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In Palestine, life before wars was progressive

In terms of education and housing, historical Palestine was better off than neighbouring countries

  • Zahida Duzdar (top row, fourth from left) provided a picture of a group of Jerusalemite girls before the 1948 Image Credit:
  • Schmidt’s Girls College in JerusalemImage Credit:
  • The facade of Schmidt's Girls College, located opposite the Damascus Gate, Israel.Image Credit:
  • Zahida Al DuzdarImage Credit:
Gulf News

Dubai: When Zahida Al Duzdar remembers her childhood with her extended family, in juxtaposed houses, in the eastern part of Jerusalem, her eyes well with tears.

“Those were very good days,” said Duzdar, whose family moved to Jordan after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and returned to occupied Jerusalem later.

“Among Jews of Palestine in 1940, there were 40 doctors per 10,000 people, compared to 2.4 among the Arab Palestinian population, 2.2 in Egypt, 1.7 in Iraq and 0.9 in Turkey. ”Tweet this

And when Labibah Al Hussaini remmebers the days when she was a young girl living with here family and uncles in one big house outside the Old City, she says proudly “people were educated and cultured”.

When prominent businessman Talal Abu Gazzaleh recollects his childhood days, he remembers how his father in Jaffa was an agent for many oil companies, and how his elder brother owned the first public transport company, operating buses between Jaffa and occupied Jerusalem.

Historical Palestine was more progressive than many other Arab countries.

In the northern cities, traders made brisk business due to the ports.

Good schools

In Jerusalem, which was the capital of the country, there were many good schools, both private and government, said Al Hussaini. She herself studied at the Schmidt’s Girls College, a German school in occupied East Jerusalem, before moving to Cairo to pursue her education due to growing tensions in 1947.

The facade of Schmidt's Girls College, located opposite the Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem. - Photo: Supplied

Some schools in Jerusalem had dorms, enabling many Palestinians from other cities to enrol. A famous one was the Bishop Gobat School, from which a number of Palestinian and Jordanian officials and diplomats graduated in the first half of the 20th century.

There was also talk and action to advance equality for women.

Schmidt’s Girls College in Jerusalem. - Photo: Suplied

Duzdar still remembers some activities of her distant aunt, Shahinda Duzdar, who is believed to be among the members of the Executive Committee of the ‘Arab Women’s Association’. The Association was founded in Jerusalem in 1929. One of its targets was “to work for the development of the social and economic affairs of Arab women in Palestine”, and to secure educational facilities for girls. The association was Jerusalem-dominated, researchers said, explaining that women from some of prominent families were members, such as Husseini, Khalidi, Nashashibi and Sakakini.

Air connections

Between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, Qalandia airport was opened in 1920.

On the outskirts of the town of Lydda (known today as Lod), a second airport was built in 1936. It was built for military purposes, according to reports, during the British Mandate of Palestine. The airport’s name was Wilhelma, which was changed to Lod and then to Ben Gurion after Israel’s first prime minister.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel captured and occupied the western part of Jerusalem, which it incorporated into the newly-established state. And during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel captured and occupied the eastern part of the city, which was then under Jordanian rule.

Today, the city is among the most sensitive issues between Palestinians and Israelis.

Researchers and historians have found that there was a wide gap between Jews and Arabs in the first half of the last century in terms of education and economic conditions due to several reasons, including the arrival of skilled Jewish immigrants from Europe.

Despite the gap, historians explain the Arabs in Palestine were in a better situation than many others.

For example, by the end of the British mandate, it is estimated that 77 per cent of the Jewish school-aged population (between 5 to 19) received schooling, compared to 44.5 per cent of school-aged Arab children.

Israeli economist Jocab Metzer noted that “Arab school enrolment though low, was not ‘too low’ compared with other countries in the same income range, including Egypt and Turkey; the Arabs of Palestine did rather well”.

Another indicator mentioned in Palestinian-American historian Rashid Al Khalidi’s ‘The Iron Cage’, was the ratios of doctors per 10,000 people. Among Jews of Palestine in 1940 it was 40 per 10,000, compared to 2.4 per 10,000 per the Arab Palestinian population. Yet, this figure was higher than the 2.2 in Egypt, 1.7 in Iraq and 0.9 in Turkey.

One important factor is that the British mandate kept records of the situation in Palestine, and this explains the “more extensive and detailed” information on the Palestinians compared to other Arab societies, Al Khalidi said.

A third indicator was the literacy rates of 25.1, 20.3 and 17.4 per cent among Muslim males over the age of seven in Palestine, Egypt and Turkey, respectively, during the middle of the British mandate period.

A fourth indicator was the number of newspapers and periodicals. Between the period starting with the First World War until the end of the British mandate, there were 200 newspapers and periodicals, compared to 123 in Damascus and Aleppo.

However, Palestinian society, in general, wassimilar in most respects to those in surrounding Arab countries. “It was dominated by a sizable landholding class, which was largely made up of traditional notable families that had held religious offices and served as intermediaries between the Ottoman authorities and the population,” writes Al Khalidi in his book.

The Palestinians who graduated from schools and colleges in Palestine found work in many other Arab countries, following the exodus after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Many worked as teachers in other Arab states. Many ministers in the early Jordanian governments were educated people from Palestine.

After their first exodus, the Palestinian refugees of 1948 “worked hard to improve themselves” said Al Hussaini. Some were martyred defending their country, some received education to defend Palestine politically, some others became prominent in other fields, such as education and business.

After having led a life of wealth and privilege in Jaffa, Abu Ghazaleh told Gulf News, he had to walk to school from his refugee camp in south Lebanon, all the while thinking of vengeance.

“I decided (during teenage) that my response to the enemy (Israel) should be through winning it over in a civilised manner. I decided I will take revenge by being better than him.”

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