"A gaffe," Michael Kingsley once observed, "is when a politician speaks the truth." Ever since Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told an interviewer, "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state – [it was] part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people, who are, in fact, Arabs and historically part of the Arab community. . . ," he has been accused of having made a Kingsley gaffe.
Before we can determine whether Gingrich's words were a "gaffe," we first must understand what was included in those words, and determine whether they were true. What does it mean to say that Palestinian identity is "invented?" There are at least five different ideas subsumed in that assertion.
FIRST, MOST OF THOSE TODAY DESCRIBED AS PALESTINIANS have only a very brief connection to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. All 19th century visitors to Eretz Yisrael, found the area to be sparsely populated. Walter Clay Laudermilk, one of the leading soil conservationist of the 20th century, described in Palestine, Land of Promise,how by 1887, when the first Jews began working the land, the bountiful land described in the Bible was nowhere to be found. Soil was eroded to the bedrock on over half the hills, and streams across the coastal plain were choked with debris from soil erosion to form malaria-infested marshes. Jericho, the city of the palms, had no trees.
The Jews drained the swamps, leached saline soil, and planted millions of trees. In fifty years, the agricultural settlement of Petach Tikva grew to 20,000 Jews, where only 400 fever-ridded fellaheen had lived previously. The 500,000 Jews who arrived before the creation of Israel made possible a five-fold Arab population growth between 1900 and 1940. Between 1921 and 1942, the number of jobs increased tenfold, and Arab laborers were able to earn twice what they could have in their native Syria, Jordan, or Iraq. Jordan with basically the same conditions as what was then called Palestine had one-fifth the agricultural output and one-tenth the population density.
Most of the Arabs living as of 1948 in what is today referred to in Arabic as Filistin, were attracted by the relative prosperity created by the Jews' return to the Land or brought there by the Ottoman Empire to work on various infrastructure projects, or descended from those in one of those two groups. The claim made most recently by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that the Palestinians are descended from the ancient tribe of Jebusites and have inhabited the area from time immemorial is hokum. (The reference to the Jebusites, known only through TaNaCh, contradicts another Palestinian claim – i.e., that the Jews have no historic connection to Eretz Yisrael – for David Hamelech is described as having bought HaMakom HaMikdash from a Jebusite.)
THE SECOND SENSE IN WHICH THE PALESTINIANS CAN BE DESCRIBED AS AN INVENTED PEOPLE is that the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan never held any special status in Arab thought. The name Palestine itself is of Roman origin, and prior to 1948 was used by Jews far more frequently than Arabs to denote the area under dispute. Prior to Israel's capture of Judea and Samaria in 1967, it occurred to virtually no one that the either Judea and Samaria or Gaza constituted separate lands and could serve as the basis of a future Palestinian state. Judea and Samaria were under Jordanian control, and Gaza under Egyptian control. There was virtually no challenge to respective Jordanian and Egyptian sovereignty from the inhabitants, or pressure for the creation of a Palestinian state. The 1964 version of the Palestinian National Charter renounced any Palestinian territorial claims to the West Bank and Gaza, even though those are the areas which Palestinians now insist will be the heartland of their longed for state. (Less than a handful of nations recognized Jordanian and Egyptian sovereignty in the areas.)
THIRD, JUST AS THERE IS NO HISTORICAL LAND KNOWN AS PALESTINE, or any Arab consciousness of Eretz Yisrael as a distinct entity, so too is there no historical consciousness of a Palestinian people distinct from neighboring Arabs, either linguistically or culturally. Menachem Begin always referred to the Palestinians as Palestinian Arabs to make this point, his long-time confidant Ambassador Yehuda Avner told me. "When [Woodrow] Wilson promulgated his 14 points and pronounced the noble principal of self-determination, he was speaking about peoples and not portions of peoples, Palestinian Arabs are part of the great Arab nation – indistinguishable in every respect," Begin used to say.
The Arab residents of Eretz Yisrael were almost exclusively identified by clans or tribes. These clans moved around greatly, across current borders. For instance, the al-Husayni clan, which produced both the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem and Yasir Arafat, originated in what is today Saudi Arabia.
Zuheir Muhsin, the PLO military commander and a member of the PLO Executive, put the matter most clearly after the 1967 War: "There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity." The Palestinian National Charter affirms that the claim of a specific Palestinian identity is a political fiction: "The Palestinian people are a part of the Arab Nation. . . [and] believe in Arab unity. . . However, they must, at the present stage of their struggle safeguard their Palestinian identity and safeguard their consciousness of that identity."
A FOURTH CRUCIAL POINT ABOUT PALESTINIAN IDENTITY is that it is not a positive identity, but rather used only for its utility in undermining the Jewish state. Unlike the Jewish people, who have longed for millennia for a rebuilt Jewish commonwealth and national sovereignty (however much they argued over the nature of that sovereignty), the focus of Palestinian nationalism has never been on building its own state but on denying the Jews theirs. (Indeed the very concept of statehood is largely foreign to Arab/Muslim thought, in which the clan is the basic political unit and the worldwide caliphate the ultimate goal, with very little in between.)
Palestinian nationalism arose only in response to political Zionism, and has always been viewed by its leading proponents principally as a tool for thwarting Zionism. That is the thrust of the quotations from Zuheir Muhsin and the Palestinian National Covenant cited above. Until July 1920, Al-Haj Muhammad Amin al-Hussayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, the major figure behind the development of Palestinian national consciousness, supported the integration of Palestine into Syria, under the rule of the Hashemite King Faysal, despite concerns that Faysal and the Syrians were not sufficiently hostile to Zionism. Only when the French recaptured Damascus and deposed Faysal, did al-Hussayni abandon his hopes for unification with Syria and begin to focus on Palestine as a separate entity, in the hopes of thwarting the Balfour Declaration.
The reactive aspect of Palestinian nationalism is most clearly reflected in the attention paid to Jerusalem, as Daniel Pipes has noted. Since the Crusades, the importance of Jerusalem in Arab eyes has always been in direct proportion to its importance in the eyes of others. Under the Ottoman rulers – at least following Suleiman the Magnificent, who lavished money on Jerusalem – the city had no special status. It never even became a district capital under the Ottomans. It was just another sleepy provincial town, a mere appendage of the Nablus or Gaza districts.
When the British were negotiating with Saudi Arabian tribes to rebel against Ottoman rule, during World War I, they did not even bother offering them Jerusalem, which was considered of little importance to Moslems. And the Moslem Turks abandoned the city without a fight, after having first given orders to destroy its Moslem holy places.
Most telling, during the period from 1948 to 1967, when the Temple Mount was under Jordanian sovereignty, not one non-Jordanian Moslem leader came to pray in Jerusalem. The Jordanians did not even broadcast Friday sermons from the mosques on the Temple Mount, but rather from Amman.
Only with Israel's reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, did Jerusalem suddenly take on new importance in Moslem eyes. Jerusalem has become the one thing upon which there is unanimity in the famously fractious Moslem world. The Ayatollah Khomeini declared the last Friday in Ramadan Jerusalem Day. The event draws up to 300,000 devotees to Teheran annually. Iranian troops during the Iraq-Iran War were given maps showing the way through Iraq towards Jerusalem.
More ominously, Moslem spokesmen now deny any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount or Jerusalem. Arafat shocked President Clinton at Camp David when he informed him that there had never been a Jewish Temple anywhere in Jerusalem. Clinton was incredulous, but that position is now commonplace among Palestinians and other Arabs.
FIFTH, A PARTICULAR PALESTINIAN IDENTITY has been artificially fostered by Arab states and abetted by the United Nations in order to maintain a permanent strike force against Israel. Apartheid decrees preventing the absorption of Palestinian refugees in states whose populations are ethnically indistinguishable from the refugees were instituted to heighten the refugees' sense of grievance and yearning to return to their pre-1948 homes. The Arab goals have been fully abetted by the international community's unique treatment of the 1948 refugees.
Since the end of World War II,, ethnic strife and the breakdown of multi-ethnic states have resulted in nearly 40,000,000 political refugees worldwide. Between 12 and 16 million ethnic Germans were repatriated after World War II; more than 14 million refugees were created on the Indian subcontinent by its division in 1948 into two states – India and Pakistan . Not a single one of these refugees is still on the rolls of the UN High Commission for Refugees. All have been absorbed in countries where they are part of the ethnic majority.
Only the Palestinian refugees, whose descendants now number well over three million, have a full UN bureaucracy, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) devoted to their assistance (or more accurately to the perpetuation of their refugee status). Only the descendants of those same Palestinian refugees are also designated refugees by the UN in perpetuity. UNRWA in multiple ways continues to foster the refugees' insistence on their "right of return" – a right that if implemented would mean the end of Israel.
Of all the post-1948 refugees only the Palestinians were not absorbed by countries of their same ethnicity – the ones from which most of them had originally emigrated to Palestine. The 1959 Arab League Resolution 1457 provided: "The Arab countries will not grant citizenship to applicants of Palestinian origin in order to prevent their assimilation into their countries." The Arab countries wanted to ensure that the Palestinians not become normalized in their host countries or be able to contemplate any solution to their misery other than the destruction of Israel.
In most Arab countries, writes Khaled Abu Toameh of the Hudson Institute, those of Palestinian origin are banned from purchasing houses or lands, denied jobs in the public and private sectors and access to public education. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians continue to live in fetid refugee camps to ensure they will always constitute a ready strike force for the annihilation of Israel.
We have demonstrated that Newt Gingrich correctly described Palestinian national identity as an artificial construct for at least five reasons. It still remains to be seen whether it was a "gaffe" for him to have stated the truth so accurately. Next week we shall consider some of the most articulate criticisms of Gingrich's focus on history, and seek to determine whether, and in what ways, it is important to continue to draw attention to the artificial nature of Palestinian identity.