Our Roots Are Still Alive - Chapter 1

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    Here - we have a past
      a present
      a future.
    Our roots are entrenched
    Deep in the earth.
    Like twenty impossibles
    We shall remain.
      -Tawfiq Zayyad

For centuries, the peasants of the Palestinian village, al-Yahudiyya, were a people wedded to their land. Their village rested in a valley among the hills of central Palestine, near the port city of Jaffa. Like other Palestinians in the thousands or so villages that dotted the countryside, they had painstakingly terraced many of the hills, converting them to usable land. Irrigation ditches built by their ancestors centuries before brought water to the land which yielded citrus, olives and grain. On the rocky hills bedouins - nomadic people - followed the spring grasses with their herds, and villagers tended sheep and cattle. The people of al-Yahudiyya used the nearby land for grazing their animals. In the late 1880s, two moneylenders gained formal ownership of this land as payment for village debts. As the peasants considered use of the land a God-given right, the passing of ownership did not worry them. But soon, these traditional assumptions and the villagers' way of life were challenged by newcomers to Palestine.

In 1878 Jewish settlers from Europe bought al-Yahudiyya's grazing land from the two moneylenders. They established an agricultural colony, Petah Tiqva, but remained aloof from the surrounding Palestinian villages. After several years the new settlers ordered the Palestinian peasants to stop using the pastures for grazing. However, the peasants continued to use the land, and tempers flared quickly on both sides. One day in March 1886, the Jewish settlers seized ten of the Palestinians' donkeys - an act which sparked an attack by fifty angry villagers from al-Yahudiyya. Turkish authorities, who ruled Palestine at the time, immediately sent soldiers to protect the settlers at Petah Tiqva. Two days later the Turks arrested thirty-one Palestinians from al-Yahudiyya and ordered them held for trial.1

The fighting at Petah Tiqva was the first skirmish in what has become a century-long battle between the Palestinian people and Jewish settlers from Europe for the land of Palestine. But the incident at Petah Tiqva was not the first time foreigners and Palestinians clashed for control of this small strip of land by the Mediterranean Sea. The history of Palestine is one of frequent invasion and repeated resistance.

Crossroads for Empire

Palestine lies at the crossroads of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa - and is a holy land to three major religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. A succession of empires and conquerors have sought control of Palestine's port cities and trade routes, its land and people. Each newcomer eventually was either absorbed into the population or replaced by yet another conqueror. Since the seventh century, the people of Palestine have been Arab, with a common language and culture. Palestinian cities like Jerusalem were centers of Arab civilization where scholars, poets and scientists congregated. Over the centuries, most Palestinians became Moslems, although small communities of Jews and Christians maintained their faiths.

The Sultan of Turkey conquered Palestine for his Ottoman Empire in 1517. For the next four hundred years, the Turks ruled Palestine as part of an administrative area called Greater Syria - which was to become the countries of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon in the twentieth century. Although Palestine was not a precisely defined geographic area until that time, the people of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Gaza and Nablus and the peasants in the surrounding countryside used the term Filastin or Palestine to describe their land.

Even under the rule of the Turks, and for as long as the villagers could remember, the land of Palestine belonged to those who worked it. The peasants had to pay heavy taxes on the land, and many lived their lives in debt to local merchants and tax collectors. Drought, locusts, bad harvests and occupying armies plagued their way of life. But as long as the peasants worked in the orchards and fields, buried their dead o the land and raised their children to till it, they believed no one would dare to take their land. Events outside of Palestine were soon to prove them wrong.


The Turkish Empire had weakened in the years since it captured Palestine, and the Sultan had been forced to rant many concessions to the rising empires of Europe. Britain was especially interested in gaining control of the Middle East. For over two centuries the ships and agents of the British Empire had roamed the world, plundering the wealth of Asia, Africa and the Americas. The slave trade from Africa and the seizure of gold, silver, cotton, spices and other goods had made Britain the most industrialized country in the world. As British factories produced more goods, Britain searched for new markets for its products. In 1838 Britain signed the Anglo-Turkish Treaty which allowed British merchants complete freedom to sell their goods in Arab markets. Over the next ten years, British exports to Greater Syria tripled. As Britain's economic stake in the area grew, it looked for a way to extend its political influence.

The British thought they could gain a foothold in Palestine by offering "protection" to one of its religious minorities. Other European powers had given protection to small Christian sects, granting them special privileges, including immunity from trial by Turkish courts and exemption from many taxes. In 1840 Britain set up a consulate in Jerusalem for the protection of the twenty thousand Jews who lived in religious communities in Palestine.

The protection of these Jews was only a first step. Once Britain had taken the Jews of Palestine under its wing, some British politicians began to envision a more powerful method of control - the founding of a European Jewish settler colony on Palestinian soil. In 1840 Lord Palmerston, a powerful British aristocrat, asked his government to give its official seal of approval to the immigration of European Jews to Palestine.2 He argued that this scheme would serve the larger interests of the British Empire. The trade routes across Palestine were, as one official said, "the high road to India." India was Britain's richest colony, a major source of cotton for the flourishing British textile industry. A grateful and dependent community of Europeans in Palestine would make this strategic way-station between England and India friendlier to British interests.

In 1875 the British gained control of the newly built Suez Canal in Egypt. Now British merchant ships could sail from Europe to India in half the previous time. Securing Palestine would give the British a buffer zone to the east of the vital canal. The proposal for Jewish colonization of Palestine became more appealing to British ruling circles. Lord Shaftsbury argued its merits in 1876:

    Syria and Palestine will before long become very important. The country wants [lacks] capital and population. The Jews can give it both. And has not England a special interest in promoting such restoration? It would be a blow to England if either of her rivals should get a hold of Syria. Her Empire reaching from Canada in the West to Calcutta and Australia in the South East would be cut in two... She must preserve Syria to herself... To England then naturally belongs the role of favoring the settlement of the Jews in Palestine.3

European Settlers Come to Palestine

Palestinians in the port city of Jaffa took note of the first great influx of European settlers in the 1880s. During these years the Czar of Russia encouraged a series of attacks on Russian Jews. Under the banner of Zionism (which we will explore further in the next chapter) thousands of European Jews came to Palestine. Most of the new immigrants settled in Jerusalem or Jaffa. Many were anxious to find work or open shops in the cities; but others wanted to farm. Jewish settlers formed eight agricultural colonies in these first years. Since there was very little uncultivated land in Palestine, each land purchase by Jewish settlers displaced Palestinian peasants. As the incident at Petah Tiqva showed, the presence of European settlers caused friction from the very beginning. On a visit to Palestine in 1891, Ahad Ha'am, a famous Jewish writer, observed the high-handed manner of the settlers:

    [They] treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and even boast of these deeds; and nobody among us opposes this despicable inclination.4

Palestinians rebelled against such treatment and the loss of their lands. In addition to the attack on Petah Tiqva in 1886, there were minor incidents over the next several years at many of the Jewish settlements and a major attack on the colony at Rehovet in 1892. Some Palestinians began to demand that the Turks prohibit land sales to Europeans. In the towns and cities, too, there was growing unrest. Wealthy Palestinian families watched uneasily as control of trade in the cities passed slowly to Europeans. Many of these prominent Palestinian families had prospered under Turkish rule. Along with other powerful families in Greater Syria, they had often been able to pressure the Sultan on matters which affected them. But in the last years of the nineteenth century, their influence diminished as the Europeans gained more power over the Turkish Sultan.

British strength in particular continued to grow. In 1881, the same year the first Zionist settlers came to Palestine, the British conquered Egypt. During the next twenty years Britain frequently imposed its will on the Turkish Sultan. A test of Palestinian and British influence with the Turks came in 1903 when Zionists asked to establish the Anglo-Palestine Company in Jaffa. The company was a bank designed to help Zionists buy land in Palestine. Palestinians in Jaffa demanded that the Sultan stop the bank, and at first he agreed. But when the British informed the Sultan that they backed the bank, he gave in. The Sultan's action angered Palestinians, and some of them began to sharply criticize Turkish rule over their country.

Palestinians became more hopeful in 1908 when the Young Turks, a group of Turkish military officers, overthrew the Sultan. The Young Turks promised equality for all peoples in the empire and convened a parliament with representatives from all the Arab provinces. In order to secure goodwill for the new government, the Young Turks lifted the censorship which had been imposed by the Sultan.

Throughout the Arab provinces, aboveground and underground movements emerged, demanding greater freedom for the Arab peoples. Most Arabs were not yet demanding complete independence from the Turks, hoping instead for reforms within the empire. Palestinians were part of this young Arab nationalist movement. As soon as the censorship ended, prominent families and intellectuals in Palestine began to publish newspapers - Falastin in Jaffa and al-Karmel in Haifa. Through these papers, Palestinians joined with other Arabs in calling for reforms, including the use of Arabic as an official language. The Palestinians also began to examine Zionist designs on Palestine, and called on the rest of the Arab peoples to learn about this movement of European settlers.

The Young Turks understood that the Arab nationalist movement was a threat to their empire. Soon they banned all political organizations which seemed to favor self-government for the Arabs, and restored a strict censorship. They made Turkish the only official language of the schools and government. Arrogant officials and Turkish intellectuals mocked Arab history and culture. This repression only sparked more Arab resistance. In 1911 seven Arab students in Paris created al-Fatat, the Young Arab Society. Organizing secretly in small cells, al-Fatat grew quickly to a membership of several hundred in the Arab provinces. It demanded total independence from the Turks.

In February 1913, the Committee of Reform in Beruit, an aboveground group, went beyond the limits allowed by the Turks and openly demanded self-government for the Arab provinces. Large demonstrations of support were held in Syria and Palestine. Telegrams calling for independence were sent to Constantinople, the Turkish capital. The Turks immediately dissolved the Committee and closed down its headquarters. Shops and businesses in Beruit shut down in protest. Newspapers appeared with black borders and printed as their only story the Turkish order to dissolve the Committee. Demonstrations swelled until the Turks withdrew their order. The Committee then joined with al-Fatat to hold the First Arab Congress in Paris in June, 1913. The Congress raised demands for an end to Turkish censorship, for the use of the Arabic language and for greater Arab self-government.

Palestinians supported these demands, but they criticized the Congress for failing to note the particular threat which Zionism posed to Palestinian Arabs. Only a few months earlier a large land sale to the Zionists had promoted Filastin to write:

    [I]f this state of affairs continues... then the Zionists will gain mastery over our country, village by village, town by town; tomorrow the whole of Jerusalem will be sold and then Palestine in its entirety.5

For thirty years, Palestinians had witnessed Zionist settlers from Europe arriving to colonize their land. This experience prompted them to begin building an organized political movement that combined Arab nationalism with specific Palestinian issues. Increasingly the movement opposed both Turkish rule and Zionist colonization. In 1913 a Palestinian lawyer from Jaffa founded the National Party with the specific goal of fighting Zionism. Anti-Zionist societies formed in the Palestinian cities of Jerusalem and Nablus and in Egypt and Iraq as well. They tried to raise money to buy lands that might otherwise be sold to Zionist colonies. Palestinians rioted in Tiberias in 1914 when Zionists tried to buy the Hullah marshes and its rich mineral concessions from the Turks.

As the conflict between the Arab people of Palestine and the Zionist settlers intensified, more and more Palestinians began to study the Zionist movement carefully. Palestinian students translated Zionist documents from Europe and circulated them secretly in Palestine. These writings clearly proclaimed the Zionist goal - to build a Jewish state in Palestine.


  1. Neville J. Mandell, The Arabs and Zionism before World War I (Berkeley, Calif.: 1976), pp. 35-36.
  2. Cited by George Jabbour, Settler Colonialism in Southern Africa and the Middle East (Beirut: 1970), p. 22.
  3. Ibid., p. 23.
  4. "The Truth in Palestine," in Hans Kohn, ed., Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic, (New York: 1962), cited by Erskine Childers, "The Wordless Wish: From Citizens to Refugees," in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed. The Transformation of Palestine, (Evanston, Ill.: 1971), pp. 166.
  5. Mandell, pp. 139-40.