Sabbagh (A Rum Affair, 2000, etc.) argues that, before 1948, Palestine was not an empty desert just waiting for Jewish settlement. It was home to thriving Palestinian communities.
From the earliest moments of the Zionist movement, charges Sabbagh, Zionists have claimed that Palestine was virtually uninhabited before Jews returned in the early 1900s. To the contrary, “Palestine was a small but complex society,” comprising a highly-educated middle class, agricultural workers and peasants. Including many stories about his own family, Sabbagh traces Palestinian history since the 18th century, and he amply chronicles the violence that unsurprisingly erupted between Jews and Palestinians in the years after the Balfour Declaration. Few Westerners come off well. FDR, for example, is quoted as proposing that “we” simply move one Arab family out for every Jewish family moved into Palestine: “There are a lot of places to which you could move the Arabs. All you have to do is drill a well, because there is this large underground water supply, and we can move the Arabs to places where they can really live.” Most fascinating is Sabbagh’s analysis of late-19th- and early-20th-century travelers’ reports, which, when they gestured toward Palestinians at all, portrayed them as uncivilized nomads. Explicitly invoking Edward Said, Sabbagh contends that Westerners’ depictions of Palestine were marred by Orientalism and cannot be taken at face value. In establishing that Palestinians constituted Palestine’s majority population before 1948, Sabbagh draws from a diverse array of sources, including many Western, Jewish and Israeli accounts. But the author devotes insufficient energy to explaining why Palestinian opposition to increasing Jewish settlement was so ineffective, and he fails to fully establish that the myth of an empty Palestine has much purchase today.
A powerful and often graceful polemic that leaves some questions unanswered.