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When Arabs became Palestinians

Following World War I, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill gifted the land east of the Jordan River—until then part of “Palestine,” according to the League of Nations Mandate—to Britain’s wartime ally Abdullah for his own kingdom.

Arab Israelis and activists protest against Israel's Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Arab Israelis and activists protest against Israel's Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Jerold S. Auerbach
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016) and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book for 2019.”

Modern conceptions of “Palestine” began to emerge in the mid-19th century. British artist David Roberts followed the trail of the ancient Israelites from Egypt to their promised land. His magnificent lithographs in The Holy Land (1842) sparked interest in the land and its people. One year later, Scotsman Alexander Keith, in The Land of Israel, described “a land without a people and a people without a land.” The “people” were Jews, and the “land” was their biblical homeland. As yet, there were no identifiable, or self-identified, “Palestinians.”

Not until the mid-20th century—two decades after the birth of the State of Israel—did Arabs in Palestine begin to show signs of a distinctive national identity. It was largely due to the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, ending Jordanian control over West Bank Arabs. Why was it, wondered Bethlehem resident Walid Shoebat, “that on June 4th, 1967, I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian.”

Once Jordan lost its West Bank, resident Arabs began to construct their own national identity in a land that had never been inhabited by a previously non-existent “Palestinian” people. Even a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization acknowledged that “there are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation [and] the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes.”

Without a history of their own, Palestinians defined themselves by plundering Jewish history. The ancient Canaanites were identified as the original “Palestinian” people. They claimed Abraham’s son Ishmael (child of his servant Hagar) as the ancestral link to “their” biblical patriarch. Jerusalem, which is not mentioned in the Koran, was designated as Islam’s third-holiest city (after Mecca and Medina). Hardly coincidentally, the al-Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock were built on the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples.

In Hebron, similarly, the Machpelah burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs became a mosque. Jews were prohibited entry until Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War seven centuries later. So, too, with Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (biblical Shechem).

Palestinian identity theft did not stop there.

The “tragedy,” “disaster” or “catastrophe” (nakba) of 1948, when Arabs launched their failed war to demolish the fledgling Jewish state, was equated with the Holocaust. Their progeny have preposterously claimed to be victims of “the greatest act of horror of the twentieth century.” It is not surprising that the doctoral dissertation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (now in the 17th year of his four-year term) linked Zionism to the Nazi regime. Nor that the Israeli Law of Return (1950), giving Jews everywhere the right to acquire citizenship in the Jewish state, prompted Palestinians to claim the right of return to the land they had abandoned in 1948.

Yet as the scholar Ruth Wisse has pointedly noted: “Jews have more concurrent rights to their land than any other people on this earth can claim: aboriginal rights, divine rights, legal rights, internationally guaranteed rights, pioneering rights, and the rights of that perennial arbiter, war.” Palestinians have none of these.

But Israelis on the political left have embraced the Palestinian narrative of expulsion by evil Jews. Journalist Benny Morris blamed Israel for the “ethnic cleansing” that led to “oppressing” Palestinians. Sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, equating Zionism with colonialism, accused Israel of “politicide” against Palestinians. To Ben-Gurion University of the Negev professor Oren Yiftachel, Israel was guilty of “creeping apartheid.” Popular Israeli writer Amos Oz lamented the return of Jews to their ancient homeland after the Six-Day War as “occupation” and “destruction.” Religious Zionist settlers were guilty of “fanatical tribalism.” The unrelenting demonizing of Israel, wrote scholar Edward Alexander, transformed the “pariah people” into “the pariah state.”

Israel’s critics have remained oblivious to the existence of a Palestinian home—in Palestine—now dating back a century. Following World War I, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill gifted the land east of the Jordan River—until then part of “Palestine,” according to the League of Nations Mandate—to Britain’s wartime ally Abdullah for his own kingdom. By now, Palestinians comprise a significant portion of the Jordanian population. Historically, geographically and demographically, Jordan is Palestine. Another Palestinian state would be superfluous.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”

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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