Historic Palestine is located in the Middle East, in a region bordering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived alongside one another for centuries under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. There were growing calls for Palestinian independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from a population who, in 1914 were 84% Muslim, 11% Christian and 6% Jewish.
During the First World War, Britain pledged to support “complete and final liberation” for the people of the wider region in return for them rebelling against the Ottomans. In fact, they had secretly agreed to divide the area between themselves and France. Britain also promised the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Britain occupied Palestine in 1917 and remained until 1948.
In 1947 Britain approached the newly founded and then Western-dominated UN to determine Palestine’s future. Despite the Jewish population only making up a third of residents, the report recommended creating a Jewish state on 56% of the land. The Palestinians refused to accept the partition of their homeland, yet in 1948 Israel was established unilaterally. By 1949, the Nakba (“catastrophe”) had resulted in the ethnic cleansing of two thirds of the Palestinian population, with Israel ruling over 78% of the land.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under an illegal Israeli military rule since they were occupied in the 1967 war, and today are referred to as the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”. East Jerusalem was also annexed illegally by Israel in 1967. For over 60 years the Palestinians have been denied the right to self-determination and statehood.
The refugee issue
About 750,000 Palestinians were forced into exile in 1948-9 and during the June 1967 war a further 325,000 Palestinians became refugees. Under UN Resolution 194, the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes, but Israel has always refused to implement the Resolution. Today over 6 million Palestinians live as refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom still live in overcrowded refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Life under occupation
The past 40 years have seen the establishment of over 200 illegal Israeli settlements, housing over 500,000 settlers, within the Occupied Territories. The separation barrier or the Wall in the West Bank, construction of which was started in 2002, cuts deep into Palestinian land and, along with the “settler only” roads, cuts off many communities from water supplies, hospitals and their agricultural land. The residents face severe travel restrictions and for many it is impossible to enter Jerusalem or to travel abroad. This treatment of the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories, is widely recognised as a system akin to the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Palestinians are continually under attack from the Israeli occupying forces and are increasingly harassed by settlers, who attack farmers and steal their land. Collective punishments, such as prolonged curfews and house demolitions are frequently imposed.
The Palestinians who remained in what is today the state of Israel, as non-Jewish members of a Jewish country, also face discrimination in all areas of Palestine and are considered to be second class citizens.
For more information on the historical background and the situation today, go to PSC’s factsheets