Land of Israel and Palestine: First Phase of Creation of Der Judenstaat
by Vladislav B Sotirovic on 16 Apr 2024 1 Comment

The historical background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and establishment of the British protectorate over Palestine (League of Nations Mandate) after World War I with its provision for a national home for the Jews, although formally not at the expense of the local inhabitants – the Palestinians. In practice the focal problem became keeping an appropriate balance between these stipulations so as to be acceptable to the Jews and the Palestinians.


The people and the land


Since the time of the Enlightenment, followed by Romanticism, Western Europe saw a new trend of group identification of people as ethnic or ethnocultural nations different from the feudal trends of the Middle Ages based on religion, state borders, or social strata. Later, a new trend emerged from the capitalist system of production and social order which spread across the globe as capitalism spread globally. As a consequence of such development of group identities, the newly understood nations, especially in areas under colonial rule, started demanding self-rule in a nation-state of their own, i.e., political sovereignty.


Since around 1900, the Jews and Arab-Palestinians became involved in the process of developing ethnonational consciousness and mobilizing to achieve national-political goals. However, Jews spread out across the world since the fall of Jerusalem and Judea in the first century AD while the Palestinians were concentrated in Palestine.


At the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement sought to identify land where the Jewish people could immigrate and create their nation-state. For Herzl (1860?1904), Palestine was logical as it was the land of Jewish states in antiquity. Herzl in his pamphlet which became the bible of the Zionist movement was the first to analyze the conditions for Jews in their assumed-to-be “native” land and call for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state to solve the Jewish Question in Europe, and beat traditional European anti-Semitism and/or Jewish assimilation. The key problem was to convince the Europeans that the Jews had the right to this land even after two thousand years of emigration.  


What was Herzel’s Eretz Yisrael in reality? For all Zionists and the majority of Jews, it was the Promised Land of milk and honey, but in reality, the Promised Land was a barren, rocky, and obscure Ottoman province since 1517, with Muslim Arabs as a clear majority population. On this narrow strip of land, the Jews and Arab Palestinians lived side by side at the time of the First Zionist Congress. Most Palestinian Jews were Orthodox and depended for their existence on charitable offerings from Jewish societies in Europe, which were distributed to them by communal organizations set up exactly for that purpose.




Palestine is a historic land between the River of Jordan and the Mediterranean coast. It is called Holy Land by Jews, Christians, and Muslims because of its spiritual links with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It saw many changes and lordships followed by changes in frontiers and political status. For each regional denomination, Palestine contains several sacred places. In so-called biblical times, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea existed on the territory of Palestine until the Roman occupation in the first century AD. The final wave of Jewish expulsion from Palestine started after the abortive uprising of Bar Kochba in 132-135. Till the emergence of Islam, Palestine was controlled by the Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, the Roman Empire, and finally the Byzantine Empire (East Roman Empire) alongside periods of independence of the Jewish kingdoms.


The Muslim Arabians occupied it in 634 AD. Since then, Palestine has been populated by a majority of Arabs, although it remained a central reference point for the Jewish people in the diaspora as their “Land of Israel” or Eretz Yisrael. It was part of the Ottoman Empire (1516-1917) when combined Ottoman and German armies were defeated by the British at Megiddo; it was briefly liberated during the West European Crusades from 1098 to 1197.


Palestine was the official political title for the land westward of the Jordan River, that was mandated to the United Kingdom from 1920 up to 1947. After 1948, Palestine means the struggle over the land and political rights of Palestinian Arabs displaced since the establishment of Israel.


Jewish migrations to Palestine (1882-1914)


After renewed pogroms in East Europe in 1881, the first wave of Jewish immigration into Palestine started in 1882, followed by another wave from 1904 to 1914. The immigration of Jewish settlers was encouraged by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and intensified after May 1948 when the Zionist State of Israel was established.


There were two types of motives for Jews to come to Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew: Land of Israel). The traditional motive was prayer and study, followed by death and burial in the holy soil. But since the mid-19th century, a new type of Jew, secular and in many cases idealistic, began to arrive in Palestine; many were driven by anti-Semitic persecution.       


After the 1897 First World Zionist Congress in Basel, European Jews began flowing into Palestine, especially during the British Mandate followed by the British-allowed policy of land-buying by the Jewish Agency which was, in fact, indirect preparation for the creation of the Jewish nation-state of Israel. This policy was designed to alienate land from Palestinians, stipulating that it could not be in Arab hands.


Even before the First Zionist Congress, Herzl tried to recruit prosperous Jews (like the Rothschild family) to finance his plan of the Jewish emigration and colonization of Palestine, but failed. He then turned to the little men; hence the 1897 Basel Congress where, according to his diary, he founded the Jewish state. thereafter, he did not waste time in turning his political program into reality. At the same time, he strongly disagreed with the idea of peaceful settlement in Palestine, or “gradual Jewish infiltration”, which had already started even before the meeting of the Zionists in Basel.


At that time, Palestine as an Ottoman province did not constitute a single political-administrative unit. The northern districts have been part of the province of Beirut, and the district of Jerusalem was under the direct authority of the central Ottoman Government in Istanbul, because of the international significance of the city of Jerusalem and the town of Bethlehem as religious centres equally important for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. A vast majority of Arabs (Muslims or Christians) have been living in hundreds of villages. The largest Arab towns were Jaffa and Nablus together with Jerusalem.


Until WWI, most Palestinian Jews were living in four urban settlements of the greatest religious significance to them: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. They were followers of traditional, Orthodox religious practices spending much time studying religious texts and depending on the charity of world Jewry for survival. Their attachment to Eretz Yisrael was more of religious than of national character and they were not involved in or supportive of Herzl’s Zionist movement emerged in Europe and was brought to Palestine by Jewish immigrants after 1897.


Most Jewish immigrants to Palestine after 1897 came from Europe and were committed to create and maintain a modern Jewish nation based on the European standards of the time, and not to re-establish a biblical Israel. In 1914, the total number of Jews in Palestine reached around 60,000, of whom some 36,000 were settlers since 1897, whereas the Arab population in Palestine in 1914 was around 683,000.


The second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine (1904-1914) had many intellectuals and middle-class Jews, but the majority of those immigrants were driven less by a vision of a new state than by the hope of having a new life, free of pogroms and persecutions.


Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic is a Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies, Belgrade, Serbia. The views expressed are personal. 

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