How Strong Is the Arab Claim to Palestine?
Summary ... There is a myth hanging over all discussion of the Palestinian problem: the myth that this was Arab land taken from its native inhabitants by invading Jews.
- As a strictly legal matter, the Jews didn't take Palestine [sic] from the Arabs; they took it from the British, who exercised sovereign authority in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate for thirty years prior to Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. And the British don't want it back.
- If you consider the British illegitimate usurpers, fine. In that case, this territory is not Arab land but Turkish land, a province of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years until the British wrested it from them during the Great War in 1917. And the Turks don't want it back.
- If you look back earlier in history than the Ottoman Turks, who took over Palestine over in 1517, you find it under the sovereignty of the yet another empire not indigenous to Palestine: the Mamluks, who were Turkish and Circassian slave-soldiers headquartered in Egypt. And the Mamluks don't even exist any more, so they can't want it back. So, going back 800 years, there's no particularly clear chain of title that makes Israel's title to the land inferior to that of any of the previous owners. Who were, continuing backward:
- The Mamluks, already mentioned, who in 1250 took Palestine over from:
- The Ayyubi dynasty, the descendants of Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim leader who in 1187 took Jerusalem and most of Palestine from:
- The European Christian Crusaders, who in 1099 conquered Palestine from:
- The Seljuk Turks, who ruled Palestine in the name of:
- The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, which in 750 took over the sovereignty of the entire Near East from:
- The Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus, which in 661 inherited control of the Islamic lands from
- The Arabs of Arabia, who in the first flush of Islamic expansion conquered Palestine in 638 from:
- The Byzantines, who (nice people perhaps it should go to them?) didn't conquer the Levant, but, upon the division of the Roman Empire in 395, inherited Palestine from:
- The Romans, who in 63 B.C. took it over from:
- The last Jewish kingdom, which during the Maccabean rebellion from 168 to 140 B.C. won control of the land from:
- The Hellenistic Greeks, who under Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. conquered the Near East from:
- The Persian empire, which under Cyrus the Great in 639 B.C. freed Jerusalem and Judah from:
- The Babylonian empire, which under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. took Jerusalem and Judah from:
- The Jews, meaning the people of the Kingdom of Judah, who, in their earlier incarnation as the Israelites, seized the land in the 12th and 13th centuries B.C. from:
The Canaanites, who had inhabited the land for thousands of years before they were dispossessed by the Israelites.
As the foregoing suggests, any Arab claim to sovereignty based on inherited historical control will not stand up. Arabs are not native to Palestine, but are native to Arabia, which is called Arab-ia for the breathtakingly simple reason that it is the historic home of the Arabs. The territories comprising all other "Arab" states outside the Arabian peninsula including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, as well as the entity now formally under the Palestinian Authority were originally non-Arab nations that were conquered by the Muslim Arabs when they spread out from the Arabian peninsula in the first great wave of jihad in the 7th century, defeating, mass-murdering, enslaving, dispossessing, converting, or reducing to the lowly status of dhimmitude millions of Christians and Jews and destroying their ancient and flourishing civilizations. Prior to being Christian, of course, these lands had even more ancient histories. Pharaonic Egypt, for example, was not an Arab country through its 3,000 year history.
The recent assertion by the Palestinian Arabs that they are descended from the ancient Canaanites whom the ancient Hebrews displaced is absurd in light of the archeological evidence. There is no record of the Canaanites surviving their destruction in ancient times. History records literally hundreds of ancient peoples that no longer exist. The Arab claim to be descended from Canaanites is an invention that came after the 1964 founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the same crew who today deny that there was ever a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Prior to 1964 there was no "Palestinian" people and no "Palestinian" claim to Palestine; the Arab nations who sought to overrun and destroy Israel in 1948 planned to divide up the territory amongst themselves. Let us also remember that prior to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the name "Palestinian" referred to the Jews of Palestine.
In any case, today's "Palestine," meaning the West Bank and Gaza, is, like most of the world, inhabited by people who are not descendants of the first human society to inhabit that territory. This is true not only of recently settled countries like the United States and Argentina, where European settlers took the land from the indigenous inhabitants several hundred years ago, but also of ancient nations like Japan, whose current Mongoloid inhabitants displaced a primitive people, the Ainu, aeons ago. Major "native" tribes of South Africa, like the Zulu, are actually invaders from the north who arrived in the 17th century. India's caste system reflects waves of fair-skinned Aryan invaders who arrived in that country in the second millennium B.C. One could go on and on.
The only nations that have perfect continuity between their earliest known human inhabitants and their populations of the present day are Iceland, parts of China, and a few Pacific islands. The Chinese case is complicated by the fact that the great antiquity of Chinese civilization has largely erased the traces of whatever societies preceded it, making it difficult to reconstruct to what extent the expanding proto-Chinese displaced (or absorbed) the prehistoric peoples of that region. History is very sketchy in regard to the genealogies of ancient peoples. The upshot is that "aboriginalism" the proposition that the closest descendants of the original inhabitants of a territory are the rightful owners is not tenable in the real world. It is not clear that it would be a desirable idea even if it were tenable. Would human civilization really be better off if there had been no China, no Japan, no Greece, no Rome, no France, no England, no Ireland, no United States?
Back to the Arabs.
I have no problem recognizing the legitimacy of the Arabs' tenure in Palestine when they had it, from 638 to 1099, a period of 461 years out of a history lasting 5,000 years. They took Palestine by military conquest, and they lost it by conquest, to the Christian Crusaders in 1099. Of course, military occupation by itself does not determine which party rightly has sovereignty in a given territory. Can it not be said that the Arabs have sovereign rights, if not to all of Israel, then at least to the West Bank, by virtue of their majority residency in that region from the early Middle Ages to the present?
To answer that question, let's look again at the historical record. Prior to 1947, as we've discussed, Palestine was administered by the British under the Palestine Mandate, the ultimate purpose of which, according to the Balfour Declaration, was the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. In 1924 the British divided the Palestine Mandate into an Arabs-only territory east of the Jordan, which became the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan, and a greatly reduced Palestine Mandate territory west of the Jordan, which was inhabited by both Arabs and Jews.
Given the fact that the Jews and Arabs were unable to coexist in one state, there had to be two states. At the same time, there were no natural borders separating the two peoples, in the way that, for example, the Brenner Pass has historically marked the division between Latin and Germanic Europe. Since the Jewish population was concentrated near the coast, the Jewish state had to start at the coast and go some distance inland. Exactly where it should have stopped, and where the Arab state should have begun, was a practical question that could have been settled in any number of peaceful ways, almost all of which the Jews would have accepted. The Jews' willingness to compromise on territory was demonstrated not only by their acquiescence in the UN's 1947 partition plan, which gave them a state with squiggly, indefensible borders, but even by their earlier acceptance of the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan, which gave them nothing more than a part of the Galilee and a tiny strip along the coast. Yet the Arab nations, refusing to accept any Jewish sovereignty in Palestine even if it was the size of a postage stamp, unanimously rejected the 1937 Peel plan, and nine years later they violently rejected the UN's partition plan as well. When the Arabs resorted to arms in order to wipe out the Jews and destroy the Jewish state, they accepted the verdict of arms. They lost that verdict in 1948, and they lost it again in 1967, when Jordan, which had annexed the West Bank in 1948 (without any objections from Palestinian Arabs that their sovereign nationhood was being violated), attacked Israel from the West Bank during the Six Day War despite Israel's urgent pleas that it stay out of the conflict, and Israel in self-defense then captured the West Bank. The Arabs thus have no grounds to complain either about Israel's existence (achieved in '48) or about its expanded sovereignty from the river to the sea (achieved in '67).
The Arabs have roiled the world for decades with their furious protest that their land has been "stolen" from them. One might take seriously such a statement if it came from a pacifist people such as the Tibetans, who had quietly inhabited their land for ages before it was seized by the Communist Chinese in 1950. The claim is laughable coming from the Arabs, who in the early Middle Ages conquered and reduced to slavery and penury ancient peoples and civilizations stretching from the borders of Persia to the Atlantic; who in 1947 rejected an Arab state in Palestine alongside a Jewish state and sought to obliterate the nascent Jewish state; who never called for a distinct Palestinian Arab state until the creation of the terrorist PLO in 1964 sixteen years after the founding of the state of Israel; and who to this moment continue to seek Israel's destruction, an object that would be enormously advanced by the creation of the Arab state they demand. The Arab claim to sovereign rights west of the Jordan is only humored today because of a fatal combination of world need for Arab oil, leftist Political Correctness that has cast the Israelis as "oppressors," and, of course, good old Jew-hatred.
[ Lawrence Auster | Published: August 30, 2004 ]