Framing the Palestinian struggle: The origins of political Zionism

Editorial note: As the global movement to Free Palestine continues surging to new heights, it is critical that activists, organizers, and peace-minded people arm ourselves with some of the fundamental historical developments and key features of current events in Palestine. The following article is reposted from Liberation School and was synthesized from the first few chapters of the 2009 edition of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire, by Richard Becker. A new edition of the book is available through 1804 Books here.


On Jan. 22, 2009, George Mitchell was introduced as President Barack Obama’s chief Middle East negotiator. At the press conference announcing his appointment, Mitchell spoke about his previous role as U.S. representative in the Northern Ireland negotiations during the 1990s. He mentioned that the conflict in Ireland had been ongoing for 800 years. Then the former senator told the assembled media and U.S. State Department staff a “joke:”

“Just recently, I spoke in Jerusalem, and I mentioned the 800 years. And afterward, an elderly gentleman came up to me, and he said, ‘did you say 800 years?’ I said, ‘Yes, 800.’ He repeated the number again. I repeated it again. He said, ‘Ah, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it’” [1].

The reporters and officials laughed knowingly. They all “knew” that the Arab-Israeli (cast as a Muslim-Jewish) conflict—the supposed core of the problem in the region—has been going on for not hundreds, but thousands of years. The only problem with this well-accepted “fact” is that it is not true. It is a myth, a malicious misrepresentation of the real nature and causes of the struggle in the Middle East. Government and corporate media spokespeople have so endlessly regurgitated this fundamental distortion of the source of conflict in the Middle East that it has become conventional wisdom. It is accepted by a large part of the U.S. population. The conflict is presented as an ancient and bitter fight between two peoples or two religions, based on irreconcilable and mutual hatred. It is a convenient lie that lets the real sources of the conflict—imperialism and colonialism—off the hook.

There is, in fact, an irreconcilable conflict in the Middle East, but it is not one between different peoples or faiths. It is instead the struggle between imperialism, Israel, and the dependent Arab regimes on the one hand and the oppressed peoples of this oil-rich and strategic region fighting for liberation and progress on the other. At the very heart of this conflict is Palestine. The Palestinian struggle is a struggle against Western colonialism. It has been this way from the beginning, more than a century ago. As is the case with all conflicts and world events, what is going on today in Palestine and the Middle East can only be understood in its historical context.

The key event in reshaping the region was World War I, which was a war fought by empires to redivide the world to suit their interests. It was the British and French takeover and division of the area as the spoils of World War I that created the artificial boundaries of the modern Middle East. Syria and Lebanon became part of the French Empire; Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine were incorporated into the British Empire. The British and French imperialists viewed the desire of the Arab people for the creation of one Arab state as a threat to their domination. A widespread revolt in 1920 against the new colonizers was crushed.

Without the sponsorship of the British Empire, the Zionist colonial project could not have succeeded. Three decades later, this project officially gave birth to the state of Israel.

After World War II, the United States emerged as the dominant power in the region. Contrary to its false image as a “beacon of democracy,” Washington has sought to destroy every progressive government and popular democratic movement in the region for over 60 years. Washington has supported, and sometimes installed, the most reactionary monarchies and police states. The aim has been to clear all obstacles to the unrestricted exploitation of the region’s vast oil resources, labor, and markets, while ensuring U.S. military hegemony over the area. Today, the United States occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, while its bases and naval power dominate the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the entire region.

Israel plays a key role in the U.S. government’s strategy of regional domination. Over the past 40 years, the United States has sent billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to the small state of Israel annually—far more aid than it has sent to any other country or even to any continent. In 2009, Israel will get at least $2.55 billion in military aid from Washington without strings attached [2]. Although Israel has a population of less than 7 million people, it has been built up into a nuclear-armed power. It has repaid these incomparable “gifts” by playing a vital role in the U.S. strategy of regional and global domination [3].

Dividing up the Middle East

At the start of the 20th century, much of what is known today as the Middle East was still part of the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey. What later became Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were until 1918 part of the vilayets (provinces) of Syria and Beirut and the independent sanjak (sub-province) of Jerusalem. The vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, which together form modern Iraq, were also under Ottoman rule.

Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula were still formally under Ottoman administration, but Ottoman influence was declining, and rival British power was growing in both areas. The Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt, was Britain’s vital lifeline to its richest colonies in Asia. British troops occupied key parts of Egypt in 1882.

During World War I, which began in 1914, the British sent a military emissary, T.E. Lawrence, to enlist the support of Arab leaders, particularly the Hashemite King Hussein bin Ali, who ruled the Hejaz region of the western Arabian Peninsula [4]. The British promised support for an independent Arab state in return for Arab military participation in the war against Turkey.

At the same time as these promises were being made, the foreign ministers of the British, French, and Russian empires, along with their allies in Italy and Greece, were secretly drawing up a plan to divide the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the war. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement became public only after the Russian Revolution of November 1917 [5]. The new Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs published the secret treaties signed by the ousted Czarist government, including Sykes-Picot. The new Soviet state, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Bolshevik party, also renounced all territorial ambitions against other nation-states.

That same month, more than a year before the war’s end, and while Palestine was still nominally under Ottoman rule, Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, a member of the British House of Lords and one of the world’s richest men. The infamous Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917, read:

Dear Lord Rothschild: I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation. Yours sincerely Arthur James Balfour [6].

Underlining the colonialist character of the note is the phrase: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The “existing non-Jewish communities”—the Palestinian Arabs—went unnamed, despite comprising 92 percent of the population at the time. While national rights were emphasized for the tiny settler minority, no mention was made of the same rights for the indigenous majority. As Palestinian scholar Dr. Ismail Zayid wrote about the Balfour Declaration:

“It is interesting to note that the four-letter word “Arab” occurs not once in this document.… To refer to the Arabs who constituted 92 percent of the population of Palestine and owned 89 percent of its land, as the non-Jewish communities, is not merely preposterous but deliberately fraudulent.… Palestine did not belong to Balfour to assume such acts of generosity” [7].

The Balfour Declaration sparked great outrage, particularly among the rapidly growing urban populations, which were the centers of political activity in the region. The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement were widely viewed by the Arab masses as a double betrayal by Britain. Instead of liberation, Arabs from Jerusalem to Damascus to Baghdad found themselves as colonial subjects under the domination of the world’s two largest empires. What made the new colonialism even worse was that the imperial rulers had designated their land as a “national home” for another people. The resistance against these new colonial realities would decisively shape the struggle in the Middle East for decades to come.

New colonial masters

At the end of World War I, the British army occupied Jerusalem in Palestine, Damascus in Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan (now Jordan). French troops occupied Beirut in Lebanon. Expecting the British to keep their wartime commitments, Hussein sent one of his sons, Faisal, to Damascus. On July 2, 1919, the General Syrian Congress, with delegates elected from areas throughout present-day Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, met in Damascus. The delegates unanimously repudiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and the Zionist project. They asked:

“How can the Zionists go back in history two thousand years to prove that by their short sojourn in Palestine they have now a right to claim it and return to it as a Jewish home, thus crushing the nationalism of a million Arabs” [8]?

Within the emerging Arab nationalist movement, the creation of a Greater Syria was a very popular idea. The people were organizing in preparation for independence.

The aspiring state of Greater Syria had a very short life. In 1920, the British made good on their Sykes-Picot commitments and allowed the French army to enter Damascus, overthrow the new government headed by Faisal, and occupy present-day Syria and Lebanon.

The oppressed peoples of the region responded with a widespread revolt in 1920. This engulfed the region in response to the imperialist takeover. Eventually, the revolt was suppressed. In the aftermath, Greater Syria was dismembered. One part, Palestine—it was known as Southern Syria at the time—was designated for Zionist settlers from Europe. The French imperialists developed Lebanon into the Western banking center and entertainment capital of the region. Puppet monarchs were placed on the thrones of Transjordan, Iraq, and Syria. The petroleum resources of Iraq and the entire region were reserved exclusively for the benefit of the U.S., British, French, and Dutch oil monopolies.

The chopping up of Greater Syria, the creation of new statelets like Kuwait and other tiny Gulf kingdoms, and the drawing of new borders across the region were intended to thwart Arab nationalism and benefit the dominant imperialist powers. As a consolation for being ousted in Syria, the British crowned Faisal in 1922 as king of their new colony, Iraq. His brother, Abdullah, was made emir (monarch) of another new British colony, Jordan. For the masses of people there was no consolation, only new colonial masters. Faisal and Abdullah would soon show themselves to be compliant collaborators with both British colonialism and its newly-anointed project: Zionism.

Zionism: A colonial project

Modern political Zionism—the idea of creating an exclusively Jewish state—began to gather momentum in the late 19th century as a response to the anti-Semitic bigotry that prevailed in so much of Europe and the United States. In Eastern Europe, particularly the Russian Empire, horrific anti-Jewish pogroms, or massacres, were commonplace.

Small numbers of Zionist settlers began arriving in Palestine in 1882. Like the first European settlers in North America nearly three centuries earlier, the early Zionist settlers survived only thanks to the assistance of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population. These settlers in Palestine comprised a tiny part of the Jewish population that emigrated from Europe due to oppression and poverty during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More than a million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States during the same period.

In the 1890s, the Zionist movement began to take on a more organized form. Theodore Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, emerged as the movement’s preeminent leader. Herzl reportedly became a Zionist after covering the 1894 trial of a Jewish junior military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, in France. Using anti-Semitism, Dreyfus’ superiors framed him, which resulted in his conviction of treason and being sent off to the notorious Devil’s Island prison.

In 1896, Herzl published “The Jewish State,” generally regarded as the founding manifesto of the Zionist movement. The first Zionist congress was held the next year. While the Zionist project, headed by Herzl, was a response to European anti-Semitism, it was at the same time thoroughly European. Its leaders fully subscribed to the colonialist and racist outlook pervasive among the European ruling classes.

The early Zionists considered a number of possible sites for their projected homeland including Uganda and Argentina, as well as Palestine. They soon settled on Palestine, the site of the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah, small states that existed in ancient times.

The first Jewish kingdom came into being around 1,000 BCE when an Israelite army led by David conquered the Canaanites. The Canaanites had built Jerusalem as a fortified city with a sophisticated water system more than eight centuries earlier [9]. The last of the ancient Jewish kingdoms, Judah, fell in 586 BCE—nearly 25 centuries before the modern Zionist project was launched [10]. Since the seventh century CE, Palestine has been predominantly Arab and Muslim. Over time, many of the Canaanites, Israelites, and other peoples who lived in the region in earlier generations intermarried with the Arabs, who came originally from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as others who arrived later from Europe, Africa, and East Asia.

Using the Bible as a real estate deed or going back thousands of years in history to determine who has the right to what territory is unworkable, to say the least. As Jewish writer Erich Fromm said many years ago, “If all nations would suddenly claim territory in which their forefathers had lived two thousand years ago, this world would be a madhouse” [11].

From the beginning of the Zionist movement, the leaders—most of whom were secular rather than religious—had a common goal: the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state. In the early 20th century, the state they envisioned, Eretz Israel (Greater Israel), included parts of what is today Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, the West Bank, and Gaza, as well as the present state of Israel.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zionism represented a small minority among Jewish people. It was mainly a movement of the middle class, with support from a few wealthy sponsors, particularly the Rothschild oil and banking interests [12]. Jewish workers and intellectuals of that time played a vital role in the socialist, communist, and other progressive movements in Europe and the United States. They fought for equality rather than separation. Prior to World War II, political Zionism was widely regarded as a reactionary nationalist and dangerous ideology in progressive circles, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

“Married to another man”

The goal articulated by the First World Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 and presided over by Herzl was, “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.” The use of the word “home” instead of “state” was both deliberate and deliberately misleading. In his diary, Herzl wrote: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in 50, everyone will know it” [13].

Following its meeting, the World Zionist Congress sent an investigatory delegation of two Austrian rabbis to Palestine. The delegation’s telegrammed report to the Congress was brief and telling: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” [14]. In other words, another people already inhabited Palestine. As a British report two decades later emphasized, there was virtually no arable land in Palestine that was not already under cultivation [15].

This undeniable reality did not deter the Zionist leaders. They were imbued with the predominant colonialist attitudes of the day toward the peoples of the Middle East and all of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nor did it prevent the Zionists from relentlessly propagating the racist slogan that Palestine was “A land without people for a people without a land.” For the Zionists and most other European leaders, “a land without people” meant a land without Europeans.

In the early 1900s, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain proposed to Herzl that the Zionists should colonize Uganda, another already inhabited land. The British, French, and other colonizing powers favored the establishment of European settlement in their far-flung colonies as a means of fortifying control. Herzl argued in favor of Uganda as the site of the projected Zionist state at the Sixth World Zionist Congress in 1903. The proposal was defeated at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, one year after Herzl’s death.

A struggle against settler-colonialism

From its very beginnings, political Zionism was a colonial-settler project. When European settlers began arriving in Palestine in the early 1880s, Jews comprised about 5 percent of the Palestinian population. About 20 percent of the population was Christian, and 75 percent was Muslim. Regardless of whether their religion was Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, nearly the entire population was Arab. A large majority of the indigenous Jewish population opposed Zionist settlement, as did most Arab Jews in other countries of the Middle East, fearing that it would lead to conflict.

The settler movement raised funds in Europe and the United States to purchase land. The land was acquired mostly from absentee feudal landlords, evicting Palestinian peasants in the process. Much of the countryside was still feudal or semi-feudal and many of the peasants were tenant farmers. The owners of large, landed estates often lived in Beirut, Damascus, or Jerusalem. While the Ottoman Empire had divided the region into different provinces, much of the population did not recognize these distinctions.

Land evictions led, as the indigenous Palestinian Jewish population had feared it would, to friction between religious groups, which previously had been minimal. Middle East scholar Don Perez described the percolating hostility: “Tensions began after the first Zionist settlers arrived in the 1880s… when [they] purchased land from absentee Arab owners, leading to dispossession of the peasants who had cultivated it” [16].

In a 1921 Atlantic Monthly article, renowned archeologist Albert T. Clay, who had just returned from visiting Palestine, wrote:

“Political Zionism is strongly opposed by many orthodox Jews in Palestine; especially because they recognize that, through the fanaticism of the Zionist leaders, it has become most difficult for them to maintain their former amicable relations with the other natives” [17].

Contrary to Zionist propaganda claims, Palestinian Arab resistance to Zionist settlement was not motivated by anti-Semitism any more than Native people’s resistance in the Americas, or African people’s resistance to apartheid South Africa was anti-white. In all three situations, the indigenous peoples were fighting against dispossession—the theft of their homelands.


[1] CQ Transcriptions, “President Obama Delivers Remarks to State Department Employees,” Washington Post, 22 January 2009. Available here.
[2] “U.S. military aid to Israel for 2009: $2.55 billion,” Globes Online Archive: Israel’s Business Arena, Feb. 5, 2008. Available here.
[3] See Abdel Wahab el-Messiri, Israel: Base of Western Imperialism (New York: Committee to Support Middle East Liberation, 1969). The pamphlet by the Egyptian historian illustrates that in the 1960s the national liberation movements in the Middle East and the rest of the world saw Israel as a colonial-settler state, a garrison that served the interests of imperialism.
[4] Lawrence, an agent of British imperialism, was canonized in the racist Hollywood epic Lawrence of Arabia. It should be noted that neither Lawrence nor the British ever intended to grant the Arabs a truly independent state. This would become clear to the Arab world very quickly.
[5] The treaty was named after the British and French foreign diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot.
[6] Arthur James Balfour, “Balfour Declaration 1917,” The Avalon Project, available here.
[7] Ismail Zayid, “Palestine: Fifty Years of Ethnic Cleansing and Dispossession,” Dossier on Palestine (Halifax, Nova Scotia 2002).
[8] Cited in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, The Transformation of Palestine (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 58.
[9] The Jewish Bulletin, July 31, 1998, quoted in Jews for Justice in the Middle East, The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict (Berkeley: If Americans Knew, 2002), 3.
[10] Ilene Beatty, Arab and Jew in the Land of Canaan (1957), quoted in The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, 3.
[11] The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, 18.
[12] The Rothschilds are a family of European Jewish origin that established worldwide operations in oil, banking, and finance. Several Rothschild men were ennobled by Austria and Britain in the late 1800s. They were principal financial backers of the colonial settlement of Palestine by Europeans in the early 1900s, and have been major benefactors of the state of Israel.
[13] Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), 3.
[14] Ghada Karmi, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2007).
[15] John B. Quigley, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).
[16] Don Peretz, The Arab-Israeli Dispute (New York: Facts on File, 1996), 9.
[17] Albert T. Clay, “Political Zionism,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1921.

Featured photo: Picture taken in 2012 Palestinian side of Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank. Neil Ward. Source: Wikimedia Commons.