A People Without a Country

The scattered Palestinian people yearn for an independent country of their own.

by Peg Maron

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Who are the Palestinians? This question looms large in these early years of the 21st century, when newspapers daily recount the horrors in the Holy Land.

The Palestinians are an Arabic-speaking Semitic people who have lived for centuries in the Holy Land. Many families trace their lineage to the Crusades and before. Some – Christian and Muslim – are descended from Jews who lived at the time of Christ. The history of these people fills countless volumes, but this article will be confined to those Palestinians who lived under the British Mandate of Palestine, created by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923.

The mandate extended from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, through the Negev to the northern tip of the Dead Sea, then north along the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee to Lebanon. Its western border was the Mediterranean. In 1923, Arabs constituted 92 percent of the population and owned 98 percent of the land.

The Palestinian economy was largely agricultural. Relations between Arabs and indigenous Palestinian Jews were amicable, but the Arabs were already wary of Zionist aspirations for Palestine.

Western powers, particularly the British, in seeking to appease both Arabs and Jews through a series of documents and diplomatic maneuvers, only reinforced Arab suspicions; Arab clashes with British authorities and Jewish communities were, therefore, inevitable.

The plight of European Jews who had survived the Holocaust was probably the single most important factor uniting public opinion in favor of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

The British relinquished their mandate to the United Nations on 2 April 1947. On 29 November, the United Nations General Assembly, acting on a report presented by its Special Commission to Palestine, voted to divide Palestine into a Jewish state comprising 56 percent of the area, an Arab state comprising 43 percent and an international city of Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, administered by the UN.

The British High Commissioner withdrew on 14 May 1948; Jewish authorities immediately declared an independent State of Israel. By that time, some 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had already fled their homes, seeking refuge in neighboring Arab states.

In response, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions, but the well-prepared, well-equipped Israelis routed these combined Arab armies. When the fighting ended on 7 January 1949, an estimated 800,000 exhausted Palestinians had fled their homeland. An additional 300,000 Palestinian Arabs left the West Bank for Jordan a year after the fighting. These Palestinians formed the nucleus of a refugee population that still exists more than half a century later.

To meet the needs of these refugees, Pope Pius XII established the Pontifical Mission for Palestine on 18 June 1949. Six months later the UN created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

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