Palestinian nationhood? What does that mean?

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was absolutely right when he said that the Palestinian people was invented less than a century ago.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 21, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 21, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich entered good company when he recently shoved a historical truth in the face of the Palestinians—”There’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.

In his book “A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era,” Assaf Voll begins by quoting Seinfeld‘s George Costanza: “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.” The rest of the book is blank.

Voll might have opted for a gimmick, but Israel’s late prime minister Golda Meir made the same basic point, as did Newt Gingrich, a former Republican politician and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Gingrich referred to the Palestinians as “an invented people who want to destroy Israel,” and “Arabs who migrated to Israel during the Ottoman Empire period.”

When U.S. President Barack Obama disagreed with him, Gingrich scoffed, describing Obama’s administration as “so out of touch with reality that it would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion was a bunny rabbit.”

Even Arab and Palestinian leaders have been known to let slip the truth. Perhaps the most outstanding example is that of Zuheir Mohsen, one of the leaders of the as-Sa’iqa faction of the PLO, who explained to the Dutch newspaper Trouw back in 1977 that “The Palestinian people do not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the State of Israel for our Arab unity…. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.”

Smotrich was absolutely right when he said that “the Palestinian people is an invention less than one hundred years old,” and that if anyone was genuinely entitled to the title “Palestinian,” then it would be people such as his grandfather, a 13th-generation resident of Jerusalem. The “Palestinian people” migrated here en masse in the late 19th century and throughout the years of the British Mandate, and had no idea at the time that they were either Palestinians or a people.

From Egypt to MasterChef

At the time, not a single one of them claimed, as did the late Palestinian politician Saeb Erekat, who lived in Jericho together with his family, to belong to a people that inhabited the land 3,000 years before the Israelites entered it under the leadership of Joshua. None regarded themselves as the descendants of the Jebusites or the Philistines. Many of the “Palestinian” migrants recognized the Jewish history surrounding the Land of Israel, and the Jewish birthright to the land. At that time, Jesus was not a Palestinian preaching Islam, as their current counterparts’ nonsensical claims would have us believe, and they never even contemplated making claims to be the original natives of this land.

How do we know this? It’s simple. They themselves talk about this on a thousand and one random and sometimes less random occasions. Take for example Salma Fiomi, a resident of the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qassem, who demonstrated her culinary skills on the popular TV cooking show “MasterChef.” On the show, Fiomi proudly presented her version of koshari—a popular Egyptian dish of rice and lentils. “My family,” she explained, “came from Egypt, from Al-Fayoum, and I, Salma Fiomi, come from Al-Fayoum.”

Another prime example that doesn’t really leave much room for interpretation comes from Fathi Hamad, the former Hamas interior minister, who urged Egypt to provide assistance during the Israeli military’s “Operation Returning Echo” in the Gaza Strip in March 2012.

“When we call for your help,” he explained, “It is with the aim of continuing the jihad. Praise Allah—all of us have Arab roots, and every Palestinian in the Gaza Strip and throughout Palestine is able to prove his Arab roots, whether from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or anywhere else. We have blood ties…Personally, half of my family is from Egypt. Where is your mercy? More than 30 families in the Gaza Strip are called Al-Masri. Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians, and the other half are Saudis.”

Dozens of books and records left behind by visitors to the Land of Israel clearly illustrate that at the turn of the last century, it was desolate and empty, and that the “Palestinian people” migrated here only following the renewal of Jewish settlement in Israel as part of the modern Return to Zion in the 19th century.

For example, there is the famous research of Israel’s former president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi on the Ottoman period. American journalist Joan Peters, in her book “From Time Immemorial,” estimated that at the beginning of the First Aliyah in 1882, there were some 141,000 non-Jews living in the Land of Israel. The works of the Hebrew University’s professor Moshe Ma’oz also support this view, underscoring the fact that for centuries the number of Arabs living here in Israel never exceeded 100,000.

Ze’ev Galili’s research further develops this approach, as he arrived at the following, logical conclusion: If towards the end of the 19th century there were about 100,000 Arabs living in Israel, this means that in the seventy years that elapsed from that point to 1948, the Arab population increased by a factor of 12, and the only way to explain such an increase is that it was the result of mass immigration from neighboring states.

Nations that must invent

Anthony Smith, the renowned sociologist and professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics, once distinguished between two types of national identity. The first type includes nations with a core identity based on culture and history, and the second, nations without such a nucleus, that are required to invent everything from nothing.

We belong to the first type, while the Palestinians belong to the second. It is as simple as that. That’s essentially what Smotrich said—and he’s right. The Al-Masri clan migrated here from Egypt, the Al-Mughrabi clan from Algeria, Al-Turki from Turkey, Al-Iraqi from Iraq and the Al-Ajami clan from Iran. The Kna’an family in Nablus does not hail from the historical Land of Canaan but rather from Aleppo in Syria. As the renowned researcher Pinhas Inbari has suggested, the Erekat family of Jericho originates from the large Al-Huwaytat tribe that moved from Medina and then settled in Jordan, as well as in Abu-Dis and in Jericho.

Thus, it is clear that they all came from the immediate “neighborhood.”

The term “Palestinian people,” in relation to the Arabs living in Israel, appeared for the first time in 1964, in the PLO Charter. The outrageous UNRWA definition, according to which  an individual and all their descendants may be defined as “Palestinian refugees” if they have lived in Israel for just two years, does not turn the Palestinians into a people.

The Palestinians have neither a unique religion nor language, and no common ethnic background, history or shared homeland. If you take the trouble to examine UNESCO’s long-winded, multi-clause definition of peoplehood, you will also discover that the Palestinians do not meet the majority of the criteria.

“The Palestinian people” was created especially for us, following the Shivat Zion (“Return to Zion”) movement and the subsequent renewed Jewish settlement in Israel, in an attempt to wipe us off the map, along with our unbroken, millennia-long bond with this land. In stark contrast with the fake roots the Palestinians have tried to put down, ours are manifestly documented in the chronicles of history, in the Bible, undeniably etched in archeology and research. We have no need for inventions and historical forgeries.

As the 19th-century British statesman and social reformer Lord Shaftesbury so aptly put it 180 years ago, we returned as a “people without a land to a land without a people.”

Nadav Shragai is an author and journalist.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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