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Seeds of Injustice: The historical context behind Israel and Palestine

By Sanad Hamdouna

Cover Artist

On October 7th 2023, media outlets were dominated by the news of Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel. In a devastating operation named the “Al Aqsa Flood,” Hamas’ Al Qassam Brigades broke through the fences surrounding Gaza. They attacked at least 25 Israeli military bases in addition to Israeli settlements on the border, killing hundreds and taking over 200 hostages. Israel immediately started bombing civilian areas in Gaza and cut off their water and electricity. Israel has killed at least 9227 Palestinians in Gaza as of November 3rd, almost all civilians, more than a third of which were children. 

This tragic loss of life has been rightfully mourned across the globe, but has also raised many questions, namely “how do we make sure this never happens again?”  and “how did we get here?” 

We must begin during the last few decades of the Ottoman Empire’s rule of historic Palestine. According to Ussama Makdisi, a professor of History at Rice University, the approximately 400 years of Ottoman rule saw Palestinians of all faiths coexist in relative peace and harmony. The region’s majority had long been Muslim with Christian and Jewish minorities. These minorities, despite having religious and cultural autonomy, lacked certain legal privileges that were afforded only to Muslims. They were finally granted equal rights in the 19th century, during the Ottoman Tanzimat period. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian thinker Theodore Herzl was founding the beginnings of a Jewish nationalist movement known as Zionism. Generally, Zionists believed that the only solution for the rampant anti-semitism in Europe was to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland, and thus, the road to establishing the Israeli state began. 

Zionists were quickly confronted with the logistical problems of establishing a Jewish homeland in a place already inhabited by a majority of Muslims and Christians. Debate around this issue consumed much of the Zionists’ time, but they eventually came to the conclusion that the Zionist project rested on the removal of the Palestinian population from the land. 

Vladimir Jabotinsky, an influential Zionist leader, wrote in his 1925 essay, “The Iron Law,” “If you wish to colonize a land in which people are already living, you must provide a garrison for the land, or find some rich man or benefactor who will provide a garrison on your behalf. Or else-or else, give up your colonization, for without an armed force which will render physically impossible any attempt to destroy or prevent this colonization, colonization is impossible, not difficult, not dangerous, but IMPOSSIBLE!… Zionism is a colonization adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force.” Jabotinsky’s words are an almost perfect description of how the Zionist movement went on to colonize Palestine. 

After failing to convince the Ottoman sultan to support the Zionist colonial project, Herzl turned to the British, who, in 1917, issued a public statement, “The Balfour Declaration,” promising their support of the Zionist project. Only a few years later, in 1920, the British Mandate for Palestine began. Britain seized control of Palestine by promising eventual independence to the Palestinians already living there if they joined the fight against the Ottoman Empire, which they did. 

During the mandate, the British government began facilitating the mass settlement of European Jews onto Palestinian land.  This eventually led to the Arab revolts of 1936 - 1939, when Palestinians realized that Britain had no intention of granting them independence and was solely interested in fulfilling the promise made in The Balfour Declaration. In response to the Arab Revolts, the British administration placed restrictions on European Jewish immigration and land purchases. In turn, this led to the Jewish Insurgency of 1944 to 1948, which was executed by a few underground paramilitary groups that would later lay the foundations of the Israeli Defence Forces; namely, the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi militias. 

In 1947, Britain relegated the responsibility of finding a solution that would please both parties to the newly formed United Nations. The UN’s proposed solution, which lacked any input from the Palestinians, was to split the land into two states  with Jerusalem as a special international zone. Zionists accepted the plan, seeing it as a stepping stone to their original goal which included all of Mandatory Palestine and much of the surrounding land. Palestinians, who were represented through other Arab leaders, rejected the UN’s proposition because it relied on giving over half of their land, which was hugely populated and cultivated, to recent Jewish arrivals who only consisted of a third of the population.

Despite its rejection by the Palestinians, the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine was adopted in a vote among UN member states. Many states involved in the vote reported receiving bribes and threats from Zionists and the United States.

In 1948, the British officially ended the Mandate on Palestine, Israel declared independence, and the Palestinian Nakba began. 

In Arabic, the word “Nakba” means catastrophe. It is used to refer to the expulsion of over 750 000 Palestinians from their homes by Zionist militias and to the series of massacres and human rights’ abuses perpetrated in the process. The Nakba was effectively the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the land and was seen as a necessary prerequisite to the founding of Israel. Zionists did not believe their project could succeed while Palestinians still lived in the lands that are now considered Israel. 

Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister himself said, “We must expel Arabs and take their places and, if we have to use force […] to guarantee our own right to settle in those places, then we have force at our disposal.” Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister, said, “We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from people inhabiting it.”

These two quotes clearly communicate the intentions of the Zionist leaders to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their land and settle it. 

The first massacres of the Nakba started in April of 1948, shortly before Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May of 1948. Zionist militias stormed Palestinian villages and committed heinous acts on the civilians in an effort to both spread terror amongst the Palestinian population and force them to flee. These acts of terror, including public mass executions, rape, desecration of corpses, and public humiliation, were extremely well-documented and detailed accounts can be found from both Palestinian survivors and militia members in a plethora of works, such as the documentary 1948 Creation and Catastrophe, and the book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine written by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. 

Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the revolting massacres of Palestinians triggered a war with the surrounding Arab states, who were still struggling to recover from French and British colonialism. At the end of the war, Israel controlled all the land designated to them by the UN, in addition to 60% of the land designated for a Palestinian state, and nearly emptied it of its native population through its ongoing ethnic cleansing efforts. An estimated 500 Palestinian towns and villages in this area were depopulated, destroyed, or otherwise rendered uninhabitable. Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip until 1967, when Israel invaded both territories and has retained effective military control over them to this day. 

On the still smoking rubble of the villages destroyed in 1948, Israel built settlements for foreign Jews, who were intensely and persistently encouraged to move in and were granted instant citizenship. The Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental organization founded in 1901, immediately started a forest planting campaign on top of the remaining villages to both hide the rubble and prevent Palestinians from returning. They planted millions of European pine trees, which were effective because of how fast they grew, but have since greatly harmed the local ecosystem and are especially prone to forest fires. 

The 750 000 Palestinians expelled by Israel’s creation were given refugee status by the UN and the 156 000 Palestinians who remained became Israeli citizens, but lived in ghettos and were governed by military rule until 1966.

These Palestinian refugees and their descendants have an undeniable right to return to their homeland, not only by virtue of morality, but also under international law as codified by the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948. It is the constant refusal by the Israeli state to comply with international law and grant them this right that has kept the flames of this injustice ablaze. Every act of resistance by Palestinian militant groups from 1948 to the present day has been primarily motivated by the wish to return to their homeland. 

Because Israel’s very creation was dependent on the violent transfer of the native Palestinian population, its maintenance is also dependent on the violent subjugation of the remaining and internally displaced Palestinians. They do this with a system of laws and policies that all major human rights organizations have identified as apartheid. This includes segregated roads and license plates, Jewish-only towns and enclaves, limited to non-existent voting rights, segregated school systems, and much more. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem (an Israeli human rights organization) have all published extensive reports on Israel’s apartheid system. These reports can be found for free on their respective websites. 

The apartheid system is by no means a new way of maintaining a colonial state. In fact, as Canadians, we should be aware that it was Canada’s Indian Act that inspired much of South African Apartheid, which in turn inspired Israeli Apartheid.

Palestinians live in a state of constant fear and violent subjugation; especially in Gaza, which was declared uninhabitable by the UN in 2020; thanks to Israel’s total economic and territorial siege. Not to mention its regular bombing of Palestinian homes and vital civilian infrastructure (such as schools, the water desalination plant, and hospitals). Abby Martins, an independent journalist, details the living conditions in Gaza in her 2019 documentary Gaza Fights for Freedom, and conditions have only worsened since its release. 

When children live their entire life knowing nothing but the pain inflicted by such a violent regime and when the lives of entire generations are defined by ongoing injustice, there is no choice, but to expect explosions of violent retaliation. The only way to put a permanent end to the violence is to find justice for the Palestinians and support them in building a brighter future for everyone involved. 


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