The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine [Short version]
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Today is the day when a Palestinian state was nearly declared - for the third time.
On October 1, 1948, the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini, stood before the Palestine National Council in Gaza and declared the existence of an All-Palestine Government.
In theory, this state already ruled Gaza and would soon control all of Palestine. Accordingly, it was born with a full complement of ministers to lofty proclamations of Palestine's free, democratic, and sovereign nature. But the whole thing was a sham. Gaza was run by the Egyptian government, the ministers had nothing to oversee, and the All-Palestine Government never expanded anywhere. Instead, this façade quickly withered away.
Almost exactly forty years later, on November 15, 1988, a Palestinian state was again proclaimed, again at a meeting of the Palestine National Council.
This time, Yasser Arafat called it into being. In some ways, this state was even more futile than the first, being proclaimed in Algiers, almost 3,000 kilometers and four borders away from Palestine, and controlling not a centimeter of the territory it claimed. Although the Algiers declaration received enormous attention at the time (the Washington Post's front-page story read "PLO Proclaims Palestinian State"), a dozen years later it is nearly as forgotten as the Gazan declaration that preceded it.
In other words, today's declaration of a Palestinian state would have retreaded some well-worn ground.
We do not know what today's statement would have said, but like the 1988 document it probably would have claimed that "the Palestinian Arab people forged its national identity" in distant antiquity.
In fact, the Palestinian identity goes back, not to antiquity, but precisely to 1920. No "Palestinian Arab people" existed at the start of 1920 but by December it took shape in a form recognizably similar to today's.
Until the late nineteenth century, residents living in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean identified themselves primarily in terms of religion: Moslems felt far stronger bonds with remote co-religionists than with nearby Christians and Jews. Living in that area did not imply any sense of common political purpose.
Then came the ideology of nationalism from Europe; its ideal of a government that embodies the spirit of its people was alien but appealing to Middle Easterners. How to apply this ideal, though? Who constitutes a nation and where must the boundaries be? These questions stimulated huge debates.
Some said the residents of the Levant are a nation; others said Eastern Arabic speakers; or all Arabic speakers; or all Moslems.
But no one suggested "Palestinians," and for good reason. Palestine, then a secular way of saying Eretz Yisra'el or Terra Sancta, embodied a purely Jewish and Christian concept, one utterly foreign to Moslems, even repugnant to them.
This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying force carved out a "Palestine." Moslems reacted very suspiciously, rightly seeing this designation as a victory for Zionism. Less accurately, they worried about it signaling a revival in the Crusader impulse. No prominent Moslem voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested it.
Instead, Moslems west of the Jordan directed their allegiance to Damascus, where the great-great-uncle of Jordan's King Abdullah II was then ruling; they identified themselves as Southern Syrians.
Interestingly, no one advocated this affiliation more emphatically than a young man named Amin Husseini. In July 1920, however, the French overthrew this Hashemite king, in the process killing the notion of a Southern Syria.
Isolated by the events of April and July, the Moslems of Palestine made the best of a bad situation. One prominent Jerusalemite commented, just days following the fall of the Hashemite kingdom: "after the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine."
Following this advice, the leadership in December 1920 adopted the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Within a few years, this effort was led by Husseini.
Other identities - Syrian, Arab, and Moslem - continued to compete for decades afterward with the Palestinian one, but the latter has by now mostly swept the others aside and reigns nearly supreme.
That said, the fact that this identity is of such recent and expedient origins suggests that the Palestinian primacy is superficially rooted and that it could eventually come to an end, perhaps as quickly as it got started.
Sep. 13, 2000 update: This column summarizes a longer article I published on this same subject in 1989 .
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