David K. Rees

Who Stole Whose Land?

On November 25, 2021, the 74th anniversary of the day that the UN voted to establish Israel, Mohamed El Kurd gave a speech at International Solidarity with the Palestinian Community Day at the UN General Assembly. El Kurd began, “Hello international community.” The speech has gone viral, receiving thousand of hits on YouTube. It can be seen here:

In one speech, which lasted a little over 10 minutes, El Kurd incorporated many of the major points of the Palestinian narrative that Israel is an evil “empire”. El Kurd is not a two-state solution man. He argues for the total destruction of Israel. The following is a point-by point rebuttal of his major claims.

1. The “occupation.” El Kurd refers frequently to “the occupation”. Sometimes people contend that the “occupation” began with the 1948 war (known by Palestinians as “the Nakba”).  Israel is accused of expanding the “occupation” to include the territory it recovered in 1967. In fact, the “occupation” began in 1517, when Turkey invaded Palestine and subsequently made it part of the Ottoman Empire. Turks are NOT Arabs. Arabs by definition are people whose primary language is Arabic. Turks’ primary language is Turkish. The first time since 1517 that what was Palestine has been governed by people who lived there was in 1948, when the State of Israel came into being.

Following World War I, the League of Nations gave Great Britain the mandate for Palestine. In 1923, Great Britain split off the eastern 78% of Palestine, the area east  of the Jordan River, and created a separate state called Transjordan (today’s Jordan). On May 15, 1948, in an action that is indistinguishable from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Jordan’s Arab Legion crossed the established international border and invaded Israel. In 1967, Israel merely drove the Jordanians back across the Jordan River, reclaiming land which had been included by the UN in the original State of Israel. Israel did not take one centimeter of Jordan. Between 1949 and 1967, it was Jordan which occupied Israel, not the other way around.

2. Israel is not a colonial enterprise. El Kurd argues passionately that Israel is a “colonial” enterprise. This is another way of saying that it is the result of European imperialism. This argument is wrong. In every case, the European imperialist country intended to plunder the colony for the benefit of the home country. This was true whether it was the Spanish seeking gold in America, the Dutch seeking gold and diamonds in South Africa, or Great Britain seeking diamonds, tea, spices in India. No British soldier was in India to build a country. When it was time for the soldier to retire, he went back to Great Britain. In contrast, the Jews who founded what became the State of Israel came to a land which had no natural resources. They had no intention of enriching or returning to a home country.

Jews came to build a country where it was safe for Jews to be Jews, which is what they did. Today’s Israel is very different from the Israel of 1948. Today, there are forests where once there were no trees; a modern city, Tel Aviv, where once there was dirt; and a country with modern infrastructure, including roads, bridges, trains, and an international airport. Today what was once a desert, blooms. El Kurd, who is 23, now seeks to “return” to a land which he never saw and which no longer exists.

Nor did the people who established Israel all come from Europe. Many Jews already lived in Palestine; Jerusalem in 1900, for example, had more Jews than either Muslims or Christians. Other Jews came from North Africa (Sephardic Jews) or the Middle East (Mizrahi Jews) where Jews had been treated as second-class citizens for years. When Israel was founded, half its population was comprised of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

3. Ethic cleansing. Unlike the countries around it, Israel is not guilty of ethnic cleansing. The numbers tell the story. In 1948 roughly 950,000 Arabs lived in today’s Israel. Today, roughly 1.9 million do. In contrast, the North African and the Middle Eastern Arab countries have almost no Jews left, though millions of them once lived there. In Iran, 90% of the Jews have fled. There has been ethnic cleansing, but it has not been by Israel.

4. Who stole whose land? El Kurd also alleges that Israel stole Palestinian land, referring to it as “theft.” Israel did not steal anything. Much of the land that Jews acquired was purchased. For example, the original land on which Tel Aviv was built was purchased by a Belgian banker who recorded the title with the Turkish authorities. We know who the purchaser was and the purchase price, but we do not know who the seller was. It could well have been a Turk. In any event, the land was purchased, not stolen. It is one examples of many such sales. When European Jews made the first Aliyah, they established the Jewish National Fund, which raised money all over the world to BUY land in Israel. Some of that money was used to establish Tel Aviv.

It is true that in 1948, many Arabs fled or were forced to leave Israel, but wars almost always produce refugees and changes in countries borders. Israel no more “stole” Arab land in 1948, than Poland “stole” German land in 1945. As in 1967, Israel simply won the war, a war it did not start.

Sheik Jarrah is a good example of this. Before the 19th century, Jerusalem was contained within the Old City walls, about 1 square kilometer, for which by the late 19th century, it was too small. Jews began to move west of the Old City. Christians tended to move to the north of it, and some Jews did, too. In 1948, Jordan drove all the Jews out of Sheik Jarrah. After 1967, Israel passed a law allowing these people to recover their property. Who stole whose land?

Those are all facts. El Kurd’s speech is full of passion but little else.

About the Author
Before making Aliyah from the United States, I spent over three decades as a lawyer in the United States. My practice involved handling many civil rights cases, including women's- rights cases, in State and Federal courts. I handled numerous constitutional cases for the ACLU and argued one civil rights case in the United States Supreme Court. I chaired the Colorado Supreme Court's Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure and served on the Colorado Supreme Court's Civil Rules and Rules of Evidence Committees. Since much of my practice involved the public interest, I became interested in environmental law and worked closely with environmental organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I was on the Rocky Mountain Board of EDF. I received an award from the Nebraska Sierra Club as a result of winning a huge environmental case that was referred to me by EDF. I also developed significant knowledge of hazardous and radioactive waste disposal. I was involved in a number of law suits concerning waste disposal, including a highly-political one in the United States Supreme Court which involved the disposal of nuclear waste. As I child I was told by my mother, a German, Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, that Israel was a place for her and her child. When I first visited Israel many years later, I understood what she meant. My feeling of belonging in Israel caused me to make Aliyah and Israel my home. Though I am retired now, I have continued my interest in activism and the world in which I find myself.
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