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date: 21 March 2023

Modern Palestinelocked

Modern Palestinelocked

  • Ilan PappeIlan PappeInstitute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter


The history of Modern Palestine begins somewhere in the 19th century. Writing it, or about it, is a huge challenge. It is very hard to distinguish between the history and the historiography of the country, as it is narrated to this very day, including by scholars, in two diametrically opposed ways. Even the term modern Palestine itself is a contentious one, let alone the history of the country itself.

The history of Palestine cannot be dissociated from that of Israel, one of the few states in the world whose modern, indeed, its contemporary history is still contested and highly charged. Therefore, the historiographical research on Palestine is inconclusive.

The best way of approaching such complexities is recognizing the prevalence of more than one narrative about the country’s past and present realities as well as acknowledging the dynamic and dialectical relationship between the competing narratives. Thus, the pendulum keeps oscillating in favor or against the validity and acceptance of the two major competing narratives about the country’s history: the Israeli Zionist one and the Palestinian one.

In such a world, the historian’s own positionality is as much a factor in the story he or she tells as is the evidence itself. For this reason, the history of modern Palestine, in particular, cannot be easily presented as an entry to an encyclopedia. Any scholarly work on such a place will reflect, despite all the attempts at professionalism and fairness, a certain moral as well as an emotive position. An intelligent reader could easily detect within a factual presentation, where a more subjective commentary is proposed.

It is not only the personal views of the historians that affect the analysis of the country’s history, but also the changing balance of power between the competing narratives that plays a crucial role in the way articles like this one are written. This balance of power has changed in recent years. In crude terms, one could say that scholarly works around the world on Palestine reflected the Zionist narrative until the 1980s and were far more critical toward this narrative ever since.

From the Israeli Zionist narrative, the history of Palestine is closely associated with the history of the Jewish religion. Thus, this narrative begins in the biblical times, when the Jewish nation was born as a monotheistic religion on the land, which today is Israel and Palestine. It continues with the expulsion of the Jews by the Romans around 70 AD and defines Jewish life ever since as life in exile. The modern history of Palestine commences in 1882 with the return of the Jews to their homeland after centuries of neglect that left the county arid and derelict for centuries: in fact, until the arrival of Zionism. The Zionist immigration is thus depicted as a “return” to an ancient homeland on the one hand, and as an act of modernization, on the other. The arid, desert-like country was bloomed, and the new arrivals founded a democratic state, the only one in the Middle East. The native people are described as semi nomads without any sense of national or even ethnic aspirations. Their rejection of Zionism is therefore attributed to their primitivism or to the incitement by others: namely Islamic leaders, Arab tyrants, or anti-Semitic gentiles.

This would be the explanation for the attempt by the Arab world to defeat the Jewish state in 1948, after it was recognized by the international community (through the United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution 181 from November 29, 1947), which accorded roughly half of the country to the local Arabs who rejected what par this narrative was as a just and fair solution.

The history of Palestine ever since 1948, from the perspective of this narrative, is exclusively the history of Israel, which moves between endless and hostile attempts to wipe Israel out by military force—in several recurring regional wars and recently Islamic terrorism—and a wish to find a solution to the bits of Palestine Israel occupied in 1967—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A lack of Palestinian leadership, internal Israeli debates about the future of the occupied territories, and international diplomatic incompetence are provided as explanations for failing to end this conflict.

The Palestinian narrative, on the other hand, depicts a society that at least since the 7th century lived a normal and organic life as the indigenous people of the country. Contrary to the Zionist maxim that Palestine was a land without people waiting for the people without land, the Palestinian historiography reveals a vibrant society, mostly rural but with a dynamic urban center that survived foreign and regional occupiers. The one disruption it could not cope with was the arrival of Zionism, depicted in this narrative as a colonial movement that eventually led to the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophe. Ever since that year, the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland through the agency of the PLO, which in the late 1980s was willing to partition the country into two states but was not reciprocated by any goodwill on the part of Israel. This is a narrative of dispossession on the one hand, and a liberation struggle that still continues today, on the other.

Ever since the 1980s, the scholarly world tends to accept the basic arguments included in the Palestinian narrative, not least because there are quite a few Israeli historians who endorsed them. Thus, the Palestinian narrative ascended not just as the “other side” of the story that was silenced, but also appeared as the more universal one among the two. It became the narrative of the human rights’ agenda in which the Palestinians were depicted as victims of settler colonialism and the Zionist movement, and later the state of Israel, as colonial victimizers. This is a work in progress and recent scholarship is not content with such a simplified dichotomous historiographical approach. This new updated look on human history, from a moral and not just factual point of view, still requires a paradigm that would help the historian to make sense of a complicated reality.

The narrative thus chosen for this article reflects these historiographical developments. It narrates the history of Palestine as the tale of an indigenous population that since the 630s was ruled by Muslim dynasties (apart from a short period of a Crusader conquest), until it was colonized by a settler colonial movement arriving there in 1882.

The colonization effort expanded and grew during the period of the British rule (1918–1948). It resulted in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel over 78 percent of Palestine and the transformation of half of the Palestinian population into refugees. These two outcomes affect the modern history of the country ever since. This year, 1948, was a miraculous year for the Zionist movement and a disastrous year for the Palestinians. The Israeli attempt to maintain its 1948 achievements and the Palestinian struggle to rectify the 1948 catastrophe inform both the history and historiography of Israel and Palestine. This is not a closed chapter in our modern global history; it is an ongoing story that has wider implications for the history of the region and the world at large.


  • Middle East

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