In 1516 Palestinians began four centuries of life under Ottoman rule. The vast walls towering above the inhabitants of Jerusalem’s Old City today are a lasting monument to Ottoman rule, built in the realm of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66).
As with earlier Muslim empires, the Ottomans practiced a certain tolerance of Christians and Jews. In the 16th century for example, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem was acknowledged as the custodian of the Christian Holy Places. Although the vast majority of world Jews chose to live elsewhere than Palestine, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Spanish and other Christian persecution were given asylum within the Ottoman empire (Khalidi, 1984, p. 31).
Independence Within Limits
Recent academic research has provided a detailed picture of the indigenous Palestinian population during Ottoman times. In his study of Ottoman Nablus over a 200-year period, Beshara Doumani deconstructs the dominant image of a small peasant people dominated by Turkish overlords. His work demonstrates the power and active economic development by local citizen merchants and officials, and an active role taken by peasants in defining their identity and relationship to the land (Doumani, 1995).
While the Land Code of 1858 and the Civil Code of 1869 continued to centralize power to the regime, individual land rights were acknowledged, stabilizing patterns of possession and giving greater protection to the peasant population. “But even where Palestinians did not have formal legal title, the state’s title to much land was already considered merely nominal and the land actually belonged to Palestinians through long use and possession, or was communal land held in trust for the inhabitants of the Arab villages and used by them for generations” (Abu Hussein and McKay, 2003, p.105).
Despite centralization of power, individual land rights were acknowledged, giving greater protection to the peasant population.
By 1878, Palestine had been divided into three administrative units: the two northern districts of Nablus and Acre ruled by the administrative vilayet of Beirut, and the sanjak of Jerusalem, ruled directly from Constantinople. Although without doubt the people of Palestine were under foreign rule, Ottoman occupation was a very different experience from modern Israeli occupation.
Ottoman Palestine in 1878 was home to a population of 440,850, of whom 88 percent were Muslim (including a small minority of Druze), 9 percent Christian, and 3 percent Jews. Palestinian Jews were predominantly living in existing towns with religious significance, such as Tiberias, Safed, Hebron, and Jerusalem, and had not been establishing new Jewish settlements. In addition to the main population, there were around 200 Samaritans living on the edge of Nablus and also a small number of Gypsies (Passia, 2002, p. 2).
Early Opposition to Zionism from Palestinian Jews
Most Palestinian Jews did not welcome the impact of Zionism on their peaceful life with Christians and Muslims.
Judaism, just like Christianity, is a religion and not a unified ideological political movement. Jews worldwide were not united in one political goal or as an equal social movement. Zionism began as a secular European Jewish movement and was opposed early on by religious Jews. The majority of the Jewish community in Palestine at that time were religious Orthodox Jews, living on financial support from outside Palestine. While the financial dependence of this religious group was viewed with some disgust by many secular Zionists in Europe, the majority of Palestinian Jews did not welcome the ideological invasion of foreign Jewry on the peaceful life that they had lived for generations with Muslims and Christians of the same land.
The end of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of Jewish settlement of the land, as well as influx of immigrants. Between 1882 and 1903, at least 25,000 Jews arrived in Palestine on what is called the first aliyah. By 1914 over 60,000 Jews had arrived in the first and second aliyahs. In the first aliyah only about 5 percent of immigrants were involved in building new settlements. However, slowly the idea of establishing a Jewish state began to gain support.
In 1878, 26 Jerusalem Jewish families purchased a piece of land 9 km (5.6 mi.) outside of Jaffa, which was part of the grazing land of the Arab village of Al-Abbasiya. The Jewish site was named Petah Tikva (meaning the “Gate of Hope”). From the beginning the new Jewish rural community came into conflict with local Arab farmers. In 1882 the Jewish settlement of Rishon L’Zion (meaning “First to Zion”) was established. The settlement was founded on land belonging to Arab villagers from `Eyun Qara.
Early colonial activity had lacked funding and organization, but this was soon to change as Zionism gained wider support. European Jewish philanthropists, such as Moses Montefiore and Edmond de Rothschild, started to discreetly negotiate with Ottoman officials to bypass bureaucracy and purchase large areas of land to establish Jewish settlements. The aim was to try to establish a Jewish community which could be financially dependent on the land in order to develop, rather than merely being a small number of poverty-stricken religious Jews living from charity handouts.
Birth of Zionist Land Organizations
Edmond de Rothschild 1835 – 1934—Financial backer of Zionist settlement project
In 1896 Maurice de Hirsch established a branch of his Jewish Colonization Agency in Palestine. Four years later, by the time the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was established, Edmond de Rothschild had invested in plantation development and training to nurture 22 plantation colonies. A year later in 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in London. The JNF’s explicit mandate was to acquire land in Palestine that would remain inalienably Jewish (illegal to sell on to non-Jews) and only employ Jewish labor.
By 1914 some 30 Zionist settler colonies had been founded. The majority of the new Jewish settlers kept European nationality, which gave privileges under the Ottoman system. The second wave of immigrants had produced leaders of the kibbutz movement, whose plans for demographic domination and Jewish labor plantations stirred a great rift between the previously peaceful mixed Palestinian community.
For their part, the Ottomans tried to limit mass land acquisition and immigration, but had their hands tied by European pressure and also corruption and greed of officials and large landowners. Vast estates were thus purchased by Zionists from absentee landlords in Beirut above the heads of Palestinian tenants and sharecroppers. The sale of the land by the Sursock family in Marj ibn Amer is a noted case. Contrary to Zionist propaganda, over 90 percent of these sales were made by foreign Turkish Ottoman notables rather than by the Palestinian occupants themselves.
So as Europe marched on to destroy the crumbling Ottoman Empire, the Palestinians (as with the rest of the Ottoman Arab world) feared an uncertain future. Palestinian fellahin (peasants) faced increasing problems finding work, as new immigrants dispossessed them of their land and livelihoods. Some 11,000 Jewish immigrants were working on 47 rural plantations and cooperatives across the land, supervised and subsidized by the WZO. Zionists in Europe, most notably Britain, were pushing for validation of their colonialist project in Palestine.