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Immigration and the Roots of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict

Submitted by Robin Messing on Thu, 09/12/2013 - 4:12pm

Ask almost any supporter of Israel about how the Arab/Israeli conflict started and they are likely to mention Arab attacks against Jews in 1920/21 that left 47 Jews dead and 150 wounded.  They may point to Arab rejection of  Churchill White paper of 1922.  Undoubtedly they will point to the attacks in Hebron in 1929 in which more than 60 Jews were murdered and the rest were driven out of the city.  Or they will recall in horror how the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, incited hatred that led to riots killing nearly 2400 Jews between 1936 and 1939.  They will point to Palestinian rejectionism and violence as evidence that the Palestinians can't be trusted and that they aren't really interested in peace.  Many Israeli supporters will use this history to try to pin all the blame for the conflict on the Palestinians.  Some will say that the long history of violence proves that the Palestinians are evil.  A few extremist right-wing settlers go so far as to call them Amalekites.   The Amalekites were so antagonistic to the Biblical Jews that God ordered the Jews to kill every Amalekite man, woman, child and infant.  Their evil was so great, in the eyes of the Lord, that somehow it must have rubbed off on their animals--not even they were to be spared. So referring to the Palestinians as Amalekites implies that they are beyond mere evil--it implies that their evil is irredeemable, that nothing can change it, and that it will last from generation to generation until the end of time.

Now, I don't want to minimize the vile behavior of past Palestinian behavior.  The Mufti of Palestine was truly an evil man.  And vile Palestinian behavior and propaganda continues to this day.   But accusing the Palestinians of being uniquely and irredeemably evil overstates the case.  It gives Israelis an opportunity to avoid any responsibility for their actions that contributed to the ongoing conflict.  It gives them an excuse to poison the atmosphere for peace talks by demolishing Palestinian housing, expanding their settlements in defiance of world opinion, and violating Palestinian Human Rights in the West Bank.  In short, by attempting to put all the blame for the conflict on the Palestinians, Israelis join the Palestinian in dooming any prospects for peace.

The only way to fairly judge Palestinian behavior--in fact anyone's behavior, is to view it in the context in which it takes place.  And when you look back at the start of the conflict it is hard to say that the Palestinians behaved worse than any other people would have had they been in their place.

There are many factors that contributed to the start of the conflict-- but three stand out in particular: British perfidiousness in international politics, Jewish immigration into the land of Palestine, and (justifiable) Arab fears that the Zionists would eventually want a state of their own.  Actually, let me simplify that by saying the original sin that created the conflict, the single factor that made some sort of conflict inevitable, was British  double--nay triple--dealing between 1915 and 1917.  Take away this factor and a peaceful way to accommodate a large scale Jewish immigration MAY have been found.  It is unlikely--other factors did play a role in the conflict, but at least peace was theoretically possible.  And once the conflict started, British wartime diplomacy ensured that it would be more bitter, more long lasting, and more difficult to resolve than it might otherwise have been.

The British sowed the seeds for conflict by making three conflicting deals during the course of World I over how to divide up the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. 


  1. The Ottoman Empire had entered the First World War on the side of the Germans against Great Britain.  The British promised Sharif Hussein ibn 'Ali of Mecca that he could rule an Arab Kingdom throughout much of the Middle East if he would help them by revolting against the Ottoman Empire.  The Arabs were yearning to throw off the Ottoman empire that had ruled them for hundreds of years and have their own, undivided Arab nation.  Based on the vision of an undivided kingdom that the British dangled before him, Hussein joined the British in their fight against the Turks. (See the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence).
  2. The British agreed with France (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) to divide up most of the Middle East between themselves, with the fate of Palestine to be decided later.  This carved up much of the territory promised to Hussein and withheld it for colonial aspirations.
  3. The British promised the Jewish People that they could establish a national homeland in Palestine with the understanding that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." (See the Balfour Declaration.) Because the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence is ambiguously worded, the British were later able to argue Palestine was not part of the land promised to the Arabs.  However, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Hussein was right in  insisting that it was included.


The British had promised the Arabs that they would get a large kingdom, covering much of the Arabian peninsula and Greater Syria, with the exception of  "the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo"   See Map.  Unfortunately, the British put their colonial ambitions and their obligations to the French above their promise to the Arabs and carved up the land that should have been allocated to the Arabs into little pieces.  What the Arabs received was but a shadow of what they were promised, and Palestine was just one tiny piece of what should have been a much larger whole.  Palestine was tiny both in size and population.  In 1882, the land that would become Palestine had less than half a million people, with roughly 400,000 Muslim Arabs, 40,000 Christian Arabs, and 24,000 Jews. This was a tiny population base next to the influx of population that was to come. provides a chart for Palestine's population growth between 1922 and 1947.




Note that the percentage of the population that was Jewish in mandatory Palestine jumped from around 11% in 1922 to 33% in 1947.  Had the Arabian kingdom been one country then its Arab population base would have been much larger and the influx of Jews would have represented a much smaller demographic threat.  It is, therefore, likely that the Arab/Zionist conflict would have been much less severe than it turned out to be.  But since the number of incoming Zionists was so large compared to the native population, severe conflict was inevitable.

A few of examples illustrate why this is so.

A number of American politicians have demanded that we build a huge fence along our Southern border to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security estimates there were 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States in January 2009.

The 2010 Census reported there were 308.7 million people in the U.S...  THUS, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS REPRESENT ALMOST 4% OF OUR POPULATION.  Compare this 4% illegal immigrant population to the 11% and 33% Jewish population in Palestine in 1922 and 1947 respectively and it is hard to see how a violent backlash against the Jews could have been avoided.

Two caveats are in order here.  First, The author of this MidesastWeb report that compiled the Palestinian population statistics notes that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the population data during this period and he cautions against drawing precise conclusions from the data.

And second, the analogy with Mexican illegal immigration is imperfect.  There was no Palestinian state when the Jews moved into the area, and much of the Jewish immigration was authorized by the British.  But the native Arabs had little say in how many outsiders could settle amongst them.  They protested repeatedly against the immigration, but their complaints often fell on deaf ears.  British set the immigration quotas and they were forced to accept it.  Rightly or wrongly, as far as they were concerned, the Jews were illegal immigrants and they believed the large influx of uninvited outsiders threatened their way of life.



How Israel Treats Its African Immigrants


And if you think the U.S.. treats its immigrants badly,  you ain't seen nothing yet.  See how harshly Mexico treats its illegal immigrants.  And it is no secret that Palestinian refugees have received, shall we say, a less than welcome reception amongst some of the Arab countries to which they fled.  And these people share the same language, religion, and to some degree, culture with the native population of the countries to which they fled.

But, if any country in the world were to treat its immigrant population with respect and dignity, it would be Israel.  I am not being facetious here.  And I'm not talking about the way Israel treats Palestinians who want to return to the land they believe is theirs.  I'm talking about how Israel treats its non-Arab immigrants--immigrants who are not a demographic threat to its existence as a Jewish state.  After all, in Deuteronomy 10:19, God commands: "Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."  And Leviticus 19:33-34 says


33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong.

34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.


Surely, Israelis would treat immigrants fleeing  desperate situations in Africa well.  Right?  Right???

Well, not exactly.

Bibi Netanyahu  freaked out over 60,000 illegal African immigrants entering Israel.   Netanyahu said that

If we don’t stop the entry, the problem, whose extent now is 60,000 illegal infiltrators, could easily develop to 600,000, which would flood the country and, to a large degree, nullify our character as a Jewish and democratic state.

The same Washington Post article that quoted Netanyahu also notes that:

Tensions over the presence of the migrants have been stoked by rightist politicians. In a speech at last month’s Hatikva neighborhood protest, Miri Regev, a parliament member from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called the Africans “a cancer in our body.”


Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has promised to clear out all the migrants, told the Maariv newspaper in a recent interview that they were creating “a state within a state” and that “most of the people coming here are Muslims who think that this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man."


poll conducted in May 2012  by the Israeli-based Peace Index showed 52% of Israeli Jews agreed with Miri Regev's statement that Africans were a cancer on the country.  This is shocking, considering that  THESE 60,000 REFUGEES REPRESENT LESS THAN 1% OF ISRAEL'S POPULATION.

The African Refugee Development Center put together a 1-hour documentary as part of a report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that delves into the plight in more detail.  I highly recommend it.



If you don't have time to watch a one hour video, then at least watch the trailer.



I am not presenting these videos in order to demonize Israel.  Instead, I present them to demonstrate that the rejection of outsiders is a rather widespread (though certainly not universal) phenomena.  Once we realize this, we can understand why conflict in the Middle East was inevitable after Great Britain promised the Jews a homeland in the tiny, lightly populated Palestine.  Add the Zionist desire to convert the homeland to a Jewish state, Arab dislocation from lands purchased by the Zionists, and second-class treatment of Palestinian workers by labor-Zionists and you have an explosive mix.

None of this should be read as a  moral justification for the murderous attacks by the Arabs against the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.  It certainly isn't.  But, we should ask, if we were in their shoes, would we react differently?  Imagine what would happen if the U.S. was controlled by a more militarily powerful nation that forced us to accept an influx from Mexico as great, in proportion to our population, as the influx of Jews that the British forced upon the Palestinians.  Would we accept them peacefully, or would some of our more hot-headed citizens use incoming Mexicans for target practice?  I'd like to think that we'd tolerate them peacefully.  I'd like to think there would be no lynchings in Texas or Arizona.  I'd like to think we were better than that, but unfortunately, I'm not convinced that this would be the case.


Update: To its credit, Israel's High Court issued a ruling a few days after I wrote this article in which they unanimously overturned a law which allowed Israel to hold African refugees seeking asylum in internment for a minumum of three years without trial.  The Court wrote:

“We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution,” she said. “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”


Update 2-Jan. 5, 2014: The Knesset reacted to the Israeli Court's decision striking down a law that allowed Israel to hold African refugees seeking asylum for a minimum of three years without trial.  How did the Knesset react?  By passing a decree expressing deep sorrow that their previous law violated basic human rights?  Don't be absurd.  No, on Dec. 10, 2013, the Knesset passed a bill reauthorizing the detention of  African asylem seekers.  According to +972 Magazine, "Under the new amendment, asylum seekers will be jailed for one year in the prisons, followed by additional indefinite detention in a specially constructed internment camp operated by the Israeli Prison Service."  David Sheen wrote a very important piece exlaining how this new Israeli law violates Israel's international obligations.  A Haaretz editorial decried the manhunt that has resulted from the passage of this new bill..

As I write this, twenty Thousand asylum seekers are protesting to demand humane treatment as refugees.  Knesset Member Ayelet Shaked took umbrage at these protests by complaining that they were backed by Europeans who wanted to (Horror of Horrors!) see "Israel become 'a state of all its citizens' rather than a Jewish state."

Update 3-January 20, 2014: Here is a video of one of the protests against the roundup and imprisonment of asylem seekers. Please watch.



I encourage any of you who want to keep up with ongoing developments in this story to follow @davidsheen on Twitter or subscribe to his YouTube channel.

Update 3/17/3014: A new poll indicates that 95% of Israelis think that Israel has a racism problem.  According to Israel Hayom

Only 10.3% of those polled said they believed the government was doing everything within its power to fight racism. Some 70.2% said that the government's efforts on the matter fall short and 19.5% said they believe government policies actually encourage racial discrimination.

Update 4/9/14: Eylon Aslan-Levy has given us a brilliant analogy between how Pharaoh treated the Hebrews in ancient Egypt and how Israel is treating its African asylum seekers.  It is the best essay I've read on this topic.  Read it!