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Judentum und Israel
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The Problem of Palestine

HOWEVER difficult the problem of Palestine may be to solve, it is easy to state. Palestine is a tiny country, until 1918 a portion of the Turkish Empire, with today not quite a million and a half inhabitants; but every occurrence, every project, in Palestine affects the interests of three completely separate peoples, each with world-wide connexions —the British, the Arabs, and the Jews.

It is not surprising that in such circumstances it has proved extremely difficult, and often impossible, to find a formula or a plan which satisfies all the partners equally. The easiest way to get a clear picture is to consider first the separate position at the end of the last war of each element in the Palestinian situation in itself, without reference to the others.

The British in Palestine

The Near-Eastern campaign in the war of 1914-18 was an inevitable development of Allied strategy. It was impossible to allow the Turks, who were allied with the Germans, to threaten the vital communications of the British Empire by their control of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and the eastern shores of the Red Sea.

Hence Allenby advanced into Palestine in the autumn of 1917, entering Jerusalem in December of that year, while the desert Arabs, led by the Emir Feisal with the aid of Lawrence, pushed the Turks northwards and entered Damascus in the autumn of 1918.

After the war Palestine became even more important. British security still demanded the control of the east bank of the canal; the development of imperial air communications made Palestine a potential link in lines to India and the Far East; the motor road across the desert to Bagdad could be reached from the country, and one end of the oil pipe-line from the Iraqian wells at Kirkuk debouched at the Palestinian port of Haifa, which was also one of the best naval stations in the eastern Mediterranean (see map).

Such is the basic British interest in the country, an interest analogous to those which, in the past, have led to the British control of Gibraltar, Malta, or Singapore. It is a vital link in the communications of a world-wide empire, and Britain cannot be indifferent to its fate. In old days she might simply have annexed the country after her conquest. In actual fact she obtained it after the war as a Mandate from the League of Nations.

From this point of view the one essential is that the country should be stable and prosperous, for a weak and divided country offers endless opportunities to intrigue, and there are several Powers only too willing to fish in its troubled waters.

The Arabs

In so far as its inhabitants were concerned, there was in 1919 no such thing as a Palestinian nationality, in the sense in which there is Portuguese nationality giving fairly clear indications of the natural areas of the Portuguese State. The present frontiers of Palestine, while they look more or less familiar to an Englishman or a Jew accustomed to maps of Palestine in Bible days, were only fixed after the Versailles Conference.

The country formed part of two Turkish provinces, and its inhabitants were just part of that vast Arab section of the Turkish Empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to Persia. They did not think of themselves as Palestinians, but as Syrians who were part of the Moslem world and part of the Arab people.

Hence, on the one hand, they identified their situation with that of other Arab States in the Near East, and, on the other, Moslems all over the world were interested in their circumstances, as Jerusalem is the third holiest city in the Moslem world.

In 1922, when the first census was taken of the present territory, the Arab population numbered some 664,000, of whom 73,000 were Christians. More than half the Moslem Arabs were peasants, cultivating about one-half of the soil of Palestine by methods which had altered little since Bible days. The main reasons for this situation lay in the poverty of the soil and the poverty of the peasant; and each reacted on the other, keeping the unfortunate inhabitants in an almost permanent state of indebtedness. The Arab was neither lazy nor improvident; his iron-shod wooden plough, his sickle for reaping, were the most effective instruments within his means. Improved cultivation and the extension of the area cultivated were only possible with artificial manures and irrigation, neither of which the cultivator could afford.

A great deal of the land belonged to a small number of landlords, of whom some lived outside the country and were entirely uninterested in the condition of their tenants. Of what was left much was held communally, but even where a village owned its own land there was no inducement to the individual to improve his soil, since after a couple of crops it passed into other hands.

A tenth of the Moslem Arabs were still wandering shepherds, living in tribes, and grazing their flocks over wide but vaguely defined areas. There was no really accurate land register, a situation which caused considerable difficulties in the early years of the British administration, and has not yet been entirely remedied.

The Christian Arabs lived more in the towns, and provided a high proportion of the professional, official, and artisan class. A rich Moslem was almost invariably a landowner, a rich Christian often a merchant or official. The urban proletariat was small, for large towns were few, and commercial or industrial life extremely backward.

The Jews

The Jews are at once the most ancient and the most recent of the settled inhabitants of Palestine and, while it is true that the circumstances connected with their dramatic return to their 'National Home' are the cause of most of the present complications, it is also true that Jewish enterprise provides by far the most interesting part of the story of the last twenty years in Palestine.

Throughout the last two thousand years the country has never wholly lacked Jewish inhabitants. Sometimes they were to be numbered by hundreds, sometimes by tens of thousands. But some there always were. They came to 'the land of Israel' to lament the fallen state of their nation, to bury themselves in its religious life and history, or to die there in its holy ground. It is only in the second half of the nineteenth century that vigorous young Jews began to return, not to die but to live, not to study on holy ground but to cultivate it. It was out of this return to Zion that the Zionist Movement was born. Persecution in Russia and even in western Europe stimulated it, and in 1914, there were already more than 10,000 Jewish settlers owning or cultivating 90,000 acres of Palestinian soil.

At the same time these colonists were a small minority of the actual Jewish population of the country in 1914. Jerusalem was already a city in which the majority of the population was Jewish, though most were of the old-fashioned and religious type who did nothing to cultivate the soil or to earn their living. Similar groups lived in Hebron and in the north, but side by side with them there was springing up an urban population of artisans and traders possessed by the same ideals which had created the colonies, the rebuilding of a national home in the ancestral country.

But life under Turkish rule was uncertain, their position was never really secure, and it was with relief that they hailed the coming of the British and the passing of the country into British control. From the area controlled by the British many colonists volunteered and took part in sweeping the Turks out of the country. It was typical of the idealism of their whole outlook that, within actual sound of the booming of the guns, the foundation stones of a Hebrew University were laid outside Jerusalem.

To be continued...

haGalil onLine 14-03-2002

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