Investigating the history of Palestine’s plight

After their expulsion from the region in Roman era, the Jews first started returning to Palestine towards the end of the 15th century.

Investigating the history of Palestine’s plight

Noted Indian historian Fatima Hussain has several scholarly books to her credit. The hallmark of her academic work is thorough research. This time in collaboration with Fareed Ali Shamsi she had undertaken a multi-faceted investigation into the history of one of the most intractable problems of modern times: the Palestine question.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, two partitions transpired - one in the Indian subcontinent and the other in what came to be called the Middle East but which can also be described as West Asia. Both bequeathed bitter memories of violence and terrorism, forced migration and annexation of territory by force. The important difference is that while the partition of India resulted into two separate and independent, sovereign states the partition of Palestine sanctioned by the United Nations failed in that endeavour. Instead it created one state - that is, Israel for the Jews while the Palestinian Arabs were denied statehood. They were either driven into Jordan or forced to live under Israeli direct occupation or indirect control as in Gaza currently.

The authors have organised the book into interesting chapters such as the geo-political importance of the Middle East. By that they mean its importance as a major producer of oil and the concomitant security and military implications and ramifications it assumes because of that reason. Indeed, the Cold War, which raged between the United States and the former Soviet Union, was particularly focused on the Middle East. Another chapter traces the beginning of the Palestine problem. In doing so they go back into history of 6,000 years and in that context shed light on the Jewish, Christian and Islamic connections to their region. The point they argue is that the Palestinians have constantly being living in that area even when they were converted to Christianity and Islam. Jews who had been expelled by the Romans returned to Palestine and other Ottoman provinces when they were expelled from Spain in 1492, while another stream of refugees arrived from eastern Europe from the 19th century onwards especially because of the rise of anti-Semitism and the pogroms which were carried out against the Jews. We learn the Jews and Muslims who lived in Palestine even had foster brothers and sisters. However, such concord did not appeal to the Zionist Movement - a reactionary political movement aiming to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Theodore Herzl the founder of Zionist, on the one hand believed that Jews will always be vulnerable to Christian persecution in Europe and on the other he tried very skilfully to exploit European prejudices against Islam and Muslims to convince European leaders that the Jewish State in the Middle East would ensure the continuation of the Western civilization in the Middle East.

The book argues convincingly that it is in Israel's interest to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians because otherwise the region will remain volatile and explosive

On the other hand, Arab nationalism emerged against Ottoman rule and Britain and France exploited this. They were given assurances that if they revolted against the Ottomans they would be made masters of their homelands. Simultaneously the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a Jewish homeland. International Jewry helped the Zionist cause but there were dissenting voices among Jews as well especially among sections of the orthodox Jews who considered the idea of returning to Jerusalem a spiritual urge and not a political ideology as Zionism was. Anyhow, the Balfour Declaration did not go as far as promising a state to the Zionists and the rights of the Arabs were mentioned in it. On the other hand, among sections of European and American Christians the return of Jews to Palestine was the fulfilment of a prophecy - that is the eschatology of Christian dogma that all Jews will assemble in Palestine before the Second Coming of Christ.

Things came to a head after the defeat of Ottoman Turkey in World War I. Its Middle Eastern provinces were taken away from the empire and placed under mandates chiefly to Great Britain and France. Fatima Hussain and Fareed Ali Shamsi provide considerable information on how in such circumstances the Zionists managed to expand Jewish settlements but until the end of World War II the Jewish population of Palestine was a small minority. Thereafter, the Zionists of Jewish survivors to Palestine masterminded mass migration. They also employed violence and terrorism against the British who were ambivalent about the future of a Jewish homeland.

In any event, while the Holocaust created huge sympathy in a guilty West the Jewish lobby in the United States and Zionists elsewhere in the world were able to create a climate, which favour the Jews. Arab rejection of the UN-sponsored partition plan played into the hands of the Zionists in Palestine and in May 1948 Israel declared itself independent. It was recognised by most Western countries.

However, Asian and African countries supported the Palestinians including India, which voted against the admission of Israel as a member to the United Nations. The authors explain the position of the Nehru Government as a continuation of its anti-colonial and anti-imperialist policies dating from the Congress-led freedom movement. That chapter is virtually closed under Narendra Modi who has become a close partner of the Netanyahu regime and a major importer of Israeli armament.

In a chapter on the Suez Crisis Hussain and Shamsi present the events surrounding that event, followed by the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars. They take up the Palestinian armed resistance as well. In the conclusion, they examine how peace has eluded all efforts to reach a compromise. They correctly point out that the right-wing Israeli lobby is the biggest problem to a peaceful resolution of that conflict. Also, the asymmetry in the military power of Israel and the Arabs tilt the balance in favour of Israel.

The authors argue that describing the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine is in principle wrong because the Jews were outsiders who came and settled in Palestine while the Arabs were continuously there and therefore the creation of Palestine was usurpation of Palestinian territory. Sympathetic as they are to the Palestinian cause one can argue that the idea of original rights to territory can always be debated. By such a standard of originality one would imagine that the whole of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand are usurped territories by Europeans. Also, the Aryans displaced the Dravidians and became the dominant group and in turn Muslims from Arabia and Central Asia wrested power from the Aryans in the Indian subcontinent. Of course, these things happened way back in the past but establishing the exclusive ownership of Palestine is equally difficult for Jews as well as Arabs.

In the conclusion they argue convincingly that it lies in the interest of Israel to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians because otherwise that region will always remain volatile and explosive. The settlement of course has to be one, which grants the Palestinians their national rights in a state.

The book is no doubt the product of great effort to examine documents and review the politics surrounding the Palestine Question. It will surely be read widely.


The writer is an award-winning novelist, professor and a scholar. He can be reached at



Published in Daily Times, August 10th 2017.