Who Are The Palestinians?

An examination of the geography, history, and politics of Palestinian identity

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Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s famous 1969 remark that the Palestinians "did not exist" as a nationality represents an opinion still heard today, especially on the right of Israel's political spectrum, often buttressed with specific arguments, including:

•  that the Arabs of Palestine have no language, religion or general culture that distinguishes them significantly from the Arabs of Jordan, Syria (where some factions still claim Palestine as part of "Greater Syria") or other neighboring Arab states;

who are the palestinians?•  that especially before the 20th century, traditional Palestinian society was semi‑feudal in its structure and organized around loyalties to locality and tribe, not nation;

•  that the Arabs of Palestine never exercised national sovereignty in the country in which they lived;

•  that a pattern of Arab emigration from Palestine, a land often described by Western travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries as "desolate" and "empty," was reversed, especially after World War I, not by nationalist feeling but by the employment opportunities and improved quality of life that accompanied Zionist immigration and land development;

•  that the word Filastin, as the country is called in Arabic, is not Palestinian‑Arab in origin (the Arabs of the region rarely used it before 1948) but refers to the biblical "Philistines," whose name the ancient Romans gave to the country in an attempt to obliterate the Jews' connection to it;

•  that even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which in 1967 called upon Israel to return "territories" it had conquered in the Six‑Day War, referred only to "refugees" without mentioning the Palestinians as a separate national entity.

In other words, it can be argued that "Palestinian" identity is a shallow political veneer that developed in response to Zionism, that it serves today as a hostile tool kept sharpened for use against Israel, and that Palestinian Arab culture is, at most, a "dialect" of a larger Arab culture.

Even fervent Palestinian nationalists might not deny many of the items on the above list.  But they would argue that the absence of a totally unique identity does not disqualify Palestinians from claiming national independence, any more than the lack of a separate language, culture and religion disqualifies Guatemala, Canada or Tunisia. 

Though Palestinian society still remains partly focused on clan and tribe today, it is also evident that the Arabs of Palestine have in recent generations moved largely toward understanding themselves as a separate nation within the Arab world. 

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David Margolis

David Margolis (1943-2005) was a Jerusalem-based writer. Examples of his fiction and journalism can be seen at http://www.davidmargolis.com/.