by Issam Nassar
The notions of nation and nationalism have played a central role in the process of shaping, making and constructing our modern world and its history. Since the nineteenth century, the nation has proclaimed itself the guardian and champion of all history. With the birth of the nation, national historical narratives were also born. The need arose to create and write authoritative lineages and chronologies that would present the nation not only as an entity but often as ancient and primordial.
Accordingly, it has been the task of some historians to provide nations with a sense of historical legitimacy. The distinction between dead past and living present is what invents historical chronologies that divide the past into different periods assumed to have beginnings and endings (de Certeau 1988). The nation appears as the messiah of history not only because it “consummates all history” (Benjamin 1978: 312) but also because it presents itself as the end of history. Studying the formation and development of a specific national identity is almost more of an academic exercise in “historical teleology” than a search for the actual historical roots of a nation. It is a process that begins from an already known conclusion whereby the historian selects events and employs them retrospectively.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find different narratives on the evolution of each nation. Each national historical narrative depends on what a historian has chosen as a beginning point and as significant events. Of course, the historian does not always select consciously. It is rather a process where interests intersect with ideology, the structure of knowledge, and historical imagination, all of which influence the historian.
The history of Palestinian national identity is one example of the multiplicity of historical narratives, whose implications are particularly weighty in the Palestinian context. It is not only that Palestinians form a national group whose very existence is often questioned by Zionist denial. There are also internal contradictions inside the Palestinian discourse itself, partly because the discourse emerged out of historical processes that were often intended precisely to prevent its emergence.
The construction of a modern Palestinian identity points to a number of challenges and contradictions that simultaneously produced it and made it ambiguous. For example, Palestinian discourse in the 1960s was essentially a pan-Arabist discourse that stemmed from belief in the existence of a larger Arab nation. Simultaneously, it argued that Palestinians constituted a nationed people, in order to counter Zionist discourse that insisted Palestinians were simply Arabs living in Palestine and as such ought to be absorbed by a larger Arab nation. In other words, Palestinian discourse both rejected the Arab sameness argument because Zionism employed it and, at the same time, advocated a form of Arab nationalism. In any case, Palestinian and Arab discourses have already bypassed this 1960s predicament.
Today, even fervent proponents of Arab nationalism accept the existence of different Arab identities, while Palestinians are generally recognized by the international community, and even by Israel, as a people. Nonetheless, since such developments are essentially political in nature, they do not imply that there is agreement about how a collective Palestinian identity came into existence, or its nature and boundaries.
Studying the history of identity through a reading of the past is a matter of utmost importance to the Palestinians themselves not only because it is necessary for the negotiation process. It is tied to the ways that Palestinians define themselves, envision their future, and determine the boundaries of their national political community. However, most Palestinian historians have not adequately considered the question of Palestinian national identity. The few studies dealing with the issue expose, at best, disagreements among historians about the origins and evolution of the Palestinians as a people with identity.
Some historians, particularly Israeli, propose that Palestinian identity was a reaction to Zionist presence, having a recent origin in the 1960s. Others couple the two national movements by saying that “the Zionist movement is one of the most successful national movements in history for it started with the aim of forming one national group, and it ended up with forming two” (see Pappe). Some Palestinian studies also view the formation of Palestinian identity as a relatively recent historical process going back to the events surrounding the start of Zionist immigration to Palestine, the British Mandate period and the failure of the Arab nationalist movement in the aftermath of World War II. Muhammad Muslih (1988), for example, states that Palestinian nationalism was "ushered into its own independent existence mainly as a result of the chaos and disarray of the larger Arab nationalist movement" after the fall of Prince Faisal's government between 1918 and 1920.
In short, theories about Palestinian identity range from total negation of its existence (Arab nationalists and Zionists) to insistence on a long historical presence that goes back to the Canaanites (al-Hout and others).
Interdependent Narratives and “Consciousness”
My starting point is the belief that nations are not infinite primordial entities, as some national thinkers claim. Rather, the nation or people as a collectivity is basically, as Anderson has shown, an imagined political community produced at specific time and place. Construction of such an imagined community is not only an economic and political process but also a cultural-rhetorical one. Therefore, writing its history must not be limited to the political events that produce the nation-people, but must also include the discourse through which the nation is produced and constructed, and the history employed in this production process. Accordingly, the study of the emergence of the Palestinians as a people must be looked at not only through the development of their political institutions (e.g. al-Shareef) but also through the study of the Palestinian imagination, the kind of discourse it produced, and the historical factors influencing it. All contributed to the construction of a Palestinian consciousness with loyalty to the collectivity and helped draw the boundaries of this collectivity.
I realize that limiting the discussion to consciousness and discourse has dangerous implications, for many see in self-consciousness a kind of false consciousness or regard national consciousness itself as a false premise. But, after all, consciousness influences reality and reality influences consciousness. Self-consciousness is not only connected to the way the self is imagined, but also to the way others see, represent, and interact with it.
A main challenge facing historians of Palestinian identity is that a distinctive identity on the political level intersects with, but does not completely depend on, the exclusion of Palestinians (their becoming the Other) for national groups that hold different historical narrations. This makes the study of Palestinian identity based on its own textual sources an almost impossible task. The historian of Palestine, therefore, cannot solely depend on “Palestinian sources” but must rely on, and borrow from, historical texts belonging to other nations in the region. Other textual sources often employ the same historical events on which the Palestinian narrative is trying to base itself.
There are many examples of this narrative overlap. For instance, is it possible to claim that the period of Arab renaissance at the end of the nineteenth century (or the period of the political emergence of Arab national thought during the First World War) belongs only to Lebanese history, or to Palestinian history, or to any other single history? Is it possible to claim that Jewish history in Palestine is a matter relevant only to Israeli history and is not part of the history of the Palestinians themselves?
This intersection of, and frequent conflict between, Palestinian history and other histories poses yet another difficulty. Because the development of Palestinian identity is often explained according to meanings produced in other texts that may ignore the Palestinians themselves, the Palestinian historian is faced with the responsibility of recovering those parts of Palestinian memory that have been colonized by competing historical discourses. The historian of Palestine has the uneasy task of defining modern Palestinian history and separating it from its Israeli counterpart and from the wider Arab history or the history of neighboring countries.
Distinct Early Roots
If the apparent non-independence of Palestinian history is one challenge facing the historian, another is resisting the temptation to invent a completely independent Palestinian narrative. The difference of Palestinian national identity from that of its neighbors does not mean that it is possible to understand it outside the context of histories that are not, strictly speaking, its own. The particularity of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, for instance, ties the Palestinian narrative with its Israeli counterpart, whether both parties like it or not. Thus, not recognizing the connections between Palestinian history and competing histories has led some to consider Palestinian identity as a recent phenomenon, emerging in the 1960s. Such a perspective has led historians to form a rather simplistic solution of seeing the evolution of Palestinian identity through the political history of the region – thus ignoring the roots of Palestinian identity.
True, it is important to consider the impact on the production of Palestinian identity of dominant Middle East ideologies, such as Arab nationalism and Islamism, of the imposed western divisions on the region, and of Zionism. However, these factors, do not explain the evidence that suggests that urban intellectuals in Palestine and the mashreq (the eastern Arab world) began to imagine Palestine as a distinct political unit well before colonial divisions and intensive Jewish immigration. Such imagining occurred though not accompanied by a very distinct Palestinian national consciousness.
The writer (and former Ottoman official in Jerusalem) Najib Azuri proposed in 1908 the idea of expanding the Sanjak (district in the Ottoman Empire) of Jerusalem to include northern Palestine, explaining that this was necessary to develop the land of Palestine (Khalidi 1997: 28-29). Azuri’s vision of Palestine corresponds to Palestine’s borders as they were drawn a decade later by the British, as well as with the borders indicated in the statement issued by the First Palestinian Arab Congress that was held in Jerusalem on 3 February 1919. Participants to the Peace Conference stated in their protest that they represent “all Muslim and Christian residents of Palestine, which is made of the regions of Jerusalem, Nablus, Arab Acre.” Moreover, the protest letter sent by the Muslim-Christian committee in Jaffa to General Allenby in 1918 spoke in the name of “the Arab Palestinian” (see Wathaeq).
Defined borders similar to those created later by the British Mandate indicate belief in the idea of a Palestine distinct from its neighbors. A number of historians accept this view, believing that Palestinian imagining of these boundaries is a product of conditions that largely existed in the nineteenth century. However, they do not agree on the main reason behind such an imagining.
Rashid Khalidi argues for Jerusalem’s centrality in popular imagination among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish residents, which made it a symbol for all other places in Palestine and made visiting it part of their religious identity (1997, 28-29). Other historians also cite the importance of the administrative status of Jerusalem in people’s lives starting in mid-nineteenth century. Jerusalem was an administrative and political center, particularly in the period after 1887, when it became the capital of an independent Sanjak carrying its name and sending delegates to Majlis al-Mab’outheen (the Ottoman parliament). Kimmerling and Migdal point out that such a special administrative status for Jerusalem led to the eventual birth of an independent Palestinian identity after Ottoman rule, basing this on Butrus Abu-Manneh’s argument that such autonomous status "was of tremendous importance for the emergence of Palestine" (Kimmerling and Migdal 1993: 68-69; Abu-Manneh 1978: 25).
While agreeing that the emergence of Palestinian identity is related to the latter Ottoman period, Beshara Doumani does not think this was due to the centrality of Jerusalem. Instead, it is important to examine the “economic, social, and cultural relations between the inhabitants of the various regions of Palestine during the Ottoman period . . . [to understand] why Palestine became a nation in the minds of the people who call themselves Palestinians today.” Doumani points out that Palestine “produced large agricultural surplus and was integrated into the world capitalist economy as an exporter of wheat, barely, sesame, olive oil, soap and cotton during 1856-1882 period” (1995: 245, 4). Nablus, rather than Jerusalem, constituted the main commercial center in the nineteenth century to the villages in a region that spreads from Hebron in the south to the Galilee in the north. Its trade relations with the Greater Syrian hinterlands, particularly with Damascus, made Jabal Nablus the actual center of Palestine.
Yet, there are historians who argue that consciousness of the region generally, and of Palestine as a holy land, expressed in writings by European travelers, missionaries, archaeologists in the nineteenth century, played a role in shaping local recognition of the distinctiveness of Palestine and its geography, even though its frontiers were not clearly drawn (see Scholch). From this perspective and as export-import center, the port of Jaffa was Palestine’s window to the world in the second half of the nineteenth century. Using Ottoman and European statistics, Scholch argues that Jaffa played a central role in shaping an independent meaning for Palestine.
Multiple but Distinct Identifications
Different identifications and narrations do not mean that any one was totally prevalent among Palestine’s population. Rather, different narrations only point to the multiple material conditions that laid foundations for the eventual emergence of a single Palestinian self-identification. There is almost a consensus that loyalties and identifications at the end of the Ottoman period were a combination of local, regional and religious affiliations rather than national ones. The Ottoman, Arab, tribal, and religious identities coexisted among the urban elite and village residents, who often assumed local identities (Khalidi 1997: 63-88). This variety of identities did not necessarily reflect any kind of conflict. Loyalty to the Ottomans did not negate pride in Arab heritage, nor did it mean lack of desire to defend Palestine against foreign greed. The coexistence of different loyalties will continue to accompany Palestinian discourse and later become one special characteristic of Palestinian identity.
Herein lies the main problem for Palestinian historians. For the history of Palestinian self-identification cannot be characterized as chronological in growth, since it has been expressed in different historical belongings and loyalties. Sometimes, the historian finds in the same event evidence of Palestinian particularity and at the same time an insistence on a national identification broader than Palestine. This multiplicity was obvious during the mandate period as well as in the 1950s and 60s.
The conference held in Jerusalem in 1919, for instance, was called “the Arab Palestinian Congress” and its statement emphasized the importance of Palestine independence and unity, asserting at the same time that Palestine was part of Greater Arab Syria. The same thing is noticeable in the 1950s and early 60s. Examine the political program of any the Palestinian political movement at the time (for example, the Arab Nationalist Movement), and you will notice that Palestinian concern with the liberation of Palestine from Zionist control was always expressed in the language of Arab nationalism.
Along with the colonial divisions based on the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), Jewish immigration to Palestine played a main role in the evolution of a distinct Palestinian nation, which began to assume new directions and develop new characteristics. Since early Jewish settlement sought to build agricultural colonies, the initial clash with the Zionist project began in the villages, not in the cities. This produced an important characteristic of Palestinian identity and one of its problems at the same time.
Peasant and Urban Expressions
Rather than the city, the fellahin (peasant) character became an essential part of the way Palestinians view themselves. Later, Palestinians would adopt peasant forms of dress, the kaffiyah headscarf, and the village dance dabkeh as symbols of Palestinian national identity. But, during the British Mandate period, this peasant feeling of distinctness found political expression not in rural areas but in the city, through articles in local newspapers, political discourse, and emerging parties. The different Palestinian newspapers, Al Karmel, Filasteen, and Al Munadi, all without exception, conducted one campaign after another against the Zionist movement and its project in Palestine, demanding that Palestine be maintained for its people as a politically independent entity. Najeeb Nassar, a prominent Palestinian journalist and owner of the Haifa-based Al-Karmel newspaper asked the Arabs of Bilad al Sham (Greater Syria) to support the people of Palestine, whom he called “the Palestinians.” Nassar wrote this in his newspaper in 1914: “We, your Palestinian brothers, share with you all your difficulties. So why don’t you, at least, feel with us a little the disasters raining on us [. . .] and on our country” (quoted in Muhaftha 1989: 23-24).
Nassar’s text reveals early awareness of Palestinian borders and difference from neighboring people in Greater Syria. This awareness becomes deeper after the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and during the British Mandate period, when it starts to take a political bent. In 1923, for instance, the National Arab party announced in its founding statement that its goal is “preserving Palestine for its people […] and establishing a constitutional government in it” (Muhaftha 1989: 225).
Although Arab identity continues to be part of Palestinian discourse during the Mandate period, this discourse begins to focus more and more on the particularity of Palestine. While Palestinian particularity was rooted in historical conditions preceding intensive Jewish settlement activity, it crystallized as a consciousness after the Palestinian encounter with Zionist colonization.
Peasant rejection of settlement and its political expression through urban institutions constitute practical starting points where Palestinians begin to see themselves as an independent people. The Zionist project and British support for it through the Balfour Declaration accelerated the development of a distinct political Palestinian identity. This identity found expression in societies and organizations that characterized themselves as Arab, Syrian, Islamic, or Christian but whose aim was defending Palestine against the Zionist threat. Imagining Palestinian collectivity begins to take a practical bent with the convening of several Palestinian conferences, in reaction to the Zionist threat, with unambiguous demands for the right to self-determination. This collective imagining becomes widespread during the Mandate period until 1948.
Nakba and Identity
The development of a Palestinian national consciousness, however, did not produce its own nation state, as was the case with Arab neighbors of Palestine. Rather, it went through disruption and discontinuity as a result of the events of 1948, which Palestinians call the Nakba, i.e., the catastrophe. A tragic event on different levels (familial, personal, and national), the Nakba resulted, first, in dismantling the social structure of the larger part of the Palestinian population, who became refugees. Second, it caused the disappearance of urban centers from the lives of most Palestinians remaining in Palestine, who were transformed from city dwellers into groups living on the margins of cities. These two consequences mark a turning point in the nature of Palestinian discourse and in its continuity. The refugee status significantly aided in the emergence of Palestinians as a distinct group united by the shared experience of displacement, while the disruption of city life held back the development of a Palestinian collective imagination, which used to be formulated in cities.
The disappearance of local identifications as a result of uprooting accelerated the confirmation of a Palestinian particularity and national feeling. After all, as Homi K. Bhabha notes, the “nation fills the void left in the uprooting of communities and kin” (1994: 139). The exodus and the forced expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and the eventual erection of refugee camps all over the Middle East presented the perfect context for the transformation of the old Palestinian local and communal belongings into a nationalist one. The construction of such a new form of a living locality that is far more complex than the old community and far more symbolic than society to a large extent transfigured “the meaning of home and belonging” (1994: 140).
The uprooting of the Palestinians affirmed for them a kind of particularity and created a condition ripe for the creation of a new kind of national imagining. Therefore, seen within the framework of Palestinian national discourse, the Nakba of 1948 resulted in a rhetorical shift, rather than the beginning or ending of an era in itself. The identity that seemed so clear before 1948, finessed and expressed by the intellectuals of the city elite, was terminated with the end of cities. Further, the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian population centers led to the loss of old local traits and their replacement by a new kind of belonging, that is of the refugee experience as a distinctly Palestinian one.
This experience and its rhetorical shift did not affect all Palestinian Arabs in the same way at the time. While it retained the Palestinian as an “Other,” it did so in relation to new groups in neighboring Arab countries. The exclusion of refugees from other identities forming around them deepened this feeling of “otherness.” Residents of East Jerusalem and parts of Palestine (except for internal refugees among them) did not experience this exclusion in the same way. Many Palestinians in East Jerusalem in the 1950s grew up with a sense of being in “Jordanian” Jerusalem (e.g., Budeiri 1998: 39). As opposed to the Diaspora, a new Palestinian self-awareness took longer to take roots in the West Bank mainly as a result of an active and repressive Jordanian policy intended to Jordanize eastern Palestine and its people. Thus, Palestinian identification in this part of Palestine after 1967 emerged from a combination of circumstances, including Palestinian political activity from abroad and repressive Israeli policies that distanced the West Bank from Jordan socially and economically.
It is no secret that residents of the “West Bank” (both urbanites and villagers) were rather aware of the distinction between themselves as “residents” and those who arrived during and after the war in 1948 as the “refugees.” The notion of a Palestinian collective identity, which started among the refugees and dominated modern Palestinian national discourse, was essentially based on the experience of the refugee camp.
A National Group with National Rights
With the Oslo peace agreement, there emerged a quasi-legal framework for determining who is a Palestinian and who is not, evolving around those who currently live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such a separation will only make future studies of Palestinian identity more confusing because it excludes the Palestinians who do not reside in these areas. West Bank-Gaza centrism can be described as a colonization of historical Palestinian discourse. This reductive transformation of the Palestinians into a single local group deprives those who lived the Palestinian experience of their Palestinianism, casting them once again as refugees, almost permanently so.
Those who lived the catastrophe are now facing a new catastrophe: the legal disappearance of their Palestinian identity, an identity that evolved from their personal diasporic experience in the years between the creation of Israel in 1948 and today.
In conclusion, I believe that the Palestinians constitute a national group with political and national rights that must not be ignored, regardless of how they read their history. The issue of how legitimate a nation is might be relevant for international law, but from the perspective of real history it is a meaningless and futile question.
My main point is that nations, to use the words of Homi Bhabha, “lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye” (1995, 1). In other words, the question is not whether historians, of Palestinian identity in this case, can actually come to agree on the origins of their nation or what kind of nation they envision they have. It is precisely here that the narrative of a nation is what matters most. For not only does it present a certain vision of the past but it also forms the foundation on which a nation views its present and its future. It is important to realize the elusive, ambivalent, pliant and changeable character of national identities.
What makes the Palestinian case difficult is that, because of dispersion, the change is now affecting different parts of the community differently. In the particular circumstances, the mere creation of an authoritative national history of the Palestinian nation will most likely result in the marginalization of some segments among the Palestinians.
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