The roots of Palestinianism
"Palestinian identity emerged not as a proactive articulation of shared culture, history or aspirations, but rather as a reactive construct."
How does somebody identify with a country that never existed?
They cannot, at least in the traditional sense.
Palestinianism — the mantle claimed by the likes of Hamas, Fatah, and other major Palestinian identified groups — is best understood as a movement, an ideology, and/or a belief system.
With a war raging between Israel and Hamas, it’s more important than ever for observers to understand the geopolitical foundations of the situation unfolding today.
So we brought a contributor to The Dossier who can explain the roots of Palestinian identity, free from any false or propagandistic fodder.
Submitted pseudonymously by “The Polymath” (edited with additional media, and for context and clarity):
WHO ARE THE PALESTINIANS
History of Distinct Identities in the Levant
In ancient times, the Levant was a cradle of civilizations, a veritable crossroads that beckoned various groups to settle and flourish. Phoenicia, primarily present-day Lebanon, was home to master mariners and traders.
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Contrary to a monolithic view of Phoenicia as a unified state, it actually consisted of a collection of independent city-states like Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. Each of these maritime hubs was a separate entity, governed by its own royal lineage, worshipping its specific pantheon, and oftentimes speaking dialectal variations. Even though they shared a common cultural backdrop, epitomized by their unique alphabetic script and seafaring prowess, they never coalesced into a unified Phoenician 'nation'—a notion that was more an external label from Greek historiography than an internal identity.
Syria, another focal point of the ancient Levant, had a variegated history rooted in its multicultural and multiethnic populace. From the Canaanites and Amorites to the later influence of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, and Byzantine empires, Syria was a melting pot of diverse traditions and religious practices.
Various capitals like Damascus and Aleppo became epicenters of learning, trade, and power, each contributing to a multifaceted Syrian identity that was far from homogeneous.
Transjordan, which encompasses modern-day Jordan, parts of Southern Syria, and parts of Northern Saudi Arabia, also harbored its share of ancient societies.
Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites were among the early settlers, each carving out their own realms in this geographically varied landscape. Their territorial enclaves were often delineated by natural fortifications, such as mountains and valleys, which fostered a strong sense of localized identity. Egypt stood distinct due to its unique geographical attributes. Enclosed by vast deserts and nourished by the Nile, it developed a civilization that, although frequently engaged with its Levantine neighbors, retained a singular cultural identity.
This distinction was cemented by a long line of native dynasties and unique religious and sociopolitical systems, notably exemplified by the Pharaohs and their centralized state apparatus.
Islamic Conquests and Medieval Periods
The medieval era marked a transformational phase, particularly with the onset of the Islamic conquests. While the Islamic Caliphates, from the Umayyad to the Abbasid and the Fatimid, brought a semblance of religious and administrative unity, they did not erase the unique characteristics of each region.
In Syria and Egypt, the Islamic empires adopted many administrative and architectural practices from their Byzantine and Coptic predecessors, respectively. Transjordan, meanwhile, became an important crossing point for pilgrimages and trade between the Arabian Peninsula and Greater Syria, thereby maintaining its relevance while absorbing Islamic influences.
Sykes-Picot Agreement: Artificial Boundaries
The waning years of the Ottoman Empire served as a prelude to European imperial ambitions. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 is emblematic of this colonial intercession.
Far from a benign administrative exercise, this British-French agreement imposed a European conception of statehood and territoriality on a region with pre-existing socio-cultural demarcations. Notably, this division laid the foundation for modern Lebanon as a Christian-majority state—a decision that further exacerbated religious divisions within the Levant.
Rise of Nationalism in the 20th Century: Striving for Independence
The 20th century ushered in revolutionary waves of nationalism, often spurred by the political and intellectual elites who had studied in European capitals. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq became battlegrounds for competing visions of statehood, ranging from pan-Arabism to localized nationalism. This era marked a departure from the traditional sectarian or tribal identities towards a broader, yet territorially confined, sense of nationhood.
Palestine presents a peculiar case in the quest for nationhood in the Levant. With its population largely constituted of Arab families whose roots often extend across the artificial borders into Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, Palestine's path to statehood has been less straightforward. Its unique position has been further complicated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Historical Background of Palestine
Palestine has long been a crossroads of civilizations, religions, and empires—from Byzantines and Romans to Ottomans.
However, its history is deeply intertwined with the Jewish people, who according to biblical accounts, settled in ancient Canaan. They established the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, contributing significantly to the region's cultural and religious landscape, such as the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These kingdoms faced invasions and exiles, but their legacies are integral to modern Judaism. The land underwent various phases of foreign rule, eventually becoming part of the Roman Empire, which renamed it "Syria Palaestina" to distance it from its Jewish roots.
The idea of a unified, independent Palestinian state was not something that evolved naturally from its history. During the Ottoman rule, for example, what we now call Palestine was administratively fragmented into different districts, integrated into a larger, relatively decentralized empire. Identity was often tied to locality—village, clan, or religious community—rather than a broader national sense of belonging. Therefore, any initial inertia towards statehood needs to be viewed against this historical backdrop, which was marked by administrative fragmentation and a multiplicity of localized identities.
The Impact of Colonialism
The entry of the British into Palestine post-World War I, through the establishment of the British Mandate, introduced new terminologies and geographies. Territories were redefined, borders were drawn, and identities were often externally imposed. These new geopolitical realities forced the local populations to navigate a spectrum of loyalties and identities, which until then had been largely shaped by more immediate social and religious fabrics.
When we look at neighboring entities like Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the journey towards statehood and nationalism, although not devoid of complexities, followed a simpler trajectory. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which artificially divided much of the Middle East between British and French spheres of influence, did provide a pathway for these entities towards eventual statehood. Whether it was the Hashemite dynasty finding a new throne in Jordan or the unique confessional system institutionalized in Lebanon, these states began crystallizing around nascent national identities relatively earlier in the 20th century, although not without their own sets of challenges and internal divisions.
In contrast, Palestine’s Arab populations found themselves in a far more nebulous situation.
Nationalism, as a concept and aspiration, was imported into Palestine as a response to external challenges—firstly, against the British Mandate and secondly, against the migration of Jews who were often viewed as intruders. The resistance was not for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state per se, but against these external forces that were upsetting the existing socio-political equilibrium.
The Role of the Grand Mufti
We have to mention Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was a pivotal religious and political leader among Palestinians, wielding considerable influence over public opinion and societal norms during his tenure.
During the tumultuous years leading up to and including World War II, al-Husseini forged a dark alliance with Nazi Germany, motivated by mutual anti-Semitic convictions.
This alliance extended beyond mere diplomatic maneuvering; it involved active collaboration such as propagandist radio broadcasts and even meetings with Adolf Hitler.
Al-Husseini's engagement with Nazi ideologies served to inflame an already existing animosity toward Jews within certain factions of the Arab population, transforming it into an uncompromising and ideologically charged form of hatred.
This heightened animosity contributed to the radicalization of elements within the Palestinian populace, perpetuating a cycle of distrust and violence that made peaceful coexistence increasingly untenable. It left a lasting legacy that has continued to pose significant challenges for peaceful reconciliation between the two communities.
The Reactive Origins of Palestinian Identity (1948-1967)
In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the establishment of the State of Israel, the urgency for crafting a unified, singular Palestinian identity surged, albeit under circumstances that could be best described as reactive and externally conditioned.
Contrary to a widespread but simplistic perception, the primary objective of the neighboring Arab states that entered the war against Israel was not the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Instead, their motivations were rooted in a broader rejection of the Jewish presence, which was seen as an affront to the Arab character of the land, and by extension, an assault on their own geopolitical interests and prestige.
This is not to say that the absence of a Palestinian state was inconsequential to these Arab countries. However, their military intervention was more in alignment with ousting what they considered an intrusive entity, rather than the proactive establishment of Palestinian sovereignty.
For instance, Jordan aimed to annex parts of the territory that had been allocated to the Arab state by the United Nations' partition plan, and Egypt had its own geopolitical calculations, including maintaining its leadership role in the Arab world.
Consequently, the Arabs living in the Palestine region found themselves caught in a crossfire of competing nationalisms and regional ambitions. The Arab states' initial failure to defeat Israel left them stateless and substantially contributed to the Palestinian refugee crisis.
Palestinian identity emerged not as a proactive articulation of shared culture, history or aspirations, but rather as a reactive construct.
The period up to 1967, which witnessed the Six-Day War, was formative in shaping the identity of Palestinians and the attitudes of Arab states towards Israel. The early era was typified by a reactive form of nationalism among Palestinians, an identity largely formulated in opposition to external pressures, most notably the establishment of Israel and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians from their homes. This reactive identity wasn't particularly conducive to galvanizing international support or fostering productive dialogue because it was intrinsically oppositional, rooted more in what Palestinians were against—namely, displacement and “occupation”—rather than a coherent vision of what they were for, such as a concrete outline for statehood or governance.
Yasser Arafat and the Proactive Transformation of Palestinian Identity
Amid these changing regional dynamics, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) played a pivotal role in transforming the Palestinian cause from a reactive to a more proactive endeavor.
Arafat understood the importance of symbolism and the power of narrative in building a national identity. Under his leadership, the PLO adopted a distinct Palestinian flag and engaged in a concerted effort to standardize and disseminate a unique Palestinian lexicon aimed at fostering a separate national consciousness.
Arafat deftly employed these symbols and language of collective memory and trauma to rally Palestinians around shared emblems of nationhood, transcending the localized identities tied to specific villages or religious communities that had characterized Palestinian identity up until that point. His efforts gained momentum when the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" in 1974, effectively divorcing Palestinian identity from the Khartoum Resolution's "Three No's" of 1967—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
The modern conception of Palestinian national identity has been largely shaped by a series of external circumstances and geopolitical events, rather than by a natural or internally-driven evolution toward nation-statehood. Prior to the late 19th century, the region we now know as Palestine was marked by a diversity of localized identities and affiliations, often centered around villages, clans or religious communities, and lacking a unified national consciousness.
The concept of a Palestinian state was non-existent, being more an administrative division within broader empires than a geopolitical entity aspiring for independent nationhood.
However, the landscape began to shift dramatically with the onset of geopolitical changes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The arbitrary divisions of the Middle East by external powers, most notably after World War I, created artificial boundaries that did not necessarily correspond to the existing ethno-religious or tribal divisions.
Additionally, the influx of Jewish immigrants under the British Mandate, buoyed by the Zionist aspiration for a return to their homeland, acted as a catalyst in the forming of a Palestinian nationalism.
The increased Jewish immigration led to heightened land disputes and conflicts, forcing the Arab population to re-evaluate and redefine their collective identity in contrast to the incoming immigrants.
Moreover, the independence and formation of neighboring Arab nation-states further complicated matters. As these newly independent nations began to assert their sovereignty, the Palestinians found themselves without a state, largely because their Arab neighbors initially showed limited interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state. This vacuum led to the necessity for the Palestinians to organize politically, exemplified by the formation of groups like the PLO, to assert their claims for self-determination.
Thus, the modern Palestinian identity emerged not out of a long-standing, internally-driven quest for statehood, but as a complex response to a series of external circumstances, including arbitrary regional divisions by foreign powers, an influx of Jewish immigrants with national aspirations over a stateless land and a shifting geopolitical landscape that included the independence of neighboring Arab countries.
In essence, the Arabs in Palestine did not initially seek to form a nation-state as they didn't see themselves having a distinct identity; rather, the concept was brought upon them by a set of highly consequential external circumstances.
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