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The Invention of the Palestinian

[Palestine currency under the British mandate, 1939. Image from casahistoria.net] [Palestine currency under the British mandate, 1939. Image from casahistoria.net]

“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire … I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it's tragic.” (Newt Gingrich, 7 December 2011)

“The Palestinian is not a profession or a slogan. He, in the first place, is a human being who loves life and is taken by almond blossoms and feels a shiver after the first autumn rain… and this means the long occupation has failed to erase our human nature, and has not succeeded in submitting our language and emotions to the drought desired for them at the checkpoint.” (Mahmoud Darwish, as told by Fady Joudah, 2005)

In the weeks since Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich questioned the very existence of the Palestinian people, there has been scant consideration of the actual development of Palestinian nationality and citizenship. Both Gingrich and his detractors have failed to place the emergence of the Palestinian people as a legal citizenry in its proper historical context. 

This citizenry did indeed have Ottoman roots, in the sense that all Arab subjects of the Empire – which extended from Algeria to Yemen and Iraq – were defined as its citizens pursuant to mid-nineteenth century legislation. More often than not, these Arab citizens also willingly shared in Ottomanist sentiment and loyalties. Gingrich’s statement that, as Ottoman Arabs, Palestinians “had a chance to go many places” is in this context on a par with the observation that today’s Wallonians are free to reside in any member state of the European Union.

A Palestinian entity, accompanied by an internationally-recognized Palestinian citizenship, only came into being during the British Mandate (1923-1948) which succeeded the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, a distinctly Palestinian national awareness, differentiated from other Arab nationalisms, had already begun to emerge during the final decades of Ottoman rule and continued to develop thereafter.

Since the resurgence of Palestinian nationalism in the early 1960s and the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict’s various protagonists have been talking past each other on the question of the Palestinian people’s existence. This reality is organically related to the threat Palestinian nationalism poses to the Israeli narrative of statehood and its associated territorial claims.

Much Palestinian nationalist scholarship has been devoted to demonstrating the existence of a Palestinian nation prior to the 1948 establishment of Israel – if not the emergence of modern Zionism in the late nineteenth century. Nationalism is widely agreed to be a nineteenth-century construct and indeed, constructs of national identity are by definition invented rather than primordial. It is this idea of the construction of Palestinian nationalism that pro-Israeli, right-wing American pundits pounce upon – even while, like Gingrich, blithely ignoring the construction of Israeli national identity. This is a rather ironic oversight given that until well into the 1930s the Zionist movement that spawned the Israeli state had the allegiance of only a minority of the world’s Jews and was dependent upon the sponsorship of British imperial power.

The bitter debates over if, when, and how the Arabs of Palestine came to identify primarily with Palestinian nationalism miss a crucial point in the history of the Palestinian people. This is that the Palestinian national and citizen were invented legislative identities, created under a colonial-style British administration, and codified by an act of His Majesty’s Government. Yet the concept of a Palestinian national and citizen existed and had been evolving since the mid-nineteenth century. This was neither a reaction to a Zionism that did not yet exist, nor to the much later establishment of the PLO. 

Gingrich’s assertions serve as a reminder that while the American right often has fervent beliefs on this question, it is rather ignorant when it comes to Palestinian history. It is a reminder all the more pointed for coming at that moment when achieving international recognition of statehood continues to dominate the agenda of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. This notwithstanding, the Palestinian leadership could itself also profit from a better understanding of that period during the twentieth century when Palestinians had a citizenship of their own.           

The creation of the Palestinian national and the practices associated with it (parliamentary representation, voting rights) had been under development since late Ottoman times. This reality had important ramifications for the Palestinians themselves, the British mandatory authorities. Citizenship was not only a legislative creation; it was also a status actively discussed by Palestinians during the Mandate’s early years, in relation to the rights and duties that citizenship conferred.

Palestinian citizenship came into being in 1925, but along with the entity named Palestine ceased to exist in 1948. Yet, Palestinian citizenship did not emerge out of a vacuum nor vanish into nothing. By 1918, at the very outset of British rule, inhabitants of Palestine were already organizing, protesting, and petitioning the international community to demand civil, political, and social rights as Palestinians.

Palestine was, as Gingrich notes, part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I – it had been so since 1516. The territory that after the Great War became the British Mandate of Palestine was thus not a sovereign entity but rather subject to varying degrees of Ottoman control, typically as part of the province (vilayet) of Syria. In 1869, the Ottoman government issued the Ottoman Law of Nationality, which defined Ottoman citizenship (tabi`iyet) without reference to religion. Without distinction, all Ottoman subjects were defined as Ottoman nationals. Around this same time, Egyptian intellectuals began to spread ideas of territorial nationalisms distinct from an Ottoman identity (osmanlilik). According to the work of historian Ussama Makdisi, Syrian Butros al-Bustani in the 1860s distributed pamphlets throughout Syria addressed to his countrymen: these advocated that a secular citizenship be developed, taught and actively practiced. These Ottoman Arabs were influenced by the French concept of patrie, or fatherland, and used watan to mean the same—the homeland as the focus of identity, belonging and duty.

Despite numerous demands for greater autonomy and Arab rights, Palestinians remained Ottoman citizens up to and after 1918, the year the British occupied Palestine. British governance in Palestine changed from military to civil administration in anticipation of the acquisition of a League of Nations mandate to rule the territory. This mandate incorporated the terms the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which committed London to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Although the League of Nations ratified the Mandate in 1922, Palestinians remained Ottoman subjects until 1923 because the Empire’s Arab provinces remained under its nominal suzerainty pending the conclusion of a peace treaty between the Turks and the Allies. Due to the provisions of the Balfour Declaration, the question of how to create nationality and citizenship in Palestine confronted the British with a unique set of challenges.

The Zionist movement, led by Chaim Weizmann, demanded that Jewish immigrants acquire a citizenship status distinct and preferential to the native-born Arabs of Palestine. The British refused, claiming it would be impossible to impose such a status against the wishes of the Arab majority. Article 7 of the Mandate stipulated that the government of Palestine had to enact a nationality law within two years permitting (immigrant) Jews to acquire Palestinian citizenship. It made no mention of the indigenous inhabitants despite the fact that the Palestinian press was at this time full of demands for the civil and political rights of self-government on the basis of a democratically elected parliament.

Indeed the term “Palestine” had been in use for some time among the Arabs of the region. Under Ottoman rule, as Rashid Khalidi, Haim Gerber, and others have shown, the inhabitants of the country understood themselves as living in a territory called Palestine (not Greater Syria). In 1911, the newspaper Filastin (Palestine) began publication in Jaffa. It is evident then that Palestine was a geographical location and a site of identity.  In 1918, an editorial in Filastin defined nationality as meaning that Palestinian Arabs and Jews were to be equal in status before the law. A Jaffa committee sent a protest to General Allenby that claimed immigrants to Palestine were not nationals. It argued that to grant them political rights was unjust, and that whatever an individual’s nationality, international laws must grant Palestinians the right to control their country on through representation. Hence both civil and political rights came to shape the discourse of Palestinian citizenship very early on. Subsequently, protests, letters, delegations, demonstrations, petitions, boycotts and strikes against the British authorities routinely invoked the citizenship and national rights of the Palestinian people.

The creation of a Citizenship Order, issued by the King of Britain, took some years and was full of controversies and problems. Nevertheless, the Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council of 1925 created a legal Palestinian national. The order also affirmed the nationality provisions of the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne and allowed any Ottoman-born Palestinian to keep their Ottoman nationality and become a Turkish citizen within twelve months of ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne. Gingrich’s claim that Palestinian Arabs “had a chance to go many places” is therefore patently false as of the 1920s. Unless they were habitual residents of Syria or Lebanon (then under French control), or Iraq, Palestinians could not opt for any citizenship other than their own or that of the new Turkish Republic.

Several problems existed with the 1925 Citizenship Order. First, the jus sanguis provision of nationality was applied to Palestine but in a limited way: citizenship could not pass through the Palestinian male for more than two generations when descendents of the native-born Palestinian lived outside of Palestine. Further, Palestinians who lived abroad were required to return within two years of the promulgation of the Citizenship Order, and reside for at least six months in order to claim citizenship; to remain citizens, they needed to reside permanently in Palestine. At the end of 1925 the British High Commissioner decided to further reconcile the Citizenship Order with the Treaty of Lausanne; the ratification date for the latter’s nationality provisions was 1 August 1924, whereas the Palestinian Citizenship Order came into force in August 1925. The High Commissioner shortened the period during which expatriates could still return to Palestine and claim citizenship from eighteen to nine months. The British also did not repeal the Ottoman Nationality Law before passing their Palestinian Citizenship Order—and, over two decades later the new Israeli government did not repeal them either.

Throughout the following decade, a press discourse intensified in favor of the Palestinian emigrants who were denied citizenship and their “right of return” to Palestine. More than anything else during the mandate, this discourse and its breadth demonstrates that Palestinian citizenship and nationality indeed existed and meant something to Palestinians in terms of rights, duties, and protections. Palestinian editorials lamented the exile of a section of the Palestinian population due to restrictions upon their right to claim citizenship in their homeland, which was termed a sacred right. Palestinian popular leaders formed committees, particularly in Bethlehem (which had a disproportionately high number of emigrants) to defend the right of citizenship for all Palestinians. Appeals were made to the Palestinian nation - a term of address in use since the British occupation began in 1917 – to support their rights. This factual historical record belies assertions that Palestinians were invented after 1948, or even in opposition to Zionism.

Currently, the Palestinians have no nation-state. Yet their history as nationals has its own historical trajectory and narrative. Palestinian citizenship as it existed from 1925 to 1947 was certainly a colonial creation. However, the Palestinians clearly identified themselves as part of a national body even before the British mandate, and discourses of citizenship and rights already existed during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire.

In the years before World War I, the growth of a press that dealt with the concerns of the inhabitants of the area that became Palestine demonstrated Palestinians’ coherent discussions on their status and rights within the Ottoman Empire. These discussions of civic identity continued and crystallized during the period of British rule. Popular leaders understood the significance of the 1925 Citizenship Order. A reading of Palestinian history from the perspective of nationality, rather than nationalism, shows that “the Palestinian people” were anything but a hasty invention.

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