June 20, 2024
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Is Israel a Colonial State?

The Arab success in framing the Palestinian Arab/Israeli conflict by making Israel the aggressor, has forced Israel to counter the fabrications, defend her actions and even justify her own raison d’être. Historian Joel Fishman calls this manipulation of language an “inversion of truth and reality … an assault on empirical and rational thought, the foundations of modern culture.” There is a pressing need to debunk the myths that have become such an integral element in the media war against Israel and to discredit those who disseminate them. One of the most ubiquitous lies is that Zionists are a “tool of imperialism.”

The San Remo Conference

At the San Remo Conference in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920, the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers—Britain, France, Italy and Japan—met to define the precise boundaries of the lands they had conquered at the end of World War I. As part of a peace agreement, Turkey yielded jurisdiction over the land it had ruled from 1517 to 1917, including the Holy Land.

Israel and two dozen other countries were created from the states of the former Ottoman Caliphate. For Christians, even those who spoke Arabic, the Holy Land was “Palestine,” which, as Allen Hertz (formerly senior adviser in the Privy Council Office serving Canada’s Prime Minister and the federal cabinet) points out, was “for centuries nothing more than an historical reference, i.e., a fond memory of the early 7th century CE, when Palestine was still a province of the Roman-Byzantine Empire, where Christianity was then the official faith.”

It is important to note that the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration only state that the “civil and religious” rights of the inhabitants of Palestine are to be protected. There is no mention of the national rights of the Arab people (or, for that matter, any other people).

Palestine: Never a Separate Country

Despite Arab claims, Palestine was never a separate country as Bernard Lewis explained: “From the end of the Jewish state in antiquity to the beginning of British rule, the area now designated by the name ‘Palestine’ was not a country and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries; it was a group of provincial subdivisions, by no means always the same, within a larger entity.”

Throughout this time, Hertz said, European and American maps of “Palestine” included territory east of the Jordan River. From the late 4th Century CE until 1946, “Palestine” included part or all of the land of what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica correctly noted that “Western Palestine” was separated by the Jordan River from “Eastern Palestine” to the beginning of the Arabian Desert. In other words, there was never any single Turkish administrative entity that clearly corresponded with Western Palestine. Ronald Storrs, British military governor of Jerusalem (1917-1926) stated that Palestinians were generally referred to as “Southern Syrians.”

Political scientist Gabriel Scheinman notes that Syria, Libya and Palestine were given names used during Roman times. Libya reappeared in 1934, when the Italians combined Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. The first time “Syria” had been used as the name of a state followed the establishment of the French mandate. Iraq had been a medieval province of the caliphate, while “Lebanon” was referred to as a mountain and “Jordan” as a river.

Arab Population

Regarding the Palestinian Arab population, a study of Jewish, Arab and British policies conducted by the Esco Foundation for Palestine published in 1947 concluded: “It is highly improbable that any but a small part of the present Arab population of Palestine is descended from the ancient inhabitants of the land.” Aside from those brought to Palestine through conquest, “Palestine, like Syria, has from time immemorial been peopled by the drifting populations of Arabia, and to some extent by the backwash of its harbors.”

Eli Hertz adds that family names of many Palestinian Arabs testify to their non-Palestinian ancestry. Phone books in Judea and Shomron today are full of families named Elmisri (Egyptian), Chalabi (Syrian), Mugrabi (North Africa).

Furthermore, he points out, the Ottoman Turks’ census (1882) recorded only 141,000 Muslims in the land of Israel. The more accurate number is most likely closer to 350,000 to 425,000, since many hid to avoid taxes. The British census in 1922 reported 650,000 Muslims. In 1934, 30,000 Syrian Arabs from the Hauran moved from the northern frontier into Mandate Palestine, drawn by work in and around the recently built British port and the construction of other infrastructure projects. They even nicknamed Haifa Um el-Amal (“the city of work”).

The fallacy of Arab claims, Hertz said, that most Palestinians were indigenous to Palestine is further undermined by a 1909 vintage photograph of Nablus. Based on the number of buildings in the photo taken from the base of Mount Gerizim, the population in 1909—Muslim Arabs and Jewish Samaritans—could not have been greater than 2,000 residents.

Hertz reminds us that before Jews began referring to themselves as Israelis in 1948, the term “Palestine” applied almost entirely to institutions founded established by Jews: The Jerusalem Post, founded in 1932, was called The Palestine Post; Bank Leumi L’Israel, incorporated in 1902, was called the Anglo Palestine Company until 1948; Israel Electric Corporation, founded in 1923 by Pinhas Rutenberg, was initially called The Palestine Electric Company; and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1936, was originally called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Only State Established Whose Legitimacy Was Officially Acknowledged by the League Of Nations and the UN

As former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold observed, in the last century, Israel is the only state established whose legitimacy was officially acknowledged by the League of Nations and the U.N. The League of Nations Mandate did not grant the Jewish people the rights to establish a national home in Palestine; it simply recognized the pre-existing right that had never been surrendered or forgotten. The Jewish people had been sovereign in their own land for 1,000 years before many were forced into exile. The establishment of the state of Israel did not represent a creation ex nihilo. Israel was admitted to the United Nations as a full member on May 11, 1949.

These rights were upheld by the U.N. under Article 80 of the U.N. Charter after the U.N. replaced the League of Nations. International law expert Nathan Feinberg added, “On July 24, 1922, the Council of the League of Nations recognized the existence of the Jewish people, its historical link to the land of Israel and its right to reestablish its ancestral home there.”

One Final Note

It should be clear, assets judge Simon H. Rifkind, that Jewish self-determination was part of a process resulting in decolonizing the Middle East, if not entirely by design, which then led to Jewish and Arab independence. Relentless accusations “of Israel with colonialism—an ahistorical canard that erases the millennia-long association of Jews with the land of Israel as an indigenous people—ignores the benefit (even if ironic) that Zionism brought to the Arabs through the process of decolonization.”


Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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