History shines light on the true borders of Palestine

Israeli aims to control from the Jordan River to the sea rely on a self-serving misinterpretation of the lands that could be described as Palestine,writer Lorenzo Kamel.

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“Israel opposes the establishment of an additional Palestinian state in the Gaza district and in the area between Israel and Jordan.” These words were included in the “peace initiative” presented in May 1989 by Israel’s Labour-Likud national unity government. Twenty-five years later, the “Jordan option” is back and being increasingly mentioned in the media.

Whenever there is a concrete effort to push forward the peace process, talk about “a substitute homeland” for the Palestinians re-emerges. Most of those supporting this scheme claim that well before the partition suggested by the UN General Assembly in 1947, the Zionist movement suffered a mutilation of territory following the unilateral British decision in 1922 to separate Transjordan from the rest of the land subject to the Mandate for Palestine. They argued that the Palestinians already had a sovereign state – Jordan – and that, therefore, Israel, even by incorporating today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, would comprise only 22 per cent of the whole “historic Palestine”.

These claims are problematic. The Mandate for Palestine had direct, complete and explicit jurisdiction over the area that, in 1922, became the Emirate of Transjordan for eight months: from July 1920, when King Faisal was thrown out of Damascus, to March 12, 1921, the day of the Conference of Cairo which, in Winston Churchill’s words, sanctioned “the policy to be adopted with regard to Trans Jordania”.

It was a “partially legal” time lapse even from the juridical perspective imposed by European powers, given that the Mandate for Palestine was formally assigned to London by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, becoming operative in September 1923. Transjordan was thus part of the Mandate for Palestine with the proviso that Britain might administer it separately and for a period which at best may be considered scarcely relevant.

Transjordan, unlike Palestine, was never occupied by British troops and during the mandatory period there was no “overlapping”, either at a legal or practical level, between the two areas. A citizen of Transjordan was required to ask for official permission before being admitted to Palestine.

However, to better understand why the “Jordan is Palestine” thesis is based on wrong assumptions it is necessary to go back further.

A memorandum written in January 24, 1919 by William Ormsby-Gore, British under-secretary of state for the colonies from 1922, pointed out that “the historic Palestine from Dan to Bersheba comprises Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, and consists of a strip of land lying between the Mediterrean and the Jordan river”. In a meeting 10 months later, British prime minister Lloyd George resorted to Adam Smith’s The Historical Geography of the Holy Land and relied on the advice of a Protestant missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Some influential Zionists, including Nahum Sokolow, said that the eastern border of “Erets-Yisra’el” was represented by the Jordan river. Many others claimed a much vaster area. Their positions were justified through arguments linked to security and economic aspects, despite the fact that, as noted by Arnold Toynbee in 1918, “Jordan forms a good natural frontier. Nor are there any Jewish agricultural colonies east of the river”.

The Ottoman authorities used in their official correspondence the expression “Arz-i Filistin ve Suriye”, meaning the area to the west of the Jordan. For its large Muslim majority, “Filastan” was a land even easier to circumscribe. Many classical Islamic sources identified it as “Al Ard al Muqaddasa” (the Holy Land).

The awareness that Palestine was distinct from Syria and Lebanon is said to have always been present in the Arab and Muslim consciousness.

The 10th century Persian geographer Al Istakhri noted that Palestine stretched “from Rafh (Rafah) to the edge of Al Lajjûn” and “from Yâfâ (Jaffa) to Rîhâ (Jericho)”.

Zionism certainly accelerated the general development of the region and the process of self-identification of the local majority, but never did the land beyond the Jordan have a religious, social or cultural value comparable to the land between the river and the Mediterranean Sea.

It is correct to claim that the boundaries of the states in the Eastern Mediterranean area are often “alien” to the region’s history. It is also accurate to note that the river’s course began to be exploited by local nationalists in the period following the First World War. It is, however, misleading to equate the Jordan river to the artificial borders drawn immediately after that war. The river represented an important factor for a general geographical “distinction” – which does not mean a political border – between Palestine and Jordan: “The Jordan,” noted Professor Henry van Dyke (1852-1933) “is not a little river to be loved; it is a barrier to be passed over.”

Should it be necessary to indicate the “less contrived” or “less colonial” border in the region, that of the Jordan river appears to be the most appropriate. Transjordan was certainly an artificial creation implemented by London to strengthen its own imperial strategies. It cannot be imposed on the Arab Palestinians as a valid surrogate to that which in their eyes was the only possible “natural home”: “‘Ard Filastin”, or, as Islamic lawyer Khayr al-Din al-Ramli (1585-1671) defined it, “Filastin biladuna” (“Palestine our homeland”).

Dr Lorenzo Kamel is an historian at Bologna University and a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for ­Middle Eastern Studies