Palestinians and Zionism: Searching for a Homeland

On December 27, 1977, The Boston Globe published an article by Professor Edward W. Said in which he claims that "For at least a thousand years Palestine has been inhabited by an Arab population." History teaches us, however, that from 1072 until 1948 the country was ruled by the Seljuks (1072-1098), Crusaders (1099-1291), Mamluks (1291-1516), Ottomans (1516-1918) and the British (1918-1948), who were given the mandate by the League of Nations to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish homeland in "Palestine" on both banks of the Jordan River.

During these thousand years, there was never an independent Arab state ruled by indigenous Arabs. Professor Said claims that Palestine was inhabited by Arabs, but he does not say how many there were. The number is crucial, because thousands of Jews remained and were always present in the land of Israel, even after they were exiled by the Romans 1907 years ago.

Unfortunately, population censuses are a relatively recent means of societal record keeping. The first reliable records are from the Ottoman period when, according to the scholar Kemal Karput, the whole of Palestine in 1800 had a population of 100,000 Arabs and 100,000 others, including Jews, Turks and Caucasians.

By 1900, the population of Palestine reached 400,000 Arabs and 60,000 Jews, scattered over 50,000 square miles of abandoned wasteland. This is how the first Zionists found their homeland, when they began to pave the way for their nation to return home in 1880.

Mark Twain described this wasteland following his visit to the Holy Land in 1867: 'Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies...Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost its ancient grandeur and has become a pauper village...the wonderful temple which was the pride and glory of Israel is gone..."

This explains why Zionists molded themselves according to the slogan "The nation without a land--back to its homeland without a population." Therefore they were welcomed by the prominent Arab leader Emir Faisal, King of Iraq, who signed a cooperation treaty in 1919 with Chaim Weizman, who later became the first president of Israel.

It takes a great deal of cynicism to write, as does Professor Said, that "after 60 years of immigration from Europe to Palestine the total Jewish population in 1947 was less than 600,000." Why cynicism? Because Professor Said knows very well that from the early '30s on millions of Jews in Europe were pounding desperately on the gates, and if not for the British imperialists, who kept those gates barred, their lives would have been saved from the Nazi gas chambers.

Professor Said also knows very well that the free influx of Arabs to Palestine in those years was not motivated by any wish to return to a homeland, as in the case of the Jews, but for one reason only: to get jobs and raise their standard of living, thanks to the Jewish return to Palestine. Professor Said also says that "When Israel came into being in 1948, Jews owned only 6 per cent of the land, Arabs the rest."

This is not true. According to the British Survey of Palestine in 1946, "...more than 70 per cent was state land," claimed by whatever conqueror held sway at the time. Who else has the right to this deserted land if not the Jews who returned to rebuild it, after 6000 of them sacrificed their lives in a war thrust upon them by the Arabs in 1948?

During that war, claims Professor Said, "780,000 Arabs fled from the country." According to other sources, only 540,000 Arabs did so. The reason that they left, wrote a Jordanian newspaper in 1954: "The Arab governments told us: Get out so that we can get in! So we got out but they did not get in."

A Cairo newspaper in 1963 wrote that "The Mufti appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country...because the Arab armies were about to enter in their stead against the Jewish gangs and oust them from Palestine."

Haled Al-Azem, Syrian prime minister in 1948-49, later described the situation this way: "Since 1948, we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes; but we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated between our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return."

Many of the refugees had come to Palestine only ten or 20 years before, in the '30s and '40s. Wrote an observer in 1937, "One always finds in Palestine Arabs who have been in the country only a few weeks or a few months...Since they are themselves strangers in a strange land, they are loudest to cry 'Out with the Jews!' Among them are to be found representatives of every Arab country: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, the Sudan and Iraq..."

The United Nations study of 1962 states: "A considerable movement of people is known to have occured, particularly during the Second World War years when new opportunities of employment opened up in towns and the military works in Palestine...(those immigrants came from) neighboring countries..." These are the people that Professor Said claims are a "population distinct in culture and dialect from other Arabs."

The Palestine Liberation Organization's official agitators around the world say that all the murders they commit by themselves and by hired murderers are done to establish a Palestinian state in the areas now administered by Israel. This is clearly false--for 19 years (1948-1967) they sent murderers to kill innocent and unarmed people.

For 19 years they had the opportunity to exercise the principle of "self-determination" in those areas that Jordan had invaded and held. In Jordan itself, such Palestinians are the majority of the citizens, and serve as high officials and members of the Jordanian government. Yet they did not create a "Democratic Secular State." Why? The reason lies in the intentions of the PLO leaders.

"There are two initial phases to our return," said Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO political department, last year. "The first phase to the 1967 lines, and the second to the 1948 lines...the third stage is democratic state of Palestine [that is, the destruction of Israel]. So we are fighting for these three stages."

The PLO information office in Oslo followed the same theme last year, declaring, "There is no new policy by the PLO to recognize Israel...The declared program of the PLO is to bring about the destruction of the Zionist entity of Israel."

It is only fair now to quote what Professor Said himself says about this: "The present Palestinian position therefore is [notice the careful formulation--he says the present position, i.e. subject to change] Israeli withdrawal from the West bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza; the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on those territories..." But in a recent television interview, Professor Said stated that the PLO demands self-determination for the Palestinians not only in these areas mentioned above, but also in Israel as Israeli citizens.

The intention of the PLO leaders is clear. It is not the grave problem of the miserable refugees that they want to solve. It is the destruction of the state of Israel that they seek with inflamed desire. It is not themselves that they want to "determine;" it is Israel that they want to exterminate, just as their brothers did to the Curds in Iraq two years ago and as they have tried to do to the Christians in Lebanon.

In one aspect I must commend Professor Said's approach because it reflects an attitude that social and national activities should be seen and explained in a wide historical context. For every individual's life is composed of elements, physical and spiritual, that he inherits from his ancestors. Moreover, for an individual to transcend his finiteness, he must relate himself to his heritage and bequeath it to his children.

Professor Said is correct when he writes that "to its victims, history often seems to be an accumulation of sufferings and injustices; but it also has a certain compensating logic, a part of which is that people do not disappear under oppression, they sometimes grow..." It takes a man of letters such as Professor Said to write such a moving passage. It moved me because this is the exact story of Zionism and the Jewish Nation.

For the last 1907 years, since most of us were forced from the land of Israel, there has been no country in Europe or the Middle East which did not oppress us. During those years, Jews all around the world prayed three times daily for the return to their beloved Holy Land.

During those years, Jewish life was punctuated by the creeds based on, or taken from, the Bible, the creation of our ancestors when they were living on their own land, in Eretz-Israel. Eventually all those prayers and yearnings took the form of Zionism, a national liberation movement, and Jews began to come home and rebuild the country.

"Displacement," "hatred," and "killing" have always been repugnant to the Zionists. Our main objectives have always been to cultivate the deserted land, to revive our original language and culture, and to form a peaceful creative society. This is what makes Zionism such a fascinating movement and one of the most exciting national phenomena of our century.

No one is more aware of this than the Arabs in Israel and the surrounding countries. Yet only when these Arabs adopt such a spirit, can peace come to our region. Then the Palestinian refugees will say aloud what they feel in their hearts.

They do not want to be used any more as a propaganda weapon for Arab Pan-Arabism; they want to be absorbed by their brothers in the vast and rich Arab countries that desperately need manpower for their economies. Just as the 750,000 Jews who escaped from the Arab countries were absorbed by their brothers in Israel.

Then they would agree that possessing 75 per cent of "Palestine" (which is both banks of the Jordan) is a settlement more than fair to them. That is bound to happen, just as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem was bound to happen. And that day may be closer than we think it is.

Nissan Degani, an official in the Israeli Ministry of Education, is currently a Visiting Fellow at Harvard studying the philosophy of education.