We are all very used to hearing on the news about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If someone were to suggest to the average person that for over a hundred years, 80 per cent of Palestine has been solely and exclusively under the rule of Muslim Arabs, and not a single Jew has lived there during this time, they would likely be seen as either a madman or liar. Nevertheless, this is the sober and unvarnished truth. To understand how this is possible, we should ask ourselves a simple question: where is Palestine?
At first glance, posing the question of where Palestine is may seem absurd to many of us. Ask anyone, and they’re likely to give the same automatic—and wholly incorrect—response: that Palestine covers the same area as the modern state of Israel. Isn’t this the essential nature of the problem in that part of the Middle East, that two peoples both lay claim to the same patch of land? The history of how this false perception came about is a fascinating one and tells us a great deal about just how devious Britain once was as a colonial power.
The map above shows Israel and what is widely believed to be the geographical extent of Palestine. However, prior to the First World War, there had never been a country or nation called Palestine. Two thousand years ago the area was part of the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, covering what is now Syria, Israel, and parts of Jordan. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the territory was seized by Arab armies, the Europeans during the Crusades, and eventually the Ottoman Empire, which ruled that part of the Eastern Mediterranean from Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). This was the situation when the First World War began in 1914. Palestine had never had clearly defined borders, nor had it ever been an independent nation. Nevertheless, Jews and Arabs had both lived in the area for more than a thousand years.
Most of us have heard of Lawrence of Arabia, the British army officer who encouraged the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. His chief allies in this endeavour were the Hashemites, a family which had been the hereditary custodians of the holy places of Arabia for centuries. Sharif Hussein and his sons were promised that after the war had been won, they would be granted independence and autonomy in the Arabian Peninsula. However, both the British and French had plans to retain their influence in the parts of the Middle East which now comprise Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. This was a matter of realpolitik; in Mosul, for instance, there were large oil fields which the British coveted.
The League of Nations, similar in many ways to the modern United Nations, granted the British a mandate to administer what are now Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, and the French a mandate to rule over Syria. Explicitly stated in the British mandate over Palestine was the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. For the first time in history, the borders of Palestine were clearly delineated on a map, as seen in the below illustration. This map, however, shows something peculiar: Palestine is five times larger than the state of Israel. So what happened to 80 per cent of Mandate Palestine? The answer is curious.
After the First World War, the Hashemites were driven out of Arabia by the rival Saud family, who still rule the region to this day. Dispossessed of their homeland, the Hashemites looked elsewhere for kingdoms to which they felt that they were entitled and believed had been promised them by the British. One of Sharif’s sons, Faisal, declared himself king of Syria. However, he was soon driven out by the French and marched to Baghdad, where he was installed in 1921 as king of Iraq on behalf of the British. Meanwhile, his brother Abdullah, without a throne, gathered an army of Bedouin and announced his plans to invade Syria to seize it for his own. This would have been a major embarrassment to the British, who protected him, so when he reached Amman, a Palestinian city, it was suggested he be content with the area east of the Jordan River. This area—a considerable chunk of Palestine—was renamed Transjordan, and Abdullah was appointed Emir or ruler.
It must be noted that Abdullah and his Bedouin army had no relation to Palestine, and the people living there were not consulted about the British decision to give their lands to men whom the Palestinians considered foreigners. From that moment onwards, all the promises made by both Britain and the League of Nations about the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine rang a little hollow, since 80 per cent of the country was now off-limits to them. Instead, they were to be limited to a small sliver of land along the coast.
In this way, the foundations for the present, highly undesirable state of affairs was laid a century ago. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948, a war ensued with the neighbouring Arab countries. Taking advantage of this opportunity, King Abdullah annexed another chunk of Palestine, that area which is now known as the West Bank. It will perhaps be remembered that for the next twenty years, nobody seemed in the least concerned about this expansionist policy, nor was there any suggestion that the Palestinians living on the so-called ‘West Bank’ should be granted a state of their own. It was only after Israel regained control of the area in 1967 that this idea began to be mooted.
The Palestinians have never reconciled themselves to the theft of the great majority of their country by the Hashemite family and their Bedouin army. In 1970, a bitter civil war broke out in Jordan as the Palestinians attempted to regain control of their country and force out the Hashemites. However, this failed and many Palestinians were forced into exile, particularly in Lebanon. It is curious that few people in the West seemed concerned about these developments. It was only when the Palestinians and Jews clashed that anybody took any notice. It seems to be an accepted truth that the Hashemites and their Bedouin forces have a perfectly legitimate right to occupy the greater part of Palestine, and any turmoil in the region is to be blamed solely on Israel.
In 1921, Palestine was effectively divided into two parts, with the larger segment allocated solely to Arabs, and the smaller being given to Jewish settlers. This de facto partition is now largely forgotten, and instead, Israel – which only covers roughly 8,000 square miles, similar to the size of Wales – is constantly vilified for its stubbornness and urged to yield more of its territory to establish an independent Palestinian state. However, when looking at the original map of Palestine, it becomes clear how monstrously unjust it is to expect Israel to accommodate an entire Palestinian homeland, while the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is free to occupy four-fifths of the country.
The title of this piece poses a question, the answer to which may seem obvious to most readers: Palestine is in Israel and has been occupied and dispossessed by the country. However, as is so often the case, the reality is far more complex than it first appears. The truth is that the majority of Palestine lies not in Israel but in Jordan. Israel has attempted to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians living within its territory by permitting a semi-autonomous status to the so-called West Bank. By contrast, Jordan fought a fierce war to drive the Palestinians out of the country that they had, with Britain’s help, stolen from them. The Hashemites, supported by their mainly Bedouin army, show no inclination to share the country they seized and occupied with the Palestinians and are determined to not surrender any of it for the cause of peace. To an unbiased observer, the Western preoccupation with that small part of Palestine that lies to the west of the river Jordan, while ignoring the other four-fifths of the country, is odd.