History, Middle East/Palestine
Palestine in the Arab World (History) - Palestine

Palestine in the Arab World (History)

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

Palestine in the Arab World - Historical Overview

When Halagu Khan sacked Baghdad - the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate – under Caliph Al-Musta'sim, in 1258AD, Ertuğrul, who was Osman Bey’s father, had already led the Turkic Kayi tribe into Anatolia from Central Asia fleeing the Mongol onslaught.

Ertugrul pledged allegiance to Sultan Kayqubad I of the Seljuk principality of Rum, who gave him permission to establish a beylik or chieftainship at the borders and expand it into the neighboring province of the Byzantine Empire, if he could. After Ertugrul, his son Osman became the Bey, expanding his territory towards the north - he announced independence of his own small principality from the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in 1299.

At that time little would Osman Bey know that he was the founding father of the great Ottoman Empire to-be. More than 200 years down his progeny, Selim 1 proclaimed himself the Caliph of Islam after conquering the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, putting all of Sham, Hejaz, Tihamah, and Egypt under his rule. Thus the Levant that had been under Islamic rule since Umer, the second caliph of Islam, came under the Ottoman Empire.

The Bible affirms that when Abraham migrated to the land of Jerusalem, it was already inhabited by the Canaanite people. The Canaanite were an earlier migrants from the Semites, who had settled alongside the Mediterranean Coast. From within the Canaanites there were those who had finesse in seafaring – the Palaistine (Greek), Peleset (Egyptian), Plistim (Hebrew) or Filastin (Arabic), all referring to the ‘sea people’. Another Greek toponym ‘Phoenicians’ meaning the ‘purple people’, refers to the exotic purple dye extracted from the Murex Snail, traded by the Phoenicians throughout the Mediterranean coast along the north of Africa. The Phoenicians are thought to have established colonies throughout the coastline, meaning that they were having a lot of contact with Greek traders and invaders of Africa along with the African locals. This might be the reason why they accepted the name given to them by the Greeks, though they were really only the Canaanites.

Another theory that perhaps the Palestinians were actually Greeks who migrated through the Mediterranean and settled at the Palestinian coast may also be plausible on the account that the Greeks were again Semites that had settled along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, passing through Asia Minor. But the fact that the Phoenician language has been identified as a Canaanite language and has close affinity with the Hebrew Language severs the possibility of it being originated from Greek.

The ancient city of Carthage (Tunisia) that was founded around 800bc is a stamp on Phoenician innovation in building highly civilized colonies all across the southern Mediterranean coast. The Romans fought the Punic Wars with the Carthage Empire from 264bc to 146bc for control on trade and supremacy on the Mediterranean.  

From the time of Abraham, the Canaanites and all their sub-branches have been cultured in the monotheistic aura. The Canaanite, itself being an Aramaic Language died down with the advent of the 1st millennium, giving way to Hebrew and afterwards to Arabic - Canaan becoming Palestine and later Filastin.

As for the question of what belief system the Palestinians followed, surely they enjoyed a maximum richness of variety that served in their cultural evolution. For the four millennia passing, it is not possible that the Palestinian people would have adapted to Hebrew or Arabic, draped themselves in their cultures and yet would remain unaffected by the Torah, Bible and the Quran. As it goes, the oldest communities of the Jews, of the Samaritans and of the Christians live in Palestine to this day - and the majority of the Palestinians have converted to Islam at own-will. History has no account of a forced conversion of this people – the Palestinians were the native of this land – they were there before Abraham came, all the time when the Israelites were exiled from this holy land and also when the native Nazareth Christians gained protection under the Byzantines, the Romans and later the Muslim caliphates. Therefore the Arabization and Islamization of the Palestinians was under their true application of self-determination.

When the Ottoman Empire had arrived at the time of its fateful decline and was about to be fragmented in the aftermaths of WW1 - the once mighty empire that had since the 1680s, ruled from Somalia to Algiers, from Baku at the Caspian Sea to Budapest and from Athens to the Horn of Africa - all the time being the custodian of the Holy Mosques – had already been reduced to a still formidable land that now comprised of the lands that are today Iraq, Armenia, Syria, Jordan, the Levant, the western belt of Arabia and Turkey itself – the Levant was a part of the Ottoman Empire to the end.

In the downsizing of the Ottoman Empire in the years before WW1, Russia had taken away the Caucasus from the Ottomans in 1864 and forced the Ottomans out of their entire European possession by 1878 – in the same year Britain took control of Cyprus from the Ottomans on the false pretext of trying to restore the Balkan territories for them - again in 1882, Britain took control of Egypt under the false pretext of helping the Ottoman government to put down the Urabi Revolt there – while the French had taken Algeria and Tunisia from the Ottomans in 1830 and 1881. Perhaps these were the reasons why in 1914, the Ottomans decide to stand in battle against the Allied Powers comprising Britain, France, Russia and others in WW1.

In the war the Ottomans had to fight at all sides – in the Caucasus to the north-east, in Gallipoli to the west, around Baghdad in the south-east, Azerbaijan in the east and Palestine in the west – and all these against diverse contenders.

The Sinai and Palestine Campaign was launched from Egypt, already under British occupation for the last 32 years; the Allied Powers made Palestine the second largest front next to the Western Front in terms of forces deployed. Though the Ottomans were victorious in initial battles around Baghdad and in Gallipolis, but victory was not sustainable as the British managed to bring in fresh recruits from India on the Baghdad front and from Australia on the Palestine front. But having natives of their colonies to fight in wars that would serve to bring more land under their occupation was not the only advantage the British had.

They also used asymmetric means of warfare – the Armenian revolt was fueled by events in Russia and the Arab Revolt was orchestrated in the Arabian Peninsula as an ultimate blow upon the Ottomans. The British doubled played the Sharif of Mecca on one side, promising him that if the Arabs would revolt against the Ottoman hegemony in alliance with UK, in return the UK would recognize Arab independence. While on the other hand, they made a secret pact with France, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, wherein they made a deal that if they win the war, Britain will take Palestine, Sinai and Mesopotamia (Iraq), and France will take Syria and Lebanon. Later, when the Triple Entente did win, they legitimized this takeover by obtaining a mandate from the League of Nations on the premise that they should be tasked with ‘administering parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire… until such time as they are able to stand alone’.

With the victory of the Allied Powers in the World War, Britain and France balkanized the Ottoman Empire, so that most of Syria came under the French control and most of Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine came under the British, while Turkey proper was again divided into several influence zones, given out to Britain, France, Greece and Italy.


In the next decades as these fragmented parts of the Ottoman regained independence as separate states, many Arabs longed for their lost unity and strength. Though they were separate states now, each with their own interests and conflicting foreign policies, yet there was passion to somehow come to a possible unity. King Abdallah of Jordan, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were all aspirants of Arab unity and the unification of a greater Arab state of some kind - Palestine was part of all these plans. Apart from these there were several thinkers and movements that worked along these lines.

Yet another paradox surrounded Palestine from these times, while all other lands of the demised Ottomans were to become one state or another – Palestine was to remain de-facto as a ‘territory’ and never was ever to become a state – as the only choice made available to the Palestinians by the methodology of the UN was for them to have a torn-up, half state – take it or leave it – a preposition they somehow have as yet failed to accommodate with.

Perhaps this preamble will serve a purpose – understanding the relation of the Arab World with Palestine – Palestine was one country with Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Arabia before the Sykes-Picot scramble. And after long struggles ranging to about half a century, all these countries succeeded in throwing out their invaders, except one – Palestine.

(The next part will be about Palestine and the Arabs Struggle for Independence)