Politically motivated mythology of "Palestine"
Yes, the existence of a separate
identity serves only tactical
founding of a Palestinian state is a new
in the continuing battle against Israel
-- Zuheir Muhsin, late Military Department
of the PLO and member of its Executive
Council, Dutch daily Trouw, March
The Prophet Muhammad said, "War is deception
-al-Bukhari, al-Jami al Sahih
Although a politically based mythology
has grown up around and smothered, the documented past of the land known
as "Palestine," there is recognition among preeminent scholars of what
one of them has called "the more chauvinist Arab version of the region's
history as having begun with the Arabs and Islam."1
The claim that Arab-Muslim "Palestinians"
were "emotionally tied" to "their own plot of land in Palestine" -- based
upon a "consistent presence" on "Arab" land for "thousands of years"2
-- is an important part of that recent mythology.
It was contrived of late in a thus far
successful Orwellian propaganda effort-an appeal to the emotions that would
"counter Zionism" and that "serves" tactical purposes as a new tool in
the continuing battle against Israel," as the late PLO official Muhsin
stated candidly in an interview, quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
In order to understand how that tool, aided
by a general near-ignorance of the "unrelenting past," has distorted the
perception of the present, a look at the "yesterday" of "Palestine" is
The inspection will be focused upon completing
a circle-tracing the actual conditions and events that have been glossed
over or omitted from the dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict; they
are conditions and events that shaped the real political, economic, and
demographic circumstances in the area. Those circumstances in turn critically
affected what "justice" really consists of-for the Jewish and Arab refugees,
or the "Palestinian Problem"-for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Illuminating
that situation reveals and fills in the chasm between the documented facts
and the Arab claims, and gives perspective to those contentions and assumptions
that have become key in interpreting what is "just" for the population
in question today.
"The only Arab domination since the Conquest
in 635 A.D. hardly lasted, as such, 22 years...," the Muslim chairman of
the Syrian Delegation attested in his remarks to the Paris Peace Conference
in February 1919.3
The British Palestine Royal Commission
reported in 1937 that "it is time, surely, that Palestinian 'citizenship'
. . . should be recognized as what it is, as nothing but a legal formula
devoid of moral meaning."4
That the claim of "age-old Arab Palestinian
rights to Arab Palestine" is contradicted by history has been pointed out
by eminent historians and Arabists.
According to the Reverend James Parkes,
"The Land was named Palestina
by he Romans to eradicate all trace
of its Jewish history..."
It may seem inappropriate to have
devoted so much time to "a situation which passed away two thousand years
ago." But it is only politically that the defeat by Rome, and the
scattering of the Jewish population, made a decisive change in the history
of The Land. That which had been created by more than a thousand years
of Jewish history [a thousand years before A.D. 135] remained, as did that
which was beginning to be created in the thoughts of the young Christian
Many authorities have addressed the misconceptions
surrounding the word Palestine. The name derived from "other migrants
from the northwest, the Philistines. Though the latest arrivals,
and though they only exercised control over the whole country for a few
uncertain decades, they had been the cause of its name of Palestine. These
an Aegean people, driven out of Greece and Aegean islands around
about 1300 B.C.E. They moved southward along the Asiatic coast and in about
1200 attempted to invade Egypt. Turned back, they settled in the maritime
plain of southern 'Palestine', where they founded a series of city-states."6
According to Bernard Lewis, an eminent
authority, "The word Palestine does not occur in the Old Testament. . .
. Palestine does not occur in the New Testament at all."
The official adoption of the name
Palestine in Roman usage to designate the territories of the former Jewish
principality of Judea seems to date from after the suppression of the great
Jewish revolt of Bar-Kokhba in the year 135 C.E.... it would seem that
the name Judea was abolished ... and the country renamed Palestine or Syria
Palestina, with the ... intention of obliterating its historic Jewish identity.
The earlier name did not entirely disappear, and as late as the 4th century
C.E. we still find a Christian author, Epiphanius, referring to "Palestine,
that is, Judea."
As many, including Professor Lewis, have pointed
out, "From the end of the Jewish state in antiquity to the beginning of
British rule, the area now designated by the name Palestine was not a country
and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries; it was a group of
provincial subdivisions, by no means always the same, within a larger entity.7
[See the map of "Ancient Palestine" in Appendix I"
In other words, it appears that Palestine
never was an independent nation and the Arabs never named the land to which
they now claim rights. Most Arabs do not admit so candidly that "Palestinian
identity" is a maneuver "only for political reasons" as did Zuheir Muhsin.
But the Arab world, until recently, itself frequently negated the validity
of any claim of an "age-old Palestinian Arab" identity.
The Arabs in Judah-cum-Palestine were regarded
either as members of a "pan-Arab nation," as a Muslim community, or, in
a tactical ploy, as "Southern Syrians."8 The
beginning article of a 1919 Arab Covenant proposed by the Arab Congress
in Jerusalem stated that "The Arab lands are a complete and indivisible
whole, and the divisions of whatever nature to which they have been subjected
are not approved nor recognized by the Arab nation."9
In the same year, the General Syrian Congress had the opposite view; it
expressed eagerness to stress an exclusively Syrian identity: "We ask that
there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine
. . .'10 The Arab historian George Antonius
delineated Palestine in 1939 as part of "the whole of the country of th
name [Syria] which is now split up into mandated territories..."11
As late a the 1950s, there was still a schizoid pattern to the Arab views.
In 1951, the Constitution of the Arab Ba'ath Party stated:
The Arabs form one nation. This
nation has the natural right to live in a single state and to be free to
direct its own destiny ... to gather all the Arabs in a single independent
A scant five years later, a Saudi Arabian
United Nations delegate in 1956 asserted that "It is common knowledge that
Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria."13
In 1974, Syria's President Assad, although a PLO supporter, incorporated
both claims in a remarkable definition:
... Palestine is not only a part
of our Arab homeland, but a basic part of southern Syria." 14
The one identity never seriously considered
until the 1967 Six-Day War -- and then only as a "tool" -- was an "Arab
Palestinian" one, and the absence was not merely disregard. Clearly there
was no such age-old or even century-old "national identity." According
to the British Palestine Royal Commission Report,
In the twelve centuries or more
that have passed since the Arab conquest Palestine has virtually dropped
out of history.... In economics as in politics Palestine lay outside the
main stream of the world's life. In the realm of thought, in science or
in letters, it made no contribution to modem civilization. Its last state
was worse than its first.15
1 . P.J. Vatikiotis,
Nasser and His Generation (London, 1978), p. 254.
Television Series, London, "Palestine," aired in the United States January
of the Supreme Council, in D.H. Miller, My Diary at the Conference of Paris,
22 vols. (New York, 1924), vol. 14, p. 405
Royal Commission Report, Command Paper # 5479,1937, p. 120, para. 14.
Parkes, Whose Land? (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 31.
Lewis, "The Palestinians and the PLO, a Historical Approach," Commentary,
January 1975, p. 32-48.
Porath, "Social Aspects of the Emergence of the Palestinian National Movement,"
in Society and Political Structure in the Arab World, M. Milson, ed. (New
York, 1973), pp. 101, 107, 119.
Syrkin, "Palestinian Nationalism: Its Development and Goal," in Michael
Curtis et al., eds., The Palestinians: People, History, Politics (New Brunswick,
N.J.: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 200. Syrkin found that Haj Amin al-Husseini-the
notorious Mufti of Jerusalem himself - "originally opposed the Palestine
Mandate because it separated Palestine from Syria." Ibid.
According to Neville Mandel, Arabs and Zionism Before World War I (Berkeley,
1976), p. 152, n. 49: "After World War 1, when the nature of an independent
Arab state and it's component parts were being discussed, the term 'Greater
Syria' was advanced to embrace the Fertile Crescent and its desert hinterland.
Palestine, as an integral part of that area, was dubbed 'Southern Syria.'
But these terms were not in use in 1913 and 1914, when very few nationalists
contemplated complete Arab independence."
Antonius, The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement (Philadelphia,
New York, Toronto: J.B. Lippincott, 1939), p. 15, n.1; also see Mandel,
Arabs and Zionism, pp. 151-153.
Balath Party "describes itself as a 'national, popular revolutionary movement
fighting for Arab unity, Freedom and Socialism,"' in 1951. Syrkin, "Nationalism,"
in Curtis et al., Palestinians; p. 200; also see Menahem Milson, "Medieval
and Modem Intellectual Traditions in the Arab World," in Daedalus, Summer
1972, particularly pp. 24-26; Michel Aflaq, prominent Ba'athist and Christian,
on Arab Nationalism, cited in Milson, above; also see Aflaq, Fi Sabil al
Baath (Arabic) Beirut, 1962 (3rd printing), cited in Milson, p. 26; also
see Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (London:
Oxford, 1962), particularly p. 301.
Shukeiry, as head of the PLO, to Security Council on May 31, 1956, cited
by Syrkin in "Nationalism," in Curtis et al., Palestinians, p. 201.
Hafez Assad of Syria, Radio Damascus, March 8, 1974.
Royal Commission Report, Chapter 1, p. 6, para. 11.
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