Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Comprehensive Guide PART I

Understanding one of the world’s most controversial and deeply-rooted conflicts through Palestinian and Israeli history, from the 1800s to the 1940s.

Emergency Rally for Jerusalem, London Protest, 2021 the palestinian conflict
Emergency Rally for Jerusalem, London Protest, 2021. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is undoubtedly one of the world’s longest and most controversial conflicts to date. With recent outbreaks of violence in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem; now more than ever, is it crucial to understand the roots of this tension.

At the core is the conflict between the Jewish Zionist movement, and the Palestinian nationalist project – both of which claim rights to the same land. This conflict, however, is so much more complicated and multilayered than that with almost every aspect and historical detail being seemingly convoluted in some way.

Here is a comprehensive guide to one of the world’s most complex and polarized conflicts, from the 1800s to the 1940s.

Palestine and Israel on the Map

Located on the east of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. Geographically, Israel belongs to the Asian continent and is a part of the Middle East region. Lebanon and Syria border it to the north, Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the southwest.

Palestinian territories – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – are located in the eastern area of the Mediterranean region. The entirety of territory claimed by the State of Palestine has been occupied since 1948, first by Jordan and Egypt, and then by Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967.

Brief Terminology: Understanding Key Concepts

Ottoman Empire

  • Turkish-led, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious sovereign power/empire that ruled the area of Palestine from 1517 to 1917.

Zionist Movement

  • Belief that Judaism serves as both a nationality and religion.
  • Israel’s national ideology.

British Mandate (1920 – 1948):

  • Time period in which Great Britain ruled over Palestine.
  • Great Britain received a mandate from the League of Nations post World War I to govern Palestine. This lasted until 1948.

Intifada (“Shaking-off in Arabic)

  • Represents the two different Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation.

Nakba (“Catastrophe” in Arabic)

  • How Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948.
  • Palestinians also use this term to represent the oppression that Israel has on Palestinians during this time.

Hamas

  • This is the Islamic Resistance Movement.
  • Considered a terrorist organization in the United States and in Israel.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

  • Refers to the parts of historical Palestine, which were occupied by Israel and remain under Israeli occupation to date.
  • Includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Back to the Beginning: The Ottoman Empire and Development of the Zionist Movement

To truly understand this conflict, one must first begin by focusing on the rise of the Zionist movement in the twilight of the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

Palestine came under the Ottoman rule in the 16th century when Yavuz Sultan Selim defeated the Mamluk ruler Kansu Gavri in the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1915. Consequently, both Syria and Palestine joined the Ottoman land. Under Ottoman rule, Palestinian territory was organized into three states – Jerusalem, Gaza, and Nablus – all linked to the Damascus Province. The Ottoman Empire ruled for 401 years, during which Palestine became a distinct geographical location with a distinct culture, language, and people. Towards the end of the Ottoman rule, the foundation of Palestinian nationalism began to emerge as these characteristics of Palestinians as Palestinian culture and history continued to foster.

Map of Ottoman Empire in Palestine israeli palestinian conflict
Map of Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Wikipedia

In 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by an anarchist organization. This killing had significant national consequences and repercussions, as it set off a wave of unprecedented murders and hate crimes against Jewish people living in Russia.

As anti-Semitism rapidly spread across Russia, so did the establishment of the Zionist movement, which represents the belief that Judaism is a nationality as well as a religion, and that Jewish people deserve and need their own state in their ancestral homeland, Israel.

The establishment of the first Zionist institution in Russia was driven to take Zionism from a theoretical idea to an actual tangible movement. This was fostered in the idea of colonizing Palestine and displacing Palestinians in order to establish Jewish settlements.

In 1882, what is now considered a founding document of the Zionist movement, “Auto Emancipation,” written by Leon Pinsker, was published, which claimed for the establishment of the Jewish colonies in Palestine. This work kicked off the period known as the first Jewish Pilgrimage, which lasted for two decades, and although this movement was not vast in terms of the number of Jewish settlers, it marks the beginning of the Jewish colonization in Palestine.

Political Foundations of the Zionist Movement

The development of Zionism owes much to Theodor Herzl, who was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish activist and journalist. Today, he is considered the founder of modern political Zionism.

As anti-Semitism began to erupt throughout Europe – most notably in France – Herzl began to organize the roots of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. Herzl’s pamphlet The Jewish State, in 1986, proposed that the Jewish question was a political one to be settled by a world council of nations. By 1987, Herzl had organized the first world Zionist Congress that met in Basel, Switzerland, and became the president of the World Zionist Organization.

These two events established a clear political agenda: to obtain Jewish sovereignty in Palestine.

Jewish Chronicle, 1896, Thomas Herzl
Jewish Chronicle, 1896, Thomas Herzl. Wikipedia

As these colonial ambitions and Zionist beliefs grew, so did the attitudes towards the indigenous Palestinian population. In early Zionist writing, Palestinians were rendered invisible. The idea that Palestinians simply do not exist is supported in writing based on European traveler’s accounts or provided by people who do not know much about the history of the land or its people. Palestinians continue to face such consequences today.

British Imperialism on the rise

In 1869, the building of the Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, dividing Africa and Asia, came to an end. The placement of the canal was strategic in that it allowed for more direct European shipping between Africa, the Middle East, and India.

At this time, protecting India was a top priority of the British Empire, as the British relied heavily on the colonization of this land for its natural resources. The opening of the Suez canal proved not only beneficial for British trade and the movement of naval forces but also proved imperative for British imperialism.

By the late 1800s, the British Empire had not only an imperial presence in India, but also in Egypt. In its search for more land and power, the British Empire was faced with a question: “How do we branch out of Egypt to better control and protect India?” The answer was simple for the British – Palestine.

The key target soon became Jerusalem. The ensued attacks from the British on the Ottoman Empire became known as the Gaza Battles and after a number of skirmishes, the Ottoman military force was weak, and when the British forces intensified their bombing, Turkish troops pulled out, resulting in what Palestinians now refer to as the “Fall of Jerusalem.”

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem
Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

The British Mandate

The Balfour Declaration, which was a public statement issued by the British government in 1917, formally declared British support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. This document said nothing of the political or national rights of Palestinian communities, and by the end of the 19th century, Great Britain began to move into the Palestinian land.

In the midst and wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration, and World War I; the League of Nations was formed in January of 1920 which formalized British governance of Palestine.

In 1922, the League of Nations issued the British Mandate which stated that only the Jewish people are described as having a historical connection to Palestine, and nowhere was there any reference to the Palestinians as a people with political or national rights to the land. Key provisions of the Mandate gave the Jewish Agency status as the public body with wide-ranging powers in economic and social spheres, and the ability to take part in the development of the country. Moreover, the Mandate allowed for the creation of a Zionist administration parallel to that of the British government.

The League of Nations, British Mandate, 1922
The League of Nations, British Mandate, 1922. Wikipedia

There was a clear implication that only one people in the region are to be recognized with national rights: the Jewish people. Together, these events ultimately served as a destructive force for Palestinians, Palestinian identity, and Palestinian nationalism.

The Rise of Zionism, the Great Arab Revolt

Succeeding the establishment of the British Mandate, the 1920s and 1930s were a critical time for the Zionist movement, as institutions start to be established and gain traction, including: labor organizations, armed military, and a Jewish Agency which comprised of a legislative, executive, and judicial foundation.

Fueled by the increasing Nazi persecution in Europe, the population of Jewish immigrants to Palestine began to quickly rise. As more and more Jewish settlers came and took land, more and more Palestinians fought back.

The Great Arab Revolt, or the first Intifada of 1936 to 1939 was the first sustained violent uprising of Palestinian Arabs. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs were mobilized, and the British, taken aback by the extent and intensity of the revolt, sent more than 20,000 troops into Palestine. By 1939, the Zionists had armed more than 15,000 Jews in their own nationalistic movement as well.

The intifada began with spontaneous acts of violence. By April of 1936, the murder of two Jews led to an escalation of brutality, initiating a general strike in Jaffa Nablus. Arab political parties formed an Arab Higher Committee – which called for a general strike and national independence – and demanded an end to Jewish immigration and a ban on land sales to Jews. The Great Arab Revolt showed the world the Palestinian Arab desire for national independence and the fear of the Jewish national home.

Freedom For the Palestinian Movement, 2021
Freedom For Palestine Movement, 2021. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

In investigating the Intifada, the Peel Commission recommended that the region be partitioned and for the first time spoke explicitly of a Jewish state. The Peel Commission not only allotted to this Jewish state an area that was extensively larger than the existing Jewish landholdings, but also recommended the forcible transfer of the Palestinian Arab population in the process.

Throughout World War II, Zionists sought with growing urgency to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the Jewish community in this region vastly increased. Hundreds of thousands of Jews resettled from Europe to what was then British-controlled Palestine. For many, this vast migration only reinforced the idea that a Jewish state must be established in Palestine.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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