Politics & Policy

Not Stealing Palestine, but Purchasing Israel

The real history of Israel’s founding, and why it matters

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 almost the most peaceable in-migration and state creation in history. Understanding why requires seeing Zionism in context. Simply put, conquest is the historical norm. Governments everywhere have been established through invasion and 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 after the defeat of 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, they are overwhelmingly the offspring 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, 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 Mandate of Palestine gave up power 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 twelfth-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.

— Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2011 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved

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