The Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Roots


It is of great importance to know from the beginning that the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular is less than a century old. It is not, like some historians and scholars assert the result of primordial ethnic, racial or religious antagonisms. Such misconception and the tendency to assume that the present situation has always existed led always unfortunately to distorted judgments. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in deed, the legacy of Arab-Jewish relations had been untarnished. Jews, in fact, have lived in harmony and mutual respect with Arabs enjoying the same rights and privileges under the Ottomans. This harmony was disrupted only with the arrival of Zionists to Palestine who began to claim that Palestine was the rightful possession of Jews to the exclusion of its Muslim and Christian inhabitants. (1)

As each side of today’s conflict advances competing claims based on historical deeds, one must go back into at least the recent history to untangle the relevant roots of theses claims, since we know the law operates in close contact with facts and events like the Roman law maxim says: “Narra mihi facta, narrabo tibi jus.” A factual account of the process through which Palestine was radically transformed from one inhabited by an Arabic-speaking mostly Muslim population to one inhabited by a Hebrew-speaking mostly Jewish population is of primary importance to our discussion.

At the turn of the century, Palestine, which became an Arab country in the seventh century A.D., was defining an area with no clear-cut boundaries. It was then part of the Ottoman Empire who in 1516 conquered the region and incorporated it in the dominions of their Turkish Empire.

The inhabitants of the region were overwhelmingly Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, forming an important part of the structure of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914, the population of Palestine was estimated to be 689 Arabs  (546,133, Muslims and Christians) and 55,413 Jews. The Orthodox Jews (haredim) lived side by side with the Arab Palestinians and were assimilated within the existing community and were concentrated mainly in Jerusalem and its environs.

The Jewish community of Palestine, as well as the Christian community, benefited from the millet system of governance, i.e. the semi-autonomous nation system, that the Ottoman Empire used and which allowed both communities a great deal of communal jurisdiction mainly for their religious and legal affairs under their own elected leaders.

The Jewish community of Palestine consisted mainly of devout Orthodox Jews from the old yishuv (settlement) who came to Jerusalem, the “Promised Land,” to wait for the coming of the Messiah. These Sephardim traced their roots back to the Iberian Peninsula. They in fact left Spain and Portugal because of the Dominican and Franciscan Inquisition that culminated in the Jews’ total expulsion at the close of the fifteenth century from those countries. The Jewish community of Palestine spoke Arabic and Turkish as well as their own language, Ladino, which is a mixture of Latin, Hebrew and Spanish. (2)

In a different part of the world, precisely in Eastern Europe, political Zionism started to emerge. It was a reaction to the European persecution on one hand and to the fear of assimilation and dissolution on the other hand. Zionism was premised on the ideology that Jews of the world constitute a single nationality and that the only solution to their problems in Europe would be a Jewish state that would concentrate in it world Jewry. From this trend in radical thought emerged the Hovevi Zion ( the Lovers of Zion) movement which was inspired by the idea of self-determination through emigration to Palestine.(3) During the later part of the nineteenth century, the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim started to pour into Palestine as a direct consequence of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The Zionist agricultural settlements started in Palestine in 1882 with the arrival of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Other Zionist institutions such as the Jewish Colonization Association, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Lands Development Company established several agricultural settlements, both Moshavim and kibbutzim.

At the beginning the Jewish immigration to Palestine, known as alyiot was seen in terms of immigration rather than in terms of “Zionization.” The first alarming sign came from the Declaration of Basle in 1897, when it stated that the main objective of the Zionist movement was: “To create for the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine secured by public law.” For the following three decades the Zionist movement, from its central headquarters, dedicated itself to the practical aspects of massive immigration of Jews into Palestine, purchasing Palestinian lands, establishing schools, and colonization policy.

The dilemma was monumental though. The Zionist strategy adopted after 1897 was to search, over the heads of the Palestinians, for a powerful sponsor. The premises of this strategy were that:

1- The Basle program was to be implemented in spite of the presence and opposition of the Palestinian population.

2- Palestinian consent was not a necessary prerequisite.

3- Force would be exerted if necessary through the powerful sponsor. (4)

Two supporting structures were established then: The Jewish Colonial Trust in London in 1899, and The Jewish National Fund in 1901.

Zionist leaders devoted great energy to international diplomacy. The most important move was directed at the Turkish sultan Abd’l-Hamid. When Herzl approached him he was told to keep his millions. The Ottoman overlord, albeit, was willing to receive Jewish immigrants in all his Asian provinces save Palestine, provided they became Ottoman subjects and settled in a disbursed manner. (5)

On the other hand, when Herzl turned to Britain, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain made the offer of what is today Kenya, but most of Zionist leaders could not envision a Jewish State anywhere but in Palestine. (6)  Zionist leaders including Herzl himself had only the most meager knowledge of what Palestine was actually like, especially its demographic composition. Word spread among the world Jewry that “Palestine is a land without people for a people without a land.” In their visionary unrealistic state of mind Palestine was seen as a desert and an uncultivated wilderness. (7)

The Jewish arrival which had been seen until this point of time in terms of immigration, started to agitate the Palestinians who started to oppose it. Several Arabic-language newspapers and journals that appeared then started to openly criticize Zionist settlers. It was then indeed that the open Zionist-Arab conflict began.

Not only local Arabs but also religious Jews viewed the Zionist newcomers as intruders and transgressors and opposed them. In fact, the wealthier, more educated Sephardim even refused to recognize those Ashkenazim as real Jews. Anti-Zionism was not unknown between the Jews of Palestine who noticed that the Zionist leaders abroad, being remote from the reality on the ground, did not give adequate attention to the relations with Arab Palestinians. Many of the Palestinian Jews even sought to identify a basis for mutual cooperation with Arabs against Zionist immigrants. This attitude led the Zionist Organization to open in 1908 The Palestine Office to deal with this reality. Still, however, the predominant orientation among Zionist was the one advocating separation from Arabs and even the removal of the Arab population from Palestine. Palestine, according to the Zionist Israel Zangwell, was too small to contain two peoples. (8)


(1) For details on this issue see S. HADAWI, Bitter Harvest: Palestine 1914-1979, rev. ed., New York, 1979;
A. SACHER, A History of the Jews, 5th ed., New York, 1965; A.L. TIBAWI, A Modern History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine, New York, 1969; C. A. ROTH, A History of the Jews: From Earliest times Through the Six Day War, 2nd ed., New York, 1970; J. PARKES, Whose Land: A History of the peoples of Palestine, Baltimore, 1970; M. MA’OZ, ed., Studies on Palestine During the Ottoman Period, Jerusalem, 1975; A.A. KAYYALI, Palestine: A Modern history, London, 1978; M. TESSLER, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Indianapolis, 1994.
(2) For more information see B. ERSKINE, Palestine of the Arabs, London, 1935; H. GRANQVIST, The People of Palestine, Philadelphia, 1921; A. GRANOVSKY, The Fiscal System of Palesitne, Jerusalem, 1935; J. HALPER, Between Redemption and Revival: The Jewish Yishuv of Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century, Boulder, 1991; A. BLUMBERG, Zion before Zionism, 1838-1889, Syracuse, 1985; R. FRIEDLAND é R. HECHT, To Rule Jerusalem, Cambridge, 1996.
(3) For more details see A. Taylor,
(4) For more details see W. KHALIDI, “The Palestinian Problem: An Overview,” in J. Pal. Stud. 21 (Autumn 1991), p. 7; N. GOLDMAN, The Genius of Herzl and Zionism Today, Jerusalem, 1955; H. SACHAR, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to our Time, New York, 1979; L. LEWISON ED., Herzl: A Portrait of His Age, New York, 1955.
(5) Cfr. A. CHOURAQUI, Theodore Herzl, Inventeur de L’Etat d’Israel, Paris, 1960, p. 148. See also N. BARBOUR, Palestine: Star or Crescent?, New York, 1947.
(6) Cfr. A. LILIENTHAL, The Zionist Connection: What Price Peace?, New York, 1978, p. 11.
(7) See D. PERETZ, Middle East Today, New York, 1965, p. 251.
(8) See C. SIMONS, International Proposals to Transfer Arabs from Palestine, 1895-1947: A Historical Survey, Hoboken, 1988, pp. 34-48

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