Palestinian Nationalism


Some have questioned whether there is a distinct “Palestinian” collective identity, sometimes referring to Palestinians as an “invented people.” (Of course, all ethnic groups and other collective identities are “invented” in the sense that they are sociological constructs, not predetermined in the natural world.) Here are some of the historic milestones that identify Palestinians as separate from other Arabs.

(For a contrarian analysis, see Back when Palestinians insisted there’s no such place as Palestine by Steven E. Zipperstein, The Times of Israel, September 4, 2022.)

1830: Uprising of the Arab community of Palestine against Egyptian ruler on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. (This is the earliest reference I have found, in the book “Palestinians: The Making of a People” by Joel Migdal and Baruch Kimmerling. The claim seems a bit weak and is not widely accepted among historians, but Migdal and Kimmerling are respected academics and make a legitimate, if debatable, argument.)

1880s-1890s: Beginning of modern-day Jewish immigration to Palestine and the Zionist movement sparks debate in the Arab community of Palestine as to how to view and respond to these new trends.

1911: The Arabic newspaper Filasteen established in Jaffa and begins publications (Source: Conversations with the Palestinians of 1967: Has Anything Changed? by Menahem Milson, Mosaic, August 29, 2016)

1917: Balfour Declaration, opposed by the Arab countries and the Arab population of Palestine

January-February 1919 First Palestinian Arab Congress: “We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria.”

1920: The Haifa conference of the Palestinian Arab Congress “is the historical moment where the Palestinian version of nationalism prevails over the pan-Arab version.” (Source: La question de Palestine (French Edition), 1999 by Henry Laurens, p. 545

1929: David Ben-Gurion acknowledged the nationalism of the Arabs of Palestine as a legitimate political movement (source: Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War by Shabtai Teveth, Oxford University Press 1985, p. 83):

“It’s true that the Arab national movement has no positive content. The leaders of the movement are unconcerned with betterment of the people and provision of their essential needs. They do not aid the fellah; to the contrary, the leaders suck his blood, and exploit the popular awakening for private gain. But we err if we measure the [Palestinian] Arabs and their movement by our standards. Every people is worthy of its national movement. The obvious characteristic of a political movement is that it knows how to mobilize the masses. From this prospective there is no doubt that we are facing a political movement, and we should not underestimate it. [….] A national movement mobilizes masses, and that is the main thing. The [Palestinian] Arab is not one of revival, and its moral value is dubious. But in a political sense, this is a national movement.”

1948: “Nakba,” the mass expulsion (and/or escape) of Arabs from Palestine during Israel’s War of Independence. This is the most obvious “defining moment” in the development of Palestinian peoplehood.

October 1, 1948: Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem, stood before the Palestine National Council in Gaza and declared the existence of the All-Palestine Government (Hukumat ‘Umum Filastin)

January 13-17, 1964: In Cairo, the first Arab League summit announces the intention to organize Palestinians so that they can contribute to the liberation of Palestine.

May 29, 1964: The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is established at the first Palestine National Council meeting in Jerusalem.

January 1, 1965: Fatah launches its “armed struggle” against Israel. (The PLO celebrates its “birthday” at the anniversary of its first terror attack, against Israel’s national water carrier, on January 1, 1965.)

June 1967: Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

July 1968: Adoption of the Palestinian National Charter by the Palestine National Council

1974: Arab League summit in Rabat designated the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and reaffirmed their right to establish an independent state of urgency.”  (Source: Jordan, the United States and the Middle East Peace Process, 1974-1991 by Madiha Rashid al Madfai)

November 15, 1988: At meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat declared “the establishment of the state of Palestine in our Palestinian nation, with holy Jerusalem as its capital.”

December 13, 1988: Yasser Arafat, in a speech at UN General Assembly in Geneva, reiterated the declaration of independence of the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, and reaffirmed the right of the refugees to return and the right of self-determination.

1993: Establishment of the Palestinian Authority and, with it, limited self-rule for Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pursuant to the Oslo Accords.

Note: Using the term “Palestinians” does not imply that there has ever been (or necessarily should ever be) a Palestinian state. You can call someone a Midwesterner or Scandinavian or African-American without saying anything at all about sovereignty or political history. “Palestinian” is a collective self-identification, a sociological construct, not political statement.