By Richard Mather…
There is an old and rare book calledPalestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata, written by Hadriani Relandi (a mapmaker and scholar from Utrecht) and published in 1714. It documents Relandi’s trip to Palestine in 1695-96. On his travels he surveyed around 2,500 places that were mentioned in the Tanakh and/or Mishnah, and he carried out a census of the people who resided in such places. He made some very interesting discoveries. For a start, he discovered that not a single settlement in Palestine had a name that was of Arabic origin. Instead the names derived from Hebrew, Roman and Greek languages.
Another interesting discovery was the conspicuous absence of a sizeable Muslim population. Instead, he found that most of the inhabitants of Palestine were Jews, along with some Christians and a few Bedouins. Nazareth was home to less than a thousand Christians, while Jerusalem held 5,000 people, mostly Jews. Gaza was home to around 250 Jews and about the same number of Christians. The only exception was Nablus where around 120 Muslims lived, along with a handful of Samaritans, whose ancestors belonged to the northern tribes of Israel.
Intrigued by the findings in Relandi’s book, I looked at other first-hand sources, such as travelogues, governmental reports and censuses. I wasn’t sure I would find anything. But there is a surprising quantity of data and anecdotal evidence. And all the evidence suggests that the majority of non-Jewish (i.e. Arab Muslim and Christian) immigration to Palestine began in the mid or late 1800s.
Drawing on work by statistician and demographer Roberto Bachi, it is estimated that there were 151,000 non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine in 1540. (Some sources indicate that many of these were descendants of Jews who had remained in Palestine following the failed Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE but had been forced to convert to Islam). By 1800, the non-Jewish population had grown to around 268,000, rising to 489,000 by 1890, 589,000 in 1922 and just over 1.3 million in 1948. The vast majority of these non-Jewish migrants were Muslims. All of which suggests that most of the Muslim (and Christian) inhabitants of Palestine were recent immigrants and had not been living there for generations as is sometimes suggested. Moreover, the figures show that Arab immigration was a fast-growing trend, propelled by external circumstances. But what?
Firstly, several thousand peasant farmers had come to Palestine in the first half of the 19th century to escape Egypt’s military draft, forced labour and taxes. Secondly, the Ottoman authorities transferred a great many people from Morocco, Algeria and Egypt to Palestine in the early part of the 20th century, partly in an effort to outflank Jewish immigration. Thirdly, the Zionist project was very attractive to Arabs who were drawn to Palestine by the good wages, healthcare and sanitation offered by the Jews. Indeed, the Muslim infant mortality rate in Palestine fell from 201 per 1,000 in 1925 to 94 per 1,000 in 1945. Meanwhile, life expectancy rose from 37 to 49 years.
Furthermore, the Arab population of Palestine increased the most in cities where there were large numbers of Jews, which is a strong indication that Arabs were drawn to Palestine because of the Zionists. Between 1922 and 1947, the Arab population grew by 290 per cent in Haifa, 158 per cent in Jaffa and 131 per cent in Jerusalem. Tellingly, the growth in Arab-majority towns was far less dramatic: 37 per cent in Bethlehem, 42 per cent in Nablus and 78 per cent in Jenin.
During the British civil administration in Palestine (1920 to 1948), restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration in order to appease Arab troublemakers. However, the situation regarding Arab settlement was much more lax. Historian and author Freddy Liebreich claims there was significant Arab immigration from the Hauran region of Syria during the Mandate era – and that the British authorities turned a blind eye.
However, some people were taking notice. The Hope Simpson Enquiry (1930) observed there was significant illegal Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria, which was negatively affecting prospective Jewish immigrants and contributing to Arab violence against Jews. The British Governor of the Sinai between 1922 and 1936 substantiated the view that unchecked Arab immigration was taking place, with most of the immigrants coming from the Sinai, Transjordan and Syria. And the Peel Commission reported in 1937 that a “shortfall of land” was “due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.”
Immigration continued at a pace until the Jews declared independence in 1948. The fact that Arab (largely Muslim) immigration continued right up until Israeli independence is borne out by the United Nations stipulation that any Arab refugee who had lived in Palestine for a mere two years prior to Jewish independence was entitled to refugee status. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency, Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
If there were very few non-Jewish inhabitants in Palestine in the 16th and 17th centuries, what happened to the Arab invaders who arrived in 629 CE? Well, for a start, very few of the invaders actually stayed in Palestine. Many became absentee landlords who used native tenants to cultivate their estates and to pay the dhimmi tax. This is why Palestine, along with Egypt and Syria, remained overwhelmingly Christian for several more centuries. It is possible, however, that following the Muslim reconquest in 1187, many Jewish and Christian inhabitants of Palestine were forced to convert to Islam, thereby pushing up the number of Muslim inhabitants. However, Palestine’s population went into decline from the mid-14th century – in large part due to the Black Death, which swept in from eastern Europe and north Africa, travelling to Gaza, and making its way to Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. With no one to care for the land, many areas became malarial, especially in northern Palestine, which became largely uninhabitable. Depopulation continued as a consequence of the invasion of Palestine in 1831 by Muhammad Ali of Egypt and the ensuing Peasants’ Revolt of 1834, which reduced the male population of Palestine by about twenty per cent, with large numbers of peasants either deported to Egypt or drafted into Egypt’s military. Many others abandoned their farms and villages to join the Bedouin.
Clearly it would be futile to argue that there were few Arabs living in Palestine in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, but the figures do show that the Arab population of Palestine had been in state of flux for centuries and that the overwhelming majority were migrants from the rest of the Arab world and/or the Ottoman empire. This is important because it tells us that the postmodern notion of a deep-rooted Palestinian Arab history/culture is bogus. All the evidence points to the conspicuousabsence of Arab culture in late 17th century Palestine; and even in the 18th and 19th centuries the Arab inhabitants of Palestine were not indigenous but were latecomers. This explains why, historically, Arabs never talked about Palestinian identity – because there wasn’t one. They were Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Iraqi and Ottoman Arabs, and many of them expressed allegiance to the concept of a Greater Syria. In fact, until the 1960s the Arabs refused to call themselves Palestinians because it was a name reserved for the Jews! It seems hilarious now, but Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, referred to Jews in Europe as “Palestinians living among us.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s – nearly two decades after Israel declared independence – that a semi-coherent (and very violent) Palestinian Arab identity came into being. But even as late as the 1970s, the notion of a Palestinian people was still nothing more than a terrorist construct designed to undermine Jewish claims to the land of Israel. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper in 1977, PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhsein admitted that “the Palestinian people does not exist,” before adding: “The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the State of Israel.”
Whether Arab-Palestinian identity grows into something more constructive in the 21st century remains to be seen.