By Ann M. Lesch
The Zionist movement-and subsequently the state of ISRAEL-failed to develop a positive approach to the Palestinian presence and Palestinian aspirations. Although many Israelis recognized the moral dilemma posed by the Palestinians, the majority either tried to ignore the issue or to resolve it by force majeure. Thus, the Palestine problem festered and grew, instead of being resolved.
- Historical Background
- The British Mandate
- The Zionist Movement
- Practical Zionism
- Policies Toward the Palestinians
The Zionist movement arose in late nineteenth-century Europe, influenced by the nationalist ferment sweeping that continent. Zionism acquired its particular focus from the ancient Jewish longing for the return to Zion and received a strong impetus from the increasingly intolerable conditions facing the large Jewish community in Tsarist Russia. The movement also developed at the time of major European territorial acquisitions in Asia and Africa, and benefited from the European powers' competition for influence in the shrinking Ottoman Empire.
One result of this involvement with European expansionism, however, was that the leaders of the nascent nationalist movements in the Middle East viewed Zionism as an adjunct of European colonialism. Moreover, Zionist assertions of the contemporary relevance of the Jews' historical ties to Palestine, coupled with their land purchases and immigration, alarmed the indigenous population of the Ottoman districts that comprised Palestine. The Jewish community (yishuv) rose from 6 percent of Palestine's population in 1880 to 10 percent by 1914. Although the numbers were insignificant, the settlers were outspoken enough to arouse the opposition of Arab leaders and induce them to exert counter pressure on the Ottoman regime to prohibit Jewish immigration and land buying.
After the coup d'etat by the Young Turks in 1908, the Palestinians used their representation in the central parliament and their access to newly opened local newspapers to press their claims and express their concerns. They were particularly vociferous in opposition to discussions that took place between the financially hard-pressed Ottoman regime and Zionist leaders in 1912-13, which would have let the world Zionist Organization purchase crown land (Jiftlik) in the Baysan Valley, along the Jordan River.
The Zionists did not try to quell Palestinian fears, since their concern was to encourage colonization from Europe and to minimize the obstacles in their path. The only effort to meet to discuss Palestinian and Zionist aspirations occurred in the spring of 1914. Its difficulties illustrated the incompatibility in the aims of both sides aspirations. The Palestinians wanted the Zionists to present them with a document that would state
- Zionists precise political ambitions,
- Zionists willingness to open their schools to Palestinians, and
- Zionists intentions of learning Arabic and integrating with the local population.
The Zionists rejected this proposal.
In fact, the British had made three mutually contradictory promises for the future of Palestine. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 with the French and Russian governments proposed that Palestine be placed under international administration. The HUSAYN-MCMAHON CORRESPONDENCE, 1915-1916, on the basis of which the Arab revolt was launched, implied that Palestine would be included in the zone of Arab independence. In contrast, the Balfour Declaration encouraged the colonization of Palestine by Jews, under British protection. British officials recognized the irreconcilability of these pledges but hoped that a modus vivendi could be achieved, both between the competing imperial powers, "France and Britain", and between the Palestinians and the Jews. Instead, these contradictions set the stage for three decades of conflict-ridden British rule in Palestine.
Initially, many British politicians shared the Zionists' assumption that gradual, regulated Jewish immigration and settlement would lead to a Jewish majority in Palestine, whereupon it would become independent, with legal protection for the Arab minority .The assumption that this could be accomplished without serious resistance was shattered at the outset of British rule. Britain thereafter was caught in an increasingly untenable position, unable to persuade either Palestinians or Zionists to alter their demands and forced to station substantial military forces in Palestine to maintain security.
The Palestinians had assumed that they would gain some form of independence when Ottoman rule disintegrated, whether through a separate state or integration with neighboring Arab lands. These hopes were bolstered by the Arab revolt, the entry of Faysal Ibn Husayn into Damascus in 1918, and the proclamation of Syrian independence in 1920. Their hopes were dashed, however, when Britain imposed direct colonial rule and elevated the yishuv to a special status. Moreover, the French ousted Faysal from Damascus in July 1920, and British compensation-in the form of thrones in Transjordan and Iraq for Abdullah and Faysal, respectively-had no positive impact on the Arabs in Palestine. In fact, the action underlined the different treatment accorded Palestine and its disadvantageous political situation. These concerns were exacerbated by Jewish immigration: the yishuv comprised 28 percent of the population by 1936 and reached 32 percent by 1947 (click here to view map of Palestinian vs. Jewish population distribution as of 1946). The British umbrella was critically important to the growth and consolidation of the yishuv, enabling it to root itself firmly despite Palestinian opposition. Although British support diminished in the late 1930s, the yishuv was strong enough by then to withstand the Palestinians on its own. After World War II, the Zionist movement also was able to turn to the emerging superpower, the UNITED STATES, for diplomatic support and legitimization.
Palestinian opposition peaked in the late 1930s: the six-month general strike in 1936 was followed the next year by a widespread rural revolt. This rebellion welled up from the bottom of Palestinian society-unemployed urban workers, displaced peasants crowded into towns, and debt-ridden villagers. It was supported by most merchants and professionals in the towns, who feared competition from the yishuv. Members of the elite families acted as spokesmen before the British administration through the ARAB HIGHER COMMITTEE, which was formed during the 1936 strike. However, the British banned the committee in October 1937 and arrested its members, on the eve of the revolt.
Only one of the Palestinian political parties was willing to limit its aims and accept the principle of territorial partition: The NATIONAL DEFENSE PARTY, led by RAGHIB AL-NASHASHIBI (mayor of Jerusalem from 1920 to 1934), was willing to accept partition in 1937 so long as the Palestinians obtained sufficient land and could merge with Transjordan to form a larger political entity. However, the British PEEL COMMISSION's plan, announced in July 1937, would have forced the Palestinians to leave the olive- and grain- growing areas of Galilee, the orange groves on the Mediterranean coast, and the urban port cities of HAIFA and ACRE. That was too great a loss for even the National Defense Party to accept, and so it joined in the general denunciations of partition.
During the PALESTINE MANDATE period the Palestinian community was 70 percent rural, 75 to 80 percent illiterate, and divided internally between town and countryside and between elite families and villagers. Despite broad support for the national aims, the Palestinians could not achieve the unity and strength necessary to withstand the combined pressure of the British forces and the Zionist movement. In fact, the political structure was decapitated in the late 1930s when the British banned the Arab Higher Committee and arrested hundreds of local politicians. When efforts were made in the 1940s to rebuild the political structure, the impetus came largely from outside, from Arab rulers who were disturbed by the deteriorating conditions in Palestine and feared their repercussions on their own newly acquired independence.
The dispossession and expulsion of a majority of Palestinians were the result of Zionist policies planned over a thirty-year period. fundamentally, Zionism focused on two needs:
- to attain a Jewish majority in Palestine
- to acquire statehood
irrespective of the wishes of the indigenous population. Non-recognition of the political and national rights of the Palestinian people was a KEY Zionist policy.
Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, placed maximalist demands before the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919. He stated that he expected 70,000 to 80,000 Jewish immigrants to arrive each year in Palestine. When they became the majority, they would form an independent government and Palestine and would become: "as Jewish as England is English". Weizmann proposed that the boundaries should be the Mediterranean Sea on the west; Sidon, the Litani River, and Mount Hermon on the north; all of Transjordan west of the Hijaz railway on the east; and a line across Sinai from Aqaba to al-Arish on the south. He argued that:
"the boundaries above outlined are what we consider essential for the economic foundation of the country. Palestine must have its natural outlet to the sea and control of its rivers and their headwaters. The boundaries are sketched with the general economic needs and historic traditions of the country in mind."
Weizmann offered the Arab countries a free zone in Haifa and a joint port at Aqaba.
Weizmann's policy was basically in accord with that of the leaders of the yishuv, who held a conference in December 1918 in which they formulated their own demands for the peace conference. The yishuv plan stressed that they must control appointments to the administrative services and that the British must actively assist their program to transform Palestine into a democratic Jewish state in which the Arabs would have minority rights. Although the peace conference did not explicitly allocate such extensive territories to the Jewish national home and did not support the goal of transforming all of Palestine into a Jewish state, it opened the door to such a possibility. More important, Weizmann's presentation stated clearly and forcefully the long-term aims of the movement.
These aims were based on certain fundamental tenets of Zionism:
- The movement was seen not only as inherently righteous, but also as meeting an overwhelming need among European Jews.
- European culture was superior to indigenous Arab culture; the Zionists could help civilize the East.
- External support was needed from a major power; relations with the Arab world were a secondary matter.
- Arab nationalism was a legitimate political movement, but Palestinian nationalism was either illegitimate or nonexistent.
- Finally, if the Palestinians would not reconcile themselves to Zionism, force majeure, not compromise, was the only feasible response.
"The Balfour Declaration and the Mandate have definitely lifted [Palestine] out of the context of the Middle East and linked it up with the world-wide Jewish problem. ...The rights which the Jewish people has been adjudged in Palestine do not depend on the consent, and cannot be subjected to the will, of the majority of its present inhabitants."
This perspective took its most extreme form with the Revisionist movement. Its founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, was so self-righteous about the Zionist cause that he justified any actions taken against the Arabs in order to realize Zionist goals.
Zionists generally felt that European civilization was superior to Arab culture and values. Theodor
Herzl, the founder of the World Zionist Organization, wrote in the Jewish State (1886) that the Jewish community could serve as:
"part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism."
Weizmann also believed that he was engaged in a fight of civilization against the desert. The Zionists would bring enlightenment and economic development to the backward Arabs. Similarly, David Ben-Gurion, the leading labor Zionist, could not understand why Arabs rejected his offer to use Jewish finance, scientific knowledge, and technical expertise to modernize the Middle East. He attributed this rejection to backwardness rather than to the affront that Zionism posed to the Arabs' pride and to their aspirations for independence.
Zionist politicians accepted the idea of an Arab nation but rejected the concept of a Palestinian nation. They considered the Arab residents of Palestine as comprising a minute fraction of the land and people of the Arab world, and as lacking any separate identity and
aspirations (click here,
to read our response to this myth). Weizmann and Ben-Gurion were willing to negotiate with Arab rulers in order to gain those rulers' recognition of Jewish statehood in Palestine in return for the Zionists' recognition of Arab independence elsewhere, but they would not negotiate with the Arab politicians in Palestine for a political settlement in their common homeland. As early as 1918, Weizmann wrote to a prominent British
"The real Arab movement is developing in Damascus and Mecca. ..the so-called Arab question in Palestine would therefore assume only a purely local character, and in fact is not considered a serious factor."
In line with that thinking, Weizmann met with Emir Faysal in the same year, in an attempt to win his agreement to Jewish statehood in Palestine in return for Jewish financial support for Faysal as ruler of Syria and Arabia.
Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, and other Zionist leaders met with prominent Arab officials during the 1939 LONDON CONFERENCE, which was convened by Britain to seek a compromise settlement in Palestine. The Arab diplomats from Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia criticized the exceptional position that the Balfour Declaration had granted the Jewish community and emphasized the estrangement between the Arab and Jewish residents that large scale Jewish immigration had caused. In response, Weizmann insisted that Palestine remain open to all Jews who wanted to immigrate, and Ben-Gurion suggested that all of Palestine should become a Jewish state, federated with the surrounding Arab states. The Arab participants criticized these demands for exacerbating the conflict, rather than contributing to the search for peace. The Zionists' premise that Arab statehood could be recognized while ignoring the Palestinians was thus rejected by the Arab rulers themselves.
Ben-Gurion stated bluntly:
"Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can fill this gulf. ...I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews. ...We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs."
As tensions increased in the 1920s and the 1930s Zionist leaders realized that they had to coerce the Palestinian acquiesce in a diminished status. Ben-Gurion stated in 1937, during the Arab revolt:
"This is a national war declared upon us by the Arabs. ... This is an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as a usurpation of their homeland by the Jews. ...But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict, which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves."
This sober conclusion did not lead Ben-Gurion to negotiate with the Palestinian Arabs: instead he became more determined to strengthen the Jewish military forces so that they could compel the Arabs to relinquish their claims.
In order to realize the aims of Zionism and build the Jewish national home, the Zionist movement undertook the following practical steps. They:
- Built political structures that could assume state functions
- Created a military force.
- Promoted large-scale immigration.
- Acquired land as the inalienable property of the Jewish people
- Established monopolistic concessions. The labor federation, Histadrut, tried to force Jewish enterprises to hire only Jewish labor
- Setting up an autonomous Hebrew-language educational system.
These measures created a self-contained national entity on Palestinian soil that was ENTIRELY SEPARATE from the Arab community.
The Zionists were strongly critical of British efforts to establish a LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL in 1923, 1930, and 1936. They realized that Palestinians' demands for a legislature with a Palestinian majority ran counter to their own need to delay establishing representative bodies until the Jewish community was much larger. In 1923, the Jewish residents did participate in the elections for a Legislative Council, but they were relieved that the Palestinians' boycott compelled the British to cancel the results. In 1930 and 1936 the World Zionist Organization vigorously opposed British proposals for a legislature, fearing that, if the Palestinians received the majority status that proportional representation would require, then they would try to block Jewish immigration and the purchase of land by Zionist companies. Zionist opposition was couched indirectly in the assertion that Palestine was
not ripe for self-rule, a code for not until there's a Jewish
To bolster this position, the yishuv formed defense forces (Haganah) in March 1920. They were preceded by the establishment of guards (hashomer) in Jewish rural settlements in the 1900s and the formation of a Jewish Legion in World War I. However, the British disbanded the Jewish Legion and allowed only sealed armories in the settlements and mixed Jewish-British area defense committees.
Despite its illegal status, the Haganah expanded to number 10,000 trained and mobilized men, and 40,000 reservists by 1936. During the 1937-38 Arab revolt, the Haganah engaged in active defense against Arab insurgents and cooperated with the British to guard railway lines, the oil pipeline to Haifa, and border fences. This cooperation deepened during World War II, when 18,800 Jewish volunteers joined the British forces. Haganah's special Palmach units served as scouts and sappers for the British army in Lebanon in 1941-42. This wartime experience helped to transform the Haganah into a regular fighting force. When Ben-Gurion became the World Zionist Organization's secretary of defense in June 1947, he accelerated mobilization as well as arms buying in the United States and Europe. As a result, mobilization leaped to 30,000 by May 1948, when statehood was proclaimed, and then doubled to 60,000 by mid-July-twice the number serving in the Arab forces arrayed against Israel.
Jaffa and Tel Aviv, with most of the remainder in the north, including the towns of HAIFA, SAFAD, and Tiberias.
The Mandate specified that the rate of immigration should accord with the economic capacity of the country to absorb the immigrants. In 1931, the British government reinterpreted this to take into account only the Jewish sector of the economy, excluding the Palestinian sector, which was suffering from heavy unemployment. As a result, the pace of immigration accelerated in 1932 and peaked in 1935-36. In other words, the absolute number of Jewish residents doubled in the five years from 1931 to 1936 to 370,000, so that they constituted 28 percent of the total population. Not until 1939 did the British impose a severe quota on Jewish immigrants. That restriction was resisted by the yishuv with a sense of desperation, since it blocked access to a key haven for the Jews whom Hitler was persecuting and exterminating in Germany and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe. Net immigration was limited during the war years in the 1940s, but the government estimated in 1946 that there were about 583,000 Jews of nearly 1,888,000 residents, or 31 percent of the total Seventy percent of them were urban, and they continued to be overwhelmingly concentrated in Jerusalem (100,000) the Haifa area (119,000), and the JAFFA and RAMLA districts (327,000) (click here for a map illustrating Palestine's population distribution in 1946) . The remaining 43,000 were largely in Galilee, with a scattering in the Negev and almost none in the central highlands.
click here for a map illustrating Palestine's landownership distribution in 1946).
According to Article 3 of the Constitution of the Jewish Agency, the land was held by the Jewish National Fund as the inalienable property of the Jewish people; ONLY Jewish labor could be employed in the settlements, Palestinians protested bitterly against this inalienability clause. The moderate National Defense Party , for example, petitioned the British in 1935 to prevent further land sales, arguing that it was a: life and death for the Arabs, in that it resulted in the transfer of their country to other hands and the loss of their nationality.
The placement of Jewish settlements was often based on political considerations. The Palestine Land Development Company had four criteria for land purchase:
- The economic suitability of the tract
- Its contribution to forming a solid block of Jewish territory.
- The prevention of isolation of settlements
- The impact of the purchase on the political-territorial claims of the Zionists.
The stockade and watchtower settlements constructed in 1937, for example, were designed to secure control over key parts of Galilee for the yishuv in case the British implemented the PEEL PARTITION PLAN. Similarly, eleven settlements were hastily erected in the Negev in late 1946 in an attempt to stake a political claim in that entirely Palestinian-populated territory.
In addition to making these land purchases, prominent Jewish businessmen won monopolistic concessions from the British government that gave the Zionist movement an important role in the development of Palestine's natural resources. In 1921, Pinhas Rutenberg's Palestine Electric Company acquired the right to electrify all of Palestine except Jerusalem. Moshe Novomeysky received the concession to develop the minerals in the Dead Sea in 1927. And the Palestine Land Development Company gained the concession to drain the Hula marshes, north of the Sea of Galilee, in 1934. In each case, the concession was contested by other serious non-Jewish claimants; Palestinian politicians argued that the government should retain control itself in order to develop the resources for the benefit of the entire country.
"The Histadrut's fundamental aim is 'the conquest of labor' ...No matter how many Arab workers are unemployed, they have no right to take any job which a possible immigrant might occupy. No Arab has the right to work in Jewish undertakings."
Finally, the establishment of an all-Jewish, Hebrew-language educational system was an essential component of building the Jewish national home. It helped to create a cohesive national ethos and a lingua franca among the diverse immigrants. However, it also entirely separated Jewish children from Palestinian children, who attended the governmental schools. The policy widened the linguistic and cultural gap between the two peoples. In addition, there was a stark contrast in their literacy levels. In 1931:
- 93 percent of Jewish males (above age seven) were literate
- 71 percent of Christian males were literate
- Only 25 percent of Muslim males were literate.
Overall, Palestinian literacy increased from 19 percent in 1931 to 27 percent by 1940, but only 30 percent of Palestinian children could be accommodated in government and private schools.
Thus the relative weight and autonomy of the yishuv were much greater than sheer numbers would suggest. The transition to statehood was facilitated by the existence of the proto state institutions and a mobilized, literate public. But separation from the Palestinian residents was exacerbated by these autarchic policies.
The main viewpoint within the Zionist movement was that the Arab problem would be solved by first solving the Jewish problem. In time, the Palestinians would be presented with the fait accompli of a Jewish majority. Settlements, land purchases, industries, and military forces were developed gradually and systematically so that the yishuv would become too strong to uproot. In a letter to his son, Weizmann compared the Arabs to the rocks of Judea, obstacles that had to be cleared to make the path smooth. When the Palestinians mounted violent protests in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39, and the late 1940s, the yishuv sought to curb them by force, rather than seek a political accommodation with the indigenous people. Any concessions made to the Palestinians by the British government concerning immigration, land sales, or labor were strongly contested by the Zionist leaders. In fact, in 1936, Ben-Gurion stated that the Palestinians will only acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel after they are in a state of total despair.
Zionists viewed their acceptance of territorial partition as a temporary measure; they did not give up the idea of the Jewish community's right to all of Palestine. Weizmann commented in 1937:
"In the course of time we shall expand to the whole country ...this is only an arrangement for the next 15-30 years."
Ben-Gurion stated in 1938,
"After we become a strong force, as a result of the creation of a state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine."
A FEW EFFORTS were made to reduce Arab opposition. For example in the 1920s, Zionist organizations provided financial support to Palestinian political parties, newspapers, and individuals. This was most evident in the establishment and support of the National Muslim Societies (1921-23) and Agricultural Parties (1924-26). These parties were expected to be neutral or positive toward the
Zionist movement, in return for which they would receive financial subventions and their members would be helped to obtain jobs and loans.
This policy was backed by Weizmann, who commented that:
"extremists and moderates alike were susceptible to the influence of money and honors."
However, Leonard Stein, a member of the London office of the World Zionist Organization, denounced this practice. He argued that Zionists must seek a permanent modus vivendi with the Palestinians by hiring them in Jewish firms and admitting them to Jewish universities. He maintained that political parties in which Arab moderates are merely Arab gramophones playing Zionist records would collapse as soon as the Zionist financial support ended. In any event, the World Zionist Organization terminated the policy by 1927, as it was in the midst of a financial crisis and as most of the leaders felt that the policy was ineffective.
"Some people say. ..that only by common work in the field of commerce, industry and agriculture mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs will ultimately be attained. ...This is, however, merely a theory. In practice we have not done and we are doing nothing for any work in common.
- How many Arab officials have we installed in our banks? Not even one.
- How many Arabs have we brought into our schools? Not even one.
- What commercial houses have we established in company with Arabs? Not even one."
Tow years later, Kalvarisky lamented:
"We all admit the importance of drawing closer to the Arabs, but in fact we are growing more distant like a drawn bow. We have no contact: two separate worlds, each living its own life and fighting the other."
Some members of the yishuv emphasized the need for political relations with the Palestinian Arabs, to achieve either a peacefully negotiated territorial partition (as Nahum Goldmann sought) or a binational state (as Brit Shalom and Hashomer Ha-tzair proposed). But few went as far as Dr. Judah L. Magnes, chancellor of The Hebrew University, who argued that Zionism meant merely the creation of a Jewish cultural center in Palestine rather than an independent state. In any case, the binationalists had little impact politically and were strongly opposed by the leadership of the Zionist movement.
Zionist leaders felt they did not harm the Palestinians by blocking them from working in Jewish settlements and industries or even by undermining their majority status. The Palestinians were considered a small part of the large Arab nation; their economic and political needs could be met in that wider context, Zionists felt, rather than in Palestine. They could move elsewhere if they sought land and could merge with Transjordan if they sought political independence.
This thinking led logically to the concept of population TRANSFER. In 1930 Weizmann suggested that the problems of insufficient land resources within Palestine and of the dispossession of peasants could be solved by moving them to Transjordan and Iraq. He urged the Jewish Agency to provide a loan of £1 million to help move Palestinian farmers to Transjordan. The issue was discussed at length in the Jewish Agency debates of 1936-37 on partition. At first, the majority proposed a voluntary transfer of Palestinians from the Jewish state, but later they realized that the Palestinians would never leave voluntarily. Therefore, key leaders such as Ben-Gurion insisted that compulsory transfer was essential. The Jewish Agency then voted that the British government should pay for the removal of the Palestinian Arabs from the territory allotted to the Jewish state.
The fighting from 1947 to 1949 resulted in a far larger transfer than had been envisioned in 1937. It solved the Arab problem by removing most of the Arabs and was the ultimate expression of the policy of force majeure.
That drive for statehood IGNORED the presence of a Palestinian majority with its own national aspirations. The right to create a Jewish state-and the overwhelming need for such a state-were perceived as overriding Palestinian counterclaims. Few members of the
yishuv supported the idea of binationalism. Rather, territorial partition was seen by most Zionist leaders as the way to gain statehood while according certain national rights to the Palestinians.
TRANSFER of Palestinians to neighboring Arab states was also envisaged as a means to ensure the formation of a homogeneous Jewish territory. The implementation of those approaches led to the formation of independent Israel, at the cost of dismembering the Palestinian community and fostering long-term hostility with the Arab world.
Ann M. Lesch
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The Above article was quoted from Encyclopedia
Of The Palestinians edited by Philip Mattar