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An overview of the 20th century history of Palestine

Contributed by Terra Sancta School For Girls on 11.03.2006:

(with a focus upon the Bethlehem area)

Palestine and Zionism

At the beginning of the 20th century, Palestine was inhabited by some 600.000 Arabs and 60.000 Jews. The Arab Palestinians were largely a people of peasants living under impoverished conditions, with an urban presence in towns like Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. They lived under an oppressive Turkish (Ottoman) rule which, in the course of the 19th century, had increasingly weakened due to its internal lack of modernization and the growing influence of Western powers like Britain and France. These powers established strongholds in the Turkish Empire with the help of a system of commercial privileges and the establishment and development of local religious institutions and consular offices, especially in Jerusalem.

One factor that had a direct bearing upon the future of the land was the development of Zionism. Zionism, a national movement of European Jews, strove toward the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine yet without taking into account that the large majority of its inhabitants were Arabs.

During the turn of the century Bethlehem, an ancient, largely Christian, town some 10 km. south of Jerusalem, counted somewhat less than 10.000 inhabitants many of whom worked in the field of tourism and traditional crafts (especially olive wood carving and mother-of-pearl products). At the end of the 19th century, there was an emigration movement out of the town as a consequence of the new opportunities for marketing Holy Land products in the Americas. However, usually the people stayed there for only a brief time. It was poverty and the large-scale forced recruitment into the Ottoman army before and during the First World War which induced many to leave.

1914-1918: First World War

World War I shook the existing state of affairs in the Middle East. A nascent Arab nationalist movement entertained hopes to establish independency in the Arab districts of the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe.” The British High Commissioner of Egypt, McMahon, made a promise to Sherif Hussein of Mecca to that effect. In exchange, Sherif Hussein launched an Arab revolt out of the Arabian Peninsula into Jordan and Syria in support of the British war effort (the revolt involved the well-known Lawrence of Arabia). However, in 1916 the British and French secretly annulled the promise by agreeing to split the Ottoman Middle East up amongst themselves in the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Holy Places, including Bethlehem, were thought to come under an international administration.

1917: Balfour Declaration

In 1917 another contradictory promise was made. The British issued the Balfour Declaration, granting the Jews a homeland in Palestine even though they constituted less than 10% of the population at the eve of the war. Essentially, the British had curried favor with the Arabs by promising an independence they would never get. After the war, the defeated Ottoman Empire was divided at the San Remo Conference, April 1920, between the English and the French in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement and disguised under the “Mandate” or protectorate system issued by the League of Nations. The Western powers decided that the British Mandate over Palestine should bear a clause in which the Balfour Declaration was confirmed.

1920-1948: British Mandate

At the beginning of the century a new immigration wave of Jews took place, to be followed by other and larger waves in the 1920s and 1930s. Increasingly, Arab land was bought for Jewish agriculture. Whereas the Jewish presence on the land, organized centrally through a complex of institutions, was able to press their claims upon the British, the Arab cause primarily rested upon the power of a few leading families from Jerusalem who were weakened by internal rivalries. The Arabs also possessed less diplomatic and lobbying skills. They essentially fell back upon the impact of disturbances that originated in the streets of Jerusalem where conflicts around holy places sparked conflagrations that reached out towards the wider Palestinian countryside.

In the 1930s, especially 1936 through 1939, Palestine witnessed much upheaval including a six-month general strike to force Britain to stop Jewish immigration. Many were arrested and sent to detention camps.

Second World War

After each disturbance or protest, the British installed a commission to find out the reasons behind the unrest and to propose a solution that usually satisfied neither Arab nor Jew. During the Second World War, Jewish armed groups pressed the English to grant the Jews more immigration quotas and land. The Zionists also openly stated their desire for statehood. Their desire would become reality after the shocking event of the annihilation of the Jews in the Nazi Germany death camps. World public opinion, learning about the horrors of the camps, sided with the Zionist goal.

The Arab Palestinians were weak and their numbers dwindled, from 90% in 1922 to 70% in 1931 and 60% in 1948. As the majority of the country’s inhabitants and owning 90 % of the land, they could not absorb the idea that they would have to pay for the European crimes committed against the Jews. They stuck to the diplomatically ineffective attitude of refusing any other solution than a secular Arab state in the whole of Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations, who received the authority to decide about Palestine’s future after the British had acknowledged their inability to control the unrest, decided to divide the country into an Arab and a Jewish state, with the Holy Places, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to come under international administration.

1948: Nakba

Despite the political unrest, the period of the Second World War was a time of economic expansion. Individual Bethlehemites found employment and the town grew somewhat. The real shock for Bethlehem would come with the war of 1948, a war which led to independence for Israel but a nakba (disaster) for the Palestinian Arabs as hundreds of thousands had to flee their country and hundreds of villages were destroyed. Immediately after the UN partition plan in 1947, fighting started between armed Zionists and Arab guerrilla groups set up by locals who were aided by volunteers from the neighboring countries. A low-scale war continued up until April 1948 when, due to a massacre in the Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin, executed by a Zionist group, many Palestinians started to flee their homes. On May 14, 1948 the British administration left. The next day the Zionist leader David Ben Gurion announced the declaration of independence for the new state of Israel. Thereupon the Arab armies entered the country, and, as the Israeli army cleared the countryside from many Palestinian villages, the Zionists gained the upper hand due to their greater organizational and military competence. Israel expanded the territories allotted to it by the UN proposal with some 20%, occupying West-Jerusalem as well. Jordan conjoined East-Jerusalem and the West Bank, including Bethlehem.

By September 1948, the official number of refugees in the Bethlehem area was estimated to be 21,030. Relief work was organized by the Red Cross, two years before the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) stepped in to oversee the setting up of three refugee camps in Bethlehem: Dheisheh, Azza and Aida camps.

As a result of the war many wealthy Bethlehemites lost houses along or in the vicinity of the Hebron-Jerusalem road inside Jerusalem that they had previously built or bought but which were now in the Israeli-controlled part of the city. Of greater influence for Bethlehem’s development was the afore-mentioned influx of refugees. In one year Bethlehem’s population grew from 9,000 to 35,000, with additional refugee camps near its borders. Bethlehem’s population and charitable institutions did the most they could do to provide hospitality to the incoming refugees. Many of the refugees attempted to find home in the historical center of Bethlehem, in small cellars or terraces, wherever they could find a place. The people had to live in crowded and cramped conditions.

1948-1967 The Jordanian regime in the West Bank

The Jordanian presence in the West Bank and East-Jerusalem was welcomed by a segment of the Palestinian higher classes. In 1951 nationalist Palestinians assassinated King Abdallah of Jordan near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In subsequent years the Jordanians, ruled by the young King Hussein, tended to favor the development of the East Bank rather than the Palestinian side of the Jordan. Jerusalem and Bethlehem also became neglected. Foreign travelers had to enter the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem and cross a no man’s land zone in order to reach the Jordanian side of the cease-fire line.

The neglect of the West Bank had political overtones as well. The presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees across the Jordan created an inherent lack of stability inside the Kingdom, which made the Jordanian monarchy particularly sensitive about anything that could disrupt the Kingdom’s balance.

1967: The June War

After 1948, the 1967 war was a second shock for the Palestinians and the Arab world. Not only were the lost lands not recovered, but the Israelis also became the occupiers of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They came in control of the whole of British mandated Palestine, and, with the occupation of Sinai and the Golan Heights, additional Egyptian and Syrian lands as well. Immediately after the war Israel annexed East-Jerusalem and expanded the city’s boundaries. No less than 16 square kilometers were confiscated from Bethlehem lands. In the coming years, new Jerusalem suburbs would arise on former Jordanian lands.

Politically, the Palestinian people were disoriented. With the Arab armies and countries discredited after the lost war, the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, filled the political void and kindled the nationalist hope of the Palestinian population.

1967-1987: The Israeli Occupation until the Intifada

For a long time, up until the end of the 1970s, the administration of Bethlehem took care to walk the fine line between loyalty to the national Palestinian cause and a special relationship with Jordan’s King Hussein, combined with a certain co-existence with the Israeli occupation. Most working class Bethlehemites saw their family income increasing, yet the community as a whole did not develop under occupation.

On the international level, the Palestinian cause seemed to move forward for a time. Bethlehem welcomed the increasing international recognition that the PLO gained after the mid-1970s and the 1980s, especially in the Third World and Europe. However, the facts on the ground did not improve; institutions whose pupils or students participated in political demonstrations were often faced by oppressive measures such as temporary closures, and the prospects for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state looked remote. The level of services in the Bethlehem area slowly declined. With a new economic crisis in the mid-1980s, and people starting to become desperate about a national solution, the time became ripe for something more drastic.

1987-1993: Intifada

At the end of 1987 the Palestinian people embarked upon a massive uprising, the Intifada. Literally every town and village in the West Bank and Gaza Strip participated. Youngsters took to the streets and threw stones at Israeli soldiers. There was a great amount of solidarity among the people. They organized daily life through neighborhood committees and other decentralized structures. Israel reacted with shock and brutality; the wide-scale beatings and collective punishments made headlines throughout the world. As many schools were forced to close, teachers were involved in “illegal education,” conducting their classroom jobs at private places or at local institutions.

A well-renowned episode of the uprising was the tax revolt initiated by the people of Beit Sahour in 1989. They refused to pay taxes even when the tax officers under the guidance of the Israeli army confiscated all their possessions. Many local organizations took up the national cause, including church-related institutions.

The Intifada declined after the Gulf War in 1990 that proved to be negative for the political and diplomatic standing of the Palestinian movement due to the Palestinian leadership’s association with the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Israelis imposed a full curfew on Palestinian towns and villages that lasted for several weeks.

1993-2000 The Oslo Peace Accords and its aftermath

Unfortunately, the Intifada did not lead to more than a broad international acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as envisioned in the Palestinian declaration of Independence of 15 November 1988. The situation on the ground did not develop in a positive direction. By lack of political follow-up, the movement lost momentum. During the 1990s, the Palestinians longed for peace but lacked political strength and inner self-confidence. A significant part of them accepted the Oslo Agreement of 1993, while the secular leftist parties and the Islamist movement opposed it.

The Oslo Agreement represented an ambiguous turn of events. Despite the high expectations and the positive media coverage, the peace was in subsequent years felt at a symbolic level only; on the ground the reality became more difficult than ever. The newly established Palestinian National Authority (PNA) under the leadership of the newly elected president, Yasser Arafat, had a very limited power. Even under the government of Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin, signatory to the Oslo Accords, the settlement process expanded exponentially. Israel’s closure policy after the desperate attacks by Islamic militants in Israel’s cities made thousands of Palestinian laborers jobless. From 1996 on, with the advent of the Israeli Netanyahu government, the peace process remained in a stalemate. As a result of the Israeli opening of a tunnel near the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem in 1996, dozens of Palestinian youth were killed by Israeli soldiers in the following disturbances.

After having lost 16 square kilometers of lands immediately after the 1967 war, Bethlehem suffered further land expropriations to accommodate the establishment of a series of settlements which, together with their connecting roads, literally surrounded the town and robbed it from any space left for future expansion or agricultural development.

After the Oslo Agreement, economic conditions in the Bethlehem area witnessed a steep decline. For some years the unemployment ratio reached levels felt never before in the West Bank, up to 40%. Bethlehem was especially affected since closures prevented laborers to leave the town for their work in Israel while, conversely, tourist buses were often prevented from entering the town. Moreover, the Oslo Agreement defined the West Bank into different zones, some of them fully under control of the Palestinian Authority, others, the large majority, under Israeli authority, and still others under a combined Palestinian civil authority and Israeli military rule. This artificial arrangement led to a fragmentation of the West Bank and made it possible for Israel to announce so-called “internal closures” whereby Palestinians were not permitted to cross from one into another zone. The Bethlehem area, including the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, was itself split up in zones.

Despite that, Bethlehem started the year 2000 with fireworks and concerts and prided a renovated downtown center as a result of the works of the “Bethlehem 2000” Committee.

2000-: The Al-Aqsa (or Second) Intifada

After the arrival to power of the Israeli prime minister Barak in 1998, the Oslo peace process entered its stage of negotiations about the so-called final status issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, water resources, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Although distrust reined among the Palestinians due to the growth of settlements and the postponement of further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza as stipulated by the Oslo Agreement, both delegations, guided by US president Clinton, went into serious discussions at Camp David in the summer of 2000. The talks broke down. Arafat announced the possible establishment of a Palestinian state at the end of the year which, however, did not come into being. When the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Haram Al-Sharif plaza in Jerusalem on 29 September, many Palestinian youth demonstrated against this overt showing of Israel’s wish to keep control over the Holy Places in Jerusalem. The Israeli army ruthlessly killed dozens and injured hundreds. At that moment all the accumulated frustrations came out in an “Al-Aqsa Intifada” that quickly spread over all areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Stone-throwing Palestinian youth defied the well-armed Israeli soldiers who killed hundreds of them as well as others who happened to be in the vicinity of the clashes. At the same time, Palestinian gunmen started shooting at Israeli suburbs, and several settlers were killed in so-called “drive-by shootings.” The Palestinian territories started to live under closures that had never been so strict. In the Bethlehem area, it were especially the people in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and those living in the surroundings of Rachel’s Tomb (Aida and Azza camps) who bore the brunt of the Israeli shelling and shootings. Hundreds lost their homes.

Further talks between Israel and the PNA did not manage to establish a breakthrough in the Egyptian resort of Taba. In February 2001 the new Israeli prime minister Sharon formed a national coalition that included Likud, Labour and various right-wing parties. The Oslo peace process was moribund. If anything, the situation deteriorated further, with militant Islamic groups executing suicide attacks in Israel, and Israel clamping down on the Palestinian population with closures and military actions against PNA centers as well as against civilians.

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