by Daniel Pipes
National Review Online
June 21, 2011
Zionists stole Palestinian land: that’s the mantra both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas teach their children and propagate in their media. This claim has vast importance, as Palestinian Media Watch explains: “Presenting the creation of the [Israeli] state as an act of theft and its continued existence as a historical injustice serves as the basis for the PA’s non-recognition of Israel’s right to exist.” The accusation of theft also undermines Israel’s position internationally.
But is this accusation true?
No, it is not. Ironically, the building of Israel represents about the most peaceable in-migration and state creation in history. To understand why requires seeing Zionism in context. Simply put, conquest is the historic norm; governments everywhere were established through invasion, nearly all states came into being at someone else’s expense. No one is permanently in charge, everyone’s roots trace back to somewhere else.
Germanic tribes, Central Asian hordes, Russian tsars, and Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors remade the map. Modern Greeks have only a tenuous connection to the Greeks of antiquity. Who can count the number of times Belgium was overrun? The United States came into existence by defeating Native Americans. Kings marauded in Africa, Aryans invaded India. In Japan, Yamato-speakers eliminated all but tiny groups such as the Ainu.
The Middle East, due to its centrality and geography, has experienced more than its share of invasions, including the Greek, Roman, Arabian, Crusader, Seljuk, Timurid, Mongolian, and modern European. Within the region, dynastic froth caused the same territory – Egypt for example – to be conquered and re-conquered.
The land that now makes up Israel was no exception. In Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel, Eric H. Cline writes of Jerusalem: “No other city has been more bitterly fought over throughout its history.” He backs up that claim, counting “at least 118 separate conflicts in and for Jerusalem during the past four millennia.” He calculates Jerusalem to have been destroyed completely at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. The PA fantasizes that today’s Palestinians are descended from a tribe of ancient Canaan, the Jebusites; in fact, but they are overwhelmingly the off-spring of invaders and immigrants seeking economic opportunities.
Against this tableau of unceasing conquest, violence, and overthrow, Zionist efforts to build a presence in the Holy Land until 1948 stand out as astonishingly mild, as mercantile rather than military. Two great empires, the Ottomans and the British, ruled Eretz Yisrael; in contrast, Zionists lacked military power. They could not possibly achieve statehood through conquest.
Instead, they purchased land. Acquiring property dunam by dunam, farm by farm, house by house, lay at the heart of the Zionist enterprise until 1948. The Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901 to buy land in Palestine “to assist in the foundation of a new community of free Jews engaged in active and peaceable industry,” was the key institution – and not the Haganah, the clandestine defense organization founded in 1920.
Zionists also focused on the rehabilitation of what was barren and considered unusable. They not only made the desert bloom but drained swamps, cleared water channels, reclaimed wasteland, forested bare hills, cleared rocks, and removed salt from the soil. Jewish reclamation and sanitation work precipitously reduced the number of disease-related deaths.
Only when the British mandatory power gave up on Palestine in 1948, followed immediately by an all-out attempt by Arab states to crush and expel the Zionists, did the latter take up the sword in self defense and go on to win land through military conquest. Even then, as the historian Efraim Karsh demonstrates in Palestine Betrayed, most Arabs fled their lands; exceedingly few were forced off.
This history contradicts the Palestinian account that “Zionist gangs stole Palestine and expelled its people” which led to a catastrophe “unprecedented in history” (according to a PA 12th-grade textbook) or that Zionists “plundered the Palestinian land and national interests, and established their state upon the ruins of the Palestinian Arab people” (writes a columnist in the PA’s daily). International organizations, newspaper editorials, and faculty petitions reiterate this falsehood worldwide.
Israelis should hold their heads high and point out that the building of their country was based on the least violent and most civilized movement of any people in history. Gangs did not steal Palestine; merchants purchased Israel.
Mr. Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
June 21, 2011 update: For additional points that did not fit this column, see the weblog entry, “Extras about Zionists Purchasing Israel, Not Stealing Palestine.”
Some additional points that did not fit my article today, “Not Stealing Palestine but Purchasing Israel“:
- The ultimate justification for the Jewish presence is, of course, the ancient tie and the love of Zion, not modern land purchases; but these purchases reinforce the legitimacy of the in-migration.
- “Palestine” today represents the country that would rise out of Israel’s elimination; but in the decades before the creation of Israel in 1948, the term represented Zionist aspirations.
- The anti-Zionist argument emphasizes that, at the time of the British withdrawal in 1948, Jews owned only 6 to 10 percent of the territory’s land area. True, but when one discounts uncultivated and public land, the percentage becomes very much higher.
- The United States Government engaged in conquest against Indians but it too purchased substantial portions of its patrimony, especially the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Alaska Purchase of 1867.
- By coincidence, the Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday, “What If Jews Had Followed the Palestinian Path?” by Warren Kozak that makes a parallel point to my own: “It is doubtful that there has ever been a more miserable human refuse than Jewish survivors after World War II… Yet within a very brief time, this epic calamity disappeared, so much so that few people today even remember the period. How did this happen in an era when Palestinian refugees have continued to be stateless for generations?”
(June 21, 2011)
Source material can be found at this site.