In an interview which aired last year, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich declared that Palestinians were an “invented people”. This comment failed to receive much criticism in the establishment papers, a revealing indication of prevailing attitudes. This was unfortunate because there is a rich history of Palestinian struggle which sheds much needed light on the depth, or lack thereof, of Gingrich’s statement. Rashid Khlaidi’s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness provides such a history, impeccably researched and timely in its conclusions. Contrary to popular myths, Khalidi explains how Palestinian identity, and by association a Palestinian nation, did not form as a “reaction to Zionism,” but long “antedated the encounter with Zionism”. This is perhaps the most vital contribution of Khalidi’s study: its acknowledgement of the broad array of threats faced by Palestinians prior to the first world war, from the Ottoman Turks to British colonists, and how they responded to these challenges intellectually, culturally, and politically. A fair deal of internal factionalism also occured along these lines which, in some cases impeded progress.
Confronted with these obstacles, Palestinian identity was formed out of a complex mosaic of religion, nationalism, ethnicity, and historical memory. The importance placed on historical memory in shaping narratives of Palestinian identity is maybe the most politically impressive aspect of Khalidi’s analysis. Realities of this kind are especially worth understanding for citizens of imperial powers like the US. As Noam Chomsky once noted: history is far easier to recall for the conquered, than conquerers. Take for example, the proliferation of newspapers throughout the region in the early 20th century. Many of these papers presciently warned of the growing trend of Jewish land purchases, much of it concentrated in the eastern Galilee. They also were known for alluding to historical narratives of conquest, the Crusades in particular, to arouse popular revolt. One author, Ruhi al-Khalidi, published a manuscript on Zionism which had a considerable impact on the thinking at the time. Another topic of concern was the increasingly complicit stance of the governing Ottoman authorities, the Congress of Progress and Unity. At one grim period in this struggle the Ottoman leadership waged a political assasination campaign against some of the most prominent opponents of land grabs being carried out by the JCA, a Jewish association for colonizers. Shukri al-‘Asali, a major politician who opposed the al-Fula sale–the purchase of a 10,000 dunum plot of territory by Jewish cultivators–was hanged by the Ottoman government in 1916 for his nationalist aspirations.
With the catastrophe of the first world war and the assault of European powers on the region, Palestinian national ambitions suffered a great defeat. Syria, which served as a base for the popular anti-colonial newspaper al-Muqtabas, was taken over by the French while the British conquered Jerusalem and installed the British mandate, all with quiet US support. Suddenly, Palestinians were facing new adversaries. The Ottoman empire had been displaced by a far more militarily equipped British empire and the dispossession carried out by Jewish cultivators continued unabated. This process of colonization came to an ugly culmination in 1936 when the indigenous population mounted an insurrection against their British colonizers. Palestinian national icon Shaykh al-Qassam launched a similar revolt the preceding year in 1935 which was crushed by British force.
Though Khalidi does not state it explicitly, a large part of the earliest years of the Palestinian struggle can be understood as an anti-capitalist rebellion as much as it was anti-colonial. Prior to the second aliya (Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1904 and 1914) there was a basic understanding among the indigenous population that inhabitants had a inalienable communal right to the land. This conception was shattered by the turn of the 20th century where absentee landlords, many of them Arab, began selling off Palestinian land to Jewish immigrants. This move reduced the indigenous population from cultivators who possessed a communal right to land to tenant farmers subjected to a life of uncertainity. Furthermore, the lands were sold cheaply, incentivizing more colonization. Interestingly, in the 650 articles Khalidi surveyed in his research he couldn’t find one which critiqued what he called “the European-derived property relations that made such land sales possible . . .”. Considerations of this kind open up new spaces where a socialist critique of the Palestinian predicament can be made.
These events form a sample of a much lengthier record of tragedies that climaxed in the 1948 ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians, also known as the nakba (catastrophe). The aftermath of this forced expulsion resulted in what Khalidi called the “lost years”, where the notion of Palestinian non-existence gained more legitimacy in colonial circles. During this period, Golda Meir, in an instructive preview of Gingrich’s idiocy, stated “there was no such thing as Palestinians . . . they did not exist”. Conceptions of this kind were overturned in the following decades with the formation of nationalist groups like the PLO and the PFLP. Yet this reemergence was not without major setbacks. 1967 was a year of particular devastation. In this year Israeli troops demolished the Haret al-Maghariba , otherwise known as the Morrocan quarter. This site was declared as an Islamic endowment in 1193 by Saladin’s son al-Malik al-Afdal. In its place was contructed a plaza where the IDF and various Jewish political groups held celebrations. Undoubtedly, this clear attack on the cultural heritage of Palestinians will reverberate for decades if not centuries.
In its entirety, Palestinian Identity, is an indispensable read for those who are invested in understanding the current challenges Palestinians face as they suffer unprecedented humiliations under the rule of a right-wing government armed to the teeth by the world’s most powerful terrorist state in the US. Much like the British role in sustaining the campaign of dispossession against Palestinians in the mandate years, the US is currently backing an unusually sadistic government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who showcased his capacity for mass slaughter most recently in Operation Cast Lead. In president Obama’s recent state of the union address he echoed sentiments of previous administrations, vowing to stand by Israel as it prolongs its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. He reserved no words for Palestinians. Like the statements of Gingrich and Golda Meir, such a discourse reinforces the slander of Palestinian non-existence, if not ideologically through the institutional silence which surrounds their plight, then physically by the continuation in Gaza of what has now come to be called a “slow genocide”. If anyone is interested in recognizing a people’s “right to exist”, to use a common phrase, this book is a good starting point.