We must dispel lies that Israel stole Palestinian land

Immediately after the 1993 Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority's "cultural" organs started celebrating "Canaanite festivals." They were designed to underscore the Palestinian Authority's newly invented claim that Palestinian Arabs — whose ancestors conquered Palestine in the seventh century, about 2,000 years after the Jewish tribes settled the Holy Land — were actually descendants of the Canaanites, and therefore the land's "original" inhabitants, possessing a prior claim to it.

Innocently, Israelis dismissed these claims as yet another harmless Arab fantasy. But recently, widening Western circles subjected to Arab propaganda started questioning Israel's rights to the land, suggesting that it was stolen from the Arabs and should be returned to them. Israelis finally realized that this web of distortions and outright lies (like the insistence that the Temple Mount was never a Jewish place of worship) spun by the Palestinian Authority and its Western sympathizers was a serious challenge to Israel's legitimacy and right to exist.

The crass historical fabrications peddled by Arab propaganda also reaffirmed that the war waged by the Palestinian Authority against Israel is not only about territory or the Arab refugees' "right of return," but about the very moral justification for reviving Jewish independence in its ancestral homeland — namely about Israel's continued right to survive.

Israelis ignore this Arab challenge at their peril. While those who accept and propagate Arab lies, especially in the Western media, are not really innocent truth-seekers, there are many in the policy-formulating Western elite who are simply woefully ignorant of Middle Eastern history and realities. Regrettably, Israelis must go back to basics to defend their state's legitimacy.

The Arab argument, which many intellectuals find seductive in its simplicity, rests on two interrelated fabrications: that around 1900 the Jews, an alien European people, colonized an Arab land, and that in 1948 and again in 1967, Israelis aggressively occupied this land, driving its native population out. Justice therefore demands, Arab propagandists claim, that the land be restored to its original owners, and that the Jewish aggressors be punished and repulsed.

Yet the fact is that Arabs never owned significant parts of land in Palestine as private property, nor did they control it as a distinct national entity. Following the Jews' exile by the Romans and the destruction of Judea's elaborate agricultural infrastructure (which was further despoiled by repeated conquests, not least by the Arab one), much of the country became unsuitable for habitation. The Arab conquerors settled, farmed and established private property rights (mostly squatters' rights) over only a tiny percent of Palestine. The rest became desert or malaria-infested swamps.

After the Ottomans evicted the Arabs in 1517, the largely desolate country became the sultan's property. In 1919, the British mandatory government that undertook to build a Jewish national home inherited Turkish title to more than 95 percent of the land. A similar percentage of the land in Israel and the "West Bank" is still government owned.

During an 1867 visit to Palestine, Mark Twain observed: "Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery Palestine must be the prince. The hills barren and dull, the valleys unsightly deserts [inhabited by] swarms of beggars with ghastly sores and malformations. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…"

Jewish settlement, which made the country habitable, again, did not violate, by and large, any Arab individual property rights. Most Jewish land was acquired. Only tiny private areas were requisitioned, against compensation, for security and public needs.

As for national rights, they were offered under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which would have granted Arab sovereignty over parts of Palestine. However, those rights were forfeited when they rejected partition and launched a genocidal war against Israel, trying to destroy it with help from seven Arab armies.

After the war, the Palestinian Arabs never attempted to establish an independent state in their allotted territory. They cooperated with its unilateral annexation by Jordan, becoming part of its political system.

It was Jordan, then, not an imagined "Palestine," that lost the West Bank after attacking Israel. The claim that Israel occupied Palestinian lands is therefore totally baseless.

So is the claim that the Palestinians are waging a war of liberation designed to overthrow Israeli occupation. Since more than 90 percent of all Palestinian Arabs now live under the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction, they are not occupied any longer, though they do suffer severe restrictions as a result of the war they declared on Israel and their widespread use of terror.

In brief, the Palestinians are not fighting for the return of "Palestinian lands," private or national, but for the possession of lands that were Turkish or British in the past.

Facts do no impress Arab propagandists and their Western sympathizers. The BBC will continue undermining Israel and spouting Hanan Ashrawi's lies. But facts matter to the fair-minded. For their sake, and ours, we must keep repeating the truth and dispelling Arab lies.