On Friday, December 9, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich was interviewed on cable TV’s The Jewish Channel, where he made the unexpected comment that the Palestinians are an invented people with no apparent right to their own state. His remarks, summarized in the Washington Post, were promptly condemned; but is he correct?
Let’s recall that Mr. Gingrich has an MA and PhD in History from Tulane University. In fact, history is quite clear on this issue. Mr. Gingrich is correct, and the first to say so was Daniel Pipes.
The name “Palestine” derives from the Philistines, who originated from the Eastern Mediterranean (perhaps Greece or Crete) and invaded the region in the eleventh and twelfth centuries B.C. Related to the Bronze Age Greeks, they spoke a language akin to Mycenaean Greek. Their area of habitation on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral became known as “Philistia.”
When Romans arrived a thousand years later they corrupted “Philistia” to “Palestina,” from whence “Palestine.” Six hundred years later, the Arab invaders corrupted “Palestina” to “Falastin.”
Throughout all subsequent history there was never a nation of “Palestine,” never a people known as the “Palestinians,” nor any notion of “historic Palestine.” The region remained under successive foreign rulers, from the Umayyads and Abbasids and Ayyubids to the Fatimids, Ottomans and British. During these millennia the term “Falastin” referred to an undefined geographical region, much like “Appalachia” or “the great Southwest” in modern U.S. geography.
In 1695 a Dutch orientalist, Hadrian Reland, conducted a geographical survey of the region. He found that none of the known settlements, ancient or contemporary, bore Arabic names. Most names were Hebrew, Greek, or Latin in origin. Moreover, the land was almost empty of inhabitants, desolate, the few towns (Jerusalem, Acre, Safed, Jaffa, Tiberius and Gaza) inhabited mostly by Christians and Jews, with Muslims present only in very small number, mostly Bedouin in the hinterland.
His book, Palaestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata (Utrecht, 1714), offers no evidence for a “Palestinian people,” “Palestinian heritage,” “Palestinian nation” or “Palestinian homeland” in ancient times; and it provides a powerful argument against the outrageous and transparently false assertions by some modern Arab spokespersons that what most people know to be Jewish history is in fact “Palestinian” history. Today’s defenders of the “Palestinian cause” are reduced to stealing Jewish history and heritage precisely because the so-called “Palestinians” have none of their own.
Today’s “Palestinians” are indeed an invented people. But how did they get invented? Arabs themselves answer that question for us.
The term “Palestine” was given a political meaning for the first time in history by the British after World War I, when they took the region from the Turks and termed it “British Mandatory Palestine.” At that time (1920) Arab political and intellectual leaders spoke out vehemently against the creation of this new “Palestine” because the region was, in their minds, inextricably connected to Syria. The Arabs of the area had their own designation for the region: Balad esh-Sham (the province of Damascus), or as-Suriya al-Janubiya (southern Syria).
In fact, Arab nationalists protested the use of the term “Palestine” because for them “Palestine” was really southern Syria. Even the most vitriolic and vociferous Arab nationalist, the Hajj Amin el-Husseini, opposed creating “Palestine” separate from Syria. For documentation see Marie Syrkin’s “Palestinian Nationalism: Its Development and Goal,” in Curtis, Michael, Neyer, Joseph, Waxman, Chaim, and Pollack, Allen, The Palestinians: People, History, Politics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 200.
The General Syrian Congress of 1919 stressed an exclusively Syrian identity for the Arabs of “southern Syria”: “We ask that there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine . . .” (Ibid, Syrkin, Supra). George Antonius, the father of modern Arab nationalist history, documented in The Arab Awakening (1938. P. 312) the upheaval created among the Arabs of “Greater Syria” and Iraq as they flocked to the streets of Syrian cities, including Jerusalem, in armed uprisings to protest the British imposition of a separate political entity known as “Palestine,” carved out of what was traditionally a part of Syria.
Once France conquered Syria in 1920, leaders in “southern Syria” changed their tune. Arab allegiances were to Damascus, not to France. With the French controlling Syria, the idea of “Palestine” as a separate Muslim and Arab state began to take shape, and Palestinian leaders, most prominently el-Husseini, began a nationalist movement for the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine, modeled after and in opposition to Zionism. Palestinian national identity was invented in 1920, and midwifed by Zionism!
Even toward the end of the Mandate period, almost 30 years later, there was still opposition to the concept of a separate political entity known as “Palestine” among leading Arab spokespersons. Philip Hitti, historian and most eloquent spokesman for the Arab cause, testified to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946: “Sir, there is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.”
In early 1947, when the UN was exploring the possibility of the partition of British Mandatory Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab, various Arab political and academic spokespersons vociferously protested because, they argued, the region was really a part of southern Syria. No such people as “Palestinians” had ever existed, so it would be an injustice to Syria to create a “Palestine” ex nihilo at the expense of Syria.
Akhmed Shukairi, Saudi ambassador to the UN, asserted in 1956, eight years after the birth of the State of Israel, that “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria” (and cf. Supra, Syrkin, p. 201). As late as March 8, 1974, Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad asserted on Radio Damascus that: “… Palestine is not only a part of our Arab homeland, but a basic part of southern Syria.” During the nineteen years from 1948 to the Six-Day War (June, 1967), all that remained of the territory initially set aside for the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine 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 argue for the right of national self-determination for the Arabs of these territories.
Even Yasser Arafat, until 1967, used the term “Palestinians” to refer only to the Arabs who lived under, or had fled from, Israeli sovereignty; and the term “Palestine” to refer only to Israel in its pre-1967 borders. In the PLO’s original founding Charter, Article 24 states: “…(the PLO).. 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 in 1964, “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, after the Six- Day War, thanks to Arafat’s mentoring by the Soviets, 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.
After the Six-Day War, Arab leaders reframed the conflict. Formerly, Israel was the “David” and the Arab world the “Goliath.” Now Israel was the gargantuan illegal occupier and the “Palestinians” were the weak, hapless, homeless, hopeless “oppressed people” and “victims of colonialism.” But this reframing required, created as it was ex nihilo, an “historic Palestine” and an ancient “Palestinian people” who had lived in their “homeland” from “time immemorial,” who could trace their “heritage” back to the Canaanites, who were driven out by the evil Zionists, and who had the inalienable right granted by international law and universal justice to use terror to reclaim their national identity.
That this was a political confection was revealed by Zahir Muhse’in, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, in a March 31, 1977 interview with British journalist James Dorsey in 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.
Dorsey’s original interview is not available online, but has been quoted here, here, and here.
In addition to verifying that the “Palestinians” are an invented people, Muhse’in also tells us why they were invented: “Only for political and tactical reasons…to oppose Zionism.”
The lie of the “Palestinian people,” invented to justify the destruction of Israel, is exposed by their own leaders, and by the fact that, in absence of their own, they must steal Jewish history. Josef Goebbels’ technique of repeating the same lie until it is believed turned this lie into erstwhile “fact,” until Gingrich.
Professor David Meir-Levi writes at FrontPageMagazine and lectures on Middle East topics, until recently in the History Department of San Jose State University.