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Historic Palestine is located in the Middle East, in a region bordering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. Muslims, Christians, and Jews had lived alongside one another for centuries under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. There were growing calls for Palestinian independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from a population which in 1914 was 84% Muslim, 11% Christian, and 6% Jewish.

During the First World War, Britain pledged to support the “complete and final liberation” of the Arab peoples under Ottoman rule, in exchange for their participation in the war and revolt against the Ottomans. In fact, Britain and France had secretly agreed to divide the Ottoman territories of the Middle East between themselves. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, one of the major secret agreements during the war, secured British control of Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, and the Trucial states of the Arab Gulf; while France received Syria, Lebanon, and Turkish Cilicia.

Then, in 1917, during the partitioning of the Ottoman empire, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised to help facilitate the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Britain occupied Palestine in 1917 and remained until 1948.

In 1947, Britain approached the newly founded and then Western-dominated UN to determine Palestine’s future. Despite the Jewish people only making up a third of the population, the UN recommended creating a Jewish state on 56% of the land. The Palestinians refused to accept the partition of their homeland, yet in 1948 Israel was established unilaterally. By 1949, the Nakba (“catastrophe”) had resulted in the ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of the Palestinian population, with Israel ruling over 78% of the land.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under illegal Israeli military rule since they were occupied in the 1967 war, and today are referred to as the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”. East Jerusalem was also annexed illegally by Israel in 1967. For over 60 years the Palestinians have been denied the right to self-determination and statehood.

The refugee issue

About 750,000 Palestinians were forced into exile in 1948–49, and during the June 1967 war a further 325,000 Palestinians became refugees. Under UN Resolution 194, the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes, but Israel has always refused to implement the Resolution. Today over 6 million Palestinians live as refugees, with hundreds of thousands of them still living in overcrowded refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Life under occupation

Today there are more than 250 illegal Israeli settlements, housing over 700,000 settlers, within the Occupied Territories. The separation wall in the West Bank, construction of which began in 2002, cuts deep into Palestinian land and, along with the “settler only” roads, cuts off many communities from water supplies, hospitals, and their agricultural lands. The residents face severe travel restrictions and for many it is impossible to enter Jerusalem or to travel abroad. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories, including practices of land expropriation, unlawful killings, forced displacement, restrictions on movement, and denial of citizenship rights, is recognised as amounting to the crime of apartheid by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, among others.

Palestinians are continually under attack from the Israeli occupying forces and are increasingly harassed by settlers, who attack farmers and steal their land. Collective punishments, such as prolonged curfews and house demolitions are frequently imposed.

The Palestinians who remained in what is today the state of Israel, as non-Jewish members of a Jewish country, also face discrimination in all areas of Palestine and are considered to be second class citizens.

Further information

For more information on the historical background and the situation today, go to PSC’s factsheets