Who Are The Palestinians?

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

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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.

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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/.