History of Palestine

An understanding of the genealogical account of the variegated ethnic nationalities and religious diversities in ancient Palestine will provide an apocalyptic insight into the modernistic prejudices inherent in the Arab – Israeli Conflict.  Although, Observers see the dispute as a Centuries-old Conflict, its modern version is largely a product of twentieth Century political intrigues by personages involved in the internal and external dynamics in the region.  The roots of the crisis could be traced to primordial sentiments that existed between the inhabitants in ancient Palestine.  The Arab – Israeli Crisis pre-dates the discovery of Petroleum in the Middle East.  An ancient inquiry into Pre-Biblical and Biblical Periods in Palestine revealed that the City had an unfortunate history of a litany of predatory conquests albeit the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam whose edifying messages by their various personages played immense roles in the affairs of mankind1.  The entire Spectrum of the Old Testament contains ecclesiastical issues centered on Palestine.

As mentioned above, ancient Palestine was reputed to be the Cradle of Judaism – the doctrines and rites of the Jews.  Its allusion as a Holy Land is also accentuated by the very fact of having been the birth place, ministry and death of our Messiah, Lord Jesus Christ: Born in Nazareth of Judea which is a town at the coastal fringes of the Jordan River.  As home to three outstanding religions, Palestine paraded an apocalyptic array of Prophets of God such as Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Mohammed, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ; relished monotheism and iconoclasm.  The boundaries of ancient Palestine have been considered to extend as far as the Litani River in present-day Lebanon, to Gaza and Beersheba in modern Israel on the South, from the Mediterranean on the Western axis, to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea on the East.  Wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian Desert, Palestine is reputed to be an agricultural oasis.

Early Settlement

Archaeological evidence suggests human settlers in Palestine from the Neolithic Period of the Stone Age, and the relics of rural life traced to about 5000 B.C., were also noticed in Jericho. Egyptian archaeological investigation reveals the recorded history of Palestine to have begun in the Early Bronze Age.  It has witnessed a preponderance of invasions from migrating Semitic tribes and later became an Egyptian Vassal City-State at about the 17th and 16th Centuries B.C.  Egyptian occupation of Palestine was upturned by nomadic Hebrews from Mesopotamia, the Amorites (now called Maronites) from Lebanon and the Hittites from Anatolia.  The Pharaohs who ruled Egypt at about (1304 – 1181) re-conquered Palestine until the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage under Moses’ leadership.

During the Biblical Period, Palestine was home to the Philistines and the Israelites.  Both were arch-rivals. David’s victory over the ‘uncircumcised’ Philistine Champion – Goliath in (1 Samuel 17:31-58 coupled with the defeat and death of King Saul at Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:1-6) are eloquent testimonies of the rivalries that existed between the Israelites and the Philistines.  The Philistines constantly tormented the Israelites until King David subdued them and made Jerusalem his capital.  After David’s reign, came that of his son – Solomon whom God imbued with tremendous wisdom in human history.  His death was prognostic of the fall of a United Jewish Nation leading to the creation of two distinct Jewish kingdoms – the kingdom of Israel in the North with its capital in Samaria, and the kingdom of Judah in the South with its capital in Jerusalem.  The stability of the independence of Israel remained until 721 B.C. when it was conquered by the Assyrians.  Other subsequent conquests were made by the Babylonians under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar who consequently annexed Palestine and dispersed the Jews to Mesopotamia.

Successive conquests of Palestine were carried out by the Persians in 539 B.C.  They maintained control for two centuries until the invasion by the Macedonians under the legendary Alexander the Great.  His reign was succeeded by the Hellenistic Dynasties of the Ptolemis of Egypt until the Roman invasion and the subsequent establishment of a Roman Protectorate in Palestine.  This was during the reign of Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC) and a period that saw the birth of Jesus Christ.

With the establishment of Roman administration, Palestine was under the rule of Roman Procurators such as Pontius Pilate who presided over events leading to the eventual Crucifixion of Jesus Christ; regarded as the greatest tragedy in human history.  This period was characterized by religious bigotry resulting in conflicts between adherents of Judaism which emphasized the worship of Jehovah on the one hand and iconolatry (image worshipping) among the pagan cults.  Although, there were sporadic revolts against the Romans by the Jews, this never translated into anything until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of the Eastern Roman Empire which became the Byzantine Empire.  Palestine at this period constituted part of the Byzantine Empire,  until the Muslims conquered it and Palestine fell to the Arabs.  Historical accounts had it that Palestine was uninterruptedly ruled by numerous Muslim Dynasties.  The Muslims at this period exercised religious tolerance for the Jewish and Christian Communities albeit they were regarded as second class subjects as against the Muslim elites.  The Christians were only allowed to keep their places of worship.  This system was regarded as the Millet System.  Examples of such rulers were the Abbasid Caliph (847 – 861) and the Fatimid Caliph (996 – 1021).

There were also European crusaders who sought the protection of the Holy Places in Palestine by conquering the Seljuk Turks (Members of the Turkish Dynasties 111 – 13C). The Jewish and Christian communities suffered one form of brutality or the other from the European military invaders until they were sacked by the Mameluks of Egypt who were more harsh on the Jews and the Christians until the gradual encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into the Byzantine enclave in the 14th Century.  Ottoman rule in Palestine was more tolerant and it witnessed the influx of Jews that had fled from previous invasions and a regeneration of the cultural life of the Jewish people.  These were the years heralding the Zionist Movements of the nineteenth Century, championed by Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904) and later Dr. Chaim Weizmann before the outset of World War I in 1914.

Post World War 1 Palestine:  The outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 renewed the aspirations of the Jews and Arabs.  During this period, Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire administered by the Turks.  The Jews and Arabs identified with the Allied Powers, while the Ottoman rulers supported the Central Powers.

Their collaboration (that is the Jews and Arabs) with the Allied forces was expectedly to facilitate more aggressively the settlement of Jewish immigrants escaping the pogrom from parts of Eastern Europe, while on the part of the Arabs, it was in expectation of taking possession of their land.  During this period, conflicting commitments from the Allied Powers in relation to the creation of a separate homeland for the Jews on the one hand, and Arab independence in territories other than those predominantly dominated by Arab population led to the development of a separate and distinctive Palestinian identity for the Jews and Arabs.

The entire Middle East was divided into spheres of influence among the major European powers – France and Britain, while Palestine was assigned to Britain under the Mandate System of the League of Nations. The Sykes-Picot Agreement in May 1916 was between Britain and France.  It was a secret agreement which was to lead to the establishment of French rule in the coastal region of Syria, while Britain was to take charge of Baghdad and Basra. This agreement was not given effect to owing to the role played by Russia.

The Balfour Declaration:  The Declaration of 1917 by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, was significantly aimed at encouraging Jewish immigration and the acquisition of land in Palestine.  The policy framework was one of Britain’s modest contributions in reversing the declining fortunes of World Jewry.  It stated that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national Home for the Jewish People, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish Communities in Palestine”.  This declaration accounted for a resurgence of Jewish immigration and provided the added stimulus to Zionism – a Movement which secured national privileges and territory in Palestine for the Jews and which now helps to maintain and develop the State of Israel. Zionism fulfilled the messianic hope of redemption that has unceasingly agitated the Jews.  It started in 1897.  It was a political irredentist movement – devoted to the return of the Jews escaping the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and others scattered all over the Diaspora to Palestine and establish a Jewish State there.  Arab nationalists saw this as an entrenched form of British imperialism. This paved the way for Arab nationalism.

The British Mandate on Palestine

British Mandate over Palestine was an outcrop of the events of World War I. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that had supported the Central Powers during the War, the League of Nations – an organization entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security after the cessation of hostilities, decided the fortunes of Palestine by bringing it under British Mandate in 1922, and had it duly ratified with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.  This Mandate also included Transjordan (now the State of Jordan).  This period witnessed massive transformation of both rural and urban life in order to meet with the exigencies of the time.  Arab resentment of the lopsided treatment of the Jews gave way to increased unrest in which a hundred and thirty Jews were killed in the Wailing Wall incident in 1929.

This situation was further exacerbated with the unending influx of Jews occasioned by the anti-Semitic nationalism of the German Nazi Dictator-Adolf Hitler, and the concomitant Hitlerite persecution of the Jews at the outset of World War II.  The decimation of the Jews had united World Jewry behind Zionism.7  The Peel Commission of Inquiry, after an exhaustive investigation of the circumstances surrounding Arab revolt, recommended the Partitioning of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States in 1937.  This was unacceptable to the Arab Palestinians.  The inability of the British government to work out an acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem referred the issue to the United Nations (Successor to the League of Nations). On November 29, 1947, the United Nations through its resolution, Partitioned beleaguered Palestine with the anticipated emergence of independent Jewish and Arab States not later than October 1, 1948, as the British Mandate for Palestine was to lapse in August 1, 1948.

Spontaneous reactions from the Arab Community greeted the United Nations position and the attendant bloodbath forced the British to terminate the mandate earlier than scheduled on May 15, 1948.  Arab intransigence emanated out of a growing conviction that the forces imperialism were geared towards the expropriation of their God-given land. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed under David Ben-Gurion’s leadership. Diplomatic efforts at the cessation of hostilities were ineffective until an armistice was reached by the United States envoy, Ralph Bunche in February 1949.