Israel was founded on the idea that 20th century Jewish settlers arrived in the Holy Land and, through hard work, transformed its empty swamps into fertile gardens. Early Zionist thinker Israel Zangwill wrote in 1901: “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country. The regeneration of the soil would bring the regeneration of the people.” Since then, the idea that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land” and Jewish settlement there “made the desert bloom” has become ubiquitous. If this were true, how did over 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children become refugees? Where had they been living? Pre-Israel Palestine was not a desert but was teeming with life and infrastructure.
While the creators of the Israeli state told the world that pre-1948 Jewish settlement in Palestine transformed the desert into productive agriculture, Palestine’s already-productive agricultural sector was not significantly impacted. In 1944, Palestinians cultivated three times the amount of land in the Naqab desert as settlers, and the total amount dropped significantly after the 1948 Nakba. Haaretz reports that Christian Arabs were the ones who transformed the desert into a garden more than 1,500 years ago.
Life and Religious Coexistence in Historic Palestine
Palestine pre-1948 was bustling with life and productivity. Film footage of Palestine in 1896 shows bustling cities with businesses operating peacefully; a train station filled with people; and Muslims, Jews, and Christians practicing their religions freely. The region was under the control of the Ottomans who practiced religious tolerance throughout the empire.
Many Jews fled attacks in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, flocked to the Ottoman Empire, and created the largest Jewish community in the world there. Equipped with religious freedom in a place where they could live without fear of persecution, the Ottoman Jews participated in commerce and became prosperous into the 19th century.
A 1922 League of Nations census report shows that Palestine’s population included 83,694 Jews, 73,024 Christians, and 590,890 Muslims. The Jewish people of Palestine were not targeted for their religion. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that between 1881‒1908, only 13 Jews had been killed by Arabs, and all but four of those cases were robberies or similar crimes.
If the Holy Land was not a desert before Zionist settlement, then what happened to the
Palestinian families’ homes and infrastructure?
Investigative reporting by Haaretz, historians like Tamar Novick, and organizations like the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research have found evidence that Israel’s Defense Ministry has systematically removed documents which reveal atrocities and massacres committed against Palestinian families by the Israeli soldiers during the 1948 war. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé argues that this is part of a broader effort to erase Palestinians and Palestine altogether.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art: “Anti-Mapping” Exhibit
The “Anti-Mapping” photography exhibit by Israeli photojournalists Miki Kratsman and Shabtai Pinchevsky documents sites that the state has sought to erase, obstruct, and conceal, such as Palestinian towns that were destroyed in 1948, unrecognized Bedouin villages, and regions along the Green Line. These photographs expose places whose Palestinian names have been erased in official records, or whose remains after the expulsion of Arabs have been covered up by Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests, Zionist new-towns, or Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bases.
In an interview with Haaretz, Kratzman shares:
“I have a better understanding of what these [JNF] forests are. In this area they planted on the ruins of Palestinian villages. In the Bedouin areas where I wander sometimes, trees are planted today after people are evicted, and the purpose of the forests is to prevent those people from returning. The JNF’s Ambassadors Forest extends across several kilometers, it’s huge. It covers the whole region of al-Arakib [an unrecognized Bedouin village and its surroundings, north of Be’er Sheva]. The trees expel the people. Until new communities are built in the place of those that were demolished, the facts on the ground are the trees.”
Settler Destruction of Palestinian Property
Israel’s army and government are not the only actors destroying evidence of Palestinian life. Settlers also engage in this violence. Settler violence includes acts of violence that directly injure or kill people and affect property, such as vandalizing trees (a source of income for agricultural workers, as well as a symbol of Palestinian national pride), land, and vehicles, and stealing, injuring, or killing livestock.
A report from Visualizing Palestine shows how settler violence in the Occupied West Bank has been on the rise: in 2017, there were on average 10 settler attacks per week, and now in 2022 there has been an average of 27 settler attacks per week.
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has documented settler violence and the lack of repercussions for decades. They write: “These acts of violence occur in the context of the failure of Israeli law enforcement, which treats settler violence with complacency and forgiveness. [It] enable[s] the violence to continue.”
Palestinians Have Always Been and Will Always Be Here
Despite official and unofficial attempts to conceal and destroy Palestinian history and life in the Holy Land, Palestinian families and their allies continue to fight for their right to exist. Even if their homes are destroyed, Palestinian refugees still hold the keys.
Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk spoke with Palestinian families who still held the keys to the homes they were forced to flee in 1948, the year of the Nakba and the year that the United Nations entrenched Palestinians’ right to return. He writes that most were convinced “that they would return after a week or two and re-open those front doors and walk back into the houses many have owned for generations.” The Palestinian key has become an important symbol for their continued hope to return.