A look into the reasons the Arabs failed against the early Zionist movement.

Posted October 10, 2020 from United Kingdom

The Zionist movement in Palestine only received real recognition and began to take shape in around 1881, after this point the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) began to develop in ways that would see them, “in less than two generations succeeded in forming a nation endowed with all the attributes of national ‘normality’” (Eli Barnavi – Shocken – 2003)  and would see the Arab Palestinians fail to overcome the Zionists.

 There are various contributing factors as to why the Arab Palestinians failed to stop the Zionist movement, the Arab Palestinians were very minimally developed as Palestine had never had real independence and so relied on colonial managers to provide basic governance in the country, leaving them inexperienced and thus weak in the face of the Zionist movements, additionally the Zionist movement had strong western backing from Britain which allowed them to establish themselves in the country and set strong foundations to build their state upon, finally the organisation of the Zionist movement and their separatist tactics allowed for them to expand and build upon these west set foundations and gave them the resources to develop and progress into a functional state.


Palestine had never been truly independent in terms of governance; the region went from being effectively a mamluk possession to an Ottoman extension in the 1550’s. The Ottoman empire maintained a tight grip on Palestine, although it was on the periphery of the empire as a whole; taxation was regular and Ottoman officials ran the towns and cities as direct envoys of the Sultan. Additionally, Palestine was a relatively impoverished area and so Palestinians relied on the state quite heavily (Amy Singer – Cambridge University Press – 1994). This meant that in 1882, when Palestine saw an influx of Jewish migrants entering the country, they were unprepared and couldn’t predict the rise of the Zionist movement, furthermore the Jewish presence in Palestine was not taken as a threat to the Palestinian population and so nothing was done to quell the stream of migrants settling in Palestine (Yosef Gorni - Clarendon Press – 1987). The historical lack of independence and self-determination acts as a major contributing factor to the failure of the Arabs against the Zionist movement. This was then reinforced in 1918 when, after the fall of the Ottoman empire in the area, the British assumed the mandate for Palestine. Through the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Britain and France were able to redefine the region in question, carving new borders in preparation for the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire, this led to Britain’s mandate for Palestine and meant that Palestine remained a colonial possession as it always had been. In this sense, Palestine was ill equipped to govern itself or to defend itself independently and so when the Zionist movement began to rise in the early 20th century the Palestinians were unable to subdue it. Therefore, Palestine was too under-developed, in a sense, to overcome the rise of the Zionist movement.


It could be argued however, that this point of view is typical of the Zionist historiography that exists of the time. There is little in the way of a Palestinian narrative of the time and so only one point of view exists: the point of view that Palestine was a “vastly underpopulated” (Alan Dershowitz – John Wiley & Sons – 2004)  “rusty mound of barrenness” (Mark Twain – Oxford University Press – 1996). All early writing of Palestine suggests that the land was minimally developed and has a Zionist leaning purely as a result of the lack of Palestinian historiography due to an absence of Palestinian archives. The texts would inform that Palestine’s development only came with the European powers and Zionist migrants, this is an arguably orientalist point of view in that the developments of Palestine, whether minimal in the eyes of the observer or not, are not to be measured against a western perception of development. Palestine had developed in its own ways, culturally and personally – the “clusters of Bedouin tents” (Mark Twain – Oxford University Press – 1996) that Mark Twain berates are only under developed in the eyes of an observer who assumes they are in some way better than the people in question and so this argument that suggests the Palestinians were too under-developed to resist the Zionist movement is flawed and tinted with orientalism.


However, it is factually correct that Palestine and Palestinians were weakened by their lack of historical independence and their lack of their existence as a national state weakened them further; this meant that the Arab Palestinians were inherently under-developed, not in reference to their general development of civilisation or as an orientalist observation but in terms of statehood and were unable to develop the foundations required to build a functional state as a result of their lack of independence. Palestine had never existed as a national state before this point in that it was previously considered a mere extension to the Ottoman empire and was rather a collection of cities not a bordered state. The independent district of Jerusalem was set up in 1872 and was often known as Palestine and in 1911 a newspaper called ‘Filastin’ was founded in Jaffa, but this was the extent of the existence of a state known as Palestine, as a political unit Palestine never effectively existed, Palestinian statehood was only defined in 1916 by the Sykes-Picot agreement and thus even after receiving recognition as a bordered state, it was on western terms and thus meant very little for the Arab Palestinians, especially considering that the recognition came from the same western states that would go on to back the Zionist movement contributing further to the Arab Palestinian failure to stop the Zionist movement.  In this way it was inevitable that the Palestinians would fail against the Zionists as the foundations of the state simply did not exist and thus the Arab Palestinians were too weak to ever resist the rise of the Zionist movement.


While the British dominance in the region led to the weakening of the Arab Palestinians, it also led to the strengthening of the Zionist movement – so much so that the Arab Palestinians found themselves unable to overcome such a formidable force. The British mandate for Palestine meant that Britain’s power over the nation was almost entirely unlimited which meant that the Balfour declaration of 1917 was effectively uncontested. The Balfour declaration promised “a national home for the Jews, in Palestine” which, in effect, opened the doors of Palestine to Jewish migrants across the globe. The period before the Balfour declaration, between 1881 and 1903 saw the ‘First Aliyah’ or the first major instance of Zionist immigration to Palestine on a mass scale; the population of Palestine in 1890, during the peak of the first Aliyah, was 532,000 total with 43,000 Jews, 57,000 Christians and 432,000 Muslims. This statistic changed drastically after the Balfour declaration; the number of Jews significantly overtook the number of Christians in the country and the total population went up to 752,000 in 1922. The population of Jews in Palestine increased by 95% between 1890 and 1922 - the rise of the Zionist movement increasing concurrently - while the population of Muslims and Christians in Palestine saw a mere 34% increase in the same period (Sergio Della Pergola – Hebrew University of Jerusalem – 2001). In this way it is clear that even the first Aliyah didn’t have as much of an impact on Jewish migration to Palestine – thus the rise of Zionism - as the Balfour declaration did.


Furthermore, the wording of the Balfour declaration is important to note. By declaring “a national home for Jews, in Palestine” the Balfour declaration justified Zionist migration however, by then declaring it “on behalf of his majesty’s government”, as “approved by the cabinet”, promising that “his majesty’s government… will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object [a Jewish national home]” and asking that this message be directly communicated to the “Zionist Federation” specifically, the Balfour declaration, and by extension the entire British institution (both government and monarchy) vowed to protect and support Jewish migrants in Palestine and thus, the Zionist movement (Arthur Balfour – 1917). British support for the Zionist movement was strong and deep rooted, Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister (1902-1905) pushed for strong anti-immigration laws and feared the insurgence of  “undesirable[s]” (Arthur Balfour – 1905), as his government’s ‘Alien Bill’ would have it, who “only intermarried among themselves” (Arthur Balfour – 1905) saying they would “not be an advantage to the civilisation of the country” (Arthur Balfour – 1905). This generally anti-semetic view fuelled the steadfast British support for the Zionist migration and gave the Zionist movement the validation it needed to gain footholds in Palestine. 


The Arab Palestinians, on the other hand, had no such support. The rest of the Arab world were weakened in the same ways Palestine had been; no longer under the control of the Ottoman empire and suddenly under the mandate of western colonial powers (mainly Britain and France but also Italy in places), the region found itself preoccupied with it’s own individual struggles for liberation and therefore unable to even fathom aiding Palestine in its struggle. The closest thing to support the Palestinians would find would be in the Syrian monarchy however, this ‘support’ was both minimal and selfishly motivated in that the king of Syria had previously been ‘promised’, by Britain- with questionable legitimacy- control of Palestine in return for supporting revolts against the Ottomans (Isaiah Friedman – Routledge – 2018), Syria therefore, supported the Palestinian cause in that it took the Palestinian side however, it only did so only because of its questionable claims of control and ultimately contributed nothing to the Palestinians against the rise of the Zionist movement. In this way the Arab Palestinians couldn’t possibly stop the Zionist movement as the British were too strong and determined in their backing of Zionist migration while the Arab Palestinians had no backing at all, as well as being too weak to defend themselves.


While British support founded the Zionist movement and effectively set its foundations, the Zionist movement went forth, with the promise of British protection, and developed their community in ways that allowed for them to eventually split off entirely from the native Arab Palestinians and claim statehood. In 1909 the Degania Aleph kibbutzim was founded, it was the first of many kibbutzim or separate Jewish settlements, to occur in Palestine; after this point the Jewish migrants found living in separation to be favourable and so began the development of the separate Zionist settlements that eventually formed Israel, peaking in the thirties – a pivotal point for the movement that saw one of the largest insurgences of Zionist migrants (Uri Levietan – 2011)(David Morawetz – 1983). Propaganda encouraging agricultural work that would support the separate Jewish communities in the Kibbutzim was abundant and with the increase in the Jewish farmer and working class demographic came organisations like the Zionist Workers Federation  (the Histadrut) and nationalised workers unions; the kibbutzim were fully self-reliant and had collective economies separate to the rest of Palestine, profit was distributed among the urban Jewish population and soon the communities bore all the initial attributes of a fully functional state. The Histadrut developed and was soon able to provide healthcare systems, education, militias and so on and the Jewish people wanted to be members because of the opportunities it created for the community, in this way the Histadrut and the working force not only supported the Jewish community functionally but also united the Zionist migrants under the idea of a separate and fully functional state (Itzhak Harpaz – Routledge – 2018). The Histadrut then developed from a mini state with power only over the Jewish minority, to the state of Israel with power over the land and its people when David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Histadrut from 1918, became the first Prime minister of Israel in 1948. The Arab Palestinians were unable to compete with the effective organisation of the separate Zionist settlements and in this failure, combined with their determined force of workers and British support, the Zionists were able to expand their settlements to such an extent that by 1948, after the end of the British mandate for Palestine, they were able to take over Palestine entirely and form the state of Israel.


 To conclude, not only were the Arab Palestinians too weak and inexperienced to defend themselves against the movement as a result of their lack of independence or statehood, the Zionists had too strong a backing and with this backing were able to form and organise their own separate state which would prove to be the final push against the Arab Palestinians who couldn’t compete with the effective organisation of the separate Zionist settlements. Ultimately the Arab Palestinians failed to stop the Zionist movement as a result of British intervention in the nation which prevented Palestine from ever being fully independent as it assumed the mandate for Palestine as soon as the Ottomans fell as well as pre-empting their fate through the Sykes Picot agreement, backed the Zionist migration to Palestine, and thus the movement in general, with the highest powers available – royal assent and vow of protection- thus protecting and nurturing the separate Zionist settlements, although indirectly and finally through the sudden end of the British mandate for Palestine followed by complete indifference to the people and nation allowing for the nakba to ensue and the emergence of the state of Israel.




































1)SINGER, Amy – Cambridge University Press – 1994 – ‘Palestinian Peasants and Ottoman Officials: Rural Administration Around Sixteenth-Century Jerusalem’

2)BARNAVI, Eli – Shocken – 2003 – ‘A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present’

3)HARPAZ, Itzhak – Routledge – 2017 – ‘Work and Organisations in Israel’

4)BALFOUR, Arthur – 1917 – The Balfour Declaration

5)GORNI, Yosef – Clarendon Press – 1987 – ‘Zionism and the Arabs:1882-1948: A Study of Ideology’

6)TWAIN, Mark – Oxford University Press – 1996 – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

7)DERSHOWITZ, Alan – John Wiley & Sons – 2004 – ‘The Case for Israel’

8)DELLE PERGOLA, Sergio – Hebrew university of Jerusalem, Harman institute of contemporary Jewry – 2001 – ‘Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects, Policy Implications’

9)FRIEDMAN, Isaiah – Routledge – 2018 – ‘Palestine: A Twice Promised Land?’

10) LEVEITHAN, Uri – 2011 – ‘The Process of Industrialisation in the Israeli Kibbutzim’

11)MORAWETZ, David – 1983 – ‘The Kibbutz as a Model for Developing Countries: on maintaining full economic equality in practice’




Comments 3

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Tamarack Verrall
Oct 11
Oct 11

There is so little known about the different eras of colonialism, the series of wars and attempts to protect land and homes, the takeover of indigenous peoples such as the bedouins, migrations sanctioned in response to wars and government deals based on economic gain. Your story and extensive research gives us a deeper look at a country whose story has been kept hidden. Thank you for sharing it. I hold out hope from the Women in Black who work for peace across borders in this region.

Paulina Nayra
Oct 12
Oct 12

Thank you Noor for sharing this. I know very little about the Palestinian history. My heart goes out for them who have are living in constant danger because of the conflict. I wish, one day, peace will reign in this sacred place.

Nini Mappo
Oct 12
Oct 12

Hello Noreel,
It's true that Palestine is always misunderstood. Thank you for sharing its history with us. It is a wonder how much of a mess colonialism made, because Palestine was a region, not a country, until 1947, and on its partition by the colonial powers, the British kinda just left it to its own devices without much mediation, almost as with division of India and Pakistan also in 1947, and later Bangladesh. I always wonder what the original Palestine region was like, it ethno-demography and what governance looked like, before the state of Palestine in 1947. I also wonder why besides not standing up to the Zionists, the Palestine was always occupied...first by the ottomans and the British as a region, then by Egypt and Jordan as a young nation, and now by Israel. I always wonder why the occupying Arab nations didn't strengthen Palestine and like the British, eventually left it shaky and vulnerable. I wonder and hope that it will know peace and security, that it will be autonomous in known history, and that it's women and girls will live in peace. Reading your piece has raised so many of my wonderings...