Whose Land Is Palestine?

A book called Whose Land is Palestine? provides a good grounding for the contested historical claims in Israel-Palestine.

The treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel is one of the world’s most intractable problems. Here is a recent example, and let’s be clear about where it began. A group of Israeli settlers is using the courts to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. This happens often and has, by one means or another, since 1948. The already tense situation was made worse when Israeli police chose to lay siege at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Predictably, the attempted evictions by settlers have led to demonstrations and the situation escalated into increasing violence.

Historical grounding  

I have read and reread a book which provides a good historical grounding for ever-shifting events in Israel, Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territory. Whose Land Is Palestine? was written by Frank Epp and published in 1970 by McClelland and Stewart. Epp was a historian, a journalist, and a Mennonite pastor. He died in 1986 at age 57. He led a study tour to the region in 1969 and wrote his book soon after. Clearly, he had a faith-based audience in mind, which is relevant today because some of those people believe that God gave Palestine to the Jews.

Israel’s creation

Israel’s creation as a state in 1948 is one entry point into this long and contested history. Israel’s contemporary existence was advocated by Zionists, initially a secular movement of European Jews who believed that they must create a homeland which they controlled. There were proposals that such a state could be created within Argentina, Uganda, and even the United States, near Buffalo;  but by 1897, Palestine emerged as the preferred location.

Zionists raised money and organized for a trickle of Jewish settlers to emigrate to agricultural colonies in Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Turks. The British, eager for victory in the First World War, promised to support the territorial claims in the region of both the Arabs and the Zionists; but ultimately in the Balfour declaration they came out in support of a Jewish state. Following the war, the League of Nations created Mandate Palestine, placing Great Britain in control of establishing a Jewish national home. At the same time, the League promised that the civil and religious rights of all inhabitants would be protected.    

The trickle of Jewish immigration grew into a flood following the Second World War, in which Jews had suffered genocidal persecution. In November 1947, the United Nations, prodded by Great Britain and the United States, voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections. At the time, there were 1.3 million Arabs living there and 600,000 Jews, most of whom were recent arrivals from Europe. In the partition, the proposed Jewish state was to receive 56 per cent of the land area at a time when Jewish proprietors owned only six per cent of it. As Epp described it: “The attempt to redress a wrong committed against the Jews produced a similar wrong against the Palestinian Arabs.”

Unilateral declaration

The UN planned for a gradual and mediated transition, but on May 14, 1948 Jewish Zionists unilaterally declared the state of Israel. That immediately led to fighting and a mass expulsion, in which an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 Palestinians, including Christians, were evicted from their homes and land. Many fled to neighbouring Jordan and other nearby countries. With armistice, Israel came to control 78 per cent of the land.

Wars and settlers

There was another war in 1967 in which Israel annexed East Jerusalem, conquered Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan’s West Bank, and it took the Golan Heights away from Syria. Israel later pulled out of Gaza but has subjected it to lengthy and punishing blockade. Its occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights continues today, 53 years later.

During these years, Israel has relentlessly developed settlements on Palestinian lands. In many cases, immigrants from New York, Toronto or Moscow now reside on land confiscated from Palestinians. The continuing military occupation has been declared illegal and has been the subject of numerous UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal to pre-1967 boundaries. The UN even has a special rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. He is Michael Lynk, a Canadian law professor. He provides an annual report to the UN’s Human Rights Council, but he must undertake his research at a distance because Israel will not allow him into the country.  

Seizing land

In an article published in Christianweek in 2008, William Janzen wrote: “Israel has continued to seize Palestinian land, for the construction of settlements for roads leading to those settlements, for the wall that winds deep into the West Bank and for security zones that cut off sizeable parts of the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians’ 22 per cent [of the land] has been cut back drastically.” 

Core questions

Frank Epp dealt with two core questions in his book. The first is historical. Who can claim Palestine as theirs? Epp’s answer was that no single group of people can claim the land based on unbroken habitation. He listed 30 “peoples or powers” who occupied and controlled Palestine between 3000 BC and 1970.

The second question is Biblical. Did God give this land exclusively to the Jews? This claim is made by many Israel politicians, by Jews emigrating to Israel, and by those Christians who see in Israel’s creation a fulfilment of the Scripture. Epp concluded: “There also is no just claim to any land where such a claim means a denial of a similar claim to one’s fellow [man].”

Pressure for change

The continuing occupation can only be justified by Israel’s government and its supporters abroad by dehumanizing the Palestinians, branding them as terrorists at worst and incompetents at best. The peace movement and the left in Israel have become sub-marginal in an increasingly militarized state. There is no chance that the government there, left to its own devices, will permit a meaningful two-state solution, or grant full rights to Palestinians within a single state. The pressure for change will have to be driven by Israel’s supporters and enablers, and that includes the American and Canadian governments.       

3 thoughts on “Whose Land Is Palestine?

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  1. Thank-you, Dennis. The reference to Frank Epp’s book, though now half a century old, remains very timely. His conclusions are amply supported by those of many other historians who have written in more recent times. I wrote to our Minister, Marc Garneau a couple of days ago calling for more resolute action by Canada. Lawrence.


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