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Palestine: 1800-1917: Notes from My Talk at Abu Bakr Mosque, Feb 9, 2008

February 10, 2008


Thanks for the invite
– Special thanks to Imam Mohammed, to Leila Sulieman who doesn’t take no for an answer
– One little correction – I am a Senior Lecturer of International Studies – work for the Graduate School of International Studies at DU, not the Poli Sci Dept.
– I am honored to be asked to kick off this series of lectures as a lead up to events here in Colorado that will commemorate the `Nakbah’ – the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that accompanied the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
– My sense is that this tragedy – and it was a great one – should be approached from two aspects:
o Education as we are now doing
o Political activism: working together to change US policy towards this conflict
– Also want to note – the modern parallel – the second great refugee crisis of the region in the past 60 years: the 6 million – according to UN statistics – Iraqis forced to leave their homes as a result of the current US Occupation, 1.5 million of whom are refugees within Iraq, 4.5 million of whom have fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Iraqis forced to leave their homes and find sanctuary abroad. They are not the focus of our talk, but theirs too is a Nakbah, a Nakbah of great proportions whose tragedy will be played out for decades to come – if not longer.

– Have had a lifelong interest in the Middle East. I suppose it comes from my Jewish background, but it was rather greatly intensified by three years in the Peace Corps in Tunisia (66-69) during which time I taught at the University of Tunis and was also on staff.
– Believe that I can say that I have some genuine expertise most especially on the modern history of Tunisia and Algeria
– I have taught 3 Middle East related classes in the past 5 years
o A course on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the Iliff School of Theology
o A course on the political history of 20th Century Iraq, also at Iliff
o A course – with Dr. Aurelia Mane Estrada of the University of Barcelona – at the Graduate School of International Studies – called `Oil and Democracy’ which focused in particular on the history and economy of Algeria, both before and after its 1962 independence
o I am about to become a part of the editorial board of a new periodical on Algerian economic and political developments in association with Dr. Mohammed Alkacem of Metro State.
o About 5 years ago I began publishing something which I called the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. I put out 4 issues a year for four years. To my utter amazement, it was read, people contributed to it which encouraged me to continue. The newsletter has morphed – in this modern age – into a blog on which I write, or try to regularly.


In the time we have together, I hope to touch on a number of themes.
a. The General situation in Palestine at the end of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire
b. Some reflections on the origins of Palestinian nationalism as it emerged in the period between 1850-1917
c. My understanding of a few of the dynamics of early Zionism in that period
d. Reflections on the Balfour Declaration

I already understand that I can not do this subject justice in 45 minutes to an hour, but I will do my best and hope what I don’t cover in the lecture – we can address in the discussion, questions and answers, – and the lectures that follow.



World War One marked a turning point for the entire world. After it ended, truly, the world was not the same…
– It was in that war that people learned to kill each other like never before, a skill that would only be further refined in the next world war
– But it was also a war that saw the collapse of three empires:
o The Russian Empire – to be replaced by the USSR
o The Hapsburg Empire, centered in Vienna, that included much of Central Europe and parts of the Balkans
o The Ottoman Empire – based in what is now known as Istanbul, but which was still called Constantinople
– And it was a war that supposedly was to be `a war to end all wars’ – needless to say that didn’t happen – but out of it came two documents whose impact would shape the political aspirations of the next century up until the present:
o The first is what was referred to as Wilson’s 14 points – presented first to the US Congress in January 1918 and later at the Paris Peace Conference which would shape the Treaty of Versailles
o The second was a declaration of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East.
– In both cases, the right of nations – most especially former colonies – to national self-determination – was asserted, giving great impetus to nationalist movements all over the world, including in the Middle East

All this would give great impetus to anti-colonial movements in the Middle East including the Palestinians
That said, history suggests rather vividly that European powers involved – while they might grudgingly accept the principle of national self determination had other plans .
In the case of the Ottoman Empire
1. It had been in decline for about a century and even before its collapse had become more and more dominated by different European powers in one way or another – in particular UK, France, Germany and Russia…when it found it possible, Italy too tried to horn in
2. European interests in the region:
a. Remember this is `pre-oil’. Oil only becomes a factor later in the game – during WWI itself and then it is mostly Iranian Oil. But during the war, oil is discovered in what is now N. Iraq. Main point: there were regional interests other than oil
b. What were these interests in the period 1850-1917?
c. The region is essentially hostage to a strategic chess game between the great powers, especially the UK, France and Russia over control of trade routes between India and Europe
d. Significance of the Suez Canal, trade in the Persian Gulf, the Berlin to Bagdad railroad
e. There is some production – cotton in Egypt to UK, wheat in Egypt, Algeria to France, Palestine and also the region was being penetrated more and more by European industrial products
f. There was already considerable Christian missionary interest in the region – Protestants from the US and UK, Catholics from France, Orthodox from Russia
g. Main point: the economic interests – at least until near the very end of this period – were growing, but were modest and secondary to strategic and trade interests.
3. The Vilayet Structure of the Ottoman Empire…
a. Essentially the region was broken down into provinces and in some cases – and the case of Palestine included here, the provinces broken down into smaller units (sanjaks) – or in the case of the region around Jerusalem special administrative zones (mutasarriflik)
b. What would become the British Administrative Zone of Palestine after 1917 was during the Ottoman Empire partitioned into three of these ottoman administrative entities:
i. The mutasarriflik of Jerusalem
ii. The wilayet of Damascus
iii. The wilayet of Beirut

c. The population was predominantly Moslem with about 10% Christians among them and a small sprinkling of Jews, Armenians and Greeks
d. A little description of the `millet’ system and how it worked – it did work – for 500 years



Palestinian Nationalism:
A quote – it is from Palestine and the Palestinians by Samih K Farsoun – an old friend..
“The modern history of Palestine before al Nakbah – Palestine’s catastrophic destruction – begins around 1800 and ends in 1948. It is divided into two historical periods: the first covers the 19th Century and World War One and the second begins after World War One with the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine under the auspices of the League of Nations. The transforming forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries affected the social history of the entire Arab Mashref (East) and the whole Middle East. Their particular configuration in Palestine, however, had consequences far more devastating for the indigenous Arab population of the country.”
“Together these powerful forces may be summarized in one phrase: European interventionalism”
1. European penetration of the region and of Palestine in particular intensify after the end of the Crimean War (which Russia lost) giving Britain a stronger hold on the E. Mediterranean

2. Historic shift – taking place wherever European influences came: breakdown of the traditional semi-feudal, largely subsistence economy, based upon a tribute paying clan based society into a peripheral zone of the global market economy producing food stuffs and raw materials for the core (mostly Europe). Products included cotton, olives, wheat, corn, barley and sesame. Manufactured products included olive oil, soap, textiles, grain exports
– British helped the Ottomans regain control of Egypt (and thus Palestine and Syria).. but the Ottoman’s paid a high price: the British acquired strategic power of the whole Near East
– Series of trade agreements followed – 19th century examples of structural adjustment – that opened up Palestine and the whole Near East to British manufactured goods.
– Period of a great increase in trade between Europe and Middle East, – some prosperity, but unequally divided.
– Different cities affected in different ways
Damascus and Aleppo were hit hard as centers of production – could not compete with European products. Nablus however, underwent a commercial renaissance..
A series of Ottoman reforms issued in 1856 – by the Sultan Abdul – Majid `the Hatt i Humayu’ – the Imperial Rescript). It included:
– Equal rights for non muslims
– Protection of private property rights
As such, it helped ease the way for more liberalized economic activity

3. Palestinian feudalism – less developed than in Lebanon yes, some feudal holdings, but many private peasant plots, communal plots as well

4. Relationship to the Ottoman rulers – complex – ottomans had power in the urban areas, but much less in rural and mountain regions. Main goal – extraction of taxes. Considerable tax resistance existed as was true everywhere. Patron-client relations: Ottomans working in conjunction with local sheiks..

5. Example of Nablus – trade center – caravan terminus from Saudi Arabia … goods from Damascus…a kind of regional hub…not unlike Denver structurally – minus the camels.

6. This was a period of changes in land tenure (from clan based to private property), of what has sometimes been referred to as `the new peaceful crusade’ of religiously inspired European immigration, investment and institutional development

7. Many modern ideas from Europe emerged during this period…

8. It is in this period that the first threads of modern nationalism took form..actually at the outsets there were three themes that took shape all of which are still alive in one form or another:
a. Broader (secular based) Arab Nationalism (one Arab Nation)
b. A specifically Palestinian Nationalism
c. An Islamic nationalism

9. All of this occurred within the context of rising population, some of it indigenous as a result of increased food production and modern health measures, some of it as a result of European (Jewish and Christian immigration) which would become an increasing factor beginning in the 1880s.
10. Ottoman political structures remained stable through out the period and were quite similar to how they worked elsewhere, but there was one fundamental difference:
– The Ottoman’s permitted significant European penetration into the Palestinian regions
– Merchants, missionaries and consuls were permitted to reside within the territory, especially in Jerusalem
– Beginning in the early 1880s, first through the auspices of Baron Rothschild who supported Zionist settlement and later in conjunction with the World Zionist Organization formed in 1898, the Ottomans permitted the Jewish purchase of land in Palestine. (we’ll talk more about this later)


19th Century Rebellions/Reforms
4 armed uprisings between 1800 and 1917
– –
1. Resistance to Napoleon…1798-9 Napoleon invades Egypt and also Palestine and Syria. Stopped at the gates of Akka by a combined force of Ottomans and local Arabs. As he retreated he followed a scorched earth policy, his troops burning and destroying all of coastal Palestine
2. Resistance to Egyptian domination of Palestine (1840) Muhammed Ali – Ottoman Egyptian governor – rebels against Constantinople and conquers Palestine and Syria (for a while). Attempts of secularization of the legal system (came into conflict with the ulema). But Egyptian policies became burdensome (the tax burden). Led to an open rebellion in 1840 when local sheiks and urban notables informed Ibrahim Pasha that they would not supply his army with the quota of conscripts. This rebellion was crushed by an Egyptian army of some 10,000 and an iron rule was re-imposed.
3. Scattered, but growing political resistance to Zionist settlement starting in the 1880s – that included some armed clashes
4. Palestinian participation in the Arab Uprising Against the Ottomans – in conjunction with the British

The Arab Awakening/ the Sykes Picot Agreement/Balfour Declaration
At the same time the British were negotiating with the Arabs to enlist their military support against the Ottoman Turks, they were also negotiating with representatives of the Zionists (more or less with the same goal in mind – Jewish support for the war effort) over formalizing the Jewish presence in Palestine.
– Promise to the Arabs: One Arab Nation – (compare with Russian attempts to divide the Turkish speaking regions – fear of a unified Arab state/fear of a unified Turkish speaking state) – both peoples have legitimate grievances for how all this played out. Role of Sati al Husri
– Rashid Khalidi: `there was a clear difference before 1914 between the majority of Arabists, who emphasis on Arab identity was linked to continued loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and a tiny minority of extreme Arab nationalists who called for secession from the empire’
– Nature of the French-British negotiations: the split
– Palestine: seen as a buffer zone within the British sphere of influence
– British-French negotiations over Palestine:
o British want to push the frontier further north
o French want Lebanon to extend further south
– British strategic interests
push the French as far away from the Suez Canal as possible
use Jewish colonialism as a kind of human buffer zone against a possible French invasion-


The Balfour Declaration – –
– Zionist dilemma: finding a sponsor for the project?
– Tried the Turks, the French, the Germans, the Brits
– Before 1898 there were many possible other sites for the project among them: Uganda, Argentina and I have read somewhere western Kansas.
– But by the first Zionist Congress – the issue was settled that the main target community would be Palestine
– The movement lacked international legitimacy and indeed was only one of three trends among European Jews that included:
o Assimilation
o Revolution
o Establishment of a Jewish national entity
– What Balfour gave the Jews – I would argue – is an appearance of legitimacy – without its essence – but that was enough.
– Analysis of the statement itself – the British government looks with favor upon the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as long as it does not `prejudice the rights of the existing populations there.
Foreign Office,
November 2nd, 1917.

Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely
Arthur James Balfour


Selected Bibliography:

Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening
Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle: The US, Israel and the Palestinians
Farsoun, Samih. Palestine and the Palestinians
Fromkin, David. A Peace To End All Peace
Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine

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