More about Palestinian identity

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, took issue with Newt Gingrich’s remark that the Palestinians were a [recently] “invented people.” Here is the main part of his argument:

With one callous statement he dismissed the plight of 4 million people and their desire for self-determination. Questioned about the controversial statement during a debate on Monday, he piled falsehood upon falsehood. The word “Palestinian,’’ he asserted, “did not become a common term until after 1977.’’ In denying the legitimacy of Palestinians’ identity, Gingrich’s only purpose was to deny any justification for a two-state solution for Middle East peace. If Palestinians are invented, the implication goes, so too must be their objection to the status quo.

During the debate, Gingrich claimed to “stand for the truth,’’ but that apparently does not require telling the truth. His statements are a complete fabrication. Documents prepared by the Arab Office in Jerusalem during the 1930s and ’40s refer frequently to “Palestinian Arabs,’’ “Palestinian Citizens,’’ and the potential formation of a “Palestinian State.’’ The 1973 CIA Atlas of Middle East Issues speaks of “Palestinians’’ and “Palestinian Refugees.’’

Contrary to Gingrich’s insinuation, Palestine is a real place found on maps of all kinds, created by people of all races, for hundreds of years; and the people living there have long been identified with it. The Official 1931 Census of Palestine, conducted under British auspices, counted 850,000 Palestinian Arabs – both Muslim and Christian – and 175,000 Jews. Gingrich noted that the Ottomans once ruled the region, as if that justified his statements. But the Ottoman Empire included Syria and much of the Balkans. Are they invented people too?

The name ‘Palestine’ comes from “Syria Palæstina,” a part of the Roman empire which included parts of present-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, extending from the Mediterranean to the land east of the Jordan. After the defeat of the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135, many anti-Jewish actions followed. The Romans chose to name the province after the Biblical enemies of the Jews, the Philistines, who were long gone by this time.

When the area was under Ottoman control, there actually was no vilayet (province) of ‘Palestine’; the area was divided into the sanjak (a semi-autonomous region) of Jerusalem and the vilayet of Beirut. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, its Middle Eastern possessions were transferred to the British and French. The British got the area of ‘Palestine’ including what is now Jordan; they quickly detached the eastern part of it and set it aside for an Arab state (Transjordan). The western part became the British Mandate for Palestine, intended as the site of a Jewish National Home.

This was the second time in history, after the Roman period, when the name ‘Palestine’ referred to a geographical entity.

During the Mandate period, everyone who lived in the area was called a ‘Palestinian’. There were Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. My wife has a bag of buttons produced before 1948 in a Jewish factory, by the “Palestine Button Company,” in “Tel Aviv, Palestine.” The Jewish Brigade that fought with the British Army in WWII was composed of the 1st through 4th Palestine Regiments. The newspaper that is today called the Jerusalem Post was formerly called the ‘Palestine Post’. The fact that Sununu found correspondence referring to ‘Palestinian citizens’ (etc.) does not imply that there was a Palestinian people distinct from other Arabs.

Daniel Pipes places the birth of a Palestinian identity at December, 1920:

Until the late nineteenth century, residents living in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean identified themselves primarily in terms of religion: Moslems felt far stronger bonds with remote co-religionists than with nearby Christians and Jews. Living in that area did not imply any sense of common political purpose.

Then came the ideology of nationalism from Europe; its ideal of a government that embodies the spirit of its people was alien but appealing to Middle Easterners. How to apply this ideal, though? Who constitutes a nation and where must the boundaries be? These questions stimulated huge debates.

Some said the residents of the Levant are a nation; others said Eastern Arabic speakers; or all Arabic speakers; or all Moslems.

But no one suggested “Palestinians,” and for good reason. Palestine, then a secular way of saying Eretz Yisra’el or Terra Sancta, embodied a purely Jewish and Christian concept, one utterly foreign to Moslems, even repugnant to them.

This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying force carved out a “Palestine.” Moslems reacted very suspiciously, rightly seeing this designation as a victory for Zionism. Less accurately, they worried about it signaling a revival in the Crusader impulse. No prominent Moslem voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested it.

Instead, Moslems west of the Jordan directed their allegiance to Damascus, where the great-great-uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah II was then ruling; they identified themselves as Southern Syrians.

Interestingly, no one advocated this affiliation more emphatically than a young man named Amin Husseini. In July 1920, however, the French overthrew this Hashemite king, in the process killing the notion of a Southern Syria.

Isolated by the events of April and July, the Moslems of Palestine made the best of a bad situation. One prominent Jerusalemite commented, just days following the fall of the Hashemite kingdom: “after the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine.”

Following this advice, the leadership in December 1920 adopted the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Within a few years, this effort was led by Husseini.

But as I’ve argued before, this doesn’t matter. Whether ‘Palestinian’ political identity was created in 1964 by the PLO, 1977 as Gingrich says, 1920 according to Daniel Pipes, or even goes back to the ancient Canaanites — someone recently quipped that that only connection between today’s Palestinians and the Canaanites is that both of them sacrificed their own children — the problem with the proposed “two-state solution” is that for the Palestinian leadership, both states are Arab states. The rejection of a Jewish state goes back to the Mandate period and hasn’t changed since then. The differences have only been in what Palestinian leaders say in English.

Today the PLO strategy is to get a foothold in the territories and then use it to continue the struggle, by diplomatic, legal, propaganda and ultimately military means, to finally dispossess the Jews from what the Arabs consider their land. Sununu says,

According to the CIA Atlas, the fighting that followed Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 displaced 750,000 Palestinian Arabs. Several hundred thousand more were displaced in 1967. Israelis and Palestinians have struggled to find a path to a peaceful resolution since. My point here is not to litigate this struggle, but to recognize that the conflict is real, the people are real, and the grievances are real on both sides: Israel’s unquestionable right to security, and Palestinians’ right to self-rule.

Of course the Arab refugees were displaced in a war they started, after they rejected (several times) peaceful solutions that would have given them the right to self rule. Palestinians have not “tried to find a path to a peaceful resolution since”, either — rather they have waged terrorist warfare against the Jews before and since. It is disingenuous to claim that this conflict is about self-rule, unless you mean denying it to Jews.

Sununu says, correctly, that Gingrich’s statements “contradict over 40 years of bipartisan US policy.”

Maybe it’s time that we reconsidered that policy. It certainly hasn’t brought peace any closer.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.