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Changes in Palestine’s Geographical Landscape

Categories: ChangeEgyptSyria

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the landscape of the Middle East has gone through a dramatic change that continues to cause almost daily reminders of its consequence. The seemingly never ending conflicts in the region can quickly deter or entice a person’s desire for a deeper understanding of historical and geographical factors that contribute in current unresolved matters. A special highlight of the political and economical environment in the Fertile Crescent, starting in the late Ottoman period and proceeding to the colonial and post colonial era is pivotal for a comprehensive understanding.

A series of highlights must display various junctures at which the Middle East faced a geographical shift from what it has previously known and what it will come to know, with an addition of understanding the geographical ramifications on the local population of the respected landscape. Before the Middle Eastern landscape was introduced to the colonial and post colonial modern nationalist blocks, Palestine among many other regional inhabitations was of a different structure.

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These structures where functioning based on certain criteria, which is relatively alien to our modern understanding of clearly outlined and defined border lines. Palestine as we know it today was not as clearly defined, but rather belonged to a large region named under the Ottoman’s as (bilad-al-sham), and was also known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. This Fertile Crescent was comprised of modern day countries of Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, as well as Egypt in some instances.

The region of Palestine in the Ottoman period had little significance in terms of economic and cultural contribution.

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Palestine’s main significance was a historic religious one. Palestine served on the pilgrimage route connecting it to Damascus, Mecca, Madina and parts of Jordan, which is also known as Transjordan. Regional landscapes were determined based on a different set of criteria as mentioned above. These criteria’s were largely based on the Ottoman’s ability to assign regional administrative units to carry out tax collection and tariff imposition.

The following is an excerpt from Gudrun Kramer’s book A History of Palestine, describing the geopolitical status of modern day Palestine in the Ottoman period. “From 1516 to 1918, and hence for almost exactly four hundred years, Palestine (defined here as always by the boundaries of the later Mandate) was ruled by the Ottomans. Throughout the period it was not perceived as a distinct political, administrative, or economic unit within bilad al-sham.

The coastal strip, the valleys leading to the interior, and the mountainous interior itself formed “geohistoric” units that, conditioned equally by natural and political factors, each followed their own path of development. These “geohistoric” units did not coincide with the administrative units created by the Ottomans, who frequently altered and adapted their boundaries in response to changing political goals and demands…it was of paramount interest to the Ottoman central government to secure the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca and Madina, a route that led through Transjordanian Territory.

This also helps explain why the districts of Jerusalem and Nablus were assigned to the province of Damascus, an arrangement held until the 1870’s …one point is of primary importance here: the Ottoman administrative units were mostly relevant for the purposes of tax collection. At the district borders, tariffs could also be levied on certain goods. ” The region of Palestine under the Ottoman rule was largely underdeveloped, and hence restricted any economic and cultural integration, although this was not held in resentment by local settlers.

The scarcity of paved roads and difficult traveling routes restricted access for Ottoman administrative personal from collecting taxes and confiscating livestock. Taxes could only be carried out with full proficiency in certain regions that were connected to the province of Damascus, and hence automatically increasing Damascus’s economic and cultural significance in relation to the restricted areas outside the provinces boundaries. Kramer describes this further in the following excerpt. “There was no infrastructure to sustain an integrated “Palestine” economy and society.

Yet in the eyes of the local population, there were good reasons not to develop a sound infrastructure: Roads not only facilitated the traffic of good and persons to the benefit of the local community, or at least some of its members; they also gave the authorities better access to the local population and their possessions. To evade the regular imposition of taxes, possible recruitment, or confiscation of livestock, local communities sometimes decided against connections with the outside world when the choice was give to them. ”

The inhabitants of the region of Palestine were mainly farmers and shepherds that were largely connected through familial and tribal affiliation. They did not necessarily have a “Palestinian” identity per se, but oddly enough identified themselves as Syrian Arabs . It is only after the colonial interplay in the region that the concept of nationalism became a factor in identity selection. Before jumping into the colonial history in the Fertile Crescent, we must bring forth attention to several internal attempts that solidified the region of Palestine as well as its surrounding provinces and districts.

This attempt to unify was not in any way rooted in a nationalist ideal, but rather served an economic and military purpose. As the Ottoman hold over its vast empire began to weaken, several locals took initiative and ruled their selected districts in relative full autonomy. This was seen in Iraq, Mecca, as well as Egypt and the Fertile Crescent . These local rulers did not declare separation from the Ottomans and maintained their payments of taxation and tariff impositions. Nonetheless, this sporadic regional autonomy created pockets of prosperity and development that would have not manifested if left under the policies of the Ottomans.

In the same token, these regional struggles, largely based on economic monopolies over local cash crops, created tension within the Ottoman Empire and induced European intervention based on several alliances that would be discussed later. Among the first attempts that unified the region of Palestine was under an individual named Zahir al-Umar al-Zaidani. Zahir, a native of the province of Sidon managed to create an economic and military base in his home region of Galilee. The province of Sidon was comprised of modern day countries of Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

One particular coastal city, Acre, managed to quickly prosper. Acre was the base for most exports to European countries. Zahir managed to monopolize the regions production and export of cotton, olive oil, grains and tobacco. Zahir’s successful management of the local economy granted him power to make alliances with the ruler of Egypt and together they began an alliance with Russia. These European alliances did not always sit well with the sultan in Istanbul, especially since Russia and the Ottomans engaged in several wars/proxy wars.

Simultaneously as Zahir initiated a renewed interest in the Fertile Crescent, European migration, and investment began to rapidly take place, taking special interest in the holy land, in particular, Jerusalem. This interest in Jerusalem brought in religious tourists and others alike, conducting massive surveys and documentation of the holy city and its inhabitants. As this rapid change brought wealth and prosperity to a once stagnant region, hence increasing the tax coffers of the Ottomans, a concern over the increased European interest was somewhat alarming to the Ottomans.

They actively made an effort to restrict Jewish and Christian immigration to regional hot spots. This was neither an anti-Semitic nor an anti-Christian gesture, but rather a pure political concern over rising European interest in the holy land. It was well known to the Ottomans as history clearly demonstrated a continuous attempt over the years by Europeans and other alike to capture the holy land for various economical and religious reasons.

The increased European interest in the region continued as did the new found economy of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, but only after Zahir’s little powerbase was toppled and Zahir himself killed by an Ottoman military force. Zahir was replaced by an individual called Ahmad al-Jazzar. Ahmed al-Jazzar, a non-native Bosnian managed to rise through the ranks and became governor of Sidon and Damascus. Ahmed, unlike Zahir did not wish to defy the Ottomans, but rather was a direct representative. Ahmed still managed to operate in relative full autonomy, manipulating the region in various ways.

He maintained the monopoly over local crops, and successfully fought off Napoleon’s French attempt on Acre and surrounding districts. In addition to defending against the French, he successfully fought off a large group of Bedouins that had continuously caused destabilization and security unrest to the local settlers. Ahmed’s policy and actions is almost identical to Zahir’s. Both managed to create a military base as well as a strong economic base while simultaneously encouraging European trade and immigration.

What Zahir and Ahmed did was not a definitive turning point, but their actions acted as a primer for future events that would dramatically change the geography of the Fertile Crescent and the entire Middle East for that matter. Egypt at the time has thrived through its cotton trade, and had surpassed their neighbors in the Fertile Crescent. The Ottoman appointed governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, decided to march his troops in to the Fertile Crescent. In 1831, Muhammad Ali managed to take over the local powerbase in the region of Palestine. Gudrun Kramer describes the Egyptian take over in the following excerpt. The Egyptian occupation, which lasted scarcely ten years, has come to be seen as a turning point in the modern history of Syria and Palestine, if not as the beginning of their modernization. ” Egypt did manage to take over the Fertile Crescent, although they left local rulers to their business as usual, Egypt enjoyed an increased income from various imposed taxes. Egypt further expanded the previously initiated “multicultural” environment. Egypt allowed for renovation and new construction of churches and synagogue, and encouraged further European immigration.

There were a few attempts of revolt by certain locals, but had horribly failed. It was finally decided by Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia to expel the Egyptian presence in the Fertile Crescent. The reasoning behind this initiative was a European concern over internal threat to the Ottoman Empire. Oddly enough, the Ottomans where considered to be “the sick man of Europe” . If we would fast forward to the colonial era, the “internal threat” the Europeans were concerned about was largely a threat to their colonial interest.

This would be clearly demonstrated as Egypt would be colonized by Britain while Tunisia colonized by France shortly after the expulsion of Egyptians in the holy land. As the Egyptian presence was eradicated, it was quickly replaced by a more subtle European presence. As the Fertile Crescent entered into modernization, facilitated by heavy European investment and settlement, came new benefits for the locals. The locals were not just bystanders, but rather active participants in new technology and structure of the Europeans that transformed the region through massive economical growth between the years f 1856 to 1880. Paved roads, rail road’s, routine use of steam ships, and modern irrigation and farming technology brought increased wealth and prosperity to the holy land. Up to this point, despite the clear display and presence of European interest, along with Jewish and Zionist interest as well, the Fertile Crescent has made a positive turn in terms of its economy, living and education standards, with increased opportunity for the locals . This would quickly change in the coming years as the Ottoman Empire falls after WWI.

Amid the conflicting intensions of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Belfour declaration, the Fertile Crescent was in for a major geographical change that would set in motion the status of modern day Israel and Palestine, as well as neighboring districts and provinces. It’s important to note, as it was eluded in the previously mentioned information, European and Jewish/Zionist interest did not only initiate after the various European agreements and mandates, but rather have slowly been escalating to this point.

Let’s examine a few statistical numbers to further understand the situation. Please refer to Appendix A. in the corresponding map; we can clearly see between the years of 1880-1914, before any colonial powers entered the Fertile Crescent, there was a mounting effort for Jewish settlements. Between the years of 1880-1914, 66,000 new Jewish settlers mainly arriving from Russia and Eastern Europe managed to lawfully purchase Palestinian land from various European, Turkish, and Arab landlords . This massive influx of new Jewish settlers and land purchase did not go unnoticed by locals.

The locals petitioned to officials in Istanbul to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchase. The Young Turks government at the time did impose various restrictions, but was routinely dismissed by locals, who continued to sell off land to Jewish and European buyers. Please refer to Appendix B. the corresponding map displays what was promised by England to Sherif of Mecca. The McMahon-Hussein correspondence was to entice Arabs to take up arms against the Turks, and in return England promised to secure a large portion of land to be claimed by an Arab caliphate.

This agreement mentioned vague details regarding Palestine and Jerusalem, with little mention of Jews and their fate in the region. This was of course alarming to the Arabs, as it was to the Sherif himself, but nonetheless, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Belfour declaration would take paramount precedence over the promised land to Sherif Hussein. The Arabs would quickly realize the extent of political trickery they succumb to. Please refer to Appendix C. he corresponding map displays a radical partition of the fertile crescent as well as the Arabian peninsula between the major European powers. Between the years of 1917-1971, the Middle Eastern landscape was much more defined, by imposed borderlines. The newly founded countries of Oman, Aden Protectorate, Iraq, Transjordan, Bahrain, and Egypt were under direct control of British authority. All of these countries would eventually get their independence by 1971. As for Syria and Lebanon, they were under French control and would gain independence by 1944.

Unlike the European maps mentioned above, the outline for the region of Palestine would not hold. As Britain and France failed to secure the region of Palestine, further events followed that continued to change the landscape leading up to modern day Israel and Palestine. From the years of 1917-67, continuous attempt at settling borderlines, and hopes for peace treaties did not go as planned, and finally erupted in an official Arab-Israeli war that lasted six days, giving Israel an easy victory, and with it came further change to the Palestinian landscape.

The first official compromise to the original British, French, Russian proposed map was the Partition Plan of the Peel Commission of 1937. The commission decided to partition the land into 3 sections. 1) An Arab section, 2) a Jewish section, and 3) a British mandate section, also known as international zone of Jerusalem. This new partition plan was continuously fought by neighboring countries and local rebels, but with no real resolution to the problem. Soon thereafter, the issue was transferred over to the newly founded United Nations.

In 1947, the UN proposed a partition plan, dividing Palestine into 6 sections, of which none are contiguous. The Arabs outright rejected any recognition of a Jewish land claim, and conversely, the Jewish population of Palestine quickly accepted the plan, for the least it would put their aspiration for a country in a tangible outline, and it would force a British withdrawal . The British successfully withdrew, leaving it up to Israeli/Arab soldiers to define the borders. Israel officially declared its independence in 1948.

As several armed struggles ensued, Israel through the armistice agreement with Transjordan created the Green line border, which allotted 77% of Palestinian land to Israel and gave Jordan control of east Jerusalem and the Gaza strip to Egypt . This was a drastic increase from the proposed UN partition plan, allotting 54% of the land to the Jewish population. Soon thereafter in the year 1967, an Arab ambition lead by the outspoken Egyptian leader Gamal Abd al-Nasir, orchestrated an organized attack on Israel by Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Jordan, Syria and Egypt were easily defeated in a matter of six days. East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip were now added to the landscape of Israel. Since 1967, much of the fighting and disagreements is over illegal Jewish settlements in the west bank and the late invasion of the recently returned Gaza strip. The dramatic change in the Palestinian landscape has given rise to largely negative ramifications, affecting the daily lives of Palestinians and their ability to carry out basic necessities for a decent life.

The Palestinian population, tracing it back to the Ottoman period where simple farmers and shepherds, which solely relied on fertile land to make their living. Since the beginning of the 19th century, much of the Palestinian farmers where overburdened by debt, rising rent, and overly competitive subsidized Israeli prices. Following the years of 1967, the continued occupation of the west bank and the Gaza strip allowed Israel to impose policies that restricted Palestinians from farming, manufacturing, and trade. Bornstein further explains this in the following excerpt. Israeli policies restricted the building of factories and other facilities, only allowing a few industries (textiles, footwear, and chemicals) to develop in the West Bank and Gaza…the desire to protect Israeli-made products was so great that Israel even attempted to prevent the establishment or reactivation of Arab-owned factories if there was any danger that their products might compete with Israeli products…in almost all areas of economy, Israeli policy discouraged investment in the territories by making the cultivation, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, marketing and exporting of any crop or product contingent on the acquisition of a permit from the military authorities. To protect Israeli growers and anufacturers, permits would be withheld from those who wished to engage in economic activities that might compete with Israeli products. ”

Bornstein points to the fact that agriculture was the biggest economic sector of the west bank, comprising 40% of its economy. Due to Israeli policies, this number has now shifted to 30%, and subsistence farming is now transformed into market farming. The majority of work in the west bank and Gaza has now shifted to labour/ wage earner positions. In addition to the imposed policies, illegal settlements which continues to bring much disturbance to any peace mediation has drastically risen from 3,000 Jewish settlers in the late 70’s to an astounding 400,000 settlers by the beginning of the 21st century .

Due to increased difficulty in finding a secure source of income, Palestinians resorted to wage work in Israel. Bornstein points to the fact, employment in Israel made-up 35% of all jobs for West Bank residents. This means daily travel for Palestinians, which subjugates them to routine searches, interrogation, and unnecessary harassment at security check points. As difficult as it is, with major political events pertaining to Israel and its neighbors, drastic restriction of border crossings further impedes Palestinians from earning wages. Events such as the Egypt- Syrian attack on Israel in 1973, and the intifada of 1987 manifested in dramatic decrease of Palestinians allowed crossing the border of Israel.

Due to differences in employment, safety, and wage standards in Israel and Palestine, Israeli entrepreneurs take advantage of cheap labour, and non-existent human right standards on the green line border, setting up factories and employing locals. Bornstein further describes this in the following excerpt. “As the Israeli government worked on developing high-tech industries in Israel, underdevelopment in the West Bank made it into a “Third World Colony. ” The territories became “an open market with non competition from outside. As economic integration is accompanied by strong legal, social and residential segregation, labour is very cheap, legal rights are very limited and social security is virtually non-existent. ” In this environment the few cracks allowing livelihood to take root were in service to Israel: “of these, two are worth mention.

The first was the development of sub-contracting, particularly in the clothing industry… [and the second were] garages in the Territories, which offered cheaper repair services for Israeli motorists. ”…the border creates a boundary on the capitalists’ accountabilities for the well-being of foreign employees and their families. Neither big manufacturers nor their governments were under pressure to subsidize the education, health care, or income of their “foreign” labor. Workers across the border were easily abandoned when no longer needed, without paying welfare or unemployment. ” The CIA data collection states the following in regards to the Palestinian Territories. The estimated GDP of Palestine in 2009 is $12. 95 billion, an inflation rate of 11. %, 60% of the population is below poverty line, 24% unemployment rate, GDP per capita of $2,900, Exports of $339 million, Imports of $2. 84 billion, Total Revenue of $1. 149 billion, and Total Expenditure of $2. 31 billion.

Taking a quick glance at the presented numbers above, Palestine does not show much promise for growth or development, which is excluding the unique internal dynamic which contributes to such a statistical failure. Conversely, looking at Israel’s statistics, it is a total opposite. The CIA data collection states the following in regards to Israel’s economy. A 2010 GDP of $217. 1 billion, a GDP per capita of $29,500, an inflation rate of 4. 5%, 23. % of the population is below poverty line (note, the majority of individuals in this figure are Palestinians), 6. 2% unemployment rate, Exports of $54. 35 billion, Imports of $55. 6 billion, Total Revenue $45 billion, Total Expenses $58. 6 billion. Israel’s economy as stated by David H. Goldberg and Bernard Reich is an economic “miracle”. Israel’s economy continued to defy odds of failure in respect to minimal natural resources, and an overwhelming neighborly hostility. Nonetheless, Israel remains to be one of the leading economies in the world, with living standards matching that of advanced European nations. Israel’s economy positively transformed after the technological boom of the 90’s, opening its export of technological merchandise.

Israel’s increasing prosperity is largely due to continued foreign investment, financial aid from international allies and wealthy international Jews. In the late 18th Century and into the early 19th Century, the local population of the Fertile Crescent had successfully entered into modernity, and with it came wealth and prosperity. The region of Palestine was a highly successful producer and exporter of various goods, with Europe being a substantial importer. The radical change in the regions geopolitical demographic brought sever unrest and hindered any previous strides at modernity and positive contribution to the world market. The colonial interplay in the region created a new reality for the population of the Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.

A functioning model under the Ottomans was replaced by a haphazard and materially ambitious European plan, which ultimately manifested in a continuing regional struggle. The imposed British Mandate created numerous regional wars, which continues to be unresolved. The main beneficiaries seem to be the population of Israel, and conversely, the Palestinians continue to manage a difficult dynamic which was not the case in the beginning of the 19th century. Unresolved borderlines and a seemingly distant mirage of a solidified two state solution continues to cause civil and economic turmoil within the Palestinian territories, directly affecting its population’s quality of life.

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Changes in Palestine’s Geographical Landscape. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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