Palestinian national identity and the roadblock to peace.

When opposition to the other is your primary raison d'être, reconciliation is impossible.  A distinctly Palestinian national sense-of-self evolved during the 1920s – not organically, but as a negative reaction to Zionism. And this fact is at the centre of the current conflict.

Let’s start with a quiz. Which Jewish leader said the following words?

The land over which we have restored our sovereignty was the property of our fathers and no foreigner has claim to its ownership or its inheritance. Our enemies sinfully and unjustly robbed us of our patrimony, but now that G-d has bestowed success upon us we have reclaimed and resettled the inheritance of our fathers.

Was it Theodor Herzl? Perhaps David Ben-Gurion? Or maybe Vladimir Jabotinsky?

The answer is none of the above.

Those words were said 2,200 years ago by Shimon HaMaccabee, the Jewish commander who led a war of liberation against the Seleucid Greeks that has been commemorated ever since by the Chanukkah holiday.

The First Book of Maccabees informs us that Shimon’s declaration was issued in response to an ultimatum from Seleucid King Antiochus IV who demanded that the Jews submit or die. But the Jews fought back and regained their independence, tragically losing it again 70 years later to the conquering Roman legions of Pompey.

Now let’s fast forward to the present and the current conflict between those who call this territory Eretz Yisrael and those who call it Filistin. A useful perspective is acquired by contrasting the respective historical connections of Jews and Arabs to this contested parcel of real estate.

The link between People of Israel and Land of Israel has endured over two millennia in the face of imperial conquest by the British, Ottomans, Mamaluks, Ayyubids, Crusaders, Seljuks, Fatmids, Abbasids, Umayyads, Rashidun Caliphs, Byzantines, Sassanids, Palmyrenes, Romans, Selucids, Diadochi, Macedonians, Persians and Babylonians.

And throughout these long centuries of foreign incursion, ruinous war, forcible expulsion and oppression, the Jews’ stubbornly refused to abandon a primal attachment to their ancestral homeland.

Can a similar claim be made on behalf of the Palestinians?

Former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich succinctly answered that question when he described the Palestinians as an “invented people”. And the controversy generated by that comment did nothing to detract from its essential accuracy.

Newt may not have been politically correct, but he was factually correct nonetheless. The paper trail of Middle East history reveals that a distinctly Palestinian Arab national identity didn’t coalesce until the 1920s at the earliest.

So found the King-Crane Commission, a US diplomatic mission established in the wake of WWI to analyse policy options for non-Turkish territories of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Commissioners Henry King and Charles Crane travelled extensively throughout the Middle East in June-July 1919, meeting more than 400 delegations from indigenous ethnic and religious communities.

Neither King nor Crane was supportive of Zionism and their report recommended that Jewish national ambitions should be “greatly reduced”. But they also discovered that Muslim and Christian Arabs of the Galilee, Jaffa and Jerusalem were “practically unanimous” in their desire to become part of a “Unified Syria”.

These pan-Arab ambitions were reflected in the manifesto published by the First Muslim-Christian Association Congress of 1919 that declared:

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.

All of which explains why historical biography is silent on the topic of pre-20th century Palestinian Arab political leadership. Simply put, there was never a distinctly Palestinian Arab nation for anyone to lead.

Yet for all the flimsiness of the Palestinian national narrative, there’s no doubt this campaign of political self-conjuration has been a spectacular success. The construction of a Palestinian something-from-nothing constitutes the most remarkable triumph of fable over fact in living diplomatic memory.

So what are the implications of this 20th century political mythology for 21st century political reality?

The answer to that question involves a simple quid pro quo.

Most Israelis are prepared to overlook the dubious historical foundations of Palestinian people hood and accept that this idea has achieved political critical mass in our time. This pragmatism is reflected in a survey conducted by the University of Maryland in December 2013 which found Israelis to be “fairly flexible” on the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

But in exchange Israelis require formal Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in an explicitly Zionist state. In other words – genuine national recognition in return for genuine national recognition that nullifies all further claims by either side against the other.

Sadly, a bona fide acknowledgement of Jewish national rights has never really been forthcoming from the Palestinian side. That aforementioned University of Maryland opinion poll found a decisive 71 per cent majority of Palestinians opposing Israel even as “‘a state of the Jewish people and all its citizens,’ thus assuring equality of non-Jewish citizens”.

Another survey, conducted only just last month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, revealed similarly belligerent results, citing Palestinian:

… majority support for the long-term goal of reclaiming all of Palestine, and for armed struggle as a means toward that end. Fifty-eight per cent of West Bankers and 65 per cent of Gazans say that even if a “two-state solution” is negotiated, “the struggle is not over and resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.

As we have observed, a distinctly Palestinian national sense-of-self evolved during the 1920s – not organically, but as a negative reaction to Zionism. And when opposition to the other constitutes your primary raison d’être, reconciliation becomes impossible for fear of negating the central pillar of your own existence.

Thus the core of the Middle East conflict does not revolve around how Israel’s borders are drawn or where Jewish homes are built. The unpardonable sin in Palestinian eyes was the establishment of a sovereign Zionist nation-state in any form or of any size within the Islamic Middle East.

But Israel isn’t going anywhere. And this fundamental building block of Palestinian national identity will have to undergo root-and-branch metamorphosis before any peace worthy of the name will ever be achieved.


Ted Lapkin is director of public affairs for the Zionist Federation of Australia.

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  1. Ted Lapin makes an important observation and in so doing begs the question ‘Which way now?”. Ted notes that there is no reference to an arab/palestinian self identification prior to the 1920’s I would even go so far as to suggest that there is no arab/palestinian self identification as a national movement till 1964, with the promulgation of a palestine national charter. Some argue that its more like 1834 when there is a united opposition to actions by Ibrahim Pasha, I would reject that as there is no ethnoreligious impetus to that revolt, that supports the notion of a rise in palestinian identity.

    There has been as Ted argues, a view that an arab/filistin identity arose only as a reaction to the re-establishment of the Jewish State. Which of course puts any idea of rapprochement out of the picture. But Ted also suggests that that there is no “organic” basis for this self identification and in this I think Ted is wrong. “Romantic nationalism” has proved a powerful driver to national identity. The “volksgeist” that gave rise to modern Germany and ultimately to the rise of Nazi Germany, is a case in point. It needed in the end “the other” to justify its existence and found ultimately the Jew. But whereas Germany found the Jew in the end….arab/filistin found the Jew in the beginning. Whereas Germany has been able to step back from its view of the Jew as an object of hate……the arab/filistin has nothing to step back to. There was nothing before the Jewish State.

    This is the real situation that the arab/filistin faces. Its very existence depends on the existence of Israel. The only rationale for that existence is as a state in opposition to Israel. And this has served many other arab states very well.

    For any kind of future the people who self identify as the arab/filistin are going to have to look to the east – to that land the bible called Ever ha Yaddan – the other side of the Jordan. But that must happen on the terms of the Hashemite Kingdom Jordan’s terms.

    But that’s a whole other discussion. And not one that Israel should be focused upon. That is for the arab/filistinii to resolve for themselves.

  2. Very well put – both the article and Larry’s comment above.

  3. Great statement by Shimon HaMaccabee that should be sent to the UN and the EU as they continue their decline into the dustbin of history.

    Whilst we are in Ted’s quiz mode – and to answer Larry’s comment that Israel should not be focused on the other side of the Jordan River – who made these two statements?

    “Let me remind the Jordanian representatives of the record. Between 1922 and 1946, Trans-Jordan remained an integral part of Mandated Palestine. In 1946 it became the independent Palestinian Arab State in that area. When King Abdullah came to the Jericho Conference in December 1948, which was attended by Palestinian Arabs west of the Jordan River, he was crowned “King of Palestine”. Abdullah, in fact, wanted to rename his country “The Kingdom of Palestine”. King Hussein, in his memoirs, indicates clearly that Trans-Jordan was arbitrarily siphoned off from the rest of Mandated Palestine. Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, in the Jordanian National Assembly on 2 February 1970, stated unambiguously: “Palestine is Jordan and Jordan is Palestine. The nation is one and the land is one”

    “Clearly, in Eastern and Western Palestine, there are only two peoples, the Arabs and the Jews. Just as clearly, there are only two States in that area, Jordan and Israel. The Arab State of Jordan, containing some 3 million Arabs, does not allow a single Jew to live there. It also contains 4/5 th of the territory originally allocated by this body’s predecessor, the League of Nations, for the Jewish National Home. The other State, Israel, has a population of over 4 million of which one sixth is Arab. It contains less than 1/5 th of the territory originally allocated to the Jews under the Mandate?. It cannot be said, therefore, that the Arabs of Palestine are lacking a state of their own. The demand for a second Palestinian Arab State in Western Palestine, and a 22 nd Arab State in the world, is merely the latest attempt to push Israel back into the hopelessly vulnerable armistice lines of 1949”

  4. An excellent article and stellar comments. Yasher Ko’Ach to all

  5. This is refreshing and inspiring.

    The big question is why is the Palestinian narrative so belligerent about the myth of the noble Arab native Palestinian when anybody with access to Google or a public library know it must be the mother of all crocks?

    If they and their Westernsupporters can answer that without going through terminal cognitive dissonance there might be a chance for a two state solution.