The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine
By Daniel Pipes
Wednesday, Sept. 13, is the
day when a Palestinian state was nearly declared - for the third time.
On October 1, 1948, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, 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 facade
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, Yasir 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 an inch of the territory it claimed. Although the Algiers declaration
received enormous attention at the time (the Washington Post 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 recent statements may 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; Muslims felt far stronger bonds with remote
coreligionists 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 Muslims.
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 Muslims, even
repugnant to them.
This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying
force carved out a "Palestine." Muslims 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
Muslim voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested
Instead, Muslims 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
al-Husayni. 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 Muslims 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 Amin al-Husayni.
Other identities - Syrian, Arab, and Muslim -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
Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum. E-mail:
from the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine