The term Palestine (in Arabic) was an ancient name for the general geographic region that is more or less today’s Israel. The name derives from the Philistines, who originated from the Eastern Mediterranean and invaded the region in the eleventh and twelfth centuries B.C. The Philistines were apparently from Greece, or perhaps Crete, or the Aegean Islands, or Ionia. They seem to be related to the Bronze Age Greeks, and they spoke a language akin to Mycenaean Greek. Their descendants were still living on the shores of the Mediterranean when roman invaders arrived a thousand years later. The Romans corrupted the name to “Palestina,” and the area under the sovereignty of their littoral city states became known as “Philistia.” Six hundred years later, the Arab invaders called the region “Falastin.”
Throughout all subsequent history, the name designated only a vague geographical entity. There was never a nation of “Palestine,” never a people known as the “Palestinians,” nor any notion of “historic Palestine.” The region never enjoyed any sovereign autonomy, but instead remained under successive foreign sovereign domains, from the Umayyads and Abbasids to the Fatimids, Ottomans and British.
During the British Mandate period (1922–1948), the Arabs of the area had their own designation for the region: Balad esh-Sham (the country, or province, of Damascus). In early 1947, in fact, when the UN was exploring the possibility of the partition of British Mandatory Palestine into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs, various Arab political and academic spokespersons vociferously protested against such a division because, they argued, the region was really a part of southern Syria. Because no such people as “Palestinians” had ever existed, it would be an injustice to Syria to create a state ex nihilo at the expense of Syrian sovereign territory.
During the nineteen years from Israel’s victory in 1948 to Israel’s victory in the Six-Day war, all that remained of the territory initially set aside for the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine under the conditions of the UN partition was the West Bank, under illegal Jordanian sovereignty, and the Gaza Strip, under illegal Egyptian rule. Never during these nineteen years did any Arab leader anywhere in the world argue for the right of national self-determination for the Arabs of these territories. Even Yassir Arafat, from his earliest terrorist days until 1967, used the term “Palestinians” only to refer to the Arabs who lived under, or had fled from, Israeli sovereignty; and the term “Palestine” only to refer to Israel in its pre-1967 borders.
In the PLO’s original founding Charter (or Covenant), Article 24 states: “this Organization does not exercise any regional sovereignty over the west Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, in the Gaza Strip or the Himmah area.” For Arafat, “Palestine” was not the west Bank or the Gaza Strip, which after 1948 belonged to other Arab states. The only “homeland” for the PLO in 1964 was the State of Israel.
However, in response to the Six-Daywar and Arafat’s mentoring by the Soviets and their allies, the PLO revised its Charter on July 17, 1968, to remove the language of Article 24, thereby newly asserting a “Palestinian” claim of sovereignty to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Part of the reframing of the conflict, along with adopting the identity of an “oppressed people” and “victim of colonialism,” then, was the creation, ex nihilo, of “historic Palestine” and the ancient “Palestinian people” who had lived in their “homeland” from “time immemorial,” who could trace their “heritage” back to the Canaanites, who were forced from their homeland by the Zionists, and who had the inalienable right granted by international law and universal justice to use terror to reclaim their national identity and political self-determination.
That this was a political confection was, perhaps inadvertently, revealed to the West by Zahir Muhse’in, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, in a 1977 interview with the Amsterdam-based newspaper Trouw:
“The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct “Palestinian people” to oppose Zionism. [Emphasis added.]
Arafat himself asserted the same principle on many occasions. In his authorized biography he says, “The Palestinian people have no national identity. I, Yasir Arafat, man of destiny, will give them that identity through conflict with Israel.”
But even these admissions—that the concept of a “Palestinian people” and a “Palestinian homeland” were invented for political purposes to justify and legitimize terrorism and genocide—could not stem the enthusiasm of western leaders. Within the space of a few years, the Middle East conflict with Israel was radically reframed. No longer was little Israel the vulnerable David standing against the massive Goliath of the Arab world. As the PLO’s Communist-trained leaders saw the inroads that Vietnam, Cuba, and other “liberation struggles” had made in the west, Arafat promoted the same script for the Palestinians. Now it was Israel who was the bullying Goliath, a colonial power in the Middle East oppressing the impoverished, unarmed, helpless, hapless, and hopeless Palestinians.
Despite the changing imagery, however, one thing remained constant. From his earliest days, Arafat was clear that the PLO’s aim was “not to impose our will on [Israel], but to destroy it in order to take its place . . . not to subjugate the enemy but to destroy him.” The Palestinian nationalism that he and his Communist advisers created would be the only national movement for political self-determination in the entire world, and across all of world history, to have the destruction of a sovereign state and the genocide of a people as its only raison d’etre [reason for existence].
In fact, the Palestinian identity goes back, not to antiquity, but precisely to 1920. No “Palestinian Arab people” existed at the start of 1920 but by December it took shape in a form recognizably similar to today’s.
Until the late nineteenth century, residents living in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean identified themselves primarily in terms of religion: Moslems felt far stronger bonds with remote co-religionists than with nearby Christians and Jews. Living in that area did not imply any sense of common political purpose.
Palestine, then a secular way of saying Eretz Yisra’el or Terra Sancta, embodied a purely Jewish and Christian concept, one utterly foreign to Moslems, even repugnant to them.
This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying force carved out a “Palestine.” Moslems reacted very suspiciously, rightly seeing this designation as a victory for Zionism. Less accurately, they worried about it signaling a revival in the Crusader impulse. No prominent Moslem voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested it.