Why “Invent” the Palestinians?

This month, in Amman, Jordan, Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators met for their first time in 15 months to try to restart the “peace process.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian group that rules in Gaza, Hamas, has repeated its declaration: “The battle for the liberation of Jerusalem is closer than ever and, God willing, we will win.” Which is it to be, peace or war?

Perhaps this question should be considered against the background of the recent ruckus Newt Gingrich caused in December by saying, “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are, in fact, Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people. . .” The entire political spectrum took umbrage.  A critique from the right came from Elliott Abrams, a former Bush deputy national security adviser, who said: “There was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well, and also have no right to statehood. Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and whether we like it or not, it exists.”

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This critique seems to confuse two things.  Palestine, of course, has never been a state.  In 1920, Palestine was carved out as a territory by the British, against the wishes of the Arabs living there who thought of themselves as inhabitants of Greater Syria.  When it was within their power the Arabs never thought to create Palestine as a country, nor did the Ottomans. Were it to become one, it would have to be “invented,” just as have been all other states, like Jordan, Syria or Iraq, all of which are 20th-century creations.  In this respect, Abrams is correct.

However, states are human constructs; peoples are not.  Peoples exist according to ethnic and linguistic distinctions.  For instance, the Kurds are a distinct people, as are the Berbers.  So are the Arabs.  They were not “invented”; they simply are.  Ignore them at your peril.  Their existence, however, does not translate automatically into a right to Kurdish, Berber or Arabic statehood.  For that, other things are needed, including viability.

Never having possessed a state, do the Palestinians nonetheless exist as a people?  Are they distinct linguistically or ethnically from the sea of Arabs in which they live?  The answer is no.  In this Gingrich is right. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people and to speak of them as such is clearly an “invention.”  The real question that needs to be asked is why have they been “invented”?  The answer to this can be suggested by an analogy that removes us from the immediate passions of the Middle East in order to see this situation more clearly.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies moved the borders of defeated Germany westward, giving large chunks of it to Poland and Russia.  In the process, most of what had been Prussia disappeared.  The people in the easternmost portions of Germany were told simply to move. Immediately after the war, old people, women and children were forced to march westward with whatever they could carry or transport.  This forced relocation involved an estimated 10 million people, of whom some 1 million perished in the harsh conditions.  This was not the Allies’ finest hour.

Now, let us suppose that the new post-war Germany assembled the survivors in refugee camps, denied them citizenship, even the right to marry other Germans, cultivated their grievances, reminded them constantly that their one goal must be to regain Prussia for the great German people, who would not make permanent peace with Poland or Russia until these refugees were granted a “right of return” to the Prussia which was forcibly taken from them.

Such a policy would clearly have meant that Germany did not accept its post-World War II borders or the legitimacy of the post-war settlement.  Its purpose in keeping the refugees in camps and cultivating in them a lively sense of grievance would have been to use them as a political tool to regain lost territory.  If Germany had done this with its 10 million refugees in 1946, the number of people in those camps 60 years later would be closer to 40 million.  Generation after generation, these refugees would have been taught that their real home was located in territory within Poland or Russia. Had there been 40 million aggrieved people living in the heart of Europe in refugee camps, would Europe be reunited and free today?  The answer is clearly no.  If there had existed an imagined “right of return” for Prussians, it would have been politically impossible.  Europe is now whole and free because Germany accepted its defeat after two world wars and assimilated its refugee population.

Why can’t Arabs do this?  Or why haven’t they?  There have been three attempts by Arab countries to wipe out Israel since its founding in 1948, the time from which Abrams dates the growth in Palestinian nationalism.  Each of these attempts has failed. And as a consequence, Arab lands have been lost to Israel.  Most Arab countries have not accepted these defeats, and insist that their losses not bear any consequences.  They demand that the situation be restored to the status quo ante — as if they had not precipitated these wars and been defeated.  In addition, the people from these lost territories have been kept in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank for some 60 years, not allowed citizenship in the adjoining Arab nations (with one exception), and incited with an undying sense of grievance that they have been unjustly dispossessed of their land and, therefore, have a “right of return.”  Their whole purpose as an “invented” people is as a weapon against Israel.  In other words, the wishes of the Palestinians are not now, nor have they ever been, paramount.  Had they been assimilated in the surrounding Arab countries, they would be politically useless.  Their “rights” are a veneer to keep them in refugee camps, the continuing existence of which is testimony to the Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of any postwar order or, ultimately, the legitimacy of Israel itself (only Jordan and Egypt have diplomatically recognized its existence).

While this may help explain why the Palestinians were “invented,” it does not elucidate the source of Arab intransigence in refusing to reach an accommodation with Israel short of the restoration of all that was lost in the repeated attempts to destroy it.  In fact, even that restoration may not be enough.  Anyone familiar with Al Manar (Palestinian) TV and the general propaganda against Israel throughout the Middle East might reasonably ask if there are any conditions under which the Arab world would allow Israel to continue to exist, other than by the strength of its own arms.  And if not, why not?  Organizations such as Hamas, quoted above, and Hezbollah repeatedly make clear that the real problem is the very existence of Israel.  But why is this a problem, and is its nature political or religious and theological?  If it is the former, a negotiated settlement may be possible.  If it is the latter, this is highly unlikely, if not impossible.  Which is it?  The answers to these questions must be sought in the heart of Islamic revelation – in the Qur’an.

Islam says nothing about states, only peoples, and these it defines through religion.  How does Islam regard Judaism?  In Surah 5, Allah says that He established a Covenant with the Jews and gave them His revelation.  The Jews possessed the Holy Land by virtue of this Covenant.  But then the Qur’an cites the offence for which the Jews are forever cursed: “they changed my words.” The Jews changed God’s words; they changed His revelation.  One can only appreciate how great and unforgivable this offence is by grasping the orthodox Muslim understanding that the Qur’an has co-existed eternally with God, in heaven, in Arabic, exactly as it exists today. Within this understanding of the Qur’an, the enormity of the Jewish offence becomes clear as a blasphemous act of colossal pride, for which they lost their right to the Holy Land.

Therefore, the Jewish claim to, and exercise of, sovereignty over the Holy Land and, indeed, sovereignty over some Muslims there, on the basis of Surah 5, is an incalculable offense and, for many Muslims, simply unacceptable. This is what drives the animus against Israel’s very existence. Until someone comes up with a new interpretation of Surah 5 that is widely accepted in the Muslim world, it is hard to have a great deal of hope for the sort of peace in the Middle East that we see in Europe.

If Jewish sovereignty in Israel is incompatible with the Qur’an, the rest becomes clear.  Then one sees why, when Gaza was given the chance for self-rule, it was not used to display Palestinian capacity and desire for the rule of law and democratic constitutional government, but was turned into a weapons platform against Israel.  It is why, at the 2000 Camp David summit, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of more than 95% of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem, without even bothering to make a counter offer.  By proffering a Palestinian state and substantial reparations, Israel was interested in ending the conflict.  Arafat was interested in using the conflict to end Israel.  Little has changed since then, including the recent Palestinian attempt to declare a state unilaterally.

This situation exists, as Abrams might say, “whether we like it or not.”  But the least we can do is to see it as it is.  This would include understanding the Palestinians as the “invented” people they are and comprehending the purposes for which the invention was made.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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