No less significant than the problem of land devastation was the striking absence of Palestinian national coherence; then, and for years afterward. Palestinian “identity” was a mix of Ottoman, Arab, Islamic, Christian, European, and local Palestinian influences. In their politics, social structure, land tenure and political and ideological trends Palestinian Arabs identified with Greater Syria and “the larger Arab people.”
Even Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi, an expert on Palestinian identity, has recognized that before World War I “Palestine” did not exist. During the Mandatory era internal Palestinian politics were dysfunctional. Leaders did not lead, nor could they mobilize public support or establish a Palestinian “state structure” or “representative institutions.”
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti and recognized Palestinian leader, fled during the Arab revolt that began in 1936. Arriving in Nazi Germany in 1941, he achieved subsequent notoriety as Hitler’s favorite Arab collaborator.
Shortly before the State of Israel was born, Arab historian Philip Hitti conceded: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.” By 1948, Khalidi concludes, Palestinians had “lost agency” – to the nascent Jewish state, neighboring Arab states, and international bodies. As late as 1964, when the PLO was founded (largely by Arab states to control their Palestinian brethren), “the very idea of ‘Palestine,'” he suggests, “appeared to be in a grave, and perhaps in a terminal state.”
Indeed, a Palestinian people with a distinctive identity and consciousness did not begin to emerge until the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six-Day war. Why was it, wondered Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, “that on June 4th 1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian . We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of a sudden we were Palestinians.”
With a fragile national identity, in a land that had never been inhabited by a (previously non-existent) “Palestinian” people, West Bank Jordanian Arabs would soon become known as Palestinians.
Even Zuhair Muhsin, PLO military commander and member of the Executive Council, acknowledged: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation … the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes.” The vision of a Palestinian state, he conceded, was merely “a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”
That is hardly a recipe for nation building, but it may help to explain why Palestinians have plundered Jewish history to define themselves while engaging in persistent efforts to delegitimize Israel. A continuing theme in this campaign has been a twisted version (perhaps not unintentional) of Rev. Keith’s aphorism about a land without a people for a people without a land – to which he added, in his Conclusion, a sharp reference to “those few” who “have but a slight hold on the land that is not theirs.”
The distortion came from Edward Said, the renowned Columbia University literary scholar and passionate Palestinian advocate in exile who served in its National Council (the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization). In The Question of Palestine (1979), Said wrote (erroneously) that Zionists had viewed Palestine as a land “without people.” Altering Rev. Keith’s observation by changing “a people” to “people,” he invested the phrase with new meaning that inspired loyal acolytes to condemn Zionist “racism” and moral blindness, feeding the malevolent desire for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Ironically, Said imaginatively constructed his own “Palestinian” identity. Born during a brief family sojourn in Jerusalem to a Lebanese mother and Egyptian father (holding American citizenship), his boyhood was spent amid wealth and comfort in Cairo – until he moved to the United States as a teen-ager. Yet in his memoir Out of Place (1999), Said fondly recalled the “Jerusalem” boyhood (in Cairo) that molded his “Palestinian” identity.