Fact Sheet

Palestine: A History of Occupation and Resistance

Revolutionary Worker #1259, November 21, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

The death of Yasser Arafat has placed a spotlight on the struggle and aspirations of the Palestinian people. Over and over, the mainstream coverage has whitewashed the theft of Palestinian land by the Israeli state and Zionist settlers. The brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been routinely prettified.

In attempting to sum up the life of Yasser Arafat, the Western commentators have only revealed their own arrogant, colonialist attitude—an outlook that has marked the entire history of the imperialist states and the Israeli power structure with regard to the Palestinian people.

We have learned nothing from them about the complex story of the man who dared to call the Palestinian people to the armed struggle for their country and found himself increasingly limited by his ideology, his pragmatic outlook and nationalist framework—and increasingly ensnared in a web of imperialist politics.

As with the life of any complex historical figure, there are many lessons in the story of Yasser Arafat—that require an interest in truth and heart for the oppressed—qualities that run counter to the interests of the vultures sitting in power from Washington to Tel Aviv to Cairo.

And, as we look back over the life and times of Yasser Arafat, it is important to review the history of the Palestinian people and the alliance between Zionism and western imperialism that stole their homeland.

What are the real roots of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people? The truth has been lied about, twisted, and suppressed by the U.S. government and media. Often they picture the conflict as a battle between religions. Sometimes they portray any opponents of Israel as anti-Semites. The U.S. puts itself forward as a "honest broker" between the two sides who should "make peace" and "share the land." At the same time, the U.S. blames the current clashes on the Palestinians—even though almost all the casualties have been Palestinians killed and wounded by the heavily armed Israeli forces.

But a look at the history of Israel shows that this state was created through the violent dispossession, expulsion, and suppression of the indigenous people of the land—the Palestinians. The history reveals that this is a state based on the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people and occupation of their land. It is a state that is backed by major imperialist powers, especially the U.S., and that serves imperialist interests.

The following is an outline of the roots and development of the state of Israel and the struggle of the Palestinian people.

The Beginnings of Zionist Settlement

Israel is a Zionist state—a state based on the political ideology known as Zionism. Israel was founded by Zionist Jews from Europe, who began to colonize historic Palestine (what is now Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank) in the late 1880s. At that time, there were small Jewish communities that had long existed in the Middle East, but Jews had not been a large part of the population in Palestine for some 2,000 years. Most Jews who lived in the area in ancient times had migrated to other parts of the world following the fall of the last Jewish kingdom in Palestine to the Roman Empire, around 70 AD. By the time the Zionist movement arose in the late 1800s, there had been many centuries of Jewish migrations, persecutions, and intermarriage with other people. Most Jews lived in Europe, and they were a very diverse group which included many different nationalities as well as religious and political viewpoints.

The Zionists based their movement on the claim that Jews were god’s "chosen people" and that Palestine was the land god promised them. They said that Jews could never assimilate into other societies and could only deal with anti-Semitism by having their own state. Zionism did not reflect the views of many Jews who saw themselves as part of the life and struggles of the people in the countries where they lived. The Zionist movement reflected the interests of bourgeois Jews in Europe, and from the beginning it was based on allying with imperialism against the masses in the Middle East. Theodor Herzl, a founder of Zionism, wrote that a future Zionist state "would be the advance post of civilization against barbarism." (Rodinson)

The Zionists promoted the myth that Palestine, which is about the size of the state of Maryland, was a barren desert, "a land without people for a people without land." In truth, some of the first urban societies in the world originated in historic Palestine, and Palestinians had lived and farmed there for centuries. In 1947 some Palestinians could trace their land ownership back a thousand years. (Guyatt, p. 1)

From the start, the Zionist plan was expulsion and conquest. R. Weitz, the head of the colonization department of the Jewish Agency, a leading Zionist organization, wrote to other Zionists: "Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country... There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer all of them: Not one village, not one tribe, should be left." (Said & Hitchens, p. 239)

By 1918, there were 680,000 Palestinians living in Palestine, in contrast to 56,000 Jews, and Palestinians owned 97 percent of the land. ( Basic Facts , Quaker Newsletter) But the imperialists had plans for this region. After World War 1, various imperialist powers scrambled to scoop up the lands ruled by the defeated Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. The rivalry was intense because oil was now a precious economic and military commodity. Britain calculated that establishing a state of Zionist settlers—a settler-colonial state similar to South Africa—could help in digging its claws more deeply into the Middle East. The British also wanted to undercut Jewish support for the newly established Soviet Union, then a revolutionary socialist country. In 1917 British Foreign Secretary Balfour declared: "The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism...is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land." (Sin, p. 10)

During World War 1, the British had promised independence to Palestinians and other Arabs. But Britain quickly broke those promises. In 1922, the British imperialists got the League of Nations to give them a "mandate" to rule Palestine as a colony. The British worked to "secure the establishment of the Jewish national home" by encouraging Jewish immigration, allowing the Jewish Agency to share the administration of Palestine, and by suppressing Palestinian resistance. (Said & Hitchens, p. 242, quoting British Parliamentary papers)

Between 1933 and 1945, Britain, along with its U.S. imperialist ally, severely restricted Jewish immigration into their own countries. This policy, aimed at pushing Jews to immigrate to Palestine, was carried out while the Jewish people in Europe faced the Holocaust. (During World War 2, the U.S. and Britain also refused to bomb the tracks leading to the Nazi concentration camps.) Zionist leaders also cut deals with the Nazis—such as the Havara Agreement- -allowing some wealthier Jews to escape to Palestine and undercutting Jewish resistance in Nazi-controlled areas.

There was Palestinian resistance to the Zionist settlers as early as the turn of the twentieth century. In 1936 Palestinians launched an armed uprising against the British authorities and the Zionist settlers. The British brutally crushed the uprising in 1939 and passed emergency laws condemning to death any Palestinian found with a gun. ( Roots , p. 68).

Zionist leader David Ben Gurion wrote at the time: "In our political argument abroad, we minimize Arab opposition to us...[but] let us not ignore the truth among ourselves... Politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves... The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country...." (Chomsky, pp. 90-91)

The Founding of Israel

Through World War 2, the United States had emerged as the top imperialist power in the world; and the U.S. was eager to replace Britain as the main power in the Middle East. In November 1947, the U.S. helped push through a UN resolution partitioning Palestine into a Zionist state and an Arab state. At that time, the Palestinians still outnumbered Zionist settlers two to one and owned 92 percent of the land. But the partition gave Israel 54 percent of the land.

On May 14, 1948—after the Palestinians and the Arab countries refused to accept the UN partition—the Zionists proclaimed the state of Israel and launched a war against Palestinians. At the village of Der Yassin, Israeli forces massacred 250 defenseless villagers, including 100 women and children. Israel used this atrocity to spread terror among the Palestinian people, and many fled their homes in panic. When the war ended in January 1949, nearly 800,000 Palestinians—two-thirds of the population—had been forcibly driven into exile in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank. Israel had seized 77 percent of the land. (Chomsky, p. 95)

Israel used the Arab intervention on the side of the Palestinians as an excuse for the war. The Zionists claimed that they were only "defending" themselves from an unprovoked attack. But David Ben Gurion, now a top Israeli leader, spelled out Israel’s real aims: "The issue at hand is conquest not self-defense. As for the setting of borders—it’s an open-ended matter.... In each attack, a decisive blow should be struck, resulting in the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population." (Sin, p. 16)

Wars of Aggression and Brutal Occupation

After the 1948 war Israel began systematically destroying Palestinian society —its towns and villages, its historical and cultural sites, its social infrastructure. By 1988, Israel had destroyed 385 of the 475 Palestinian villages inside the 1948 borders. ( Middle East Reports 5/6/88). Israeli leader Moshe Dayan admitted, "There is not a single Jewish village in the land which was not built on the site of an Arab dwelling place." (Sin, p. 15)

In 1967 the Israelis launched the so-called "Six Day War," aimed at grabbing more land and establishing Israel as a regional power. Israel seized the remaining 23 percent of historic Palestine—the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—along with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights.

Israel again claimed it was just defending itself against Arab aggression. But Israeli leader Menachem Begin revealed, "In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian leader] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." (Chomsky, p. 100)

The 1960s saw a powerful revolutionary upsurge among Palestinians. Many were influenced by the war of liberation waged by the Vietnamese against the U.S. and Mao Tsetung’s teachings on people’s war. Palestinian guerrilla organizations launched an armed struggle against Israel in 1965, with the aim of creating a democratic, secular (non-religious) state throughout Palestine. In March 1968 Palestinian fighters held off a major Israeli attack at Karameh, Jordan—an inspiring battle that showed the potential for a people’s war against Israel. ( Roots , p. 9) Yasser Arafat and his armed Al Fatah organization emerged as a respected leadership within this early armed struggle.

After the 1967 war, the UN passed Resolution 242, calling on Israel to withdraw from all areas seized during the war, in return for Arab recognition of Israel. Instead of withdrawing from those newly seized territories, the Israelis, with U.S. backing, began to build heavily armed Zionist settlements on those areas and to incorporate them into Israel.

Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under harsh military occupation, with basic freedoms suspended and their economy under siege. By 1988 Israel had confiscated over 52 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of Gaza for its military and settlers, while destroying thousands of Palestinian homes. Israeli troops have used extreme brutality and armed reprisals against Palestinian protesters—as in the "intifada" (uprising) of the late 1980s and the current clashes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has served as U.S. imperialism’s attack dog against threats to U.S. interests. In the Middle East, those interests center on controlling this strategic crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa and its vast oil reserves. This is why the U.S. has given Israel $2 to $3 billion a year in aid for decades. The aid allows the Israeli military to acquire the weapons used to wage wars of aggression and to suppress the Palestinian resistance. Without U.S. backing, the state of Israel could not survive.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has carried out many vicious assaults on the masses in the region and around the world. In 1956 Israel aided the U.S. in the war for control of the Suez Canal. In 1976 Israel invaded Lebanon to prevent the government from being controlled by forces that the U.S. and Israel opposed. Israel invaded Lebanon again in 1982 and killed over 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. Israel seized the southern part of Lebanon through that invasion and held the territory until the year 2000. In 1982, Israeli warplanes bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq; and in 1991 Israel supported the U.S. in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq. Israeli agents have trained torturers from Guatemala to South Africa and sold weapons to reactionary pro-U.S. governments all over the world. ("Fort Apache," Chomsky)

The Oslo "Peace Process" and the Palestinian Authority

U.S. and Israeli attacks on the Palestinians and other peoples of the Middle East gave rise to deep popular anger and sharp contradictions. In order to keep these explosive conflicts in check, stabilize its grip on the region, and strengthen Israel, the U.S. has, over the years, attempted to broker and enforce various "peace" agreements.

In 1978, the U.S. oversaw the "Camp David Accords" between Israel and Sadat of Egypt, which became the first Arab country to officially recognize the Zionist state.

A key part of U.S. strategy has been the "two-state" solution: the Palestinians would recognize Israel and cease their struggle in return for a "mini-state" of their own centered in the West Bank and Gaza. By the late 1980s Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had basically agreed to recognition of Israel and the acceptance of a "mini-state."

The U.S. and Israel never had any intention of allowing a truly independent Palestinian state. Under the "peace" deal hammered out in Oslo in 1993 (and later in the 1998 Wye agreement), Israel gradually transferred about 40 percent of the occupied West Bank to the control of the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization returned to Gaza from exile in Tunisia in 1994.

But this Palestinian Authority territory was only a small part of their historic homeland. Palestinians were offered 10 percent of their territory, in small disconnected pieces, slowly over the 1990s. Meanwhile the Israeli state controlled the other 90 percent. (Guyatt, p. xii) All key strategic points, the high ground of Golan, the main highways of the West Bank, the main access to water, neighboring countries and the sea—all remained in Israeli military control.

Meanwhile Israeli "settlements"—armed camps of rightwing religious fanatics and expansionists— multiplied all over Palestinian areas throughout this period, soon numbering hundreds, taking over the high ground, the water, the best roads, and bringing in Israeli troops to "protect" their land grab and aggressions.

And, most important, this Palestinian Authority was ordered to cease and even suppress any further struggle against Israel, its theft of Palestine and its armed domination over Palestinian people. The PA was denied any right to form a national army and functioned under intense constant attack by Israeli military forces. At every turn, the PA and Palestinians have been threatened—that if they did not do as ordered—they would be attacked, assassinated, penned up, dispossessed of their lands and orchards, and considered an unacceptable "partner for peace."

This Oslo agreement also made no provisions for the return of (or compensation for) the four million Palestinian refugees living outside of what is now Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. These refugees are "now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere."

And in the end, the negotiating process broke down during the July 2000 Camp David Summit—between President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the PA’s Yasser Arafat—when it became clear that the U.S. and Israeli sides insisted on permanently denying Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and were intent on denying the "right of return" of Palestinians to Palestine.

The Second Intifada: Provocation, Threat and Resistance

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon, the notorious Butcher General of the Israeli rightwing, led a thousand soldiers and police into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a key symbol of the Muslim religion in Jerusalem. This ugly armed provocation was designed to humiliate Palestinian people and assert Israel’s unchallengeable supremacy. His move was an arrogant declaration that the Zionists were determined to never share or divide Jerusalem with the Palestinian people—even though this historic city is seen as the capital of Palestine by both the Palestinian people and the Arab world generally.

There were two responses to this: The Palestinian people, and especially the youth, launched a Second Intifada—a great new wave of resistance and struggle against Israeli domination and occupation. And second, in February 2001, Sharon was installed in power as Israel’s prime minister.

The struggle and the oppression of Palestinian people have since greatly intensified: Under Sharon, Israel has intensified its direct military attacks on the Palestinian people. The Israeli government and armed forces have sought to shatter the whole political and civilian infrastructure of Palestinian society. Israeli helicopters and death squads hunted down and killed leading figures of Palestinian movements.

In March 2001, the Israel military dug deep trenches around Ramallah, almost completely sealing off the capital city of the Palestinian Authority. An AFP news report wrote about the military isolation of another city: "Jericho, fabled for the biblical account of the siege in which its walls came tumbling down, has been encircled for two months by a two-meter (six-foot) ditch that has effectively stopped the flow of products and raw materials in and out, beleaguering the local economy." The trenches are part of the policy of "closure" that Israel has used to carry out a vicious lockdown on the Palestinians in an attempt to break down the resistance. As they gun down and bomb Palestinian protesters in the streets, the Israeli occupiers are also strangling Palestinian communities through military blockades, checkpoints, curfews, and trenches.

Military checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers prevent Palestinians from even traveling freely between different towns within the occupied West Bank and Gaza. There are documented cases of Palestinians dying of heart attacks and other medical emergencies when they were stopped on their way to hospitals by Israeli troops.

Over 130,000 Palestinian workers who used to commute to jobs inside Israel are being shut out and no longer have a means of livelihood. Overall the unemployment rate has jumped to almost 50 percent. The UN World Food Program recently announced that Palestinians have become among the poorest people in the world; poverty levels have doubled since September.

Waves of Military Assault on West Bank and Gaza

In February 2002, the Israeli Army launched massive armored invasions of the Palestinian towns of the Gaza Strip—openly threatening heavily populated areas with heavy artillery and tank cannons. Armored Israeli bulldozers have razed hundreds of homes since September 2000, leaving thousands of Palestinians homeless, and have destroyed hundreds of acres of olive and fruit trees vital to people’s livelihood.

During these operations, Israel also carried out several air strikes, using U.S.-supplied F-16 warplanes and Apache combat helicopters. The bombings and rocket attacks from the air caused widespread destruction to residential areas and government offices—including the offices of the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East. UN officials expressed outrage at Israel’s use of heavy bombs near civilian areas.

In March 2002, Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government carried out the largest military offensive against Palestinians since the 1967 war. Massive columns of tanks and infantry poured into Palestinian areas — carrying out collective punishment against a whole people and committing shocking atrocities.

In complete defiance of the Palestinian Authority, 150 Israeli tanks invaded the West Bank town of Ramallah on March 29, crushing cars and anything else in their way. Israeli troops looted and rampaged through homes, shops, and Palestinian Authority administration offices. They took countless men and some women away, blindfolded, for brutal interrogations—sending thousands to an isolated military prison in the Negev Desert.

At the Education Ministry, the soldiers deliberately destroyed important records of Palestinian society—like school graduation records and other official documents and records. They destroyed the mail in post offices.

These attacks specifically and especially targeted the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli troops forced their way into the PA’s main government compound, smashing gaping holes in the walls as they fired tank shells and machine guns. Soon the Israeli military had control of the compound, and PA head Yasser Arafat was holed up in a second-floor office. The electricity was cut off, and a cell phone became his only means of communication to the outside world.

Until he left this month for medical treatment in Paris, Arafat had been held a prisoner in his Ramallah office for years, constantly under threat from nearby Israeli tanks and troops, while the Israeli government openly debated whether to have him assassinated or exiled.

Meanwhile at the Jenin refugee camp, home to 15,000 people, the Israeli occupiers met fierce resistance—a dozen Israeli soldiers were killed in one ambush. The Israeli troops attacked in a savage act of revenge, reducing the whole center of the camp to rubble and dust with missiles, tanks and armored bulldozers.

Israel’s Apartheid Wall

In June 2002, the Israeli government began erecting a sinister fortified barrier wall—separating Israel from Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and stealing new lands from the Palestinians in the process.

The Israeli government calls it a "security fence"—the Palestinian people call it the Apartheid Wall— because it divides Palestine into unequal societies under the control of a racist and messianic settler state.

This wall is steadily snaking its ugly way across the landscape of Palestine—made of concrete walls, electrified fences, electric sensors, razor wire, trenches, and watchtowers. Israeli guard troops have orders to shoot any Palestinian who approaches the wall’s Buffer Zones without authorization.

When completed, this wall will cut across more than 400 miles through Palestinian land—and it is carefully de- signed to even further isolate many Palestinian towns, to separate farmers from their fields, to annex more Palestinian territory on the West Bank, and drive more Palestinian people from their homes by imposing a prison-like feel over every aspect of life.

The entire Gaza Strip is already enclosed by an Israeli military wall, making that area into a giant concentration camp for more than a million Palestinians.


V. K. Sin, "Israel: Imperialism’s Attack Dog in the Middle East," A World To Win , 1988/11

"Palestine: A History of Occupation and Resistance," Revolutionary Worker, November 10, 1991

"Fort Apache: The Middle East" a four-part series, Revolutionary Worker, January 6-27, 1984, citing Israel Shahak, Israel’s Global Role (Belmont, MA: Arab American University Graduates, 1992); Fateful Triangle ; and Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (New York: Monad Press 1973)

Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle (Boston: South End Press, 1983)

Joy Bonds, Jimmy Emerman, Linda John, Penny Johnson, Paul Rupert, Our Roots Are Still Alive—The Story of the Palestinian People (New York: Institute for Independent Social Journalism, 1981)

Nicholas Guyatt, The Absence of Peace—Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (New York: Zed Books, 1998)

"Palestine for Beginners," Middle East Report , September-October 1988

"Israel and the Palestinians," Middle East Report , May-June 1988

"Who Are the Palestinians," Quaker Middle East Representatives, Newsletter #7

Edward W. Said, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Muhammad Jallaj, Elia Zureik, "A Profile of the Palestinian People," in Edward Said & Christopher Hitchens, eds., Blaming the Victims—Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (New York: Verso, 1988)

"Twenty Basic Facts About the Palestine Problem," The Islamic Association for Palestine, 2000

Edward Said, "The End of Oslo," Nation , October 30, 2000