Friday, July 4, 2014

Israel-Palestine; Population Demographics, Who Was the Indigenous Population?

The other day I got into a debate with a Zionist supporter about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Our discussion started by him pointing out the recent attacks on Israeli children and me then pointing out to him the overwhelming number of attacks on Palestinian children in comparison; a figure that comes out to about 10 to 1.  I pointed out to him the statistical fact that 1 Palestinian child has been killed every 3 days from the period between 2000 up till the present day in 2014.  These numbers can easily be verified by consulting B’Tselem’s figures here under the heading ‘Fatalities.’  B’Tselem is an Israeli NGO, “established in February 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members,” according to their website.  Key founders include Knesset members David Zucker, Haim Oron, and later Knesset member Zehava Gal-On.  On May 9, 2013 The Jerusalem Post reported a ‘legal sea change,’ in which the positions of B’Tselem and the IDF were now closer than ever; this can hardly be called an anti-Israeli or Arab-biased organization.

From here our debate trailed off into my interlocutor attempting to debunk my claims that Israeli Zionist settlers colonized the land from the indigenous Arab population.  He would go on to state that the Arabs were not indigenous at all, and that their increased population numbers were only a result of immigration that occurred after the Zionist first appeared there in large numbers in the beginning years of the 20th century.  Needless to say, these were extremely wild claims, ones not held by scholars on the subject; what my debater seemed to be doing was trying to efface the realities of the indigenous Palestinian population, and completely reject the history of the Arab national movement that stood in opposition to the Zionists, attempting to paint these claims as propaganda meant to discredit Israel instead of as they truly are: the Zionist ethnical cleansing of the indigenous Arab population.

However I was not able to accurately depict this reality in detail and with citation to him at the time, and so I endeavored to further do an extensive study into these claims and uncover the exact truth of the specific realities regarding the population make-up of Palestine during the 19th century until the first quarter of the 20th, the time in which the Zionist incursion into Palestine began.  These are my findings:


Tourism and pilgrimage traffic into Palestine grew rapidly in the latter half of the 19th century, mainly due to the improved travelling conditions and the abating Muslim hostility to foreigners which was noted to be widespread during the first half of the century.  During the 1870s between 10-20,000 pilgrims visited Jerusalem annually, the biggest contingent coming from Russia.  French Catholic missionaries journeyed to the region to conduct a, ‘peaceful crusade,’ German Templars attempted to settle in Palestine and Christianize it by establishing agricultural colonies, and Protestant missionaries from England and America sought converts from the Jewish population living there, however the majority of Jews who came to Palestine during most of the century did so for personal religious motives, seeking pilgrimage to ancient Israel, many to die there.  By 1890 the Jews comprised the majority of the population in Jerusalem, the main city for Jewish migration during the 19th century.  “And between 1895 and 1914, 40,000 Jews entered Palestine, often not for religious reasons but to colonize it and establish a base for the future restoration of Palestine as Israel.  As Zionists they were more interested in establishing agricultural colonies than in settling in the cities.”(1)

The question of immigration to Palestine during the beginning of the 20th century raises some questions as to the nature of the population increase during that period.  In 1850 Palestine had about 350,000 inhabitants; roughly 85% were Muslim, 11% were Christian and 4% were Jews, this total number increased to about 650,000 by 1914.(2)  Was this due to natural causes or by immigration, including Arabs from outside Palestine?  How many were Arab immigrants compared to Jewish immigrants?  “Israeli and other scholars of the question have concluded that a natural increase in the overwhelmingly Arab population of Palestine from the 1840s would account for an Arab component of the 1914 estimate (650,000) of between 555,000 and 585,000.  Taking the lower figure of 555,000 and adding a Jewish population of about 80,000 in 1914 still allows for an additional 25,000 to 40,000 settlers, whether other Europeans or Arabs.  Arabs undoubtedly did migrate to Palestine or were settled by Ottoman officials there during this seventy-year period, but they probably comprised no more than 8 percent of the Arab population of Palestine in 1914.  Jews constituted approximately 14 percent of the population, with the 25,000 Zionist immigrants 31 percent of that community.”(3)

What this means is that the Arab population constituted the majority in Palestine from 1840 onward, and Alexander Scholch’s numbers put them at 85% of the total in 1850 and in 1914 they still comprised about 85% when taking the lower estimates of 555,000 out of 650,000 total.  This means that the overwhelming majority of the population during the beginning of the Zionist incursion into Palestine (1895-1914) in which 40,000 Jews migrated there, was still Arab.  During the entire 70 year period between 1840-1914, Arab immigration to Palestine constituted no more than 8% of the total Arab population; Jews constituted approximately 14% of the total population in 1914 (80,000), and Zionist immigrants (25,000) made up around 31% of that community.  This allows for an additional 25,000 to 40,000 settlers, whether they be Europeans or Arabs.  Claims that the number of Arab immigrants equaled that of Jewish immigrants has been the subject of sensationalist studies, one that is wholly rejected by scholars.  The truth of the matter is that Arabs made up the majority of the population during these years, even after the influx of Jewish immigrants that raised Jewish population numbers in the region from 4% in 1850 to 14% by 1914.  Arabs did undoubtedly immigrant to Palestine during these years, however their majority in the population was not a result of this, instead only a small percentage of the majority Arab population was a result of Arab immigration.(4)

However, as historian Charles D. Smith points out, this predominately Arab population does not necessarily indicate a widespread existence of a Palestinian Arab national consciousness at this time.  “The concept of nationalism was a recent European phenomenon, just beginning to be known in the Arab world, that often collided with the family and village loyalties that predominated along with one’s religious identity.  On the other hand, as Haim Gerber has shown, sources dating from the seventeenth century, and possibly earlier, indicate that educated Palestinians were conscious of living in a region called “Palestine” that was distinct from, even if a part of, a larger territory called “Syria.”(5) This awareness cannot be called nationalism in the European sense of the term, which defined the bonds linking a people to a specific piece of land as the source of their primary identity.  Nationalism was a secular concept, although it could be justified by a religious legacy, as Zionism did for secular Jewish nationalism.  Nationalism would not have defined a Palestinian’s primary awareness of himself as an Ottoman subject of Muslim, Christian, or Jewish religious persuasion, who nonetheless lived in that part of the empire known as Palestine.  This new scholarship does suggest, however, that educated Palestinian Arabs considered themselves to live in Palestine, establishing an identity with a region defined by boundaries.  This identification was not simply the result of their encounter with Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism, as has often been assumed.”(6)[Emphasis mine]

Therefore, Palestinians during the beginning of the 20th century did have an awareness of identity based upon the regional boundaries in which they lived, however this identity could not be called a nationalistic one in the European sense of the word, yet this nascent national identity of Palestinians predates their encounter with Zionism, as Haim Gerber points out that sources dating back to the 17th century have shown that educated Palestinians were conscious of existing within a region dubbed ‘Palestine.’ Palestinians were conscious of their regional identity in the beginning of the 20th century, however their primary identity was more-so determined by the family, village loyalties, and by ones religious identity.  “Arab conceptions of identity varied.  Beyond local and family ties, Muslims considered themselves to be Ottoman subjects and gave allegiance to the sultan/caliph as head of the Islamic community.  Christians, especially the Greek Orthodox, seem to have been more aware of living in a specific region called Palestine, and it is among them that there emerges the dominant journalistic opposition to Zionism.  Nevertheless, as noted, there seems to have existed a general conception of Palestine as an area distinct from Syria, even if considered part of it for administrative purposes, reflected in documents and in the Ottoman government’s term ‘the land of Palestine.’”(7)

The first noted journalistic opposition to Zionism, Jewish immigration, and agricultural settlements came from the Orthodox Christian population, who seemed to be more aware than the Arab population of living within a specific region called Palestine.  At first general Arab opposition did not arise, and most peasants accepted Jewish landownership because they allowed them to work the soil and receive income from it.  This practice was condemned by the more strident labor Zionist, most emigrating from Russia.  This type of labor Zionism openly opposed Jewish employment of Arabs and instead called for a completely separate Jewish entity in Palestine.  The increased predominance of this exclusive labor Zionism coupled with the growing awareness of the special rights and privileges afforded to Jewish landowners by the capitulations given to Europeans from the Ottoman authorities, increased the opposition movements that were spear-headed at first by the Christians, and also increased Arab opposition and support of/ closer ties with the Christian opposition. “While most Palestinian Muslims remained loyal to Ottoman authorities, they usually agreed with those Palestinian Christians who led the public opposition to Zionist immigration, land purchases, and, in a general way, Jewish exclusiveness… A key issue was the fact that the Zionists, as European Jews, were protected by the capitulations while bringing in wealth lacking to the Arabs:(8) “they [rely] on the special rights accorded to foreign powers in the Ottoman Empire and on the corruption and treachery of the local administration.  Moreover, they are free of most of the taxes… on Ottoman subjects.”(9)

In conclusion the Arabs constituted the majority of the population during the 19th century and beginning of the 20th before the Zionist incursion and immigration into Palestine; the majority Arab population was not a result of immigration after the Zionists and was not a result of Arab immigration altogether.  The indigenous majority population of Arabs in Palestine were aware of their regional identity as living within an area known as Palestine, however this did not constitute their primary source of identification and therefore could not be seen as a nationalistic identity in the European sense of the term.  Zionists however was a nationalistic and secular movement, which had religious justifications, with a goal to immigrate and create an agricultural and societal base in Palestine for the later institution of a Jewish state within the region.  Jewish immigration, land-purchases, and overall Zionist exclusivity, displayed in their labor practices and ideological pronouncements and writings, contributed to a closer identity between the Palestinians and a more cohesive conception of Palestinian nationality.  Palestinians at first did not object to Jewish immigration and landownership, and peasants gradually grew to accept it as they were afforded employment and income on Jewish lands.  However the rise of a more strident form of labor Zionism, which opposed Jewish employment of Arabs and sought to create an exclusive Jewish entity in the region, gave rise to opposition movements, at first coming primarily from the Greek Orthodox Christian population who had a firmer conception of a national identity in Palestine.  Soon however, the Muslim population began to agree with the Palestinian Christians, forming a closer bond between them in opposition to Jewish exclusivity.  A main reason for the opposition was the foreign wealth the Jewish population brought in which was disproportionate to the Arab populations, and the special rights and privileges afforded to the Jews given their European status and the backing they received from foreign European powers who gained capitulations from the Ottoman authorities.  Therefore, the Arab-Israeli conflict is modern and secular in origin, and was a result of the emergence of Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement that strove to establish a Jewish presence in Palestine as a forerunner to a Jewish state.  This statehood would deny rights to the indigenous Arab population in favor of those of the Jewish population, and for this reason it was opposed by Christians and Muslims alike.  


1.       Charles D. Smith, “Palestine in the Nineteenth Century,” Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History With Documents (New York, 2004), 25.
2.       Alexander Scholch, “The Demographic Development of Palestine, 1850-1882,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (November 1985): 485-505
3.       Charles D. Smith, “Palestine in the Nineteenth Century,” Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History With Documents (New York, 2004), 25.
4.       Haim Gerber, “The Population of Syria and Palestine in the Nineteenth Century,” Asian and African Studies 13 (1979): 58-80; Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, “The Population of the Large Towns in Palestine during the First Eighty Years of the Nineteenth Century according to Western Sources,” in Ma’oz, ed., Studies on Palestine, 49-69; Alexander Scholch, “The Demographic Development of Palestine, 1850-1882,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (November 1985): 485-505: and Justin McCarthy, The Population of Palestine: Population Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate (New York, 1990).
5.       Haim Gerber, “’Palestine’ and Other Territorial Concepts in the 17th Century,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30 (November 1998): 563-72
6.       Charles D. Smith, “Palestine in the Nineteenth Century,” Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History With Documents (New York, 2004), 25.
7.       Charles D. Smith, “The Arab Response to Zionism,” Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History With Documents (New York, 2004), 36.
8.       Ibid, 38-39.
9.       Mandel, The Arabs, 81.

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