“Palestinians”: The Ongoing Attempt to Simplify “the Others”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Lorenzo Kamel

Visiting Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University

Cambridge (MA) — As efforts to renew the Palestinian-Israeli peace process move ahead, the claim that Palestinians do not exist as a people has become increasingly common. Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Landau recently asserted that Palestinians “never existed as a nation [but] suddenly everyone talks about a state.” During his last visit to Israel casino magnate Sheldon Adelson called Palestinians just “southern Syrians” or Egyptians until Yasir Arafat “came along with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and gave it to everybody to drink and sold them the idea of Palestinians.” Previously, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz noted that the number “of Palestinians with deep roots in the area of Jewish settlement” constitutes “a tiny fraction,” while American scholar Berel Wein pointed out that pre-Zionist Palestine was almost a desert populated mainly by “Arab immigrants” that “came in great part because of the Jews.”

The rationale behind such declarations is clear. If Palestinians do not exist, or are recent immigrants, why would there be a need to negotiate with them, much less permit them a state?

Indeed, each of the above considerations, besides not bringing any real benefit to the interested parties, is vitiated by the transposition of values, uses and traditions which are as relevant in the West as they are negligible within the realities to which they refer.

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish used seven words to indirectly clarify most of the current “misunderstandings.” “Who are they,” he asked in his Une rime pour les Mu‘allaqāt (“A Rhyme for the Odes”) referring to he the native majority, “That’s someone else’s problem.” In many respects this was indeed a problem of “others,” of “outsiders.” What made the difference for the “insiders” was, besides religion, the provenance from a certain village, the belonging to a specific family clan, the use of a particular dialect, a way of dressing, a product of the earth, a religious festival (the Nabi Musa festival, for example, was a clear expression of a proto-national cohesion), a dance.

Before the imposition of the nationalist ideologies and the emergence of exclusivist approaches, it was these factors, not primarily political identity, that defined “Palestinianness.” These characteristics form the “rudiments of a nation” in Anthony Smith’s sense of the concept—a set of identifiers so fundamental and so long-existing, so taken for granted, that virtually no one had any need to investigate. “The whole game of identity definition,” Meron Benvenisti noted, “reflects the immigrant’s lack of connection. Natives don’t question their identity.”

In the context of this “game of identity definition” it is relevant to mention that some scholars have suggested that the use of the term Palestine was not an exclusive prerogative of the Arabs and that therefore a more precise distinction should refer to two distinct realities: the Arab Palestinians (or Arabs of Palestine) and the Palestinian Jews. In this sense it was noted that from 1932 to 1950 the Jewish newspaper Jerusalem Post was called The Palestine Post. The clarification is relevant, and in fact the Jews that over the centuries did remain on the spot can be defined Palestinian Jews.

The charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) itself, a document certainly not very inclined to compromise, recognized that “the Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion are considered Palestinians.” This means that before the emergence of insular and exclusivistic approaches, such as the avodah ivrit (“Hebrew labor,” i.e. only “Jewish hands” could work the “Jewish land”) logic, there was no urgency to define the different ethnicities in a clear-cut way. Moreover, even if we focus the attention on an “ethnocentric perspective” it is necessary to keep in mind that such an aspect does not alter the terms of the question in a substantial way. Referring to an overwhelming “Palestinian Arab majority,” or to an overwhelming “Palestinian majority,” as opposed to a possible “Jewish-Palestinian minority” or “Jewish minority,” is little more than a semantic disquisition.

The reference to a “Palestinian Arab majority” is not a secondary one. The reference to a majority, and thus to numbers, is relevant in as much as it directly tackles the common thesis according to which that majority was indeed composed by “Arab immigrants” that “came because of the Jews.” In the context of our interest, numbers and “identity” are strictly related. In other words, answering to the question of how many the Palestinians were also helps to explain who these people were.

The first official census was taken in Palestine in 1922, by the British mandated government. In that occasion a total population of 757,182 individuals was found, of whom 590,390 were Muslims, 83,694 Jews, and 73,024 Christians. The previous surveys presented obvious difficulties. The Ottoman authorities usually counted, for tax and military service purposes, almost exclusively adult males or heads of family. The various Christian denominations, like the Jewish millet and the consulates that were gradually created, kept their own records.

The most reliable estimates of previous centuries reveal that in 1800 the total population of Palestine numbered 250,000 individuals, reaching 500,000 in 1890. Justin McCarthy, an acknowledged expert on the issue, indicated the number of residents in Palestine in 1860 as 411,000, the overwhelming majority of which (around 90 percent) Arabs.

From a Eurocentric perspective these numbers might seem negligible. To get an idea, one has only to think that when Paris reached one million inhabitants in 1846, Jerusalem and Haifa numbered, respectively, little more than 18 thousand and a bit less than 3 thousand. It would, however, still be wrong to choose countries on the Old Continent instead of those in the Oriental Mediterranean area for a reliable comparison. It is more logical to compare Egypt at the start of the 1800s with Palestine in the same period. It is estimated that the first one had at the time a population of around three million inhabitants: today it numbers 77 million. The second, inhabited at that time by 250,000/300,000 people (therefore 225,000/270,000 Arabs), registers today little more than five million individuals. In comparison, these data demonstrate substantial “comparative convergence” between Palestine and the historically most important, as well as most populous Arabic country.

Among the Arab majority of Palestine different senses of identity (connected to religious, local, transnational and family allegiances) coexisted without any contradiction between various loyalties being felt. In fact, they were identities as both distinguishable and overlapping. Not by chance, as Barnett and Telhami also noted, one of the ways in which the entire area differs from other regions “is that the national identity has had a transnational character.”

It is in this “regional” context that it is worthy to explain the inconsistency of the “Arab immigrants” thesis mentioned above. The reference is to an assumption made popular by Joan Peters in her From time immemorial. In the latter, through an analysis of migratory processes registered throughout the course of the 1800s and in the period of the British mandate, the author depicted Palestinian Arabs as “foreigners” coming from “outside areas.” Following Peters’s approach, many later scholars tried to demonstrate that Palestine was a semi-desert and that the inhabitants the first Zionists encountered were nothing more than “travelers” attracted by the Jewish immigration.

At least until the 1920s the growth of the Arab population — not an isolated case in the region (in Iraq, for example, between 1867 and 1905 the population went from 1 million 250 thousand to 2 million 250 thousand) — had, in reality, little to do with Jewish immigration. As Justin McCarthy noted, “the province that experienced the greatest Jewish population growth (about .035 annually), Jerusalem Sanjak, was the province with the lowest rate of growth of Muslim population (.009).” The increase in Palestine’s Arab population was mostly due to high demographic growth: a phenomenon which started already in the middle of the 1800s, thus prior both to the first wave of Zionist immigration and the first construction company founded in the 60s in Jerusalem by Yosef Rivlin.

Such demographic growth was accompanied by a reduction in average mortality — placed well below the 40 years in the first decade of the XX century — prompted mostly by the innovations introduced by the Jewish component of the population. The latter, on the contrary, multiplied thanks to immigration, embodied mainly by worshipers, often persecuted, coming from other continents.

This (immigration) is one of the main points which merits further clarification. Small groups did indeed immigrate in earlier years from outside Palestine. Among these was a group of Egyptians, which settled in Palestine during the years in which the region was subject to the rule of Muhammad Alì. Not long after, a small number of Bosnian, Algerian and Circassian immigrants arrived, who then settled primarily in the Galilee (their presence today is seen in the villages of Rehaniya and Kfar Kama) and at the “border” with Lebanon. Unlike the Jews who arrived in later decades during the Second and Third aliyot — the latters, through practices such as the above mentioned “Jewish Labor,” opted for exclusion and therefore the non-integration with the local Arab population — the aforementioned groups almost immediately integrated with the local majority.

Most of the Arab Palestinians that Peters and many other “outsiders” defined as “foreigners,” or “former invaders,” were, in reality, people deeply rooted in what Khayr al-Dīn al-Ramli (1585-1671), an influential Islamic lawyer from Ramla, defined in the XVII century “Filastīn bilādunā” (“Palestine our country”); the fact that it was not a separate political and administrative entity did not make al-Ramli’s “Filastīn” less real.

Maxime Rodinson explained the “former invaders’s myth” taking the English people as a term of reference. “It is ridiculous,” Rodinson clarified, “to call the English of today invaders and occupiers, on the grounds that England was conquered from Celtic peoples by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries. The population was ‘Anglicized’ and nobody suggests that the peoples which have more or less preserved the Celtic tongues — the Irish, the Welsh or the Bretons — should be regarded as the true natives of Kent or Suffolk, with greater titles to these territories than the English who live in those counties.”

The “foreigners’ approach” is problematic on many other grounds; it is not necessary, in order to realize this, to go back to a far past. The minority whose origins were from other areas lived, in great percentage, in the context of Bilād al-Shām. “Filastīn,” in other words, was/is an integral part of the Arab world without erasing its peculiarities. Considering the movement within the region as a migratory process among reciprocally “foreign” populations, is a simplistic way to define a reality that was anything but simple. In Adel Manna’s words: “A Palestinian who moved to south Lebanon or a Lebanese who moved to Palestine — or a Syrian or a Jordanian, for that matter — is surely not a foreigner because he is part of the culture of the society of Bilad-al-Sham, or Greater Syria, where there were no borders between countries […] there is a big difference between them and foreigners who came from Europe, whether Christians or Jews.”

Manichean temptations have always been harbingers of misrepresentations, as well as of great suffering. The “black or white” approach according to which Palestinians were/are a well defined nation, or were/are nothing more than “Arab immigrants” that “came because of the Jews,” and so people who would be relatively easy to dislocate to any other region in the Arab world, has for long been an inaccuracy diffused in the literature on the issue. An inaccuracy that, on the one hand, contributes to further radicalize the present day history of the region, and, on the other, continues to foster the long-established attempt of simplifying the local universe.

As Haim Gerber once noted, “one basic claim is that the Palestinians lacked positive values in their nationalism, their ideology being confined to a fundamental hatred of Zionism […] Other historians (Zionist and other) claim that […] the people we today call ‘Palestinians’ saw themselves at the time as simply Arabs and nothing more specific […] I shall argue that not one of the historians who have dealt with these questions really got it right.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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