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The Development of Palestinian National and Political Consciousness

The Palestinian story is far from a monolith. Cultural, regional, and social identifiers shape the identity of Palestinian Arabs. This is the inherent difference between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian existence. Notre Dame historian Alan Dowty identifies the father of Zionism as the Jewish Viennese journalist Theodore Herzl, who, in his project: The Jews’ State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Issue of the Jews, argues that Anti-Semitism was an inevitable fact in Europe and that the relocation of the Jewish populous was a necessary measure. He appealed to both Jews and European antisemites under the guise that both sides were benefitting from the immigration of Jews to a Jewish state. His appeal drew from the common theme of Jewish persecution, which he used to envision the immigration to Eretz Israel – the Land of Israel. By appealing to this idea, Herzl used a powerful motif in Jewish history to mobilize the early forces of Zionism into a formidable political entity within Europe; furthermore, Zionism drew on the idea that Jewish ties to the land were incontestable.

The Palestinian story does not draw on a common thread of persecution, nor does it have the unifying urgency that Herzl and early Zionists were able to employ. Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi argues that Palestinians - unlike Europeans and Zionists - have multiple historical narratives that developed their cultural identity. He writes that the thought leaders responsible for shaping Palestinian identity at the end of the 19th century identified along the lines of the Ottoman Empire, religion, Arabism, region, family, and their homeland of Palestine. These identities existed in harmony, without clashing loyalties. Another driving force behind the creation of Palestinian identity in the 20th century was the overall trend throughout the Middle East after the First World War. For example, Wilsonian ideals of national self-determination encouraged Arabs to identify with newly established Arab states. Yet, Wilsonian ideals did not get in the way of pre-existing modes of identification, as overlapping identities are common in Arab states. The unique aspect of Palestine, in contrast with neighboring states and Zionism, was that it never had a strong state structure. Khalidi points out that although also colonized, other Arab populations retained "nominal control" and a state structure to develop under. Palestinian national and political identity ultimately developed as a response to multiple factors. It grew alongside Arab nationalism and was often synonymous with it. It grew within the constraints of the British Mandate system, lacking opportunities to develop the political and national identity that other populations possessed. Pan-Arabism simultaneously gave Palestinians a voice, yet it sometimes also detracted from their ability to form a nation-state. Zionism also played a small but important role.

Palestinian identity is best understood through a bottom-to-top approach. Khalidi writes that Palestinians maintain powerful local attachments. They display “urban patriotism” and fierce local loyalty by adding city and village names to their family names as distinct identifiers. This linkage was reinforced by the Muslim and Christian connection to the historic lands they sought to protect from various invaders: Turkish rulers, other Arab peoples, and British authorities. They viewed Zionism as only the latest form of invasion, suggesting that the Jewish movement was not instrumental in developing a shared heritage. However, the consolidation of an Arab Palestinian heritage would be a key factor in opposing Zionism over the 20th century and into the Mandate period. Regardless, in the early 20th century, opposition to Zionism existed only among educated, urban, and politically active Palestinians. With the growing Zionist movement in Europe, it was clear that the Palestinians needed to assert themselves. Therefore, their identity grew alongside Ottoman, Muslim, and Arab affiliations. Dealing with Zionism required Palestinians to be part of a larger body. Palestinians initially looked to the Ottoman Empire to address their concerns with the increasing influx of Jewish immigrants. Although they usually existed in harmony with the Jews, they were wary of European incursions onto their land. The Ottomans failed to address these concerns by allowing practices such as land sales to Zionists which forced Arab peasants to move and alienated the Palestinian populations. The Ottoman Empire began losing credibility as a protector of its populations; simultaneously, Palestinians began to lose faith in the Turkish empire from its laxity towards Jewish immigration to their areas.

Ottomanism unified Palestinians but also weakened the population for other reasons: namely, the decline of Islamic ideas in public life and the rise of Turkish nationalism within the empire. Palestinians found less connection with their imperial authority, as did the rest of the Arab world. The Hussein-McMahon correspondence, in which the British promised degrees of support for Arab independence if the Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Empire, further exacerbated this disconnection. The correspondence catalyzed Arab nationalism’s rise as a logical successor to Ottomanism because a foreign power recognized the Arabs’ agency to act in their interest against the empire that was failing them.

The first signs of Arab nationalism appeared in the 1880s after the Ottomans failed to protect the Arab world against instances of European incursions. By the First World War, Palestinian Arabs had multiple forces to reckon with regarding asserting themselves on their land. Their identification by geography and family meant widespread unification was a foreign concept – to an extent. Therefore, Palestinians could adhere to many overarching identities, whereas the Zionist movement explicitly appealed to religion and cultural themes.

Despite differences with the Ottoman Empire, the First World War destabilized Palestinian life. According to Khalidi, the empire's collapse meant a loss of a transnational identity and a “vacuum of political consciousness” for the older generation of Palestinians. Palestine was in the hands of Britain and France, who had specific aspirations for the land. During the war effort, the British government declared in vague terms through the Balfour declaration that its policy was to “favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” with the protection of the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Perhaps the most important aspect of the declaration was the vague terms of its promise. This ambiguity led to heated negotiations in the upcoming decades between Arab and Jewish delegations as Britain maintained its neutrality the best it could. However, the Sykes-Picot Agreement delineated French and British control over the area and their responsibilities. This condition did not give full authority to the World War victors but assigned the powers as protectorates of the land, granting some agency on the territories' political development. With European powers in control, the Arab countries underwent crucial transformations in their views of statehood and the common Arab identity that unified them.

Khalidi notes that Palestinian voices in the last years of Ottoman rule and during the British Mandate were hard to track due to both empires’ heavy censorship and closure of news outlets. However, Khalidi uncovers Palestinian Arabs’ increasingly strong identification with their Arab neighbors. Palestine’s Suriyya al-Janubiyya (meaning “Southern Syria”) newspaper – established in 1919 – was a nationalistic and influential newspaper that the British quickly shut down. The publication reflected a widespread desire for Palestine to become part of greater Syria and remain united under Syrian Prince Amir Faysal. To Arabs, Syria was a symbol of independence and an Arab polity going back to the Umayyad state. However, as determined in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Syria was under French rule. Thus, this sentiment eventually faded due to French suppression of the formerly independent Syrian state which ultimately isolated the Arab nations from each other. Despite its short-lived emphasis on a greater Syria, the ambitions demonstrated a form of organization for Palestinians based on Arab identity that would return as the Arab world developed and gained autonomy. Pan-Arabism was constrained because it grew between separate and newly formed Arab states that dealt with their own problems and colonial pressures. However, this concept was a powerful trend that shaped the nature of Palestine’s fight for recognition going forward.

Ultimately, widespread Palestinian national consciousness arrived through the proliferation of education. Once limited to educated upper- and middle-class Palestinian populations, nationalist concepts spread through the Palestinian public as the percentage of the school-aged persons enrolled in either government or private schools doubled throughout the Mandate’s duration. The development of Palestinian identity took place along many lines. Each aspect of Palestinian identification played a role in mobilizing the population and framing the upcoming negotiations and conflicts. The need to organize in a highly centralized manner through the rule of two imperial powers created many constraints for the development of Palestine. Furthermore, the British Mandate limited Palestinian unification by preventing the development of necessary state structures. The British commitment and efforts to create a Jewish home posed another problem for Palestine’s Arabs.

The British White Paper of 1922 was a summary of correspondence between the British Secretary of State and a delegation from the Moslem Christian Society of Palestine. It clarified the intentions behind the Balfour Declaration to both Arab and Jewish delegations. Notably, it assured the Arab population that the goal was not to replace them with Jews but to support a growing Jewish community in Palestine. The Arabs’ main fear was the “subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine” from extreme interpretations of the Balfour Declaration. The British government pointed out that the declaration referred to a Jewish home Palestine, not that it would convert Palestine into a “Jewish National Home.” The document also asserted that the Hussein-McMahon correspondence had limits to what it promised Arabs: it excluded portions of Syria and Palestine, west of the Jordan river. In the end, the British maintained strategic neutrality between the Jewish and Arab populations even with its clarifications on the Balfour Declaration.

Arab overtures to the British and the West failed to make much of a difference but revealed how segments of the Arab world and Palestine saw themselves in relation to the West. In the late 1930s, the Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, recruited a group of Western-educated Arabs to make a liberal case against the partition of Palestine. This group sought to appeal on behalf of Arabs as an ethnic group and through the ideals of western liberalism. In his testimony at the St. James Conference and book The Arab Awakening, George Antonius argued that there should be an Arab state in Palestine based on the democratic principles of majority rule. Albert Hourani and Musa al-’Alami borrowed from this argument. Hourani was a British citizen who advocated for a relationship between the Arab world and Great Britain. He argued that this logic would encourage young Arab intellectuals to choose Western liberalism and modernity and combine them with the best of the “Arabo-Islamic tradition.” Establishing a cultural link between the Arab world and British intellectual society could result in greater understanding of Arab Palestinians’ situation. It would frame the issue in terms of the liberal principles that the League of Nations sought to promote, and the appeal could draw on the rhetoric of the West.

The Arab liberal intellectuals had the difficult task of advocating for the Arab population without embracing the violence and politics advocated by Palestinian notables while ensuring they did not openly oppose them. They criticized the British policy towards the Arab revolt in 1936, arguing that the violence came from desperation but avoided endorsing it. Their dilemma manifested in the 1939 British White Paper: a clarification on the Mandate of Palestine, the Balfour Declaration, and the White Paper of 1922 which reaffirmed British goals with the mandate territory and expressed hope that the populations could live in harmony. However, Arabs feared that the land could not support an influx of Jewish immigrants, so the British addressed this by putting strict Jewish immigration quotas to Palestine of 10,000 per year for five years. More importantly, it outlined a path to an independent majority Arab state in Palestine. The Arab higher committee rejected it because it maintained that even this level of immigration would strengthen the Zionist position. Hourani and his colleague Musa al-Alami believed that this was a mistake.

The 1939 White Paper was perhaps the best version of British policy for the Arabs. Central to the document were its protection of Arabs living in Palestine. Though the British were initially motivated by Zionism, this showed their willingness to stay neutral. It did entail some control and a protectorate role for the British, as an independent state would be “preceded by a transitional period” in which the British government would retain “responsibility for the country” as its institutions developed. It also placed the British High Commissioner on Palestine in charge of determining the land’s capacity for Jewish refugees. The Arab liberals would continue to lobby the West for favorable conditions after the White Paper’s rejection.

The Alexandria Protocol of 1944, which created the Council of the League of Arab States, contained a special resolution concerning Palestine. The committee asserted that Palestine constituted an “important part of the Arab world” and warned that violating Arab rights in Palestine would undermine “peace and stability in the Arab World.” A league created to promote cooperation between Arab states made it their platform to advocate for Palestinian Arabs, demonstrating the strength of pan-Arabism as a leading expression of Palestinian identity towards the end of the Mandate period. The Arab liberal intellectuals capitalized on this sentiment but sought to translate it to Western governments through the Arab offices. Several Arabs educated in Anglo-American institutions advocated for the Arab world and an Arab state in Palestine through these offices. This effort was the greatest attempt of Arab Palestinians to gain favor with the West. However, they suffered inadequate and inconsistent financing due to Palestine’s and the Arab World’s political factionalism. Additionally, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (AACI) leaned Zionist because they linked the fate of Holocaust survivors to creating a Jewish state. The desire to compensate survivors of the Holocaust drove America’s support for creating Israel. Regardless, to the AACI, Albert Hourani warned masterfully against a partition for a Jewish state: the Arab majority would act as a minority, and the minority Jewish population would look to expand. He further argued that Arabs could turn towards Western liberalism given that the West protects their rights and interests. The merit of Hourani’s analysis based on liberal ideals of Arab Palestine’s position demonstrated the unfortunate combination of well-mobilized Zionism juxtaposed with factionalism on the Arab side. The realities of partition and the presence of Zionism in Western institutions took precedence over ideals. Furthermore, the Mufti created political enemies within and beyond the Middle East by backing a pro-German coup in Iraq and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer due to his willingness to deal with the Axis Powers before the Second World War in exchange for Arab recognition. The effort of holding together a messy domestic political front while presenting Arab nationalists as potential liberals was too great a task.

Arab Palestinians’ identity had many contributing factors. There existed many more competing interests and visions than the Zionists had, which hindered its ability to coalesce and express a strong and unified opposition to Zionism. Though the Arab population’s discontent with Zionism was apparent, their condition as a political unit was too fragmented to make a notable difference. The Council of the League of Arab States acknowledged the horrors of the Holocaust while emphasizing that it was done by a “European dictatorial state.” However, they contended that the forces behind Zionism were not synonymous with the Holocaust survivors due to the injustice done “on the Arabs of Palestine.”

Throughout the Mandate period, Palestine Arabs underwent a major transformation as a people. They began the 20th century as Ottoman subjects with strong local loyalties and without a wider Palestinian identity. Always maintaining a degree of Arab nationalism, the population eventually shifted away from Ottomanism and converged around their Arab identity. This transition helped them identify with neighboring Arab states that were more capable of asserting themselves as defenders of the Palestinian land. The realities of colonial pressures caught up, but Pan-Arabism never truly died. Through varying capacities during the Mandate period, Arab neighbors asserted their authority on behalf of the Palestinians. However, the many interests, identities, and actions of the Arab world along with the constraints placed by the European powers prevented the Palestinians from becoming a formidable political force to counter Zionism.


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