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Palestine: A Historical and Geographical Overview



Palestine is characterized by its diverse geographical features including high and steep mountains, desert areas, the Dead Sea, and its Mediterranean coastline. Its strategic geographical location made it a crucial crossroads between ancient continents. Additionally, Palestine’s water channels and waterways have historically made it an attractive target for invasions. For instance, the Crusaders first attacked its northern channels, and Napoleon attempted to advance through these channels to the Euphrates in 1799. At that time, Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire.


Property Rights and Demographic Changes


In 1858, significant changes in property rights were introduced, allowing foreigners and minorities to own land in Palestine. This shift in property laws led to approximately 5,000 Jewish farmers becoming settlers, establishing around 19 settlements. Many reasons lead to an increase in population in Palestine. First, the stability in Palestine under Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II resulted in a population increase and significant immigration of Christians and Jews where the population grew by approximately 40%, between 1895 and 1917. Second, the establishment of Zionism, particularly after the first Zionist conference in 1897, played a pivotal role in the increased Jewish immigration to Palestine. Between 1897 and 1914, the Jewish population in Palestine doubled, in addition to the establishment of a new settlement at that time which was Tel Aviv.


The Ottoman Empire controlled Palestine from around 1512, where Palestine enjoyed stability and development in that frame. However, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, various global powers vied for control over the region. In 1917, Britain quickly moved to invade, and subsequently colonize Palestine.


The fall of Jerusalem


The fall of Jerusalem in 1917 marked the end of approximately 1,300 years of Islamic rule in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire. At that time, there was a prevalent belief that the independence of Arab countries would lead to the unification of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia into a single nation. This belief was reinforced by Henry McMahon's promises to acknowledge the independence of these Arab regions.


However, less than a year after these promises, British and French representatives, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, met and signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement aimed to divide the territories of the Ottoman Empire, delineating boundaries according to their interests rather than the aspirations of the Arab populations. The Sykes-Picot Agreement effectively partitioned the Arab world into zones of influence controlled by Britain and France.


In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration further complicated the situation. In a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, the British government expressed support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The letter stated, "Her Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object."


These events collectively reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East, laying the groundwork for future conflicts and shaping the modern history of the region. The promises of independence, the secret agreements to partition the Ottoman territories, and the Balfour Declaration significantly influenced the geopolitical dynamics and the aspirations of the people in Palestine and the broader Arab world.


The Current Situation in Palestine


Following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and subsequent agreements facilitating Jewish settlement and the growth of the Zionist movement in Palestine. Early instances of ethnic cleansing began to emerge. Notably, in February 1948, Zionist forces attacked the village of Qiyasara near Haifa, leading up to the creation of the State of Israel. Since then, Israeli occupation forces have been repeatedly accused of breaching international human rights laws, including the detention of underaged children, attacks on civilians, and the denial of basic human rights. These actions have been described as ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Palestinian population.


The Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, established in 1998, estimates that approximately 460 Palestinian children were detained over a five-month period, a significant increase from the annual estimate of 500-700 children held in Israeli military detention. As of the end of January 2024, about 9,000 Palestinians were reported to be in Israeli jails, a sharp increase from the 5,250 detained before October 7th. The commission has faced challenges in obtaining updated figures due to restricted access to detainees.


On October 7th, a Hamas-led attack in southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,000 people and the taking of around 245 hostages. In response, Israel launched intensive military operations, which have reportedly resulted in over 40,000 Palestinian deaths and the destruction of 60% of homes and public facilities, including hospitals. According to Amnesty International, in Gaza alone, 1.9 million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced due to Israeli offensives, out of a total population of 2.2 million. Additionally, state-backed settler violence has increased. In the West Bank, Israeli policing operations have been the most lethal since 2005, with 110 Palestinian children among those killed. The number of Palestinians detained without charge or trial has also reached record levels.


Following Hamas' public announcement of agreeing to a ceasefire, the Israeli government issued a statement asserting that the continuation of the Rafah invasion is crucial to achieving their strategic military objectives. Reports indicate that the closure of the Rafah border has severely impacted the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This blockade has prevented sick and injured individuals from seeking medical treatment outside Gaza, while also obstructing the importation of essential medicines, food supplies, and potable water. These restrictions have exacerbated the existing shortages, further deteriorating the living conditions for the residents of Gaza.


Today, Palestine continues to suffer. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the on-going genocide, exacerbated by blockades and military operations, underscores the ongoing struggle for basic human rights and dignity. The closure of the Rafah border, preventing medical treatment and the import of essential supplies, highlights the humanitarian crisis that Palestinians are going through.  


The ongoing conflict, characterized by repeated breaches of international human rights laws, has resulted in significant loss of life, displacement, and widespread destruction. Despite agreements and ceasefires, the cycle of violence and retaliation persists, further complicating efforts for peace and stability.


The question of what will become of Palestine and its population thus remains a critical issue on the global stage.


By MECS Intern

Sarah Dahanni


To find out more on this issue, take a look at our Country Risk Insights series.

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