Zachary Foster is a Jewish historian with a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He focuses primarily on Palestinian history.

His foundational dissertation, The Invention of Palestine, is essentially about how people identify with Palestine through its naming, storytelling, map-making, and distinguishing it from other places.

Contextualising all of this helps to illustrate a more detailed picture of what we see today.

Consider the following

In the mid-19th century, if you had showed a map of the Middle East to someone in Europe, the United States, or Russia, then they would have probably called it Palestine.

However, people living in areas like Jerusalem or Nazareth at that time didn’t refer to their land as ‘Palestine’. They identified more with their city or the Ottoman Empire.

Zachary notes that the term ‘Bilad al-Sham’ (which means ‘Greater Syria’) would have been used instead of ‘Palestine’.

The term ‘Palestine’ became popular in the region as Europeans, Americans, Russians, and Germans, who visited the Holy Land, especially around modern-day Israel, often referred to it as Palestine, influencing the local people.

In Arabic, the term ‘Palestine’ was known in the 19th century, but its use was limited, often used in scholarly contexts to describe the land in ancient times, kind of like how ‘Mesopotamia’ or ‘Phoenicia’ are used for modern-day Iraq and Lebanon.

The creation of Hamas

In our conversation, Zachary notes that the history of Hamas begins in the context of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

During this conflict, a large portion of the Arab population in Palestine became refugees, including future founders of Hamas. This displacement played a pretty big role in shaping the Palestinian identity (and anti-Israeli resistance), of which Hamas later became a key player.

Gaza, Palestine

Hamas, initially a charity organisation, gradually evolved into a militant group during the late 1980s, influenced by Israel’s policies and actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Israeli occupation, starting in 1967, involved denying Palestinians basic political rights and led to widespread resentment, accelerating the transformation of Hamas into an increasingly aggressive group.

Al-Manshiyya (Gaza), before the formation of Israel

In the early years, Hamas primarily targeted Israeli military installations, a strategy that gradually shifted to include attacks on Israeli civilians, which was partly in response to escalating violence from Israel.

Sadly, Hamas’s tactics during this period led to a massive increase in violence, contributing to the deterioration of the situation.

Israel and Palestine

Although it wasn’t covered in my conversation with Zachary, there is a parallel (and more subversive) component to the current iteration of Hamas, and that is the propping up of Hamas by the Israeli government as a way to thwart the PLO’s negotiations towards a two-state solution.

Politcal aftermath

The political landscape shifted dramatically when Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza.

This victory led to international backlash and the imposition of a blockade by Israel, severely affecting the lives of Gazans.

The blockade, deemed illegal under international law, resulted in:

  • high unemployment,
  • restricted access to essential services, and
  • a humanitarian crisis.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza does indeed violate international law, amounting to collective punishment in flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Independent UN panel, 2011

Which is when things worsened even more and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination became a lot more militant.

Which led to the ‘surprise attack‘ on 7 October 2023.

Here’s my conversation with Zachary.

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.

Mahatma Gandhi

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