the non-Christians and Jews due to persecution by the Byzantine Christians. Persia was involved in supporting the Jews who tried to break away from Rome. In the end Persia was defeated and the Romans punished the treachery of the Jews.

600 – 1095
In the late 6th century, a new monotheistic religion called Islam was founded by its prophet Muhammad, whose followers became known as Muslims. Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia into a religious polity, a caliphate, whose domains he and his successors extended into a vast empire through holy war (jihad). They conquered Palestine in 636 to 640.

Throughout the period, Palestine was a sort of gold mine for the caliphate and among its most prosperous and fertile provinces.[308] Palestine’s wealth derived from its strategic location as a hub for international trade, the influx of pilgrims, its excellent agricultural produce, and from several local crafts.

The Caliph built two important Islamic religious buildings on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; the al-Jami’a al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra). The Dome is the oldest extant Islamic monument in the world.

In 744, Palestinian tribes rebelled against the caliph. There would be many wars to follow but the Caliph kept control. Sometimes they lost control of a city for a period but then regained it. By the late 900s, there were wars with Turks, Bedouins and other parties forming alliances and some carrying out vicious retribution on the Christians.

1091 – 1291 CE
The Crusades were a series of campaigns supported by the Pope (or Popes at some times) to fight the evil Muslims and free the Holy Land. There had been a schism between the Western Christians and the Byzantine Christians which had gradually been dissolving. They now both took on the role of promoting an invasion of Palestine.

The First Crusade captured the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, from modern-day Turkey in the north to the Sinai in the south. Crusader states were organized in the captured territory, one of which was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded in 1100, encompassing most of Palestine and modern-day Lebanon. More crusades followed as the Latins and the Muslims battled for control over Palestine. The main character was Saladin who was Sultan of Egypt.

During the period of Crusader control, it has been estimated that Palestine had only 1,000 poor Jewish families. Jews fought alongside the Muslims against the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099 and Haifa in 1100. Jews and Muslims allied against Christians.

1291 – 1516 CE
Various Sultans based in Egypt and later Damascus in Syria controlled Palestine over the decades.

The new rising power was the Mongols who started raids into Palestine in 1260. The Mongols made it as far as Gaza but only controlled Jerusalem for four months before being pushed out by the Sultan of the time.

Palestine formed a part of the Damascus Wilayah (district) under the rule of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and was divided into three smaller sanjaks (subdivisions) with capitals in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Safed. Palestine was celebrated by Arab and Muslim writers of the time as the “blessed land of the prophets and Islam’s revered leaders”. Muslim sanctuaries were “rediscovered” and received many pilgrims.

1516 – 1799
It was 1486 when war broke out between the Egyptian Caliphate and the Ottoman or Turkish Empire. In 1516 the Ottomans captured Palestine. The Ottomans continued the infrastructure put in place by the Caliphate.

For much of the 16th century, the Ottomans ruled Damascus Eyalet in a centralised way, with the Istanbul-based Sublime Porte (imperial government) playing a crucial role in maintaining public order and domestic security, collecting taxes, and regulating the economy, religious affairs and social welfare. Most of Palestine’s population, estimated to be around 200,000 in the early years of Ottoman rule, lived in villages. The largest cities were Gaza, Safad and Jerusalem, each with a population of around 5,000–6,000.

The name “Palestine” was no longer used as the official name of an administrative unit under the Ottomans because they typically named provinces after their capitals. Nonetheless, the old name remained in popular and semi-official use, with many examples of its usage in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries surviving.

Through the 1600s three families shared control of the area as governors. Occasionally Istanbul would appoint a governor, but an uneasy alliance kept the three families in power. In 1622 the Druze Prince of Lebanon led a takeover of the area. He was appointed the “Emir of Arabistan” by the Ottomans, which gave him official authority over the region between Aleppo in Syria and Jerusalem.

In 1640 Gaza was considered the capital of Palestine. In 1657 the Turks took firmer control and imposed tighter restrictions on the three families. They appointed their own governors and by 1670 the three families were no longer powerful.
A series of families rose and fell and the Ottoman Empire crushed anyone trying to consolidate their position over generations. This situation continued for over a century.

1799 – 1831
Next to occupy Palestine was Napoleon who moved through Palestine after conquering Egypt as he fought the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans drove Napoleon back supported by the British. Their occupation was short-lived.

1831 – 1880
Egypt took control again and by 1832 controlled Palestine and Syria. The British decided to push them out in return for trading concessions from the Ottomans. They defeated the Egyptians and returned control to the Ottomans.

In common usage from 1840 onward, “Palestine” was used either to describe the consular jurisdictions of the Western powers or for a region that extended in the north–south direction typically from Rafah (southeast of Gaza) to the Litani River (now in Lebanon). The western boundary was the sea, and the eastern boundary was the poorly-defined place where the Syrian desert began. In various European sources, the eastern boundary was placed anywhere from the Jordan River to slightly east of Amman. The Negev Desert was not included.
The Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities of Palestine were allowed to exercise jurisdiction over their own members according to charters granted to them. For centuries the Jews and Christians had enjoyed a large degree of communal autonomy in matters of worship, jurisdiction over personal status, taxes, and in managing their schools and charitable institutions. In the 19th century those rights were formally recognized as part of the Tanzimat reforms and when the communities were placed under the protection of European public law.
Ottoman control would continue up to WW I.

1880 – 1914
The rise of Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people started in Europe in the 19th century seeking to recreate a Jewish state in Palestine and return the original homeland of the Jewish people. The end of the 19th century saw the beginning of Zionist immigration.
The “First Aliyah” was the first modern widespread wave of aliyah. Jews who migrated to Palestine in this wave came mostly from Eastern Europe and from Yemen. This wave of aliyah began in 1881–82 and lasted until 1903, bringing an estimated 25,000 Jews to the Land of Israel. In 1891, a group of Jerusalem notables sent a petition to the central Ottoman government in Istanbul calling for the cessation of Jewish immigration, and land sales to Jews. The “Second Aliyah” took place between 1904 and 1914, during which approximately 35,000 Jews immigrated, mostly from Russia and Poland.

1914 – 1922
During the First World War the Ottomans sided with the German Empire and the Central Powers. As a result, they were driven from much of the region by the British Empire during the dissolution phase of the Ottoman Empire.

Under the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916, it was envisioned that most of Palestine, when freed from Ottoman control, would become an international zone not under direct French or British colonial control. Shortly thereafter, British foreign minister Arthur Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised to establish a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. The motivation was to get the support of Jewish Industrialists in fighting the war.
The Declaration appeared to contradict the 1915–16 Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which contained an undertaking to form a united Arab state in exchange for the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. This was led by Lawrence of Arabia who convinced the Arabs they were fighting for their own land to be granted after the war.

McMahon’s promises could have been seen by Arab nationalists as a pledge of immediate Arab independence, an undertaking violated by the region’s subsequent partition into British and French League of Nations mandates under the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, which became the real cornerstone of the geopolitics structuring the entire region. The Balfour Declaration, likewise, was seen by Jewish nationalists as the cornerstone of a future Jewish homeland.

1922 – 1930s
Following the First World War and the occupation of the region by the British, the principal Allied and associated powers drafted the mandate, which was formally approved by the League of Nations in 1922. Great Britain administered Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations between 1920 and 1948, a period referred to as the “British Mandate”. The preamble of the mandate declared:

Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

There was strong resistance to British rule of a country that had been ruled from the Middle East since the 16th century. In 1919 several groups – both Christian and Muslim – met and drew up a letter to be presented at the Peace Conference declaring Palestine should either exist independently or be part of Syria and the group’s opposition to Zionism.
Riots followed in 1920 between Arabs and Jews. At the conference, Britain was given the mandate for Palestine and France for Syria. Boundaries were to be determined after the conference. It was not until 1923 the French and British drew the lines on the maps. The Southern Golan Heights was traded with the French for the Northern Jordan Valley.

The most important Palestinian leader was the Grand Mufti of Palestine who tried to lead them to independence but had to flee after a revolt in 1937. The British had used a divide-and-conquer strategy to pit families and rivals against one another.

The British supported Jewish migration against the wishes of the Palestinians. In 1922, 89% were Arabs and 11% Jews. By 1947 the Jewish segment was 31%. Between 1922 and 1947, the annual growth rate of the Jewish sector of the economy was 13.2%, mainly due to immigration and foreign capital, while that of the Arab was 6.5%. Per capita.

1930s – 1947
The revolt of 1936–1939, also known as the Great Palestinian Revolt, is one of the formative events of Palestinian nationalism. Driven by resentment of British rule and with the Zionist settlement of Palestine, the revolt began as a general strike but evolved into an armed insurrection.] The British response to the revolt was harsh and it expanded its military force in Palestine, deploying over 100,000 troops. Imprisonment without charges or trial, curfews, whip lashings, house demolitions, and collective punishment against villages and families were some of the practices it employed to quell the revolt. An estimated 10 per cent of the adult Palestinian male population was killed, wounded, deported, or imprisoned.

In 1937, the Peel Commission recommended dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews would receive Tel Aviv, the coastal plain, the northern valleys, and parts of the Galilee, while the Arabs would receive the West Bank of the river Jordan, central Palestine and the southern desert. Britain would retain Jerusalem and a narrow corridor linking it to the sea. Importantly, the commission envisaged a population exchange similar to the exchanges between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s; thousands of Arabs who had their homes within the territory of the Jewish state would be forcibly removed.

The Zionist leadership supported partition in principle, but expressed reservations about the commission’s findings and some opponents thought that the territory allotted to the Jewish state was too small. Ben-Gurion saw it as the first step in a plan to gradually claim the entire country on both sides of Jordan. He was especially pleased with the commission’s recommendation of forced population transfer; a “really Jewish” state is about to become reality; he wrote in his diary.

The Palestinians led by the mufti opposed dividing Palestine, but a minority, led by the Nashashibis, supported it. This led to animosity between Husayni’s and Nashashibi’s supporters as the former accused the latter of treason.

The Haganah (Hebrew for “defense”), a Jewish paramilitary organization, actively supported British efforts to quell the revolt. Although the British administration did not officially recognize the Haganah, the British security forces cooperated with it by forming the Jewish Settlement Police and Special Night Squads. A splinter group of the Haganah, called the Irgun (or Etzel) adopted a policy of violent retaliation against Arabs for attacks on Jews; the Hagana has adopted a policy of restraint. In a meeting in Alexandria in July 1937 between Irgun founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky, commander Col. Robert Bitker and chief-of-staff Moshe Rosenberg, the need for indiscriminate retaliation due to the difficulty of limiting operations to only the “guilty” was explained. The Irgun launched attacks against public gathering places such as markets and cafes.

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly, voting 33 to 13 in favour with 10 abstentions, adopted Resolution 181 (II) (though not legally binding) recommending a partition with the Economic Union of Mandatory Palestine to follow the termination of the British Mandate. The plan was to partition Palestine into an “Independent Arab state alongside a Jewish States, and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem was to encompass Bethlehem. Zionist leaders (including the Jewish Agency), accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it and all independent Muslim and Arab states voted against it. Almost immediately, sectarian violence erupted and spread, killing hundreds of Arabs, Jews and British over the ensuing months.

The UN resolution was the catalyst for a full-scale civil war. For four months, under continuous Arab provocation and attack, the Yishuv was usually on the defensive while occasionally retaliating. Arab volunteers of the Arab Liberation Army entered Palestine to fight alongside the Palestinians, but the April–May offensive of Yishuv forces defeated the Arab forces and Arab Palestinian society collapsed. By the time the armistice was signed, some 700,000 Palestinians caught up in the turmoil fled or were driven from their homes.

On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish People’s Council declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel), to be known as the State of Israel. The neighbouring Arab states intervened to prevent the partition and support the Palestinian Arab population. While Transjordan and Egypt took control of territory designated for the future Arab State, Syrian and Iraqi expeditionary forces attacked Israel without success. The most intensive battles were waged between the Jordanian and Israeli forces over the control of Jerusalem.
On June 11, a truce was accepted by all parties. Israel used the lull to undertake a large-scale reinforcement of its army. In a series of military operations, during the war it conquered the whole of the Galilee region, both the Lydda and Ramle areas, and the Negev. It also managed to secure, in the Battles of Latrun, a road linking Jerusalem to Israel. However, the neighboring Arab countries signed the 1949 Armistice Agreements that ended the war, and have recognized de facto the new borders of Israel. In this phase, 350,000 more Arab Palestinians fled or were expelled from the conquered areas.

On the same day that the State of Israel was announced, the Arab League announced that it would set up a single Arab civil administration throughout Palestine.

The All-Palestine Government was established by the Arab League on 22 September 1948, during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. It was soon recognized by all Arab League members, except Jordan. Though jurisdiction of the Government was declared to cover the whole of the former Mandatory Palestine, its effective jurisdiction was limited to the Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister of the Gaza-seated administration was named Ahmed Hilmi Pasha, and the President was named Hajj Amin al-Husseini, former chairman of the Arab Higher Committee.

The All-Palestine Government is regarded by some as the first attempt to establish an independent Palestinian state. It was under official Egyptian protection, but, on the other hand, it had no executive role, but rather mostly political and symbolic.[582] Its importance gradually declined, especially due to relocation of seat of government from Gaza to Cairo following Israeli incursions in late 1948. Though Gaza Strip returned under Egyptian control later on through the war, the All-Palestine Government remained in-exile in Cairo, managing Gazan affairs from outside.

In 1959, the All-Palestine Government was officially merged into the United Arab Republic, coming under formal Egyptian military administration, with the appointment of Egyptian military administrators in Gaza. Egypt, however, both formally and informally denounced any and all territorial claims to Palestinian territory, in contrast to the government of Transjordan, which declared its annexation of the Palestinian West Bank. The All-Palestine Government’s credentials as a bona fide sovereign state were questioned by many, particularly due to the effective reliance upon not only Egyptian military support, but Egyptian political and economic power.

What happened after that time is another long story involving wars and revolts. The takeaway from all this is that the country where Israel now resides has been the center of turmoil as long as it has existed. At various times it has been ruled by Egyptians, Turks, Greeks, Romans, French, British and for most of the last centuries Arabs. If there is one lesson that could have been learned is that religious and ethnic division has destroyed civilisation after civilisation. I fear the lesson has not been learned and we will repeat the exercise yet again.


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