At the tail-end of last year, grabbing attention and making headlines – something of utmost importance in a primary campaign – Newt Gingrich reignited and brought to the fore a debate that has long existed in Jewish circles. Are the Palestinian people “invented”? Historically speaking, were Arabs living in the region called Palestinians? Of course, and here Gingrich was correct, the answer is no.
Prior to the creation of the modern Middle East after World War I, no nation-states existed in the region; instead tribal and ethnic identities dominated. The vast region was largely under Ottoman rule. The notable exception was Iran, or Persia, which was never colonized. The arbitrary manner in which the British and French carved up the Middle East is well-documented. National identity had naught to do with it, instead the power of individual Arab leaders and their diplomatic influence was a deciding factor. And anyway, pan-Arabism ruled the day. The Arabs living in Palestine, who had no state to call their own, simply called themselves Arab – as did the rest of their neighbors.
However, there is no denying that a coalesced Palestinian people exist today, both in terms of identity and politics. So how did unspecific “Arabs” evolve into the household name “Palestinians”? Zionism and its successful manifestation in a state forced the creation of a Palestinian identity – especially since the Arab states to which Palestinians fled denied them integration and citizenship.
The first concrete step in the process of establishing identity, however, was the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964, whose goal was liberating Palestine through armed struggle. The more important step came in 1974, when Jordan ceased to represent the Palestinians abroad and the UN granted the PLO observer status. In 1991, at the Madrid Conference, even the United States accepted the Palestinians as an official negotiating party. (Of note is that the Israelis did not, forcing Jordan to once again take up a role it had abandoned years earlier.)
Therefore, is the question of an invented Palestinian simply academic? Does it serve only to create an impasse in negotiations and conversations? Unfortunately in Gingrich’s case the answer is yes. His words were perhaps gutsy, and did perhaps speak to an historical truth, but to what end did he utter them? Primarily to garner attention and support from Jewish voters. His comments did not add any meaningful content to the Israel-Palestine discussion, and in fact several days later Gingrich stated his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.
If a Palestinian people exist in the here and now, why continue to debate their provenance? For Palestinians the answer is clear. It bestows upon them a legitimacy that severely places Israel as the perennial underdog. It offers them sole ownership over the land termed by the Romans as Palestine, which of course includes modern-day Israel (a view clearly espoused in the PLO charter).
For right-wing Zionists, who believe that Jews – and Jews only – have a Biblical right to the land, the matter of Palestinian claim to the land is critical. Delegitimizing Palestinians goes in tandem with fulfilling the God-given right to settle the Holy Land.
But the question does continue to have relevance, even for those whom accept Palestinian identity and endorse Palestinian statehood.
Should the international community accept that the modern-day Palestinian people have been the historical inhabitants of the area known as Israel, Palestine, Judea et cetera, it tacitly endorses the Palestinian “right of return”.
If Palestinians – no matter where they live now – are the historical people of Israel/Palestine, then of course their citizens must be welcomed within the already narrow and confining borders of their divided state. The refugee question ceases to be a point of negotiation between Israel and the PLO, because Palestinians have the historical right of abode. According to Palestinian interpretation, this applies not only to the original refugees, but to any and all of their descendants, many of whom live dire existences in other Arab countries where they are routinely denied citizenship.
The PLO should carefully consider the possible results of their advocacy of both their national identity and their brethren. Should millions of Palestinians appear on the banks of the Jordan River, the infrastructure of the fledgling West Bank would quite literally crumble. Will Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, which under the guidance of the Arab League has consistently refused to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, pick up the tab?
Though Gingrich framed the question in a controversy-stirring manner, the debate surrounding the origins of the Palestinian people can potentially have long-lasting ramifications for the economic and social development of Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. Sometimes accepting “reality on the ground” is risky, despite it ultimately being the only way forward. Although the Arab-Israeli conflict is already so mired in historicity, retaining context and not a little bit of caution is also necessary when the stakes are so high.