The Palestinian people: A 20th Century creation

Eric Rozenman
Eric Rozenman

“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.” – Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, in a television interview with the Jewish Channel, posted online Dec. 9, 2011

Republican rivals, Democratic Party spokesmen, former American diplomats, and Palestinian officials all criticized Gingrich. But regardless of the former House speaker’s views on other matters, Palestinian Arab nationalism is, if not a 20th century invention, certainly a post-1920 political creation.

One need not take Gingrich’s word on this. Palestinian spokesmen have made it clear.

“We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographic bonds.” So declared the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations, meeting in Jerusalem in 1919 to select delegates to the post-World War I Paris peace conference.

“Politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate national political identity,” the Arab Higher Committee told the United Nations in 1947, when it was considering partitioning British Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. “Palestine,” the committee insisted, “was part of the province of Syria.”

“The Palestinian people does 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. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. 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,” Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Zahir Muhsein informed the Dutch newspaper Trouw in 1977.

The United States and Israel seek to interest the Palestinian Authority, the PLO’s peace process incarnation, in resuming negotiations to lead to peace and a two-state solution between Israel and a “Palestine” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That is a policy matter. But should “Palestine” come about, it will be a new country for an historically new nationality.

The PLO covenant, rewritten in 1968 and not yet amended to allow for peace with Israel as a Jewish state, varies the definition of Palestinian in three separate articles.

Article one declares that “… the people of Palestine is part of the Arab nation” while Article five claims “Palestinians are the Arab nationals who were living permanently in Palestine until 1947 … or anyone born of a Palestinian father after that, whether within Palestine or outside it ….” And Article six says “Jews who were living permanently in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be consider Palestinian.”

Jewish peoplehood has roots more than 3,000 years deep in eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. Palestinian Arab national identity, separate from a generalized connection to “greater Syria,” began to take shape in 1920, according to Daniel Pipes in The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine. It was much less the result of an historical process than a political reaction to the League of Nations’ French mandate for Syria (and Lebanon) and British mandate for Palestine and what was already four decades of Zionist development in the latter.

The Arabs who today call themselves Palestinian, especially the large majority who are Sunni Muslims, have no deep religious, linguistic or cultural differences from brethren in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is hardly surprising since many of their ancestors migrated from those areas in the 19th and 20th centuries. After Israel’s 1948-’49 independence war, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency granted refugee status to any Arab claimant who had resided for as little as two years in what became Israel.

Meanwhile, Jordan in particular comprises three-fourths of the land originally meant for British mandatory Palestine and Palestinian Arabs constitute a majority of its population.

Like “Soviet” or “Yugoslav”, “Palestinian” is a 20th century political construct. It may prove more viable in the 21st, but that will be up to Palestinian leaders.

The author is Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

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