How to cause troll apoplexy just say “Arab nation” never included a state known as “Palestine”

November 24, 2016 23:04 Invented People
by Prof. Michael Curtis
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 157, December 20, 2011

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The concept of Palestinian identity and nationalism is a
recent invention. Both historically and in contemporary times, the Arabs
living in the area now known as Palestine were regarded both by outsiders
and by their own spokespeople as members of the greater Arab population,
without a separate or distinct identity. Today, however, it is clear that
Palestinian nationalism has emerged and become a political factor.

The recent statement uttered by US Republican presidential candidate Newt
Gingrich that the Palestinians are an “invented people” has been criticized
by political opponents as indicating a lack of sobriety and stability. Yet,
whatever one’s views of Gingrich's sagacity or judgment on other issues, or
one’s opinions on the more general issue of the desirability and character
of a Palestinian state existing alongside the State of Israel, the accuracy
of his statement cannot be denied. This conclusion stems from two factors.
The first is that Arabs living in the area now known as Palestine were
regarded, both historically and in contemporary times, not as a separate
entity but as part of the general Arab people. This has been recognized by
Arab spokesmen, by scholars, and by objective international official
reports. The second is that no independent Palestinian state has ever
existed, let alone one that manifested a “Palestinian identity.”

A few examples can illustrate this. The first Congress of Muslim-Christian
Associations in the area met in February 1919 to consider the future of the
territory formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which dissolved after World
War I. The Congress 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, moral, economic, and geographical
bonds.” The celebrated scholar Philip Hitti, testifying before the
Anglo-American Committee in 1946, stated there was no such thing as
Palestine in history, “absolutely not.”

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), in its September
3, 1947 report, remarked that Palestinian nationalism, as distinct from Arab
nationalism, was a relatively new phenomenon. It concluded that Palestinian
identity was part of a rich tapestry of identities, mostly predicated on
Arab and Islamic solidarity.

The Palestinians themselves reached the same conclusion. Palestinian
spokesperson Ahmad Shuqeiri told the UN Security Council in 1956 that
Palestine was nothing more than southern Syria. The head of the Military
Operations Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Zuheir
Muhsein, declared on March 31, 1977, “Only for political reasons do we
carefully underline our Palestinian identity. …the existence of a separate
Palestinian identity is there for tactical reasons.” The PLO, in its own
Charter or amended Basic Law (article 1), states that Palestine is part of
the Arab nation.

That “Arab nation” never included a state known as “Palestine.” Indeed, the
inhabitants of the general Palestinian area were not subjects of an Arab
nation but of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area from 1516-1918. This
was the last recognized sovereign power in the area. The area of Palestine
was a district of the Empire, officially a vilayet (province), not a
political entity. No independent Palestinian state has ever been
established, nor was there a single administrative or cultural unit of
Palestinians. Arabs in the area were not different in any way from other
Arabs in the Middle East. Nor was Israel established on the ashes of any
state other than the Ottoman Empire.

On the other hand, a sovereign Jewish state existed prior to the rise of the
Roman Empire. While the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, changed the name
of the land to Syria Palestina, and banished the Jews from Jerusalem, this
did not eradicate all Jewish presence in the area. Moreover, the Jews in the
Diaspora maintained a strong consciousness of the historical connection of
the Jewish people to Palestine – a connection that was acknowledged in the
League of Nations mandate. Jewish nationalism has used legends of
individuals like Moses as common ancestors and founders of the Jewish

Other nations have used myths about their origin: Vercingetorix and Clovis
in France; Arminius in Germany; and Romulus and Remus in Italy. Similarly,
Jewish nationalism may include not only centuries-old traditions but also
certain invented elements. What is important, however, is that the Jews
constitute a people – a set of individuals linked together not only by a
common religion, but also as members of an ethnic community with memories of
a shared past, common ceremonies and culture, and mutual legal codes, social
behavior, myths and symbols. Between Jews there is a peoplehood, a
subjective belief in their common descent from ancestors in Judea and

The first official naming of “Palestine” as a distinct, defined territorial
area came with the decision of the League of Nations, dealing with areas of
the former Ottoman Empire, to create a Mandate for Palestine. This was
accorded to Great Britain, which ruled the area from the Mediterranean Sea
to west of the Jordan River from 1922 until May 1948.

All people living in that area were regarded as “Palestinians” without any
ethnic connotations. Ironically, the name was used not by Arabs but only by
Jews in the area, as in The Palestinian (now the Jerusalem) Post, and the
Palestine Symphony (now Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra. Only after the State
of Israel was established in May 1948 did the term “Palestinian” become
exclusively used in referring to Arabs in the area.

It is now clear that a concept of Palestinian identity and nationalism has
emerged and become a political factor. Whether it first emerged from
literary societies and missionary groups a century ago, from the impact of
the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 in the Hijazi desert in Arabia, or as imitation
of the actions of the Young Turks who in 1908 seized power in the Ottoman
Empire is irrelevant. The new concept became important as a claim to
self-determination by Arabs in the period after World War I in reaction to
the increasing importance of Zionism and the assertion of self-determination
by the Jewish people. The single most important factor leading to the idea
and development of a Palestinian national identity was the creation of
Israel and the Arab defeat by Israel in 1948-49. One might say it was even
an imitation of the Zionist movement. Palestinian national identity was
formally asserted only with the formation of the PLO in 1964.

The essential problem is not simply a terminological one – a refusal by many
to acknowledge that the category of Palestinian identity is a recent
invention. Rather, the insistence on a presumed, time honored right of a
Palestinian people to the disputed land is being used as a weapon against
the right of Israel to exist. Such an insistence is a handicap to a
peaceful, negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. The
decision about the exercise of sovereign power in Palestine remains to be
determined in an overall peace settlement.

Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at
Rutgers University.

November 24, 2016 23:04

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