Palestinians are an Invented People

The statement by Newt Gingrich that the Palestinians are an "invented people" has been criticized by political opponents as indicating a lack of sobriety and stability on his part. Yet, whatever one's views of the sagacity or judgment of Mr. Gingrich on other issues, or one's opinions on the more general issue of the desirability and character of a Palestinian state existing alongside the state of Israel, the accuracy of his statement cannot be denied.

The conclusion stems from two factors. One is that Arabs living in the area now known as Palestine were regarded, both historically and in contemporary times, not as a separate entity but as part of the general Arab people. This has been recognized by Arab spokesmen, by scholars, and by objective international official reports.  The second is that no independent Palestinian state has ever existed, let alone one that manifested a "Palestinian identity."

A few examples can illustrate this. The first Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations in the area met in February 1919, to consider the future of the territory formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which came to an end after World War 1. The Congress declared that "We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, moral, economic, and geographical bonds." The celebrated scholar Philip Hitti, testifying before the Anglo- American Committee in 1946, stated there was no such thing as Palestine in history, "absolutely not."

The important United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in its report of September 3, 1947 remarked that Palestinian nationalism, as distinct from Arab nationalism was a relatively new phenomenon . It concluded that Palestinian identity was only part of a rich tapestry of identities, mostly predicated on Arab and Islamic solidarity.

The Palestinians themselves reached the same conclusion. Ahmad Shuqairy, then Palestinian spokesperson, told the UN Security Council in 1956 that Palestine was nothing more than southern Syria. The head of the Military Operations Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Zuhair Muhsin, declared on March 31, 1977 that "Only for political reasons do we carefully underline our Palestinian identity ...the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there for tactical reasons." The PLO in its own Charter or amended Basic Law (Article 1) says that Palestine is part of the Arab nation.

That "Arab nation" never included a state known as "Palestine." Indeed, the inhabitants of the general Palestinian area were subjects, not of an Arab nation, but of the Ottoman Empire which ruled the area and lasted from 1516 until the end of World War 1.  This was the last generally recognized sovereign power in the area. The area of Palestine was a district of the Empire, officially a vilayet (province), not a political entity. No independent Palestinian state has ever been established, nor was there a single administrative or cultural unit of Palestinians.  Arabs in the area were not different in any way from other Arabs in the Middle East area.  . Nor was Israel established on the ashes of any state other than that of the Ottoman Empire.

The first official naming of "Palestine" as a distinct, defined territorial area came with the decision of the League of Nations , dealing with areas of the former Ottoman Empire, to create a Mandate for Palestine. This was accorded to Great Britain which ruled the area, from the Mediterranean Sea to west of the Jordan River, from 1922 until May 1948.  

All people living in that area were regarded as "Palestinians" without any ethnic connotations. Ironically, the name was used not by Arabs but only by Jews in the area, as in The Palestinian (now the Jerusalem) Post, and the Palestine Symphony (now Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra.  Only after the state of Israel was established in May 1948 did the term "Palestinian" become exclusively used in referring to Arabs in the area.

It is now clear that a concept of Palestinian identity and nationalism has emerged and become a political factor. Whether it first emerged from literary societies and missionary groups a century ago, from the impact of the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 in the Hijazi desert in Arabia, or as imitation of the actions of the Young Turks who in 1908 seized power in the Ottoman Empire is irrelevant.  The new concept became important as a claim to self-determination by Arabs in the period after World War One in reaction against the increasing importance of Zionism and the assertion of self-determination by the Jewish people.  One might say it was even an imitation of the Zionist movement.

The essential problem is not simply a terminological one, a refusal to acknowledge that the category of Palestinian identity is a recent invention. Rather, the insistence on a presumed time honored right of a Palestinian people to the disputed land is being used as a weapon against the right of Israel to exist.  Such an insistence is a handicap to a peaceful negotiated agreement between Palestinians and Israel. 

Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Rutgers University