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;
• 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.
The earliest imaginings of a separate Palestinian national identity are traceable to the mid-19th century, perhaps partly in response to renewed Western interest in the “Holy Land.” As early as 1919, the first “Arab Palestinian Congress” called for Palestinian unity and independence, albeit still understanding Palestine as part of “Greater Syria.”
But it is the year 1948 — the time of naqba, or catastrophe, as Palestinian Arabs commonly call it– that marks the crucial watershed in the process of Palestinian nation-building. During Israel’s War of Independence against invading Arab armies, some 600,000 Arabs were dispossessed from their homes and became refugees. Not only individuals but embedded social patterns and relationships were uprooted, causing traumatic societal and cultural discontinuities. A society that had been centered on family, locality and traditional social patterns felt itself shattered.
Worse, the same predicament befell it again less than 20 years later in the aftermath of the Six‑Day War, which created many new refugees and saw the West Bank and Gaza Strip transferred from culturally cognate Jordanian‑Arab control to unfamiliar Israeli‑Jewish rule.
Throughout the Palestinian world, and especially in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, as the established social classes and patterns were unexpectedly shaken up together, a new social essence began to ferment, with the old local and communal affiliations becoming transmuted into a national one by a sense of shared history, suffering and hope.
Since 1967, the Arabs of Palestine have increasingly insisted on a separate identity for themselves. Even many Israeli Arabs, torn by ethnic loyalties and perhaps radicalized by decades of ethnic conflict, now routinely refer to themselves as “Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.”
The Palestinians have also had “peoplehood” conferred on them by prevailing international usage, including 30 years of UN resolutions identifying them as a people and recognizing them (despite strong American and Israeli objections) as having “inalienable rights” to sovereign independence. “Palestine” now exists as a partial political entity with its own passports, postage stamps, international calling code and internet domain name.
As the Palestinians move toward defining their identity as a nation, what is still unclear (and under debate) is exactly where that nation’s homeland is–whether in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, perhaps confederated with Jordan or Israel; or in Jordan itself, of which two‑thirds of its population is ethnically identical to the Arab population west of the Jordan River. Finally, many Palestinian militants still argue that Israel itself is a suitable future homeland.