The Land and the People
"Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren. . . . The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. . . . It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land. . . . Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. . . . Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. . . . Nazareth is forlorn; . . . Jericho . . . accursed . . . Jerusalem . . . a pauper village. . . . Palestine is desolate and unlovely."
So wrote Mark Twain in 1867. He may have been indulging in hyperbole, but then neither was Palestine, in the mid-nineteenth century, the "land of milk and honey" promised in the Bible.
As it is today, the Holy Land -- Eretz Yisrael or the Land of Israel for the Jews, Falastin or Palestine for the Arabs -- was defined during the years of British rule (1918 - 48) as the area bounded in the north by a range of hills just south of the Litani River in Lebanon; in the east by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Arava Valley (Wadi Araba); in the west by the Mediterranean Sea and the Sinai Peninsula; and in the south by the Gulf of Eilat (or Gulf of Aqaba). In all, it consists of about 26,320 square kilometers (10,162 square miles), an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Of this landmass, about 50 - 60 percent, the Negev and the Araba, is a wilderness sprinkled with a handful of oases but largely uninhabitable and uncultivable, as is the area called the Judean Desert, between the hilly spine of Judea -- running from Ramallah through Jerusalem to Hebron -- and the Jordan River.
Palestine is a dry land, with only one small river -- the Jordan -- which in fact is not inside Palestine but rather demarcates the borders between Palestine and Syria and, farther south, Palestine and Jordan. Otherwise there are only two small streams with perennial water. Most streams run only in winter and are dry beds for the rest of the year. Natural springs and wells dot the northern half of the country; in the south they are relatively rare. The naturally habitable north has rainfall between October and April each year; the remaining months are dry, with summer temperatures reaching 30 - 35 degrees Celsius. The Negev has virtually no rain, and temperatures at its southern end reach 40 - 45 degrees Celsius in summer.
The population has tended to concentrate, in both ancient and modern times, in the hilly central areas of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and in the fertile coastal plain and the west-east valley that branches out from it between Haifa and the Jordan River, known as the Jezreel Valley or the Plain of Esdraelon. A further fertile area is the northern Jordan Valley running, from south to north, from Beit Sh'an (Beisan) to the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding lowland, to Lake Huleh and then to the Jordan's sources, in the foothills of Mount Hermon.
In ancient times, it is estimated, Palestine contained between 750,000 and 6 million inhabitants, with most scholars giving the figure 2.5 million for about 50 a.d. During the second millennium b.c. it was inhabited by a collection of pagan tribes or peoples -- Canaanites, Jebusites, and others -- who jostled for control of this or that area. Toward the end of the millennium the Hebrews, or Jews, invaded and settled the land, and for most of the next millennium constituted the majority of the population and governed the bulk of the country. The core of the Jewish state (at one point there were two Jewish kingdoms) was the hill country of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Through most of the period there was a minority population of Philistines, and later, Hellenistic and Romanized pagans concentrated in the coastal plain, in such towns as Caesarea, Jaffa, Ashkelon, and Gaza. The chapter of Jewish sovereignty ended when the Romans invaded and then put down two revolts, in a.d. 66 - 73 and 132 - 35, and exiled much of the Jewish population. After successive invasions and counterinvasions by Persians, Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamelukes, and (again) Turks, the country -- at the beginning of the nineteenth century, under imperial Ottoman rule -- had a population of about 275,000 to 300,000 people, of whom 90 percent were Muslim Arabs, 7,000 to 10,000 Jews, and 20,000 to 30,000 Christian Arabs. By 1881, on the eve of the start of the Zionist Jewish influx, Palestine's population was 457,000 -- about 400,000 of them Muslims, 13,000 - 20,000 Jews, and 42,000 Christians (mostly Greek Orthodox). In addition, there were several thousand more Jews who were permanent residents of Palestine but not Ottoman citizens.
The small pre-Zionist Jewish population of Palestine -- usually referred to collectively as the Old Yishuv (literally, the "old settlement") -- was largely poor. Many if not most lived on charity from their coreligionists abroad. Both Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin) and Sephardim (Jews of Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern extraction) were almost exclusively Orthodox and were concentrated, in separate areas, in Judaism's four "holy" towns: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad, and Tiberias. Most were Ottoman subjects, extremely submissive toward the Turkish authorities and deferential toward the large Muslim communities among which they lived. Many spent their days learning Talmud and Torah; a few were merchants and shopkeepers; more were petty craftsmen. All in all, they were a numerically insignificant minority.
The overwhelming majority of the population was Arab, about 70 percent rural. These were dispersed in seven to eight hundred hamlets and villages ranging in size from fewer than one hundred to nearly one thousand inhabitants. Most of the villages were in the hill country, their location dictated by access to springs or wells and defensive requirements like hilltops or cliffs. Many had been established by invading Bedouin who turned sedentary. The coastal plain and the Jezreel and Jordan valleys were relatively empty, both because of the dangers posed by marauding Bedouin bands and because their swamps presented health hazards and were difficult to cultivate.
Many of the villages fought a continual if low-key battle against the Bedouin, who periodically sortied into the settled areas of Palestine from the desert east of the Jordan, from the Negev, and from the Sinai. There were also protracted land and water disputes between villages and sometimes between clans within villages. These feuds, and rivalries between leading urban families and between various towns, such as Jerusalem and Hebron, were to serve as continuous elements of division and weakness in Palestinian Arab society.
Agriculture was primitive, with little irrigation. During the first half of the nineteenth century, land was usually owned by the villagers privately or collectively. The second half of the century saw the growing impoverishment of the villagers, in large part owing to more efficient Ottoman taxation, and a great deal of rural land was bought up by urban notable families (in Arabic, a'yan ), who had accumulated their new wealth as Ottoman agents, especially in tax collection, and through commerce with the West. By the early twentieth century, villagers in dozens of localities no longer owned their land but continued to cultivate it as tenant farmers.
Almost all the large landowners (effendis) were urban notables, some of them living outside Palestine, many in Beirut, Amman, Damascus, and Paris. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Zionist land purchases from effendis contributed to the roster of dispossessed villagers. The second half of the century witnessed the rapid growth of citrus cultivation, mainly in the humid coastal plain, the produce destined for highly profitable export to Europe. Land became a more attractive investment, and the concomitant price rises led to further sales by impoverished fellahin.
By 1881 a third of Palestine's population was urban -- up from only 22 percent in 1800. Most of the Jews and Christians lived in the towns, making their relative weight there decidedly greater than in the country as a whole. By 1880 Jerusalem's population numbered 30,000, of whom about half were Jews; Gaza's population was 19,000, Jaffa's 10,000, and Haifa's 6,000. The notables in the towns were nurtured by the Ottoman Empire, which gave them various local positions and tax-collecting functions, and by the British authorities after 1917 - 18. The elite families -- the Khalidis, Husseinis, and Nashashibis in Jerusalem; the Ja'bris and Tamimis of Hebron; the Nabulsis, Masris, and Shak'as of Nablus, and others -- supplied municipal officials, judges, police officers, religious officials, and civil servants. Inevitably, given their wealth, power, and influence with the imperial authorities, the a'yan emerged as the Palestinian Arabs' local and eventually "national" leadership. A vast gulf -- based on disparities in educational level and social, economic, and political position -- separated the a'yan from the largely illiterate masses.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw a gradual modernization of the country, accompanying the growing urbanization. While most villages and towns were connected by footpaths rather than paved roads, and people and goods still moved on foot or by horse, camel, or mule rather than in wheeled vehicles, a carriage-road, the first in Palestine, was constructed in 1869 between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The first railroad was laid down in 1892 (also between these two towns), and a second railroad, connecting Haifa and Deraa, running through the Jezreel Valley, was constructed in 1903 - 05.
The century also witnessed a steady increase in literacy. It is estimated that around 1800 only 3 percent of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine were literate (mostly elder sons of the a'yan). As the century progressed, an education "system" emerged, mostly owing to the penetration of European missionaries rather than to Ottoman or local Arab initiative.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, lighting was provided by candles and the burning of olive oil. In the 1860s, naphtha was introduced, and generator-produced electricity reached Palestine during the first decade of the twentieth century. Through the nineteenth century the population was plagued by diseases such as malaria, trachoma, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever. Water supplies were inadequate and frequently impure. But the first pharmacy opened its doors in 1842; and the first European hospital, in Jerusalem, in 1843. By the end of the century, there were fifteen hospitals in the town, making it the center of European medicine in Palestine and beyond.
The Turkish Administration
The Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine from 1517 to 1917 - 18, was aware of the land's importance as the cradle of Judaism and Christianity but never made it a separate, distinct administrative district. In the 1870s Palestine was part of the province (vilayet) of Syria, which was ruled by a governor (wali) stationed in Damascus. The province was subdivided into districts (sanjaks), three of them in Palestine: Acre, including Haifa, the area of today's Hadera, the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys, the Sea of Galilee, Safad, and Tiberias; Nablus, including Beisan, Jenin, and Qalqilya; and Jerusalem, which included Jericho, Jaffa, Gaza, Beersheba, Hebron, and Bethlehem. The sanjaks in turn were divided into subdistricts, administered by local governors called kaymakams.
In 1887 the sanjak of Jerusalem became an independent mutasarriflik (subgovernorate) answerable directly to Constantinople rather than to Damascus. The following year, the rest of Palestine -- the sanjaks of Nablus and Acre -- were separated from the vilayet of Sam (Syria) and became the responsibility of a newly created vilayet of Beirut. The new entity, which consisted of the area of much of present-day Lebanon, thus also controlled the northern half of Palestine.
During a decade of Egyptian rule in Palestine (1831 - 40), the authorities had managed to impose more or less centralized government. The powerful Egyptian army, led by Ibrahim 'Ali, brushed aside most of the local magnates who had managed to carve out de facto fiefdoms in different areas of the country. They also staved off the Bedouin incursions from the eastern and southern deserts that had done so much to keep Palestine insecure and poor.
On their return, the Turks instituted a wide range of reforms (tanzimat) -- economic, administrative, legal, military, and political -- but with mixed results. The new, more efficient and centralized taxation resulted in massive impoverishment of the rural population, which in turn led to the steady depopulation of villages and an influx into the towns. Efforts to conscript villagers into the Turkish army, a return of brigandage on the roads, and renewed Bedouin incursions -- all had the same effect. The village rulers, or sheikhs, who before the Egyptian conquest had had considerable authority, lost much of it as their role as tax collectors for the central government passed into the hands of Ottoman officials and urban notables.
At the same time economic conditions as well as law and order in the towns vastly improved. Trade with the West picked up. The urban notables became wealthier and acquired more land. Turkish reforms of local government, both in Palestine and Syria, including the appointment of town councils, also resulted in increasing the power of the a'yan and religious leaders (the ulema) at the expense of Ottoman governors and subgovernors. These reforms proved to be milestones on the road to the emergence of centrifugal Arab "nationalisms." In other ways, too, the tanzimat -- which aimed at centralization and unity -- contributed to disunity in the Arab provinces of the empire. The impoverishment of the countryside and the growing prosperity of the towns drove a wedge between townspeople and the fellahin, or peasantry. And the Sublime Porte's firmans (decrees) of 1839 and, more decisively, of 1856 -- equalizing the status of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects -- resulted in short order in the dramatic alienation of Muslims from Christians. The former resented the implied loss of superiority and recurrently assaulted and massacred Christian communities -- in Aleppo in 1850, in Nablus in 1856, and in Damascus and Lebanon in 1860. Among the long-term consequences of these bitter internecine conflicts were the emergence of a Christian-dominated Lebanon in the 1920s - 40s and the deep fissure between Christian and Muslim Palestinian Arabs as they confronted the Zionist influx after World War I.
Excerpted from Righteous Victims by Benny Morris. Copyright © 2001 by Benny Morris. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.