The Palestinian People: A History

Authors: Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal

Harvard University Press, 2003

Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University, and Joel Migdal, professor at the University of Washington. They are said to be objective in this work. And there are some who believe the book is biased in favor of the Palestinians.

Here is my description of some of the substance of the book.   

In the early 1800s Jerusalem was a small rundown place less that one square kilometer with fewer than 10,000 people – about 25 percent of whom were Jews, with most of the rest Muslims and some Christians. Some in Jerusalem were working in small industries such as soap, textiles, leather, pottery or selling Christian souvenirs. The town had unlit and muddy streets. Dung and feces were about. With no water sources of its own there was a shortage of water for drinking and bathing.

In 1834 the region that includes Jerusalem was ruled by Egypt's Muhammad Ali. Let us call this region Palestine, which is what the Romans of antiquity renamed Judea after they had expelled the Jews. The book estimates that the population of Palestine around 1834 was "probably under a quarter of a million" people, including "several tens of thousands of Jews," with the Christians being about 20 percent of those who were not Jews.

In 1834, people in Palestine revolted against Egyptian rule, a revolt inspired by dislike for conscription into Egypt's army, conscription meaning little chance of a son returning to his family. Muhammad Ali's son, Ibraham, crushed the rebellion and disarmed the populace – a shock for Muslim men, for whom owning a rifle had been a way of life. Within a decade, the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople won back his rule over Palestine, ousting the Egyptians. The sultan initiated reforms in Palestine, including new rights for Jews. These new rights encouraged Jewish immigration, decades before there was such a thing as Zionism, and by 1870 the number of Jews in Jerusalem were around 11,000 – half of the town's population and up from around 2,000 in 1800.

More ships from Europe began docking at Palestine's ports, with European merchants arriving to do business, while Arab-Christian merchants were playing a "disproportionately large role" in the area's economy, settling in greater number in coastal towns and maintaining ties with the shipments of goods from Europe. In the 1860s, Palestinian farmers were growing more cash crops for the international market, this kind of agriculture expanding dramatically along the coastal plain and in the northern valleys. Crops sold to Europe included sesame, cotton, oranges, olives and wine grapes. 

In the 1880s that Zionism arose in Europe. Jewish migrations increased with the mistreatment of Jews in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, but Palestine attracted only a small percentage of these migrants, most of them preferring to go westward and preferring to remain among Europeans. Few Jewish young people in Europe were interested in what had been the Jewish homeland more than seventeen centuries before.

Some of what Jewish immigration there was to Palestine was directed toward settling in agricultural areas. In 1908 a Jewish land development company was training workers for farming and settling cooperative groups on newly purchased land, and some Arabs in rural areas were disturbed by this intrusion. Tensions in the rural areas over land and water were long-standing and occasionally agriculture had been disrupted by violence before the Jews had arrived. 

Between 1870 and 1914 the population of Palestine grew about 70 percent. Jerusalem had increased from 22,000 in 1870 to around 70,000, with Jews numbering around 45,000 and the Muslims slipping to the smallest ethnic grouping in the city. Coastal towns such as Jaffa, Haifa and Gaza resembled Mediterranean cities -- Marseille, Athens, Beirut and Alexandria. European plays were being staged in these cities in 1911. Palestine had become connected to Europe not only by shipping lines but also by railroads and a telegraph network. And in the cities there was amity between the Arabs, the Palestinian Jews and the Europeans.

In 1914 the Great War began, the Ottomans on the side of Germany and Austria, against the French and British. The Ottomans drafted people of the area into their army, leaving areas with little more than the elderly, women and children. The Ottoman military commandeered farm animals and grain and denuded the landscape, chopping down trees for fuel and taking fodder for their animals. Many Jews left Palestine. Life in the coastal towns dried up. The British army came by way of Egypt and pushed the Ottomans northward, marching in triumph into Jerusalem in October, 1918. And by that time the economy of Palestine was in ruin.

The victorious British stayed in Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate. During the war the British had proclaimed a commitment to creating a homeland in Palestine for the Jews – but not an independent state for the Jews. The British hoped for Arab cooperation, and they sided with conservative Arab leadership in Palestine, while Palestinian small farmers were being heavily taxed or, in some instances, taxed into ruination. The British restored Palestine's links to the world market. At Haifa they built a modern port that included an oil refinery and facilities for exporting oil from Iraq. The British expanded the port facilities at Jaffa, added a new airport, new roads and railroads. And Palestine's trade increased beyond what it had been before the Great War.

In talks with Arab political leaders, "the Zionists spoke openly of their hope to bring 4-5 million Jews to Palestine."  Their openness about it -- in my view but not expressed by the authors – an indication that they were expecting or at least hoping for cooperation rather than conflict. 

The Jews bought more farmland and were introducing new techniques in irrigation, new seed varieties and improving farming in general. Arab small farmers generally were unable to afford the risks involved in changing their farming ways. Most of the Arab farmers were small land-holders – "the hill and village fellaheen," -- and had fallen further behind Palestine's money-making elites, while paying from 25 to 50 percent of their income to the government in taxes, and some of them were leaving farming and moving to the cities in search of work.

In 1929, riots and killings took place between Palestinians and Jews. Arab leaders decried the plight of Arab victims of the riots "to enhance the sense of a shared fate among the Arab population. They established aid committees for families of those arrested and killed and made the three Arabs hanged by the British into national martyrs." Arab hostility shifted against the British and against Palestinians friendly toward the British.

In 1930 came the worldwide Great Depression. Palestine's economy fell. From Palestine's cities thousands of migrants returned to their home villages. Then in 1936 in Palestine came the Great Revolt. It was sparked by the murder of two Jews. Jews retaliated, leaving two Arabs dead. The Arabs were not satisfied and retaliated with "horrifying" violence. Guerrilla bands formed and attacked Jewish settlements and British installations. Arabs attacked those they considered collaborators or traitors, and occasionally they settled vendettas. The guerrillas demanded support from the villagers and town people. The British fought the rebels into 1938. The popularity of the guerrillas wore thin. The fighting between the guerrillas and British waned. The British killed one rebel leader and his band dissolved. Another band of rebels surrendered to the French in Syria. Transjordan (as Jordan was called at the time) extradited the leader of another band to the British and the British hanged him. The Arabs were exhausted and divided. But, according to the authors, Kimmerling and Migdal, across the years of revolt Arabs had acquired a new nationalism and identity as Palestinians.

To mollify Arab opinion, the British had backed away from their promise of a homeland for the Jews. Then came World War II, at the close of which came more Jewish immigration, which the British tried to stop. Some Jews organized attacks against the British and their rule in Palestine, Arabs remained opposed to British rule, and the British wanted out.

The United Nations was involved in the British departure from Palestine. As best it could, the U.N. created a partition of Palestine, between an area to be ruled by Arabs and an area to be ruled by Jews – the Arab-ruled areas to have a Jewish minority and the Jewish-ruled area to have  an Arab minority. The Arab Higher Committee responded on February 6, 1948, announcing that it would never recognize the validity of the partition nor the UN's authority to implement it. 

Arabs began their war against partition. Palestinian Arabs numbered around 1.3 million. The Jews numbered around 620,000. But the Jews had a "disproportionate share of young men of army age – one and a half times the Arab figure." And the Jews had women engaged in auxiliary military roles, while such roles on the Arab side were closed to Muslim women. 

An attack on a Jewish bus near the town of Lydda started the fighting. Arabs captured isolated Jewish neighborhoods and settlements, and Arab guerrilla forces attacked oil refineries in Haifa, Jewish areas in Jerusalem and neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. Jews met Arab attacks with "a fury of their own." They mobilized a regular army of 15,000 full-time soldiers and switched from reacting to Arab initiative to a strategy they called "active defense." They took advantage of political and social divisions among the Palestinians. Some Arab communities concluded peace agreements with the Jews, and some expelled Arab fighters in order to avoid retaliation by the Jews. In May, Arab League countries sent a volunteer force against the Jews, consisting of about 4,000 men, largely from Syria. But they were ineffective against the Jews and withdrew.

The town of  Dayr Yasin was caught in a Jewish offensive to break the Arab stronghold on Jerusalem, and, according to the authors, many of the men, women and children remaining in the village were killed, and rapes occurred. "Those not killed immediately were ignominiously paraded through Jerusalem and then sent to the city's Arab sector."

For their own purposes, both Israeli and Arab sources later inflated the number of those killed to approximately 250. A recent study by a team of researchers at Bir Zeit University found that the figure probably did not exceed 120.

The authors write of the "Arab media" using Dayr Yasin to claim Zionism's innate wickedness. Broadcasts and newspaper stories were followed by mass demonstrations in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Tripoli. And in neighboring Arab countries there were attacks on local Jewish communities. The Jews had massacres they could complain about – the 1929 massacre of Jews at Hebron for example. At any rate, the publicity that the Arab media gave to the Dayr Yasin massacre struck fear into Palestinian Arabs, "speeding the pace with which they ran for their lives, from other villages and even from large cities such as Haifa." Estimates of Arabs seeking refuge vary between 750 thousand and a million. They ran to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, including its Gaza Strip, and into Jordan, including Jordan's West Bank.

Israel created the Law of Absented Properties in 1950, applied to land abandoned by Arabs, and it has been estimated "that as much as 40 percent of Arab lands" within Israel was confiscated through this law. Jews migrating to Israel settled the abandoned lands, houses, neighborhoods and villages.

In the wake of the war, Arabs that remained within Israel were viewed by Israelis as potentially dangerous and treated coldly and with discrimination. Water and electricity allocations for Arabs within Israel were unequal to that given to the more productive Jewish communal settlements (the kibbutzim and moshavim).  Arab agriculture in Israel diminished and "many Israeli Arabs abandoned agriculture all together."

Arabs within Israel became Israeli citizens, and the phobia among Jews toward Arabs in Israel diminished. The talented among the Israeli Arabs went to universities, learned Hebrew, sometimes with a fluency superior to Jewish Hebrew speakers. Some Arab businessmen were succeeding. But, when traveling outside of Israel, these Arabs found themselves shunned by their fellow Arabs. They became, according to the authors "odd man out in the region."  

In 1967 came the Six Day War, which ended with Israel occupying the West Bank and Gaza. In these territories Israel "granted a relatively large degree of self-government," and Israel tried to create an image of friendly occupier. Israel's defense minister, Moshe Dayan, was the primary architect of the policy toward the occupied territories, and he "insisted on open bridges for the movement of people and goods between the West Bank and Jordan." Israel oversaw the creation of the first Palestinian university --  Bir Zeit in 1972 and Gaza Islamic in 1978.

The West Bank had been Jordan's territory, but few people there had "considered themselves primarily Jordanians." Nor, according to the authors, had they thought of themselves as Palestinians. Among them, Palestinian was "beginning to gain currency," while people in the Gaza Strip (in what was officially Egypt) were also acquiring use of the word Palestinian.

The Gaza strip was no longer considered Egyptian following the agreement between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel at Camp David in December, 1977. Begin had wanted Egypt to take responsibility for Gaza, but Sadat did not want it. And Begin was not about to turn the strip over to the Arabs who lived there.

A harder line toward the occupation had arisen with the coming to power of the conservative Likud party in Israel, in 1977, while many in the West Bank were integrated into the Israeli labor market. Israel's economy was a powerhouse in the area, rising well about the economy of its neighbors, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli economy needed cheap labor, and Palestinian Arabs in the region needed work.   

The Israeli economy overheated, and by 1980 "it was evident that real wages for those working in Israel were eroding." Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza began suffering from unemployment. By the early 1980s, "occupation-with-a-smile" had turned into hardened military rule – a stick far more than a carrot. By 1985, Israel's economy was in greater trouble. A report on workers from one West Bank village indicated that between 1980 and 1985 inflation had cut their real wages in half. In the late 1980s an influx of Jews from the Soviet Union was exacerbating the problem, the Soviet Jews filling menial jobs that Arabs had held.

Hostility toward the Israelis by Palestinian-Arabs had increased, and on December 8, 1987, an Israeli truck hit two vans carrying Gaza laborers. Four Arabs were killed, and rumor spread that the incident was intentional. Thousands of mourners attacked a nearby Israeli army post with stones. The first Intifada had begun, its battles mainly that of Arab youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

In 1992 the Likud government led by Yitzhak Shamir was replaced by a Labor Party government, led by Yitzhak Rabin. In August 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by Yassir Arafat, and Israel worked out a framework for negotiations to end the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israel – a framework known as the Oslo Accords. The international community was encouraged. By October 1993, various donor states and agencies – including the World Bank and forty countries -- were enthusiastic about peace and promised billions of dollars of help for the Palestinians, to be delivered gradually, year by year. The new money that started arriving was channeled through the new Palestinian Authority – run by Yassir Arafat – for the purpose of bolstering new institutions, supporting the Palestinian governmental agencies and to pay the employees of the Palestinian Authority.  Then came talk of corruption within the Palestinian Authority, including a whispering campaign among Palestinians. This contributed to demoralization of the population, and it raised the level of crime. And the talk of corruption "lent strength" among those who preferred an Islamic rather than a secular Palestine and were hostile toward compromise with Israel. The flow of money to the Palestinian Authority slowed, and with continuing tensions between Israel and the PLO, Israel turned down the PLO's request to open a central bank and to print Palestinian money. 

Hopes among Palestinian Arabs for improvement in the quality of their lives went largely unrealized, while negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continued. The "peace-making process" was a gradual, step-by-step affair, based on a hope that gradually trust and confidence would be built between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis went to the negotiating table with two wants: security and recognition of the existence of the Israeli state. According to the authors, the Palestinians were being asked to give up "78 percent of historic Palestine" and the Israelis were unwilling to make any concessions other than allowing the creation of a Palestinian state, over which they were to have military authority. According to the authors, "Palestinians inside and outside the [occupied] territories saw Israel's unwillingness to dismantle settlements and, even worse, its continuous thickening of settlements through the entire Oslo process as an ominous sign." According to the authors, the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled between the signing of the Olso agreement in 1993 to the year 2000, and during this period, write the authors, "not a single Israeli prime minister reassured the Palestinians by indicating that all, or even most, settlements would be dismantled."

In the United States, a well known Palestinian-American academic, Edward W. Said, described as a moderate within Palestinian circles, swung against the Oslo agreement, viewing it as a total surrender to Zionism and the West. Another academic in the U.S., Rashid Khalidi, joined the opposition against an agreement with Israel, Khalidi complaining, in the words of the authors:

Israel had applied the classical colonial strategy of converting direct military control into indirect control by taking advantage of Palestinian collaborators ... and utilizing economic, technological, and military authority.

Hamas remained "the foremost opposition in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to accommodation with Israel." Hamas favored the establishment of a theocratic state, and it considered Arafat's role in the negotiations as "a great historic act of treason."

Issues such as final borders, the holy shrines in Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements, the return of refugees and the sharing of water sources were not addressed until last. Camp David, in July 2000, Yasser Arafat turned town Israel's offer. Then in September 2000 came the second Intifada. The first Intifada had refrained from the use of firearms in order, according to the authors, "not to give the Israelis an excuse to use their overpowering military advantage and to preserve, as well, the popular color of the uprising." The second Intifada took up firearms against Israeli military personnel and settlers. Then came the suicide bombers.

Economic integration between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis was at an end. The Israelis were striking back militarily against attacks by those it called terrorists, and Palestinians were striking back against what it viewed as Israeli aggression.

The book is 480 pages. The review presented by included the following:

Kimmerling and Migdal unravel what went right-and what went wrong-in the Oslo peace process, and what lessons we can draw about the forces that help to shape a people. The authors present a balanced, insightful, and sobering look at the realities of creating peace in the Middle East.

More details about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the 20th century can be found on this site at "Palestine, Jews and Muslims, to 1950," "Islam, Arabs and Israelis, to 1988," and a summary of Michael Oren's book, Six Days of War.

Copyright © 2003-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.