Borders of the Holy Land: A brief study in theology and geo-politics


    Asif M Basit, Curator, Ahmadiyya Archive & Research Centre

    The borders of Israel – known as the “Promised Land” in Abrahamic religious traditions – have remained blurry and vague from when it was only a barren and unimportant Ottoman territory. It was not very long ago that what was then known as Palestine had turned into the apple of every Abrahamic religion’s eye – and political motives garbed therein – having remained neglected for centuries.  

    Explorer-cum-archaeologist, TE Lawerence (later to be known as Lawrence of Arabia) depicted the Jerusalem of the Ottoman days as a “dirty town”. Another renowned explorer, Karl Baedeker, portrayed it as such: “[…] little of it indeed is to be discovered in the narrow, crooked, ill-paved, and dirty streets…” (Palestine and Syria, Karl Baedeker, Dulau & Co, London, 1876) 

    As the Ottoman Empire started to crumble and its pieces began to fall into Russian and Austrian hands, its Sultan was struck with a sudden realisation that if certain policies were not reformed, their empire will eventually fall apart. It was this state of emergency that led to the founding of what they termed Tanzimat – a department for technological and industrial advancement. (A History of the Modern Middle East, WL Cleveland and P Martin, 6th edition, Routledge, 2016)  

    It was through the transportation and travel schemes of Tanzimat that Palestine became linked through roads to the rest of the Ottoman mainland. This enabled the affluent families of Jerusalem to invest in businesses while foreign traders too gained access to Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns. 

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    This happened at the high noon of colonialism when any and every promising region would attract the lustful glances of colonial powers. Its trade and industrial promise, paired with Palestinian entrepreneurs touring regions outside of Palestine, was destined to bring Jerusalem on the radar of foreign powers; and so it did in no time.  

    Although the Palestinian feudal circle continued to prosper, the economic state of peasants and the labour class faced a steady decline. Land – the guarantor of prosperity – turned into a precious commodity that left the working class ever more dependent of their feudal and industrial lords. (The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish land-settlement and the Arabs, Aryeh L Avneri, Transaction Publishers, 1982)  

    One of the factors behind the price of land soaring high in Palestine was the Jewish Europeans who had fled persecution in various countries of Europe and fled to settle in Jerusalem and its outskirts. The majority of such settlers had the financial backing of their European counterparts which enabled them to buy land and settle in Palestine. This calls for an understanding of the background. 

    Zionism and Jewish settlements in Palestine

    Zionism – founded in the latter decades of the 19th century – was an ideological movement to instil nationalistic sentiments into the hearts of Jews living in any part of the world. Before moving on, it is important to analyse the motive behind this movement. 

    As persecution against the Jews escalated in Europe, a sense of homelessness began to emerge in Jewish circles and it was this element of fear that was exploited to inculcate the desire for a Jewish homeland. (“Zionism Colonise Palestine”, in The Cambridge Survey of World Migration, Robin Cohen, Cambridge University Press, 1995) 

    Theodor Herzl – the founder of Zionism – had started off with what he termed “Political Zionism” but was later to take on socio-cultural strands at the hands of Ahad Ha’am – another important pioneering figure in the history of Zionism. Therefore, founded on political and cultural ethos, Zionism called for a Jewish state where Jews could profess their faith and live their lives according to it. It was through the political engineering of Ahad Ha’am that the ideological shift from a Jewish “homeland” to a Jewish “state” came about. (The Jewish State and Jewish Problem, Ahad Ha’am, tr. Leon Simon, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1912) 

    It is worthy of noting that Palestine was initially the first target of Zionist pursuit. They remained open to accept any piece of land that could serve as their homeland/state, with Uganda and Argentina being considered at one stage. 

    In 1903, British Secretary of State for Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, had offered Theodor Herzl a 5,000 square miles piece of land in Uganda. Herzl had brought this to the table of the Sixth Congress (held 1903) of World Zionist Organisation (WZO). A subcommittee was formed to consider the offer who, despite their inclination towards Palestine, travelled to Uganda to assess the feasibility; coming back to suggest that they did not see it as suitable. (In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, Adam Rovner, New York University, 2014) 

    The seventh congress of the WZO was held in 1905, by when Herzl had deceased. The congress declared all other proposals void and voted for only pursuing the acquisition of Palestine as the Jewish homeland. Plans to materialise the agreed proposal were drawn and were soon set in motion. A major article of the plan was to set up industries, sponsor trade and provide amenities in Palestine as a means to finally take over complete control. 

    The eighth congress (1907) saw a detailed debate on how the aforementioned plans could be materialised; agreeing that to penetrate into the industrial setup of Palestine, WZO ought to have a valid enough reason. It was agreed that to craft any such reason, the WZO should establish its branch in Palestine. 

    The ninth congress of WZO (Hamburg, 1909) considered exploiting the Young Turks movement to further weaken the petering strength of the Ottomans as a means to bring about the planned encroachment into Palestine.  

    The twelfth WZO Congress was held in 1921 and was the first congress to be held after the First World War. The Zionists had remained British allies through the war and, after the defeat of Germany, had won British sympathies. (History of Zionism: 1600-1918, Nahum Sokkolow, London, 1919)  

    This congress saw Zionist leaders speak vehemently in favour of Palestine being handed over to the British as their protectorate. Support from the WZO was openly offered to the British. (For details on WZO congresses:, under Zionist Congresses, by David Mendelsson) 

    However, the primary agenda of Zionists had always remained a separate homeland for the Jews and that this homeland had to be a territory that should remain fully under their control. This primary motive is conspicuously evident from the diaries of Theodor Herzl. (Details: The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, ed Raphael Patai, tr Harry Zohn, Herzl Press, London, 1960) 

    The British backing

    With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, Britain gained control of Palestine and got to be known as British Mandatory Palestine with Herbert Samuel being its first High Commissioner – later to be a key player in the Balfour Declaration. 

    To secure their alliance, Britain had made two pledges to its Middle Eastern allies: to establish a United Arab Emirate for Muslims of the region and a homeland for the Jews. 

    Post WWI geography left Britain with jurisdiction over the land west of the Jordan River (now Israel), West Bank and the Gaza Strip (now Palestine) and the land east of Jordan river (later to become Jordan). (League of Nations Official Journal, 1922, Vol 3)  

    By the end of the first decade of the British Mandate, 120,000 Jews had migrated to Palestine; by the end of the second, another 300,000. (Decoding the Conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Charles River Editors, 2011) 

    As discussed above, the price of land had soared to the level where it was no longer possible for the local common Arabs to maintain even smaller pieces of land, let alone purchase anymore. The Jewish settlers – arriving and thriving under British and Zionist patronage – set on a spree of purchasing land. In a very little amount of time, Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas were flying high in their newfound technological and agricultural boom. It was quite natural for the local Arab Muslims to see this as foreign encroachment into their lands. 

    The third decade of British mandate (1937-1947) witnessed mass Jewish migration to Palestine and by 1947, their population was estimated to be around 630,000; that of local Arabs being more than a million. 

    Arab-Jewish conflicts were snowballing at such a steady pace that the British could see the avalanche just around the corner. In a very cunningly calculated “good time”, the British decided to give up their mandate of Palestine and withdrew from a land they had torn apart – a typical British-colonial withdrawal. Not keeping their promise from the war days, the British left the Jewish state and the Arab “emirate” to decide their own fate and came back to the confines and safety of Westminster.  

    On 14 May 1948, just a day before the British withdrew, the leader of the Jewish settlers, David Ben-Gurion, announced the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. 

    The question of boundaries 

    The British mandate comprised, along with the aforementioned, the piece of land that lay east of the Jordan River. With intervention of the League of Nations, the Transjordan Memorandum of 1922 declared this land out of the British mandate. This made the River Jordan a natural boundary between Palestine and the subsequently founded Jordan. (League of Nations Journal, 1922, Vol 3) 

    Boundaries and borders have ever since remained a bone of contention for Israel and the Arabs of the Middle East. 

    On the very day that David Ben-Guirion announced the Jewish state, there broke out a war between the Jewish settlers and local Arabs. Such conflicts soon turned into routine – conflicts and truces taking their turns in succession. However, the 1967 Jewish-Arab war saw Israel’s invasion into Egypt and their conquest of Sinai. 

    It was not before 1979 that Egypt officially recognised Israel and signed the Israel-Egypt treaty that Israel withdrew its forces from Sinai. This withdrawal roughly set the boundaries of present-day Israel. 

    Biblical demarcation of Israel’s boundaries

    The outright rejection of Argentina and Uganda had not been without reason. Zionist eyes had always been set on Palestine and all that was needed to back this demand was a reason; valid enough to mobilise the masses through a sense of belonging. The persecution of Jews in Europe and Central Asia provided a sound basis to pull the Jewish masses together in their demand for a homeland.  

    As the fragmented Jewish communities did not belong to a single country, nationalism was as straightforward as is in the case of nation-states. It had to be injected through some other means. 

    This is where the Old Testament was drawn from the shelf and the words therein lay ready to get up and help. Highlighted before the Jewish masses were the chapters and verses where God had promised a land to Moses and his followers, i.e. the Israelites. 

    A brief look at the verses might help understand the theological grounds of the Zionist agenda. 

    The first mention of this Promised Land is found in Genesis where God assures Abraham and his people the land of Canaan. Not fulfilled in the time of Abraham, the promise kept his people’s hopes alive who had settled in Egypt with Jacob. The Old Testament goes on to tell the story of how these Israelites made their move from Egypt but that does not happen before the time of Moses when, as Exodus suggests, God commands him to lead the Israelites to Canaan, the Promised Land.  

    Moses is said to have died en route, but Joshua succeeds in taking the Israelites into the Promised Land of Canaan. A kingdom is established in the time of David and is in full bloom in the time of Solomon. 

    Therefore, the Promised Land, as suggested by the Bible, is the land of Canaan which is seen as their birth right by the Jews. Their reliance on the Old Testament to claim divine donation of the land calls for the geographical descriptions given therein. 

    In Genesis, chapter 12, God promises a piece of land to Abraham and tells him to migrate. No geographical location or boundaries are mentioned up until this commandment, but the following verses mention his migration towards Canaan. A famine struck the land and Abraham is seen retreating to Egypt.  

    Genesis 15:18 starts to assign this land a geographical location: 

    “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘I give this land to your offspring, from the Brook of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River…’” 

    Further down the line, Genesis records the same promise repeated for Isaac (26:2,3): 

    “The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 

    “‘Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham.’” 

    These verses define the southern boundary with Egypt. 

    Similar words continue to recur in chapters 25, 28 and 50 of Genesis. 

    In the Old Testament, God once again promises this land to Moses in Exodus: 

    “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 

    “And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.” (Genesis 6:7,8) 

    Leviticus 25:23 comes with terms and conditions laid out by God for Israelites to abide by as they take up the tenancy of the Promised Land: 

    “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” 

    The Book of Numbers elaborates on the geography in more detail: 

    “The Lord said to Moses, 

    “‘Command the Israelites and say to them: “When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance is to have these boundaries: 

    “Your southern side will include the Desert of Zin along the border of Edom. Your southern boundary will start in the east from the southern end of the Dead Sea, cross south of Scropion Pass, continue on to Zin and go south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it will go to Hazar Addar and over to Azmon, where it will turn, join the Wadi of Egypt and end at the Mediterranean Sea. 

    “‘Your western boundary will be the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This will be your boundary on the west. 

    “‘For your northern boundary, run a line from the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Hor and from Mount Hor to Lebo Hamath. Then the boundary will go to Zedad, continue to Ziphron and end at Hazar Enan. This will be your boundary on the north. 

    “‘For your eastern boundary, run a line from Hazar Enan to Shepham. The boundary will go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain and continue along the slopes east of the Sea of Galilee. Then the boundary will go down along the Jordan and end at the Dead Sea. 

    “‘This will be your land, with its boundaries on every side’.” (Numbers 34:1-12) 

    Similar details appear in Ezekiel 47:13-20. Deuteronomy gives this land away to be occupied in full (5:31, 6:9-11, 17:11), albeit made conditional with good deeds; the same in Leviticus.  


    The Israelites settled in the land but breached the condition laid by God on two occasions; the blessing was revoked on both occasions and resulted in eviction. The Holy Quran, revealed centuries after the Old Testament, records both the occasions. 

    The agenda of geographical expansion 

    Referring to the Bible in regard to Promised Land worked well to instil the desired nationalism in Jewish communities, but it turned out to be a double edged sword. While occupation of Palestine might have fulfilled the urgent need for a Jewish homeland/state, the Zionist appetite for growth and expansion outgrew the land wrapped from all sides in Biblical verses. 

    The Zionist idea of a “Greater Israel” had been around long before the establishment of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel, wrote a letter to his son in 1937 where he clearly stated that the land being awarded to the Jewish community in the British mandate was not sufficient. This meant, he stressed, that the Arabs would have to be driven out of the whole mandate. (Ben-Gurion records, held in Israel Defence Force Archives. Original in Hebrew, translated into English by Institute of Palestine Studies) 

    The Zionist leadership steered their agenda in the direction of full occupation of Palestine for more than six decades; Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, conceded in 2008 that the idea of a Greater Israel had become extinct and that anyone who still pursues it, is foolish. (Ha’aretz, 14 September 2008) 

    Some obsessions don’t fully go. The expansionist agenda of “Greater Israel” continues to reverberate in various shapes – through propaganda on some occasions, and heavy bombardment on others. To quote an example, Dennis Avi Lepkin has recently written a book titled Return to Mecca (2018) where he tries to make a point that the Biblical description of the Promised Land calls for the whole Arabian Peninsula to be drawn into its folds. 

    To arouse religious sentiment, he emphasises that the divine promise with the Israelites will not be fulfilled unless Mecca and Medina are occupied. This, he suggests, will not only lead to fulfilment of divine prophecy but will also result in Islam being crushed forever. 

    After the detailed discussion above, the fantasist theory of Lepkin needs no further attention. 

    The actual aim of Zionism

    Evident as it is from all historical facts, the Zionist agenda was the establishment of a Jewish state. Equally conspicuous is that theology was brought in to materialise dreams of political power more than anything. Now what to do with the theology that deters any further geographical expansion? 

    In the ambition to rule the world, Zionism now seems to be banging its head against the Biblical walls they erected out of choice. What is it that they see as their forward to spill their influence beyond the brim of a small territory?

    Whatever it is, the solution only lies in dialogue and not retaliating through violence against violence. Violence from either side is unacceptable. This is the advice that has always gone out from Khilafat-e-Ahmadiyya.

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