Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis

This textbook for 9th- and 10th-grade students from Israel and Palestine is a project of the Project Research Institute in the Middle East. Instead of creating a single narrative, the authors — six high school history teachers from each side — worked together to develop the two narratives. They were translated into Arabic or Hebrew and focused on three seminal events:

The following examples of the opening paragraphs to each chapter provide a glimpse into the dueling histories that are taught in Palestinian and Israeli schools. To read the complete narratives, download the entire draft of this text as a PDF.

On the Balfour Declaration

Israeli Perspective

Hatikvah: The Hope

As long as in our heart of hearts the Jewish spirit remains strong, And we faithfully look toward the east, Our eyes will turn to Zion. We have not yet lost our hope, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land — The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The Zionist movement was born in the major centers of Jewish population in Europe, and its purpose was to return the Jewish people to its land and put an end to its abnormal situation among the nations of the world. At first there was a spontaneous emergence of local associations ("Lovers of Zion") out of which an organized political movement was established, thanks to the activities of "The Father of Zionism," Theodore Herzl [whose Hebrew name is Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl].

In 1882 there was a small wave of immigration [aliya/pl. aliyot] to "the land" [i.e., the land of Israel], the first of several. The purpose of these aliyot was not just to fulfill the religious obligations connected to the land, as had been the case in the past, but rather to create a "new" kind of Jew, a productive laborer who would work on his own land and help establish a Jewish political entity in the land of Israel.

In 1897 the First Zionist Congress took place in Basle, Switzerland, and there the goals of the movement were delineated (the Basle Plan): "The purpose of Zionism is to create a refuge for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, guaranteed by an open and official legal arrangement."

There were two basic approaches to Zionism: 1) Practical Zionism focused on increasing immigration, purchasing land, and settling Jews on the land. By 1914, in the first two waves of immigration, nearly 100,000 people immigrated (although most of them later left the country). Dozens of agricultural settlements were established and there was a significant increase in the urban Jewish population. 2) Political Zionism focused on diplomatic efforts to get support for Zionism from the great empires in order to obtain a legal and official charter for widescale settlement in the land.

Chaim Weizmann, who became Zionism's leader after Herzl's death, integrated both aspects of the movement.

Palestinian Perspective

Historical Background

In April 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte put forth a plan for a Jewish state in Palestine. During the siege of Acre, he sought to enlist Jewish support in return for which he promised to build the Temple. The project failed after the defeat of Napoleon in the battles of Acre and Abu-Qir. It represents the first post-Renaissance expression of cooperation between a colonialist power and the Jewish people.

However, it was the events of 1831-40 that paved the way for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary in 1840-41, proposed establishing a British protectorate in the Ottoman Empire to be settled by Jews as a buffer area — an obstacle to Mohammed Ali of Egypt and to political unity in the Arab regions.

Britain launched a new policy supporting Jewish settlement in Palestine after Eastern European Jews, particularly those in Czarist Russia, whose living conditions were poor in any case, suffered cruel persecution. Consequently, with the rise of nationalism, Zionism appeared as a drastic international solution to the Jewish problem, transforming the Jewish religion into a nationalist attachment to a special Jewish homeland and a special Jewish state. Other factors influencing the birth and development of the Zionist movement were the increasingly competitive interests shared by European colonialists in Africa and Asia, and the Zionist colonialist movement for control of Palestine.

British imperialism found in Zionism a perfect tool for attaining its own interests in the Arab East, which was strategically and economically important for the empire. Likewise, Zionism used British colonialist aspirations to gain international backing and economic resources for its project of establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine.

This alliance of British imperialism and Zionism resulted in the birth of what is known in history books as the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917). It is a conspicuous example of the British policy of seizing another nation's land and resources and effacing its identity. It is a policy based on aggression, expansion and repression of a native people's aspirations for national liberation.

For the Palestinians, the year 1917 was the first of many — 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936, 1948, 1967, 1987, 2002 — marked by tragedy, war, disaster, killing, destruction, homelessness and catastrophe.

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On the 1948 War

Israeli Perspective

The War of Independence

The violent confrontations between Jews and Arabs in the land of Israel started in the early 1920s. For the most part, the Jews defended themselves against attacks by the Arabs. The Hagana was responsible for defense of the Jewish community, and sometimes British armed forces intervened to end the violence.

The Hagana was established in 1920 primarily as a regional organization; in each settlement its members were responsible for its own defense. Every Jewish resident of the land of Israel was eligible to join, the main condition being the person's ability to keep the organization's activities secret. At first the Hagana's limited mobility hindered its capability to carry out attacks. After the 1921 uprisings the Hagana expanded by drafting new members, conducting courses for commanders and accelerating weapons' acquisition. Armaments were purchased abroad or manufactured in factories located primarily in kibbutzim. The Hagana was under the authority of the elected governing institutions of the yishuv (Jewish community in the land of Israel.)

In 1936 there was an Arab uprising which called for liberation from British rule. They attacked British forces and Jews as well. In the course of the revolt the British recommended a solution: To divide the land into two states — Arab and Jewish (the Peel Commission Report). The Arab leadership rejected the proposal of partition. The yishuv leadership accepted the principle of partition but opposed the borders suggested by the commission.

At the end of World War II, in spite of revelations about the scope of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe and the murder of millions of Jews, Britain refused to permit the establishment of a Jewish state. In postwar Europe there were over 100,000 Jewish refugees who could not return to their homes, but the British refused to allow them to immigrate to the land of Israel. The yishuv fought the decision. Britain, whose resources had been drained by the war, turned the issue of the land of Israel over to the United Nations; the organization appointed a special committee which once more recommended partition as a solution to the problem.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly, by a large majority, approved the resolution calling for two independent states to be established alongside each other in the land of Israel (Resolution 181). Members of the Jewish community danced in the streets to celebrate but shortly afterward Palestinian Arabs and volunteers from Arab countries that rejected the partition plan attacked, and the war began.

The Civil War: December 1947-May 1948 The war that began on November 29, 1947 is known as the War of Independence because it resulted in independence for the Jewish community in the land of Israel, in spite of the fact that at the beginning local Arabs, and then armies from Arab countries tried to prevent it.

Local Arab troops and volunteers attacked isolated Jewish communities, Jews in cities with mixed populations and the roads. They also employed terror tactics — all Jewish people, settlements and property were considered to be legitimate targets. The most serious terror attacks were against the Haifa oil refineries, where 39 Jews were murdered in December 1947.

At the time Hagana tactics were primarily defensive or focused on specific objectives. Because of Arab attacks, various areas of the yishuv were cut off from the center and became isolated. The Hagana tried to supply besieged areas by means of clandestine convoys. These convoys became the foci of armed confrontations between Jews and Arabs, but in spite of everything, no Jewish settlement was abandoned.

Dozens of fighters were killed in attempts to relieve isolated communities. The main efforts were dedicated to bringing supplies to the besieged city of Jerusalem, and this resulted in many victims. In memory of these martyrs, Haim Gouri wrote the poem Bab El-Wad which is the Arabic name for Sha'ar Ha-Gai [gate to the valley] —; a strategic point where convoys began the climb from the coastal plains to the hills of Jerusalem.

Palestinian Perspective

The Catastrophe [An-Nakbeh] 1948

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which calls for the partition of Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish. This was the start of the countdown for the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948 and the 1948 Catastrophe, which uprooted and dispersed the Palestinian people.

The Catastrophe was: 1) the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948 Palestine War; 2) their acceptance of the truce; 3) the displacement of most of the Palestinian people from their cities and villages; and 4) the emergence of the refugee problem and the Palestinian Diaspora.

First and foremost, Britain bears responsibility for the defeat of the Palestinian Arab people in 1948. It received the mandate for Palestine from the League of Nations in 1917, and from the beginning of its occupation of Palestine until it relinquished the territory on May 15, 1948, Britain did all it could to suppress the Palestinian people and to arrest and deport their leaders. The British did not allow Palestinians to exercise their right to defend themselves and their land against the Zionist movement. It suppressed the popular uprisings (intifadas) which followed one after another beginning in 1920 (including those of 1921, 1929, 1930, 1935 and 1936). The rulers considered all forms of Palestinian resistance to be illegal acts of terrorism, extremism and fanaticism, and issued unjust laws against every Palestinian who carried arms or ammunition. Punishments included: "Six years in prison for possessing a revolver, twelve years for a grenade, five years of hard labor for possessing twelve bullets and eighteen months for giving false information to a group of soldiers asking for directions."

However, Britain did allow Zionist immigration to Palestine, which led to an economic crisis because of the increasing number of Jews in the land. Britain permitted the Zionist movement to form military forces, such as the Haganah and Etzel and others. Members carried out bombings in Jerusalem, fired on British soldiers and smuggled arms, immigrants, and more.

But that wasn't the end of the story. The British allowed the Zionist movement to have its own armed brigade attached to the British Army. It took part in battles of World War II, thereby acquiring training and experience in the techniques of war. In 1939 ten detachments of Zionist settlement police were formed, each led by a British officer — altogether 14,411 men. There were 700 policemen in Tel Aviv and 100 in Haifa, all of whom were members of the Haganah. By 1948 most Jews over the age of 14 had already undergone military training. For these reasons they were militarily superior to the Palestinians during the '48 war.

In 1946 one British commander in Palestine told an American journalist that: "If we withdraw British forces, the Haganah will control all of Palestine tomorrow." The journalist asked him if the Haganah could maintain its control of Palestine under such circumstances. He replied: "Certainly, they could do so even if they had to confront the entire Arab world."

Before the war broke out and just before they withdrew, the British either turned a blind eye, or actually conspired with the Zionists who seized British arms and equipment. This strengthened the Zionist movement's superiority over the Palestinians.

It is worth mentioning that when Britain relinquished its Palestinian Mandate to the UN, it was a very influential member of the international organization. The partition resolution 181 was a revival of the partition plan proposed by Britain in the aftermath of the 1936 Revolution.

After Britain, the Arabs and their leaders had the lion's share of responsibility for the defeat. Their war was like a heroic drama, whose hero was a British military officer — Glubb Pasha — who commanded the Transjordanian Arab troops in the war. The Arab armies did not take up their roles in the theater of war until the strength of the Palestinian people was virtually exhausted.

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On the 1987 Palestinian Intifada

Israeli Perspective

From the Six-Day War to the First Intifada

The Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967 and ended six days later on June 10.

During the month preceding the war Egypt stationed armored units and troops in the Sinai Desert (in violation of agreements), signed a mutual defense pact with Syria, Jordan and Iraq, while Egyptian President, Jamal Abdul Nasser delivered inciting speeches about going to war with Israel to destroy the Zionist state.

In Israel there was a considerable amount of consternation; the government and the public felt this was an existential threat to the country's existence, unmatched since the War of Independence.

With no other choice and in order to prevent being trapped, Israel delivered a preemptive blow which came as a surprise to the enemies. In some three hours the Israeli Air Force destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, thus enabling its ground forces to move freely. Israel achieved a brilliant victory which changed the history of the land of Israel.

It lifted the spirits of the Israelis, and there was a feeling of euphoria; some saw the victory as a Messianic religious experience.

Palestinian Perspective

Intifada 1987

In 1967 there was a war And the whole land of Palestine was occupied. Tragedy drenched the land. In every house there was a sad old man; In every village, poverty; And in every refugee camp, an orphaned child. They thought the problem had ended, and they were rid of us forever; They thought that after the agony we would lose our patience and perseverance, But we told them again and again: We reject Camp David; it is rejected. Camp David, and those who created it — rejected. We reject autonomy — it's a failure, it's resented. We reject elections — they invalidate our rights, replace our rulers and splinter us into factions. We have only one demand: An eternal state with independence forever! Sameeha Khalil

Causes for the outbreak of the Intifada, which erupted on December 9, are rooted in 40 years of national deprivation, 20 years of Israeli occupation and policies whose aim was to erase the reality, national identity and the very existence of the Palestinian people on its land. The result was a national, popular uprising — the Intifada — which didn't grow out of a vacuum, but was simmering just under the surface until the historical moment sparked the explosion. Anyone who really looked could see it coming.

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is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and executive director of the Salaam Institute for Peace & Justice.

is an associate professor in the faculty of Education at Bethlehem University.