Palestinian Dispossession and Settler Colonialism: The Long Durée

                                                                           GUEST ESSAY


Photo Courtesy: Corbis

By Dawn Chatty on January 16, 2024


When did Great Britain become interested in the plight of Jewish refugees in the Middle East? Was it 1948, 1917 or, as I will present here, as early as the 1840s? Furthermore, how did that special interest translate into the dispossession and displacement of nearly three quarters of the local population of Palestine – Muslim, Christians, and some Arab Jews – from their homes and their livelihoods? I will argue that beginning in the early 19th century, European Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe and from Russia were making religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem and in many cases overstaying their permission to remain (visas). By the late 19th century large scale organized Jewish agricultural settlements, privately financed by European philanthropic families such as the Montefiore, the Rothschilds and the Hirsh and approved by the Ottoman Sublime Porte, were cropping up in Palestine. Only in the early 20th century did a Zionist project[1] managed by the secular Jewish Agency result in the historical fact we know of today: a Jewish minority (6%) in the 1890s along with a European colonial authority (the British Mandate) expelled most of the local, indigenous people of Palestine (Muslims and Christians). By 1948, 750,000 people in Palestine were displaced by this colonial project, with the purchase and / or seizure of 78% of Palestinian land for the purpose of settling Jewish immigrants, primarily from Europe. European antisemitism and the ensuing Holocaust of WWII led to the image of the Jew as being redeemed in Palestine. Western guilt surrounding the Holocaust was then transposed to the Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israeli conflict. The two events, the Holocaust and the Zionist settler-colonial project were historically, politically, and geographically two events brought together figuratively only after WWII.

British interest in Palestine (the southern portion of Ottoman Greater Syria [Bilad al Sham]) was perhaps invigorated after the ‘Oriental Crisis of 1840’ which saw Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia ally themselves with the Ottoman empire to push back Mohammed Ali’s bid to take over the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Originally an Ottoman general of Albanian descent, Mohammed Ali had been sent out to Egypt in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat in 1801. In his efforts to govern Egypt for the Sublime Porte, power had gone to his head. By 1839, incensed that the Sultan in Constantinople had not given him sufficient reward, he had marched with his army through Syria and into Anatolia. The comity of European nations did not want to see the Ottoman empire collapse and so they helped negotiate the London Convention 1840 which saw Mohammed Ali returning to Egypt in exchange to being recognized as the Khedive of Egypt (and Sudan) nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but establishing hereditary rule over Egypt and the Sudan. 

The 1840s was a decade which saw European powers increasingly compete for ‘favoured trade’ status with the Ottoman empire in the form of Capitulations. These were grants made to Christian nations and city-states conferring rights and privileges to subjects of that entity including exemption from local prosecution, local taxation, local conscription, and encouragement of commercial exchange. The earlier Capitulations were to the Italian city-state of Genoa in the 15th  century, and to French Kings in the 1600s. By the 19th century, these Capitulations carried with them  not just the protection of subjects of the European state, but also protection of native religious associations within the empire. Russia, for example, became the patron of Greek Orthodox Ottoman subjects, France of the Latin Catholic Church with some contestation from the Hapsburg empire, and  Britain and Prussia became patrons of the Protestants in the Empire. This renewed interest in the Holy Land was accompanied by increasing emigration of Russian Jews many of whom chose to remain in Jerusalem. By the mid-1840s, the Russian Tzar, Nicholas I, became increasingly annoyed by these overstayers and withdrew their Russian citizenship, leaving them stateless and seeking protection from European powers. Britain requested the ‘Russian Jewish Capitulation,’ but this was turned down by the Ottoman Sublime Porte; the Austrian consul in Jerusalem informally took on their protection.

As the century wore on, Ashkenazi Jewish emigration to Palestine increased, much of it financed by wealth assimilated Jewish financiers in Europe. The second half of the century also saw a sharp rise in antisemitism in Europe (e.g. the Dreyfus Affair in France; the government sponsored massacres (pogroms) of Jews in Russia after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881). Central European and Russian Jewish emigration to Palestine became a steady stream, tolerated by the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) as an answer to the antisemitism of Europe; the Jews should have their own state. He saw the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as a means of solving the ‘Jewish Problem’ in Europe. He saw the Jewish state in Palestine as ‘a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.’ This was very much in touch with evolutionary sentiments of scientists and philosophers of the time (an Orientalism that regarded Palestine was biblical and unchanging). He approached the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople to permit large-scale Jewish immigration from Russia and Europe. The Sultan agreed to such immigration, but only on an individual family basis. Not happy with this response, he turned back to Europe and the following year, in 1897, he held the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland where the World Zionist Organization was established. This was the political underpinning of the settler colonial project; it was fundamentally different from the earlier theological and spiritual attachment of Jews of Palestine. Now the objective was to settle Palestine with Jewish immigrants and to create a majority European Jewish population in Palestine. But he recognized that space was going to have to be made by transfer, forced or otherwise, of the indigenous population; Palestine was already full of people. Thus, a new phase of immigration to Palestine was financed by the Palestine Jewish Colonisation Association; a spinoff of the Jewish Colonisation Association founded in 1891 by Maurice de Hirsch to settle Jewish refugees from Russia and other East European countries in North and south America (especially Argentina), and in Ottoman lands. After 1924, it set out a concerted programme to buy land in British Mandated Palestine and ‘to clear the land occupied by Palestinians for more Jewish agricultural settlements and to always ensure a Jewish majority.’ This was a colonial venture where the local, indigenous inhabitants on the land were considered obstacles to be removed, pushed out, transferred out or used as cheap labour.

In Europe during these early decades of the 20th century there was indeed a ‘Jewish Problem’, and antisemitism was growing. The pogroms in Russia against Jews resulted in more than four million Jewish immigrating to Europe and the US. But as the numbers arriving grew, so too did antisemitism. In 1905, Great Britain passed the Aliens Act severely restricting Jews from entering the country and in 1921, the US Congress did the same. The notion of a place outside of Europe where Jews could emigrate to was popular in Europe and the Zionist Colonisation Association was widely supported. During World WWI, the Entente (Britain, France, Russia) entered into several ‘secret treaties’ for dividing up the Ottoman empire that assumed victory. However, in 1916 after the Entente defeat at Gallipoli, British negotiations were opened with the ruler of the Hijaz (the Sherif of Mecca) promising the Arabs that if they opened another front to the south in the Arab provinces against the Ottoman empire they would be rewarded with a kingdom which would include Palestine, but not the coast from Acre north to Antioch. The following year, however, a conflicting promise was made to the unofficial leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, that a ‘national home’ for Jews would be supported as long as the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine (90% of the population) were not prejudiced. This letter, the Balfour Declaration, was issued 10 days before General Allenby had managed to defeat the Ottoman forces in Gaza with the help of Arab warriors of Sharif Hussain and then marched to Jerusalem in December 1917. Many have speculated that Britain agreed to the ‘Balfour Declaration’ because it needed the support of the wealthy Jewish financiers in Europe to gain support in the US which had yet to enter the war. They felt that being seen to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would be much to American liking. Lord Balfour was to comment two years later, in 1919, as local opposition to this undertaking was being violently objected to, that ‘in Palestine, we do not propose ever to go through the form of consulting with the wishes of the present inhabitants….Zionism is of far greater importance than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the land’.

Between 1917 and 1922, the British Military Occupation Forces in Palestine (Occupied Enemy Territory Administration [OETA]) tried to follow the rules of The Hague Humanitarian Law (1899 and 1907) which provided that the status quo in the occupied territory be maintained. The OETA reported significant trouble emerging between the Arabs and the Zionists from day one with daily riots and cries for full independence and suzerainty of King Faysal who had just been crowned King of Greater Syria to be respected; Palestine was part of Greater Syria in the Ottoman era. The British military authorities held a Court of Inquiry – a 82-page report – indicating the extreme disappointment of the Palestinians at the non-fulfilment of promises made to them by the British and their fear of Jewish domination and the apparent control exercise by Zionist (the Jewish Agency) over the administration of Palestine. The report closed stating that ‘the situation at present obtaining in Palestine is exceedingly dangerous and demands firm and patient handling if a serious catastrophe is to be avoided’. The report was suppressed by Samuel Herbert, the first High Commissioner of the Palestine mandate and not seen again for decades until it was declassified. 

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the League of Nations was established and the Covenant of the League recognized the Palestinian peoples as an independent nation to be brought to full independence under the British mandate. But three years later, in 1922, the League of Nations issued the formal British Mandate and incorporated into it the Balfour Declaration without ascertaining whether it was consistent with the Covenant of the League of Nations (Article22[4]). The incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the Mandate was an illegal act (articles 2, 4, 6 and 7) that allowed Great Britain to consult with the Jewish Agency on matters pertaining to land, Jewish settlement, and immigration without consulting with the indigenous population. It permitted the building of a quasi-Jewish state in Palestine via the Jewish Agency between 1922 – 1948 while at the same time suppressing all efforts of the Arab notables and intellectuals of Palestine to bring their people to independence.

During the Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson also commissioned an inter-allied commission which was to include Britain and France, but both pulled out leaving only the Americans in the King Crane Commission. It was tasked with learning what the population of Greater Syria wished. After months of interviewing, it was clear that the population of Greater Syria rejected the Balfour Declaration’s intent to turn Palestine into a Jewish state, insisting that the Kingdom of Syria (including Palestine) remain undivided. The findings of the Commission were furthermore, that the Mandatory system not be imposed on them insisting that they were as allies of the Entente rather than subjugated people. That report was kept under lock and key until 1923 when the Balfour Declaration had been incorporated into the League of Nations British Mandate. With the imposition of the mandate system, Britain kept the southern half of Bilad al Sham (Palestine), and the rest was given to France, who defeated the forces of King Faysal of Syria at Maysaloun and packed him off to Mesopotamia where he became King of Iraq.

Throughout the 1920s, the elite and educated class of Palestinians pleaded with the British High Commissioner to create a legislature for all the citizens of Palestine. Samuel Hebert offered them a legislature of twenty-four seats, twelve for the Jewish population and twelve for the Christian and Muslim population. The Arab notables rejected this as astonishingly unfair given that the Arab population of Palestine was 90% of the total. Serious immigration of Jews from Europe had not commenced in earnest. Over the next 15 years or so, Jewish immigration climbed enormously, sometimes as many as 50,000 European Jews arrived in Palestine annually. Land purchases were also resulting in serious dispossession of Palestinian farmers and at the same time, the British Mandate authority gave Jewish settlers, ‘state land’ and land not required for public purposes’ upon which to establish Jewish colonies. In 1930, the Palestinians held their third Arab Congress and appointed an Arab Executive (Arab High Committee) to negotiate with the British Mandate. But its representatives were repeatedly rejected as not officially representing the Arab population, even though the Jewish Agency was recognized as the sole representative of the Jewish people. 

British inquiries into the disturbances in Palestine were widely reported and that while the  British promised ‘a just rule’, Palestinians were aware of Zionist intentions as expressed in newspapers in Europe and reported in the Arabic press. Palestine was to become a Jewish state and not simply a homeland for Jews. In London, Israel Zangwill openly stated in a speech ‘If you shirk exodus, you are confronted by numbers; Palestine contains 600,000 to 700,000 Arabs… Are we literally to re-create Palestine, and then to be told it belongs to the ignorant, half-nomadic tribes who have planted their tent poles and their hovels there?’ His open polemics embarrassed many Zionist supporters in London who asked for him to be ‘muted’ in some way.

 By the mid-1930s, the Jewish Agency with the support of the British High commission had created state-like institutions for the Jews of Palestine. Even trade unions established by the Jewish Agency set out minimum wages for Jews 140% higher than for Arab workers. By 1936, Palestinian population revolted and the Arab High Committee called for a general strike. The British proposed forming a local legislative Council in Palestine with twenty-eight representatives, fourteen of them Palestinian and fourteen of them Jewish. The Palestinians now accepted this even though more than 80% of the population was Arab. But this plan was rejected by the British Parliament and the first separation wall – using Jewish labourers – was built around the northern and north-eastern frontier with Lebanon to separate the Arabs of Palestine from the Arabs of Lebanon and Syria. 

The three-year Arab Uprising was met with fierce repression. Great Britain sent in 20,000 troops and used 6,000 British trained Jewish auxiliary military and police to help suppress the rebellion. The British abolished civil law for Palestinians (but not Jews) and subjected the Palestinians  to emergency laws. All Palestinian political organizations were declared ‘illegal.’ The British implemented tough curfews and censoring of all Arab newspapers as well as collective punishment to villages and towns. More than 3,000 Palestinian leaders were incarcerated at Sarafand concentration camp outside of Haifa; others were sent into exile to the Seychelles. By 1939, in a drive to end the uprising, the British issued the MacDonald White Paper from the St. James Conference and agreed to restrict Jewish immigration to the ‘absorptive capacity of Palestine’. The Arab High Committee rejected it because it did not explicitly include a commitment to Palestinian independence. The Zionist leadership also rejected it as it attempted to restrict Jewish immigration and land transfer.

In 1942, at the Biltmore hotel in New York, a gathering of six hundred Jewish delegates demanded the establishment of a Jewish army, a flag of its own, and open immigration. In effect, the Jewish Agency declared war on Great Britain and the next four years saw concerted Zionist attacks on British targets. In 1944, the Stern Gang (with Yitzhak Shamir) assassinated the British Minister of State in Cairo; and on July 22, 1946, the Irgun (with Menaghim Begin) blew up the King David Hotel, the headquarters of the British mandatory Authority in Palestine killing more than one hundred people. The result was Great Britain’s declaration that the mandate was unworkable and announcing the withdrawal and handing back of Palestine to the United Nations. In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly, in the GA Resolution 181, accepted the legally non-binding voted to split Palestine into two; a Jewish State covering 56% of the land and an Arab state over 44% of the land even though the Arab population still represented more than two thirds of the total population. Here guilt over the Holocaust in Europe was reflected in giving the Jewish state more land to accommodate Jewish immigration. The date of 14 May 1948 was set for the departure of the British from Palestine. Before that day arrived the Jewish Agency set out a military Plan D (Plan Dalet) to empty as much of Palestine of its native Palestinian population. By May 14th, when the British military pulled out of Palestine, more than 750,000 Palestinians had fled their homes in the face of deliberate massacres, rapes, and terrifying armed threats by the various Jewish militias. They sought refuge in the parts of Palestine designated by the UN for the Arab State in the West bank and in Gaza  as well as in the neighbouring states of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan while awaiting their right to return to their homes and native lands[2]. The next day, May 15th, the Jewish Agency in Palestine declared itself the state of Israel.



1. Zionism was a political movement to enable the establishment of a homeland for Jewish people; a form of irredentism that claimed the right to return to the Biblical ‘Land of Israel’.

2. On December 11, 1948, the United Nations voted to approve General Assembly Resolution 194 which recommended that ‘refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible’. But Israel has neither permitted the return of Palestinians to their homes, nor granted compensation for their lost property, or paid reparations for damage that has been incurred.




Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration, University of Oxford; Author “Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State”

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Dawn Chatty is a social anthropologist whose ethnographic interests lie in the Middle East, particularly with nomadic pastoral tribes and refugee young people. Her research interests include a number of forced migration and development issues such as conservation-induced displacement, tribal resettlement, modern technology and social change, gender and development and the impact of prolonged conflict on refugee young people. She is the Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford and the former Director of the Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre from 2011-2014.