The “Palestinian People” Or, The Birth Of A Nation?

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a four-part series. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.

By the early 1970s the Arab-Israeli conflict had been successfully redefined by the Arabs for much of the world. No longer was it seen as an attempt by the nearly two dozen Muslim Arab states to wipe out the tiny Jewish (Infidel) state, to pull out the dagger-shaped state that was plunged into the Arab heart, or to remove the “cancer” of Israel from the otherwise healthy Arab body politic — for “dagger” and “cancer” were the two ways Israel had traditionally been described metaphorically by the Arabs. And you don’t take out a dagger part-way, nor do you remove only part of a tumor.

Instead, the war against Israel now is seen as a conflict “between two tiny peoples,” each “struggling for its homeland.” This two-tiny-peoples theme could only be believed by those unaware of the Muslim doctrine that divides the world uncompromisingly between Dar al-Islam (the Domain of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Domain of War, where Infidels still rule), and that makes the duty of Jihad incumbent on Muslims, in the first instance to recover territories formerly Muslim and now held by Infidels, and then to pursue the Jihad until Islam everywhere dominates. There is no end to this struggle, until Muslims triumph everywhere. But most of the world was then, and unfortunately much of it remains, insufficiently attentive to both the texts and teachings of Islam, and of the fact that the war against Israel has always been motivated by Islam, whatever the camouflage provided by either pan-Arabism (under Nasser) or the “self-determination” narrative provided by the recently-invented “Palestinian people.”

Even some Israelis have sought to minimize the role of Islam in the war being made against their country. For many Israelis were eager to believe — who can blame them? — that their war of self-defense against the Arabs did not have to be forever, that the enmity might end if Israel would only show itself amenable to a territorial compromise, and relinquish territory it had won in the Six-Day War. The alternative, that the war against Israel was a Jihad that had no end, was for many Israelis — and still is, for some on the left — too painful to contemplate.

When the “Palestinian people” first began to be mentioned by the Arabs, many Israeli leaders failed to recognize the political potency of this new narrative. Golda Meir was one who did mention the claim, and she gave it short shrift:

“There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”

What Golda Meir said was true, but this business of the Arab “Palestinians” seemed to her so obviously false, that she felt was no need to dwell on the matter. She didn’t realize that this was the beginning of a long and successful campaign to turn the narrative of the Muslim Arab war against Infidel Israel upside down and inside out. It went unnoticed, too, because Israeli leaders after her not only did not repeat her observation, but themselves began — out of an insufficient appreciation of the power of words — to use the phrase “Palestinian people.” The phrase put down roots, even in Israel. The Israelis, so gifted in war-making, have always had a problem with hasbara, that is the information war, both on their own behalf, and in deconstructing the propaganda of their enemies. They did not foresee how easily accepted the claims made on behalf of the “Palestinian people” would become.

Some Arabs, even “Palestinian” Arabs, told the truth about this invented people; they didn’t even mind discussing the reasons for the creation of “a separate Palestinian identity.” Zuheir Mohsen, the head of the As Saiqa terrorist group, as well as the head of military operations for the PLO, and a member of its Supreme Council, gave an interview to the Dutch daily Trouw (March 31, 1977). He noted:

“Between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese there are no differences. We are all part of ONE people, the Arab nation. Look, I have family members with Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian citizenship. We are ONE people. Just for political reasons we carefully underwrite our Palestinian identity. Because it is of national interest for the Arabs to advocate the existence of Palestinians to balance Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity exists only for tactical reasons. The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new tool to continue the fight against Israel and for Arab unity.”

This quote ought to have been picked up and used in speeches by Israeli political figures and diplomats; it never was. Some pro-Israel groups in the United States tried to make something of Mohsen’s admission, but it was not enough to undo the damage, outside of the United States, of the “Palestinian people” narrative. For those ready to abandon Israel wanted to believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, in this “Palestinian people.” The Israelis, dead set on peace-making with Sadat and then, after the Camp David accords, with the “Palestinians,” didn’t want to make trouble with those they tried — in vain — to negotiate with, by denying the “Palestinians” their claim of peoplehood. The Israeli government officials had their hands full with all sorts of problems — constant diplomatic pressures, terrorism, economic boycotts, the worrisome lessons of the Yom Kippur War and an Israeli left that felt Israel should “take risks for peace” without any discussion of what that “peace” would really mean. Israelis saw themselves as the tough sabras, the hard-headed ones, who knew that it was deeds, not words, facts on the ground, not denunciations at the U.N., that mattered. How wrong they were.

Of all the propaganda victories in the conflicts of the postwar period, perhaps the greatest of them all has been the invention of the “Palestinian people.” That invention needs to be dismantled. It will take time. It will also take time to make people recognize that the war on Israel is not a “problem” with a “solution,” but a Jihad that never ends, with which Israelis have learned to cope. The rest of the West, imperiled by the same Qur’an-maddened Jihadis, can take lessons from, rather than self-assuredly give lessons to, the beleaguered but unbowed Jewish state. Meanwhile, Israel needs to deconstruct the “Palestinian people” canard. Prime Minister Netanyahu could, if he wished, start undoing the Arabs’ verbal victory by quietly demoting the word “Palestinian” from ethnic noun to geographic adjective, from “the Palestinians” to “the Palestinian Arabs.” And he could insist that all Israeli spokesmen use the same phrase — “Palestinian Arabs” — and carefully refrain from referring to the “Palestinian people.” It might have an effect, and it’s an idea certainly worth running up the flagpole, even now, fifty years on, to see if anyone salutes.