Sultan Abdulhamid, Theodor Herzl and Palestine

“I do not wish to sell even a tiny portion of land, because this country does not belong to me. It belongs to my people. My nation has watered this fatherland with its blood … The men of my Syrian and Palestinian contingents have all become martyrs at Plevna. All of them, without exception, have remained on the battlefield and did not return. I do not wish to give up any part of the Ottoman state. Let the Jews keep their millions … I cannot allow surgery on a living body.”

Palestine became part of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1517 and it remained under the Caliphate until its occupation by British forces under General Allenby during the First World War. Zionism began its resurgence in Europe in the 1880’s, and reached its zenith in 1948 with the expulsion of over three million Muslims of Palestine and the establishment there, on 15 May of that year, of a Jewish administration.

Zionists claimed that the oppression which the Jews suffered in many Christian states of Europe would be terminated if they were allowed to settle in Palestine, which they referred to as ‘the promised land’. They thus created an artificial Palestinian question and made great efforts to solve it in their favour by exerting whatever pressure they could on the Great Powers in order to compel them to intervene on their behalf.

The well-documented work (in Turkish) of Dr. Mim Kemal Oke, entitled Siyonizm ve Filistin Sorunu, 1880-1914 (Zionism and the Palestinian Question, 1880-1914) sheds much light on the subject from Ottoman archives, in addition to the other original source material preserved in the Public Record Office in London.

The explosion of the Palestinian question on the political scene of the world in the late nineteenth century gave much anxiety to the Ottoman governments. Under the Ottomans, Palestine, which they called Arz-i Filistin, was divided in three administrative areas (sanjaks), called Acre, Nablus and Jerusalem. In 1887, Jerusalem was converted into an independent sub-province (mutasarriflik), administered directly from Istanbul. A year later, the Province of Beirut was established, which included within its boundaries the two administrative areas of Northern Palestine, namely Nablus and Acre.

Thus, between 1888 and 1914 Palestine comprised two administrative areas – the governor-general (vali) of Beirut being responsible for Northern Palestine and the governor (mutasarrif) of Jerusalem being responsible for the southern part. The administrative area of Acre was sub-divided into five districts, namely the Central District of Acre, Haifa, Tiberias, Safed and Nasura, each under an administrative officer  (kaymakan). The administrative area of Nablus consisted of four districts, including the central district, Jenin, Ben-i Saab and Jema. The sub-province of Jerusalem was divided into the central area (with 127 villages), Jaffa (with 58 villages), Gaza (with 91 villages), and Halil-el-Rahman (with 52 villages)…

In the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Caliphate was going through a period of decline. The main aim of the Ottoman statesmen was therefore directed towards the preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of the state. Zionism had now introduced a new destabilising factor.

The majority of the people living in Palestine were Muslim Arabs. In 1880, before the surfacing of the Zionist movement, there were 457,592 Arabs in the Jerusalem sub-province alone as against 25,000 Jews. Adding to this the population of other areas, one could easily arrive at a total of about 75,000 Jews as against 1,370,000.

Obviously, the colonisation movement begun in Palestine by the Zionists worried the Arabs lest the population balance tilted against them. Arab nationalism showed its reaction to this, from time to time, not only against the Jews but also against the Ottomans, accusing the latter of leniency in letting the Jews into the country…

Some Arab writers even advanced the theory that the Ottomans, in order to save their state from disintegration as a result of Arab nationalist movements of secession, allowed the Jews to settle in Palestine as a counterpoise, hoping thereby to play the Jews against the Arabs, and thus to prevent the loss of their Arab provinces. Ottoman documents from Turkish archives, however, belie this theory, as the following events indicate.

Between 1896 and 1902 the Zionist leader, Dr. Theodor Herzl visited Istanbul five times in order to persuade the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to allow the Jews to settle in Palestine. His first visit took place in June 1896. Having heard that the Polish nobleman, Count Philip de Newlinski, was one of the European spies of Abdulhamid, Herzl won him over to the Zionist cause, and persuaded him to act as a mediator between himself and the Ottoman leaders. Together they travelled to Istanbul, and Newlinski sent an appeal to the Sultan in the name of the Zionists, telling him that Herzl was ready to pay the Ottoman government 20 million pounds sterling in return for Palestine, and insisting that this would contribute immensely to the salvation of the Caliphate…

While Newlinski was having talks with the Sultan, Herzl, through the auspices of this Polish nobleman, was having a meeting with Halil Rifat Pasha, the Grand Vizier, to whom he unravelled his plan; but the Grand Vizier was unwilling to accept it. The Sultan, on the other hand, sent the following message to Herzl through Newlinski:

“If Mr. Herzl is your friend, as you are my friend, tell him not to take a further step in this matter. I do not wish to sell even a tiny portion of land, because this country does not belong to me. It belongs to my people. My nation has watered this fatherland with its blood … The men of my Syrian and Palestinian contingents have all become martyrs at Plevna. All of them, without exception, have remained on the battlefield and did not return. I do not wish to give up any part of the Ottoman state. Let the Jews keep their millions … I cannot allow surgery on a living body.”


The Sultan was not against Jewish immigration and settlement in the Ottoman territories, but not in Palestine. His feelings were reflected by Ali Ferruh Bey, the Ottoman ambassador in Washington, who stated in an American paper on 24 April 1899:

“Our Government has no desire to sell any of our Arab territories. We can never go back on  our determination even if they fill our pockets with millions of gold pieces.”

Some of the Ottoman statesmen were aware that Jewish colonisation of Palestine would be the first step towards the establishment of  a Jewish state in the area. For example Tewfik Pasha, the Ottoman ambassador in Berlin, who had met Herzl and had  followed all the Zionist congresses, reported to Istanbul that the main aim of Herzl was to establish an independent Jewish state. The Jews would not be satisfied only with Palestine, and would spread to the neighbouring countries (Tewfik’s despatch of 17.8.1900). The Ottomans believed that Palestine was too small to include all the Jews of the world who amounted to about 8 million souls, and that they would use Palestine as a spring-board. The fact that Herzl was negotiating with them over Palestine, and at the same time with the British over the island of Cyprus and the Sinai, showed that the Jews intended ultimately to set up a Jewish Empire. This led Abdulhamid to declare:

“The leader of the Zionists, Herzl, cannot convince me with his ideas. The Zionists wish to set up a government and to elect their political representatives in Palestine, and not to carry on with agriculture. I am aware of their greedy ambitions, and they are naive to think that I shall accept them. I am completely opposed to their schemes in Palestine.”

He therefore ordered that Zionist immigration into Palestine should be banned. ‘Besides’, he declared, ‘we do not want to sign the death warrant of our co-religionists by allowing the Jews to settle in Palestine’.

[Excerpted from ‘Palestine: Politics of Poverty and Dependence’, Professor S R Sonyel, Impact International, Vol. 15:20, 25 October 1985 (10 Safar 1405), pp. 10-11]

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