Did Israel Steal Palestinian Land? – Part 2


By Sarah L, Hope for Israel Staff Writer

In 1516 the Ottoman Empire conquered the Land of Israel. It was to remain in power until the end of WWI. The Ottoman period is critical to the modern narrative of Palestinian indigeneity to the Land of Israel because it immediately precedes the beginning of Jewish immigration. In other words, was there a flourishing Palestinian entity – or identity – in Ottoman Palestine? The answer appears to be no.

The condition of the Land of Israel under Ottoman rule is described by famous American cynic Mark Twain on a trip through Europe and the Middle East in 1880 (just before the first Aliyah*). Twain was known for his no-holds-barred analyses, and he was not flattering towards Palestine. He describes dirty, miserable, illiterate people, hopeless and continuously asking for money from the American pilgrims.

At the conclusion of his trip through the Holy Land he wrote, “The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are un-picturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent… It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land.”** Twain’s firsthand testimony is important because he had no previous bias towards either Jews or Arabs – indeed, he is derogatory of both groups.

Contemporary Ottoman population statistics for the province of Palestine confirm Twain’s account. Two sources, the pro-Israel Jewish Virtual Library1, and the relatively pro-Palestinian Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East2 agree (more or less) that in 1882, there were 381,954 residents of Ottoman Palestine. 85% were Arab Muslims and 4% were Jewish. For perspective, the author could not find one city with a comparative population whose name she recognized!

Therefore, although the common Israeli claim that the land was “unpopulated” is not entirely true, it is also untrue that there was any sort of organized Palestinian entity or even identity before 1948. The Land was barren and undeveloped and the Jewish settlers who began to immigrate in 1882 were able to do so without displacing those already in the Land.

Contrary to some modern narratives, Jewish settlers did not ignore the existence of Arab residents or squat on Arab land. During the period between 1850 and 1914, wealthy individuals such as Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmund de Rothschild, or organizations such as the World Zionist Organization (WZO) began initiatives to purchase land for Jewish settlement.

Several land transactions are recorded in primary source “Buying the Emek.” Author Arthur Ruppin writes about his collaboration with Zionist land agent Joshua Henkin; Henkin negotiated purchases including the Jezreel Valley and parts of Haifa. This land was bought fairly from its Arab owners, mainly wealthy effendi families who lived in Damascus or Beirut.

However, local tenant farmers who had occupied the land for generations were often hurt by the transactions. Some received monetary compensation, but their displacement arguably began the coalescence of anti-Zionist sentiment among Arab residents of Ottoman Palestine. This resentment was later to be manipulated by power-hungry Arab leaders.

Complicating the situation, the British government made several conflicting agreements regarding the governance of the Middle East in the wake of World War One. These various agreements, while they all served Britain’s interests, didn’t prove Britain’s reliability as an ally.

These included the 1914-1915 Huseyn-McMahon correspondence, promising British support to an Arab state in the Middle East (the document does not explicitly mention Palestine) and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, promising a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine. A third was the top-secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, according to which Britain and France divided the Middle East after WWI. After the war, in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain began its Mandate over the Land of Israel, taking responsibility for the volatile area and the national aspirations of its various inhabitants, who were often at odds with each other.

For the Jews, the goal was, and always had been, a Jewish State. They looked on the Balfour Declaration, and the League of Nations’ subsequent endorsement of it, as a stamp of approval on the building of that Jewish State. Their unity of purpose gave them a distinct advantage over the more numerous, but very disorganized, Arabs.

On the one hand, Emir Faisal, the official representative of Arab interests to the European powers following the first World War, wrote to Chaim Weizmann in 1919, saying, “By a happy coincidence [we, Jews and Arabs] have been able to take the first steps towards independence together… we wish the Jews a hearty welcome home.”

It is important to remember that at this time, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were not yet independent countries. It was taken for granted that a future “Arab state” would mainly be in these territories, leaving room for a coexisting Jewish state. Emir Faisal, Chaim Weizmann and contemporary European leaders most likely operated from this understanding.

On the other hand, many Arab peasants still resented the extensive land purchases made by Jewish pioneers. Additionally, rival Arab leaders felt that the Balfour Declaration was a direct betrayal of the earlier Husayn-McMahon correspondence. Haj Amin al-Husseini was one of the latter.

If any one man can be blamed for initiating the tragic and complex cycle of events in the Middle East over the last century, it is perhaps Husseini. He was appointed to the position of Mufti, or Muslim religious counsel, in 1920. Husseini saw in the existing resentment of the Arab populace an opportunity to consolidate power, and from the time of his appointment as Mufti, relations between Arabs and Jews in British Palestine began to deteriorate rapidly.

Throughout his decades in power, he refused to recognize or deal with Jewish or even British leaders in the Land of Israel, while simultaneously inciting the Arab street to anti-Jewish violence. This policy created a precedent for non-cooperation that was later to result in the famous Arab statement following the Six-Day War: “no peace, no negotiation, no recognition.”

*The word “Aliyah” or “going up” refers to Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

**All sources available upon request


1.“Population of Israel/Palestine (1553-Present).” Www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/population-of-israel-palestine-1553-present.

‌2.Nov 15, 2013, and 0 Reactions. “Historical Palestine’s Demography.” CJPME - English, www.cjpme.org/fs_182.

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2 Comments on “Did Israel Steal Palestinian Land? – Part 2”

  1. Thank you for this history of the Jewish state. It always makes my blood boil for people to call Israel Palestine.

  2. Learning the history and discovering the reasons behind the relationship between Israel and Palestine has been eye-opening. The information was clearly written and very interesting. I know that I will want to read it two or three more times so that I can better understand the complexity of the issues.

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