For many centuries, Palestine was a sparsely populated, poorly cultivated, and widely neglected expanse of eroded hills, sandy deserts, and malarial marshes. This was Mark Twain’s description when he visited in 1867:
A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse.
A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.
We never saw a human being on the whole route.
There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country (Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (London, 1881).
As late as 1880, the American consul in Jerusalem reported the area was continuing its historic decline. “The population and wealth of Palestine has not increased during the last forty years,” he said (Melvin Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Bison Books: 1995 p. 29).
Take a look at some of the photos from the late 19th and early 20th century to see the desolation Twain talked about.
The Palestine Royal Commission report quotes an account of the Maritime Plain in 1913:
The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts.
No orange groves, orchards or vineyards were to be seen until one reached [the Jewish village of] Yabna [Yavne.
Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen.
The ploughs used were of wood.
The yields were very poor.
The sanitary conditions in the village were horrible. Schools did not exist.
The western part, towards the sea, was almost a desert.
The villages in this area were few and thinly populated.
Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants (Palestine Royal Commission Report, p. 233).
At the time Twain visited, the population of Palestine was less than 300,000. By 1918, it doubled to 660,000 but the percentage of Jews, about 8 percent, stayed the same (Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present, Ed. by Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Mass., 2008, pp. 571-572).
The British would later say during the Mandate period, when the population was just over one million (it reached about 1.8 million by the end), that the land was reaching its absorptive capacity and; therefore, Jewish immigration should be restricted. Consider that “Palestine” – which included what is now Israel, the West Bank and Jordan – has a population today of more than 20 million.