Low-base Arab-media-ready histrionics aside, this article asks if there is or was ever such a thing as “Palestinian” identity or a “Palestinian” “nation”.
Background of Palestinian Nationalism
Historically, the idea and practice of a “Palestinian nation” in the Levant is very new.
Further, the idea of a “Palestinian nation” whose “lands” have been stolen and their “territories” “occupied” is but the latest transparent iteration of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict raging for 100 years.
In contrast to the Jewish people had kept the same name and subjective-objective identity in each century for over 2,500 years, among local Muslim Arabs, the formation of a distinct, subjective-objective “Palestinian” identity did not generally occur before the second half of the 20th century (specifics later).
For over 2,500 years, Palestine was merely a geographical area – not a national identity. It was only after the creation of British Mandate for Palestine that the world referred to Palestinian Jews, Palestinian Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs. These terms simply referred to Jews, Bedouin or Arabs living in the geographical region of Palestine.
That is to say, until the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference, nobody in Paris knew about a “Palestinian” people.
Had there then been such a Palestinian “people”, its existence would have been known to Prince Feisal, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, U.K. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and to the other leaders who came to work on the peace treaties at the end of WWI and after the defeat of the German-allied Ottoman Empire from whence arose the Arab Muslim states and nations of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon in the Levant.
In fact, the victorious Allied Powers agreed to create yet another Arab state of Greater Syria, which they expected would cover what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.
For its part, and prior to the initiation of the Mandate for Palestine, the Ottoman Empire never had a province or sub-provincial unit called, or co-extensive with, “Palestine,” no matter how conceived.
Nor had Muslim history ever known a state or province called “Palestine.”
But the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920 was also majorly concerned with the task of accommodating the claims to self-determination of well-known peoples with long histories of self-affirmation and bitter suffering under foreign oppression. This was absolutely in line with Article 22 of the 1918 Covenant of the League of Nations, forerunner of today’s United Nations.
This consideration on touching the self-determination issues of such famous peoples as the the Poles, the Finns, the Letts, the Latvians, the Estonians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Slovenes, the Croats, the Serbs, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Turks, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Arabs, and the Jews.
In this larger context, just one decision among many was the creation of “a national home” for the Jewish people.
The international decision to create a national home for the Jewish people was made explicitly due to “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” This was clear recognition of the Jewish people’s long-affirmed and continuing links to its aboriginal homeland.
Even though 77% of the Palestine Mandate became Trans-Jordan (then Jordan in 1946), the years between 1922-1948 saw the remainder of the land destined for the Jewish homeland swell its Arab numbers by a little more than three times as a result of the labour and wage opportunities of Jewish settlement and enterprise on the land in line with international treaties and law (San Remo). And, for what it’s worth, here is nota single reference to the ARABS as “Palestinians” ANYWHERE in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Who self-identified as Palestinian before 1948?
Before 1948, the adjective “Palestinian” was very often used as a synonym for “Jewish.”
For this reason, the name “Palestine” and many other specific features of the 1922 Palestine Mandate were too closely associated with Jews and Zionism to have offered much of a focus for Muslim Arabs. Therefore, they generally did not identify as “Palestinian” until the “Palestine” trademark had been definitely abandoned by the Jews in May 1948 with the declaration of the State of Israel.
Palestinians in the 1960s
After the defeat of the Ottomans, Arab leaders expressed no vision or desire to create a distinct Palestinian people. Such a “people”, touted by a baleful Arab League as “indigenous” and “ancient” only arose formally after the Arab League conference of 1964 in Cairo.
This is evidenced by the historical record that at the Paris Peace Conference, Prince Feisal, as principal Arab leader at the Paris Peace Conference, specifically accepted the plan to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
Besides, his father, the Hashemite King of the Hedjaz (later part of Saudi Arabia) was party to the 1920 Sevres Treaty that explicitly stipulated that there would be “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
More than that, the governments of Egypt and Jordan and the broader Arab world showed absolutely no interest in the self-determination of a “Palestinian people”. This is evidenced by the fact that here was NEVER a separate political entity among the Arabs for indicating an Arab group known as “Palestinians” until 1967 and this political group was not recognized by even other Arab countries until the Rabat Summit Conference in 1974.
First, they rejected the 1947 U.N. General Assembly resolution recommending an additional Arab state alongside Israel in 1948. And second, no Palestinian state was created between 1948 and 1967, when Egypt held the Gaza Strip and Jordan had East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Evidence of Palestinian Nationhood
There is no evidence the Arabs of Gaza, Judaea and Samaria identified as a separate nation prior to, or much later than, 1964 due to on-going European self-interest and the Arab OPEC oil embargo of 1973.
Rather, the Arabs of Gaza, Judaea and Samaria saw themselves as part of the broader Arab nation and specifically denied any real Palestinian nationalism.
At the risk re-quoting a telling quote, on March 31, 1977, Dutch newspaper Trouw published an interview with Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee member Zahir Muhsein, in which he said: “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.”
This lack of evidence despite the currently vaunted cries of “Palestinian nationalism” is further confirmed by the Article 1 of the 1964 Palestinian National Charter which starts thus: “– The Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.” It is also flogged in the hysterical overreaction of Palestinian leaders who date their people’s ancestry to the Upper Paleolithic period suggesting deep insecurity on this issue as they desperately search for legacy.
As late as 1996, Azmi Bishara, Arab Party member (at the time) of Parliament in Israel’s Knesset stated in response to a question about Palestinian nationality: “Well, I don’t think there is a Palestinian nation at all; I think there is an Arab nation. I always thought so, and I have not changed my mind.”
Palestinian nationalism failed because it remained resolutely negative in character. Witness the essential symbols of Palestine: a fighter holding a rifle and a map that erases Israel completely. It is a nationalism – and, thus later, an (morbid) identity – based in large part on negation of Other, preferably through violence. Add to this the adoption of the Palestinian cause by Islamists globally to pull Palestinian identity toward continued conflict and you have, not the making of a nation state so much, as a proven and documented recipe in other parts of the world for a failed state and a concomitant “national identity” which borders on chaos. Any “national identity” today in the Arab populations of Gaza or Judea is also fractured and dysfunctional dependent as they are are on weak state and social institutions, but where the generally strong security institutions are mapped onto tribal and clan groups and where these security elites are entrenched with guns and followers.
Be that as it may, today, Palestinians (sic) have their own parliament, government(s) and police force(s). They do not have an army, nor do they control their borders. But by that same token, can Palestinians really claim that their basic right to self-determination is being hindered when they are already ruling themselves?
More importantly, does self-determination (state/nationhood) take precedence over the rights of their neighbours to live in peace and security with defensible borders in light of 100 years of Arab aggression designed to drive those very neighbours out?
By any definition of the term “nation” there is no doubt there is no such thing as a “Palestinian nation”. There never has been. It remains ossified in a 100 year hatred of Jews who after millennia of dispersal and oppression by Arabs and Europeans, dared to become independent in their aboriginal homeland.