In 1960, the famed archaeologist Yigal Yadin met Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to report on his latest discoveries in the Judean Desert. As recounted by Yadin, he opened his presentation with the statement: “I am honoured to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen dispatches written or dictated by the last President of ancient Israel eighteen hundred years ago”.
This was the literal truth. What Yadin and his team had found were various dispatches in the name of Shimeon bar Kosiba - Bar Kochba (“Son of a Star”, as he is popularly referred to in Jewish tradition). In the years 132-135, Bar Kochba headed up the last Jewish rebellion against Rome, which briefly restored Jewish independence in Judea before being ruthlessly crushed. The discovery of the letters of their ancient warrior-hero was a source of enormous pride for the citizens of the new-born Jewish State of Israel.
An even more famous archaeological project in which Yadin was involved was that of the mountain fortress of Masada, where during the final stages of the first Jewish-Roman War of 67-73 C.E., a determined band of Jewish rebels withstood a prolonged siege before finally being overcome. This, too, testified to the historic Jewish presence in the Land of Israel and to how ferociously the Jews had fought for their independence against the mightiest colonial power of the day.
The question arises: Where were the Palestinians when all this was happening? For that matter, who were the Palestinians, and indeed, can it be said that such a people even existed as a distinct ethno-cultural entity at the time?
Those who today identify, and are broadly identified, as Palestinian are in the main Arab-speaking Muslims. Their presence in the region essentially dates back to the conquest of the land during the period of Arab colonial expansion that followed the emergence of Islam in the 7th Century C.E. This means of course that during the period of the Jewish revolts against Rome, and self-evidently in the many centuries before that, when the Holy Land was for the most part under Jewish sovereignty, “Palestinians” as we understand them to be today simply did not exist. What demonstrable links can be shown connecting today’s Palestinians with the long-extinct gentile inhabitants of ancient Israel, who spoke different languages and whose lives were governed by completely different laws and religious beliefs? By comparison a plethora of historical sources, whether based on extant Biblical and post-Biblical writings or the ever-expanding archaeological record, demonstrates an unbroken Jewish connection with the Holy Land stretching back for over three millennia. This connection persisted even after the massacres and mass expulsions that followed the defeat of the final Jewish revolt against Rome. Throughout the exile period, substantial Jewish communities existed all over the country, including in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh, Ashkelon, Caesarea and Gaza. It is therefore simply false, therefore, to claim that Jews simply arrived out of nowhere to claim title to a land from which they had been absent for nearly two millennia.
Nor did living outside Israel during those years forget their connections to the Holy Land, or give up on their hope of one day returning there. As expressed recently by Rabbi Ari Kievman, the great majority “forever breathed the Land, spoke of it, studied its ancient laws and offered sacrifices there, both literally and figuratively”. Thrice daily, Jews everywhere continued to mention the land in all their daily prayers and at every religious milestone.
After the Roman conquest of Judea, the territory (renamed Syria Palaestina – shortened later to ‘Palestine’ - by the Roman conquerors), there was never a time when an independent ‘Palestinian’ state existed, even briefly. The country was successively ruled by a progression of colonial overlords, including Byzantine Christians, Persians, Muslim Omayyads and Abbasids, Christian Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks and finally the British.
What this shows that far from being ‘colonizers’, Jews have been the victims of successive waves of colonialism since the Roman conquest of their ancestral homeland. Accordingly, modern political Zionism was in reality an anti-colonialist movement aimed at restoring Jewish sovereignty to the land, not by violent conquest but by peaceful immigration and the legitimate purchase of land for settlement and development. How, in view of all this, could the late Christopher Hitchens have backed up his jibe (highlighted in Ramzy Baroud’s article entitled of 5 May entitled “How Israel's violent birth destroyed Palestine”) that Jews became colonisers “at just the moment when other Europeans had given up on the idea”?
Prior to the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state in 1948, no serious attempts were ever made to deny the historic Jewish links to that territory. After all, the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all testified to it, and those living in the territory now referred to as ‘Palestine’ had no problem in acknowledging the reality of a prior Jewish presence.
Some might question the relevance of bringing in millennia-old historical facts when tackling the ever-fraught question of how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Surely, one might ask, facts on the ground in the here and now are what should determine how to go forward? In fact, it is becoming increasingly necessary to draw attention to pre-Zionist Jewish roots in the area, since one of the most pernicious form that much of the popular invective against the State of Israel today is taking is to effectively airbrush the Jewish people out of the historical record in this regard.
Jewish history denialism is typified in the new policy document recently released by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. It is striking that this supposedly more ‘moderate’ approach by Hamas stresses the religious connections of Islam and Christianity to the land while pointedly omitting any acknowledgement of any Jewish links there prior the so-called “Zionist project”.
The blinkered refusal to recognise that the Jewish people also have significant historic and spiritual claims to Israel-Palestine is apparent as well in the above-mentioned article by Ramzy Baroud, who at no point can bring himself to mention these age-old connections. Instead, Baroud focuses entirely on the alleged ethnic cleansing of most of the Arab population by Zionist forces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence (referred to by him by the Arab term ‘Nakhba’, meaning catastrophe).
Ever since the establishment of Israel and the disastrous consequences of the combined Arab efforts to destroy it as soon as it came into being, an almighty clamor has been raised about how the “indigenous” Palestinian population was forcibly expelled. One question this begs is how ‘indigenous’ the Palestinians in fact were, given that a substantial number – quite possibly a majority – were recent arrivals from other parts of the Middle East attracted by the economic opportunities provided by the Zionist enterprise. Another is whether it was possible in the circumstances of the time for the fledgling Israeli armed forces to have accomplished such a mass displacement. According to the standard Palestinian version, one would think that the Israelis were all powerful and the Palestinians completely helpless. In reality, the 1948 war was a desperately-fought struggle whose eventual outcome was for a long time in doubt. Far from being powerless, the local Arab militias were numerous and well-armed and, in tandem with the invading Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese armies, carried out multiple attacks on Jewish settlements. In defending their new-born state, the Israelis were also guilty of attacking and displacing Arab civilians in certain areas, but carrying out a mass campaign of ethnic cleansing whilst simultaneously fighting off the armies of five invading countries would clearly have been an impossible task, even it had been intended.
The truth about the 1948 war is that whereas Jews stiffened their resolve and fought to defend their territory, the Arab population was gripped by a mass panic and fled en masse. It is this humiliating reality that generations of Palestinians and their descendants have been unable to come to terms with. What they have done instead is develop a self-exculpatory victim narrative in which their defeat is attributed to the ruthless deployment of overwhelming military might against defenseless, innocent civilians. As a result, it has been made impossible for them to view Israel as being anything more than an illegitimate usurper state that of necessity must be eradicated, if necessary by terrorist violence. The persistence of ahistorical, emotion-driven narratives of this nature helps explain why nearly seventy years after Israel’s birth, a resolution to the conflict appears to be as far away as ever.