Are Palestinians the descendants of the original inhabitants (Canaanites) of the Land of Israel, as claimed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), or are they descendants of recent waves of immigration?
Arab migration within the Middle East — including to/from the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean — has been an intrinsic feature of the region for millennia. Illinois University Economics Prof. Fred Gottheil wrote (The Smoking Gun: Arab Immigration into Palestine, 1922-1931): “According to the International Labor Organization, Middle East migrant workers — moving within and beyond the Middle East — make up approximately 9% of the world’s total.”
According to the Geneva-based Global Commission on International Migration, “The world’s highest share of migrant population is to be found in the Middle East.”
The scope of Egyptian emigration is highlighted by the Washington, DC-based Migration Policy Institute: “More than 6 million Egyptian emigrants lived in the Middle East North Africa region as of 2016, primarily in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.”
This busy traffic of Arab migrants was also prevalent during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when Arab/Muslim emigrants — many of them from Egypt — pursued a better standard of living in various parts of the globe, including British-ruled Palestine.
According to Gottheil (ibid.), “Arab Palestinians were no less responsive than were Egyptians to the migratory impulse. According to 1998 UNRWA estimates, there were 275,000 Arab Palestinians in Saudi Arabia, 38,000 in Kuwait … 74,000 in Libya and over 100,000 in other Gulf countries. Hundreds of thousands left the Middle East entirely. … It would seem reasonable to suppose that for the same reasons Arab Palestinians and other Middle East populations migrated from the less to the more attractive economies at the end of the 20th century, they would have done the same during the early decades of the 20th century [and the 19th century].”
He argues that Arab migration to Israel was inspired by the rapid improvement of living standards there. “Arab migration flows were, in the main, illegal, and therefore unreported and unrecorded. … Commenting on the growth of the Palestinian population during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the Royal Institute for International Affairs reports: ‘The number of Arabs who have entered Palestine illegally from Syria and Transjordan is unknown, but probably considerable.’”
Hebrew University historian Dr. Rivka Shpak-Lissak, known for her wide and highly-diversified documentation of Arab/Muslim migration to Palestine (“When and how the Arabs and Muslims immigrated to the Land of Israel”, Hebrew, 2018) notes that the Land of Israel (named Palaistine by the Greek Empire and Palaestina by the Roman Empire, as derived from the Philistines, who migrated to the coastal plain of the Land of Israel from the Aegean Sea) was ruled by the Arabs only during 640-1099, when the overall population dwindled from 2.5 million to 500,000. The Arab rule was succeeded by the Crusaders, then the Ayyubid-Kurdish dynasty, the Mamluk Sultanate, the Ottoman Empire (beginning in 1516, when the population shrank to a mere 123,000), and the British Mandate.
Dr. Shpak-Lisak indicates that the substantial increase of the Arab/Muslim population of Palestine was initiated during the first half — and toward the end — of the 19th century. It was higher than the population growth rate in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Thus, there was an increase of 94% from the beginning of the 19th century (246,359) to 1914 (525,150).
This increase was largely due to waves of (mostly Egyptian) immigration to a sparsely populated and infrastructure-deprived Palestine, which were triggered by:
Significant economic growth (investment, banking, commerce), especially since 1900, compared to most Middle East and North African countries;
Enticement by the Ottoman Empire — which ruled Palestine during 1516-1918 — such as improved governance, infrastructure development, enhanced facilities at the port of Jaffa, and Ottoman military requirements (including the transfer of Egyptians to Palestine’s coastal plain, in order to restrain the Bedouin tribes and coalesce the Egyptian conquest of 1830-1840);
A considerable expansion of church activity.
According to Prof. Usiel Oskar Schmeltz, a leading demographer at the Hebrew University and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 53% of the Arab/Muslim population at the beginning of the 20th century were immigrants.
Bar Ilan University geographer Prof. David Grossman (“Rural Arab Demography and Early Jewish Settlement in Palestine”), determined that most of the population growth rate of Palestinian Arabs/Muslims was a derivative of immigration, rather than natural growth. Grossman estimated a 50% immigrant population among Palestinian Arabs/Muslims in 1914. He highlighted the Ottoman policy of encouraged immigration to Palestine.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica recorded that “the inhabitants of Palestine are composed of a large number of elements, differing widely in ethnological affinities, language and religion. … Early in the 20th century a list of no less than fifty languages, [were] spoken in Jerusalem as vernaculars.”
Contrary to Palestinian claims, and in accordance with a litany of documentation (courtesy of Prof. Shpak-Lissak), most of the Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are descendants of Arab/Muslim migrants, who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries from Muslim countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative.