The case against Netanyahu’s rewriting of history

By John McHugo, Mike Scott-Baumann and Peter Shambrook

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said: “The Jewish people are not occupiers in their own land nor occupiers in our eternal capital Jerusalem, and no UN resolution will twist this historical truth”. He has also asserted, in a recent interview, that the Jews are the indigenous inhabitants of the region like “the Indians… the Africans before the Belgians came…the Indonesians before the Dutch came.  We were the natives.”  He also maintains that it was the Arab-Muslim conquest in the seventh century that led to the expulsion of Jews who “were flung to the far corners of the earth, suffered the most unimaginable suffering, because we had no homeland.”

By contrast to the Arabs, the impact of the Romans on the Jews of the Holy Land is downplayed: “They did a lot of bad things”, Mr Netanyahu says, but they “didn’t really exile us, contrary to what people think.” Yet the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent expulsion of many Jews is considered one of the most formative events in Jewish history by Jewish historians, both from Israel and the diaspora.

Netanyahu turns history on its head. In fact, following the Arab conquests, Jews were permitted to live in Jerusalem, after centuries of exclusion under the Romans. From the time of the seventh century Arab conquests onwards, Arab and Muslim lands frequently provided homes to Jewish refugees from Christian Europe — most notably from Spain after 1492.There was little, if any, Jewish refugee traffic in the opposite direction.

The purpose of Netanyahu’s rewriting of history is clear: Arabs were colonisers, the “colonials”, as he claims, while the Jews were the “natives”. It follows that, he asserts, the “Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel”.

‘Israel Government’s ‘spurious claims’ in Palestine’

Such assertions cannot be left unchallenged because they are aimed at persuading global public opinion of the rightfulness of the Israeli government’s spurious claim to territorial sovereignty over those areas of the former Mandate of Palestine which did not become Israeli territory after 1948-9 and which Israel  occupied militarily in 1967. The subtext is to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and their right to their own state. Such assertions ought to be repudiated by all.

Public intellectuals have a duty to speak out forcefully against such claims. Although the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean had been Arab in language, culture and collective historical memory for many centuries (the Muslim Arabs originally seized it from Byzantium, the predecessor of the Ottomans, in 637 ce), its 20th-century inhabitants were not merely descendants of the seventh-century conquerors. They included the descendants of all the races, among them both the ancient Hebrews and the pagan tribes that had entered and settled in Palestine since the dawn of history. At the time of the First World War, this area, which was generally known as Palestine, but constituted Eretz Yisrael for Jews, thus had a diverse and multicultural population. It was Arabic-speaking, and had a multilayered identity deeply rooted in the ancient past.

The Ottoman Turks took Palestine in 1516 and remained its masters until Britain occupied Palestine in1917-8. Politically, Palestine had belonged over the preceding 13 centuries to rulers in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Constantinople, except for the interlude of the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. Culturally it had remained an integral part of an Arabic-Islamic civilisation in which Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians had participated alongside Muslims for some 13 centuries. There were tensions in the relationship between the three groups (Jews and Christians were protected but were subject to extra taxes and restrictions), but the relationship was far better than that between different religious groups in medieval and early modern Europe.

In reality, in 1917 the Jewish population in Palestine constituted only about ten per cent of the total, and was divided roughly equally between indigenous Arabic-speaking Jews and Zionist colonists who were predominantly from Europe. Jews owned approximately two per cent of Palestinian land. These figures show clearly that Mr Netanyahu’s assertions are, quite simply, nonsense.

The protocol presented to the inaugural Zionist Congress, held in 1897, began as follows:

Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a legally assured home in Palestine. In order to achieve this goal, the Congress will have regard to the following measures: (1) the efficient promotion of the colonisation of Palestine by Jewish agriculturalists, artisans and tradesmen…[i]

This indicated that the Zionist movement was seeking to establish a Jewish national homeland that could only be achieved in Palestine through a policy of colonisation by Jewish immigrants.  It is notable that of the 28 Jewish Agency delegates to the St. James’s Conference in London, in February, 1939, which was called by the British Government to decide the future of Palestine, none of them was an indigenous Palestinian. None had been born in Palestine, nor had any of their parents or grandparents: half of them were born either in the Russian or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and only six had subsequently made their home in Palestine, including Ben-Gurion and Moshe Shertok. Most of the rest were either British or American, including the only woman delegate, Rose Jacobs, from New York. In similar fashion, of the 37 signatories to the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, in Tel Aviv, only one had been born in Mandatory Palestine.

‘The Arab majority in what was to become Israel’

In all the administrative sub-districts of Palestine immediately before the state of Israel declared its independence, Jews were a majority in only one[ii]. There would also have been an Arab majority in the territories that subsequently constituted the Israeli state and were taken by the Jewish militias and the Israeli army in the fighting that ended with the 1949 cease-fires. The reason there was not an Arab majority was that most of the Arab population had been expelled or had left because of the fighting, but in the fully justified expectation that they would be able to return to their homes when the fighting ended.

In 1949, Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations. From that day, the legitimacy of Israel as a sovereign state in terms of international law has been generally accepted, whatever unresolved issues such as the claims of Arab refugees displaced by the creation of Israel may remain. Those claims are not considered here because they are not immediately relevant to Mr Netanyahu’s assertions.

The other territories, constituting the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, had an overwhelmingly Arab population in 1948. This remained the case until Israel took control of these areas by force of arms in 1967 during the Six Day War. That is when the Israeli military occupation of these territories began. Today, they constitute occupied territories for the purposes of international law[iii] whose inhabitants have the right of self-determination. Israel, the occupying power, is prohibited by international law from acquiring sovereignty, as is any other belligerent occupant (eg. Russia in Ukraine). For these reasons, Mr Netanyahu cannot imply that these lands belong to anybody apart from their indigenous population, who are the Arabic-speaking Palestinians. To say they belong to “the Jewish people” who cannot be in occupation “of their own land and our eternal capital Jerusalem” is nothing but twisting words: fake history.

[i]  The original German is “Der Zionismus erstrebt fuer das Juedische Volk Schaffung einer rechtlich gesicherten Heimstaette in Palaestina. Zur Erreichung dieses Zieles nimmt der Congress folgende Mittel in Aussicht: 1. Die Zweckdienliche Foerderung der Besiedlung Palaestinas mit Juedischen Ackerbauern, Handwerkern und Gewerbetreibenden…” Source: The Central Zionist Archives:!prettyPhoto[horizontal]/6/ Retrieved, 1 February 2023.  

[ii] Rashid Khalidi, The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure, in Rogan and Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 2001/7, p.12.

[iii] See UNSCR 2334 and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Wall, 2004. 

John McHugo is a Trustee of the Balfour Project and a Board member of Caabu. He is the author of, inter alia, ‘A Concise Historyof the Arabs’. In May, 2022, he delivered a paper ‘The Legal Vacuum Britain Created–How Britain Failed the Sacred Trust of Civilisation Towards the Palestinian People’, at the Abandoning Palestine conference organised by the Balfour Project.

Mike Scott-Baumann is a Cambridge University graduate who has taught history for 35 years and is the author of ‘ A ShortHistory of Conflict’, published by the History Press in 2021. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Balfour Project.

Peter Shambrook is an independent scholar and historical consultant to the Balfour Project, of which he is also a Trustee. He holds a PhD in modern Middle Eastern history from the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Cambridge, and has researched and lectured extensively on British policy in Palestine.

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