(April 25, 2019 / JNS) Anticipation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s touted “peace plan” for Israel and Palestinians warrants reflection about their respective claims to the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, where his “two-state” solution will be focused.
Modern conceptions of Palestine began to appear in Western consciousness in the mid-19th century, when Scottish artist David Roberts followed the trail of ancient Israelites from Egypt through the Sinai wilderness to their promised land. His lithographs, gathered in The Holy Land (1842), offered romantic glimpses of the Jewish homeland, sprinkled with ancient artifacts and exotic inhabitants.
One year later, another Scotsman, Rev. Alexander Keith, authored The Land of Israel after a visit that persuaded him that Jews must return to their homeland. Jews, he memorably wrote, “are a people without a country, even as their own land … [is] a country without a people.” Slightly altered by a reviewer, it became the iconic phrase: “A land without a people and a people without a land.” He dismissively referred to “those few” Arabs who “have but a slight hold on the land that is not theirs.”
By the end of the 19th century, Zionist land development had begun to attract Arabs from neighboring countries—Syria, Iraq, Trans-Jordan and the Arabian Desert—who came to Palestine in search of a better life and eventually became “Palestinians.” There they merged with the local Arab population, which had no distinctive Palestinian identity. They identified with Greater Syria and the “Arab people.”
Testifying before the British Peel Commission, established in 1936 following months of violent Arab rioting, Syrian leader Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi indicated: “There is no such country as Palestine. … Our country was for centuries part of Syria. ‘Palestine’ is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it.” Shortly before the birth of the State of Israel, Arab historian Philip Hitti acknowledged: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.”
Columbia University historian (and adviser to the Palestinian Authority) Rashid Khalidi recognized that before World War I, “Palestine” had not yet emerged in Arab consciousness or self-definition. As late as 1964, when the PLO was founded, “the very idea of Palestine,” Khalidi acknowledged, appeared to be in “a terminal state.”
Nothing did more to fuel the idea of a Palestinian people with a distinctive identity than the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Why was it, wondered Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, “that on June 4, 1967, I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian. … We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews retuned to Jerusalem. Then all of a sudden we were Palestinians.”
With Jordanian rule over its West Bank—biblical Judea and Samaria—terminated by King Hussein’s aggression, local Arabs began to construct a Palestinian national identity on the foundation of Jewish history in a land never inhabited by a (previously non-existent) “Palestinian” people. PLO military commander Zuhair Mishin acknowledged: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation.” The vision of a Palestinian state, he conceded, was merely “a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”
How revealing (and ironic) that Palestinians should choose as their “homeland” the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. According to the biblical narrative, Shechem (now Nablus), is where Abraham built an altar and offered sacrifices to God. Joseph was buried there in land purchased by Jacob. Further south, in Hebron—the burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people—King David ruled before relocating his rule to Jerusalem to unite Judea and Samaria (now known as the West Bank) within his kingdom.
Fast-forward to the present. The obvious two-state solution would be for a Palestinian state east of the Jordan River, where a Hashemite minority rules over the Palestinian majority. West of the river (currently Jordan’s “West Bank”), biblical Judea and Samaria are home to 1.7 million Palestinians and 450,000 Jews, all of whom could remain where they are, and preserve their loyalty to their respective homelands and leaders.
President Trump and Jared Kushner should take notice.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” recently published by Academic Studies Press.